Monday, August 30, 2010

Suffering fools? Gladly!

There's a family story among the Hathaways about my Dad's grandfather, a physician who also owned and ran a pharmacy in Grantsville, West Virginia.  As a kid, my dad used to hang out there after school sometimes, and one day some old timer came into the store and started yammering on about psoriasis.  "It comes from the bones, y'know!" he insisted, suggesting that the disease somehow leaked out of the bones and rose up through the skin, where it manifested itself.

"Dr. Dye" (as my great-grandfather is invariably called) just nodded and grunted in a neutral way, neither agreeing or disagreeing, but allowing the guy to have his say.  Eventually, the old-timer exhausted his theory and left.

My dad immediately said, "Grandpa, you know that's not what causes psoriasis!  Why'd you let that guy go on and on like that when you knew he was wrong?'

Dr. Dye replied, "The man's an idiot."

Now, that phrase gets bantered around with some frequency in my family--it is, in fact, one of several examples I'll often use to explain the concept of the kernel story to my folklore students:  the "punch line" of a story that's so well known in a small group that they almost never retell the whole story--they just use the phrase.

"The man's an idiot" functions in more or less the same way as the proverbial saying "Never argue with a pig. It just frustrates you and annoys the pig."  Only, I guess, it's a little more harsh.  But that, apparently, was Dr. Dye.

I've always found the story, and the phrase, both funny and perplexing.  It reflects my family's tendency to avoid conflict whenever possible, though it contradicts another less-than-charming drive that most of us share:  the need to be right.

The phrase came to mind last week when I had an advising appointment with an incoming transfer student...and her helicopter parents.  Her father, in particular, was in a complete dither, going on and on about which of her credits counted in which ways, and badgering me about getting her two English courses to count so that she could have more elective hours available, because he wanted her to take education classes on the side.

Meanwhile, it was the end of the first day of classes and this young woman hadn't yet registered for a single class, or paid her tuition.  It seemed to me there were other, more urgent things to deal with--the transfer credit issue could wait, and certainly the question of taking education classes could, especially since every time he brought it up, the student rolled her eyes and yelled, "But Dad, I don't want to be a teacher!"

Long story short:  what was scheduled to be a fifteen-minute appointment took over an hour.  And I let it happen.  Why?

Well, my therapist would (and did) say that I needed to recognize how their emotions overwhelmed me sooner, so I could step into my authority and exercise "empathic assertiveness," acknowledging everyone's stress and then getting down to brass tacks.  And of course, she's right.

She was also right, though, when she suggested that part of what happened was that the situation engaged my curiosity:  What's up with these people?  Just how freaked out are they?  Is this guy as much of a psycho helicopter parent as he seems to be?

I suspect that's what was going on with Dr. Dye, too:  Just how nutty is this idiot's theory?  How long will he go on spouting it before he runs out of steam?

And sure, it can be perversely entertaining to let people spin themselves out.  But it's a real problem when they actually need your help, and you've lost complete control of the situation.  And then there's always the nagging worry about not wanting to be a doormat, or to have people think that you suffer fools gladly.

 But you have to pick your battles, too. 

For me, the family story is a better clue to the real problem, and the possible solution.  Yeah, thinking guys like the psoriasis expert or the helicopter dad are idiots makes it easy to dismiss them, but it doesn't get anyone anywhere.  I need an addendum to the phrase--something like, "The man's an idiot, and I need to figure out whether he's the kind of idiot I need to A) Humor;  B) Confront; or C) Get the hell away from as quickly as possible."

In the meantime, there's always Dr. Dye's other famous saying to fall back on:  "Grandson, if you don't amount to a hill of beans in your life, have a kind word for every man and always tip your hat to the ladies."

Photo of Dr. Dye on the front porch of his home in Grantsville, taken by my Dad circa 1941.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two and a half jokes.

So I was standing in line at the Morgantown post office today (where you always have to stand in line, because that's the way it is). Anyway, while I was waiting, one of the postal clerks behind the desk is having a chat with the old geezer standing in front of him. Suddenly, the clerk gets this gleam in his eye.

"Did you hear that FedEx and UPS are going to merge?" he asked.

"No, I didn't," said the geezer.

"Yeah, they're going to call the company FedUp!"

Smiles all around, if not outright laughter.

Anyway, as you might imagine, first thing I did when I got home was to wait around for my opportunity to work this joke into the casual conversation at the old homestead. Which I did. And Rose responded with "At least they're not shooting each other down there!" Which makes it two postal worker jokes in one day. Or at least one and a half.

Back to work on Monday.

Which reminds me of another old joke: So, once upon a time, a guy was sentenced to an eternity in Hell, and he was being given a tour of the place by Satan himself, who showed him from one room to another, and told him he could take his pick of places to stay and punishments to endure for the rest of time. In the first room, he saw a bunch of people standing on their heads on a solid wood floor, while a host of devil's crafty minions stood around making sure no one was slacking off. It looked painful and uncomfortable both.

So the devil showed him to the next room, where an even larger number of people (and a corresponding number of minions) were standing on their heads on a solid concrete floor. Even worse.

