The Volunteer, Part 1: Scalloped Potatoes

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Last year at this time I was experiencing some down-time at work and was able to help out at Elizabeth’s class Thanksgiving potluck party. This was a first, since until that time, my responsibilities creating important looking spreadsheets at work and pretending to be a subject matter expert on those spreadsheets had never permitted me to participate in any of my kids’ school activities.

Fortunately Elizabeth viewed my volunteering as a special treat and not a necessary evil. This is certainly only because she is still several years away from her metamorphosis into a disgruntled teenager. My attendance at the Thanksgiving party would definitely be a special treat for me too, since I would finally have the opportunity to observe my child interacting in the wild with an entire herd of her species. For optimal tracking and observation purposes, I wondered if I should tranquilize her and tag her ear before setting her free at the school gates that morning.

As much as I was looking forward to this event, however, I couldn’t help but feel a certain panic as the date approached. Since I spent my days in the corporate world, I was frighteningly unfamiliar with any aspect of the human condition that took place outside my office building on weekdays between the hours of 8am and 5pm. (With the one exception of the El Pollo Loco drive-thru during lunch hour.) As a result, I found myself intimidated by what would be my certain inferiority as a volunteer.

For those of you without school age children, there is much more parental volunteering these days than when I was growing up in the 70’s. Every classroom at my kids’ school has at the very minimum a room parent, a reading parent, an art parent , a few paper-correcting parents and a handful of other parents that help out with other odd tasks as needed, show up at all the school events and know everyone. When you think about it, it seems like a lot of staff for the teachers to manage; on the plus side, at least they don’t have to do performance reviews for these folks.

Volunteers for most of these roles are solicited during Back to School Night at the beginning of the year, and every year on that evening, my husband and I look at the sign-up sheets in awe of all the names of parents able to make these commitments. (Then we feel terrible about ourselves and go home and drink).

It looked like I would finally be able to put the bottle of Jack Daniels down and join in the fun.

On the day of the party I arrived at the designated time and tried to gulp down my fear as I entered the classroom. At the teacher’s direction, parents were setting up serving stations at the kids’ desks. Someone handed me a bowl of homemade scalloped potatoes and a serving spoon. The next thing I knew, the signal was given and the herd began making its way down the food line. I quickly noticed that the wildebeests..uh kids..were strategically bypassing the healthy obstacles on their way to anything primarily made of chocolate.

My maternal instincts kicked in. There was no way I was going to let this group stampede by the nutritious dishes to feed only on sugar. Resisting the urge to tackle them and force vegetables onto their plates, I instead took the approach of a carny, encouraging them to step right up and try the creamiest, cheesiest , most delectable potatoes ever created. I had no idea who actually made the potatoes or what they tasted like, but it didn’t matter. The mom in me was determined to get some vitamins into these kids. At that moment, in my mind, unless  you were lactose-intolerant, you were eating scalloped potatoes.

My potato sales pitch went well, and as I surveyed the empty casserole dish, I realized that volunteering wasn’t scary. It was just about being a parent. Maybe I should rephrase that sentiment; being a parent is scary, but volunteering doesn’t add any incremental terror.

As I digested this enlightenment, I heard a voice ring out. “Anyone want to volunteer to do the class art lessons?”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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The Office Dodo Bird is Not Extinct

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When I visit one of my company’s other locations, the only available desks in my department’s allocated territory are located in dimly lit cubicles around the corner and down at the end of the hall, in an area I affectionately refer to as the Dungeon. In keeping with its name, the Dungeon is devoid of plant life or natural light, is decorated in a drab gray / dirty beige color-scheme that is best described as “office camouflage” and, until recently, had no telephone connectivity for visitors.

When I first found myself relegated to the Dungeon, having been displaced from the office I usually occupied by more important people, I did not immediately notice anything odd. Like any other morning, I settled in with my cup of coffee and began reading through e-mails, which usually consisted of a mix of industry news and internal communications from IT explaining why the data I had requested was impossible to provide.

As I moved on to the next phase of my morning, deciding on whether to throttle IT or proceed to a less controversial task like writing a report, I noticed a strange sound emanating from the other side of the cubicle wall. Click, click, click, BZZZZ, click, click, click, BZZZZ. As quickly as it had started, it ended. I looked around to see if any of my adjacent Dungeon-mates had noticed; they were busily typing away, unaware of anything out of the ordinary. Concluding it must be nothing, I went back to drafting my strategy to prevail over my IT archnemesis (which was much more fun than report writing).

