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6-05-2012    Michele Dixon

Exit Laughing: FOR Fun?

The question, “What do you do for fun?” sounded easy to answer. I approached this piece as though I’d been lobbed a high, slow softball – I knew I could knock it out of the park with a wimpy little swing and be done with it. After all, I have hobbies. I have interests. I have fun. This would be a piece of cake.

Boy, was I ever wrong. Read the question again: “What do you do FOR fun?” After thinking about it, I realized that I do a lot of things that ARE fun (to me) but not much FOR fun. I seem to be stuck in a purpose-driven life and I don’t mean a “Why am I here?” purpose – what are you supposed to do if you can’t answer that question, kill yourself? I mean a life full of doing things that need to be done or doing things for a reason other than FOR fun.

Take cooking, for example. I love to cook; the from-scratch kind of cooking that starts with a lengthy prep time and ends with a pile of dirty mixing bowls and sauté pans. My always-hungry child complains that I don’t buy any food, I just buy ingredients. In his world, food should be ready to eat as quickly as possible, needing only an injection of heat to make it edible. Alas, I am not a heat-and-eat kind of cook. The pre-set “Chicken Nuggets” button on my new range insults my abilities. Anyway, I don’t cook FOR fun because…well, because my family needs to eat. I can’t let them starve, can I? The outcome of my cooking is enjoyable but it also fulfills our basic need for nourishment. And, while I love to cook for my friends, the fun is in our camaraderie, not in the food.

And I love to work in my gardens, but that’s exactly what it is: work. I pour too much hard, physical labor into my gardens to call it fun. People who garden FOR fun are the ones who buy flowered gloves and pastel-colored tools. I wear Army surplus store combat pants and blow through at least three pairs of men’s leather gloves each season. I garden because I have to; it fills a visceral need in me, it’s in my genes. I like to say that it keeps me sane but I must be pretty nuts to work this hard just to stay normal.

I can’t even count knitting as something that I do FOR fun. I enjoy it but, honestly, I knit to stay awake. Seriously, I go out like a light within minutes of sitting still and doing nothing; you’d think I was narcoleptic. This is another genetic trait: my mother once slept through an entire Ringling Brothers circus performance. Inheriting her ability to nod off means that I turn a movie into a $10 nap and embarrass my husband at every concert or live event that we attend. I can’t even hold it together during working hours. I’ve slept through meetings, conference calls, and seminars. One caring boss was so humiliated that she insisted that I do something with my hands to keep me awake, so she taught me to knit. I enjoy the process and the precision required but I get bored quickly and hardly ever finish a project. I have half a dozen sweaters that I’ve never sewn together and an amazing collection of individual socks. Worst of all, knitting has become so relaxing that it now puts me to sleep.

Watch television FOR fun? I’ve come to accept the fact that, although I spend $200 a month for 1,000 channels, the only ones that are going to show up on my TV screen have the ESPN or NFL Network logo in the bottom corner. And handing me the remote and saying, “You decide,” is pointless because I’m going to be asleep in 10 minutes anyway. I will indulge myself now and then by watching “Bridezillas” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” but I don’t watch them FOR fun. I watch them because it’s 2 am, my body’s 50th birthday gifts of hot flashes and insomnia have driven me to the always-cool leather sofa, and because they are broadcast in marathon blocks. They provide hours of gaper value, a can’t-stand-the-sight-but-have-to-look waste of time that tides me over until “Good Morning America” comes on.

Hobbies or interests aside, there are some things that I would do FOR fun, but haven’t done yet. I could visit an old folks home and swipe one piece from every half-finished puzzle in the day room. I could spend a day in public, with the filter between my brain and my mouth turned off. I could turn the grocery store’s produce section mister nozzles outwards, aiming the spray at unsuspecting shoppers. Ok, I’ve actually done that one but I got bored waiting for the sprinkler system to cycle on again and wandered away. Somebody had fun but it wasn’t me.

This is not to say that I NEVER do anything FOR fun. I have a great time hanging out with my friends and, afterward, we always swear that we’re going to do it again, soon. But then the rest of our lives get in the way and we find ourselves, a month or two later, wondering why we didn’t do something FOR fun more frequently.

Like any good mother, I blame my children for all of my defects. They ruined my natural hair color, made my feet grow a full size, and left me with stretch marks and a semi-permanent stoop from picking up after them. And I think they stole my FOR fun. I’ll bet that my FOR fun is in my son’s room, with my good tweezers and my sewing scissors, half of my kitchen cutlery, and everything else that he swiped over the years and swore that he didn’t. After he leaves for school, I’ll rent a HazMat suit, wade into his room, and retrieve it all. The scary fact is that my FOR fun is probably buried under all of his FOR fun. If my discoveries unleash a Mummy’s Curse kind of toxic threat, you’ll never hear from me again.

A note to my dear husband: do not be insulted; nothing is better than time spent with you. I married you for love, FOR fun, forever.

 

4-02-2013  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: My Life in the Movies

Ahh, the lilting sounds of Springtime – gentle breezes whispering, birds twittering love songs to their mates, the crack of a bat hitting a home run…. yeah, not at my house. Know what I hear? Caddyshack.

Why Caddyshack? Well, the most obvious reason is that my back yard melds into one of Salisbury’s tees, making it easy to hear you golfers as you pursue glory. Yes, golfers, I can hear you. And, yes, golfers, you make me laugh. I enjoy your banter and love the irony that the most profane golfers are on the course each Sunday morning. Is that a Salisbury rule? Are the best cursers allowed out only on Sunday, in the hopes that the church bells will drown out the curse words? I don’t mind it, they’re just words and you’re not cursing at me. I’ve learned to recognize the sound of a bad tee shot and I know that the F-bomb is likely to follow an obvious shank or slice. And that’s when I giggle and imagine Spaulding Smails yelling, “Rat Farts

I consider you all “my” golfers and will trade lines with you when you look like you’d get the joke. And I love it when you start the quote-war first. I’ve had a few orders called out to me while I’m grilling our dinner: “I want a hamburger…, no, a cheeseburger. I want a hot dog…,” to which I happily retort, “You’ll get nothing and like it!” I love to watch you golfer fathers teaching your sons the finer aspects of the game. But, just once, could one of you coach your kid with, “There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen…, be the ball, be the ball, may-may-make your future.” And I’d dearly love to hear your kid respond, “What about my asthma?” I love to listen to the one-upmanship of a friendly foursome and I’m happy to remind you that, “Gambling is illegal at Bushwood, sir!

Yes, I hear Caddyshack because I hear you guys, but that’s not the only time my mind heads to the movie. I also hear it when I’m working in my gardens and fighting the annual onslaught of moles, voles, shrews and chipmunks. I always had a few critters each year but their heyday really began when Salisbury started allowing patches of rough to grow 3 feet high. Now, my cats can’t keep up with them and I can’t keep buying cats so I’ve taken matters into my own hands, a la Carl Spackler.

“Bah da bum bummm bum bum bum bum….Licensed to kill gophers. By the government of the United Nations..

Oh yes, I’m not interested in gently shooing them away – I want total annihilation, I want them dead. Moreover, I want to see them dead, right in front of me, with little cartoon x-marks on their eyes. I have studied their habits and I know what they’re up to. “To kill, you must know your enemy and, in this case, my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever. They’re like the Viet Cong. Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on superior firepower and superior intelligence.

Superior firepower is an easy one; I’ve amassed quite an arsenal. I have mousetraps and spike traps and two different kinds of cinch traps, but my all time favorite weapon is the flat side of a spade. Every now and then, I can catch a mole in action, humping along under the ground. A hard smack on his tunnel stuns him and then I dig him out and beat the living heck out of him. The rarity factor makes this kind of immediate gratification more enjoyable than just setting a trap and walking away.

Sadly, I have yet to demonstrate the superior intelligence part. No matter how I try, I get the same results as Bushwood. Carl Spackler blew the hell out of the golf course and the gopher didn’t die, he coughed out a mouthful of smoke and danced to Kenny Loggins. I beat and stab and squish them but never seem to make a dent in their numbers. I even kept a tally sheet last year – 6 moles, 8 voles, 8 shrews, and 12 chipmunks in a 2-month period, all of them one at a time. And then I stopped counting. Enough of this one-off kind of killing; I’m going for quantity. This year, I’m buying an asphyxiation system that hooks up to my car’s exhaust pipe and will try gassing the little suckers.

If the gas attack doesn’t work, next year might find me crawling around on my stomach, stuffing little plastic explosive squirrels down their tunnels. If you’re on the tee, listen closely and you’ll hear me say, “In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Au revoir, Goe-fair” I hope one of you will reply, “And that’s all she wrote.”

 

2-04-2013  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: The Denim Blues

All I want is a new pair of blue jeans. That’s it, nothing fancy, just a pair of jeans that I can wear around the house and still manage to look semi-decent in when I run to Kroger. I’m not looking for designer-brand, super-stylish jeans, just a normal, old-fashioned pair…, but I’m starting to think that the only thing that’s normal and old-fashioned in this equation is me.

I admit that I’m getting older and will probably turn into one of those crotchety old ladies who yell at kids and can’t see over the steering wheel – but I’m not there yet. I’m still young enough to rock a pair of blue jeans but I’d like to be able to do it without losing my temper so much. It used to be an easy process – you walked into any Gap store, chose the jeans you wanted based on waist and inseam numbers and maybe a darker or lighter blue color, and that was that. The problem is that nobody even makes basic jeans anymore; there are too many choices and too many variables.

I trekked around to different stores, tried on dozens of styles and returned home frustrated and cranky. Macy’s was full of jeans with hidden tummy slimming panels but, truly, if I want to feel like I’m wearing Spanx under my jeans, I’ll wear Spanx under my jeans. The denim section of Kohl’s looked like the Huns had been there first; it so closely resembled my son’s room that I left the store in disgust. Lucky Brand was just flat-out offensive. They name their jeans based on cut: “Charlie” is for zero-percent body fat people, perfect for anyone shaped like a Hangman stick figure; “Sophia” has a curvier hip and thigh while “Lola” is the “Sophia” fit for budding anorexics. They didn’t have a “Michele” fit, so I gave up.

Since the stores didn’t have what I wanted, I went shopping online. How hard could it be to go to the Levi’s website and buy a pair of jeans? Very.

Levi’s has decided that all women fit into one of four “Curve IDs” based on your shape and your ratio of hips to butt. They have a handy “Find Your Curve” application: first, you pick an image that most closely resembles the curve of your hips and then you pick another that resembles the curve of your fanny. Since they don’t offer the options of “box-shaped” and “non-existent”, the closest I can get is something they call “Demi Curved” which, to me, sounds like a polite kind of snicker.

After you’re done lying about your shape, you get to choose what kind of rise you prefer. You know what I prefer? I prefer a pair of jeans that doesn’t highlight my multiple C-Sections scar. I don’t want the derisive “mom jeans” but I would like a zipper that has more than ten teeth. So I picked “classic rise” because it sounded closer to “normal” than “modern” or “low rise”.

Happily, they still make straight leg jeans. The last thing I want is skinny jeans that strangle me or boot-cut jeans with legs that can’t get out of each other’s way and make that whooshy noise that announce my approach. Straight legs was the easiest choice I had to make and made me feel as though the end was near…, but then I had to pick a color. I wanted “blue”; I was assaulted with “True Love”, “Unique”, “Rocking Blue”, “Worn Rigid”, or “Night Sky”.

Now, come on, since when is love connected to the color blue? Is it for a new relationship where you wait by the phone while holding your breath? Or is it for a longer partnership where you can talk and talk and talk without getting any reaction from the other person? Or maybe that’s what “Worn Rigid” is for? Whatever…I chose “Rocking Blue” simply because it looked like the color I wanted: Blue.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve found the perfect pair of blue jeans…, but I don’t have them yet. They’re  back ordered, perhaps as the result of orders from a lot of women who are frustrated by the popular modern choices or maybe because they simply can’t find the decades-old pattern. I imagine that there’s a seamstress in the Levi’s factory rolling around on the floor, laughing at my order. I bet her name is Charlie or Lola.

