Monthly Archives: May 2010

Loving memories …

Yesterday Grandma Billye Jayne Charleville Lavrakas passed on. She brought beauty, style and a touch of frivolous whimsy to everything. She was the quintessential California beauty. My mother’s mother.

Fortuitously, if you can call it that, my brother, sister and I are all together this weekend. We’re driving out to the Midwest for my sister’s college graduation. Rather than oppressive sadness, we’ve taken joy in remembering her and sharing stories.

Grandma “L.,” as we called her when we were little, is a defining woman of my life. She is the matriarch of a family full of strong women … who loved to laugh … a lot.

Years ago Grandma drove a wood-sided le Baron convertible. When we’d visit, she’d drive the either the lucky girl or boy grandkids to the magic shop down the street and we could pick out something cool. We’d come home and “accidentally” spill invisible ink on the grandkids who had yet to go and try and make up something fantastical that happened, either we saw someone famous or that Grandma bought us something huge. Each had their special turn.

We had many years of fun in that convertible. Two of my cousins, Miranda and Laura, are my same age. For Christmas one year we each had received an American Girl doll. As a special treat the following summer we three girls dressed up, brought our dolls and drove in style in the le Baron for a tea with Grandma at the Newport Beach Ritz Carleton. I’m pretty sure we giggle the entire day.

Specializing in watercolors, Grandma was a very talented artist. The Ritz Carleton’s gift shop sold her paintings of a beach scene with the hotel in it. She sold her paintings at various arts and crafts fairs throughout the year. While my cousins in California could be there for more events, I remember visiting from Oregon and helping her to set up booths at the Sawdust Festival and other events. Though mainly using watercolor, she did an oil painting of each grandkid that each will have forever. Her absolutely stunning painting of Mt. Hood is the centerpiece of my parents’ living room.

Summers at Grandma’s house were the pinnacle of fun. Hours upon hours we’d spend swimming in her pool. Then we’d watch any of her large collection of classic movies. The fridge door in her kitchen held eggs, each in a little divot. One of the eggs was made of rubber, but looked just like the others, providing for many a feigned egg-throwing prank.

We heard many stories of Grandma growing up. They all either reflected fun or humor. Here are some that stand out:

–      Grandma’s brood stood out as “the fun ones” among their cousins on both sides. My second cousin, Dimitra, my mom’s cousin on her Greek side, told me that that side was always loud, laughing and vibrant. Their other cousin, on the non-Greek side, recalled visiting in her youth when someone suggested painting the refrigerator. Next thing you know, Grandma is helping them paint it red.

–      Grandma was always a prankster. She had some dishes that were “unbreakable,” though probably meant for an accidental drop here and there. When my mom was in high school she brought some guy friends home for the first time. Upon walking into the kitchen, Grandma threw the “unbreakable” plate at the young men’s feet, and they promptly shattered. She then burst into laughter. I can only imagine what went into these boy’s head.

There are far more, but I’m being dragged away from the computer.

Thank you Grandma for everything. Your loving embrace will always be felt.


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Have you ever called the 800- number on a sausage pack?

So think about the people that do …

I spent a year of my life working in the marketing department of a natural meat company. Though the former vegetarian journalist inside of me died a little bit, the gig gave me perspective of a portion of our population that ordinarily I would never have the occasion to interact with or know about. I suspect they rarely leave the house. On every meat product the company sold, from whole chickens to hot dogs, there is an 800- number on the packaging, and all phone calls came to my desk. I have never thought to call an 800- number on a package of sausage. Nor has anyone I really know, for that matter. A dreaded, albeit sometimes rather humorous, part of my day was spent talking to the following people; those interactions provided familiarizations that now are fodder for my muse of what their lives are like. They all have limited access to or no familiarity with the Internet, watch hours of television daily and sustain their high-calorie diets with pre-made convenience meat products. Here are the archetypes of recluses with time to call a sausage manufacturer’s corporate headquarters:

