Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

About twice a year, millions of children make the pilgrimage back home to their parents' loving arms. Some of them with their own children, like the mismatched couple and their adorable little Raptor* that I rode with all the way from San Diego to Chicago to Pittsburgh.

The day was long, as indeed all days involving travel from the West to East coast are. Unless you have the good fortune to go direct or take a red-eye, plan to take a day and flush it. You lose three hours, some sleep, and probably a few years off the end of your life if you're doing it during the holidays. I was not of the good fortune to fly direct or find a red-eye that would allow me to pass the journey in a haze of sleep and white airplane noise, so I sacrificed the day before Thanksgiving to go home to my Dad and Pam. It began at 6:35 am when my alarm chirped me awake to finish the last minute preparations--showering, toiletry packing, emptying the trash and whatnot. I made it out the door by 8:21 to drive over to my gracious friend Tim's house, where I was to park my car in the peace and safety of the neighborhood where he and his wife and son live, and be dropped off at the train station.

San Diego public transportation is about as unimpressive as you'll find anywhere in most US cities, but one thing they definitely did right was operate the Coaster, which runs commuters, Padre fans, and travelers up and down the coast. Not wanting to risk a frenzied gauntlet run in the airport during a holiday bumrush, I took the earlier train at 9:23, which spit me out at the end of the line an hour later, and a comfortable two hours and twenty minutes before takeoff. From there, it's a quick bus ride on the 992 to Lindberg Field, where I checked in rather quickly and found myself bitterly sucking down an overpriced pumpkin spice frappuccino and a parfait, being too proud to spend just fifty cents more for a hot sandwich instead. (Which would have been about ten dollars.)

While I was killing time waiting for the plane, I did my usual people watching and created back stories for my fellow travelers. The twenty-year old with the tribal lower back tattoo was holding her very young infant. She, too, made the trip with me all the way to Pittsburgh, but I knew it wasn't her I had to worry about. Babies on planes get the bad rep, but at that age, they're mostly just sleeping, eating, and soiling themselves and aren't a whole lot of trouble for anyone but Mom and Dad, who want to shift in their seats but have to be careful not to bop the baby off the back of the folding tray in front of them. And generally, it's not the preschoolers you have to worry about either, because they can be distracted with some coloring books or portable DVD players. The ones you really need to watch out for are the toddlers.

And isn't that true of toddlers in general? Adorable, curious, rambunctious, monkey-like, and about on par with cave men in terms of peace negotiations. I spotted one, no more than 20 months old, I'd say, and he was boggled from the word "go". Why can't I run around in the terminal? Why?? Why stay here next to you when anything else in the world would be more interesting?, he would have said, had he the language skills yet.

Now, I admit that I was feeling a bit harsh by the time I got to Chicago and saw him and his parents getting off the plane after me, and as they continued to walk towards another gate, I gave the old-school western, "Yeh, you better just keep onnnn walkin..." Look. It had been four hours of nearly non-stop screaming halfway across the country. I had had enough. But, no, they eventually came back to the gate where I was waiting to continue on to Pittsburgh, presumably after a pit stop at a bathroom and to let junior stretch his legs. When we boarded the second plane, I realized that I had firmly planted my foot in my mouth and given karma an open invitation when the bedraggled family of three sat down directly in front of me. (Before they were a few rows behind and on the other side of the aisle.)

Earlier I called the parents mismatched. That's because he was a 40-something bandy-legged man with balding strawberry blonde hair and she was a tiny Asian woman at least several years his junior. Their child was a doe-eyed little mite with big brown eyes and gorgeously-dark amber colored hair, a perfect blend of his parents.

I can't even say I was focusing my wrath on the little guy. When you're that young, going on a plane ride must be one big, confusing nightmare. Can you imagine? Middle of the day, you're fully awake, enough energy to power a Vespa from here to Naples, and dozens of big people are expecting you to sit down, restrained, and entertaining yourself. With no toys for this boy, mind you. Not a one. I saved my self-riteous contempt for his parents, who are surely to be pitied as well. As the parent of a restless, screaming child, you must develop keloids on the back of your neck and side of your face from the burning, searing hate-filled looks you get from everyone else. They hate you and especially your gonads for having the gall to reproduce and then bring that crying, howling offspring within 10 feet of them. In an enclosed space. For four hours. They hate you, you should be sterilized, and your child taken away by nuns.

