Friday, February 13, 2015

A Bit of Housekeeping

VoiceCatcher is an online journal of Portland-area women writers, and I have a non-fiction piece in the Winter 2015 Issue! You can read it here and then have a look around.

I will be participating in a reading at the Multnomah County Central Library in Portland at the end of March, along with other contributors. I find I am a lot more nervous about getting up in front of people than I used to be, since I do it so seldom these days.

One day, maybe I'll go back to theater and play quirky old ladies. Until then, I'll live vicariously through Nels, who has surprised us all with how good he is in his school productions.

I thought maybe I'd close this post with a poem for Valentine's Day, but I have zero poetry knowledge, and reading love poems (even the classic ones) on the internet today just made me cranky, because none of them said what I wanted them to say.

But I still thought we should have a poem, so here's something  from Aaron Belz's Glitter Bomb.

Your Objective

In a given situation
Your objective should be
To act as much like yourself
As possible. Just imagine
How you would act
And act that way.
A good rule of thumb
Is, try to be similar
To who you really are.
But keep in mind
That there's no way
To perfectly replicate
Yourself at all times.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Kitchen Christmas

This Christmas, I would have loved to have had a fancy party to go to. I wanted to get dressed up and drink a glass of bubbly on the company dime. I had hoped Shaun's work might do something nice, but they didn't have a party that spouses were invited to.

I did have a Christmas party of my very own to attend, though; a very exclusive party comprised of me, Becky, Amy (our cashier) and Mr. Bob, the custodian. This year, as last, we drew names for a gift exchange, and I went in to work early so we could celebrate during break time (everyone but me arrives before breakfast.)

Bob had recently mastered a new pan pizza dough recipe (he's full of surprises), so he brought in his stand mixer and baking supplies and made a beautiful dough. Amy brought in a jar of homemade sauce, and we all brought in our own toppings. Our pizzas looked amazing and tasted even better.


Last year I was a little nervous about participating in a gift exchange with a man who wears a t-shirt with a howling wolf and an American flag on it without a trace of irony. I needn't have worried, though. Bob did end up drawing my name, and he gave me a lovely amaryllis in a tasteful clear glass container. He asked me about a hundred times if I really liked it, which I really did. It bloomed three times.

I drew Becky's name this year, and I bought her a giant vintage Santa light after she told me she was into old Santas. It was a risky move, but it worked out. (Who am I kidding? I think we all know I would have been delighted to keep this and find her something else if she didn't like it.)

Bob set up a nicer table than our usual, and we ate pizza and chocolate chip meringues in the custodial room, which adjoins the kitchen. We didn't party in a swank hotel or an empty stadium like the some of my friends did, but I can't help but think that sharing a meal next to a washer and dryer and a mop bucket might be a more fitting way to mark the birth of a baby whose bed was an animals' feeding trough.

Once our (short) party was over, it was back to work. In the most inspired moment of the day, Becky stood Santa next to the milk cooler so he would be the first thing the kids saw as they came through the lunch line. I could not believe the excitement. He was bigger than all of the first-graders, and most of the second-graders, so that was quite a thrill. They cried "Santa!" and greeted him like an old friend.

The older kids tended to pat him on the head or poke his nose, which sent him rocking back on his heels. I thought he was going to topple over entirely at several points, but Becky didn't bat an eyelash. It was obviously better to brighten the kids' day than to worry about the Santa being damaged.

It may be slow going because I am set in my ways, but working with Becky is eventually going to make me lighten up. Even if it kills me.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Laborer is Worthy of His Wages

It's started raining in earnest, so we are knee-deep in kitchen helpers. Being in out of the rain at recess is what most of them are after, but there can be more material rewards for helping as well.

Our school uses "chance tickets" as a reward for good behavior. Any staff member can give out these raffle tickets at his or her discretion. The students write their names on the back and enter them to be drawn for prizes.

Becky (our kitchen lead) has very specific ideas about the dispensing of chance tickets. Students are not supposed to ask for them. "I like to surprise you," she tells the new helpers.

