Friday, June 28, 2013

Theory 7: Everyone should work in a restaurant, Part 1

Tall Child told me the last post, Theory 6: If you want the ultimate college experience join the band, was too long. After reflecting, I agreed. There was just so much material there I couldn’t help myself. The same goes with Theory 7: Everyone should work in a restaurant. So, I’m taking heed of Tall Child’s critique and splitting this post. Read Part 1 now and look forward to Part 2 next week! Please comment. I love to hear from my readers!

Let’s get down to business. Retail business. Retail restaurant business. I grew up in a tourist town, so I know many people who enjoy(ed) successful careers in the hospitality business. I place high value on the innate lessons in serving the general public. So, unless they plan for a career in hospitality, Sharky and the Gnome will work at least one summer in a restaurant. Why? Restaurant work offers an intense tutorial. I want them to experience the dining room: a place of social norms and cool, quiet protocol. To experience the kitchen. To see uniforms in chaotic yet choreographed movement. To inhale the pungency of old grease, chopped onions, and bleach. To hear pots and pans fight scalding water under the protection of Hobart. To hear the dead-on, efficient, sometimes perverse language of the restaurant nation. To slam a cork-lined tray so hard into metal that it tests the hinges on that swinging kitchen door because they are stressed to the breaking point. To rally and recover, in public. I want them to serve others.

Restaurants are labs of bacteria, behavior, conflict, passion, composure, language, class warfare, and comedy. Sharky and the Gnome come from a long line of restaurant workers. After I share with you what those in my “crowd” experienced and learned, you’ll either dine at home or tip 20%.  No matter what the service was like.

Imagine what these guys could teach us all.

So, what should my boys expect to learn when they work in a restaurant?

A new language. Here’s a short list of terms with definitions.

86’d – taken off the menu
Rush – a pile of customers coming in at once
Walking Out – just what it sounds like, which dishwashers and line cooks love to threaten to do
Two, four, six, etc. “top” – number of places at a table
Got Sat – a warning issued by another waitress, as in “you just got sat” a four-top
On the fly – indicates the cook better hurry with that dish
On the square – means four of whatever food item
Side work – the nasty stuff servers do after closing (vacuum, refill salt & pepper shakers, wash syrup bottles, mop, clean out the salad bar)
Crumb Pickers – children
EP – children who order extra plates
Charger – the fancy plate under the regular plate
Expeditor – the 15-year-old or the panicky manager who takes food off the line and arranges it on trays for the servers
Nuke – microwave (comes in handy when you forget to bake potatoes)
Cow – the giant milk dispenser
Pearl Diver – the dishwasher (the person, not the Hobart machine)

Lewd language and vile references are part of the experience.

My Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant manager, Zero*, was a short, foreign guy with bad manners. He stood (quite happily) eye-level to my space heaters and liked to taunt me by dangling the carrot of a lucrative waitress position. My first day, he exhaled in his chauvinistic style, “What size uniform do you need, a laaarrrggeee in the top?”

At IHOP, when I asked for hot syrup, the line cooks responded, “Oh, you like it hot?”

When I yelled above crowd noise to change an order, the same guys would harass, “We knew you were a screamer!”

When the scoop hit metal, a waitress would ask for more ice. In East TN, “ice” is pronounced in way that sounds like “eis” or “aes” so the cooks would yell back, “Oh, I’ll give you some whenever you’re ready!” Think beast of burden.

My cousin Moon worked at the Heidelberg Restaurant on top of Ski Mountain Road, at a tourist trap called Ober Gatlinburg. The place had a polka band, German cuisine, and a tram shuttle to downtown Gatlinburg.  Moon is good-looking. He yelled an order of Bratwurst across the line and a stout, greasy-haired, pre-elderly, seasoned fraulein cook yelled back, “Take off ‘em clothes and jump up on ‘is table. I’ll show ye some Bratwurst!”


Delicious told me she worked with this guy whose daddy owned the restaurant. The boy constantly griped at the staff. Once, he yapped at a kitchen worker who had plated a juicy dessert for himself, “You can’t eat that pie! My dad would be very upset.” The worker stuck his thumb in the pie and said, “Oh, well, it’s damaged now.”  By summer’s end, the kitchen help was sick of the boy's bull. They soaked cathead biscuits in water and hurled them at him. The owner's son was covered in humiliation and greasy wet dough.


