Our guest room

Can you call it a guest room if your visitor has no place to put their things? There’s no space in the closet and no room in the bureau. There is, of course, a bed, which we cover with an old sheet in an attempt to protect it from cat fur, but that doesn’t really work; the cats have no trouble burrowing underneath. When a visitor is imminent, I strip the bed and wash the sheets if there’s the slightest evidence that the cats have been pretending to be guests.

The bureau is elderly. I bought it used for my first apartment when I was a junior in college. It’s my repository for off-season clothes and things I can’t bear to part with. All the drawers are swollen and sticky, permanently misshapen after years of expanding and contracting. One of them is missing a handle and I need to use a screwdriver to pry it open. I try not to do that too often though because that is also the one whose dovetailed corners are no longer connected. The back panel of the bureau is convex, sprung so far away that you can peer through the side to see which drawer you want to attempt to open.

I’d like to replace the bureau, another used one would be fine, but my husband objects. He thinks the room is too crowded as is. I think having the old leather loveseat adds charm to the room. Besides, it’s a place to keep my stuffed animals, and extra blankets that I can’t cram into the closet.

The closet is another off-season repository; this one for dresses, skirts and suits, things I haven’t needed since I left the traditional work force years ago. It also has my wedding dress, which my mother finally insisted I get out of her house after I’d been married almost twenty years. It takes up a lot of space due to preservation packaging: it’s shaped like a woman. For now I consider it sacrosanct, although I’m not sure why. I will never be able to fit into again and my daughter is not the sentimental sort. Should she ever need a wedding dress, I’m fairly certain mine would not be considered.

However, there were many items in that closet that could go, and with guests coming in a few weeks I decided it was finally time to free up some space. Some things were obvious, even I understand that shoulder pads are no longer stylish, but I assumed I’d have to try on other things to see if they still fit. I was wrong. I held a skirt up to my waist and pulled it as wide as it could go. I saw my hips on either side. Into the black garbage bag it went along with anything that had a tag of a certain size.

I could picture the younger me in all those outfits destined for Goodwill. I saved them because I hoped she’d be back someday. I’m ready to admit that is never going to happen.

So we’re ready for our guests. There’s room in the closet, the sheets on the bed are clean, and if you push the stuffed animals over you can sit on the sofa. Frankly, there may even be room in the bureau, but you’ll have to pry open a drawer to find out.

Think twice and forgive

The parking lot at our local Trader Joe’s is always a disaster, but during our winter from hell, the snow piled up and the lot got even smaller and harder to navigate; tempers frayed. One day, I saw a woman standing in front of what seemed to be the only empty parking spot. I paused in front of her to contemplate my next move. She approached my car so I rolled down my window and asked, “Are you really saving that spot?”

She looked rueful. “My car’s dead. I’m waiting for my husband to come jump start it.”

I nodded, or said ‘oh,’ or otherwise indicated I understood. As I pulled away, she called angrily, “Why do you people always assume the worst?”

I flushed with shame and embarrassment. If she hadn’t approached me I wouldn’t have said anything. My face might have registered annoyance, but I probably would have kept my mouth shut. As I walked by her to the store I struggled to redeem myself. The best I could do was to blurt defensively, “It’s understandable that people make assumptions.”

She said, “My battery is dead and the only way my husband will be able to jump me is to pull into the spot next to me. I’ve been standing here forever, explaining and putting up with dirty looks. It’s embarrassing. What’s wrong with you people? Why do you always jump to the worst conclusion?” She was radiating anger.

Unable to squash my defensiveness, I reiterated, “It may be embarrassing, but the way people react is understandable.” Then, hoping for some kind of absolution I said, “I have a Prius, so I can’t help you jump your car. Do you want me to ask someone else?”

“No,” she snapped. “There’s my husband.” She turned away and I went into the store.

I suffered over that incident for days, feeling the shame anew each time I thought about it. She had clearly been saving the parking spot and there was nothing to be gained by my asking her if that was what she was doing. She was right. I had assumed the worst and then allowed myself the luxury of letting my disdain leak out.