I think our differing approaches to the tickets perfectly sums up the difference in our personalities. I feel terrible not giving any tickets to the kids, mostly because each one is turned away at least five times before he or she gets a chance to help. When it's up to me, I carefully dole out five tickets (that's what Bob the custodian gives to his helpers who sweep the cafeteria) to each child.

Becky, on the other hand, has no problem sending kids off with a wave and a "Thank you for your help!" And when she does give out tickets, which is far more often then not, she unfurls an arm's-length strip and hands it over. No need to check if the two helpers got the same amount, just "Here you go!" It's good for me to be around Becky.

When her own kids were little, Becky ran a home day care, so she has a pretty good idea of what makes kids tick. We serve dessert once a month, and we usually have some left over at the end of lunch. On those days we sometimes let our kitchen helpers choose chance tickets or a dessert. Not everyone takes the dessert, but it's so fun to watch the kids' faces who do. The portions are tiny, but that doesn't matter. It's just such a special, insider-y thing to get an extra dessert.

One of my favorite helpers (the one who offered to loan me a book the first time I met her) always turns down the chance tickets, so I was happy that she happened to be in on a day we had dessert. "No, I can't have either one of those," she said when I asked her which she wanted. I was sad until I remembered--we had one hat left!

Yes, the best thing about fall and winter in the kitchen is that Becky's 85 year-old friend knits hats for our helpers. We don't have an unlimited supply, but she restocks us periodically. Last year the hats weren't very popular, which I believe may have had something to do with the colors she was using.

This year they're going like hotcakes. My little friend was thrilled to take a hat. I won't lie, I really wanted one of these. I went so far as to try one on. It turns out I don't have a kid-sized head.

Maybe it's because I grew up somewhere too warm for hats, but it seems to me like the most quaint and wonderful thing that this sweet lady knits hats for our kids and they take them and wear them. One girl actually asked about the origin of the hats and ended up bringing in a thank-you note to pass on. I hope her parents are very proud.

On the other hand, I had a new second-grade helper in for the first time this week, who had probably asked to help twenty times before she got a turn in the kitchen. When her time was up, I asked her if she wanted chance tickets or the last hat we had on hand.

She looked at the hat and screwed up her face. "Could you make some scarves?"

She took the chance tickets.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Here Come the Kitchen Helpers

I like when Mrs. Becky and Mrs. Martin let kids help in the kitchen.

We've put them off for as long as possible, but tomorrow we are going to let students into the kitchen.

Self-serve condiments are bad enough, but when I started my job last year I had no idea that eventually kids would come into the kitchen and "help." Once I had gotten sort of up to speed, Becky told me it was time to let the helpers in; helpers I had no idea existed. I panicked just a little bit. 

Our kitchen is small, and my work time is short. Making sure no one gets burned by the dishwasher or whacked with a basket takes time and effort. Whereas before I had just washed dishes as fast as I could, I now had to teach and manage students, two things I was trying to avoid by taking a job as a lunch lady. I am that horrible mom who doesn't even encourage her kids to help in the kitchen at home because it's more trouble than just doing it myself.

The better thing is often the harder thing, isn't it? So it should come as no surprise that having student kitchen help is both the most tiring and the most rewarding thing about my job. Becky told me I didn't have to have students in if I didn't want to. But, ultimately, what on earth is more important than people?

We don't have any official procedures for selecting our helpers. They pop up in the window and say "Can we help?" It's usually first-come, first-served, and the competition is fierce, especially during the rainy season. If I notice that someone hasn't had a turn in a long time, I try to save a spot. I'm such a "everything has to be fair" person that choosing the kids without a system is the part that stresses me out the most. 

Last year the school boundaries were re-drawn in our district, and something like 25% of our students were new. For a few of them, spending their lunch recess in the kitchen with me was a safe way to get their bearings. 

Our kitchen helpers are all over the place. One second-grader last year was on the ball enough that she probably could have run things by herself. I had boys who argued over who had to wipe down a cart with a soapy rag, and I had girls who asked if they could scrub the drains.