I was a hostess at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, but I hated it. Why? Because the uppity hostesses (all college-aged) found out I was virgin. They harassed me endlessly. Restaurants aren’t the most virginal environments. Anyway, my daddy’s old, old friend G.G. was the head cook. As he flipped, filleted, and fried, he observed the way they treated me and got as mad as a hornet at those snotty hooches. If we wanted lunch, we had to ask G.G. to cook it for us. Cooks cuss. Blatantly. They are hot, worn out, stressed out, and often frustrated. Two of said hooches and I landed on the line for lunch at the same time. G.G. babied me, “Jody, let me fix you something good. How about a rib eye, baked potato, and salad?” The hooches pouted, “What!?! You said we could only have grilled cheese. Why does she get a steak?” G.G. answered with authority, “Because she is my girl and ya’ll are btches.”

To avoid the hateful hostesses, I often volunteered to fill in in the kitchen—as a fritter fryer, salad girl, or dessert girl. Plus, I loved sweating through eight fast hours in the raucous, comical kitchen. This crazy little guy called Animal was our main pearl diver. Animal was short and scrawny, low on teeth and high on energy. He wore a pink t-shirt and denim overalls. Every day. Animal braided his long, reddish blonde hair down his back like Willie Nelson. Hair is the enemy in the restaurant business. Mine was long then, so I wore it in a French braid. Animal was my friend. He begged me all the time, “Jody, let’s go out back after ‘er shift’s up and let ‘er braids out. I swar’ mah hair’s longer ‘an yourn.” Animal was not fit for the customers’ spaces, but every now and then he got curious. He’d slide through the kitchen door and prance among polished tables and chairs. Immediately, a waitress would spot him and command, “Animal! Get back in the kitchen!”

Mistakes happen. The show must go on.

“Glass in ice” is a big no-no. You never dip ice with a glass because if the glass breaks, there’s glass in the ice. Someone (you) will have to clean out the entire ice bin. Plus, you are forced to yell “We need more ice!” to the line cooks. My aunt Big Booty J learned this the hard way. She toted a round tray loaded with filled water glasses through the dining room at Green Valley Restaurant in Pigeon Forge.  Her right, thick-soled waitress shoe landed on a pat of butter and she landed in a split. Her tray of water glasses went airborne, crashing into the salad bar of chopped iceberg, olives, cheese, and pickled beets.

Machines are designated for certain tasks. G.T. learned this the hard way at IHOP.  On a diet, she milked the cow into a metal cup and tossed in a scoop of Slim-Fast. All I remember is hearing her say, “Oh, no! Sorry sorry sorry!” and watching the entire waitress station (and its inhabitants) get sprayed with pellets of chocolate Slim-Fast. Those milkshake blenders are meant for hard-packed ice cream, not milk and diet powders.

Look behind you. Delicious once witnessed a Cosbanian co-waitress catch her toe coming out of the walk-in cooler. She tripped forward, dumping five gallons of Roquefort dressing down the front of the maitre d’s white leisure suit.

The show must go on. My cousin Mooch (an elementary school teacher and sister to Moon), waitressed a summer with Delicious at Applewood. Perhaps Mooch over-snacked on fritters or gobbled down too much of G.G.’s greasy treats; Mooch had an “accident” underneath her floor-length pink gingham mountain woman waitress costume. She stashed her panties, scalded her hands, and went back to work. Hours later, she and Delicious stood in the Sunroom, which boasts a six-foot birdcage of finches and floor to ceiling windows. Mooch quipped, “Hey Delicious, look at this!” She spread her legs and overdramatized her efforts to Windex the glass. Delicious saw the entire outline of Mooch’s hooch.

The rush came. The show went on.

Check back next week to read Theory 7: Everyone should work in a restaurant, Part 2, which will include the following lessons: how to get fired, how to quit, why servers want to quit, and a little something about restaurant romance.

Until next post, think outside the barn!

Sharky meets the line

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Theory 6: If you want the ultimate college experience, join the band.

If you want the ultimate college experience, you must begin with scales.  In fourth grade.  Scales tests toughen you up.  What could be worse than straddling a clarinet and forcing air through the long plastic tube (because your parents can’t afford a wooden one) and squawking a version of “Do-Re-Mi” in front of your peers?  My guess is that, on a given day, band directors take more Tylenol than all the other teachers combined, and that is saying a lot.  There were highlights in those awkward middle school years. 

A trumpet player hated band so much he sat in the back row and chewed up an entire Trapper Keeper notebook in protest. 