 

12-10-012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: Christmas Ain’t Christmas ’til Somebody Cries

Why does the best of the holiday season bring out the worst in my family? I don’t mean a “that’s illegal” worst or “these people belong on Jerry Springer” worst, but there’s definitely a passive-aggressive element to our holiday traditions. An outsider might think that we hate each other but I think we get away with our bad behavior because we love each other so deeply and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. And, unlike the reaction you’d get from a stranger, taunting or torturing your own family is pretty safe – who can they complain to? So, we carry on like a brawling sports team that only competes against itself.

Our roles are set in genetic stone. My father is a practical joker par excellence: he’s alarmingly clever and brutally patient, quick to laugh and quicker to hug. This is a man who will build things with 2x4s and deck screws to pull off a prank. He keeps a loaded helium tank in his garage; you can’t compete with him but we all try. My sister appears to be a pacifist, an easy target, but has the ability to rear up when you least expect it. My brother is a tri-polar version of Grover Dill, morphing from being dad’s toady to my accomplice to my sister’s defender so fast, and with such humor, that you wet your pants from laughing so hard. Mom, God bless her, was the family’s straight man, but fired a few good ones over the bow now and then. I am the antagonist, poking pins in everyone and stirring the pot. Any celebration with a lineup like this is bound to be interesting.

So, how exactly do we misbehave? Our methods are endless and ever changing, with a few old standards that make the holiday special. Case in point: holiday cooking/baking. Every family has a few foods that are so special you only get them once a year. There’s a degree of effort involved but it’s worth it – your family loves it and you love to share these treats with them, right? Yeah, we do that, too, with fudge and fruitcake. We just like to make the sharing part as painful as possible.

Let me put the old, “one fruitcake circulating the globe” joke to rest by telling you that I bake two of these suckers every year. The recipe came from Satan’s Cookbook; it’s a two-day process that first makes the house stink of boiling molasses and then creates a batter so heavy that it once put my mom’s arm in a sling and regularly snaps wooden spoons in half. I make them over Thanksgiving weekend, ferment them in brandy-soaked cheesecloth for weeks, and then hand them over on Christmas Day. I’m told that they’re delicious but I don’t eat them. It’s a guy-thing in my family and, like most guy-things, it becomes a competition, a battle between the strong and the weak.

Enter my grandfather: a gentle, sweet, Elmer Fudd-ish man who never said a bad word about anyone and loved fruitcake more than his hunting dogs. He’d spend Christmas Day quivering, waiting for dessert. And there, in the middle of the dining room table, would be a lovely assortment of holiday cookies. Only cookies. My poor Poppy would sit quietly, never showing his disappointment and then my dad would appear out of nowhere, with a 2-inch thick slab of dark, spicy cake studded with toxic-colored bits of fruit. God love him, Poppy would try to ignore the slight, but you could watch his eyes dart around and struggle to avoid the smug little grin on his son-in-law’s face. Poppy always caved after a few minutes, but did so with all the dignity he could muster. His innocent “What have you got there, Harold?” was my mother’s cue to scold Dad for being mean. I swear, my meek little grandpa would just stretch out his neck like this, year after year, and let my dad whack away at it. He never fought back.

When I took over the fruitcake production, my father would kidnap Poppy’s fruitcake. He’d twist the knife by pointing out that I was the sweet, thoughtful kind of daughter who loved her father so much that she’d make him a fruitcake. This, in turn, would tick my mother off a little bit, because she loved her dad as much as I loved my dad and daughters always want to please their daddies. I finally started UPS-ing my grandfather his fruitcake, a week before Christmas Day because, really, what’s worse than torturing a sweet, little, bald old man like this, year after year?

How about three siblings fighting, really fighting, over a tin of fudge? It always started as a game and ended with an argument. See, we store all the special Christmas treats in the garage – nature’s auxiliary refrigerator. And my dad’s garage is a remarkable sight, like the garage of an obsessive hoarder, but really, really organized. The sheer volume of miscellaneous stuff in one room creates lots of hiding places and this is exactly what my dad would do with the decorative tin can of fudge that his mother brought every year. Therein lies the object of The Fudge Game: find it and then hide it from everyone else. Frustration mounted when you learned that you weren’t the last one to hide the fudge, so you moved heaven and earth to find it and re-hide it somewhere else. You got extra points for randomly appearing with a piece of fudge, which would entice your siblings toward the garage. Unable to find the fudge, they’d get angry and making them angry was your sole purpose in life. Honestly though, my father, brother, and I were the only ones who thought this was a game. My sister wasn’t very good at it because she’s shorter than the rest of us and can’t reach the really good hiding spots. She always gave up early, but not before complaining loud enough for Mom to hear. Mom would tell us how sick she was of hearing us bicker over fudge and insist that it we turn it over to her immediately. And then she’d hide it in the garage. The game continued until the fudge was gone.

Typical adolescent sibling aggression, right? Yeah, but I’m 49 now and we still play this game and my sister still loses, every year. It’s really a shame; she probably likes fudge more than any of us.

It’s not only food that fuels our fire; we torture each other with the whole gift-giving thing, too. A shirt is never wrapped in a shirt box, big gifts are stuffed into little packages and little gifts are packaged, box-within-a-box, until the darn things need two people to wrap. Boxes are weighted with, say, a few logs or bricks, thus preventing the recipient from guessing, “It’s a pair of earrings in a refrigerator box.” In my family, the act of opening a present often requires the use of construction tools. Dad once gave Mom 6 bottles of wine in a long wooden box that we thought was a pair of skis; she needed a crowbar to open it. The man is a master at this stuff and I do believe he cried when the mall kiosk that sealed any gift in a real tin can shut down. Naturally, he saved all the empty cans in his garage; at least one of them appears each year, with a scavenged plastic lid capping the holiday joy within.

There are times when the gift itself isn’t disguised but the true joy of giving might be a little hard to spot. My family’s holiday motto is this: “Christmas Ain’t Christmas ‘til Somebody Cries.” It sounds worse than it really is and some parents will recognize that there’s always had one kid who needs a little extra attention on Christmas morning. I’m talking snarky teenager, not toddler true believer here. I’m talking about the kid who needs to learn a lesson in humility (that was me), needs a little gentle punishment for their obsessive snooping tendencies (me again), or simply doesn’t recognize that gratitude should replace greed (umm, me). An effective teaching tool is to withhold the single most-wanted item on their Christmas list until there’s nothing left unopened. Gift after gift appears from within the fancy wrap and ribbons…, and it’s not what the kid really wanted. Your spouse will whisper, “Please don’t make the kid cry this year,” but motive and opportunity are your driving factors. Be patient, wait a while, and then ask the kid to go get an empty box for all the torn wrapping paper. Voila! There, in their path, will be the Most Wanted Thing. The kid will begin to cry, hopefully because they’ve learned what you wanted them to learn but, actually, because they’re finally happy.

Having been on the receiving end of the “Christmas Cry” so often during my youth, I thought I was an expert in its delivery until I tried to use it on my own child. A few years ago, my youngest son, Thomas, called me, sobbing mightily and telling me that “the paper just fell off” when all he did was touch one of his wrapped gifts. Yes, America, he actually thought I was stupid enough to believe that. Me, the Grand Master of Snooping. I only learned how to wrap presents so that I could unwrap them without getting caught. I snooped with a tool belt slung with office supplies because my mom thought that stapling a bag shut would keep me out of it. Yes, I deserve this kid 100 percent. Still, I pounced on Tom’s absolute commitment to his faulty scotch tape story as my chance to deliver the “Christmas Cry.” I set it up perfectly and waited. When I finally gave him the gift he’d already opened, I added the raised-eyebrow-now-don’t-you-feel-guilty mom face for good measure. I got nothing, not one tear.

Nevertheless, I am my father’s daughter: I can be very patient and Christmas is an annual holiday. The next year, I chose two items that he’d requested: a football and drum sticks, discarded their outer packaging, wrapped them individually, and placed them under the tree. There they stayed, alone and unmistakably identifiable. Tom thought it was stupid; I explained that I was simply making his life easier by removing any temptation to unwrap them to figure out what they were. With my hereditary inclination for tormenting a deserving child, I proceeded to leave every other gift, for everyone else in the household, locked in the attic. For two weeks.

Around mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve Day, my oldest son, chin trembling, asked, “Aren’t there any other Christmas presents?” BULLSEYE! I’d taken aim, let my arrow fly, straight and true…, and hit the wrong target. I felt awful for what I’d done and got a little weepy for being such a rotten mother but I accepted it because I am a McDermott and Christmas Ain’t Christmas ‘til Somebody Cries.

With the likelihood of breaking our holiday bad habits somewhere around the hell freezes over mark, I choose instead to point a finger and place blame. I say, “It’s Dad’s fault,” knowing that my brother will give me a traitorous fist-bump and my sister will respond, “Poor Daddy.” Children learn what they live; we’ve lived it so long that we’re goners. It’s just how we roll, and, for us, it’s fun.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays, surrounded by family, love, laughter, and tears of joy!

 

10-05-2012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: Parroting Productivity through Judicious Jargon Juggling

Once upon a time, working for a business was simple and straightforward. You got a job, you went to work, you used your brain, you met with coworkers, you made decisions, you wrote a report, and then you went home. It’s not that easy now. The business world is now a swirling mass of teamwork and committee decisions, driven by a completely new language – a language that, in my opinion, disguises the fact that no one gets anything done anymore.

First, your coworkers aren’t your coworkers anymore. They are your business partners or your stakeholders.
Let’s say there’s a problem at work that needs fixing or a process that isn’t working right. You can’t just say, “Hey, let’s get together and talk about it.” You have to form a team and schedule some face time for ideation with your partners.

Don’t expect to get anything done during your first meeting. Each of you may have worked for the same company for years and you may have worked together in the past, but don’t fool yourself by thinking that you’re intelligent, respectful and conscientious employees who can form an effective group to figure out such mission-critical issues as, say, why there are no pens in the supply cabinet.

Now you’re a cross-functional team and you need to learn how to synergize. Book a hotel conference room and hire a consultant to facilitate valuable team building opportunities such as role-playing, building interdependence and conflict resolution, many of which will embarrass you for weeks to come and none of which you will use on any project. Allow a full workday for this off-site.

Once you’re actually ready to do some work, schedule a meeting to interface, a meeting where you can dialogue and conceptualize the challenge. The purpose of this meeting isn’t to find out what everyone thinks, it’s to leverage the collective knowledge base, gather everyone’s input and vision a solution. Utilize the resources in the meeting room –whiteboard the ideas that everyone brings to the table. Now you can form a a game plan to explore your opportunities!

So, you’ve met with your coworkers, collected their thoughts, and produced some sort of plan to correct the problem, right? Wrong. Once you have a game plan in place, you have to perform a gap analysis to figure out what you really need to do. This may seem like an extra, unnecessary step but it is key to producing a value-added solution. Schedule another meeting. Make sure to task each team member with a deliverable or two, but keep the low-hanging fruit for yourself because you aren’t just busy, you don’t have the bandwidth to expend more than the minimum effort. Your goal is to continue zero-tasking while others do the work.

Schedule another meeting to review the scorecards and dashboards that each team member will produce as proof that they’re actually working. Review this information carefully but don’t simply read and digest it – allow  a few days for serious data mining. Call the team back together and, using these metrics, evaluate the glide path of the outcome and determine the best way to operationalize the program. Hold a few additional meetings, to touch base with the team members and ensure that everyone is on board with a potential solution that truly resonates with them. Above all, avoid the dangerous phenomenon of groupthink, a condition that occurs when everyone is in agreement, thus allowing the team to make a timely decision. Don’t be too hasty, projects involving such important issues as office supplies are going to require a lot of thinking outside the box.