Approximately half an hour later, just as I was taking off my office avenger mask and moving on to less sinister duties, I heard it again…click, click, click, BZZZZ, click, click, click, BZZZZ. What in the world was that? The mysteriousness of it was going to drive me insane. I nudged my colleague Brenda. Sure enough, this time she had heard it as well and was equally puzzled.

I decided it was time to gather some intelligence. I rose from my chair and walked slowly over to the nearby photocopier, stealthily surveying the area from which the sound had originated. What I saw stopped me dead in my tracks, for it was more stupefying than anything I had imagined…it was an artifact from decades long gone; something I had heard tales of but never actually observed in the corporate wild.

My mouth went dry. Could it be true? I adjusted my glasses for a better look. Yes, indeed; to my left, on the other side of the cubicle wall from where I had been sitting was the office equivalent of the dodo bird:  a 10-key adding machine, complete with paper roll.  I watched in amazement as the lady seated in front of the adding machine tore off the paper containing her latest calculations and attached it to a file. Frozen in place by the scene before me, my mind debated if it would be more appropriate to contact Ebay or an archeologist.

When the shock subsided and I had gathered my wits, it became clear to me that the nickname Dungeon was more appropriate than I had imagined. While I was able to leave the office at night and go sit in traffic, these poor employees hadn’t been set free in years. This explained why, when I visited this location, they were always there when I arrived in the morning and were still sitting in the same spots when I left in the evening. With that kind of confinement, of course they had no idea that Excel had been invented. It seemed that the humane thing to do would be to enlighten them, but before I could act, an even deeper truth rocked me. I realized that by living in a time capsule free of the burdens of modern technology, this group didn’t have to continually devise creative schemes to outwit IT. Obviously it was I not them who needed to be enlightened.

As I snuck back to my seat on the other side of the wall, I felt newly invigorated. There was a solution to my data issues after all. The next day I started searching the internet for an adding machine of my own.

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Clarence, Pilot of the Shuttle Bus

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I recently went to a work-related conference in Orlando with my colleague Brenda.  We spent our days networking and our evenings blowing money at Downtown Disney and the nearby outlet mall. It was a fun-filled experience all around, even down to the shuttle bus ride back to the airport at the end of the conference.

Now, I realize that one wouldn’t normally think of a shuttle bus ride as entertaining, however Clarence was not your average shuttle driver and this was not your average shuttle ride. Unlike the staid, monotone shuttle driver who escorted us to the hotel when we arrived in Orlando, Clarence saw himself as an airline pilot, flight attendant and tour guide wrapped in one.

As soon as we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, he grabbed the microphone and began giving us what was obviously a practiced, albeit somewhat unintelligible, spiel in broken English. He first explained how to adjust the seat backs to maximize our comfort. Next, he pointed out the lavatories located at the back of the bus, should any of us be unable to make it without a bathroom break for the duration of the ride (20 minutes).

I was certain a demonstration of the correct usage of the oxygen masks was forthcoming, just in case the cabin should lose pressure once we reached cruising altitude. Instead, Clarence skipped the safety tips and moved on straight to the amenities, namely that there was a roll of paper towels available for our use. Unfortunately, he failed to indicate the location of said roll, but much to my relief, when I voiced concern about our ability to handle spills or other paper-towel-necessitating-disasters without this key piece of information, a fellow passenger quickly came to the rescue pointing out that the roll of paper towels was located on top of Clarence’s jacket, behind the driver’s seat.

Having covered the availability of the paper towels, Clarence next discussed the route to the airport…in excruciating detail. He recited each street and freeway we would be using, reminding me of a human navigation system. He even pointed out interesting local sights, such as the back of the Orlando Convention Center. Clarence definitely had my iPhone’s Siri beat. Or was it Suri? Jet lag was getting the better of me, since I couldn’t figure out the difference between my cell phone information system and Tom Cruise’s daughter.

Surely, like any good pilot, after walking us through the route, Clarence would next provide us with a report of the weather at our destination 11 miles away. Nope; to my disappointment, he left this part out, forcing me to come to my own conclusion that the weather was likely not notably different at the airport than it was at the hotel.

In place of a weather report, he instead made sure to advise us at least 3 times of the location of the rental car return (across from Terminal A). This proved somewhat befuddling as we were all on the shuttle bus, because we had no rental car. On the other hand, maybe he felt the airport rental car return is an Orlando hot spot that everyone should see. Brenda and I wondered if we should check it out.