So, finally, the devil took him into the next room, where an even greater number of people were standing around, knee-deep in manure, sipping coffee out of china cups and chatting with the minions. "This is the room for me," says the guy, and the devil says, "All right, follow me: we just need to clear up some paperwork." And as they walk out the door, the guy hears the chief of the devil's minions shout out "All right, coffee break's over! Back on your heads!"

And so that's probably what I'll be thinking about when I go back to work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I'm stealing this meme from YA author, friend, and fellow blogger Erin McCahan
My Week in 7 Words:
--repeat until SFD* of article is completed.

Success!  7,000-some words of academic writing, another 4,500 of personal writing (which were easier to churn out than the academic stuff...hmmm).  Either way, lots of words for one week, so, short post.  More soon, though, chiefly about my reignited hatred of Jimmy Buffett.

*Sh!##y first draft.  Thank you, Anne Lamott.  

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tile and Error

After three years in the house, we finally decided to do something about the upstairs bath, which had been remodeled on the cheap by a previous owner, and was a weird mashup of 50s-era tile and 80s fixtures.

We had a pretty complete plan: install new lighting, a new vanity, and new low-flow toilet; pull the old tile off the walls and put up put up bead-board wainscoting; pull two strata of linoleum off the floor and put down new tile.

I really liked the look of some tile we'd seen at Lowe's:  long, rectangular porcelain tiles designed to look like hardwood.  Since we'd never installed a tile floor before, though, we figured we'd better hire a professional to do that part of the work.

We talked to some folks at a local kitchen and bath place, who were very nice, but didn't know anything about the tile we'd picked out, and who gave us an estimate for materials and installation that neared the four-digit mark.

I've done a tiny bit of tile installation before, and the bathroom is only about 6 x 7 feet. How hard could it be? And my old grad school pal Jim Brown encouraged us to do it ourselves: his suggestion was to read a book about how to do it, which sounded like advice only an English professor would give.  So, we special-ordered the original tile we'd liked from Lowe's.

We ordered the tile about a month ago, and were told it would take about ten days for delivery. Sure enough, ten days later, we got a phone call from Lowe's: the tile had arrived, but it was all "busted up" and Lowe's had refused delivery. They reordered. In the meantime, Rose had gotten online and ordered us a new light fixture for the ceiling, a new faucet, and a new toilet. We also special-ordered a couple other things from Lowe's--a vanity and a medicine cabinet.

Well, several weeks after I knocked the tile off the wall, almost all of those things have arrived, and are now sitting in various places in the house: the new toilet is up in Rose's office; the new vanity is in the garage. The ceiling light is already installed.

Part two of the Lowe's saga began with a call yesterday, saying that our special order had arrived. We didn't know if it was the tile or the medicine cabinet, since we were waiting on that, too, so I called them up to ask. Here's what the conversation sounded like from my end:
Me: So I got a call yesterday that a special order had come in. Could you tell me what it is?
Clerk: Is it tall?
Me: Tall?  I'm not sure.
Clerk: Tall, you know: T-I-L-E.
Oh, yeah, we're in West Virginia, already.

So, we drove over today to pick up the tile, excited that the real remodeling work could begin, since the floor will have to go in before anything else can.

We waited about fifteen minutes for them to bring the tile out for us to load in the car...four little boxes that hardly looked like enough to cover the floor. So I pulled a piece out of one of the boxes, looked at it for a moment, and then said to Rosemary, "Hey, didn't we order the tile that was six inches wide? This is only four inches."

Sure enough, what we ordered was not what had turned up at our store. Since we'd already had to sign for it, we then had to take it back into the store, return it, and re-order the right stuff. At least the tile guy gave us a ten percent discount for our trouble.  

But on the upside, twenty minutes after we got home, Lowe's called us again to tell us the medicine cabinet was in.

And we thought we'd get it all done before school started up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I was rooting for the Big Bad Wolf

In a previous post, I mentioned how much I loathed Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red, a contemporary retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, featuring two sisters who become werewolf hunters after their grandmother is attacked and killed by one.

I suggested I might blog about it eventually, but I couldn't really say it any better than the Book Smugglers did in their recent review.

I wanted to like this novel.  Really, I did.  It had some clever twists:  the address of the apartment building the characters live in is "333," a reference to LRRH's tale-type number (AT 333), and the werewolves are called the fenris, from the Old Norse word for wolf.  Plus, I get that LRRH has always been either implicitly or explicitly sexual.  Just do a Google search for LRRH images to see how adult and tarty LRRH often appears, or read this version of the tale.

But does that mean the LRRH figure actually has to dress up like a hooker and go out deliberately trying to draw wolves to her?

Thanks, but I prefer my "girl power" a little less girly.  And a whole lot less creepy.

Sisters Red is book I almost put down (nay, almost threw across the room) several times.  I haven't had that feeling about a book in a long time.

Unfortunately, I'm one of those people who sort of feels compelled to finish a book once I've gotten through a significant chunk of it.  I'm curious:  do you all share that feeling, or are you perfectly OK with never finishing a book that you've decided you don't like...even if you've gotten more than halfway through it?

Artwork:  WPA poster by Kenneth Whitley (1939)