During a Veteran’s Day concert outside under the flag pole, a golden Labrador retriever laid down slap between my band director and the first row of woodwinds.  He just lay there, licking things, our entire concert.  In awe of his bravado, I messed up my staccato!  I never hear “The Stars and Stripes Forever” without thinking of that stray. 

Basketball is important in all of East Tennessee, thanks to the Lady Vols, so my school held pep rallies for our Tiger and Lady Tiger basketball teams.  The band played.  Imagine a stack of slouching, gooberish pre-teens sporting perms and Coca-Cola shirts, metal-mouths clenching assorted rented instruments.  Imagine the sounds we produced.  Our slim and predictable playlist was the following:

“The Star Spangled Banner”
 “Cheer Cheer” (Notre Dame)
 “Eye of the Tiger”
“Rocky Top”
And our closer: “Tequila”

Delicious showed up ready to rock at our first rally, but left deflated; she said each song sounded like a funeral dirge.  Young musicians are like English speakers in foreign countries: when we’re unsure, we get loud and slow.  My Aunt Big Booty J taught at PFES then.  No joke: We closed every rally with “Tequila” and half-way through the song BBJ strode to the center of the gym floor and commenced the Pee-wee Herman dance.  Within minutes, the stands emptied and the entire student body broke it down to fire up the Tigers and Lady Tigers.  In 1987 and 1988 (7th and 8th grade) the Lady Tigers were 34 and 0.  Just sayin’.

I learned the basics: don’t play your instrument on the way to and from the band room, clean your spit valve, and wax your corks.  Speaking of wax, after the custodians polished our asbestos tile floors, some band boys liked to ruin the janitors’ work. They set their hard instrument cases down on the shiny surface, paced several steps backward, and sprinted to dive onto the cases.  Dippity-do’d rat tails zipped by as boys rode their black boxes lightening speed down the length of those buffed floors to execute Big Wheel spin outs within inches of a concrete block wall.  Friends, if you try this at home and you don’t play brass, borrow a buddy’s instrument box.  The ride is just not the same on a flute case. 

One of my musical students in her favorite t-shirt.

Like any college musician, I had to pay my dues, but the experience improved in high school.  I had my first big crush at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School band camp.  Get your minds out of the gutter, American Pie fans.  Please, I am a teacher’s daughter!  I was nervous about high school in general and about marching and playing at the same time.  True.  But, as I met up with other band members in the G-P parking lot to board the yellow school bus to band camp at East Tennessee State University, I spotted a key-ute sophomore.  The heat waves floating from the August asphalt were nothing compared to the waves of anxiety that riddled my aggressively developing body.  We flirted our way through band camp and even played pool together in the ETSU student center.  Was that a date?  All I remember is sucking at pool (of course) and hearing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on the radio.  Also that week, I tripped.  Often.  Finally, I looked down at my feet to see a Tretorn on the left and a Reebok on the right.  On the way home, the sexy saxophonist and I sat together on the bus!  We held hands!  Yay!  I guess the magic wore off between Johnson City and Gatlinburg because our romance never matured beyond band camp.  Maybe he saw my shoes.  Band crushes are the best because he is trapped with you—on a bus, in a band room, in a parade waiting line, or at a game for hours.   

Away games made me anxious.  First, I was terrified I’d leave a piece of my instrument or uniform in Gatlinburg.  Second, I had to ride with Otto the bus driver.  I can’t nickname him here.  “Otto” is just too perfect.  At South Doyle High School, lead-footed, far-sighted Otto steered the band bus to scrape the entire side of our team’s football bus.  The busses smooched!  Did you know that busses can get up on two wheels?  Once, the bus was climbing the Smokies toward Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, to cross into Cherokee, North Carolina for a parade. The bus leaned hard to the right. I looked out the window to find my face parallel to ground, only the ground was hundreds of feet below, at the bottom of a ravine, or as we say in the mountains, a gulley.  Maybe all those geometrical stunts happened because Otto drove with his eyes in the rear view mirror.  All the way.  For a reason.  There are always rumors about make-out sessions in the back of the bus.  Innocent and terrified after being so cruelly dumped/ignored/forgotten by the sexy sax player and avoiding the gulley, I sat up front.  I kept my eyes on the horizon, and on Otto. 

