The Wells Fargo Wagon is A-Comin’ Down the Street…

…and it just about ran my ass over.

The financial tools available to us today are just staggering. They keep getting better, and various banks are not shy about letting you know how wonderful they are at collecting your money while they own your house for 30 years or so. I purchased the RubinSmo Manor nine years ago at an interest rate that was pretty good at the time. Well, time and interest rates have a tendency to change, so I recently decided it’s a good time to refinance. As luck would have it, I had to call my bank for another matter. As we were concluding the call, the helpful customer service rep said they have better interest rates now. “We can lower your terms,” she said. “I can connect you with someone right now who can help,” she said. I agreed, and that’s when I started to learn that Wells Fargo has a funny definition of “help.” They also have funny definitions of “communication,” “customer service,” “file management,” and “truth.” Sit back and make some popcorn, my rabid readership of eight, and listen to the tale of why one should never, ever finance or refinance through Wells Fargo.

The nice customer support lady connected me with…oh, let’s call him Juan Pablo, located somewhere in Arizona. This becomes a little important later.

juan pablo

I really want to close your loan in 30 days. You can trust me with all your information.

Juan Pablo helpfully filled out all manner of loan forms for me. Each time I’d answer a question, he’d reply happily, in his Latin accent, “Pehr-FECT.” Yes, Juan Pablo was my buddy. We spent 45 magical, pehr-FECT minutes on the phone, during which we chatted about interest rates, my excellent credit rating, rates I qualified for, and how we could close in 30 days. We really had a connection. He sent me a follow-up email, that started with “Hi Robin.”

How could you?

How could you?

Seriously, Juan Pablo? Did our magical 45 minutes together, during which you used and typed my name numerous times, mean nothing to you? To avoid looking like a rejected one-night stand, I included this sly paragraph in my response:

Please verify that my name is spelled correctly on any forms you filled out on my behalf yesterday. My first name is Rhonda, not Robin. It’s a common mistake, but I’m going to assume an incorrect name could cause issues with my new loan.

Within a week and a half, I’d compiled all the documents Juan Pablo requested — scanning hard copies where necessary — and sent them all to him. At this point, Juan Pablo turned my information over to someone else. Let’s call her Mrs. Wiggins, also located someplace in Arizona.

MrsWiggins

Yeah, I think I know where your stuff is. If not, I’ll make something up.

She called me to ask for documents I already sent to Juan Pablo. When I told her he had them, she asked that I send them to her as well. Weird, but OK. I was told to expect the loan paperwork in the mail. I had to sign where indicated and either mail the forms back, or scan and email the signed pages. I was also informed that “Texas is different.” I wouldn’t know how much cash I had to bring to closing until that day. I should be prepared for up to $1500, but I shouldn’t bring too much, because there’d be no way to make change, or something, because…um, Texas? It sounded shady, like Mrs. Wiggins had no idea what she was talking about, or both. Whatever. Closing costs. Fine.

Two weeks later, I’d heard nothing, so I contacted Mrs. Wiggins for a status update. She replied with,

Hi Rubin,
Your documents are in Underwriting.

Seriously?

Seriously?

Seriously, Mrs. Wiggins? We’ve exchanged emails in which my name appears. You’ve handled documents containing my name. You’ve spoken with me on the phone, but you can’t be bothered to proof a message to get my name right? Christ on a cracker, woman, this is Customer Service 101. My reply:

Hi Mrs Wiggins,

I appreciate the update. Thanks.

That said, customer service is very important to me. I’ve had a few phone conversations with you and with Juan Pablo. In the course of arranging for my mortgage refinance, each of you has managed to get my name wrong in some sort of communication. This may seem like a small infraction to you, but you are working with me on a large transaction. I am trusting you with sensitive personal and financial information, and your failure to bother to learn my name or even proofread your email makes me wonder about your attention to detail with regard to my information. Please tell me why, if you can’t be troubled to even learn my name, I should continue doing business with you.

Juan Pablo contacted me and was very apologetic. He assured me that my business is important to them and Blah, blah, blah…can they schedule my appraisal and charge it to me? I had to think about it. I should have listened to my gut then and there, before outlaying money to pay for an appraisal. Unfortunately, I decided I might be overreacting to an unprofessional business correspondence addressing me by the wrong name. So I stuck with them. I am an idiot.

