Monday, November 18, 2013

The Grand Canyon of Enhanced Communication

The Grand Canyon of Enhanced Communication   
                The past few months I have been aware of how difficult it is to communicate. That is a broad generalization. But think abut it. How often have you been misunderstood by family and friends, those with whom you share like history and like interests. In my case, usually I didn't ask a pertinent question. Or I made an assumption. Or I did not check to see if we both meant the same thing by a particular word.
            I think long and hard about communication. I'm headed to a different country, one in which I will be the stranger, the minority, without adequate language. I won't know the rules. You know the rules I mean--the unwritten ones. Thinking about it too much gives me heart palpitations.
            Those thoughts lead me to consider a normal everyday communication tool, one which has been "enhanced" to make life (for somebody else--not me) easier. The telephone. Here is a typical instance.
            AAA, of which I have been a member for years, has an entire turkey platter of services. I have happily paid my annual fee and have only used emergency road service and that infrequently. But it dawned on me that I needed a raft of maps for my trip. I was vaguely aware they also helped with route information and such stuff. I decided to check them out.
            I started where anyone would start. I phoned the local AAA office nearest me, a mere hour's drive away. Riiiinnng. Riiiinnng. Riiiinnng.
            Automated answering: You have reached the Bremerton office of AAA. We are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. Please listen carefully to the following eight (I kid you not) options before making your selection.
            So I did. I listened to all eight options and knew that the right one for me was to choose “0” for operator, in hopes of talking to a real live person.
            “O” was an obvious good choice. The automated voice continued. This time I only had to listen carefully to the following four options before making my selection.
            My choice the second time was “0” for operator.
            This time the service rang through, someone picked up and immediately hung up. Was it something I said? Do I have bad breath?
            I'm stubborn. Again, I finger-walked through the routine. Again I chose “0” and “0”. Someone picked up and immediately hung up but not before i heard the first syllable and a half of a greeting from a live voice.            
            Now my dander was up. I gritted my teeth and I once more pushed “0” and “0”. Once more the service rang through with the same lack of result.
            Calmly, very calmly, dangerously calmly, I sorted through my options, chose “0” and “0”. Heather answered. By this time I was so relieved to hear a human live person that my side of the conversation went something like this:
            "Heather, so nice to hear your voice. How's the family? Uh, huh. Tsk. Tsk. How is your mother dealing with this? Is she okay? And the kids, doing well in school? No. Well, remember, this is the rebellious age for him. I'm sure you've given him a strong foundation and he will come through and be a fine young man. And your husband? Out of work, you say. Encourage him to spread his net wide. Something will come up. Hard times do not last forever. Me? Oh, me. I'm driving to Mexico and I need maps. I'm crossing the border in Arizona. I prefer secondary roads where possible. You can help me? Oh, thank you. You take care now, you hear."
            Heather had asked me to come on down to the office. She had arranged for me to receive an assortment of maps which included every state I might possibly drive through, a wonderful huge map of Mexico, and a detailed 104 page trip guide which even points out stretches of road construction.
            Not that road construction can be avoided. I'll be driving through vast empty land with few towns of note. I'm giving myself plenty of time. When I have to stop and wait for gravel trucks and road graders and oilers, I will have maps to study. And if the wait time drags out too long, I can always phone Heather at the AAA office in Bremerton and chat a while.
            With my superior communication skills and stubborn ways, I'm sure I will be okay in Mazatlan. See what rewards a little persistence gave me with only four phone calls?
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
November 7, 2013

Mall Madness at Kiddie Playland

Mall Madness at Kiddie Playland  

     I will do anything to avoid any mall in any large city. I don't know what possessed me to suggest the mall. It was a nice day. My five-year-old granddaughter Lexi and I could have hung out on the waterfront.

     For twenty-five years I had lived within ten miles of the Silverdale Mall. Frequently two or three years would pass without me needing to mall shop. But I wished to buy one more thing for my trip. A store there carried the exact underwear I wanted.

     There is a "playland" center at the mall next to the Food Court where small kids can hang out while Mom or Dad dash into a store for that essential something-or-other. I figured Lexi could enjoy playing while we waited for her father. We three had plans for our day. He had phoned to let me know he would be late.