Bus drivers are one thing, but band directors are a different breed.  They live on the edge—of temper tantrums, the slightest bit of perversion, and borderline inappropriate commentary.  Actually, I think I missed my calling.  On a band trip to Panama City Beach, my band director’s wife, who is now a dear friend of mine, took my best friends TRO, Mare, G.T., and me to Spinnaker Beach Resort.  She ordered a Hurricane (trust me, she needed and deserved it).  She planted a seed.  Years later, in college, we harvested that seed when Mare clogged at nearby Club La Vela on MTV’s Fame or Shame Spring Break show.  To “Rocky Top,” naturally!  Instead of hitting a post-graduation chalet party on Ski Mountain Drive in G-burg, my band buddies and I hit the director’s house!  I need to thank my band director, Mr.  H, and his wife, L, right now for my absolute best high school memories and for being such colorful characters in the story of my youth.  I love ya’ll!   

My junior and senior years, I was the drum major (probably just because I could be trusted with the key to the band room.) Regardless, that meant I could pick out a spicy uniform and shake it front of the crowd.  No more duck walking to fast tempo Broadway theme songs for me!  The first year, I chose a tuxedo jacket rimmed in gold with the shortest shorts I could wear.  I did have to tolerate three pairs of support hose to stay warm and keep everything in the polyester.  The second year, I wore a flouncy mini-skirt and gold sequined jacket.  Awesome.  I am thankful that Mr. H let me order the eye-catching costumes, especially since I’d wear 20 lbs of wool for the next four years.  Both years, I sported white leather band boots with tassels.  There’s just something about those boots.  Tall Child, the jock, cracked up the first time he saw my boots. He just doesn’t get how cool most band people are.

Band Bug circa 1992

Speaking of cool, years of scales, terrifying bus rides, and freezing my tail off in Gatlinburg prepared me well.  I played Clarinet for The University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Marching Band.  I left behind the stadium where Delicous took up tickets and the soccer team worked the concession stand.  I entered Neyland Stadium, with 107,000 seats and Petros.  Subtract ten parent chaperones and add two state troopers.  Swap one cheese wagon for seven chartered busses, baby!  Our away games traded up, too—from Oneida and Oliver Springs, Tennessee to The University of Georgia , The University of Florida, and the Presidential Inaugural Parade in D.C.  The bus rides could be tough, especially if I’d downed a little too much Southern Comfort the night before.  FYI – long night? Don’t sit over the wheel! Using the bus bathroom was a delicate task.  Literally.  College co-eds can sleep anywhere.  I usually sat up front to be first off at restaurants, so when I had to go to the bathroom, I crossed the narrow thirty-foot plus corridor by stepping on armrests and holding on to luggage racks, else I’d land my size 9 in a snoozer’s abdomen.   Often I’d pass another restroom visitor on her return trip, which meant we had to swap feet on armrests so as not to hurt fellow Pride members. Band folks must be agile and considerate.

I was a better musician than athlete, but still just mediocre.  I got so sick of my section leader, whom I adored, trying to tutor me, that I told her I was tone deaf.  From then on, the clarinets treated me gingerly and I could focus on my real goal: having a good time.  I was a supreme away game partier.  Cute boys at bars in Athens, Memphis, and Gainesville would inevitably ask, “Are ya’ll here for the game?” I’d answer, “Yes, we are with the band.” The boys would ask, “What do you play?” I’d answer, “Oh, I’m a majorette.”  Guys buy more drinks for twirlers than honkers.  Plus, thanks to the sky-high stadium seats, I could get away with it.  As far as they knew, I could be that hot feature twirler with fire batons!  I met my first real college boyfriend—a trombone player— at band camp.  The magic of band love is unique.  In full uniform, I used to tease him, “I am naked beneath my clothes.” He called me his “Orange Blossom Special.” Speaking of nudity, band folks must be immodest. No locker rooms for band. Use your band bus imagination!

Speaking of romance, I used to pen-pal with my elderly Uncle Glenn, who lived in a retirement home in Oregon.  My sophomore year, he sent me a note with a newspaper clipping.  The note read, “Jody, I read this article about a really nice boy at your school.  I figured, since he is on the football team and you are in the band, you may get to know each other.  He would be a good husband to catch!” I hated to tell Uncle Glenn that, though he did scamper by me in the checker-board end zone once as I waited to perform the half-time show, Peyton Manning never looked my way.  Dang it.  Maybe ampersands, wool flood britches, corded vests, and spats aren’t his thing.  Speaking of uniforms, they are HOT.  I used to pack Ziploc bags with ice and put them in my hat. My piccolo friend and I took turns chewing Double-Mint gum and blowing our minty fresh breath on the back of each other’s necks to cool off.  Try it.  It works!  Only an Appalachian Trail through hiker can relate to hours of sweating in sweltering SEC heat then sucking down an ice cold Coca-Cola like marching band members after a half-time performance.   You can dance in hot wool.  Might as well.  Plus, the spats and plume just add to the dance flava.   If you want to scare the H out of a fellow band member, walk up to him/her right before step-off, fake a panicky look, and ask, “Where’s your plume?”