Indeed, I decided that his parents were clueless (as though I'm some sort of expert, me with my almost zero babysitting hours outside of my little brother, no children, and definitely not holding an early childhood education degree). I rolled my eyes, huffed, and got to work tearing pages out of the in-flight magazine as soon as we had reached cruising altitude and I could lower my tray table without being reprimanded. A few folds and I had a paper boat. When the boy was finally free enough to stand up in his seat and turn around, I handed it to him. Here, kid, I transmitted with my eyes and toothy grin, it's not much, but maybe you can go for a sail. Or pick it apart. Whichever.

He grabbed it, bewildered, and turned back around to his father, who told him to say thank-you. He didn't. I didn't mind. So young, no manners yet. I don't think he played with it, but he was rather content for the next several minutes in observing his surroundings. I got to thinking about my illustrious career in flying. The first trip was just three months after my birth when we went to Cleveland to see my Dad's parents for Christmas. I probably didn't get around on planes much while I was still a toddler, but soon after my parents were separated and living on opposite coasts several years later, I became an old pro. I loved to fly and saw a bright future ahead as a stewardess. Yes, stewardess, if you please, because even though I'm still young, I remember a time before stewardesses went the way of the mailman.

The only thing I dreaded as a child was the descent, during which my little ears couldn't keep up with the pressure equalization. I cried in agony, unable to understand what was happening to me, barely able to yawn or chew gum as my parents urged me to do. It's a pain I'll never forget, partly because I experienced it again earlier this year when I flew back from Orlando with a nasty sinus cold. I wanted to eject myself from the plane into the sweet release of death as an adult, so you can imagine what it was like as a child.

In a way, though, I envied him and his parents. At least they could sojourn and suffer as a family. I've mostly been alone in the friendly skies, ever since my first solo flight at the age of eight. Terrified, I received the news while I was visiting my Dad that I would have to come back to Tacoma by myself. I was a big girl now, old enough to go by myself. And something about money... I bawled myself sick to hear it. I would be lost, miss my flight, get stuck in Minneapolis and be carried off by bandits. None of the above ever happened, but nearly twenty years later, I cherish every rare opportunity I get to fly with a companion.

About eleven hours after the train and planes, I at last reached the automobile, piloted by my Dad and Pam, who dutifully came at midnight local time to retrieve their wayward daughter. "So how was your trip?", my ever-cheerful stepmom asked me as soon as we pulled away from the curb. "Uneventful?" I gave a wry smile and cracked, "Yes, aside from this adorable child..." My Dad immediately started laughing, detecting my sarcasm and knowing where this story was going. "...whose parents had not yet learned about the drop of Benadryl** in the juice yet...", I continued. I proceeded to give a brief rundown of events.

Looking back, truly, it wasn't so bad a trip, and in the end it's worth it to be home. I'm sure I'll recover sufficiently to do it all again next month when I go home to see my Mom for Christmas.



*I refer to screechy children as Raptors, for the sound that they make resembling that of the raptors in Jurassic Park.

**Okay, okay, okay, Mommies, please put your pitchforks down and hear me out. I've heard that dosing your young child up with OTC antihistamines is one possible way to get you both through a plane ride, but I'm also aware that some kids get hyper instead of drowsy on that stuff, and then there's the debate about whether or not it is kosher to "drug" your kids. I say it's not like you're giving them a shot of Wild Turkey to take the edge off... And folks used to rub brandy on a teething baby's gums and the world didn't seem so bad then, did it? In the end, it's always just up to you to do what's best for you and your child, blah-blah-blah, and if you can find a way to make it work without doping them up on Benadryl, do. Or maybe put off the plane trips until a little later, or better yet, start making the relatives come to you for the holiday. Or maybe hire a baby wrangler. The sky is literally the limit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

News Flash: Cats Don't Like Taking Medicine

Miss Amelia needed a dose of pain medication last night, and because I am a single parent, I was the only one on hand to give it to her. Okay, 1.2 ccs of analgesic syrup, coming right up! Except for one thing--my sweet kitty doesn't seem to want any? Oh, bother, what is a woman to do? Coaxing didn't help, and neither did reasoning that, yes, she just had three itty bitty kitty teeth removed today, so she could probably use some drugs right about now.