In the fifteen minutes they are with me, the kids can give me an earful. Unfortunately, with the noisy dishwasher running, there are times when I can only guess at what they're saying and pray that my noncommittal response noises are not wildly inappropriate for what they've just told me. I hear about their vacations, their pets, their families, and their injuries. One girl told me that she sometimes has to stop and think about what language we are using, since her parents speak to her in Russian (and sometimes Ukrainian); one girl told me she wouldn't go on a field trip because she gets car sick; one girl told me about her three dads. What I can give them is the attention of a friendly grown-up, and that seems to be what they want.

I love watching the kids who have helped in the kitchen before teach a new friend how it's done. I love having helpers that I already know (and whose parents I know) from years of volunteering in my boys' classes. I love that pairs of boys will ask if they can help, almost as often as the girls. I especially love that last year one of the most disruptive boys from Willem's class started coming in. It was a challenge to have him, but it seemed important to give him the chance to do something he could feel good about.

Maybe it's weird to feel this way as a grown person, but I can't help but feel like some of my negative school experience from growing up has been redeemed by these kids. They give me bracelets, they ask me to sign their casts, they ask if I want to borrow a book. It is a sweet thing in my life.

The weather's been so nice so far this fall that when the kids have asked to help, we've told them to play outside instead. We've enjoyed the peace and relative ease of having the kitchen to ourselves. But now that the rain has started in earnest, we'll let them in. I guess it's time, as they're starting to get testy about it. It will be more work to have them there. But it will be worth it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

My Window

When I signed up to be a lunch lady, no one told me there would be self-serve condiments. It is a horror show.

I didn't know that tiny five year-old hands would grapple with adult-sized ketchup dispensers. I had never laid eyes on a five-gallon bucket of ranch dressing, or realized how quickly 160 (or so) kids can tear through said bucket when left to their own devices.

The students stack their condiment-covered trays in my window only after they have navigated the byzantine regulations regarding the disposal of their trash. We are in the Portland metro area, after all, so there are four different waste receptacles from which they need to choose. This necessitates special training every fall, one classroom at a time. My kids usually bring their lunch and just pack all their trash home, thereby garnering a few extra precious minutes of recess time.

The younger students often comment on the state of their trays as they hand them over to me.

"You might want to wash this," says one earnest first-grade boy, as he sets down a tray with ranch dripping from a corner.

"It's pretty dirty," says one little girl sheepishly as she passes her tray over. I tell her that's OK.

"Wash this tray!" demands a Kindergartner, whose tray is barely visible beneath a lake of ranch dressing.

"Wash it!" she says the next day. "Wash this!" the next.

"That's not very polite," I let her know. She doesn't say that anymore. Now she just sets her tray down with a smile.

So many of them want to share:

"I ate all my lunch!"

"My tray is clean!"

"Look, I lost my tooth!"

They come in waves, dismissed from lunch one table at a time, one grade at a time. If any student stops to say more than a single sentence to me, the line gets held up, and all the kids start bouncing off each other in something akin to a freeway pile-up. I try to get the talker to stand to one side. If he doesn't, kids will start reaching over and around with their dirty trays. If things get to that point, the applesauce will start to fly (applesauce--WHY, God?) and at least one person will get clocked in the face with a tray. So I try to keep the conversations short and sweet if I can.

One day a first-grade boy approached with a tray in each hand. He was slight and rail-thin, with short blond hair sticking up from his head.

"This is my friend's tray," he said, only barely managing to set it down without dropping it. I saw a sturdy round girl just behind him, half a head taller, with long, dark disheveled hair. She was sniffling.

"She got hurt. I'm taking her to the health room," he said. And he put his scrawny arm around her broad shoulders and gently guided her down the hallway. That happened at the start of last year. It made me feel like maybe I could stick around for a while.

A month after that, one of my favorite fifth graders came by. The first time I met her, she had walked into the kitchen to help. Her very first words to me were, "We're reading the book Holes. It is SO GOOD. Do you like that book?" She talked like a modern-day Valley girl, and I found her delightful and terrifying. She popped up in my window on picture day.

"I can't help in the kiiiiiiiiiitchen," she trilled. "It's picture daaaaay." She wore a fancy dress and lipstick, and her hair was curled. She stood there in the window, and I became concerned as a line began to form behind her.

