[In anticipation of my editor’s familiar question: Yes, it’s all true.]
Where I grew up, everyone had an angle. I don’t mean physical angles, like crooked noses and curved hips, although that describes my entire high school graduating class. The angles I’m talking about are all business.
Example: I knew a kid, Richie, whose mother managed the local bowling alley. She charged $1.50/game. Bargain, right? The required shoe rental: $8. Another example: My Uncle Charlie was the only carpenter who agreed to work on my neighbor’s kitchen on Thanksgiving. Nice, huh? Then he billed them for, “Holiday Pay: double time.”
There were no accidents, coincidences or free lunches. In retrospect, most of the people I knew were honest and hardworking. Nevertheless, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst was tradition, except for the first part. Preparing involved doing one of the following in an attempt to get a fair shake:
1. Tipping. My parents tipped everyone from mechanics to x-ray technicians. Sometimes the tip was cash, other times a carton of cigarettes – it was the ‘70s, when kids made ashtrays in art and ads read, “It Makes Good Sense to Smoke Kent”. The tip acted as a gentleman’s agreement: let’s agree you won’t rip me off. When my sister recently flew here for a visit, I mentioned the memory to her. Apparently she is continuing the tradition: “Are you kidding me? I tipped the pilot!”
2. Having a guy. Need your house inspected? I know a guy. Need someone to look at that mole? Same guy. If a friend vouched for a guy, you were fairly certain (a) you’d get a bargain (b) it would be done right (unless you hired my Uncle Charlie) and (c) the friend and the guy were in on it together. My sister knows a guy who does swimming pools on the side. What’s the other side? Fences. Two completely different skills until you look for the angle: “When I was installing on your pool, I couldn’t help notice your fence needs to be fixed.”
As a born and raised cynic, I’ve got an acute sensitivity to angles. I don’t mean to brag, but I could spot a string attached by Geppetto. Whenever possible, I share my awareness with the angle creator in a move I call, “Don’t Kid a Kidder,” or words to that effect. Proudly revealing my discovery not only acknowledges the angler’s business savvy, it establishes my role as partner/accomplice and serves as a preemptive tip (see above).
A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited a winery. We’ve been to many local wineries over the years, but never one so crowded. My angle radar lit up as we walked into the tasting room, where I immediately spied bowls of water on the floor and jars of dog biscuits on the counter. The angle: dogs. The place welcomes dogs. Not dogs that drink wine, but ones owned by wine enthusiasts. Dog-owning wine lovers make up most of Northern Virginia! Brilliant.
Pleased with my discovery, I fell into a chair near the fireplace and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who turned out to be the owner.
Me: “So you own this place?”
Him: “Yes, I do.”
Me, smiling conspiratorially: “The dog thing? Quite a racket you got going.”
Him: “Excuse me?”
Me, thumbing toward a nearby beagle: “You know, letting people bring their dogs.”
Him: “We like to think of everyone as family.”
Me: “Yeah, you don’t have to sell it to me. All I’m saying is the dog angle is a stroke of genius.”
I was pretty sure that my intended compliment was transmitted through the awkward silence. Even so, I played it safe: I tipped the guy who was pouring our wine.
Thanksgiving has been celebrated since 1621. It’s amazing we have maintained the tradition for that long. I suspect it has less to do with giving thanks and more to do with passing gravy. Habits die hard when reinforced with pie a la mode. For the mode alone I’d wear a, “Let’s Talk Turkey!” sweatshirt every year.
We haven’t just continued the customary foods; we’ve kept up the antiquated Thanksgiving dialogue, like, “What on earth are giblets?” and “These pants shrunk.” The longest running Thanksgiving oral tradition, however, is based on the family motto, “I’m not rude, just honest because after all — we’re family!” As a matter of fact, the first recorded Pilgrim toast was by Edward Winslow’s moth er: “I give thanks that Edward donned a decent pair of breeches and no longer courts Elizabeth, hussy with ankle-showing petticoats. Huzzah!”
Families dole out intruding questions, blunt observations, and offhanded insults like it’s nobody’s business because among family, it’s everybody’s business. We volunteer our two cents on everything from re-decorating to reflux, rearing children to reducing rear ends, running shoes to running lives. The comments are subtle (“So, you still have that tattoo?) and not so much (“You don’t need a second helping, believe me”). It seems like relative genetic similarities do little to reduce relative general rudeness. DNA can hang by a third-cousin-thrice-removed thread and the license to offend would still be issued. If our friends ever talked to us like that, book clubs would disband, girls night out would be singular, and Starbucks would go bankrupt. At last year’s gathering, a cousin who had become a cosmetic salesperson excitedly invited me to, “Call me for an appointment — I can take 10 years off your face!” I’d have taken the smile off her face with my fork if it was-n’t loaded with candied yams. My sister nudged me to stand up for myself. Good advice. I stood up and got more wine. With the holidays approaching, I researched ways to avoid stress at family gatherings. Below are some suggestions I found, followed by my helpful examples.