Your plan will require a real paradigm shift for your organization, so take your time.Now it’s time to engage your supervisors and discuss the results of the team’s project. Be sure to create an appealing deck of PowerPoint slides, with granular information that describes your project as robust, scalable, and organic. Fill every slide with bullet points and zippy language, but be cautious about using too many animations unless the bulk of your audience is on seizure medication.

Send the deck to your boss, your boss’s boss, the mail room staff, and the guy who fixes the copy machines for revision; they must provide needless input so they can say that they helped. Always give your presentation a serious title. After all, you and your team haven’t simply spent months deciding how to buy a box of pens, you’ve been “Exploring Alternate Sourcing Solutions for Ink-Based Writing Implements.”

This presentation is going to be a really big deal for your team so do everything you can to ensure its success. Gather a few teammates in a huddle room to pre-think the two-sentence meeting invitation; allow at least two hours for accomplishing this task. Wallpaper the meeting with (unnecessary) people who agree with you, because this makes you look really important and intelligent.

Spend a solid half hour thanking the project team for stepping up to the plate and bringing their A-game before you tee up your deck. Read every word of every slide to your audience because they’re not nearly smart enough to do so for themselves. Prepare yourself for discussions that have nothing to do with your project. When this occurs, tell the speaker that you will add their concerns to the parking lot, for off-line consideration.

Do not ever, ever, say anything really important without prefacing it with the phrase, “at the end of the day.” Your audience is unable to recognize vital information without hearing those magical words. They are the alarm clock that awakens everyone who has slept through a three-hour, death by- PowerPoint meeting. Really smart people don’t pay attention until they hear those words so don’t forget to use them!

If everything goes well, the powers that be will green light your plan and you can set a go-live date for implementing your program. If not, go back to the drawing board, recontextualize the project by disambiguating it, and re-purposing whatever you can salvage. Present your zombie again and again until you find a way to describe it as “fulfilling a strategic initiative,” four words that no one ever says “no” to. Or, you could strip all the value-added work away from the project, de-scoping it to the point where there’s nothing left to do and you can declare immediate victory.

Don’t worry about being fired for wasting everyone’s time; that never happens in today’s business world. No one is ever fired. Your work can be outsourced because the company has chosen to downsize, directional terms that make me think of a road map that takes you far, far away. Or your company may choose to implement an involuntary reduction in force, giving 100 employees the boot while, at the same time, selling this maneuver to stockholders as enjoying organic growth. This is a fancy term for expecting the remaining employees to be as productive as the original workforce. It usually works. Sometimes.

I don’t know why everything has to sound so highfalutin and difficult these days. Is it all just a power play that makes the speaker sound smart and the listener seem stupid?I know there are valid, useful instances for some of this lingo but, seriously, unless you’re a nuclear engineer saving the world from imminent disaster, please don’t.

Sadly, I have encountered every one of these terms and phrases in real work situations, from real people who were very serious about what they were saying. While I have been caught making a face or even laughing at them – the language, not (usually) the people– I’m proud to say that I avoid using it like I avoid ringworm. At the end of the day, I think that simple, clear language is the best way to communicate. And I bring my own pens to work.

Is there a business buzzword or phrase that grates on your nerves or makes you giggle? If so, share it with me on Robious Corridor’s Facebook wall!

 

8-05-2012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: Fourth and One, First and Ten

Here comes the new school year – new beginnings, new opportunities, and new school supplies – all that new stuff that I normally love but absolutely hate this year. This year, “new” is making me feel sentimental, emotional, and just plain old. This new school year is the beginning of the end; my baby is a high school senior.

It’s not that I don’t want him to spread his wings and fly the nest (now there’s a cliché for you), I do, I do, I  really do. I turned cartwheels up my driveway, literally, on his first day of kindergarten and I’m perfecting an Olympic gymnastics tumbling run for his graduation, a full-twisting back flip layout whopper of a celebration. I love him but he has to go; we’re too alike to live in the same house much longer, one of us won’t survive. A dear friend tells me that all high school seniors make their parents’ lives miserable, thereby making it easier to let them go. If that’s so, I’ll be able to watch this kid leave with my eyes closed. For now, though, I keep tearing up and I can’t get that stupid Kodak commercial Paul Anka “Times of Your Life” song out of my head.

It’s probably not the song that’s making my eyes water, it’s probably the stench in my laundry room. For most of you, back to school time smells like sharpened pencils and fresh, clean notebook paper. For me, it smells like sweat. You see, my baby, my son, is not simply a high school senior, he’s a high school senior football player. He exists, like Pig-Pen, within a swirling cloud of filth and sweat. Dude sweat. Hours-long, steamy August practice sweat, funky locker room sweat – a fusion of teenage boy, polyester practice pants left unwashed until they turn a sick yellowy-gray, thick foam rubber pads soaked by 100 hours of clammy thighs, dried mud, dried blood, cut grass, and, above all, varsity dedication. Student-Athletes stink.

Nevertheless, even that horrific smell is making me melancholy this year, as it reminds me that this is our last year of high school football. Our last year of Friday Night Lights, our last year at F.W. Poates Stadium (who was he, anyway?), our last year of goose bumps when the PA bellows “TROJANS” while the team storms the field, our last year of Mr. Godwin’s jokes (corny, but always amusing).

Maybe I shouldn’t let it get to me as much as it does but my son, and most of his teammates, have kind of grown on me. We’ve been doing the football thing for years now, starting with rec league and its tiny little Bike shoulder pads; the experience was all so dear to me that there are times when I have to stop myself from yelling “Go Weaver” during Midlo games. I’ve watched these kids grow up, individually and as a team; they’re a true brotherhood and a part of me feels like a mother to each of them. I ought to – they’re in and out of my house so often, any one of them could empty my dishwasher with accuracy and many would do a better job than my own kid does. Sadly, though, the end for my son is also the end for his senior teammates and I’m not sure what we’ll do without them. I won’t have a happy, hungry mob around the table and my husband won’t have an assortment of wide receivers to throw to. This year feels like 4th and 1 on the goal line, with 5 seconds left to play – it’ll be gone before we know it, before we want it to be.

For us, the beginning of the end is also the end of a beginning. I wish that I had been so lucky as to identify my passion at 17 years old. I wish that I’d driven myself toward a goal, something more worthwhile than the 1980’s big-hair look at which I failed so miserably. I floundered around for decades and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. In this respect, my evil doppelganger and I differ. My son has drawn a bead on his future; he wants to play college football and he wants a degree in Kinesiology or Athletic Training or some other graduate program that implies pain and perspiration. He knows his strengths and he knows his limitations, and, if he never plays a single down of college football, it won’t be because he didn’t have the talent or the drive – it’ll be because I killed him first. Believe me; he knows how to get where he wants to go and he knows each step that he has to take to get there. And he’s dragged me along for the ride, all summer long.

Step one, the beginning of the beginning, was his attendance at college football camps. We’ve traveled near and far: Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia – my job was keeping gas in the car (daily), food in the kid (hourly), and my mouth shut when I was out of my element (often). We’ve trekked from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Detroit wilderness, and up and down the East Coast. This summer was our version of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” – I’d like to have seen Walley World or the World’s Largest Ball of Ear Wax or anything other than an interstate highway, instead, I got to see empty stadiums and sports bars. I’ve endured nights in small hotel rooms with both my husband and my son, I’ve seen the flashback of childhood trauma on a grown man’s face as he stands, defeated, in front of Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III jersey at the NFL Hall of Fame, and I’ve traded barbecue recipes with a former Auburn coach. I’ve taught my son to recognize and remember his numbers so that he won’t have to plug his card key into every door in the hotel to find our room…again. I’m told that I snore and I’ve seen a grainy iPhone video that’s supposed to be proof, but it’s not me. And, forty-umpteen years later, I still can’t behave when I ride in the back seat. I fidget, I squirm, I blow spitballs at my son’s head, I pick those little black rubber AstroTurf beans out of my sneaker treads and lob them down his shirt collar, I wear his helmet and wave at passing cars – anything to pass the time and ease my boredom. My husband scolds me like my father always did, blaming our impending tragic demise on my lack of self-restraint when, in fact, he should just drive better. My son tells me that I am acting like a 4 year-old but, as it’s my job to train him for his future, I just stick my feet farther up under his seat and poke him some more. Paybacks are hell.

And paybacks are exactly what we’re looking for. Where Tom will end up is anyone’s guess – we’re 1st and 10 in the recruiting game but there’s a lot of time left on the clock. For now, I’ll focus on the immediate future and try not to cry through our remaining high school games. I’ll swallow the lump in my throat when the Trojans fire themselves up in the end zone before the game. I’ll recite the answers to Godwin’s Midlo trivia questions – I know them all by heart – and groan at his Edline “we tell your parents” joke. Afterwards, I’ll hang out with the diehards at Denny’s and yell at the 8 Sports Blitz television broadcast. For my husband’s sake, I’ll learn how to throw a football and, for my sake, I’ll learn how to catch one with my hands instead of my face. I’ll cheer for the team, feed them while they’re here, and try to save my tears for graduation. It’s the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning…Good morning, yesterday, you wake up and time has slipped away …Yeah, it’s not Paul Anka, it’s definitely the smell that’s making me cry.
GO MIDLO!

 

6-05-2012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh…

Our traditional summer vacation is spending a week at the beach with assorted family members and a few extra teenagers whom we think of as our sub-children. We rent a big house with lots of bedrooms, great views and a private pool to lounge in when it’s too hot or windy on the sand. We load in lots of great food, never wear shoes, and laugh until our sides ache. It’s a week that we look forward to every year, a to-die-for week, a week that anyone would envy.

Except it’s not happening this year; we waved goodbye to our traditional summer vacation in mid-February. This year, there will be no week at Emerald Isle, no giant house, no endless days of sun and surf, no extra teenagers to keep track of, no beating those extra teenagers to a pulp on the go-cart track or humiliating them in a cut-throat game of Uno. No early morning trips to Swansboro for shrimp so fresh that your taste buds think you’ve been lying all year long, no stops at my favorite farm stand for Bogue Sound watermelons to eat, freezing cold and crispy sweet, out of a cooler on the sand. I am mourning that which is not to be, like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” listing all the leftover turkey meals he won’t enjoy after the Bumpass’ dogs storm the house. Instead of an enviable, heavenly week at the beach with family and friends, this summer, we’re going to camp. Football Camp. And a lot of them.

It is my son’s desire, his dream, to play college football. As a rising Midlo senior, Thomas is entrenched in the college recruitment cycle, a sequence of events governed by strict NCAA regulations. There are rules about official visits, unofficial visits, what you can and cannot do during quiet periods or dead periods, when you can and cannot look a college coach in the eye…the NCAA Division I Manual is 439 pages of confusion. I gave up trying to keep all this stuff straight in my head and gave in to my kid, my husband, and the experts. Their advice: skip a camp at a school that’s shown genuine interest and you may as well just give up your dream.

When we began this recruitment odyssey, my husband promised that he’d do the long haul, overnight trips. I appreciated that, until our first long haul, overnight trip conflicted with his work, leaving me to do 1,000 miles of driving in 2 days and endure a night in a hotel room with my nemesis. I believe that every moment can be a learning experience and what I learned after spending 39 hours locked onto my child can be distilled into: 1) always claim the up-wind bed in the hotel room, and 2) prepare to be amazed at how well your child communicates with everyone else but you.

My son’s native tongue is English but you’d never know it; he typically speaks in a combination of code words and grunts. His immediate response of “Huh?” to anything that I say would also lead you to believe that he’s hard of hearing, perhaps imagining a series of severe early childhood ear infections, but he’s not. He hears fine, just selectively. To my delight, the boy is respectful, informed, and articulate when conversing with college coaches. I hope those coaches didn’t notice the look of utter surprise on my face – I don’t recognize common football lingo and I’m sure I looked like I didn’t recognize my own child, either.

