Suzanne Olsen's Humor Blog - I don't offend some of the people most of the time

Category: Gifts


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My brother just called – he’s on his way to Texas and saw a tumbleweed blowing across the road. “It reminded me of that tumbleweed I sent you when I was a Coke spy. Remember it?”

Of course I remembered it. I had just flunked out of college after two years of courting Jack Daniels rather than going to class. To pay my half of the rent I worked as a waitress – a little smug because who needed college anyway since I made more in tips than a lot of college graduates earn. I was living the life, having a lot of fun, but sometimes nagged by that vague sense of despair from not having any direction in life.

This is what a tumbleweed looks like.

Then a box arrived – a big box, from my brother. He’d gotten a job with the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta as part of an elite team of high-achieving college graduates hired to enforce trademark rules in restaurants across the country. The company gave these college VIP’s a new car, good salary, an expense account, and lots of other perks and sent them out to American cities large and small. Their job? Go into eating establishments and say, “Can I have a burger and fries and a Coca-Cola?” When the waitress brought their beverage, they sneaked a sample of it with a syringe, labeled it and later typed up a report, such as, “I ordered a burger and fries and a Coca-Cola from a slim 5’4” waitress with blond hair in a beehive hairdo wearing a name tag that said, ‘Mabel.’ She brought a beverage to me at 12:42 pm” and so on, describing the interaction, restaurant, and all other facts about the encounter. The Coke spy labeled the beverage and mailed it to Atlanta, where it was analyzed. If the waitress served a Pepsi or RC or some other brand, Atlanta sent them a letter saying they could not substitute cola beverages. They had to say, “We don’t have Coca-Cola, is Pepsi okay?” Later, another Coke spy would return to the same place, and eventually, if the restaurant didn’t comply, they’d get sued and my brother flew to Atlanta to testify. The company was trying to keep people from using the word “Coke” as a generic word for cola. In other words, they wanted “Coke” to be a Coke, not a Pepsi, not a Shasta. I think it’s called trademark infringement.


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Around mid-December, when I was eleven or twelve years old, my brother who was fourteen or fifteen, skulked into our house, hunched over a wrapped present tucked under his arm, looking from side to side like a cartoon thief. He went straight to the Christmas tree, got on his knees and slid the present all the way to the back of the tree so it would be completely hidden. When he stood back up, he had a scared look on his face. “Don’t tell anybody,” he whispered. “This is from (he said her name). I don’t want dad and momma to find out about it.”

I knew who he was talking about – the girl lived a few blocks away – part of a trashy family. We knew they were trashy because Momma used this descriptive title for anyone who didn’t take care of their house, or it had unsightly trash out front. Garbage, or cars up on blocks – that was obvious, but it could be peeling paint, rotting porch steps, or a yard full of straggly weeds. This girl’s family was well-known for several of these aberrations. It was nothing personal against the girl, but the lifestyle of the family cursed her all the same.


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Gifts is misleading – a gift is something someone gives you, not because you deserve it (although I do, especially on my birthday because I, like many children born in December, got short-changed back in the day and would only get one box with the feeble, “Here’s your birthday and Christmas present,” mantra that, to a child, did nothing but break my heart. I didn’t know the pecuniary value of the gift, all I knew was that there was only one box to open, and that box didn’t even have balloons and streamers on it, but reeked of Santa’s and pine trees and red and green do-dads, so where’s the birthday present? – the cheapskates), but because of the person’s generosity.

This previous run-on sentence is an homage to William Faulkner, whose book, The Reivers, I’m reading now. I read it in one of my literature classes decades ago but probably only skimmed it enough to write a satisfactory analysis. Woo-wee, Faulkner is hard to follow. He writes like someone rambling along, one thought jumping in on another, going back and forth in time the way we say, “No, wait, that happened first, not after, he got out of the car. Now I remember. He was driving along and then that’s when he said…”

That’s how my brain works, a song drifts in and I sing a couple of lines in my head and then a thought bursts in (kind of like my husband does, banging open the bathroom door when I’m relaxing in the tub, just for a laugh), “Oh shoot, I forgot to put those green beans in the refrigerator. Crap! I’ll have to go back. They’ll go bad. They’re in vinegar, won’t they be okay? I don’t want to turn around. You’re an idiot. You’re almost to the mall. Just do your exchanges real quick and go back. I hate this. I wanted to go to Fred Meyers. I wonder if it would hurt to leave them another hour? With all that vinegar? They’ll be fine.” And then I sing out loud, really belt out the last stanza of the soulful song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, putting all my heart into it. “Oh shoot. You just missed your turn. What an idiot.”

The book is delightful, but I don’t know if modern readers could get past the couple of chapters to get hooked, even if they knew it won the Pulitzer Prize and got made into a movie starring Steve McQueen.