As we approached the airport and the tarmac came into view, our trusty pilot took the time to address possible concerns we might have about flight delays. He promptly declared that our flights would all be departing on time. This was not based on any communication with the airport control tower, but rather, due to the fact that 1) he saw no planes lined up on the runway and 2) it wasn’t raining. While we appreciated his efforts to reassure us, it was not clear to either Brenda or me if this prediction would hold true in 3 hours, when our flight was actually scheduled for departure.

Shortly before exiting the freeway, Clarence made sure to clarify which lane he planned to turn into (the right lane) and announced twice that he would be using his Fast Pass. While initially neither of us knew what a Fast Pass was, we later discovered that this pass was a critical part of the shuttle experience. This was because it allowed Clarence to enter the shuttle bus drop-off section of the airport terminal. Without this pass, who knows where we’d end up. Most likely the rental car return.

Once we were safely through the Fast Pass gates, he informed us that his goal was to park in either of his favorite spaces, B21 or B22. With his passion and attention to detail, I was concerned about how he might react if both of these spaces were occupied. Would he completely melt down and go on a tirade about the inadequacy of spaces B1 – B20 and B23 – B30? To my relief, space B21 was free, and we were spared emotional outburst.

After the bus was parked, Clarence handed us our luggage and we made our way to check-in. Turning the corner I saw long lines at the TSA checkpoint and gulped audibly;  TSA appeared to be the real local hot spot. That said, noting the grumpy faces of the staff as I showed my ID and boarding pass, I doubted they would let us take any selfies at the body scan machine. Nonetheless, the security pat down definitely had the rental car return beat. I walked away thinking Clarence’s spiel could use a few updates.

Cheaper Than Botox

image4In June, Elizabeth’s fourth grade teacher nearly got me fired. As if that wasn’t enough, I almost dragged several of my friends down with me. To be fair, it wasn’t really her teacher’s fault. She certainly had no idea that an innocent cell phone app would lead to a dereliction of MS Office duties and general loss of productivity across several companies.

Let me explain. I had helped out in Elizabeth’s classroom one day and was chatting with her teacher after school. At some point during the conversation, she introduced me to Bitmoji, an app that allows you to create a detailed avatar of yourself. I was immediately fascinated.  (I also couldn’t help but wonder why none of my elementary school teachers had fun stuff like Bitmoji. Instead they threw chalk at us.)

While the concept of an avatar was hardly new, when you have young kids, “new” takes on a different meaning. This is because, beginning with the birth of your first child, you are on a perpetual five year delay when it comes to anything hot off the press. To my point, I didn’t even see the 2009 film Avatar until 2014.

The next day at work, the PowerPoint presentation I was drafting crashed my computer. Sadly, similar to drafting a PowerPoint presentation, restarting my computer can be a painful and time consuming process. IT attributes this to the software I run, however, I’m fairly certain the true reason is that the computer I was issued is so old that it shouldn’t be running anything more modern that Microsoft Works. IT was most likely instructed under threat of death not to reveal the truth of the matter.

In any case, since my computer was obviously out of commission for the near future, I came to the logical conclusion that downloading Bitmoji on my cell phone was the best use of my time. I opted against the other option, surfing Facebook, since “liking” anyone’s status at 10am on a weekday would at best be perceived as suspect and at worst a performance issue.

Once Bitmoji was downloaded I realized how much better it was than I had realized. There were countless options to personalize my avatar. Not just hair and eye color, but even things like eyebrows, face shape and body shape. I was completely intrigued with the possibilities. In fact, I was soon so busy trying out haircuts and shades of lipstick on my fake self, I had completely forgotten about real life, including my technologically-challenged computer and my half-finished PowerPoint.

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About 30 minutes in, I discovered I could make myself taller, a feat which has defied me in real life. I was barely able to contain my excitement; this avatar was cheaper and better than either Botox or plastic surgery. Since my life is spent in one of four places – behind my computer screen, in traffic, at home, or at Target – I never see anyone I know in person. Consequently, the chances were slim that anyone would figure out my new avatar was not a completely honest representation of me. I began madly texting my friends these images of my new self. They seemed to share my philosophy, because the next thing I knew they had ditched their spreadsheets and PowerPoints and were texting me back images of their new Bitmoji avatars. Corporate productivity had decreased across Southern California.

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I truly don’t think I’d been that excited about advances in technology since moving back to the U.S. from Switzerland in 2000 and learning that you could get “cash back” at the grocery store. [I had been living in Switzerland for a number of years, and while the Swiss were obviously superior in many areas (watches, Army knives, direct Democracy, cheese with holes), the idea of getting cash and chocolate in the same transaction had not made it to the Alps.]