Mrs Wiggins arranged for an appraiser. The appraiser came to my home and took photos of everything. I arranged to work from home to accommodate his schedule. A while later, Juan Pablo called me to ask if my home had been appraised yet.

Seriously?

Excuse me?

Juan Pablo, do you not talk to Mrs. Wiggins? If you had, you’d know she arranged the appraisal. I simply told him that the appraisal was done a week and a half ago. “Pehr-FECT.” One or two weeks later, I sent an email to Juan Pablo to ask if he’d received the appraisal report yet and, if not, was I the hold up. He said I was not the hold up. The following day I received a phone call from someone wanting to schedule an appraisal. “Um, no. I’ve already had my appraisal. Who are you with?” After 10 minutes with a patient woman on the other end of the phone who was willing to dig for information, I learned that Wells Fargo never received the appraisal, so they ordered a new one. Nice of them to tell me. Also, we were sliding toward the expiration date of my locked-in rate. Another email flew out. My emails were getting longer in direct proportion to my frustration with Wells Fargo and their fuckery.

Hi Juan Pablo,

I received a call from someone from “the appraisal company,” to schedule an appraisal of my home. I was confused and suspicious, because my home was appraised almost three weeks ago, and the woman today identified herself only as “with the appraisal company,” even after I asked for the name of her company. She said her company, which apparently has no actual name, sends out contracted appraisers. After we spoke a bit, I learned that the previous appraiser never sent the report to Wells Fargo, and the bank ordered a second appraisal. I have two concerns. One is of a customer service nature, and the other is of a financial nature.

First, I feel I should have been contacted by you, or someone else at Wells Fargo, with an update of this situation and told I should expect to be contacted about this second appraisal. I should not have to learn of this from an independent contractor, nor should that contractor have to tell me exactly why you ordered this second appraisal. I am your client. I should find out from you. It’s very unsettling, and borderline creepy, to learn that a contractor — arranged by someone else, in another state, with no familiarity with local contractors — came into my home, took photos of every inch of my home, and then disappeared with those photos. Now I not only have to trust another contractor selected by you, but I have to rush to accommodate his schedule (at the expense of mine), to ensure the refi proceeds and closes before my locked-in rate expires.

Also on the customer service front, I first followed up with you a week ago about the appraisal. You 1) didn’t realize it was done at all, much less nearly two weeks before, and 2) you didn’t immediately see a red flag that nearly two weeks had passed since that appraisal was performed, and there was still no report on your desk. I don’t know if you took any action at that time, but if you did, it seems there was no followup to it.

On the financial front, first and foremost, I won’t be paying for the second appraisal.

Next, if this delay causes closing to occur past the expiration date of my locked-in rate, I would like to have a phone call with you and your supervisor. In short, any resulting delay was not due either to action or inaction on my part, and I did my due diligence with you after the original appraisal was performed. The possibility of losing a locked-in rate under these circumstances is unacceptable.

I hope you understand my frustration at this point. This refi experience has been a comedy of errors from the beginning. I have never gone through a real estate transaction in which the bank representatives have appeared out of touch with their client and with the status of the loan in question. I am not a high-maintenance client, but I do expect professionalism, and I expect a certain level of customer service worthy of a large financial institution.

This all said, my second appraisal is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon or evening. Hopefully you will have the report shortly thereafter, and we won’t have to worry about expiring rates at all.

Appraiser #2 was so late that I not only didn’t have to arrange to be home that day, but I could have gone to the office, gone to the gym, and picked up dinner on the way home with time to spare before the guy showed up. This inconvenience was not the Wells Fargo’s fault, but it was just one more thing.

Juan Pablo forwarded my email to, oh…let’s call this one Evil-Lyn, because it amuses me.

Evil-lyn

Castle Grey…oops, The RubinSmo Manor shall be refinanced!

She reached out to me to address the concerns I expressed in my email to Juan Pablo and appoint herself as my sole contact. I considered this to be progress, since I determined that all miscommunication was due to more than one person working my loan. Then she asked me for four documents I’d already provided. Twice.

Oh, for fuck's sake. Really?

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Really?

Hi Evil-Lyn,

I’ve already provided the requested information: the master policy, my own policy (which I assume is the “walls in” policy you mentioned), my employment history (as part of the original application), and a signed letter explaining last year’s short gap in employment history.