Lonely Widower

The phone call begins innocently enough; usually a question on where to find our product or how to prepare pre-cooked hot dogs. Then, “So where are you at? Colorado?”  People walking by my cubicle often heard my end of the dialogue: Yes … it actually snowed here last weekend … Oh, I love to ski … mm hmmm … ­Well, thank you for your call and for buying our prod— … that’s great that you visited Colorado once … It’s raining in Florida right now? …

The conversation goes on; at best I could hang up after 15 minutes. It had the capability to continue for upwards of half an hour until my efforts finally resulted in a goodbye.

Unfortunately the elderly folks that share their wealth of personal experience in the context of history tended not to call the hot dog phone line. Though nice enough, I was more apt to hear gripes about their homeowners association or their latest surgical procedure. Equally unfortunate was that the amount of time a consumer kept me on the phone had no bearing on the workload of other work tasks at my salaried job (i.e. never ever any overtime pay).

“You ruined my life” Lady

I knew upon hearing the scratchiest of sandpaper smokers’ voices on the other line that I was about to spend the following 15-20 minutes resolving a problem for indignant “You ruined my life” Lady. From being unable to find our hot dogs even though her grandchildren were coming tomorrow and what would she feed them??, to not having microwave instructions for preparing precooked sausage, I was generally to blame for her woes. One woman even claimed I committed “coupon fraud” for sending her coupons for a product she couldn’t find at the stores she shopped at.

“You ruined my life” Lady held me responsible for a litany of awful crimes.

Naturally I put extra fat underneath the chicken thighs. Of course I made the sausage go bad before the expiration date. And absolutely I put the grossest and fattiest package of bacon in between the two good ones in the Costco three-pack so they would be tricked into buying it! How did she find out that I personally made millions off of swindling innocent consumers such as she?!

Generally she would return the product for a refund at the store in addition to the refund I would send her from the company. But this was never quite enough. Because the chicken breast had blood in the package, she would never be able to enjoy poultry in the same way again and shouldn’t she receive some kind of further compensation from us?? What I wanted to say was, “Well it’s a dead animal, there’s even more blood involved actually.” Instead it was something like, “I am so sorry about that, what can I do to remedy this for you?” Eventually she would say something nasty and hang up on me because for some reason apologies from a miserable girl who hated her life in a cubicle didn’t fulfill her. I clearly had wasted enough of her time.

My husband would joke that the reason I never apologized when we’d argue was because I spent all day apologizing to strangers.

Allergy Boy’s Midwestern Mom

By far the least loquacious person, Allergy Boy’s Midwestern Mom simply needed to make sure there weren’t any organ meats in the sausage because otherwise Johnny will go into anaphylactic shock and his brain might explode. While this isn’t an exact example, the ramifications of me providing the wrong information sometimes included death of the child. No pressure there or anything.

Generally Allergy Boy was gluten- or lactose-intolerant and Midwestern Mom just needed to know if the lactic acid starter culture was dairy derived or if the hot dogs were gluten-free. (No, corn-derived and yes; respectively.) These were the easiest calls to receive as generally Midwestern Mom needed to get off the phone to attend to a crying baby in the background.

Coupon Hoarder

Nelamie Drickshen, from Georgia, is the archetype of this archetype. She clearly could not afford to eat expensive organic sausages, nor did she care about the animals’ conditions or understand exactly why natural and organic was beneficial. What she cared about and comprehended was that when she called me, I would send her a bunch of $1 off coupons. She sounded like someone I would not want to get in any sort of altercation with.

Other coupon hoarders would try to appeal to me on the cost factor of the products. “Well, my local store began charging more for the natural hot dogs and now I can’t afford to buy your product,” they would tell me. It turns out that it is more expensive for a company to not pump their chickens with antibiotics and to give them more space to allow for healthy flocks. Thus, it turns out, there generally is a good reason that the organic and natural options are pricier. Also, it turns out, that the company that makes such products doesn’t do so as a charity. While I would send coupons, I could only subsidize their groceries so much.