"I'm wearing heels!" she said. "Really!" The next thing I knew, she had vanished. But then an arm appeared in my window. It was waving an espadrille with a two-inch jute wedge heel. I could hear her voice coming from the other side of the wall, somewhere near the floor.


I affirmed they were indeed legit, and off she went to recess.

And the kids kept coming to my window.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

An Introduction to Lunch Lady Land

Last fall, I decided it was time to get a (little) (paying) job after spending ten years as a stay-at-home mom. Working for the school district so I wouldn't need childcare seemed to be the way to go. Applying for a job ten years after your last one is every bit as difficult as people say it is. Thank goodness for Facebook, or I would never have been able to track down the three required references.

I didn't set out to be a lunch lady, but that was what was available. Jobs at the school district are hard to come by, and just getting an interview involved a connection made at a long-running local Bunco game and some downright providential timing. The job description said I needed skills like "counting" and "lifting", so I figured I'd be OK even though I had no prior food service experience, apart from a few months in high school when I served in the dining room at a ritzy old-folks' home. I'd never eaten a hot school lunch a day in my life. But I've been feeding and washing up after my family for ten years. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, it turned out. I knew that there would be two of us to get the lunch out for 160+ students and clean up afterwards. I knew I would work 2.75 hours a day. I never really put together what kind of pace that would entail.

For the first week, I came home from work and laid down on the floor. I took two-hour afternoon naps. I was sore all over. It was pathetic. I think part of the exhaustion came from having absolutely no frame of reference for much of what I was doing. Becky (who cooks and serves and does the work of at least two people) did a great job of training me, but we don't always speak the same language. When she asked me to quarter some tomatoes and then added --"into eight pieces"--, I'm pretty sure a little smoke wafted out of my ears as my brain worked to process that instruction. Eventually I got the hang of things.

So here's what I do:

First thing is to prep and put out the salad bar. Every day we have salad greens, two fresh raw vegetables (carrots, celery, broccoli, or cauliflower), fresh fruit, canned fruit, and a canned vegetable. After a lifetime of singing "I Love You a Bushel and a Peck," I am inordinately pleased that our boxes of tiny kid-size apples are labeled "one bushel." On days when we have leftovers from specialty salads (tomatoes, lunch meat, hard-boiled eggs), we put that out first. Students must take two "scoops" from the salad bar, or four if they don't want an entree.

I love the salad bar. It's hard for me to tell how much the kids actually eat from it, though, as they dump their trays before bringing them to me to wash.

Most days Becky walks by and says, "Isn't it pretty?!" It's part of our routine.

After I put the salad bar out, I wash any dirty dishes we may have from lunch prep. It's mostly just what I've used, since Becky is an absolute machine and has usually washed up everything else. Once the first shift of kids has finished eating, I start washing their trays. Here I am with my dishwasher, Hobart. I wish I could take Hobart home with me.

I am fortunate to work at a fairly new school, with a new kitchen. It is very ship-shape, with a place for everything, and everything in its place. That pleases me.

On special occasions  (e.g. when the school board is visiting), Becky likes to wear a chef's coat and hat. I demur, but she did make me wear one for a picture. Becky is small but very feisty (also kind and generous, and fun to work with.) This is a weirdly hunched and neck-less picture of me, but I will include it anyways.

I love having a uniform, especially such a simple one. I have five t-shirts (red or black) and five black aprons. Every weekend I wash them, and I count down the next work week as my stack of aprons and shirts diminishes by one each day. I wear jeans of my choice, and the ugliest black industrial shoes on the face of the planet. They are often sporting a film of dried soap suds in their crevices, which looks pretty sinister if you don't know what it is. I know you all are disappointed, but I don't have to wear a hair net. I can't tell you what a huge relief that was.

I thank God that I get to work at my boys' school, where I already knew the principal and many of the teachers and students after a few years of volunteering there. Nels waves "hi" as he goes by my window; Willem blows me a kiss. Lots happens at my tray window, as a matter of fact.

More on that next time.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Remembering Dad

My dad passed away on April 5 this year, about two weeks before what would have been his 66th birthday. My sister and I knew that his lungs had not been doing their job for quite some time, and we knew he would not "get better," but his final decline was swifter than we expected.

