Sunday, July 14, 2013

James Franklin Swenson

This was my Dad: James Franklin Swenson, or as we knew him, "Jamie."  I pulled this photo out of one of my old albums of family photos - all of them losing their color now, and all needing to be scanned or in danger of being lost. I chose this picture because there are so many reminders in it of my childhood home and my family.

The Christmas Tree

Jamie liked to find a tree with something other than the traditional shape, so we'd go out to a state park with a permit to cut down a tree. The Christmas we lived with this tree, it took up most of the living room and anyone sitting on the right half of the couch sat with a lap full of tree branch. It was so lop-sided that it would tip over several times throughout the day and night until Jamie finally managed to secure it to the bookshelves behind it. I still remember the "WHOOMP!" mingled with the sound of tinkling bells and glass ornaments hitting the floor in the middle of the night.
(*I realize as I look at the tree again, there aren't any ornaments on it. I think the only thing left is stuff made from cloth.
At some point, we decided it wasn't worth breaking any more of them, and we stripped the tree and put them all away.)

The Bookshelves

Jamie built those himself, as well as cutting and fitting the boards that they are attached to. That paneling is rough red cedar, but the shelves were made of plywood and stained red. All of the books that sat on those shelves were stained red eventually as well because he was probably on to his next project before he got around to sealing them. He was always building, learning or planning something. Those books still read just as good (if not gooder).

The Rocking Chair

That's my Mom's rocking chair. I know the sound of that chair and the feel of every curve and upholstery nail. All through my years growing up, that chair was most representative to me of my Mom, and I have flashes of memory of what it was like to climb into her lap while she was sitting on it all the way up to leaning over to kiss her cheek before going to bed.

The Carpet

My folks bought the home where this 1976 photo was taken in 1969, when the house was ten years old. It has hardwood floors throughout, but they had 4 kids, 5 1/2 years apart total, and always at least one dog and a couple of cats, so it was pretty noisy. They had this carpet put down in the early 70s - a kind of coat of many colors pattern. I liked it then, and probably still would today, mostly because I doubt if I would ever see the same pattern anywhere else. That is something they taught me to appreciate: unusual things are interesting.

The Plants

I think one of those is a Strawberry Plant my folks brought from Michigan. It was the only one they took with them when we moved to Oregon in 1967 in our Ford Galaxy 500 with the U-Haul trailer behind us. The pots were hand made, and I think my dad's brother was the craftsman. The hangers were probably macrame my Mom did.

The Artwork

Jamie built that ship in the glass case. He built the case also. Then, there's a wooden mask my Uncle Jan bought in Mexico and some skulls Jamie mounted on velvet covered boards. That mantle is the one where, as kids, we knocked one of the clay figurines onto the floor, shattering it, and spent the next 20 minutes arguing about which one of us would take the blame so the others wouldn't get in trouble. We wanted to protect each other and we knew we had done wrong. As it was, my folks just said, "Accidents happen." (Man, that WAS a really good pillow fight, though!)

The Presents

A quick glance shows several gifts that couldn't almost be anything other than record albums. This might have been the Christmas Hanna gave me The Pointer Sisters' live album recorded in San Francisco, or Liz gave me Elvis' "Aloha Via Satellite From Hawaii." We all gave each other records, though, and that is one of the most lasting and important legacies of my folks. They used to tell us a story of how, when they were first married, they saved up enough money to buy a set of dishes, but on the way to shop for them, they stopped at a record store and blew every last dime on records. Music was always important to my Dad and he even taught himself to play some on the banjo and guitar. He was a great singer and he could appreciate any style of music. The last gift I gave him was a couple of CDs from the folk singer, Taylor Pie.

Jamie passed away on Friday, just a little over two months past the diagnosis his doctors gave him of stomach cancer. I got to talk to him on Monday, with my sister Katie holding the phone, and I told him about how I loved him, and I was proud of him, and that I hoped I had as much dignity as he when my time comes. Then, I played a song for him on the piano that his mother taught me. None of us know the name of it, but I play be ear, so I remember it. Jamie told me once that she would play it for him and his brothers every night when they were tucked in bed, and they would call down from their bedrooms, "Play it again, Mama! Play it again!" I did play it through twice, and came back to the phone, and Katie told me, "He's moving his feet a little in time to the music, and he squeezed my hand. I think he wants you to play it again."

And so I did.

This photo is the last time I saw my Dad, when my folks were driving back to Oregon from visiting me in Texas in October of 2011.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The End of The Beginning

I was reprimanded by four of my supervisors, in an Emergency Meeting, when I worked for Sears (in a thankless job in one of their merchandizing offices) for something I didn't say, but that many people thought I said. This happened over 30 years ago, and now, probably everyone that was in that meeting except me is dead, but I still remember it. I was told, "It isn't important what you said or didn't say. What is important is what everyone thinks you said." And that it was my fault that the person who misheard me spread this rumor all over the office. I was also told to use more caution.