When all negotiation efforts failed, I wound up finding an old towel and coming after her, guerilla-style. I wrapped her up like a little fuzzy brown (fur) and green (towel) burrito and got the dropper as near to her as I could. There is an art to administering a steady flow of liquid medicine and wrestling with a cat at the same time, let me tell you. It's an art that I most definitely did not master on the first go, because when she finally stopped squirming enough to start licking some of it off her lips, I pushed down on the plunger all at once, and the air that was also trapped in the syringe-thing came rushing out, taking the remaining 1cc or so with it, and poor Amelia had analgesic syrup splattered all over her mouth. Thankfully, she just licked it all off, so I was able to set her down as soon as she was done.

One dose down, many to go.

This morning I had to rinse and repeat, but with antibiotics this time. "Ah-ha!", I thought to myself. "She hasn't had food since last night. I'll mix it in and she'll gobble it up because she's so hungry!"

I can hear all of you experienced cat nurses snickering already. Rest assured that even though I may be naiive, I got the job done.

Because Miss A had teeth removed yesterday, she is to be on a soft food diet for the next several days. Up until this point I had fed her her 1/2 cup of kibble for mature indoor cats, which she faithfully ate every day. I don't have so much as a solitary tin of wet food for her, and silly me didn't think to pick any up ahead of time so that I'd have something on hand after she came out. The vet suggested that since she is used to dry food, it can be soaked and made soft for her, or perhaps I could feed her some tuna. Tuna! How delightful; this must be what it was like to have your tonsils taken out and then handed bowl after bowl of ice cream.*

Well, I don't have tuna on hand, either. However, I did happen to have some organic low-sodium vegetable stock in the fridge. I once knew a cat who ate frozen peas, so maybe she wouldn't mind having her food soaked in this? I wish I had beef or chicken broth instead, but I had to make do. Perhaps later today I'll make some dashi and use that.** I poured some broth in a glass bowl and zapped it in the microwave for about 20 seconds, then added some dry food. And I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more...apparently cat food isn't so much like Peanutbutter Cap'n Crunch after all. I mean it looks like it, but Science Diet takes more time to absorb liquid and go mushy. Amelia was pacing hungrily at my feet, clearly confused as to why her dish was missing. She hadn't had access to food in almost 12 hours, so I didn't blame her. When I was finally satisfied enough with the saturation level of her kibble, I mushed it up with a fork and set it down before her. She sniffed for a few moments before deciding either that it was yummy or she was too hungry to care--or both, and she ate about half of it in one sitting, and polished off the rest sometime in the night.

I saved about half of the kitty mush I made in another container, so this morning I nuked it again for 20 seconds and added some more broth to wake it up. Her food dish was totally empty, so I knew she had to be pretty hungry by now. Giggling to myself like a mad scientist, I mixed her food, then added some antibiotics. Then I added more mush on top of that, and then more medicine, alternating like layers of tiramisu. Foul, brothy, kibbly tiramisu.

I set the dish down in its usual spot and called her over. She appeared on the spot, sniffed for a second, and then began licking up her breakfast for about two seconds after that before she realized she had been had. Poor Amelia was clearly torn between her hunger, however, and her revulsion at the meds I mixed in. Finally she decided she was more repulsed than hungry, and she walked away. Glancing at the discharge sheet again, I saw that she needed to be dosed up once every 12 hours until the bottle was gone. It was already 9:30am. I couldn't wait around for her to maybe decide to finish her tainted food; I had to take action.

I found last night's towel and swept her up, this time being good enough to catch her front paws and hold them in. Her previous owner de-clawed her, so I wasn't concerned with being swiped so much as I just wanted one less thing to worry about. I swaddled; she cried. I had her bundled up in the crook of my left arm like an infant. In the kitchen, I fished a plastic spoon out of my catch-all drawer and brought her dish of tepid mush up to the counter.

And I prayed.