1. Act like an adult — Don’t reenact childhood roles. When your brother reminds everyone about the time you put pretzel sticks up your nose and said you were an elephant, smile and say something grown-up, like, “Ah, youth. By the way, poopie head, I was a wooly mammoth.”
2. Be flexible with rituals. This is particularly true of customs like expecting family to be thoughtful enough to show up on time and not make the rest of us stare at the antipasto wilting on the counter.
3. Respect differences. When Uncle Frank says he fought at Anzio, don’t mention that it was in a corner bar. In 1987.
4. Be attentive. This advice has been heeded at my family gatherings since cousin Mark showed up with a chainsaw and revved it for the kiddies (true story).
5. Don’t discipline anyone else’s children. When your nephew repeatedly kicks you in the shins, gently suggest he may be more comfortable if he took off his cleats.
6. Don’t try to change anyone. For the diaper set, combine this with No. 5: Don’t try to change anyone else’s children.
7. Team up. Strong teams include a family therapist, yoga instructor, and sommelier.
8. Be mindful of appropriate public vs private conversations. The event should be announced as being, “Facebook free — leave electronic devises at the door.”
9. Use humor. Check.
My daughter, Melissa (name changed to protect identity and relationship), is a college student who lives off campus. The house she is renting is simple, practical and within walking distance to grounds—real estate people would gush that it has great personality and a pretty face.
But in truth, it’s no different than every other college-town rental. Those contracts might as well be signed with the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Before the ink dries, the house has given up the ghost: doors swell, paint chips, faucets leak, smells emerge and money disappears.
Melissa was home for a recent weekend because she misses me and my MasterCard terribly. She left here after Sunday dinner and called when I expected her to get there, around 8pm. Because I have a habit of writing notes whenever I’m on the phone, I pieced together the following.
8:15 - Melissa, screaming: “AHHHHH! THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!”
Me: “What’s everywhere?!”
Melissa, through sobs: “THEY’RE HOPPING EVERYWHERE! THEY’RE ON MY BED!”
8:30 – After I made sure she was safe, but before I was able to translate her sob-screams, I assumed that Melissa walked in on a rabbit sleepover. But it was far less cute. The antithesis of cute, actually: over the weekend, spider crickets had invaded her bedroom. For those fortunate enough not to be acquainted with the critters, here is a scientific description: brown, long-legged, mutant demon. There were so many of them that when she walked across the room to turn on her lamp, she stepped on one. Barefoot.
9:15 – I stayed on the phone while she walked the aisles of Super Walmart looking for bug bombs and glue boards, which are basically overpriced halved sheets of cardstock paper that’s sticky on one side.
9:45 – 9:47: She returned to the house; I listened as she yelled and pummeled a cricket that made the fatal mistake of being near a blunt instrument.
9:48 – Note to self: replace roommate’s umbrella.
9:50 – Melissa’s two-week old smart phone hit floor after skating off her sweaty face. Second note to self: call Sprint to see if they cover damage due to excessive facial perspiration.
10:00 - Melissa slid three glue boards into her room using a broom, shuffleboard style.
10:30 - Stayed on phone as she tried to sleep on the living room couch.
10:35 - Melissa saw two crickets jump out of her bedroom and into hallway.
10:35:01- Melissa decided to sleep in her car.
We talked until she finally fell asleep, around 1:00am. Five and a half hours later, my cell went off.
Melissa, alert: “I’m going back in. Okay, I’m in. I’m walking slowly. I don’t see anything yet. I’m going into my bedroom. Ahhhh, there’s one in the hall! Hold on, I’m getting the umbrella. [Thwack] Got him. I’m going into my room now.”
Me, on the edge of my pajamas: “This is exciting! Like the Blair Witch Project!”
Melissa: “Not funny. I’m in the room. THEY’RE ALL OVER THE PAPER! I’m going to take a picture to prove it. No, I can’t. [I hoped her inability to take a photo was emotional and not mechanical – see 9:50] I’m going to count them – 1, 2, 3, 4 ... there are 22!”
I told Melissa I’d take the day off and drive down to help “take care of business.” Every mile brought me closer to her house, and to my inner Terminator. By the time I reached Melissa’s local Walmart, I left her this gruff, two-word voicemail: “I’m here.” [The Terminator talks like that] I kept my sunglasses on while stocking up on weapons, which included insecticide and Smirnoff Ice. One was the stick; the other, the carrot. Warning: the dialogue gets more hackneyed.
I got to her house and immediately told her to “spray the outside perimeter while I do recon inside.” Turning to her room, I muttered, “Party’s over, boys”—the crickets were stunned by my intimidating swagger. And the bug bomb Melissa’s roommate set off earlier.
After turning her room upside down, I put down fresh glue boards and a container of Damp Rid. Then I gave Melissa the all’s clear signal—she cried with appreciation. It’s been years since she truly depended on me, and I shamefully thanked the vile insects for letting me be her hero.
My parting words: “I’ll be back.”