I also discovered that college football recruiting events are very much like the Westminster Dog Show. There were a lot of sinewy, sleek specimens – prospective running backs and wide receivers who look as fast as Greyhounds and as lethal as Doberman Pinschers. Unfortunately, my entry is an offensive lineman, a hybrid of the Herding and Working Groups, a Saint Bernard built to pull a sled and protect its owner, minus the slobber (unless he spies a Starbucks sign in the distance). I was proud to have had the biggest dog at the show but this was only an unofficial, Junior Day visit; we didn’t even break into trot for the judges. The hard work happens at the summer camps and that’s where I’ll cut Thomas loose to run around the ring by himself. Once the sweaty part starts, I’m outta there.

My contribution to this summer’s onslaught of one-day football camps will be gasoline and food. It is a happy coincidence that when my son, filled with food and forced to sit still for an hour or more, falls asleep; this alone was the reason why we returned from our trip to Connecticut without having a single argument. This was also why I chickened out and drove the long way around the South Bronx instead of the more direct route through it – my guard dog was sound asleep. I think I may have overfed him, though, which led to my unfortunate realization that the “safe” bed is the one right next to the air conditioner, the one that gets the freshest air in the room.

I’ll cherry-pick the camps I attend – and by “attend”, I mean, “ride along to”. My attendance will depend upon the proximity of local entertainment as, once he’s signed in and ready to perspire, he won’t need his handlers again until camp is over and he needs to be fed. UVA is a given – Charlottesville has lots to amuse – and JMU is a quick hop. I’ll even make a return trip to Connecticut, as the college is a mere 45 minutes east of White Flower Farm, a nursery that my mom and I visited 15 years ago and one that I still worship. I’m undecided about a few other schools but you can count me out of the trip to Eastern Michigan. Ypsilanti may be an easy 30 mile drive from Detroit and Eminem’s “8 Mile” but it’s 11 hours from Midlothian and I’m sure that I have a work conflict for that day.

I guess I should look at the positives that our no-vacation summer will bring. I didn’t have to coordinate three calendars (our own, my professional musician brother’s tour schedule, and the real estate agent’s bookings) to find a great house and a convenient week to spend there. I’ll have sharp knives and a full set of pots and pans to use while cooking dinner. I can spend more time fighting the deer, moles, voles, and chipmunks who think that my gardens are their grocery stores and amusement parks. We won’t be dropping a big chunk of change on a beach house and my son might end up with a college scholarship someday, saving me even more money. I can still go barefoot whenever I want. And, best of all? I won’t have to put on a bathing suit.

NOW you’re envious, right?

 

4-05-2012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “Get Out of My Face(Book)”

I’ve written this article, repeatedly, in my head and wish that I could simply ask, “Would you all just shut up already?” and be done with it. My editor likes a few more words than that so, with my apologies, I have to elaborate. It’s a shame, though – I come from a family that can’t say “hello” in 25 words or less, and a 1-sentence opinion from me would have been a first.

So: Facebook, Twitter, Cell Phones, Smart Phones, Texting – it’s all about connectivity and instant access to everyone and everything. We’ve rolled all these electronic tools into the altruistic genre of “Social Media”, defined as something that pertains to human society, a way to seek or enjoy companionship through communication. Communication is a good and necessary thing…when it’s good and necessary. But, nowadays, we’re stuck in a vortex of communication – bombarded with information that’s neither valuable nor valid. Kony 2012? Brilliant. A cell-phone video of Kony 2012’s naked, ranting director? None of my business. Given the technological ability to yammer away to the world, we have turned into a society of over-opinionated, over-sharing gabbers with a false sense of self-importance. We don’t know when to shut up.

And we can’t even be polite about it; common rules of etiquette don’t seem to apply to electronic communication. When chatting with a group of people, you give your full attention to those people as a sign of respect. Cell phones make it possible to hold a conversation anywhere, anytime. They’re great when you need to be accessible but, let’s face it, you don’t always need to be accessible or need to access someone else, so put the damn thing down already and pay attention to whatever else you’re doing. Most people can’t walk and chew gum at the same time yet they think they’re skilled enough to hold what must surely be an immensely important conversation while trying to drive responsibly, manipulate a laden shopping cart or herd their careening toddlers out of everyone else’s way. And when did it become acceptable to broadcast your half of a conversation? “I’m on the phone” used to mean, “Go away.” Taking or making a phone call used to be a private endeavor – now we do it anywhere, anytime. Something’s got to give here, and that something is usually consideration for someone else.

Oh, I’m sorry – you’re using a hands-free Bluetooth device, thus proving that you multi-task responsibly? Guess what? It isn’t working. I’m still treated to half of your conversation but, 9 times out of 10, I think you’re talking to me so don’t get pissy if I respond to something you’ve just said. And, when you laugh loudly in response to the person in your head, at the precise moment that I’ve bent over to pull the 40lb bag of cat food off the bottom of my grocery cart, I’m going to think that you’re commenting on my butt and you will get the “Death-Stare-Excuse Me” combo.

Getting back to etiquette: Before speaking, a person generally relies on a tiny filter in their brain that determines whether the information they are about to impart is relevant to the conversation and/or appropriate for public consumption. Not anymore. Given the opportunity to speak out, we do, oftentimes when we shouldn’t. The electronic world is wide open and the pressure to communicate is enormous – what do I have to say today, what nugget of self-truth, what existential experience can I publicize today? Sadly, we all think that we have something valuable to say. Even more sadly, we think the world wants to hear it.

For the record: I am happy to assume that you eat something every day but I don’t need to know the details. I don’t care what you had for dinner last night or what you’re going to have tonight or where you’re going to have it or with whom you will be dining. I don’t need to know when you have a hangover or a hangnail. I’m pretty clear on when it’s Friday and, if not, I can look at a calendar instead of reading every detail of your weekend plans and then real-time updates of how far along you are in those plans or which of your plans went sour because you spent all your time typing about them instead of actually doing them.

Don’t feed me that “well, just don’t read it then” attitude – not reading is a physical impossibility. From the moment you learn how to read, you read without conscious thought – you can never go back to simply seeing gibberish. What you can do – and what I have done – is filter. I turned off the interminable news feeds of anyone and anything that I really don’t give a hoot about. I let my electronics sort the stupid stuff out of my consciousness, thereby relieving me of the option of commenting and preventing a whole lot my personal smart-assed sarcasm from flowing out of my brain, through my fingertips, and into the cyber-world. Some of it still gets through but I’m working on it. I only put it here because Mr. Editor seems to like it.

Commenting, at will, is a huge breach of etiquette. Thumper – the little bunny from Bambi – says it best: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” I was raised in the Church of Disney, with a dad who has the wisdom of Jiminy Cricket and the self-effacing nature of Eeyore. I’ve spent years pushing these common sense/good manners lessons into my kids. Every now and then, they listen to me; other times, they learn the hard way – just like I did. I feel bad for them sometimes – you and I didn’t have the number or variety of communication outlets that our kids have today. When we said something stupid, we said it face to face. We took a shot to the jaw for making an inappropriate comment; we deserved it and we learned from it. Nobody solves their problems with a fight on the playground anymore – now they run home, post their grievances on Facebook, and wait for everyone else to comment. The issue swirls around for days when a few smacks between two kids and a black eye would have stopped it in an instant. Now, everyone joins in the fight because nobody knows when to butt out.

Like everyone else, I have a cell phone. I don’t Tweet because of the character limit (remember, “hello” in 25 words or less…) and because I just don’t have something important to say, every day, to everyone. I don’t have a Smart Phone because a Smart Phone requires a Smart User and that’s not me. I send text messages when I’m too lazy to dial a number but end up wishing that I’d just made the call in the first place, often because I can’t translate the response. If I can’t figure out what your license plate is supposed to say, how am I going to understand a string of unrelated characters as an answer to my question? If you must use acronyms, join the Army. Isn’t it easier to type “HA” instead of “LOL” or “TROLOLO”? Cut me a break – I couldn’t master Spanish and I’ll never live in Spain so why must I learn a new language when all I want to know is when my car is going to come back home?

I also have a Facebook account, with access locked down to “Friends Only” – and by “Friends”, I mean those people who would bail me out of jail if I asked them to, my family, and a handful of my kids’ friends who, for some unknown reason, think that I am “chill” or funny. These are the people that I’m interested in, the ones that I love to hear from and the ones that love (or tolerate) hearing from me. And so, while my son is likely to treat the entire world to frequent and comprehensive updates on his self-elevated opinion of everything, I know that some things are best left unsaid, or said only to a select few, and I know that, one day, he’ll understand that, too. Truth? Aside from keeping up with birthdays and family/friend milestones or events, I only use Facebook to spy on my kids. Don’t shake your head – you do it, too.

Facebook has 845 million users who update their status, comment, or “like” something billions of times each day; Twitter has 140 million users who send 340 million tweets every day. Cell phone text messages numbered more than 8 trillion in 2011. How much of this non-stop information flow is actually worth something to someone? I’m not anti-social by any stretch of the imagination but I am flat-out exhausted by all this chatter. Why can’t we just shut up?

 

2-10-2012  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “The New Year’s Non-Resolution”

Ahh, 2012! Let us celebrate the New Year (post hangover) with a burst of commitment to a health-related personal goal! A plan to lose weight, to exercise, to break a bad habit – all noble ideas shared across the land…

…and all of which I avoid like rickets and prison. I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t make any because I know I’m not going to keep them and because I don’t need to make them in the first place. I don’t need to wait until January 1 to feel rotten about myself because I am a woman. I resolve to lose weight every time I look in the mirror. I realize that I should exercise more (or some, at least) every time I wedge myself into a pair of pantyhose. And I’d drop my (worst) bad habit like a hot potato but, to be honest, I just don’t want to right now. As far as bad habits go, my biggie is pretty versatile, pairing equally as well with a cup of coffee (I should cut back on caffeine) as it does with a glass of wine (Vino Market rocks my world). It’s the Classic Black Cardigan of bad habits – it goes with everything. Except maybe overall health and small children so, until I can commit to overcoming my big bad habit with full confidence of success, I’ll just avoid toddlers. And overall health. And pantyhose.

No, I don’t do resolutions because (for me) they’re either expensive or exhausting, they’re always  ephemeral, and I don’t get a kick out of repetitive failure. The way I see it, only two groups of people benefit from New Year’s resolutions: Advertisers and Retailers. They tap into the collective self-improvement psyche with a barrage of weight loss programs pitched by celebrities. That fact alone cracks me up because the Weight Watcher’s and Jenny Craig’s of the world never use any celebrity that I want to look like. I thought the whole point was to avoid looking like George Costanza but I guess I’m wrong. When Angelina Jolie tells me to trade my Venti White Chocolate Mocha for a bottle of water, I’ll listen. Until then, Jennifer Hudson, can you please learn to close your mouth? You’re a lovely young woman with a great set of pipes and I congratulate you for your weight loss success…but, sweetie, you have to make your lips touch every now and then or else you just look like a mouth-breathing fool who doesn’t possess a  functioning nasal system. Because, bottom line, we all know that it’s all about looks.

And that’s why Dick’s puts all their fitness equipment on sale in January. It’s the theory of adjacent  marketing in action – if consumers are on diets, they’re also likely to need exercise equipment. Dick’s is pretty smart with this one – they know that no woman in the world is going to be thrilled with a Mega Ab Blaster or an Ultimate Butt Crunch machine as a Christmas gift. I’ll bet that fitness equipment retailers are so smart about this that they jack the price up in December to make the January sale price look like that much more of a bargain. The truth in advertising/adjacent marketing example that I’d really like to see is a January blowout sale of Personal Defibrillators. That would close the circle. Instead, January’s fitness equipment sales are followed by February’s Stupidly Humongous Television sales because, I guess, Best Buy realizes that the Dick’s customer base is exhausted and has given up after a month of grueling physical fitness. Or they never  managed to put the machine together in the first place. Or they’re dead and their families’ grief can only be eased by watching the Super Bowl on a 70” LED HDTV.

There is one January marketing campaign that I believe in enough to support: Rubbermaid. Every January, retailers everywhere put Rubbermaid products on sale. Plastic boxes and bins, totes and trashcans, closet and garage organizers – everything you could need to make your storage dreams come true. I’m a sucker for it every year.

