July 2009


July 30th — I was driving with my girlfriend the other day and we were comparing shortcomings – poor time management, feeding our kids pigs in a blanket for dinner (her, not me), not washing  our face every night before bed (that was totally me) and so on.  It evolved to one of those silly chats where we were trying to top each other.

 I have an expired driver’s license.

“That’s not that bad. How long has it been expired?”

 “Over two years.”

 “Two years? Are you kidding? That’s unreal…I can’t believe you haven’t been caught. That is WAY illegal.”

 “I know. But I am a very good driver,” I said. I couldn’t help the lame Rainman riff. So sue me. Or arrest me as I do have an expired license.

And it was true.  In addition to being a very good driver, I am a very alert driver.  Speeding tickets? Not since college. Expired registration? Not since college.  Expired license plates? Not since college. Expired license? Not since I turned 40 and could not find EIGHT uninterrupted hours to drive myself to the DMV and get a new license without my kids. Since then, all air travel required my passport, which is a slight hassle. And I was always slightly worried that the bank would decline to cash a check with an old license.  So the hassle of living life with an expired license outweighed the hassle of spending an entire day in line at the DMV with the rest of the world.

 So here’s what happens when you show up at the DMV with a license that’s been expired for more than two years.  

 Before you leave the house, you find your birth certificate, your marriage license, your passport, a utility bill that documents your address, a compass, a water canteen and a notarized copy of your last will and testament. After all, who knows when you’ll be back, right?

 Then you drive across town first thing in at the crack of dawn, fighting traffic in the lame hope that you might be first in line. Which never, ever happens because there are always people waiting in line at the DMV, no matter what the time of day.  Even on holidays.  

 Once you arrive at the office, you are immediately triaged, just like in the ER.  Paperwork in check? Go to that desk.  New citizen and first-time license? No chance, friend, head on home and wait for a  better day.

And if you’re me, you  you call your insurance company in a panic and beg them to fax Form E#12583482373543495873489572348957438754 post-haste to the wide, bored, good ole boy DMV officer sitting at a special desk in a roped off area of the DMV office.  Because out of the reams of paperwork I bring to the DMV to document my birth, my marriage, my citizenship, my home state and where I want my children to reside in the case of my untimely death, but I don’t bring Form E#12583482373543495873489572348957438754. Once he receives proof that you own and drive an insured vehicle, you take a number (like at the deli), grab a study guide for the NC Driving Exam and take a load off.

I sit between a woman with a newborn baby and a woman in a floor-length burqua. I can’t focus on the study guide – there are too many compelling questions than how to make a left hand turn in traffic.  I mean when’s the last time I’ve even been in a DMV office? Well, apparently, not in this millenium it seems.  This place is practically brimming over with sights to see. 

First, why would a brand new mom with a brand new baby be at the DMV…by herself…with a newborn baby… in a germy, gross, smelly office with lots of nasty, germ-infested people. I know I took a shower this morning, but I can only vouch for myself, and all these people are cooing and fussing over this tiny little baby. I mean, if you want to show off your baby, can’t you go to the park? Or to the grocery? And I can assure you that getting a license photo taken days after giving birth was not going to happen in my lifetime. Don’t new moms get some kind of temporary DMV exemption? Can’t they have one of those shadow heads in the photo?

Next, I turn to the woman in the floor-length burqua.  Where to begin? Does she have to show her face in her license photo? Does she take the test in English (which she speaks not a lick up, by the way).  Can she drive with her face covered? Is that fair? Is that legal? Is that attractive? Is that a good idea for me?

I can’t study for this silly little test.  The DMV is a study of humanity and I can’t seem to turn away. 

Until they finally call my number and I’m seated in front of the senior-level, official looking DMV officer who starts furiously typing and interrogating me with questions.  His name is Officer Carr and as he is inputting my information, he breaks the news that in addition to taking the driving exam I have to take the road test.

 I nearly choke on my Diet Coke. “Um, excuse me, Officer Carr. Could you repeat that? I thought I heard you say that I would have to take the road test.”