The insurance information was submitted with all the documents in early May. Upon follow-up on May 16, I learned my documents were all in Underwriting. In short, Underwriting should have this information. If they do not, or if there was an issue with documents provided nearly two months ago, why am I learning about it now? Or is the issue that this process has taken so long that both insurance policies were recently renewed and you now need fresh documents? There is no reason for either situation to have occurred. In the case of the employment information, specifically the letter, it’s been provided twice, once to Mrs. Wiggins over a month ago and once to Juan Pablo a week or so later. If there was an issue with the letter, or if it was not sufficient, why am I learning about it now?

It’s frustrating to learn, after being told the appraisal was the only step left before closing, that information I’ve already provided has not been addressed, has had time to expire, or both. This is not the first time during this process I’ve been asked for information that was already provided, which leads me to believe there are issues with internal communication and, quite possibly, file management at Wells Fargo. I started this process in late April. Since that time, the following lapses in customer service or communication occurred:

  • Two of your representatives have called me by the wrong name.
  • An appraiser hired by you failed to submit the appraisal at all, much less in a timely fashion.
  • Wells Fargo didn’t know there was a situation with the appraisal until nearly three weeks, a phone call to me, and a follow-up email to you had passed.
  • I learned about the appraiser situation from a second appraiser, and not from Wells Fargo.
  • Several times during this process, each of your representatives requested and obtained documents from me, but the other would call a week or so later asking if I’d sent the requested information. They work together. They should share information and files. They should know the status of my loan and required documents, and it shouldn’t take one to two weeks and a phone call to the client to figure it out.

Your company’s lack of attention to detail is a large part of why this process is taking so long, and why a document like my bank statement (and I’m guessing my insurance policy documents) must be resubmitted because it’s had time to expire and require renewal. If this is the level of customer care I’m receiving while you’re trying to earn my business — and until we close, you do not yet have my business — what should I expect after I close? At this point, the only reason I’m continuing the process with Wells Fargo is the trouble, time, and possible expense of starting over with another bank. Frustrating customers to acceptance of substandard service is not a desirable business model.

Her excuse was that Mrs. Wiggins was out on medical leave, and the documents were likely saved in her personal folder. If you remember, in Mrs. Wiggins’ terse reply to me above, she stated those documents were in Underwriting. I’m guessing she either lied to me, or “Underwriting” is what she calls her personal folder. Also? What in the Wide World of Sports are my documents doing in Mrs. Wiggins’ personal folder? This is just screwed. Later, Evil-Lyn specified what she needed. In doing so, she got the name of my insurance company wrong. Seriously, Wells Fargo? Does no one working for you take the time to read documents?

Within a day, we learned that my HOA will not fill out a loan questionnaire without a personal check for $150. I realize this is not a bank issue, but it was one of a long line of straws threatening to break my back. I spoke with Evil-Lyn, I her told that, if we have to depend on snail mail, the locked in rate would expire. I asked about my options, since clearly these delays are not my fault. She stated that I could either start this entire process over, or I could get an extension on my rate. Yes, that second one sounds painless. Let’s do that. “There is a fee associated with that. I think it’s $250.”

What the everlovin' fuck?

What the everlovin’ fuck?

“You’re telling me that delays, caused by you, are either going to cost me another $250, or I can start this entire excruciating process again, and pay for another appraisal? Are you serious?”

At this point, Evil-Lyn sounded like she had just about enough from me. She told me not to pay yet, and that she would call me back later. That evening, she called to say that she was going to speak with someone else at Wells Fargo for advice, because “there could be a problem with your master insurance policy. We have denied condo loans for insufficient coverage before.” As soon as I got off the phone, I told Lindsey, “I’ll bet by this time tomorrow, they will deny my loan. Evil-Lyn just set up that scenario.” The next day, at lunch, Juan Pablo called to let me know that everything was not pehr-FECT. Sadly, our HOA and property management company apparently purchased a master policy that just isn’t good enough for one of the top three lending institutions in the country, which is, of course, a lie. It would mean that hardly anyone would qualify for a loan to purchase a unit in my complex. And so, for the first time in my life, despite having a credit rating a Kardashian would envy, and despite Wells Fargo holding my current mortgage with the same master policy, I was denied a loan.

My next step was to find a local mortgage broker who would find a loan, a great interest rate, and do a bit of leg work so that I wouldn’t need, and have to pay for, a third appraisal. The same process that took three people at Wells Fargo nearly three months of bad internal and external communication — not to mention extremely shoddy file management — to completely screw up and then back out of, took a competent mortgage professional about three weeks. The cash I had to take to closing? A whopping $16. I used my personal account. It was pehr-FECT.