Think about that for a second because it speaks volumes about my mental health (and lack thereof), my internal yearnings and psychological requirements. I need to live in a neat, clean, and organized environment. I seek to control the manner in which my home operates and I do so by arranging all the stuff within my home into logical categories and then locking all that stuff into thick plastic boxes that I store neatly upon sterile wire shelves behind closed doors. Oh yeah, I really have a problem here.

There’s no shame in wanting to live in a clean, organized house. Who wouldn’t want that? The challenge that I face is two-fold: a natural contradiction between “clean, organized house” and the teenage boy with whom I share said house, and my psychotic need to put myself through this exercise year after year. It’s like I’m trying to dig a hole to China – I wear myself out and never get anywhere close to my goal. Nobody ever finishes organizing their homes but lots of us keep trying. Rubbermaid understands this phenomenon and cashes in by marrying home organization with the annual rites of self-improvement. It’s my personal bacchanal, a Mardi Gras party in a Roughneck® Clear hinged-lid box.  I attacked this year’s Organization Olympics by attempting to organize the Slovenly Teen Cave (I’ll call it a Man Cave when he’s older but he’d better be out of my house by then, anyway). The Slovenly Teen balked loudly at this idea and louder still when he discovered that I’d actually made some radical changes to his burrow by, gasp!, vacuuming the rug. I explained that I was perfectly within my rights to do so as, 1) it’s my house, 2) my washer and dryer occupy a small corner of the room, and 3) if I had to wade through his mess to get to my dryer, I wasn’t willing to fall and break a hip doing it.

And I wasn’t going to organize the room without cleaning it so I emptied the Cave’s big storage closet into the middle of the floor and scrubbed the wire shelves. I pulled the washer and dryer out from their cubby and vacuumed away the haunted house spider webs. And, while the dryer was out, I figured that I might as well take the lint thing apart and clean that out. And, to do that job properly, I needed to take the front panel off my dryer and then take the metal cover thingie off the fan. And, in order to do that, I needed to find my socket set but, while I found the socket set, I couldn’t find the 1/4” socket so I had to use a wrench that only allowed me to turn the bolty-things a tiny bit at a time. By the time I got the dryer back together and coaxed it back into its place, I had no energy left to sort through all the stuff that I took out of the closet, pack it all neatly into the new Rubbermaid totes, and put it where it belonged.

I left everything as it stood and closed the door to the Slovenly Teen Cave behind me. I headed to my kitchen, closing my eyes as I passed the mirror in my foyer. The sun was over the yardarm so I plucked a bottle of Pinot Blanc from the dining room wine rack, popped the cork, poured a glass, puffed a cigarette, and pondered the ease-of-execution versus lack-of-nutritional-value in serving my husband a bag of Hershey Kisses for dinner. We ended up enjoying a Candela’s pizza (onions are a vegetable) in front of the Stupidly Humongous Television while watching a football game. And so it goes…

I applaud those blessed with the ability to make a resolution and stick to it. For the rest of us, come on over; I’ve got lots of wine. Happy New Year!

 

12-15-2011  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “Twisted Christmas”

Ahh, Christmas! Sensory images abound – visions of twinkling lights draped about the landscape, the welcoming warmth of rooms lovingly adorned with beautiful decorations, the happy laughter of children playing in the snow, the smell of just-baked cookies cooling on the kitchen counter. Motifs played out across the globe, in Christmas carols and in glossy magazines, all of which contribute to a general sense of how Christmas should be; a DIY guide for the perfect holiday.

But not at my house. My Christmas reality will never be featured in House Beautiful and Family Circle isn’t knocking down my door, asking me for pointers. My version of Christmas is more likely to be the cover story in the December issue of Psychology Today. Something bad happens to me as the holidays approach. It only happens at Christmas, which means that my mental health is (relatively) stable throughout the year and my family can afford to tolerate me for a few short weeks, knowing that I’ll be back to normal in January. Christmas makes me delusional. The clinical definition of “delusion” describes false beliefs based on incorrect assumptions of external reality. Delusional convictions occur on a continuum and cannot be tossed aside even when the deluded person is presented with compelling proof to the contrary. Delusions are implausible and bizarre but the delusional person believes, with absolute conviction, in their own reality.

Yep, that’s me. Every Christmas I think that I’m going to get it right, I’m going to create a merry atmosphere in which my family will delight in working together to make my Christmas dreams come true, and there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward man all around. You want some compelling proof to the contrary? Ok, how about this: Thomas and Luc, his BFF, once offered to string lights in my shrubbery. Grateful for their assistance, I shoved the box of lights at them and let them have at it. I listened to their happy laughter and delighted in my 30 minutes of life inside a holiday song. And then I stepped outside to check their progress and discovered that they were laughing because they were trying to make the lights spell out an obscene phrase…all across the front of my house.

Or how about the year when I thought it would be fun if the whole family sat at the kitchen table and decorated gingerbread men? I forgot, for a moment, that I was the only female in the house. My visions of sugarplums turned into a testosterone-fueled competition to see who could make their gingerbread man more anatomically correct. Or anatomically incorrect, given the number of gingerbread hermaphrodites that they created. I’m not just delusional about my family’s abilities and motivations. Worse still, I have delusions about myself. Every year, without fail, I believe that I am artistic. I believe that what I can make with my own two hands, will meet or exceed that which I could purchase with far less trouble.

Case in point: our first Christmas in our Salisbury home. I pictured a traditional Williamsburg-y décor in my head and set about creating beribboned swags of fresh greenery to grace each of our first floor doorways. Not a difficult task (in theory) and I thought I had genetics on my side as my mother used to produce beautiful floral arrangements from both dried and live flowers. My first swag was gorgeous, my second swag a little less so as I discovered that I’d already used up all the really good pine boughs. And then I counted my doorways (12) and realized that I’d need to make 2 really long swags for my 2 really wide doorways, and it all went downhill from there. A tour of my first floor would have reminded you of a reverse evolution of man timeline – each swag got progressively thinner and droopier than the one before.

The swags didn’t deter me, though. I saw these sparkly snowflake decorations at Williams & Sherrill a couple years ago. Simple little things, they were just wooden snowflakes on wooden sticks, set into wooden bases, but they wanted an arm and a leg for each. I could do that, right? So I trekked off to Michael’s and bought plain snowflakes, dowels, and blocks. And paint. And paintbrushes. And some glue and glitter. It took some time to locate my husband’s drill bits and even more time to learn how to drill a straight hole into a wood block. Still, I painted, glued, and glittered my heart out…and the end result was 3 stupid snowflakes that took 2 days to construct, lean slightly to one side or the other, and look like they were made by a blind, fingerless kindergartner.

This year, I’m tormenting my dining room. I envision a stand, a thicket, a forest of gilded trees in gilded pots. Tall, thin trees, shorter, fatter trees; a golden mosaic of size and texture clustered at one end of my server. It’s all in my head…and, currently, on my back porch. Styrofoam tree forms, clay pots, hot glue gun, moss, pine cones, glitter and gold spray paint – my porch looks like a demented artist’s studio and that’s exactly what it is. My son is telling me that I’m suffering from “artism” and my husband is getting a kick out of watching me try to walk a straight line after unintentionally huffing spray paint fumes. Lord knows what the outcome will be but I’m holding fast to my delusions.

A coworker and I were discussing holiday décor recently. I admitted to having a vast collection of Christmas craft supplies and struggled to make her understand that it was perfectly normal to spend weeks folding strips of paper into enough tiny, three dimensional Froebel stars (a Nazi handcraft if there ever was one) to fill a 4-gallon apothecary jar. To wear glue gun burns like a badge of courage, to learn the hard way that gravity is your enemy when gluing tiny pebbles to Styrofoam and to know that WD-40 will remove the golden glow of spray paint from wrist to elbow that landed there when the wind kicked up. She simply nodded and smiled. And then gave voice to the final criteria of clinical delusion: the concept that my beliefs were not necessarily accepted by the general population. She told me that my house was in danger of looking like a Holiday Prostitute. Well, isn’t that the point?

 

10-15-2011  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “Halloween Died About a Decade Ago”

Halloween died about a decade ago. You want proof? Think back to Halloween when you were a kid and compare it to today’s reality. Trick-or-treating used to be a deliciously spooky night out with your friends. Now, it’s just an achingly dull stroll around the neighborhood with your parents.

The way I see it, Halloween died a slow, painful death at the hands of multiple killers, each of whom had both motive and opportunity. My ace detective skills, honed from years of playing “Clue”, suggest the following: “Martha Stewart, in a craft store, with a hot glue gun,”, “Retailers, in their stockrooms, with cash registers,” and “Kids, all around the country, with a sense of entitlement.” The Halloween of today is just one more cutie-pie, pre-packaged, why-should- I-lift-a-finger holiday. I wish Halloween had died of boredom but the damning fact is that the ultimate deathblow was delivered by “Mothers, wherever their children are, by suffocation.” Yes, fellow Mothers, we killed Halloween. We drove a stake into the heart of Halloween with our maternal desire to 1) control the outcome by selecting every input, and 2) pamper everyone around us. We sucked the “treat” out of trick-or-treating. Halloween is the second-greatest kid holiday on the calendar and mothers killed it.

Before you throw down the magazine and stomp off in a huff, let me clarify: I am all for mothers protecting their kids – just try to hurt one of mine. And I’m just as controlling as the next mom – I put up the cute decorations, sewed adorable costumes for my boys, snapped dozens of pictures, and paraded my tykes around to neighbors, friends, and family. When my kids grew old enough to choose and create their own fun, however, I let go of Halloween. It’s their holiday, not mine. Sadly, kids don’t know how to “do” Halloween anymore because we moms took it away from them. Back in the good old days, kids navigated Halloween fun by themselves. Decisions like “My Costume”, “The Chaperone-Free Zone”, “Try to Scare Me”, and “Candy Etiquette” belonged to the kids; moms only bought a couple pumpkins and a metric ton of treats. Kids wanted it that way and I say it’s time to give them back the night. In case you can’t remember – and for all the kids who never got the chance – let me remind you.

My Costume
Let your kid make his own costume; you used to. It required thought, creativity and, often, a big empty box from the grocery store or a ton of tin foil. It fell apart before you hit your curfew. I don’t know when I last saw a trick-or-treater in an obviously kid-driven, creative costume; everyone ringing my doorbell wears something that had a price tag on it the day before. Most high school kids can’t be bothered to wear any costume at all. Teenage guys throw on a rubber mask; teenage girls just wear pajamas. The lamest teen I ever saw slapped a Buffalo Bills hat on his head and went out as a “fan.” Really? I would think that any
self-respecting Bills fan would prefer to hide in shame or, at least, wear a rubber mask too. Nope, he doomed himself to epic failure and now I make fun of him for the other 364 days of the year.

The Chaperone-Free Zone
After a certain age, kids are supposed to be roaming around in the dark with their friends, not with a parent shining a flashlight on their every footstep. Don’t you remember how cool it was to be out with your buddies, at night? To come home late with a bag full of candy? Independence contributed to Halloween’s magic. Please DO guide your tiny ones around – they need you now and they won’t want you around later
– but DON’T tag along with your older kids. Deliver your “safety-in-numbers, stay away from So-and-So’s house, be home by x-hour” message and then set them free.

Try to Scare Me
Halloween is so pasteurized now that there’s no scare there. Where is that one creepy dark house in the neighborhood, the one every kid knew was haunted, the one where your friends would dare you to ring the doorbell and you’d be too frightened to do it? Kids need a little scare on Halloween; it keeps their blood flowing and warms them up on a cold night. There’s a real shortage of haunted houses in our shiny new subdivisions so, parents, this is your chance for Halloween fun…and a prime opportunity to extract some well-deserved revenge.

Now, we all know a few kids whom we just don’t like all that much. Even a kindergarten teacher on Valium would run into a couple kids that rub her the wrong way; it’s impossible to like everyone. The only woman who liked every single dwarf around her was Snow White – a subservient cartoon character with the personality of a dishrag. Think about it: it’s Halloween, a night when it’s politically correct to scare somebody. Go for it.