I've been on the assist in feeding my friends' young son Michael a time or two, and even when he was on board with whatever it was he was supposed to eat, I had a hard time getting everything on the spoon into him in one fell swoop. Eventually I had learned to get as much as I could in, then scrape off what invariably oozed back out of his mouth and feed that to him again until the entire jar of turkey dinner was done. The Scrape Method cleans the baby and eliminates waste!

Smash cut to me and the cat, who is still crying and struggling valiantly against the confines of the towel. (You know, with as many times as I've had to use that thing to put Frontline on her or to hold her while clipping her back nails, you'd think that she wouldn't sit on the freshly laundered towels anymore.) Instinctively, I shushed her and started bouncing my arm slightly, but quickly came to my senses and realized that she's a 12 year old cat and not a human infant. Instead, I rested my arm and precious bundle on the counter while I scooped up some food, which at this point was looking exactly like cat yack. Yum. I spared her the cheerful, "Open up!" and just tried getting the food near her mouth.

I don't know what I thought was going to happen. Would she reach her neck out like a turtle and chomp it off of the spoon? Of course not! She reared her head back and side to side more like a pony, although after a moment she did start resembling a turtle as she tried retracting her head back into the folds of the green towel. She couldn't get away, though, from either my arm or her hunger, and, amazingly, she started licking the food off of the spoon. About half of the spoon's contents ended up just below her chin and on the towel, so I found myself employing the Scrape Method after all! It was just with much greater difficulty, as getting mush off of the side of a smooth baby face is a lot easier than getting it off of some folds of terry cloth.

Make no mistake, however, that Miss Amelia was thrilled with this arrangement, despite the fact that she was eating. She alternated between struggling, crying, and purring, so I got as much food into her as I could before placing her on the floor and letting her go.

Ideally, I would have had had her analgesic syrup at the ready as soon as she finished eating, but I didn't think that far ahead. After that ordeal, I wasn't sure that the pain meds were going to relieve her pain so much as aggravate her further in having to take them anyway. I wasn't about to immediately put her through another ambush and towel roll-up. So she's just resting comfortably on her perch in the window, hopefully free enough from pain for us to skip that dose. I think when it's time for her next round of antibiotics this evening, I'm just going to get it over with straight from the syringe. Don't worry, baby, Mama will get this down yet!






*The bummer is that this might be an outmoded home cure for pain after a tonsillectomy. Some medical professionals advise against ice cream post-op because dairy products cause the body to produce phlegm, which is probably going to make you cough in order to clear it, and coughing after you've had your tonsils out sounds really unpleasant. Take heart, though, some doctors would rather you eat the ice cream anyway, because at least you're getting some nutrition in you.

**Dashi is a Japanese sea stock commonly made from bonito flakes (fish flakes) and kombu (edible sea kelp) and is often the base for miso soups. If you were a cat, wouldn't you think that would be a pretty awesome thing to have your food soaked in? And when I say "make some dashi", I just mean busting open a packet of it and mixing with hot water.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Feline Friends

My 12 year old cat, Miss Amelia, went to the vet for dental surgery today. She needed to have a few teeth removed. Luckily, they weren't the ones she uses actively to chew food, so it appears that she hasn't been in a lot of pain leading up to this. And the good news is that even after having 3 teeth yanked out, she came through beautifully and is now resting on the back of the couch. (Even though she shouldn't be climbing up there. She's clumsy enough when she's not coming off anesthesia and pain meds!) The bad news is unrelated to the surgery and the pretty penny that came out of her mommy's pocket. Her kitty sitter had to cancel for Thanksgiving, as her husband's car just died and now they only have between them. And they don't exactly live a block away. Bummer. Major bummer. My vet runs a wonderful pet boarding service, but being that we're only two weeks out from the holiday, they are already booked up. I'm going back east to Pennsylvania for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with my Dad and stepmom, so I really need to find some reliable backup pet care!