I knew I was turning into a wretched person when on the phone with Coupon Hoarder I began to think, “Go back to Bar-S and spare me the sob story.”

Unacquainted with The Google

For Unacquainted with The Google, I served as his window to the Internet. What is the phone number and location of the nearest Kowalski’s near me? How does the fat content of a chicken breast compare with that of a steak? Are there chicken farms in Minnesota? What do doctors say about chicken liver? What’s the best recipe for a pork loin if I want to use ginger? Unacquainted with The Google would love exploring the endless rabbit holes of information provided on the World Wide Web, if he could only figure out how to turn the darn computer on.

Tangent A

People who asked the following questions clearly did not know what a minion I was

Why did you stop selling your chicken sausage to Costco? I’m going to die without it.

Don’t you know that x percent of the population doesn’t eat filthy pork??

Are you chicken grass-fed? What!? Why not?!?!?! Where can I find grass-fed chicken?

How dare you feed your hogs GMO feed?!? You really need to watch the movies x y and z.

Tangent B

You can’t help but wonder …

Other questions people asked:

This sausage expired three weeks ago, smells bad and is slimy … can I still eat it?

Is it OK to boil the hot dogs?

Can I microwave these pre-cooked sausages?

Tangent C

What would happen if they all met?

The focal purpose for all such characters to meet would have to be a focus group to taste test a new flavor of sausage. Their common bond is their affinity toward processed meat products.

“You ruined my life” Lady: That sausage sure as hell better be ready soon, I’m hungry. I can’t believe it’s not ready yet. I bet that girl won’t let me smoke in here.

Allergy Boy’s Midwestern Mom: Looking horrified. Where did the facilitator go?

Lonely Widower: She’s just heating up the sausage.

Unacquainted with The Google: Does anyone know if you can cook those sausages in the microwave?

“You ruined my life” Lady: Good question, I can’t believe they don’t have that information on the package. Don’t they know people need to know these things??

Lonely Widower: I sure hope it’s okay, because that’s how I’ve been making them.

Allergy Boy’s Midwestern Mom: Oh it’s fine, I just toss the sausages in the microwave for about three minutes and let them cool for a bit when I give them to Johnny. Thank God it’s gluten- and lactose-free; he basically lives on those little sausage links. Boy does he love them.

Coupon Hoarder: After the last focus group I went to, we got free sausage, I hope they give us some today. I can’t hardly afford them anymore unless they’re on sale and I have a coupon.

Emily walks in the room with a tray of sausages.

“You ruined my life” Lady: Well it is about time. Do you think we have all day?

Everyone gets a plate of different sausage to sample.

Allergy Boy’s Midwestern Mom: This doesn’t have any mustard seed in it, does it? Is there a chance it was in the same room as something that does?

“You ruined my life” Lady: Oh my God … oh my God … there … is … a piece of … spits out a small chunk of gristle … ughh, this is absolutely disgusting. I don’t think I can ever eat sausage again.

Coupon hoarder: Can I have the package they were going to give you?

Lonely widower: I sure hope there isn’t any gristle in my sausage, one time I was at my favorite hot dog cart eating a polish sausage with extra sauerkraut, do you even know what sauerkraut is? I’ll tell you, …

Emily huddles into the fetal position in the corner of the room and starts crying.

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Why does blogging offend my soul?

Writing. It’s what I do. I’m a freelance writer. It’s been a part of my identity since I wrote little newspapers for my family (you might be familiar with my exposé piece, “Spaghetti for dinner: Fourth night in a row”). But I’m just now reluctantly jumping on the blogwagon.

I think that comedian Mike Birbiglia articulated my sentiment best when he said he’s embarrassed to say he has a blog, because everybody has a blog. Communicating the minutia of their lives in dull statements more closely resembling text messages.