 “That’s right, Mrs. Muller,” Officer Carr replied, looking over his glasses with a look so bored and so done with me he might as well have said “I am so over you spoiled little Junior League moms thinking they can float on over to Albemarle Road when the mood hits and float right out of here with a shiny new license.”  He didn’t say it, of course, but he might as well have.  

What he did say was this. “All persons with a license expired more than one year are required to take the road test. And it appears your license has been expired for over two years. Is that right, Mrs. Muller?”

“Um, yes, that’s right. But Officer Carr, I don’t think I’ve taken a road test since, well,” (I was doing some quick math in my head, not a strong suit) “since 1983.  Do they still have the cars with brakes on the passenger’s side?” I was trying to offer some levity and to reinforce the fact that I was FORTY FREAKIN’ TWO YEARS OLD !

 “Mrs. Muller, I don’t know where you took your driving road test.  But these days, you are required to take the driving test in your own vehicle.  You do have a licensed and insured vehicle on property?”

 Huh?

That set off a whole other set of worries – do I even have any gas?  How many soda cans and Chik-Fil-A wrappers will come banging out when he opens the door to climb in my filthy SUV? Does my car still smell like fermented chocolate milk? Am I going to have to parallel park? If I fail, will someone have to come get me? I mean, you can’t really LEAVE the DMV without a valid license and get in a car and just drive away, can you?  Don’t they have spotters or something?

 So Officer Carr types away, asking questions, confirming facts. I answer promptly, with lots of yes sirs and no sirs. I work to appear to contrite.  Which at the point, is easy. I can’t believe I let this happen. I am 42 years old, far too old to be sitting here, hat in hand, with an expired license, at the mercy of the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles.

 “Mrs. Muller, I’m going to ask you to step over to the exam area the written test. You will be taking the test in English, correct?”

“What are my options?” I ask, working at a bit of levity.  I don’t know why I’m bent on getting Officer Carr to like me…even just a little bit. But the man can’t be broken.

 “English or Spanish. Are you bi-lingual, Mrs. Muller? Would you prefer to take the test in Spanish?”

 “No sir, I reply, I’m not.  English is just fine.” I look down at a chewed thumbnail.

“There  are 25 questions on the test. To pass, you must score an 80 or better on the test.  Do you know how many questions you must get correct, Mrs. Muller?”

 I’m working hard now.

 “I need to get 20 questions correct to pass, Officer Carr,” I respond.

 “Very good, Mrs. Muller.” He acted genuinely impressed.  “Are you a school teacher?”  He asked, looking over his glasses at me.

 “No sir. I just had some good ones along the way.  But an 80? That seems kinda high.  What happened to the 70 as a standard passing grade?”

 “Twenty out of 25 questions, Mrs. Muller. I hope you studied.  If you fail, you can take the test once more. But you should know, there are five tests that rotate randomly in the computers.  You can’t study to the test as you’ll never know which test you’ll get. It’s better to have studied all the material.”

 Okay, folks, it’s not going to give away the ending when I tell you that I didn’t study ANY OF THE MATERIAL.  And we don’t need to get into all the reasons why, the least of which is that I was dumb enough to assume that since I’ve been driving for TWENTY SIX YEARS – what don’t I know about U-turns, merge lanes and parallel parking?  

 And besides, that woman in the burqua was taking her test and I was dying to know if she passed.  And that’s when I was seized with a burst of confidence. There are some pretty thick people driving cars, trucks and Harleys in the state of North Carolina and they managed to pass the test.  How hard can it be? If some lactating new mom could pass this test, with raging hormones and no sleep, surely I could pass it.

 I needed to be focused, logical and calm.  And I needed to borrow heavily from my daughter’s test taking strategy – take your time, read all the questions thoroughly, rule out the obvious, answer the questions you know and then come back to the ones you don’t.

 So I sat down, put on my earphones and started cranking through the test.  Here is the weird thing.  You know RIGHT THEN if you answered the question correctly. This saves everyone time.  So if you miss the first six questions, there’s really no need to answer the last 19 – you’ve already flunked and they send you away to hitch a ride home with your mom.  Likewise, if you don’t miss one question, you only end up answering 20 questions instead of 25 — you’ve passed with the requisite 20 correct answers so why worry about a higher score?  Apparently, the DMV settles for chronic mediocrity – everyone makes an 80 – OR NOT. That says a lot, don’t you think?