Wipe the horrified look off your face; I’m talking about scaring the older trick -or- treaters. I do not advocate scaring little kids. I’m talking about scaring Mr. Bully, Miss Priss and the We Do Everything Right Twins – those snotty kids that deserve a good scare. All high school kids are fair game – and if you make one of them scream, their friends will bat cleanup for you, never letting them forget that they lost their cool.

Once I’d cut the Halloween umbilical cord, I focused on scaring the bejeezus out of the older kids. Joined by a couple of like-minded moms, our annual events became legendary. We turned a darkened driveway into our creep-show stage, dressed like dead prom dates, acted like zombies, and blasted horror film music and sound effects simultaneously. The kids couldn’t resist it and we moms had a ton of fun. The kids knew who we were but we could still give them the heebiejeebies. They looked forward to a good scare and came back every year. We never had a single complaint from their parents; instead, we got a lot of thumbs up as they watched their little darlings get a real, old-fashioned Halloween fright. They remembered how Halloween used to be and I think they appreciated our effort.

Sometimes we were subtle. We delivered chills up kids’ spines by leaning a touch too far into personal space, never saying a word, and just…smelling them. Often, we were blatant and outrageous. We generated screams and wet-your pants terror by adding a bloody, shrieking teenage girl running out of the darkness, followed by a tall zombie revving a chainsaw (chain removed). We reduced high school bullies to tears. We gave the sheriff’s deputies (who always came to watch the show) a good laugh. That particular Halloween couldn’t be topped so I moved…to Midlothian. I just might drag my Goodwill gown and prepared, kids!

Candy Etiquette
There’s a right way and a wrong way to give and receive candy on Halloween. Let’s review each participant’s accountabilities: Parents, candy is the Holy Grail of Halloween, not an automatic reward for low performance. My own mom didn’t do “The Scare” but she did believe that kids should earn the candy by performing a trick, a la “trick-or-treat.” My best number was a song-and-dance routine to “I’m a Little Teapot” but I guess the “trick” tradition was discontinued in the rush to crank out the candy and get back to the television. Game 7 of the World Series is on 10/27/11 this year, so there’s no excuse to just fling the goodies at the kids; make them work for it.

Trick or No Trick, at least give them the good stuff. Go for the fun-sized candy bars; those itty-bitty half-bite things aren’t even worth unwrapping. Don’t turn your Halloween candy into family craft time – no Tootsie Pop Wrapped in a Tissue Ghosts, no cutesy treat bags with a couple Mary Jane’s and a handful of candy corn, no popcorn balls and, above all, nothing inedible. No pencils or stickers or McDonald’s coupons – they’re trashed at the end of the night. Hand the candy to the kids; don’t leave it on your front porch. Your note may be a Pollyannaish “Take One” but your real message is “I Couldn’t Care Less” and your inventory won’t last more than 10 minutes. I encountered this only one time, from a creaky old woman who left a basket full of those tiny boxes of raisins on her front step. We scoffed at it and walked away, and, at the end of the night, the basket was still full. The old bat died before the next Halloween, so we never had to deal with the Lazy Cheapskate method again. Parents, please be present on Halloween, answer your doorbell, and turn out your light when you run out of candy. Kids, have some manners, please. “Trick-or-Treat” is the proper greeting when the door opens, “Thank You” will probably get you another candy bar and “Happy Halloween” is an appropriate substitute for “Good-bye.” Don’t grab for the candy – it’s not yours until I give it to you and you can bet your sweet butt that I’ll keep it all for myself if you act like you were raised in a barn. Don’t tell me that you don’t like what I’m handing out – in this equation, the candy is the Gift Horse and I am the Mouth and, unless you’re 6 or under, I’m not giving you a choice. Keep your nut allergy diagnosis to yourself, take what you get, and move on. Or else I’ll scare you.

Listen to your parents and follow their instructions: do not eat any candy while you’re trick-or-treating. Your mom can fill you in on the unfounded urban legends about razor blades in apples or straight pins in chocolate bars but, while we really do check everything that you get before we let you eat it, we’re not looking for hazardous materials. We go through your candy so that we can set aside some of the good stuff for ourselves. When you learn how to gamble, you’ll recognize this as “the Vig.” This is why I throw a Heath Bar or an Almond Joy into a few bags – I know that your mom or dad wants it more than you do. And, if I know your dad and he (yikes) comes to my door with you, I’ll give him a beer. Halloween should be fun for everyone. So, parents, does any of this jog your memory? Don’t you want your kids to have as much fun on Halloween as you had? Let Halloween rise from the dead by giving it back to the kids instead of micromanaging it like it’s a practical application of your Ph.D. in Project Management. As Martha would say, “It’s a Good Thing!”

I wish you all a Happy, Safe, and Spooky Halloween!

8-10-2011  Michele Dixon

-EXIT LAUGHING: “Football Mom for Dummies”

My future as a Football Mom was sealed when my son was 6 months old.  The burden of carting Thomas, a grinning pudge-ball, around on my hip during a Fourth of July party was wearing me down so I handed him off to my cousin, Brian.  A graduate of an NCAA Division II school where he’d played both football and baseball, Brian is a gentle giant with a recruiter’s eye.  He hefted Thomas up and down a couple of times to gauge his size, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Shelly, if you let this kid play soccer I will kill you.”

Football was scary to me so I encouraged Tom to try other sports.  Ignoring Brian’s threat, Tom played soccer in 1st grade.  He lost all enthusiasm for the sport shortly after I kicked a soccer ball straight into his “stuff”, as he put it at the time.  We tried basketball in 5th grade.  Tom, stocky and short (then), excelled at lumbering up and down the court, displayed the ball-handling skills of a cinder block, and assumed the admirable position of “Space Heater”.

Three months after the basketball debacle, Tom announced that he wanted to play football.  I was horrified; Jim, Tom’s step-dad, was triumphant.  He shot every one of my Football Mom concerns out of the sky with constant Football Dad propaganda.  I heard “he’s not going to get hurt,” and “football will be the best thing for him,” so many times that it wore me out.  I filled out the Weaver AA form and wrote a check. Now, the things that I don’t know about the sport of football would choke a horse.  I don’t care about the technicalities and a playbook looks like hieroglyphics to me.  I do care, deeply, about retaining my sanity and I love my kid to bits so what I have learned, firsthand and from other Football Moms, may serve as a reference for the uninitiated.  I give you my perspective, a “Football Mom for Dummies”, if you will.

Football Players Stink
There is no odor more pungent than that of a football player immediately after a hot, humid August practice.  The smell will drive you backwards, away from your precious child.  And, when said precious child tells you that he’s offered a ride home to three other players, you will find yourself in hell’s foyer.  The only way to survive is by rolling down all the windows and hanging your head out.  All the way home.

Care and Feeding of the Football Player
Shortly after Tom became serious about football, his body became serious about growing.  Thomas has grown so much, so fast over the past 2 years that I once asked him if he could feel it – it’s got to hurt.  And he’s not done yet – the only real injury that we’ve faced was when he aggravated his growth plates last season.  I’d rather he still had baby teeth than active growth plates.  He’s thrilled; I’m horrified at the thought of living with the Incredible Hulk and simply try not to make him so angry that he turns green and bursts out of his clothes.  Jeans that fit him yesterday won’t fit him next month so I just let him wear shorts all the time.  Lesson learned.

If your football player is like mine, he’ll chart his growth all over your house.  Buy a fat gum eraser from an art supply store – they’re the best at erasing all the I’m-measuring-myself-again pencil marks from your door frames.  Don’t repaint your ceilings until you can either convince him that he doesn’t need to see if he can touch them today or he actually grows tired of being able to palm the damn things.  Don’t be embarrassed when your friends come over – they’re likely to be football moms, too; they understand.

A rapidly expanding kid will teach you this: there is Not Enough Food in the World.  Mealtimes now occur on a revolving 45-minute cycle and, thankfully, Tom can cook most of them for himself.  My job is to foot the bill, stock the pantry and the fridge, and keep my hands away from his mouth.  Note that football players can’t tell the difference between real Oreos and the 100-count-pack-for-a-dollar icky store-brand cookies as they never let food sit on their tongues long enough for flavors to register.  This fact is particularly handy because:

His Teammates are Your Kids, Too
They’re called a Team for a reason – you will never find a football player by himself.  Resign yourself to a house full of teenage boys who can recite the contents and chronology of every item in your pantry.  Don’t be surprised when you find yourself at Kroger, purchasing Twinkies for Luc, Salt & Pepper potato chips for Sean, and the ingredients for Coca Cola barbecue sauce to slather on chicken for Peyton.  Buy another chicken.  Pack extra granola bars in your player’s mid-practice meal because big, scary Kaash once shook him down and your growing boy needs more than dirt and hose water during a sweltering August workout.  Learn that Kaash is actually a teddy bear and use the extra granola bars to bust his chops a little.

The benefits of the team mentality are numerous.  If they’re at your house, you can see what they’re up to – if you dare to look.  If they’re not at your house, rest assured that one of their other sub-Moms has an eye on them.  Don’t call the police when you haven’t seen one of the boys for a week but don’t be surprised to find that you miss him terribly.  Know that they’re good kids, they have each other’s backs and they will police each other, when necessary.  They’re always happy to see you, are quick to give you a hug and they’ll make you laugh.  You will end up taking them with you on family vacations.

Aside from having to feed it, all that size and strength isn’t so bad to have around.  Football players will lend a hand if you need to move a heavy piece of furniture.  When you’re faced with a really messy project, you’ll have a pre-built team of burly young men who know how to work together and will do so willingly.  It will cost you 2 coolers of Gatorade and 8 feet of Jersey Mike’s subs and the smartass in the bunch will tease you about how many dry, brown Christmas trees were in the pile, but all those dead shrubs and branches and crap from your side yard will be gone and you’ll have learned some colorful new words and phrases.

Nicknames are Forever
Some of the more colorful things that you will learn are the names that football players call each other.  Those names will stick.  Forever.  Do not try to figure out why your kid got that particular nickname unless it’s something obvious or you wish you’d thought of it yourself.  Don’t feel bad when you start calling your son by his football name as you can morph that nickname into a term of endearment by, say, adding a cute little suffix to the original name.  Hence, I now call my son Titzilla, Titster, Titzenstein, Tits-a-roni, Titso…you get the picture. But try not to yell his nickname during a game.

Which brings me to:

Game Day Etiquette
You will be excited.  You will yell and cheer.  Your vocalized aggression will amaze you.  Remember how many hours you spent instructing your child to “play nice”?  It is, now, perfectly acceptable for you yell, “Hit him!” You will be uncomfortable, not because you’ve recognized a hidden tendency toward violence but because the bleachers were designed to anesthetize all the nerve endings in your butt by the middle of the first quarter.  Buy a seat cushion, preferably from the team’s merchandise table.  Buy a team-logo blanket at the beginning of the season because, while you’re sweating in September, you’ll be freezing in November.  Icy cold, hard metal bleachers are the #1 cause of football mom frostbite butt.  By the time you thaw out all the good logo blankets will be gone and you’ll look like a dork wrapped in some ratty old thing from your linen closet.  Do NOT use a leopard print Snuggie unless you want to embarrass the hell out of your son.  Do NOT bring pom poms to high school games – they were fun during rec league but nobody’s going to be looking at your pom poms now because they’re all busy looking at the girls who actually look good shaking pom poms.  Root for your team, despise the opposing team, and buy lots of merchandise and junk food from the concession stand.