I had hoped to balance this story with one that could demonstrate how my tendency to say what I’m thinking can result in positive interactions, too, but after struggling with that for a while I realized it was irrelevant, an impulse related to my continued need to defend myself. It was time well spent, though, because it helped me realize that the real point of this musing was to teach myself about forgiveness, not from the woman in the parking lot, but from myself. If I could genuinely forgive myself I wouldn’t still be stressing about things that happened weeks, months, or even years ago.

I’m sorry that I thought the worst of the woman in the parking lot without knowing her circumstances, and I will try to be more careful in the future. That notwithstanding, I’m sorrier that I can’t be kinder to myself. I hope it’s not too late to learn.

Writer’s block

Today, I turned to my writer’s block for inspiration. That sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but this writer’s block is a small, squat book called The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-start Your Imagination.

writers block2

I rarely resort to using a prompt; it hurts my pride. But the weekly blog I’ve written for the past five years has fallen off to monthly of late and I’m starting to panic. If I’ve run out of interesting things to share, maybe I shouldn’t be blogging at all. At least, that’s what my mean-spirited internal naysayer would have me believe. My more charitable internal cheerleader reminds me that I’ve been so busy lately working on my manuscript that of course my blog posts have suffered. I’m grateful that the cheerleader can take the naysayer in a fair fight, but it doesn’t really change the fact that I’m coming up empty. And so I close my eyes and open the block.

In addition to prompts, which they call “spark words,” the block has short stories, advice and photos. The first page I open to is an advice piece called, “Write Naked,” something Victor Hugo apparently used to do. I shudder and flip to a different page. This time I land on the prompt, HEIST. I groan. Since I have never robbed a bank, or participated in any Ocean’s Eleven– (or Twelve- or Thirteen-) style activity, this is not a spark that will ignite a personal anecdote. (It did cause me to wander off to look at Mohegan Sun’s website, but that was a delaying tactic which is not at all what I’m after here.)

Writers have their own unique processes; what works for one may be stifling for another. It would be logical, then, to assume that there is no right way to use prompts. But I think there should be one basic rule: when you resort to looking for a prompt, you should use the one you stumble on first. The alternative is to reject the prompt and look at another one, and so on, and so on. When you allow yourself the luxury to hunt for an appealing prompt, you’ve defeated the purpose of the whole thing. You might as well use all that time to think about something you’d really like to write about, which leaves me with HEIST.

The last time I gave in to the urge to write about not having anything to write about was in May of 2011, in a post called Writing Prompt. In the end, it wasn’t about that at all. I hoped that this piece would also take an interesting turn near the end and I would be able to salvage an otherwise mundane offering with a soupçon of insight. I’m afraid, however, that will not happen here. (Ouch! My internal naysayer just decked my internal cheerleader.) Instead, I will spend the next few days thinking about ways to incorporate the word HEIST into my life. Perhaps my next post will be from jail. TTFN.

Red Cross: you donate, they sell

Did you know that the Red Cross sells blood? I didn’t.

I was talking to a Haitian friend of mine about charitable contributions and I mentioned that my husband and I make annual donations to the Red Cross. She gave me an earful about how after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the money that was supposed to arrive from the Red Cross – didn’t. The very next day, a childhood friend of mine, Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief of the independent, non-profit, news outlet, ProPublica, alerted me to this article: The Red Cross CEO Has Been Serially Misleading About Where Donors’ Dollars Are Going.

It said, in part, “Most of what the Red Cross does is take donated blood and sell it to health care providers. Of the more than $3 billion that the Red Cross spent last year, two-thirds was spent not on disaster relief but rather on the group’s blood business.” Come again? The Red Cross sells blood? And it uses the money that unsuspecting do-gooders donate to pay wages and benefits to the people who manage the business? I’m shocked! And I’m not saying that with my Jon Stewart voice: I really am shocked.