UPDATE — September 3, 2014

A representative from the Wells Fargo Customer Care and Recovery Group contacted me today. I filled out their customer survey last week and, assuming the Comments field was too short for my comments, I simply left a link to this blog entry. She, among others, read the entry. Despite starting the conversation with “Is this Robin Rubin,” we did have a nice chat. Apparently “upper management” is involved, and I will receive a resolution letter by September 12. Since they denied my loan, and I refinanced elsewhere. I’m pretty sure the matter is already resolved. So, stay tuned.

UPDATE — September 11, 2014

As promised, the representative from the Wells Fargo Customer Care and Recovery Group contacted me to let me know the response letter is complete, and she will mail it today. The suspense is killing me.

Looking at my notes from the previous phone conversation, she referred to this letter as a response letter and as a resolution letter. I do not know if the terms are interchangeable, or if she misspoke when she called it a resolution letter. If it is, indeed, a response letter, I’m expecting it to say:

Hi. We understand you’re not happy with the way you were treated by our representatives during the course of your failed transaction. Oopsies. Our bad. Now, with that apology out of the way, your denial has absolutely nothing to do with that. Really. None. At all. Here’s the deal: You applied. We denied. We’re sending this letter so we can show some semblance of follow up on customer service issues. Yay, us!

We hope this proffered olive branch is enough to gain your business in the future. If not? Well, we’ll get your business anyway, because there’s a 33.3% chance we’re buying the mortgage you just refinanced.

Stay tuned…

Update — September 18, 2014

No letter yet. It’s been a week since the representative from the Wells Fargo Customer Care and Recovery Group contacted me to say the letter would be mailed that day. Perhaps they’re sending the letter by way of an actual Wells Fargo stage coach.

Update — September 20, 2014

Finally received the letter before we left town for a week. In a nutshell, it was a series of the following statements “In your blog, you said we messed up with this. We try very hard to do a great job and not mess up with this. In your case, we didn’t do well. We are sorry.”

Um, thanks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Have a Little Nosh

I’m a unicorn of sorts. My various attributes are such an unlikely combination that the Webster’s entry for “oxymoron” should have my picture next to it. I am so unique, I’m a perfect candidate for having three fools* from Animal Planet tramp around in a forest they proclaim to be “Rhondy as hell,” while swearing up and down that the crack of a branch means “there’s a Rhonda out there for sure.”
*Only three of the four are fools. I seriously want to have an evening of beer and snark with Ranae. She’s smart and hysterical.

Today let’s talk about just one portion of my eclectic background. I’m a first-generation American and a Southern Jew, born and raised in a part of Texas known for various cuisines that are not just unkosher, they’re unkosher turned up to 11. Yeah, I know. This is not to say my family even pretended to keep kosher at any time during my life, but there were certain commandments in my family when I was growing up.

  • There shall be kreplach and homemade chicken soup, on the High Holy Days.
  • There shall be Polish strudel on the High Holy Days.
  • Lunchtime family get-togethers must consist of rye bread and rolls from Three Brothers, and cold cuts from Alfred’s (Hangs head in reverence).
    Caveat: Sometimes the rolls came from Alfred’s as well.
  • If your bagels didn’t come from New York Bagels, you have only a bag of round, bread-like products.

These commandments, along with dishes prepared by my grandmother and mother, are my benchmark for Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine and deli. Alfred’s, New York Bagels, and Three Brothers Bakery were Jewish Food Central for the SW Houston Jewish community, and they are deeply ingrained in my upbringing.

I remember going to Alfred’s Stella Link location with my mother and/or grandmother to pick up cold cuts. That location had a restaurant and full butcher case that contained every kind of deli meat you could think of, as well as fish and cheese. I recall the day I was simultaneously fascinated and grossed out when I saw a full cow tongue in the case. I’d never seen that before, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I had no idea how tongue was served, so in my young head, I imagined the whole tongue placed between two slices of rye bread, along with mayo and some Ba-Tampte mustard. Mmmmm, the tasty sandwich that tastes you back! Tongue was never on the list. Our usual haul was roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, and whitefish. If I was lucky? I’d get a stick of root beer or tutti frutti candy.