I always wondered how my dad got the name "Scott" a generation ahead of all the other Scotts I knew. My dad didn't know the story, and I never asked my grandma about it before she died. Maybe she sensed  that he would always seem young, even when he was grown, and so the name would suit him.

My sister Annalaura and I grew up in a blended family in Southern California, in a household headed up by our mom and stepdad. Our Dad Scott lived in Bellingham, Washington, and we saw him about once a year, at Christmas or in the summer. 

Visiting Dad in Washington was like going to another planet, a wonderful planet. We loved my dad and step-mom's old house overlooking Bellingham Bay. We loved the smell of the evergreen trees. We loved the novelty of getting a Blizzard at Dairy Queen. But mostly we loved being in the orbit of Planet Scott. He was inventive and funny and moody, and had a ton of charisma. He took on an almost mythical quality for me. It was like having a unicorn for a dad.

Because I didn't see him very often, it is taking a while to sink in that my dad is gone. I don't have day-to-day memories of living with him. What I am lucky to have, though, is a highlight reel of remembrances.

Here's what I think of when I think of my dad:

1. He loved the ocean and the natural world. See that student ID card up there? When my dad was that age, he used to stick his finger down his throat to make himself throw up, so he could stay home from school and go surfing instead. Later he was a commercial diver in Washington and Alaska.

One of Dad's favorite spots to take us on our visits to see him was  Larrabee State Park. We spent many happy (and chilly) hours combing the beach there. 

Dad regularly took us fishing and crabbing on his little boat. One year he treated us to a deep-sea fishing excursion off the coast of Vancouver Island to catch salmon and halibut. One other memorable time, he took us on an ocean kayaking camping trip in the San Juan Islands. Things went slightly off-schedule, and we found ourselves paddling by moonlight in the wee hours of the morning. Tide charts and driftwood and rocks and fish guts and crab tomalley make me think of my dad.

2. Dad was creative. I wish I still had my childhood toy box. He painted it in a 70's Art Nouveau revival motif on a background of avocado green. He drew and painted beautifully. Dad was self-employed as a graphic designer. He worked at home in his basement office, and once I grew up and made some artist friends, I realized that I wished he could have found a community of creative people (in addition to his wife Juli, who is amazing at making things herself) to be a part of. He was such a Lone Ranger in that regard, and I think he would have benefited from the input and camaraderie and encouragement of some like-minded people.

3. It's easy to say that my dad was funny and charming, but it's almost impossible to communicate the reality of it. He was always telling outrageous and often true stories, like the time when, as a teenager, he was hand-picked to be an extra in the Antonioni movie Zabriskie Point, and traveled to Death Valley with the production to be part of its most infamous scene. Or the incident in which he finagled an honorary discharge from the service (thereby keeping his GI Bill benefits) by being intentionally caught with a drug that was so new as to not have been ruled illegal yet. Dad read a ton and had a very active imagination. Every once in a while Juli would have to amend one of his tales: "That part didn't happen, dear. That was a Kurt Vonnegut story."

To the end of his life Dad was like that. Annalaura and I came up to visit him and Juli when he was failing. At one point we were all trying to get him safely down the stairs so the paramedics could transport him to the hospital. Dad narrated the whole thing (though he had not a breath to spare) as though he were the guide on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. It was so absurd and wonderful. That will be a weirdly treasured memory.

4. Dad's hair was a major part of his identity. He spent forever in the bathroom every morning with his blow-drier and his extensive collection of hairbrushes tending to his silky brown hair. He cared more about his appearance than the average fellow is prepared to admit. It was exasperating and endearing. He asked Juli well in advance of his death what picture she was planning to use for his obituary. I think he would have been pleased with her choice.

5. My dad and Juli were married for thirty-four years, and I am so glad they had each other to love. I love them both.


I don't know if Dad ever imagined that one day he'd be taking his grand-kids to the beach at Larrabee. I'm glad he got to. I'm so glad they got to know him.

So long, Dad Scott. We miss you now, and we'll keep on missing you. The whole big world will miss you, whether it knows it or not.