     Mind you, I had never paid attention to this or any other play center. I'm truly a novice at taking a grandchild to the mall to "play". When my own children were small I never once said, "Let's go play at the mall!" Perhaps even now they are spending thousands of dollars in therapy due to my benign neglect.

     This particular playland has a sea theme. That makes sense with the bay a half-dozen blocks away. So the play toys include a submarine, a whale, a sea monster, starfish, a boat, an "underwater" cave and other vaguely fishy objects. A low wall with a seating area for parents surrounds and defines the area. There is one entrance and hence, one exit.

     Lexi hit the entrance running, her shoes flew off her feet, and she clambered atop the submarine, jumped down, ran circles around, into, through, over, under and out of every obstacle, leaping from high onto the padded deck wherever possible.

     I picked up Lexi's shoes, and inched my way through the entrance and sat at the edge. I wanted assurance I could make a quick get-away if necessary. There were perhaps a dozen children of various ages playing, all at full tilt. I tried to track Lexi around, into, through, over, under and out of the maze. The motion made me feel slightly sick to my stomach.

     Within minutes, it seemed the play center  held two hundred writhing, leaping, flying creatures. I know that is not accurate. It seemed that way.

     The youngsters ranged in age from a tiny girl just barely able to walk who climbed up the back of a knobby sea monster and slid down, back up, then down for a solid hour with the help of her bigger brother, to three or four kids who were entirely too old to be playing on this equipment. The older ones didn't stay long.

     The whole scene reminded me of a model of an atom with the sub-atomic electrons, protons and neutrons whirling and twirling like dervishes. I found myself holding my breath, afraid Lexi was in danger of losing life or limb or, worse, of the whole center exploding in a nuclear cloud of smoke.

     All I could figure is that there must be an unspoken code, rules that these children are encoded with at birth. I saw not one collision. Not one accident. I could see no discernible pause or pattern. Believe me, there should have been tangled limbs, blood and mayhem. Well, to my eyes, there was mayhem.

     By the time Ben arrived I was a wreck. My stomach was in knots. I had a headache. My last nerve had exited an hour earlier. Lexi was fine.

     I would rather bungee jump into the Grand Canyon, parachute over the Himalayas, or swim shark infested waters than take a grandchild to the mall play center.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 31, 2013

Ken's Portable Yard Sale and Other World Class Wonders

                        Ken's Portable Yard Sale and Other World Class Wonders

            "Ken's Portable Yard Sale and Sushi" read the sandwich board propped along the street where Highway 2 slowed down through one of those small burgs past Spokane headed west. You won't see that on the interstate. I slowed down t to a rolling stop. The vintage Ford pick-up, possibly early 50's, spiffed up with turquoise house paint, was parked alongside an empty store-front. A suspect mattress flopped upright against the wall. A push mower, various tools, a brown recliner and sundry household goods were arranged helter-skelter. I've no idea where the sushi was, probably in a cooler on ice on the passenger side of the bench seat in the truck.

            Even as much as I have been craving sushi, I wasn't about to sample Ken's. I  looked, waved, grinned and moved on.

            Davenport has a motel in which each room is sparkling, cheerful and deliberately decorated in 1950's camp. Delightful! I know because I stayed there once. I hope nothing has changed I would like to stay there again. On that late night about five yeas ago, no restaurants were open But I walked across the highway to Safeway for an adequate deli salad, fruit and chocolate. I passed up the Safeway sushi also.

            Coulee City has a drive-in diner with twenty six flavors of soft serve ice cream.  The diner was closed when I drove through on Saturday afternoon or I would have had to try several flavors. Well, I had not had lunch. I like ice cream.

            Several years ago I left memories in Coulee City. My friend Kathy and I were driving from Harlem to Seattle. We pulled into town for breakfast in an old hotel, served in what once had been the bar. Two elderly gents (long white beards and cob webs in their hair) were playing chess. They may still be there. The woman who waited tables--and also cooked the meals--must have been pressed into service when the usual waitress, who maybe had danced on the tables at the real bar around the corner that previous night, hadn't shown up. (We made up excuses for our breakfast server's bitter attitude.) Kathy and I talked it over. We had a full tank of gas. We had full stomachs. So we kept out just enough cash to cross on the ferry from Seattle to the Olympic peninsula. We dumped the contents of our wallets onto the table, and left our sour-puss waitress with an eighty-seven dollar tip, just to change her mood. Kathy and I giggled about that for years. We wanted so badly to sneak back to see her reaction when she picked up her tip. I think of that morning every time I drive through Coulee City.