When I finally regained my senses, I realized that I had been hunched over my cell phone in front of a dark computer screen for at least an hour. I got my computer up and running and frantically checked my Outlook calendar for any meetings with my boss I might have missed. Next, I scanned the halls for any sign that my idleness had been detected. All was calm; I was met only with the faint sound of productive employees typing on their keyboards. It appeared I had dodged the bullet this time, but if I wanted to keep bringing home a paycheck, it would probably be a good idea to embrace my wrinkles and delete Bitmoji from my phone…

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First Day of School – My Epic Fail

 

The beginning of a new school year is full of unknowns. For instance:

  • How much homework will my child get? In other words, at what time do I have to start nagging in order for the homework to be completed by bedtime?
  • Will my child still be obsessed with becoming the Olympic tetherball gold medalist and resume begging me twice a day to install a tetherball court in the backyard? Everyone knows you can’t downplay the importance of home training for future Olympians.
  • Will the class bully give my kid the finger as a “back to school” greeting? Yes, this actually does happen. Just ask Elizabeth’s buddy Dominic who was the recipient of one such middle finger.

Yet, as I found out this year, the biggest and scariest unknown is whether I will be taken down by my own mental decrepitude on the primary school playground…and drag an unsuspecting first grader with me.

My kids were brimming with excitement yesterday, the first day of school. It was their opportunity to finally see all the friends with whom I had miserably failed to organize play dates during the summer. Furthermore, since they are still young enough to like to be seen with me, they love the fact that on this day and this day only, parents are allowed to accompany their children onto campus.

After the first day, of course, things resume to normal, which usually means pushing the kids out of the car without coming to a complete stop in order to make my 8:30 am meeting. This is the real reason I bought them helmets and knee pads a few years back; the scooters were just a cover.

Upon arriving on campus the first day, the protocol is to go with your child to his/her assigned teacher’s spot on the playground and line up in an orderly fashion. The teachers then make their way down their respective lines and introduce themselves personally to each child. I love this and find it to be a very warm and welcoming touch. This is, in fact, much better treatment than you generally receive when you start a new job in the corporate world, where it is not uncommon to spend the first two weeks spinning your wheels in a futile attempt to:

  1. locate the bathroom
  2. find a chair that’s not broken
  3. determine how to effectively gag the person who whistles loudly outside your door all day long
  4. obtain access to a computer so that you can meet the deadlines you know you’ll have if you can ever figure out who you report to

Because Elizabeth had to go to the upper grade playground for her meet and greet and Corinne had to go to the primary grade playground for hers, Thomas and I decided to divide and conquer. He took Elizabeth, and I took Corinne. Taking Corinne’s hand, we made our way to the appropriate line and took our places. Soon after, I saw a familiar face approach and take the place in line behind us. I turned and gave Connor a big smile and warm greeting.

Now, Connor is a shy boy who cried every day last year when his mom dropped him off at kindergarten. Since it appeared that his mom had ditched him this morning to accompany his little brother to pre-K, my maternal instincts took over. I peppered him with compliments, telling him how brave he was and commenting on how much he had grown over the summer. When it was clear that I had managed to coax Connor out of his shell in a matter of minutes, which was record time for this kid, I beamed with pride.

It was right at this point, where Connor and I had established a true rapport and were ready to face the day united, that I heard Corinne shout out excitedly in the other direction, “Hi Connor!” I turned my head and, sure enough, the real Connor had arrived.

I looked back at Fake Connor. Fake Connor looked at me. We both took another look at Real Connor. It had all become clear to me. Halfway through my conversation with “Connor”, Corinne had asked me who the kid was that I was talking to. I brushed off her silly question, because it was obvious that she had suffered summer amnesia and forgotten what her classmate looked like. But it was I, not Corinne, with the brain decay.

Once the truth had set in, I bowed down in utter defeat and asked Fake Connor to identify himself, for his sake and mine. He shook his head in true, first-grader pity and told me his name was Cody, and he was new to the school.

As Karma would have it, I ran into Real Connor’s mom a few minutes later. She had in fact ditched her son to take his brother to pre-K. After a quick tallying of pros and cons, I decided to reveal the morning’s prior events to her before someone else ratted me out. After all, I could not be certain how many witnesses there were to my mental downfall, or if Cody was inclined to keep this little misunderstanding to himself. Besides, I was also fairly certain that Corinne could not be trusted with such sensitive information.

As I gave Real Connor’s mom the play-by-play, she laughed sympathetically. However, I could tell she was simultaneously wracking her brain to figure out which medication she should suggest to me.

I think I would have preferred it if she would have just given me the finger.