 I score my 80 with one question remaining.  Whew.  I would like to know that All the questions I miss have to do with drinking and driving – how much time I would serve if convicted of drunk driving, how much time I would serve if I bought alcohol for an underage driver, how much would I pay in court costs/fines if I was pulled for drunk driving, etc. It seems silly, do you think people AREN’T going to do these things because they studied for and learned about the horrible legal ramifications of drunk driving on their DMV test? BTW, any questions that had to do with, say, actual driving? I aced those…I am a very good driver, you know.

 I am relieved. This whole saga is taking more energy than I imagined. I head back to Officer’s Carr desk, ready for my next assignment. I feel like I’m in college interviews – the essay, the standardized tests, meeting with admissions. 

 Officer Carr looks at me. “Congratulations, Mrs. Muller, you passed with written portion of the test.”

 “Thank you, Office Carr. It was touch and go there for a while.” 

 I thought I saw a little, ever so slight pull at the corner of his mouth.

 “Mrs Muller, it is within a DMV officer’s consideration to waive the need for a road test if he or she thinks it appropriate.

 I look closely at Officer Carr.  He can’t be serious! “Officer Carr, I am hoping that today might be my lucky day and that you might consider it appropriate to waive my road test.”

 “Indeed it is, Mrs. Muller, your lucky day, courtesy of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.  It seems you have an outstanding driving record, despite your lapsed license.” he said, finally cracking a slight, just barely perceptible smile. 

 “Office Carr, I cannot thank you enough,” I say.  And with that, I gather up my reams of paperwork, write my $35 check and bounce over to the “picture” station where I cheese out to the camera.

 I just LOVE the DMV.

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July 28th — My favorite magazine (that shall remain unnamed in this post) recently sent me one of those lovely, don’t-forget-we-love-you-as-a-reader emails with the tagline “How to Clean Children’s Bath Toys.”

Huh? 

What happened to my pretty little periodical that offered up clever quotes and gorgeous origami as art?  Layouts of real women wearing real and quasi-affordable clothes?  Pages of interesting essays written by interesting people? Recipes for yummy food made with real ingredients? The magazine I read to cover to cover each and every month?

Had one of my favorite mags turned into a silly little how-to guide for silly little people who, really, don’t know how to clean children’s bath toys?  

Are these same people befuddled by, say, how to crack an egg? How to turn on light?

I can imagine the answer. 

“When you enter the room, evaluate the need for additional light.  Remember, reading a book will require light, as will plucking your eyebrows. Cleaning your toilet does not require light – the less dirt you see, the quicker the clean.

Glance around the room and assess your options. You’re looking for a light switch on the wall or for a lamp – lamps generally sit on tables and have barrel-like shades to help diffuse the light so it doesn’t hurt your eyes.   Remember, lamps come in different shapes and sizes, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t identify them at first. You’ll get the hang of it with practice. Both mechanisms have a switch that, when turned or flipped, cause light to appear.  If light does NOT appear when you turn on a light switch or a lamp, it could be a faulty light bulb.  Be sure to check back in tomorrow when we answer the question “What is a light bulb and why do I need one?”

Exactly.

July 27th — Many of you know that I take great pride in my ability to write a kick-butt customer service letter.  I have high customer service standards as my old roommate, Kathy, worked at Orange Julius in the High Point Mall for many years and mastered the fine arts of customer service.  You know about my letter to Jeffrey Immelt at GE just  prior to a significant stock down turn.  Coincidence? I think not.

So here is a recap of my Staples Customer Service Experience. Time Spent: 9 minutes.

WENDY:  Thank you for calling Staples.  This is Wendy, how can I be of service to you today?

TRANSLATION:  Wendy might not actually hail from the middle of America, but she sure sounds nice and guess, what? I can understand her.