            In terms of obsolete high school team mascots, the Waterville Shockers would be a match for the Chinook Sugarbeeters. Sugarbeets have not been grown in the Milk River Valley since I was in school a "fur piece" back in the last century. None of the present generation of Waterville youngsters has seen a field with shocked wheat. We small towns celebrate our history. By the way, when did you last see a genuine blue pony?

            Waterville also has an architecturally wonderful hotel, beautifully restored. I stopped to get  a room but Saturday night the hotel was full. I drove on to Cashmere where I have another favorite place to stay. Had there not been a cancellation just minutes before I walked in the door, I would have been out of luck. The gentleman at the desk said every room from Wenatchee to Steven's Pass was booked. The sun had set. I gratefully paid the extortionist rate. As I lugged my bag up to my room I noticed a bevy of young girls in Bavarian costume. Hello--October. Every town along the way was in full swing Oktoberfest.

            Sunday morning I drove from sunshine and a vivid palette of turning-leaf colors, everywhere a calendar picture, across Steven's Pass to grays, greens and fog. I boarded two mini-cruise ships, the Washington State Ferries, from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island and across from Coupeville to Port Townsend and my friend Vidya.

            Today Vidya and I mulled over a rack of paint chips and I had small pots of paints mixed. While still in Harlem, I had blotted out the business logo on my van, leaving large fields of red. I had wanted to replace the logo with something, flowers or landscape or something but hadn't time before leaving. Finally I settled on a simple woven basket design. The circus colors I chose have transformed my van into a gypsy wagon. I like it. If I get lost on the next phase of my journey, I'll be easy to find.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
October 24, 2013

From Fish to Furniture--The Three Day Rule

From Fish to Furniture--The Three Day Rule

I try to be cognizant of the three day rule when I am a guest, whether I'm visiting with friends or family. After three days, fish or guest, one stinks. One notices the speculative eyeball, "When do you think she'll leave?"

There is a slight difference when one is a paying guest, such as I am at the hotel in Hot Springs where I spend hours each day soaking in steaming pools, sleeping, reading, and healing.  Just this morning when I was warming a chair in front of the fireplace, a young man who works here, Willy, I believe his name is, asked, "You still here?"

The day I arrived I committed to three days. One or two would not be enough so surely three would be perfect. However, the second day I found myself thinking about leaving and a mild state of panic set in. Not real panic but pseudo-panic, which feels the same. So I added another day. Then I asked for yet another day, or maybe two--no, let me see the calendar. So will my room be available for another week? Aw, let's just run my stay through a full two weeks. 

So the first three days I am indeed a guest, rather pampered with my needs catered to by the cheerful staff.

Day four segues into an interesting blend of being a guest and being family.  Definitely, I am family the rest of the first week.  I help myself to coffee.  I know where the pot sits on the burner beneath the coffee maker. When I need fresh towels, I know which staff is doing house-keeping this day. Silverware is wrapped comfy in a roomy napkin in the basket on the table around the corner.  I helped a guest get some this morning at breakfast.

Now and then, someone checks to see if I need anything. But mostly we have short conversations. They know my name. I am getting to know them.

And like with any blended family, tasks are shared. The woman taking reservations might also be waiting tables in the dining room, two phones stuffed inside her apron pockets. The maintenance man doubles as the breakfast chef. Job descriptions at the hotel must be either a nightmare of paperwork or everyone simply signs up to do whatever task needs doing. See what I mean--family.

After the first week I feel like furniture, quite comfortable perched in my corner, ignored by everyone. Any day now I expect to be dusted as 'house-keeping' makes the rounds, especially if I've already been to the hot pool and am sitting immobile in my favorite chair before the fire, seemingly comatose but actually in perfect imitation of a Zen meditative state.

I will leave eventually, honestly, I will. Saturday I will be on my way to Washington, happy to have use of my phone once more. Oh, dear, the maintenance man is coming my way with two light bulbs and a lampshade. Oh, dear, do you suppose . . .

            Sondra Ashton
            HDN: Looking out my back door
            October 17, 2013