I'm less inclined, in my personal life, to be railroaded today, but I still see evidence of this prevailing mentality: The Facts Don't Matter. It is easier to base our actions on a well-publicized lie than deal with truth.

I should probably add a word of warning right about here. I am about as left-leaning of a liberal as you will ever meet, so if that kind of writing offends you, leave now. When I started this blog, I made a barely-critical comment about G.W. Bush and a couple of people stopped by to pee all over my post about it. I revised the article to comply with their sensitivities. They probably never even noticed. Too busy whining somewhere else? Well, those days are done. This blog is mine. Part of being a waiter, later, is not having to suck up to people, pretending to be something I'm not. Fair warning, then, that if you stumble upon this, I didn't write it to offend you, but I'm not changing it to please you either.

I think the dog and pony show at Sears is on my mind today because I've been thinking about other instances of stuff that isn't true that people react to as if they are because "it's important what everyone thinks you said." I think it's more important to go back and identify that original lie. Dispute the false evidence that the claims are made upon.

For instance: Standardized testing in the public schools.
We know this doesn't work. People do not learn the same way, have the same skill sets, express themselves identically, etc and we would be in one helluva mess if they did, but we evaluate students, and their teachers' performance, based on the premise that all of this is true, and excuse this travesty by claiming we "must have standards." The lie is that the only standard permissible is conformity. I wonder, how has it happened that our teachers are the last people we look to for answers about how best to educate? Instead, they are accused of being lazy, their job security and wage structure is attacked, and they are told how to teach - by people who have never taught a day in their lives.The standardized method is class warfare. It is a method of indoctrination, and a tactic for weeding out critical thinkers to create a paint-by-numbers hoard who will do as their told (by their privately educated peers of the wealthier class).

Another instance that gives me the same knot in my stomach as my Sears days is the whitewashing that's being pulled on the American public with tort reform.

In spite of the fact that measures are already in place to deal with abuses against the court system, we have been snookered into thinking that some sweeping, generalized cap limit on the amount of money we are allowed to sue for damages. This, supposedly, is to protect us, keep services and merchandize affordable, and weed out all of those people who take advantage of the court system.


We're going to neuter due process, but let the corporations run wild - unregulated, no holds barred - for our protection? There's A Modest Proposal, if I ever heard one.

And the third really upside-down rationale floating around right now is about guns.

The Second Amendment so clearly states that being permitted to own guns is for the purpose of a well-regulated militia.When the Supreme Court elected to redact the 13 words that precede our right to bear arms, we became more loyal to "what someone thinks they said" than to what they actually said. And this has become the basis for a defense for people buying guns for their kids, allowing all manner of assault weapons with multiple rounds of ammunition, and giving criminals easy access to weapons by blocking gun laws. We don't want to know the truth, and we don't want to fix the problems of rampant gun violence. We want to protect the corporations that manufacture the guns, because this is about protecting assets more than lives.

When I waited tables, my job often required me to acquiesce to a customer's unreasonable demands and cover for the inadequacies of my employer or the inferiority of their product. Slowly, but surely, as I distance myself from the mindset of pleasing others and learn how to stand up for myself, I see that none of us are doing each other any favors by accepting these commonly used lies about standardized tests, tort reform or gun control. Rather than allow the folks who benefit from these abuses to set the playing field for our discussions, we ought to be revisiting their initial flawed premises. If I could go back 30+ years, I would say to these bullies at Sears, "Yes, it IS important what I said, and if you are willing to ignore what I said in favor of something that is not true, I can't trust you."

Still, if I hadn't lost that crappy job, I might never have taken that Greyhound bus to Denver with $300 in my pocket, and begun my glamorous life as a waiter. (And he lived happily ever, after.)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Is Your Real Job?

It's been a long time since I contributed to this blog. I started it full of ideas - and I made a list of those ideas - but my computer crashed and I never quite got back into the swing of things. I don't wanna give up on writing, but I think I've got more to write about than my old waiter stories

Back when I was still a waiter - especially when I worked in the pancake house - customers would sometimes ask, "What is your real job?" Bearing in mind, ya gotta be nice to them if you wanna be tipped, I would never tell them what I thought about their question. It is ironic that, these many years later, the only job I've ever had that felt "real" was being a waiter. It was serendipitous, then, when I found out, after being asked to serve as a deacon at my church, that deacon actually means "waiter." It's from the Greek word, Diakonos. So, here I am, a waiter again!

I think I'll use this blog as a place to share recipes, stuff about plants, and maybe the occasional memory if one happens to shake loose. Friends could share their ideas about gardening, or food ideas in the comments and maybe it will be more interactive that way, and less of a monologue.