ME:  Hey, Wendy, I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to order some inkjet cartridges for my Dell printer and I’m about to have a nervous breakdown trying.

WENDY:  Well, we don’t want that – I can help you.

TRANSLATION:  I can help you! REALLY!

WENDY:  What is the order code on the back of your catalog.  

ME: I don’t have a catalog. I’ve never had to order office supplies online or from a catalog…I’ve always popped in an office supply store or Walmart. I am new to this and you are my only hope, Obi Wan.

WENDY:  (Chuckle)

TRANSLATION:  Wendy is indeed American and understands pop culture references.

WENDY: No worries.  Do you have order number for the item you need?

ME:  Nope, don’t have one of those either.   All I know is that I have this NEW crappy Dell printer that requires uber expensive and hard to find inkjet cartridges and that I’ve called or visited SEVEN different retail outlets in Charlotte and NONE of them carry the cartridges.  I’ve spent the last TWO hours of my life, two hours that are GONE – poof – on the phone with people from India masquerading as people who speak and understand English.  There are hours that I will never get them back, Wendy.   And all they will tell me is that they can ship me cartridges in SEVEN TO TEN DAYS! Does that seem right to you?

And I hate to burden you with this, but I think I might cry.

WENDY:  Well, we don’t want THAT to happen!  Just tell me what kind of printer you have.

TRANSLATION:   I can make this happen despite your efforts to be of total and no help. And despite the fact that you might actually cry.

ME:  I have a Dell 90 Printer.                                                                    

WENDY:  Well, that’s easy enough. It looks like you’ll need the blah, blah, blah cartridges.  We can get those out to you today to arrive tomorrow. It sounds like you need them quickly, no?

TRANSLATION:  I hear and appreciate the desperation in your voice and I can help. It’s so easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.

ME:  Won’t I have to pay some incredible overnight shipping fee of say $5000?  You know, Dell was going to charge me some obscene overnight shipping fee but they didn’t have THEIR OWN CARTRIDGES IN STOCK!  And you know, you can’t buy Dell print cartridges at a store – now that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

WENDY:  Well, we do have them in stock and no, we don’t charge an overnight shipping fee.  It’s part of doing business with Staples.

ME:  This is too good to be true.  Send them along, hon, post haste.  Wendy, I have died and gone to customer service heaven. 

TRANSLATION: I have died and gone to customer service heaven.

WENDY: (Giggle). I’m glad I could help.

Let’s juxtapose this with my Dell Hell experience which is too painful, too convoluted and too ridiculous to describe in detail here.  Time Spent: Four HOURS (including two hours driving around Charlotte). 

Suffice is to say that I spoke with EIGHT Customer Service Representatives, all based in India and all of whom spoke little English.  Each and every one worked to camouflage this fact by introducing themselves with a very American name. 

Here is one, and I kid you not.  Alexandar Graham. The Indian dude who told me under no uncertain terms could I get NOT get a Dell ink cartridge the next day no matter where I resided in this great big complex universe told me his name was Alexandar Graham.  After I snickered and muttered something along the lines of “Yeah, right, Mr. Bell,” he proceeded to yell at me, tell me all the reasons why Dell couldn’t help me, why my requests were overdemanding and then he hung up on me.

Indian Dude posing as one Alexandar Graham hung up the phone on me…rich, huh?

So I was ready to shoot off a letter to Michael Dell. As usual, they make it really, really hard to find a mailing address for the people in charge – I mean, who wants to be deluged by gazillions of complaint letters from crazies like me where there is a TOLL FREE customer service number (in INDIA!!!!) where you can LEAVE A MESSAGE that will never be returned!

July 27th — A few years ago, I finally got chapped by paying five bucks for wimpy little fresh herbs that wouldn’t last a day in my kitchen.  I didn’t know how cheap – or easy — it was to grow my own, I just sensed that there had to be a better way. Kind of like when you realize that store bought cookies will never, ever, as long as you live, be as good as homemade cookies.