On rare occasions, we’d eat in the actual restaurant at Alfred’s, which was much like entering Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and going to a time when Naugahyde chairs and booths were the norm. That dining room didn’t change until the place permanently closed its doors. I vaguely remember the waitstaff as surly women who, in hindsight, could all have been models for Flo. They also didn’t change until Alfred’s closed.


http://www.alicehyatt.com/

Older Jewish men would be at their tables, so fully engrossed in their newspapers that you’d only ever see their heads when they paused to have a sip of coffee or bite of food. For years, Alfred’s was the only true Jewish deli in town, and the monopoly did not beget mediocrity. As a Jewish German immigrant, Alfred Kahn knew his food, and he knew his customers. A number of those customers were Jews from Europe, and descendents of Jews from Europe, who knew what they wanted, and knew they’d get it at Alfred’s.

After Alfred’s closed, Houston was missing what I’d call a true Jewish deli. We had Kahn’s Deli, own and run by another member of the Kahn family, and they served some of the best sandwiches from the shop in the Rice Village. But he’s since sold that venture. Guggenheim’s Deli came and went in the late 80s, and while it did serve good, substantially tall sandwiches, it was missing something. The food had a cookie cutter quality that lent itself to a decent restaurant, but not an authentic deli.

In the meantime, we’ve had three newish Jewish delis enter the scene. I say “new,” but one grew from the roots of a highly established bagel shop, and the other two sprang up between 1999 and 2001. So here’s one seasoned Yid’s take on our choices for Jewish deli in Houston.

Katz’s Deli

What’s not to like about a 24-hour restaurant, not far from the bars, in Montrose? Turns out? Well…sit, sit…I’ll tell you a little story.

My brother and I went to Katz’s not too long after it opened. I’d heard some of my UT friends rave over the Austin location, and lament that they couldn’t find good deli in Houston. Now we had our own Katz’s! Based on the hype, I was excited. It had been quite a while since I’d had really good deli, and I was ready. Since it was around Chanukah, Allan and I both ordered latkes with our meals. The meals were simply OK — not bad, but nothing special either. I couldn’t quite tell what the big deal was.

The latkes, however, were not simply OK. They were horrifying and served with the most microscopic sides of apple sauce and sour cream. This deli, which states as its mission “to provide the freshest, most authentic New York deli cuisine, painstakingly prepared according to generations-old family recipes,” served us — get ready to clutch your pearls — frozen hash brown patties and called them “latkes.” To paraphrase a 1970s commercial, “generations-old family recipe, eh?

Look, latkes are made with a number of ingredients, like potatoes, onions, eggs (sometimes), knuckles, cursing, and love. If it’s your first batch? A lot of knuckles. Hash browns, on the other hand, are made with potatoes.

Latkes are fried in about an inch of oil, sometimes deep fried. Hash browns are pan or griddle fried. If they’re frozen patties, they’re baked or microwaved. Also? They’re not latkes!

I know what you’re thinking, “Rhonda, why are you harping on the latkes? Katz’s menu is vast.” Here’s the deal, my goyishe readership of eight. No self-respecting, authentic deli would try to pass off hash browns as latkes unless they know their customers wouldn’t know better. They do the same with their chicken soup, staple of Jewish cuisine, which is canned or, at the very least, just bullion. So, what other processed “family recipes” are they using? I’ve been to Katz’s several times over the years, and I always leave with the same impression — “Meh.” They are not what they’re advertising. Katz’s is to authentic Jewish deli what Olive Garden is to authentic Italian cuisine. Yeah, they do a couple of things well. But really? It’s OK in a pinch, or when you’re drunk and it’s 2 a.m., but it’s not true Jewish deli.

Kenny & Ziggy’s

Kenny & Ziggy’s is a large, locally-owned Jewish deli that embraces the New York deli schtick much like Katz’s does. The exception is that the atmosphere, waitstaff and knowledge of the food is just better. So is the food. You ask for a bagel and a schmear? They know exactly what you mean. I’ve been for dinner, and I’ve been for lunch. I’ve had the eggs and lox, and I’ve had the bagel and lox. I’ve had the towering corned beef sandwich, and it was moist and prepared exactly as I expected. The dessert case is just a slow spin of yummy decadence.