Know, too, that you’ll have to volunteer some time to support the team.  Jim tells me that the Chain Gang is the best job because there is, I guess, some prestige in standing on the field, holding a stick and wearing an orange vest.  I wouldn’t know; I refuse to wear that color, ever, and women are rarely chosen for the Chain Gang.  Perhaps the guy who picks the Chain Gang thinks that women, while skilled enough to swirl a wooden spoon around a pot on a stove, aren’t talented enough to hold a stick still and upright for 15 seconds.  Whatever.  Aim for the Concession Stand – it requires more skill.  Recognize this phenomenon, though: people can stand in line for 10 minutes, watching the action inside the stand, reading the menus tacked up everywhere, and checking out what everyone else is buying.  But, as soon as you say, “What can I get for you?” they’ll either draw a blank or ask for something that you don’t have.  This is a good time to harvest the patience sowed by your kids asking “Why?” so often that you made up illogical answers.  Stay poised when helping a customer understand that “blue” is not in the list of “red, yellow, and orange” Gatorade now, nor was it in the list the first three times you told him.  Smile and apologize for not offering surf and turf on the concession stand menu.  Display your grace at all times – unless it’s Homecoming and you’re working the half-time shift, when it’s perfectly acceptable to belch and say, “I just ate the last one.”

The Highlight Reel
Your football player will recap every play of every game.  Lie through your teeth and tell him that you saw it.  Don’t try to use football slang; if you call it a pancake, he’ll tell you it was a waffle and your lie will be exposed.  Just shut up and listen…and lie.

Hall of Fame
Honor the people who have made a huge difference in his life: his coaches.  You don’t have to like them but you do have to respect them.  Appreciate the time and effort that they expend teaching your child the value gained from hard work, how to persevere in the face of adversity, and the nobility in winning – or losing – when the players respect the team and the game. We were blessed with terrific rec league coaches and they have my undying gratitude.  I am always thrilled to hear Tom address them as “Coach”, a point of pride for himself as well as for them.  It is my heartfelt wish that your son’s football experience is as overwhelmingly positive as ours has been.  Good coaches will make that happen.  I love you guys; you know who you are. Go Weaver! My family is immersed in football.  It is Tom’s love, his passion, his talent and his guide.  Tom would like it to be his future; I want whatever makes him the happiest, but, hey, I’m just his mom.  Go Midlo!

 

6-09-2011  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “The Grass Was Greener…. When I Was 8 Years Old”

How could I have done something so stupid? I am the daughter of a woman who seamlessly combined common sense with awe-inspiring style and class and a man who can figure out the most efficient way of producing any desired result. I graduated from Penn State with a 3.94 GPA and I’m halfway through completing my Master’s degree in Getting the Teenagers Out of Your House. I should be able to make informed decisions, right?

Well, apparently not. It seems that I’m still harboring a pre-teen crush and that crush caused my brains to go straight out the window. Most people get over a crush as soon as they can separate fantasy and reality. I must have been in the wrong line when they were handing out that skill, though – there’s one infatuation that still clings to my heart, blots out my intellect, and makes me ignore all the warning signs of impending doom. Disaster, thy name is…David Cassidy.

Let’s be realistic: it’s highly likely that some reader will hold your hand to your heart and swoon just a little bit. The odds are on my side – the majority of my generation watched The Partridge Family, decorated our bedroom walls with David Cassidy pictures, and can still sing all the words to “I Think I Love You”. The problem, I realize, is that most women of my generation grew up. Except for me, an admitted David Cassidy Über Fan. I went to a David Cassidy concert.  This would be forgivable if I said I was 8 years old at the time but…it was April…2011.

To clarify: I didn’t simply go to a David Cassidy concert…I actively sought out a David Cassidy concert. I planned the trip and I happily drove 300 miles to Atlantic City (Disappointment Assurance Indicator #1). I’d never seen him live before, he was within my reach, and a little disposable income will make you do dumb things. Cementing my berth in Hell, I dragged a (relatively) innocent bystander along with me. I needed the company of someone who wouldn’t throw the obvious absurdity of the adventure in my face, someone with a good sense of humor, someone who would stick by me like Lancelot to King Arthur. Choosing a victim was easy for me.

I have a friend; we’ll call her “Barbie,” who exceeds these qualifications. We work in the same department and bonded immediately over our independent observations of the freakishly large size of Troy Aikman’s hands and a shared appreciation for Zac Efron’s abs. Barbie is a stunning woman unhindered by ego, as nice as can be, and funnier than she realizes. I consider it my personal Olympic sport to scribble down things she says that, when taken out of context, are absolutely filthy; I have an entire notebook page of Barbieisms and torture her by quoting them back to her. My project-from-hell was winding down just as hers was ramping up so I figured she was ripe for a road trip. I pounced.

Now, Barbie says she’s a David Cassidy fan. I believe her, even though she consistently misidentifies the song “Bandala” as “Bandaleea” and didn’t even know which episode it was in (the block party at the Detroit firehouse, co-starring Lou Gossett, Jr. and Richard Pryor). Her enthusiasm over the trip made her watery fan status a flaw that I could live with – like a true Apostle, she believed wholeheartedly in me, even if her faith in the quest would waver. And when I warned her that, “What happens in Atlantic City…will end up in this column”, she didn’t bat an eye.

After I had Barbie on my side, I told my husband about my plan.  It is a credit to his generosity for immediately offering to “sponsor” Barbie and me but I also recognized the oh-dear-God-don’t-make-mego look on his face just before he handed me his Amex. I love him completely and understand that he (barely) tolerates the tuneless, painful renditions of Partridge Family songs that come out of my mouth when I’ve got my iPod headphones on. Asking him to sit through a David Cassidy concert would constitute a violation of the marital Geneva Convention. Barbie and I headed into the swamps of Jersey early on a Saturday morning. An easy traveling companion, her only necessity was easy access to Starbucks and issued only one demand: we had to stop at a Roy Rogers’ restaurant. She was adamant that it be a Roy Rogers because, if I got to realize my pre-teen dream of being in the same room as David Cassidy, she was going to relive her teenage days as a Dale Evans-ish burger-slinging buckaroo.

Now, I haven’t been to Atlantic City – Las Vegas’ trashy stepsister – since the 1980s when the city’s excess was appropriate to the era. The city is still as tacky as it ever was, the ocean is still a dead gray color, and the crowd has changed – everywhere we looked, we saw creative interpretations of the Snooki look. I can chunk down an order of fried pickles but I can’t rock the Bumpit hair and bad taste in clothes. To compensate, I troweled on  another layer of eye makeup before heading off to see David, Live and In the Flesh (Disappointment Assurance Indicator #2). David Cassidy was…bad. The show, the live experience of David Cassidy, was…pathetic. Painfully melodramatic, he acted out the lyrics with over-rehearsed histrionics, flinging his arms out on the final beat of the songs as though crucified and generally behaved like a tired exaggeration of a rock and roll star turned Lounge Lizard. A Miss America contestant singing about a dying puppy would be more believably sincere. Too embarrassed to get up and leave, Barbie and I cringed in shame and squirmed in our seats like two half-dead fish flopping around on the deck of the SS What The Hell Are We Doing Here? Adding insult to injury, I discovered that we were probably the only two people who had actually paid to see this train wreck. The theater was full but, as the older couple at our table explained, the sold-out show was most likely produced by the casino comping tickets to frequent gamblers. That explained the unlikely senior citizen demographic but also made me feel like a fool. When I explained that I’d also driven up from Virginia for this torture, our table mates scooted their chairs a little bit further away from me, just in case my stupidity germ was contagious.

I think Cassidy was brainwashed sometime over the past 40 years. I bought all the fan magazines when I was young and not only believed every word that was written about him but believed that he was the one who wrote those “David’s Personal Love Letter to YOU” items that I’d tear through, searching for the name “Michele”. Cassidy, it appeared, had finally drunk the Kool Aid that his publicity machine fed to me decades ago. He committed the ultimate ell-out by climbing into the very caricature that he hated. I’ve read both of his  autobiographies, hell, I own both of his autobiographies; he vehemently denounces the Keith Partridge image and whines about never being taken seriously as an actor or singer. (I have to ask; which is more idiotic, writing two autobiographies or buying both of them? Who’s laughing now?) Still, I wanted him to be the Cassidy of my youth and, when I sat there with my eyes closed, he was. When I opened my eyes…he was a little old guy sporting a crew cut and too many plastic surgeries. And he was wearing– not jeans, not khakis, not even slacks, but shiny trousers of 100% synthetic fibers, a pair of Sansabelt pants for scrawny old men. And black loafers. Really…who imagines their teen idol in polyester pants and dress shoes? I think he could charge more for tickets if he wore that blue velvet tunic suit…I’m just saying…but I would have paid more to see them so I’m probably not the best judge.

Overlooking the fact that he overlooked some of the lyrics, his voice was still good – but I wanted to hear the songs exactly the way they were originally recorded, not the new hip-hop arrangements that he played. I didn’t want the songs to be different. I didn’t want him to be different and I didn’t want him to be old. I forgot that I’d become different and old(er), too. He closed the show with “I Think I Love You” and, thankfully, he sang it straight and true. I kept my eyes closed.

Barbie and I raced out of there as soon as the lights came up; Cassidy doesn’t do encores and we were scared of the creepy guy sitting behind us, a Cassidy fan more über than I who tore into Barbie when she snickered at Cassidy’s dance moves. More than anything, we needed a drink, badly. Slumped against a casino lounge bar, we listened to a husband/wife lounge act, taped music but decent pipes, and tried hard not to look at each other. Tellingly, witnessing the slow death of my David Cassidy dream was less disturbing than the sight of the lounge act’s #1 fan – a dancing guy whose lolling tongue and tripping feet were moving to 2 entirely different beats. Hey, at least this guy meant it. We slunk back to the Trump Plaza, drained of any energy to do more than shovel some mediocre food into our stomachs and fall asleep. By the next morning, we could laugh about  the experience – but it was the kind of laughter punctuated by a little sympathetic headshake. Thankfully, Barbie hasn’t held the experience against me but I’m sure she doesn’t want to hear Partridge Family tunes coming out of my cubicle any time soon. Frankly, I couldn’t listen to it either – it just served to remind me that my fantasy tasted better than the reality I was served. The grass was greener when I was 8 years old, when I was too innocent to be this dumb. Next time I want to pluck at my heartstrings, I’ll pull out a picture of my husband, circa 1976. His shag haircut is vintage David; he’s wearing a snap-front Huckapoo shirt and only needs a pooka shell necklace to complete the image that I used to crave.

And I’d like to thank a friend, a real guy’s guy, for owning up to having had such a powerful crush on Susan Dey that he wrote her a fan letter. I found my vindication in the dreamy look on his face when he admitted this to me – he looked just like me. Stan, if she ever comes to Richmond, I’m sure that Jim will buy you a ticket!

 

4-01-2011  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “Desperately Seeking Serenity”

What image does the word “yoga” conjure up for you? Wholesome participants bathed in low light, gently stretching their muscles and oozing saintly tranquility while pan-flute music plays softly in the background and an orchid-sandalwood aromatherapy candle flickers softly under a tall bamboo plant? Yeah, me too. Even the word is cool – it drifts out of your mouth like a sigh,”Yohh-gahhh.”  Yoga sounds pretty good, right? That’s what I thought, too – until I failed at it. Yes, I admit it: I Flunked Yoga. To understand how I bombed at yoga, you need to know that I, like every other adult woman, have too much stuff going on in my daily life. I have a husband, two teenage boys, two dogs, three cats, one house, some gardens, and a job – all of whom demand my attention. Well, maybe not the cats; they only need me for food. Come to think of it, that’s all my sophomore wants from me, too; he just wants so darn much of it, so frequently. Anyway, I’ve always been good at multi-tasking and life was humming along just fine – until a work project blew my priorities all to pieces and shot my stress level through the roof.

Now, I’m an intelligent person. I know that, along with the physical benefits, regular exercise can help to relieve stress. I am, however, fairly particular about what I will and will not do, especially when “do” is something that’s “done” in front of other people. I refuse to move my body, in public, in a manner in which it ripples, jiggles, or approaches any kind of slapping noise. I do not possess the tender feminine ability to perspire; I sweat, and nobody needs to see that. Also, I prefer to have a guarantee of success in advance of expending any effort. Use these prerequisites to search a database of potential fitness formats and “Yoga” pops up. Yoga’s slow, deliberate movements ruled out the possibility of violent jiggling and sweat. I didn’t need to purchase expensive equipment, as (sadly) yoga required neither shopping for, nor the purchase of, shoes. And I never imagined that I would not succeed at yoga. Yoga makes me think of Mahatma Ghandi and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and I’m pretty sure that I could kick either of their butts; it’s not like I was going to be pitted against that scary-aggressive Jillian Michaels from the Biggest Loser TV show. I Googled around for a local studio, found an open spot in a Monday evening class, and signed myself up.