So last year, I planted basil, parsley, dill and cilantro in a little corner in my back yard. There was no great strategy, no garden plan – I bought some plants and Larry (who helps my keep my house standing) helped lower them into the hot, red, clay ground.  The dill and cilantro scorched out in the hot sun.  The parsley hung in there, but it was curly parsley and I really prefer flat leaf parsley, which isn’t as chewy but has better flavor, I think.

 But the basil? It went bonkers in my yard. It procreated overnight and overran my little corner herb garden, stretching up to my window, begging to be smelled, stroked, picked and enjoyed.  Big leafy stalks, smooth and hydrated, the most perfect, peaceful color of green.  I looked at my basil and it made my happy, giddy even.  I loved the texture of the leaves – the large, flat leaves and the small sweet ones that grow around the lower stems, like soft, sweet hair at the back of a baby’s nape.

Basil made me feel competent.  Forget the fact that any idiot with some dirt and some seeds can grow it.  I did it.

The aroma filled my kitchen and last year, I spent a week each summer month making vats (and I ain’t kidding) of pesto. I used a recipe out of my favorite cookbook. I shredded my own Parmesan cheese, I used only the finest olive oil, I carefully crushed and peeled hundreds of cloves of garlic and I mastered the art of toasting pine nuts.  And if I may, I have a little secret about toasting pinenuts.   Listen to me now and save yourself some money, heartache and batteries in your smoke alarm, friends.  You are to never, EVER take your eyes off of the pine nuts, you hear me? I repeat, don’t EVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE PINE NUTS.  You may think you have time to run to the potty, or check your voicemail or answer the door or even fetch yourself a Diet Coke. Don’t be fooled. You can’t EVER TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE PINE NUTS!  They will, without fail, burn, scorch and set off your smoke alarm…and make you really mad because pine nuts are not cheap and you will be in the throes of making pesto and you’ll have to STOP EVERYTHING, load up your kids in the car and go to the store for some more pinenuts. So heed my words.

But here’s the deal about basil.  Besides pesto, there not really a whole lot you can do with it. Sure, there is Caprese Salad (love it, who doesn’t?).  And I can make about 15 different kinds of fab-U appetizers featuring basil and other creative pantry ingredients.  And there is the idea that you can “sub” basil for other “herb-based” recipes –  basil mojitos, anyone?

But what I’ve found is, not so much. Basil = Pesto or Caprese Salad. And since mozzarella doesn’t really freeze, I have become the Pesto Princess. Coming to your house for dinner? Let me bring a pesto pasta. Needing to thank you for keeping my children one afternoon? Let me offer you a quart of frozen pesto.  Worried about surviving a nuclear holocaust? By all means, drop by my safe room in the basement where I have dozens of quarts of frozen pesto lying in wait. Believing that garlic keeps you cleansed and healthy? Look no further than Charla’s House of Pesto .  I went through six months of fall and winter doling out pesto to friends and family and I still have some left in my freezer – guarding my final little quarts until spring sprung and I could…plant some more basil.

Much like childbirth, I forgot the agony and only remember the ecstasy.  The agony of toasting and grinding pine nuts, shredding hard Parmesan until the blade on my food processor was dulled, washing and spinning thousands of basil leaves, and reeking of garlic for weeks.  And I only remember the good – of opening my freezer door and having stacks and stacks of moss-green Tupperware containers staring at me.  I love my basil.

July 26th — Laugh if you want. I planted a garden.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  But I do currently have a rather impressive looking raised bed in my backyard replete with tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. Well, that’s not exactly true either.

Let me back up.

For those of you know me, you know that I aspire to live on a Faux Farm and have a fab garden, gorgeous landscaping and perfectly appointed farmhouse – all as a backdrop for out-of-this-world gatherings and parties for family and friends. I have no skills to support this dream (except my ability to execute killer dinner parties, ergo my need for the finest and freshest ingredients). You should know that my mother, grandmother, aunts and various cousins have all, at one time, kept and managed rather significant gardens.  They own upright freezers and canning pots, if you can believe it. So I kid myself into thinking that I have this dormant gardening gene that simply needs to be “awakened” and voila! I will become a Gardening Queen – heiress to the perfect heirloom, keeper of the golden corn and expert of the eggplant. 