Men of band are tough and aggressive, which is not what most people think. I loved/feared my band director, Dr. J. He was bold and honest. Once, at practice, he yelled through his microphone from his perch in a cherry-picker to a chunky woodwind, “Girl, move back! You are in front of the line. Well, hell, you’re behind it, too!” After a miserably wet defeat in Gainesville, we were on the band bus changing out of our stinky wool uniforms, when a wasted male Gator fan, shouting profanities, tried to board the bus. Good thing Spits (a tuba player from Salina) was up front.  The Gator made it up two steps before Spits punched him in the face so hard that he did the Nestea Plunge out the door onto the sidewalk. Hard.

I’m taking a risk here, but I have to tell a little story about a dog named Smokey. My buddies and I were getting ready for a night out somewhere in Florida and heard this awful caterwauling.  I dropped my hot rollers and picked up my Solo cup to investigate down the hall.  A blue black figure bounded by me with an orange and white figure right behind him.  Smokey was on the prowl!  On the fourth floor of our hotel!  (The cheerleaders and Smokey trainers travel with the band.)  We walked to Smokey’s trainers’ room and saw his main caretaker “asleep” face down on the bed.   Good thing animal mascots can’t talk.  Oh, the stories that that hound and UGA could share.

Back to the state troopers.  On another trip, the band stayed at a huge, one-story motor court.  In every room, sliding glass doors framed a view of a grass lawn that contained a wide pond.  We were out of the main town and not within walking distance of any place fun, so we created our own party.  We room-hopped to socialize.  A friend and I were hanging out in some brass players’ room.  One of the state troopers, an older, rounder man, wobbled by the sliding glass door, on watch, making sure we were behaving I guess, when  a trumpet player stated, “Look at that fat redneck strutting around like he’s got control.   He has no idea he just escorted marijuana across three state lines!” I did not partake of the substance, but I did enjoy the humor in that situation.

In case my students read this, please know: drugs are evil.  I don’t do them.  You shouldn’t either.  My point here is that the band is wild and not what most people think!  If you have self-control, personality, some talent, and can stand extreme heat and cold, join the band for the ultimate college experience of entertaining and being entertained!  There’s nothing like executing a flip-turn then passing your cousin on the ten-yard line.  I loved shutting down the stadium with the melancholy, meaningful slow Tennessee Waltz, then scavenging concession racks for leftover hot dogs on my way out of the stadium. Band romance is the best romance.

To this day, I get excited when I stand in charter bus exhaust fumes.  My olfactory senses take me back to a carefree time when I had a per diem on road trips, few worries, and could convince others I was a majorette.  Every now and then, I put on my band boots and march for Tall Child. Good times. Goooooood times.

So, if you want a great education, go to a great university.  If you want the ultimate college experience at that university, join the band.  But first, you should learn how to work with all types of people, and you should learn the facts of life, which brings me to Theory 7: Everyone should work in a restaurant.

See you next post. Until then, think outside the barn!

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Theory 5: Play a sport, even if you suck at it.