The gifts I’m talking about are the ones I get from God. Some people would call them miracles, but I know miracles. These are on a much smaller scale – like stocking stuffers or party favors, but no less appreciated.

The gifts I get most often have to do with me running late for everything. I can’t leave the house at the scheduled minute and hour because I think I have time to put the water glass in the dishwasher, and hang up the dish towel, put the magazine on the pile around the corner. I’ve got time – I know, to the nanosecond, how long it takes me to get somewhere – IF I don’t get stopped by too many red lights. When I make it through a few in a row I smile and say to myself, “It’s a gift.”

I get premonitions – not like someone who sees the future, but I get a feeling that I should do something. Like pick up around the house when I’m not expecting someone to come over. The place is usually technically clean, but I leave things lying around, drawers open, coats hung on the backs of chairs, an open umbrella drying in the great room, dirty clothes in the basket in the middle of the floor headed for the laundry room or folded on their way back to the bedroom, pine needles and leaves on the carpet, cups and plates in the kitchen, recipe book, colander, measuring spoons, pepper grinder and fresh dilly green beans in jars that should have been put in the refrigerator. Saturdays I do toilets, vacuum, sweep, dust. The place is nice for the weekend. Weekdays it’s a hoarders paradise.

Sometimes I take a notion to pick up around the house even when I’m not expecting anyone, who knows why, I just do it. And then there’s a knock at the door and it’s someone like my mother-in-law. “Come in, so glad you dropped by.” As I lead them into the tidy kitchen, “can I get you a cup of tea?” I smile and think, “It’s a gift.”

I’ll make plans to do something when I’m too busy or it’s not my favorite activity, and then it gets cancelled. “It’s fine,” I say, “it gives me a chance to get this mess picked up. You should see my house.” I hang up, smile, and think, “Another gift.”

No, it’s not coincidence, because these aren’t things I’m praying for, they’re little surprises that come from subconscious hope. I don’t want to pester God with trivial things like red lights (although I do sometimes when I’m desperate). I know where my gifts come from, and I know who to thank.

Even picking up that dog-eared, water-stained, frayed, crackling paperback from Survey of American Literature 403 was a gift. Thanks Mr. Faulkner, for giving me some smiles and forcing my brain to focus pretty darned hard to figure out what the heck you’re talking about. You really did understand the human heart. Maybe someday I will too. “It’s a gift.”

And yes, I’m smiling.

Askar’s Story, Part 1

Let me tell you about Askar. He’s this senior high school student I’ve been volunteer tutoring for a couple of years.

Askar came from Somalia, a war-torn country in Africa, three years ago and did not know English. The first year I tutored him he was a happy-go-lucky kid who smiled a lot, joined the track team, and was learning quickly. He made good grades in spite of barely understanding English because he worked so hard. Sometimes it was painful to work with him – I had to keep asking him to repeat his questions in order to understand what he was saying. He could not read one sentence of homework instructions without having to ask what two or three words meant.

In December 2009 Askar had to leave our tutoring session early because he said he had a job interview. He was a senior, so it wasn’t unusual that he’d want a part-time job. I asked what kind of work and he told me that it was on an assembly line working 5 days a week from 3-11 I pried and found out that his parents had split up and he had been living with his older brother, but the brother was moving and Askar had to find his own place. “I have to have rent money,” he said.

I knew he could not finish his senior year and work this job, which was located way out by the airport, so I begged him not to take that job. I mentioned to the librarian that he needed work, and perhaps she put the word out. As luck would have it, he got a job as a janitor right at the high school working from 4-9 Monday through Friday, which was a perfect set-up.

He had too much luck, however, because he had also applied at OHSU hospital and was hired there as well, working from 3:30 to 11 on Saturday and Sunday in the transportation department moving wheelchair and stretcher patients.

I advised him not to take both jobs, but he didn’t know which to turn down, and he wanted the money. He managed okay the first couple of weeks, then he became exhausted. He’d come to tutoring and lay his head on the table to and rest. “I am so tired, SuzyAnne,” he’s say. That’s how my name sounds with a Somalian accent. He complained of headaches and of his grades falling. He had found an apartment, but it was across town, which meant a long bus ride to school and after work.

I kept saying, “You are young, you can do this. Just don’t quit school.” It became apparent after the first month that he wasn’t gong to be able to manage it all. He didn’t have enough time to work, go to school, study and sleep, much else shop for and prepare food or hang out with his friends. Since he had to work, and he had to sleep at least a few hours, school moved down on his priority list.