Experience? None. Desire? In spades (well, sort of, I actually used a small trowel).

I want to live Barbara Kingsolver’s life (in Animal, Plant, Miracle) without having to visit Amish people or to harvest cherries at midnight.  Kind of like Ruth Reichl meets Frances Mayes – dreamy, out of focus and so very earthy and romantic.  It would be memories of my childhood colliding with the perfect outside dinner party.  I mean, I taught myself to cook…isn’t communing with the earth and eating local the next logical step?

So, at the recommendation of my friend, Betsy, who also aspires to my “Farmer’s Market meets Johnson & Wales” kind of life, I called the Organic Gardener. And this guy named Don came and instructed me on how to plant my garden, right after a guy named (I don’t remember his name) came and set up a lovely, custom-built, raised cedar bed with a trellis and dumped a lot of dark, organic dirt in it.  So Don tells me  that any idiot with a spray hose and some seeds (and a big old fact check written out to Don himself) can raise a garden.  Well, that was in late May and I’m here to tell you that the check has cleared (my husband would croak if he knew how much I paid for this little gardening experiment),  the sprinklers have been sprinkling and I have nary a veggie to cast a shadow on my plate. There is stuff growing, that’s for sure. And despite my rather frenetic travel schedule, I have been diligent in watering. And since we shipped in special organic dirt, there’s not much weeding to do.  There’s a lotta leaves and no little maters, or cukes or peppers that are ready to hop into my little garden basket.

And I am sad.  Broke and sad.  But I will perservere.  Stay tuned. Summer isn’t over.

I’m going to try to take a pic of my garden and post it here.

July 25th — Laugh if you want. I planted a garden.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  But I do currently have a rather impressive looking raised bed in my backyard replete with tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. Well, that’s not exactly true either.

Let me back up.

For those of you know me, you know that I aspire to live on a Faux Farm and have a fab garden, gorgeous landscaping and perfectly appointed farmhouse – all as a backdrop for out-of-this-world gatherings and parties for family and friends. I have no skills to support this dream (except my ability to execute killer dinner parties, ergo my need for the finest and freshest ingredients). You should know that my mother, grandmother, aunts and various cousins have all, at one time, kept and managed rather significant gardens.  They own upright freezers and canning pots, if you can believe it. So I kid myself into thinking that I have this dormant gardening gene that simply needs to be “awakened” and voila! I will become a Gardening Queen – heiress to the perfect heirloom, keeper of the golden corn and expert of the eggplant. 

Experience? None. Desire? In spades (well, sort of, I actually used a small trowel).

I want to live Barbara Kingsolver’s life (in Animal, Plant, Miracle) without having to visit Amish people or to harvest cherries at midnight.  Kind of like Ruth Reichl meets Frances Mayes – dreamy, out of focus and so very earthy and romantic.  It would be memories of my childhood colliding with the perfect outside dinner party.  I mean, I taught myself to cook…isn’t communing with the earth and eating local the next logical step?

So, at the recommendation of my friend, Betsy, who also aspires to my “Farmer’s Market meets Johnson & Wales” kind of life, I called the Organic Gardener. And this guy named Don came and instructed me on how to plant my garden, right after a guy named (I don’t remember his name) came and set up a lovely, custom-built, raised cedar bed with a trellis and dumped a lot of dark, organic dirt in it.  So Don tells me  that any idiot with a spray hose and some seeds (and a big old fact check written out to Don himself) can raise a garden.  Well, that was in late May and I’m here to tell you that the check has cleared (my husband would croak if he knew how much I paid for this little gardening experiment),  the sprinklers have been sprinkling and I have nary a veggie to cast a shadow on my plate. There is stuff growing, that’s for sure. And despite my rather frenetic travel schedule, I have been diligent in watering. And since we shipped in special organic dirt, there’s not much weeding to do.  There’s a lotta leaves and no little maters, or cukes or peppers that are ready to hop into my little garden basket.

And I am sad.  Broke and sad.  But I will perservere.  Stay tuned. Summer isn’t over.

I’m going to try to take a pic of my garden and post it here.