I visited the American Red Cross website to educate myself. If selling blood is big business, it can’t be too hard to find out about, right? Well you’re not going to hear about it from the Red Cross. There is zero indication on their web site that they sell blood. As a matter of fact, the page that has their mission statement clearly says, “The Red Cross is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.” I’m confused. If that’s the case, how come they’re selling blood?

Still feeling foolish, I kept exploring and came up with this article, The Business of Blood, from 2006 on Slate. That article explains the trail of blood. It also says, “The system of blood distribution hasn’t always relied on volunteer donors. Until the 1970s, a major portion of the nation’s blood supply came from paid donors. But a government study found that volunteered blood was much less prone to hepatitis contamination. From then on, blood banks had to label their packages “paid” or “volunteer,” which had the effect of eliminating paid-donor blood from the national supply.” So, it’s our collective fault that people are donating blood, out of the goodness of their hearts (and circulatory systems), that other people then sell?

Perhaps this is not news to you. Maybe you saw the article in a July, 2012, issue of Forbes, The Guys Who Trade Your Blood For Profit, that outlined the difficulties a startup blood distributor had competing with the American Red Cross. And maybe the scandal about where donor’s dollars are going isn’t a surprise either, because you saw the article on HuffingtonPost.com in January, 2012, Red Cross Responds To Documentary’s Charges Of Haiti Aid Failure. But I had no idea, and now I feel like a child who just found out that the tooth fairy isn’t real.

Reservations about my reservation…

We invited another couple to join our group for dinner Saturday night, so I called the restaurant to change the reservation.

“Hello, I have a reservation for Saturday night for six people and I’d like to change it to eight.”



“Just a moment, please,” he said. There was a pause and then, “Okay, I’ll make that change for you, no problem.”

“Can you confirm the time of the reservation?” I asked.

A slightly irritated sigh, followed by, “That’s in the other computer. Hold on.” After a moment he picked up the phone again and said, “All set, 8 people at 7.”

I hung up feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Our plan was to go out to dinner after an event that ended at 7. I was certain I would have made the reservation for a bit later, so I called the restaurant back. A different voice answered the phone.

“Hello,” I said. “I was just speaking to someone about my reservation for Saturday night.”

“You wanted it changed, yes I know.”

“Wonderful! Could you please check the time for me?”

“Your reservation is for 7.”

“It should be 7:15,” I said.

“Well it’s for 7.”

“Alright, but I’d like it to be for 7:15, which is when I made the reservation for,” I said, patiently. I was sitting in a bank, waiting for an Assistant Manager to confirm that the phrase jointly and severally on the power of attorney meant that I could make decisions on my own. Severally sounds like it should mean more-than-one, but in point of fact, in legalese it means the opposite.

The person on the other end of the phone asked, “For tonight?”

“No, for Saturday night,” I replied.

“Last name?”


He said, “Open Table shows the reservation is at 7pm, with a request for a quiet table.”

“That’s not my reservation. I didn’t request a quiet table,” I said reasonably, all things considered.

The voice got huffy, and firm. “I’ve been working with Open Table for twelve years, and…”

I interrupted. “I didn’t use Open Table. As a matter of fact, I hit the reservation button on your web site and was surprised when it didn’t go to Open Table. It went to a different service, and when I tried to use it to reserve my table, it said there were none available and to call the restaurant, which I did. I spoke to a woman. And in any case, I don’t care what it says; I’d like to change the time of my reservation. Can you do that?”

Still clearly annoyed, he went off to see what could be done. When he got back on the phone he said, “The reservation is for Irma Zinc. That’s not you.”


“There is no reservation for you.” A moment of silence. “Name?”


“First name?”


“This is for Saturday?”

“Yes. At 7:15, for 8 people.”

“Okay, sorry for the confusion. You’re all set.”

That remains to be seen.

Forgotten words

Words are getting sneakier. Halfway through a sentence, the operative word will see me coming and slink back into the crowd. Slipping away like a master pickpocket in a crowded London train station, the word disappears among the rest of the flotsam in my brain. Cleverly, it does not hide among other, similar words. I stand with my mouth open in mid-sentence waiting for the possibilities to reveal themselves. But nothing comes. There are no synonyms, no alternatives, just a blank, empty space waiting to be filled with the singular word that has escaped.