Let me make this perfectly clear: Yoga did not fail me; I failed Yoga. Yoga is a gentle way to add flexibility to an (aging) body that rides a desk all day. The focus on maintaining a rhythmic connection between breath and movement tunes your mind-body harmony and devotees often liken the result to a spiritual journey. That’s how yoga works – for Yoga People. When I spouted this information to my husband, he busted up laughing. Smart man – he knows that the closest I ever get to serenity is in the 5 minutes between “I have to lie down” and “The bed is spinning”, after I drink a third glass of wine. While he supported my crack at becoming a Yoga Person, he also correctly predicted that my high-strung nature and penchant for sarcasm would impede whatever amount of inner peace I sought. No amount of stubborn determination to prove him wrong would, ultimately, prevent me from proving him right.

I am not a Yoga Person. Yoga’s gentle stretching left me feeling like I’d been strapped to one of Torquemada’s racks during the Spanish Inquisition. My hamstrings seized up years ago; they’re never coming back and they delivered that message with the speed and burn of lightning bolts. My thigh muscles, held in a lunge, would start to ache, grow to a tremble and, finally, accelerate into a shake so violent that the rest of the class had to believe that a freight train was thundering under the floorboards. Getting into a particular pose was not the problem; staying in the pose was, however, agony and getting my butt back out of the pose is best not discussed at all. “Grace” is not my middle name.

Even my wee-tiny muscles had trouble with yoga. My feet, released from high-heeled captivity, would cramp terribly, each toe heading off in a different, painful direction just when I needed their assistance for something trivial like, say, standing up. I had to scramble to avoid taking everyone else down like a row of Lycra-clad dominoes. I felt like a deranged vulture clinging to a wispy tree branch during a hurricane. And thank you, dear BFF, for naming this affliction “Down Toe” – the laughter that filtered through my tears was priceless. My mind, unwilling to finish the yoga race second to my pathetic muscles, worked overtime to help sabotage my success. Random thoughts like “I am getting a wedgie” or “My sports bra just gave up” would smack my self-confidence. Each class included at least one pose that left me channeling Beavis and Butthead and, too often, a pimply teenage “Huh-huh” tumbled out of my mouth. Cut me a break; if you lived in a deep pool of testosterone for as long as I have, you’d do it, too. A continuous loop of mental to-do lists prevented my ability to “chill”, as my kids often implore. Class ended with total inactivity, splayed on our backs, relaxed and focused on our recent yoga-shepherded spiritual journey. Well, yoga was no match for my mental GPS; my spiritual journeys resembled a Christmas Eve day spent running errands up and down a gridlocked Midlothian Turnpike. My mind was incapable of embracing stillness and, instead, feverishly scuttled about, scolding me for wasting precious time by lying on the floor and doing nothing more intelligent that breathing.

Just as a leopard can’t change its spots, I could not become a Yoga Person. My comprehensive failure at Tranquility 101 was clear when the voice in my head derailed my concentration during a guided meditation, with the thought: “The kids have ruined your good chef’s knife.” I wasn’t floating along on a gentle wave and I wasn’t feeling the warm sand under my feet. On the contrary, I was thinking about a large, lethal, Michael-Meyers’-Halloween-Weapon-of-Choice. What could possibly be farther from the achieving tranquility through yoga? I knew I had to give up. I also knew that I could put my re-enrollment money toward a good Wusthof. Like John and Yoko, I’ll give peace a chance – later, when my work-life balance feels more like a set of cotton candy scales gently leveling out instead of a teeter-totter ride with a fat kid who hates my guts. Until then, I’ll plug away at what needs to get done, count on my husband to pick up the slack around the house (and try remember to thank him more often for doing that), and yell every human or animal name in our house until I hit on the right one for the kid standing in front of me. Late at night, when no one needs me to do anything for them, I’ll down that third glass of wine and practice my new favorite activity: Speed Sleeping.

2-01-2011  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “My Son is a Wuss”

Dear Son: While it remains my intent to support your individuality and provide to you an environment that encourages self-assurance, I fear that some aspects of my parenting – in both action and communication – have been less than truthful. It is time, then, to set the record straight and to confess my concern for your future.

Recent events, which I cannot ignore, contribute to my growing sense of alarm regarding your perception of the world and the degree of comfort to which you believe you are entitled. As I endeavor to facilitate your full comprehension of the gravity of my concern, I will state my case clearly and directly, using the vernacular wherever decorum permits. Now is the time for your ever-loving mother to be brutally honest with you: You are a Wuss. We received an inch and a half of snow on December 16 – and you spent hours the night before asking me if your school would close.

The official announcement arrived before dinner, which you took as license to roam about the house all night, playing video games and tromping up and down the stairs for snacks. Your maneuvers kept your step-dad and me, who both had to report to work in the morning, in a perpetual state of wakefulness. And for what? For an inch and a half of snow…that also closed school on the 17th. Kid, you’re not living in the real world. The real world, a la when I was in high school, meant that nothing short of a blizzard would close the schools. You  woke up to six inches of snow on the ground and, after listening to a long list of school names on the radio, you were lucky to get a one-hour delay. Then you trudged to the bus stop – a real bus stop, not the kind that’s at the end of your driveway – and stood there. Your mother didn’t drive you a tenth of a mile and you didn’t sit in her car, warm and dry. You bundled up in a hat and gloves and you stood there and waited. If you’d gone to my school, you stood there in plaid polyester skirt and ugly blue shoes because the nuns would give you a demerit if you showed up in blue jeans and boots. The good news was that you didn’t have to worry if your ears froze – you could hear the bus coming from a mile away because the school district’s nod to safety was to slap some chains on the bus tires and let ‘er rip. Once you got on the bus, the nonstop droning noise from the chains made it impossible to have a conversation with your friends. The noise literally ruined your brain for the rest of the day… think of it as riding inside a huge yellow metal vuvuzela.

Before you remind me that I grew up in Pennsylvania, where an inch and a half of snow isn’t even acknowledged, let me point out that my school never closed, not for any amount of snow. The nuns who taught me lived right up the hallway from the classrooms; they never had to set a foot outside and they expected you to show up come hell or high water. The only way I got a snow day was if the public school district who owned the bus I rode on closed – and I was still responsible for the next day’s homework because my school stayed open. How’d you like THEM apples?

Speaking of homework: what’s up with your curriculum? Why do you get to be exempt from exams for having a B? Where I come from, if you were in the class, you took the exam no matter how well you were doing for the  semester. We didn’t have a reduced schedule, either. We had one or two days of classes and exams combined, all day long. We also didn’t have the atrocity known as “No-Fear Shakespeare”, we read and were expected to understand Shakespeare the way he wrote it. There’s definitely something wuss-like in your need to see, “Yo, Romeo! Where you at?” to understand classical literature. Here’s some literature that I expect you to understand: those sticky-notes that I put on the walls above the  thermostats? They say, “Do Not Touch.” If you’re cold, put on a sweatshirt or, better yet, put some pants on; shorts are for summer months. Stop jacking up the temperature in our house to sub-Saharan levels. Dominion Virginia Power is adding me to their “Super Best Customer” list and Columbia Gas is planning a party in my honor – because you can’t wear a normal, seasonal amount of clothes. Try some layers, you cream puff.

If you can’t understand the cause-and- effect relationship between your desire to sweat and my need to stick to a budget, I can sing it to you. You probably won’t get the connection, though, unless it appears on YouTube or is available to download from iTunes. Technology has increased your wuss-quotient, too. Try this on for size: save your dollar-a-week allowance until you can afford to buy the $7.99 album. Tape a penny to the tone arm of your stereo because the album skips from over-playing or has scratches from your trying to land it on the beginning of a track. And don’t complain that the football game you want to watch is not televised when you can stream it live on our computer. How would you like to live in a world that has only three TV channels and a UHF channel that you only got when the wind blew in the right direction? You’ve never experienced the terror of the nightly test pattern – the playing of the national anthem followed by the complete loss of all TV signals. You are weak, kid.

I apologize for the part I played in making you so wimpy. Like every generation before me, I want you to have a better life, a life rich with the experiences and opportunities that I did not have. I’m afraid that, by trying to make your life better, I made it too easy. It’s not too late to change, though. I love you too much to allow you to wallow in your wimpiness any longer. While I can’t stop the forward march of progress, I can make sure you feel the pinch of personal enterprise. Go shovel the driveway.

 

12-10-2010  Michele Dixon

EXIT LAUGHING: “Brain Dump”

My first-day-on-the-new-job jitters created some interesting thought-soup during the drive in this morning. Previously, my morning commute thoughts were a sort of mental to-do list, a pep talk for the day, and a mad scramble to try to remember the great idea I’d had in the shower – I swear there’s some chemical in shampoo that makes me think better.

This morning’s drive was entirely different and actually led to me thinking, “I gotta write this stuff down. It’s a record of my mental decline.” A passenger in my brain – or in the car, capturing my too-frequent audibles – would’ve heard this:

“It’s pretty bright at 8:45. You can’t see the deer jumping out at you at 5:30; 8:45 is pretty cool. “Note: my start-time today was 9:30, it was 6 am at my previous job.

“I wonder if there will be traffic on I-64.”  “These pants will fit great 5 pounds from now.”  “I sounded just like Thom Yorke on that line. Creep is a great song”  “When my brother had long hair, he looked like a blonde Anthony Kiedis.”  “I’ve only got one bottle of wine left at home.”  “Push the fader, gifted animator, one for the now and eleven for the later…”  “This bra is going to annoy me by noon.”  “Push the skinny pedal, dude!”  “I hate this radio station.”  “I’m going to be late. I should’ve left earlier.”

“What if I hate the people I work with? What if they hate me?”  “Aw, geez! It’s a chicken truck. These chickens are late!”  Note: there’s a Tyson plant nearby. I used to encounter these towering 18-wheelers loaded with cages of chickens at least 3 times a week, at o’dark o’clock – a bit of fun that I was looking forward to doing without”

“I wonder if my boss will be able to hear my squeaky shoe over the clack-clack of my heels.”  “Is there an accelerator in that piece of crap Chrysler or are you missing all the toes on your right foot?”  “Geez – looks like a pillow fight in the slow lane.”  “I wish I was still in my pajamas. No I don’t.”  “Pass the (bleeping) Chicken Truck already!”  “Those chickens are filthy!”  “OK, what do all these people know that I don’t know? Why are they all doing the speed limit?”  “Def Leppard are all really old now.” Note: this is when I realized that I was losing my mind. “Get OUT of my lane!” “State Trooper hiding in the trees in the median – so THAT’s why everyone is doing the speed limit.”

“I always miss this exit.”  “My feet are starting to hurt already.”  “I get hysterical, hysteria, oh can you feel it…”  “That guy’s listening to the same radio station. No way I look that stupid singing in the car.”  “Dammit! I missed the exit.”  “My stomach is going to start growling in a half hour. Everyone will hear it.”  “I’m not cooking dinner tonight.”  “What should I wear to work tomorrow?” “BIG pothole.”  “When is it my turn to turn?”

“No way everyone in this lot is a visitor. Employees must be parking here illegally.”  “Where are my Altoids?”  “I’m 15 minutes early. Now what?”   So, I lit a cigarette – who’s going to tell me that I smell like smoke, I work for Marlboro for God’s sake – pulled a notebook and a pen from my tote bag and scribbled down what had been running through my head. I think I may need medication. This is an awful lot for a brain to race through during what turned out to be a 20-minute drive.  And my husband thinks we should carpool; he’s in for a treat!