I tape important info inside my kitchen cabinets. Say you are searching for Cheez-Its. When you open the cabinet door, you’ll spot wine labels, an impromptu love note from Tall Child, phone numbers to my favorite restaurants, and, thanks to Delicious’s old 35mm camera, a perfectly captured specimen of supreme athleticism: me, at age nine, hurdling a broom stick balanced between two lawn chairs in my Grandmama’s back yard. The hurdling photo is crucial: it proves that I can be athletic, or least that I was once, well, one day, well, in that moment anyway.
I told Tall Child, who was a great high school and junior college basketball player, about this week’s theory, and asked him, “Did you ever play a sport and fail?”
He said, “No. Why, are you going to write about me in your post?”
I replied, “Well, the post is about NOT being good.”
He said, “Not being good in sports is something I know nothing about.”
True. Tall Child is a natural athlete. He has a fierce tennis serve, he’s an adequate golfer (with practice), he can throw, hit, catch, all that stuff that I can’t do. I have only seen him trip one time. He was playing softball and, as he walked through the grass to take his centerfield spot, he stumbled. He turned angrily and stared down a specific spot on the ground, as if to say, “Who do you think you are, tripping me, dirt clod?”
I am the oldest of ten first cousins, most of whom are above-average, if not collegiate-level athletes. Our grandfather played baseball, golf, and basketball for The University of Georgia. His two sons (my uncles) played basketball for Auburn and The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Cousin Roscoe played basketball at Virginia Tech. Cousin A-Boo conquered Vanderbilt University with her golf scholarship.  So, sports and competitiveness are part of our family culture. We all played. It was expected. My Grandmama once remarked, “If you drive through Sevier County with your window rolled down, someone will throw a trophy in your car!”
Yes, we all played. And I sucked.
When my cousins and I were little, the “grown-ups” would set up competitions—for our growth and their entertainment. My aunt Big Booty J (a Phys Ed teacher) typically announced the rules and instructions.  Games included: one-on-one basketball, horse, hurdles, hula-hooping, the long jump, the standing broad jump, and foot races. Well, I stunk it up in everything. I also kicked myself in the rear-end as I ran, on purpose, as a self-esteem-defense tactic. Instead of talking about how I was 20 yards behind my cousins, the grown-ups talked about how I ran. In bad weather, we had dance contests. I’m not a good dancer, but, I watched Soul Train back then. I picked up the hip-swiveling Dirty Dog move, and at least gained applause at a couple of dance contests. The usual winner, G.T., actually had a special outfit for the dance contests: leopard print leotards.
Unfortunately, the forced athleticism didn’t end in our dandelion riddled yards. Delicious signed me up to take gymnastics. My question was this: what is the point of doing a handstand? If you fall, you hit your head. Won’t that hurt? Also, what is the point of a cartwheel? To cover more ground? Maybe. Once, at Dollywood, my cousin P said, “Let’s hold hands and skip all the way to the Flooded Mine Ride so we’ll get there faster.” Maybe he was onto something.
Delicious signed me up for basketball in fourth grade. I had to change clothes in front of other girls, and I was already sprouting the space heaters. I hated sweating and got really annoyed when another girl bumped into me on the basketball court. Once, the coach had me throw the ball inbounds. This was a big moment for me: a moment of responsibility and leadership. I threw the ball to my Pigeon Forge Tiger teammate, and an opposing player batted it back to me. Three times in a row. That year (my only season), I scored one free throw and one regular shot. All time career high: 3 points (game and season).  Does that mean my average was three-tenths of a point per game, if we had ten games? Yay fractions!
Delicious signed me up for the swim team in middle school. I continued swimming a couple of years in high school. I sucked at swimming. The Boobs were an issue, so, like many “blessed” girls, I wore two swimsuits at the same time. I hated that my make-up washed off in the pool and I had to reapply after every event. But, swim team is fun when you have a tent, buddies, a cooler full of Cokes and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, and know how to play spades. My love of tailgating was born.
Delicious put me on the Gatlinburg-Pittman track team. I “ran” the 880 and the mile. We practiced by running the craft loop through Glades and Buckhorn Roads in Gatlinburg. My best friends and I paced through the rhododendron lined asphalt path banked by Smoky Mountain potters and painters.  I sucked at track. My coach, also my geography teacher, a.k.a., the King of Kodak, TN, did some quick research and diagnosed me with a medical condition called “slow-twitch muscle fibers.” There had to be a reason I was so sluggish. He nick-named me “Slo-Jo,” playing off the then famous Olympian Flo-Jo.
In individual races, I never, NEVER, beat anyone. In track or in swimming. That’s right: I came in last place in every individual race I ever swam or ran. But, I loved the settings. I loved riding the bus to meets. I loved laughing with my friends and flirting with other girls’ boyfriends. Most of all, I loved what swimming and running did for my appearance. 34-24-34. Good times. Which reminds me, Delicious and Sharky decided to measure themselves recently. Sharky’s measurements: 22-22-22. Delicious’s measurements: 52-52-52. Let’s just say that mine are in proportion to what they were in high school, yet proportionately larger.
Years later, between my banking and teaching careers, I felt compelled to do the expected. Play tennis. Slo-Jo has as much business on the tennis court as she does in the pool or on the track. The tennis skirt is an interesting get-up. What does it say to you? The skirt said to me, “You’d better slim up haus' because I’ve got two layers and big pockets for balls, right at your widest point.” Nothing motivates you to exercise and eat well like a toned, tanned, group of ladies with Levolor blind eyelids checking you out as you and your parts bounce around a tennis court. I told Tall Child, “I think I could be a tennis player if I had a good racquet.”
He responded, “Bug, your level of athleticism is not worthy of that level of investment.” I conceded and wrapped up my tennis season and career with a Wal-Mart racquet and somewhat slimmer physique.
By sucking at sports, I actually grew as a person. First, I am not self-conscious. Look at me all you like. As long as I’m wearing lipstick and a strong bra, I am confident! Second, I can watch basketball, tennis, swimming, and track competitions and be entertained. I am educated in the wide world of sports. Third, I don’t mind working with people who are better than I am in some capacity. I admire success and talent and don’t mind pulling up the rear. Every team has a Flo-Jo and a Slo-Jo. Finally, I am not afraid to step outside the barn and try something abstract or seemingly out of reach. I had the guts to quit a high-paying banking job. I tried to overcome several obstacles to have a baby. Tall Child and I committed to and succeeded in adopting the Roaming Gnome.  In my late-thirties, I made an abrupt career change. This year, I wrote and published a novel.
I asked Tall Child, who now coaches youth basketball and baseball, “As a coach, what’s your attitude toward your worst player, someone like me?”
He said, “I try to give him more attention than the other ones to make him feel like an important part of the team.”
I asked, “What is your advice to that player who is on a team and not one bit of good?”
He said, “Play hard and enjoy the game. Sports keep you from playing video games. They make you interact with other kids. You learn how to work with others. That’s about it.”
In middle school, high school, and college, I did in fact learn how to interact with others and be part of a team—yes, as a terrible athlete, but more so as someone who could say, “I’m with the band.” Which brings me to Theory 6: If you want the ultimate college experience, join the band.
See you next post. Until then, think outside the barn!