Along with the contrarian in me revolting against starting a blog, the deep-seated old-school journalist in me considers the printed word to be far superior to the unedited smut that anyone can throw up on the inter-Web. Working as a newspaper reporter, I had my outlet. Nothing could be more rewarding than publishing articles read by the community I lived in. But that’s not the case anymore. That was my golden era of writing, but now I’m living in Golden, Colo., trying to eek out a career as a freelance writer. Living in an area of former Rocky Mountain News employees and hordes of other writers. Well, if I’m gonna’ be a dime a dozen, I might as well have an outlet for my musing. And if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading.

Though my husband had encouraged me to start a blog a while ago, the real impetus came from an author and journalist I’ve been working for, Cathie Beck. After telling her some ideas I had to write about but not knowing where they’d fit in, she suggested putting them all on a blog. “The worst that could happen is that someone reads it,” she said.

That did it.

The worst that can happen is that you are reading this right now. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, you could hate it and then post something mean. But a wise journalism credo is that if you’re getting hate mail that means you have readers.

So here I am, just another blogger wading through the literary waters of the digital age. Doing what any writer worth their salt does.

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Poignantly pathetic moments

Sometimes in life the only redemption for things that occur is the hope that it can bring someone else joy in laughter and gratitude that it did not happen to them. The Universe has thrown quite a few my way, I will share a couple to jumpstart a series I call, “Poignantly pathetic moments.” This is my life, and I must embrace it all.


One of my high school’s requirements for graduation was the completion of a personal finance class. In lieu of taking the class, the school offered a test. What the heck, my 14-year-old freshman self thought, I’ve been babysitting for years and managing that money, this will be easy. Fancying myself fairly savvy, I didn’t bother buying the book and studying.

Upon sitting in a silent room of mostly upperclassmen and a handful of freshman, I realized I was grossly unprepared. It turns out that managing a checking account did not mean I understood any of the vernacular or concepts of personal finance. Growing hot in the realization that the only escape plan meant walking to the front of the room with my belongings, turning in the test and leaving. Freshman year of high school is not kind to the self-esteem of young women. Add to that my natural awkwardness and some recently gained adolescent weight. So naturally, while walking through the quiet concentration of the room, I tripped. Not just a stumble and clumsy recovery, but an all-out, flat-on-the-ground big loud thud of a fall. “No one knows who you are,” I consoled myself. “People don’t remember these things,” I thought. Luckily I’m just a nobody faceless freshman.

Then four years later, my acquaintance Jared says to me, “You know what I remember from freshman year …”

What’s so funny?

The winter before I met the guy who would become my husband, my dating modus operandi centered on meeting men on the chairlift at Mt. Hood Meadows. One such dude, and he definitely was a dude, we’ll call Will Michaels. I should have known the tall lanky bro-brah who dressed better than me wouldn’t work out.

After a few months of dating exclusively, things began to get lukewarm. On top of a ski slope I dumped myself for him (I had practiced a speech, “I don’t ask for much from the guys I date, but I do request that if you aren’t interested in me anymore that you tell me.” Visually relieved, Will said, “Well, I do really like you still.” Wild-eyed and louder than I meant to, I replied, “That’s GREAT! Then we can be FRIENDS.”) All I wanted was to go ski the sting of romantic rejection away, but Will insisted on doing a few runs with me.

Finally, we went our ways and I found myself on a chairlift between two men. Uncontrollably my eyes welled up as I wallowed in self-pity, then, dear God please no, a soft little sob. The man to my right misinterpreted my sounds, and asked, “What’s so funny?” Protected by my goggles, helmet and gear, I whimpered, “Nothing.” After a couple more muffled sounds from me, he said, “Okay, you gotta’ tell me, what’s so funny?” To which the guy on my left says, “Dude, I think she might be crying, not laughing.” Then I bleated out, “Nothing.” Silence ensued and we three strangers shared a very awkward lift ride.

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