If I have provided enough context in the sentence I was in the middle of, a helpful listener might take over for me and pluck the absent word out of his own gray matter. A quick, grateful nod and I’m on my way again. If, however, the listener is not a mind-reader, we will face each other helplessly while I get increasingly agitated at my inability to capture the word I need. An impatient listener will try to maintain an indifferent demeanor only to drop the pretense and radiate aggravation, thereby increasing my desperation.

One expects to forget names, or where they put their keys, but where do these words go? There does not seem to be any commonality among them, although the lousy memory I have had all my life precludes my stating that as absolute fact. So let us assume that I am right, that the words are all strays, unrelated to any grander lexicon. What makes a seemingly innocuous word turn feral, afraid to join its brethren even when it is desperately desired? And is there a way to coax it back, or is it better to let it go, abandon the thought that required it and move on?

I worry about what this means. As far as I can recall, neither of my parents ever have trouble producing the words they need to flesh out their thoughts. It’s true, my father will sometimes ask to go home when he is sitting in his house, but he’s quite articulate. And my mother will repeat something she told me earlier, but with admirable lucidity. My word loss strikes me as a more serious problem. I like to talk, and tell stories. If my speech comes to resemble Swiss cheese, dotted with holes where important words should be, who will listen to me?

It would be a kindness, a mitzvah, if those of you who are also of a certain age would assure me that I am not alone. That you, too, misplace words the way other people misplace car keys. And if it takes you a moment to find the words, I promise to wait patiently.

Lessons from the waiting room

My father’s SPECT scan (single-photon emission computerized tomography) was scheduled for 7:30 in the morning. We rushed to get to the hospital on time only to find out that the Nuclear Medicine department hadn’t seen the order yet and therefore didn’t have the radioisotope they needed for the scan. The technician said he could have it delivered by noon if we wanted to wait. It was a difficult decision. Dad had one other test scheduled for that morning. The additional down time would make the wait just long enough to be seriously aggravating, and just short enough to make a round-trip home seem like too much work. Our assistant, Nana, my dad and I opted for the aggravation.

We found an empty waiting room to hunker down in. Before long we were joined by a couple who appeared to be roughly my age and a younger man in his twenties. The young man tapped on his phone and the couple chatted. I gathered, through shameless eavesdropping, that the couple’s daughter was the patient and she was pregnant. I couldn’t deduce, however, what specific problem had brought them to the hospital. None of them seemed unduly upset so I assumed it was not a big deal and resigned myself to playing games on my iPhone to pass the time.

After a bit, the young man left and then the older man. A nurse came in, looking for someone else, and the woman said, “Is there any news on my daughter?” The nurse said she’d check. She returned a few minutes later, while the woman was still alone, and said, “They took out her appendix and the baby is fine.” The woman, who had been the picture of equanimity, burst into great big, wracking sobs. The tension exploded out of her. Her face got bright red and she sobbed into her hands. This was in response to the most wonderful news she could have hoped for. The force of her raw emotion made me want to run over and comfort her. While I debated the appropriateness of that move, the men returned and provided all the hugs she needed.

When I was a little girl, I would sometimes go with my dad to the hospital on Sunday mornings when he did his rounds. (The nurses would exclaim, “You’re Doctor Mintz’s little girl!” like I was someone special. I loved the attention and it made me proud of my dad.) One time, he parked me in a waiting room for a bit. There was another little girl in there with a man. I don’t know what the relationship was, but he was telling her something in a quiet voice, to which she responded, wailing, “But who will take care of her money?” Even though I have no memory of anything else that was said, I’ve always known that the man was telling her that her mother had died.

As I child, I was confused and distressed by that little girl’s response. As an adult, I understand that emotional responses don’t always look or sound the way we might expect them to. But to this day, I am bothered by the fact that whoever that man was, he didn’t sweep that little girl up in a great big hug.