Like the wind
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Friday, June 7, 2013

Steps You Can Take to Help Someone You Love Battle Cancer

Theories: Size 12 readers, I am postponing my next blog article, Theory 5: Play a sport, even if you suck at it, to touch on a more serious topic this week. Today, I feature a guest post from my dear friend and co-worker, Sherri McCall.

Each school-day morning, I drive Alcoa Highway from Knoxville to Maryville. To my left I view God’s power and creation in the majestic Smoky Mountain skyline. To my right, I sense high-speed innovation and adventure in McGhee Tyson Airport. In the midst of all that beauty and progress, it seems that pain and tragedy should be impossible. But, both are there. Sherri and I teach ninth grade technology together in scenic Blount County. We are buffered by The Great Smoky Mountains, top-notch co-workers, an All-American student body, and a supportive community. Sherri jokes that we are soul mates. Once, when I came up with an awesome lesson plan that lightened her work load for a few days, she threatened, “I could kiss you right in the mouth!” We are close (not that close) and I love her dearly.  We are kindred sprits: women, mothers, teachers, caregivers, sufferers, friends, thinkers, and laughers—to say the least. But Sherri is something more. She is a cancer survivor.

Friday, June 7, Maryville College will host the Relay for Life of Blount County. The Facebook page to promote the event challenges followers, “The journey to end cancer starts with a single step. Will you walk with us this weekend?” In honor of the Relay for Life of Blount County, cancer patients everywhere, and those who love them, I asked Sherri to write a blog post to help others. But, I gave her odd instructions. Instead of writing to inspire cancer patients, I asked Sherri to write to the friends and family of cancer patients.
How many of you have asked someone suffering, “What can I do to help?” How many concrete answers did you receive? My guess is not many. Most folks are not as direct as Sherri and I are. Regardless, cancer patients need help and are often so consumed with worry they simply can’t answer such a vague question.  When someone you love is battling cancer, you are part of her journey. So, in honor of the Relay for Life, here are a few of Sherri’s simple, honest, specific steps you can take to help someone you love. 

From Sherri:
Despite the fact that every patient reacts differently to a diagnosis and to treatment options, and each has a unique support system, a common thread exists among people who survive cancer.  Cancer survivors are just that: survivors.  They are diligent, resilient, and possess an inner strength like no other. For me, surviving cancer meant that I had to be strong, graceful under adversity, and I had to do much of “it” on my own.  Others wish to help you, but don’t know how.  Some of the steps I list below detail things that others did for me. Some of the steps I list below are things I needed but had to figure out on my own during cancer treatment.  You may take some or all of the following measures, depending on your loved one’s situation:

Step 1: Don’t ask the patient how you can help. She doesn’t know how to answer that question. 