I wondered what I could do to help him. I thought about giving him money so he could quit one of the jobs, but somehow this didn’t seem right. I prayed about it and racked my brain and finally decided that the best thing I could give him was time. One night when he got off work I showed up at the bus stop and asked him if he wanted a ride. He was surprised and hesitant, but accepted, and I drove him home. I told him, “I am supposed to do something for Lent, and I’ve decided I will drive you home from work and that will be something good I can do.”

He is Muslim and understood the concept of sacrificing for your religion, and so even though it was awkward for both of us, I continued to pick him up after work, and he accepted the rides. It usually took him an hour or more to get home on the bus, plus the waiting and walking time. I could have him home in 15 minutes or so. “You can use that extra time for sleep or studying or sleep,” I said.

Sometimes he would be so tired it would break my heart. I’d tell him a funny story or talk about the Trailblazers or ask him about work at OHSU to try and get his energy back up. “Oh, SuzyAnne,” he’d say. “The people are so fat. It took three of us to push the man’s stretcher. Three of us! He was so big and everyone there is so big! Why do they eat so much?” These stories, though tragic, made us laugh at 11:30 on those dark rainy nights, and I looked forward to hearing them.

I would ask him about the Muslim religion and was fascinated with the customs. “If you touch a girl in my country before you are married, even just on the arm, her father could come and shoot you in the head and no one would do anything to him because of the Muslim law.”

Once I brought my dog in the car, and she jumped over in his lap. He raised his hands in the air. “You’re not a dog person, I see.” “No, not really,” he said, waiting for her to get off his lap before he put his hands down. A few days later he told me that dogs were considered unclean. “if you touch a dog, you have to wash your hands seven times,” he said.

“Don’t people have them for pets?” I asked. “No, not one person,” he answered. “There is not one dog in the town I came from. Not even on the street. People have cats for pets, but not dogs.”

I will continue Askar’s story tomorrow.

Valentine’s Day Shopping Tips

Valentine’s Day is coming up on Sunday. This is a head’s up to men who might want to know about the perfect gift.

The perfect gift is any gift at all. Don’t show up empty handed, even if you think the whole holiday is just the card and candy shops trying to make an extra buck. You can be assured, despite her protests, that your sweetheart will appreciate any effort you might put forth to show her she’s dear to you.

You can show her (or him) what a special person (s)he is by taking a second to think about what (s)he’d really like. This will actually take more than a second, because a second’s worth of thought is only going to motivate you to buy the standard gifts: flowers and/or chocolate.

This is what my husband always gets me, and I act nice about it but these are the wrong gifts. Flowers must be maintained. Yes, they look very pretty, but they need to have their water changed and ends cut off or they won’t last more than a couple of days. If you send them to her workplace she’ll get to have her friends ooooo and ahhhh over them, so that may be something she’d like. I work from home so it doesn’t do me much good. If she’s not a plant person, though, flowers  may not be the best gift. Ditto for a live plant – which is a curse on any occasion. If you aren’t a plant person, you’re going to kill it. If you are, you’re going to have to water it and nurture it for years to come, and worse still; you’ll have to find a place for it. If you and I become friends, do not give me a live plant. I’ll take cut flowers any day, but I’d rather have something that will last, like diamonds.

Chocolates can be a nice gift, except for me. I’m Catholic and usually give up sweets for Lent. Lent happens a week or two after Valentines Day, so in any given year I’m either gorging myself on a giant box of chocolates to dispose of them, or letting them sit until after Lent. They call my name the entire time, even in my sleep. This is cruel. If you’re on a diet you’re not going to want the temptation, either. Think about this before you buy.

Nice gifts, in my book, are things that I can wear or physically enjoy. That’s why jewelry is cool – but don’t get me the expensive stuff, because I don’t wear it. If your sweetie does, then that’s a good choice. If she’s like me, go look in her closet and see what color clothes she has the most of – if it’s black, get her some nicely crafted black earrings at a little boutique. Look in her jewelry box and see if she likes big hanging earrings or small posts. I don’t know why this is so hard for guys. I never wear posts but I seem to always get them for a gift from my husband. If I say anything, his feelings get hurt. It’s a no-win situation unless you do a little snooping around. Notice if she wears big necklaces or small, dainty ones. Gold or silver? Beads or jewels? This is not rocket science.

If you’re buying for a guy, give him golf balls or a ticket to a basketball game – but only if HE likes these sports – not if you’re trying to get him interested in a sport you like. I get ticked when my husband gives me a gift that’s got HIS best interests at heart, not mine.

If your darling likes bubble bath, go that route. If she disdains scents, or only uses a certain line of products, then get her something she can use.

Take a few minutes, do your research, be thoughtful, and you’ll be rewarded on Valentines Day with less nagging. You may even get your heart’s desire, and if you’re a guy, I know exactly what that means to you.

Copyright © 2021 by Suzanne Olsen