If any of my friends are sick, I offer to bring them chicken soup from Kenny & Ziggy’s. It’s real, award-winning chicken soup with seemingly hand-rolled matzah balls, and it’s the third best chicken soup after my mom’s. Hi, Mom. I’m still in the will, right? That’s high praise. Basically, if Katz’s is the Olive Garden of Jewish Deli, I’d put Kenny & Ziggy’s as the Carraba’s of Jewish Deli. Not like Mom made, but I do like eating there now and again.

New York Coffee Shop

The aforementioned New York Bagels expanded into the space next door to them and opened their coffee shop. Located conveniently in “The Chood,” the New York Coffee Shop serves the Jewish soul food I remembered from my past. If you go on a weekend, expect a line stretching out the door. Like Alfred’s before it, the majority of customers of both the bagel shop and the coffee shop are residents of a neighborhood that is still largely Jewish. That line stretching out the door is a line of knowledgeable (and picky) Jewish food foodies, all of whom are regular, repeat customers. That, alone, speaks for the food. How does the food speak for the food? Incredibly well. I’ve only been for breakfast, and I do love my eggs and lox. I also love their eggs and lox. The bagels are fresher than fresh, having been baked just on the other side of the restaurant wall. And the latkes. Yes, I’m back to that. They’re real, and they’re served with ample portions of sour cream and apple sauce. This place is one of the few I’m willing to stand in line to enter. From the waitstaff to the outdated interior, the New York Coffee Shop just takes me back. This is good, authentic Jewish deli in Houston. This is the Alfred’s of Jewish Deli. Is it the same? Oh, hell no.  Nothing will ever be Alfred’s. But it’s damn close, even without a butcher case filled with tongue, and it’s damn good. Ask anyone in line on a weekend morning.

Posted in Life, Random | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

It’s All in My Head

Periodically, I post something to Twitter or Facebook about having a headache. For those of you new to my life, either through those social media sites or here, my having a headache doesn’t mean I can pop a couple of aspirin and feel better. It means I feel like I’m about to birth an alien through my face. Here’s the scoop:

I used to have a headache of some severity every. Single. Day. I got so used to them, I ceased to notice them until I had a bad one. Lindsey finally grabbed my shoulders and told me, “This is not normal! Do something about it.” It took three doctors, two years, and numerous tests – one of which was extremely unpleasant – to figure out my issue. I know what you’re thinking, “Rhonda, all tests are unpleasant. What makes this one special?” I’m glad you asked. Imagine, if you will, an alien anal probe. Now replace “anal” with “nasal.” A doctor shoved a footlong probe up each nostril just to look around. The ENT said he didn’t find anything remarkable, but I beg to differ, because while he was probing in there, I saw all kinds of lights and wavy lines. My butt levitated from the chair, seemingly of its own will. Come to think of it, our cable reception has been stellar since that day. Coincidence? But I digress. Sorry. You should be used to that by now. At the end of roughly two years, I had a good list of things I wasn’t suffering from — sinus headaches, migraines, allergies, or pesky tumors. My TMJ wasn’t causing the issue either.

Two years ago, I was referred to a neurologist specializing in headaches. After evaluating me, he determined that I am, indeed, suffering from migraines, but they don’t present as such. I don’t get warning signs like a normal migraine sufferer. I have no auras, no loss of vision, no weird smells (that can’t be attributed to a gassy dog). My head just feels like I have a bit of a sinus headache, without the congestion. Sometimes the hurt goes away on its own. Sometimes it gets worse. I have no way of knowing which way the pendulum will swing until I notice my head is suddenly in a vice, and I can see my pulse.

Another fun headache symptom is what I like to call “headache brain.” As people who saw me last Sunday can attest, headache brain resembles drunkenness. I stare. I have problems choosing words. I slur a bit. I apologize profusely for my headache brain and, despite the fact that I’m holding a bottled water, I’m sure people think I’m completely hammered. I’m kind of like Dudley Moore in Arthur, except with better hair, way less money, and a severe lack of Sir John Gielgud.