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to formally introduce myself to my neighbor two doors down. After two and a half years of living a few units down from one another, you'd think one of us would have done that by now. In all this time, we're the two who have remained constant as all of the other units have turned over, and we're the two who have a pet. She has two cats who I like to coo at in the window. Perhaps we can do some mutual kitty sitting?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Job Hopping

My resume reads a bit like a biography, if that biography was on a carnie. That is to say, I've done a lot of shuffling around in a relatively short amount of time. Such is the lot of a military brat. I think that being accustomed to pulling up the stakes and moving every few years becomes a way of life for some of us, even after our parent(s) stopped wearing the fatigues and went back to being civilians. Although I've always acknowledged that as far as moving in the military goes, my family got off pretty easy--only two or three major uprootings in Mom and Dad's careers, I did develop a sort of restless wanderlust. I can pick up and move a lot more easily than many of my peers, some of whom have never been outside of their tri-state area or stepped foot on a plane. If I have to go, I go, and that's that. To stay is sometimes not an option.

I intend to expound upon this later; for now I'm thinking about my roadmap of a resume.

When I moved to California in the summer of 2006, I was chasing a few strong job leads and had an interview or two lined up, but had no formal offer of employment from anyone. I was all of 23 years old, barely a year out of college, and already with three company names standing between that June of 2006 and the commencement ceremony the previous May. After a few weeks of looking, I was recruited for a direct hire position at a local family owned operation that made guitars and sound equipment. I was the order entry department's main interface with customer service, researching issues with sales orders and charging thousands of dollars to dozens of credit cards all day. I had never done anything like it before, but I took to it pretty well. After dealing with "outsiders" at my last two jobs and answering phones all day, I found a certain comfort in handling numbers, writing e-mails, and letting the guys up on the second floor wear the headsets. Order Entry was a small department that was an offshoot of accounting, the manager of which was only a few months to a year older than I was, but had been working there for years. We were allowed to listen to our iPods, and usually someone from down the hall bought Einstein bagels for us on Fridays. The pay was decent, the hours were reasonable, and the commute was crappy but manageable. After a few weeks it dawned on me that for the first time in a long time, I had a job that I didn't drag my feet getting to. I liked it, and I was pretty good at it.

I wasn't there for two months when another job offer promising me quick promotions, stock options, and general superstardom lured me away. My roommate at the time had been there since February. It was August now, and that practically made him a veteran. The turnover rate was so high that only a handful of people outside of the founders made it to a full year of employment. That was just because not everybody could cut it: the crazy hours, the lofty goals and high expectations. Not everyone was a "true" superstar. That's because most people are sensible and have an intact sense of self-preservation. The economy hadn't taken a complete dump at that point, so when people inevitably had enough of the madness and left, they could reasonably expect to find another job before things got dire.

My star burned out at about six weeks. My tour of duty was considerably shorter than my roommate's: I started in the last week of August and gave my notice around the 9th of October. He followed suit a few weeks later, but with a higher market value and another job already lined up. (Software engineers, DBAs, and other variants of computer nerds don't seem to hurt for employment quite so easily as others do.) I, on the other hand, left the company on a wing and a prayer.

The next three weeks were pretty much awful. Out of work and with just barely enough money to cover my half of the rent and other expenses through the end of the month, I flirted with a mild depression. Not the can't-get-out-of-bed-or-bathe-yourself kind, but the kind that stopped me just short of the front door on most days and planted me on the couch watching daytime television and Star Trek re-runs until the roommate came home. He did not much like what he saw--a sad, despondent face who was frustrated with the lack of good, viable job options that would help support their habit for Sunday night cook-offs and copious bottles of wine. I had done my due diligence and shoved my resume onto a hook and dangled it out into the staff-agency infested waters, getting a nibble here and there. However, the responses I got were mostly for temporary gigs that involved taking a lot of phone calls and intimate involvement with a fax machine. The more attractive looking jobs often asked for skills just beyond the breadth of my experience.

And, of course, there was the big elephant that sat in on my phone calls and tagged along to the in-person pre-interviews. Pinky, as I shall heretofore call him, tried his best to sit quietly in a corner, not being a nuisance or a bother to anyone, holding his trunk demurely in his lap. But, Lord bless him, he was a 2,000 lb behemoth with a map of the United States tattooed on his ass. He got bigger with every move I dragged him along for. In a span of 17 months, Pinky and I had gone from finishing school in Indiana (which isn't even where we started it), interning for a semester in Florida, taking a temp job in Pennsylvania with two assignments, and finally hopping in my Honda Civic to come clear across the country and work for a guitar manufacturer and a Koolaid Factory for a combined total of 4 months.