Step 2: Go to the doctor with the patient. Waiting rooms are depressing and full of apprehensive people. Be present. Whether it is radiation or chemotherapy, offer to go and talk to her while she waits. Even go in with her if she will let you. Anything to get her mind off of her immediate worries will help.  Bring her a People magazine to read or a Sudoku puzzle or word find to fill the time in the waiting room. Include sharpened pencils.  Gossip with her about funny things that happened at work.

Step 3: If you go to appointments or chemo treatments, bring a variety of sweet and salty snacks that you know the patient likes. Anything from Snickers bars, Cheez-its, Diet Coke, bottled water. The patient may not have felt like eating breakfast.  Cheez-its may sound good at 9, but a Snickers bar may do just the trick at 10. Cancer treatments vary, as does the patient’s appetite and nausea. It doesn’t really matter what she eats at this point, just make sure she eats something that she wants, that tastes good to her.

Step 4: Keep a journal. Write things down: things the doctor says, questions the patient has, appointment times, and anything else pertinent to the patient or her treatment/care.  Make notes about positive things too.  Trust me; the patient will not remember anything that was said by the time she walks out of that doctor’s office.  “Deer in the headlights” is what you feel like. You need someone to be your advocate/cheerleader/decision-maker/guide.

Step 5: Pick up her kids from school and take them to Sonic for a Cherry Limeade, to basketball practice and back, or to your house for a few hours. Help them finish homework before you take them home. Depending on where the patient is with treatment, she may be too tired to read with her 3rd grader before bed.  I wouldn’t have cared if a friend or even my ex-husband came to my apartment after school with the kids. If someone had taken charge of dinner, homework, baths, etc. I would have been so appreciative. I wanted to know that they were home and taken care of, but sometimes I didn’t feel well enough to do it myself.

Step 6: Take dinner to the house. Find out what her kids like to eat and fix that.  Make southern “comfort” food: macaroni and cheese, chicken casserole, Jell-O salad (although I HATE Jell-O!  J), or chicken and dumplings, just to name a few. A mother will feel better knowing her kids had dinner, and she just might eat some herself. Make extra to freeze and pull out on days when they don’t feel like cooking. Wash the dishes, and don’t leave items she has to return (casserole pans, Tupperware).

Step 7: Clean her house, do the laundry, load the dishwasher, change the bed sheets.  Anyone who has children likely has a “mess” of some kind in her house at any given time.  Or hire a regular house keeper to come do the big things like vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the oven, and the windows, while the patient is going through treatment. Several friends could go in together to hire someone once a month for six months.

Step 8: Mail a hand-written note to her. Say what you feel, such as “I am praying for you,” “I admire your strength,” or “Hang in there.” Be specific. Be genuine. Include a gift card to a restaurant (especially one that delivers) for nights when she doesn’t feel like cooking.

Step 9: Do something special for her children.  Take them to a movie on Saturday afternoon.  Go to their orchestra concert and take pictures or video if she is too sick to attend.  Pay on her child’s lunch account at his/her school or pack his/her lunch for a week and send it with your child to them at school.

Step 10: Get a key to her house.  Surprise her by putting dinner in the oven, raking leaves or pulling weeds in the flower beds when she is not at home. Again, several friends could pool money to hire a lawn service to visit periodically.

Step 11: Get involved in a charity that benefits cancer research.  My friends trained and ran in “Race for the Cure” in downtown Knoxville while I was undergoing treatment.  They picked me up, took me with them, and took me out to breakfast afterward.  Those pictures are some of my sweetest memories of that time!  That is a great way to honor someone who is fighting for her life.

Friends and family members of cancer patients, these are just a few steps you can take as you stride alongside someone you love as she fights for her health. Cancer patients, let people help you! Friends and family members will ask, “What can I do to help you?"  Answer them in detail. If nothing else, print this list and hand it to them. They love you. Though not to the same degree, they are suffering and they are treading this journey with you. They may need directions.

Sherri, thank you again for being such a strong role model for others, especially those battling cancer. And, thank you for this post. It is sure to help many!

Readers, please comment below if you would like to share other ideas as to how friends and family may help cancer patients.

For more information on the Relay for Life of Blount County, visit

Be sure to check back here next Friday for Theory 5: Play a sport, even if you suck at it.

Until then, think outside the barn!