Basically, that's a long-winded way of saying I can't remember much anymore about my years as a waiter.

I hope you like what I come up with.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Bar Experience

I was tending bar when Susan was hired to be our new Supervisor. Mini-skirt, 4-inch high heels, push-up bra and press-on nails (she lost one in someone's salad once. Yuck.) Mark, the lecherous putz of a Food and Beverage Director, said she had "a lot of experience working in bars" but we all wondered on which side. Apart from flirting with the cooks and just about anything in pants, Susan liked to decorate the Happy Hour buffet table. All well and good, but she didn't ever seem to take into account just how that table was going to be used, so plates could wind up just about anyplace and items that should have been placed in near proximity could be at opposite ends of the table. Susan's deal was "making it look pretty."

One particularly memorable "pretty" buffet was for a Mexican themed variety of hors-d'ouevres. Lots and lots of crepe paper strewn all around the legs of the chafing dishes - plenty of streamers and confetti and paper mache shared the table with candles and several large cans of Sterno. In a word: Kindling. As soon as someone walked in the front door, the wind blew the streamers into the open flame, setting off a kind of fuse that soon had the entire ten foot table erupting in flames. I managed to put out the fire with a couple of nearby pitchers of water and a wad of table cloths, while Susan said  things like, "Hurry!" or "Oh, gawsh!"

From time to time, she'd come behind the bar to "help." This usually meant, I helped her get her high heels unstuck from the floor mats while she helped herself to my tips. She didn't know how to make a drink, and she couldn't use the register, so mostly she just talked to the customers, ate the cherries out of my garnish trays and got in my way. Inevitably, she mistook the relieved look on my face when she finished "helping" for gratitude, and always promised to show up again when she was needed. (I should be so lucky.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bonnie Parker, Former Waitress, Killed Dead

I was at a double feature at the Paramount tonight, "They Live by Night" and "Bonnie and Clyde." As I left the theater, I heard the woman behind me say to her friend, "Well, I guess that's better than being a waitress all your life."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Betty, Please

Even before I became a waiter, I had been given the nickname, "Betty" by some of my co-workers in Washington who remembered this Laverne and Shirley episode (at the time, the show was still on the air). A few years later when my friend Curtis and I were waiting tables around Denver together, he also started calling me "Betty" and I named him Hazel. This clip is really funny, but I think because there is truth underneath the slapstick surface. There is nothing quite like the chaotic experience of being "bombed," "in the weeds," "slammed" or "going under" in a diner.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Well done, good and faithful servant

I don't think I was ever really cut out to be a waiter, even though that's what I spent most of my life doing. There are some things about me that were a decent fit: I am intuitive, fairly quick-witted, and I motivate well with short term goals and the regular affirmation that being tipped affords. However, I really suck at multi-tasking (unless it's big picture, planning-ahead stuff) and my feelings get hurt way too easily.

I didn't ever know how to take advantage of being a waiter like using the job to network, sucking up to the cooks for free food (or stealing food), moving around from restaurant to restaurant (or city to city, working the circuit) or knowing how to sweet-talk customers into bigger tips. Instead, I was the kind of waiter that wanted to please people and was flattered or hurt by the size of my tip. I also didn't have the sense God gave a pig to know that eating a side of toast that was never served and was going to be thrown away wasn't a kind of "stealing" that would hurt my employer. I was going hungry, trying to make a generic loaf of white bread last for three days of meals, but I'd throw the toast away at work because I hadn't paid for it. My conscience got in the way of common sense.

When I worked at the Pancake House, every waiter was supposed to "dip butters," meaning, we each scooped small balls of whipped butter into portion cups on large baking pans that were stored on racks in the refrigerator and used for pancakes and waffles. There were times I would realize after I had walked over a mile from the restaurant back to my apartment that I hadn't dipped my butters and I would walk all the way back just to take care of it. Didn't matter if it was snowing and I was dog tired and cold. I was also the kind of waiter who would keep working if someone from the next shift didn't show, even though I knew my loyalty wouldn't even be noticed.

I behaved on my job as if I worked in an office and could expect a promotion some day for my dedication, when I should have stayed on the move, always looking for the money. That is, if being a waiter had ever been about the money for me. Instead, I think waiting tables was a matter of honor. I knew it was a hard job, and I wanted to be good at it. Of course, wish in one hand; I'm not sure that I ever succeeded. There are times when I'd like to have just one more run at it to prove to myself, but I'm pretty sure I'd just be chasing after that proverbial carrot. Still, I don't think of my career as a waiter as misguided: Skills or not, I did want to be a waiter. To paraphrase Florence Foster Jenkins, "They may say I couldn't wait tables, but they can never say I didn't wait tables."