By the time I was sitting in a conference room staring down the barrel of another interview one afternoon, Pinky had grown to mammoth proportions. We were there talking to two ladies from HR and the sales team of the company where Roommate had just started working--a company whose entire philosphy thrived on referral business. Naturally, when an admin position presented itself in the sales team, Roommate had done the decent and honorable thing and recommended me for the job. Of course, roommates tend to have a vested interest in your being gainfully employed--but he would've done that for me even if we weren't living together.

I was nervous but excited as I was escorted into the room, resume and application fanned out between me and the interview team. We made some pleasant small talk and Pinky took his post in the corner, smoothing back his ears with his trunk and sitting up straight. After a round of standard questioning, he began to fidget. So did I; one of my nervous habits involves a restless leg and tugging at blouse sleeves, so I clasped my hands on the desk in front of me and willed my foot still. Things seemed to be going fine until suddenly one of the ladies--the less pleasant looking of the two, as I recall--decided that it was in fact, time to address the Big Elephant in the Room. So big that he couldn't really fit in the corner as I had orignally placed him. He had made his way to the head of the table, in fact, and his trunk was snaking up the back of my neck and picking invisible nits out of my hair.  Maybe he was trying to distract me from what was about to happen next.

"I see you have done a lot of moving around in a short amount of time," Ms. Hatchett said, referencing my expertly typed resume. "Can you explain a little bit about that to us?"

I swatted Pinky's trunk away from my head, since, it's hard to get up and do a song and dance with an elephant trunk buzzing about your face. I answered in earnest, which is to say that I went to school in Indiana, but I happen to be from Pittsburgh, took an internship opportunity in Orlando upon graduation, decided that central FL wasn't for me, returned home to work for several months, and then found myself out here in San Diego upon a strong suggestion. The two jobs I had just previously held in that short amount of time, well, they hadn't quite worked out.

Step, ball change, padaboure, kick, kick, and pose. Take five, get some water.

 
"Yes, but here's the thing," she continued as I caught my breath. "I see that you have some wonderful skills, but when I take an application like this to my boss and they see all of the job hopping, they don't have very much confidence in you as a candidate. Tell us why we should hire you anyway."


I was winded, but I still had energy enough in me to chassé through the end of the interview, probably extolling the virtues of my communication skills and ability to assimilate new computer programs as I went. When it was over, Pinky stood up and lumbered out of the room, down the stairs, and out into the parking lot to wait in the car, his job having been done. I was still clinging to some desperate hope that he hadn't been disruptful enough to cost me the position, but by the time the rejection letter showed up a week later, I knew (and had confirmation from the Roommate) that my job history had become a liability. At least the employers who are looking to take someone on a permanent, full-time basis and invest in their 401(k). It was a crushing blow to my self-esteem, but thankfully, the dry spell ended shortly thereafter when I found work in the "technical operations" department of a hockey equipment retailer. They hired on a temp-to-perm basis, and I stayed put for two years-- about 20 months longer than I wanted to because the job was a dead-ender.

When you're a kid in school looking to put gas in your car and maybe sock some money away for your college education, the job history, complex skills, and wow-factor don't matter quite so much. At 23 with a bachelor's degree, I was grossly overqualified for those gigs anymore. Long hours, low pay, usually came home smelling like my decidedly non-ambient environment...I had learned a lot since then. Sometimes I like to think back on it, back before I had a corporate e-mail account and had to wear a nametag. (Though I had a job with both requirements later, which is another story for another time.) Back to the simpler times when a job was just something I did when I wasn't in class.

In fact, all of this was leading me back to that, some stories here and there about the jobs I've had and the people I've worked with. I was inspired by the book I had literally just finished reading this evening, Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. Sheehan was a dishwasher-turned-line-cook-turned-chef-turned-writer/critic who tells his story of coming up in the greasy hot kitchens all over Rochester, NY, Tampa, FL and a few other states on the other end of the country. I relate to the hopping for what should be obvious reasons by now, and also I was a dishwasher at a major food chain diner for a few summers to help put myself through school. It was an uninteresting job with some very interesting characters indeed.

But, that, too, that's another story (or two) for another time.