Thanks to my neurologist, I have an arsenal of rescue meds, backup rescue meds, and a backup to the backup. Through management meds, my headaches have been reduced dramatically. If I have them, they’re usually minor. They only occur once a month and for possibly a two-week period. I love my neurologist. He’s been a godsend. This month, however, the headache period has been really bad. I’ve been in some form of pain since Saturday. Sunday night, I resorted to the backup to the backup rescue med for the first time in a year. It’s an injectable, which is always a joy. By “joy,” I mean “humiliating process that is made worse by trying to perform it while in extreme pain.” Here’s the drill:

  1. Pull down pants to expose thigh.
  2. Remove evil-looking self injector from case.
    Seriously, guys, how evil does this look?
    Image
  3. Remove safety mechanism.
  4. Hold evil-looking self injector against thigh and wonder if you’re pressing hard enough, because you don’t feel any.. [FOOP!] Nevermind.
  5. Remember to ignore the puncture pain and hold the evil-looking self injector against your thigh for five seconds while the medication is injected.
  6. Power through headache brain to remember how to count to five.
  7. I think that was five seconds. Was it? Crap. I should hold it here longer.
  8. Remove evil-looking self injector from thigh.
  9. Stop the bleeding.
  10. Remember your pants are down, and pull them up.
  11. Experience the face flush and extreme tingly feeling I call the “carbonated head rush.”

Monday night marked the first time I’ve ever had to use the injectable two days in a row. I’d already stayed home from work that day, which was the first time I ever missed work due to a headache. It was also the worst headache I have had in my history of headaches. On a scale of 1-10, the pain was “GAH!” You know how circus elephants balance on a small ball? Imagine that ball was my head. And the elephant was balancing three more elephants on its trunk. And those elephants were jumping rope. I realized I was lying on my back, but in a fetal position. I was nearly crying. The evil-looking self injector was looking pretty good. Lindsey brought me everything I needed, but I still had to sit up without throwing up and inject myself. Then Lindsey brought me a heated Bed Buddy to lay on my eyes and an ice pack for my neck. In hindsight, I prefer having Lindsey to having Sir John Gielgud. Among other amazing things, she is the best in these situations. An hour later, I was pain free enough to be falling asleep on the couch. I can’t deny that stuff works. I can, however, deny that this is normal or any way to live. There’s an alternative.

My doctor suggested a new treatment. It involves putting a catheter up my nostrils to administer a sphenopalatine ganglion block in my nasal cavities. Since SPG controls head and facial pain, a blocker means the absence of both. It’s apparently highly effective. At this point in my headache journey, I’ll have had more crap shoved up my nose than Liza Minelli at Studio 54, so what would this hurt, other than my wallet? Of course, insurance does not yet cover this procedure. I’m very close to selling a kidney and not caring.

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Be True to Your School

So back in the 1960s, even before I was born, the Beach Boys oozed out of speakers everywhere extolling the virtues of hot rods, surfing, and high school. I don’t know if high school was actually cool back then, or if the Beach Boys were just an early incarnation of Gretchen Weiner, and “high school” was just their “fetch.”

But hey…Rah Rah, and all that crap.

Coincidentally, my high school was also born in the early 1960s, and someone somewhere decided our team would be “The Rebels,” and our mascot would be Johnny Reb. Rebel flags were all the rage. I believe the school was at the very least, 99% white at the time. The school was more diverse by the time I became a sophomore, but whites were still the majority, and I even admit to having a Rebel flag. At the time, to me, it was just a flag. I had absolutely no frame of reference for it having any alternate symbolic meaning.

johnreb

Nothing says “sports victory” like a menacing soldier with a gun.

No, seriously. This was our mascot, Johnny Reb, until he was stolen as a prank by our own students, who remain largely unknown. He was missing for a year or two, and then reappeared mysteriously in the school’s front hallway one day. We had a live mascot my senior year. By saying we had a live Johnny Reb, I don’t mean we conducted a dark ceremony to bring a Confederate soldier back to life to wander up and down sidelines at football games. We just dressed a guy up. But I digress. Whatever.

Symbols are funny things. Different people see them differently. What some see as historical and innocuous, others see as shocking, offensive, or intimidating. Confederate flags, for example, are fairly benign to, say, white people in the South who are not racist, but are proud of being Southern. However, hate groups use the flags as symbols while they demonstrate, and while they perpetrate acts of violence. As a result, a number of minorities, even those proud of being Southern, view the flags in a much different light. I get that now. I remember being at work one day, and one of my coworkers walked up to my desk and plunked down a lapel pin with a swastika on it. I literally gasped, my eyes wide open, just staring at this symbol I perceived as hatred in wearable accessory form. My coworker was proud he’d acquired something of historical value and was really puzzled by my reaction.

He smiled as he said, “This is an authentic WWII German officer’s lapel pin!”

My eyes were so wide, Little Orphan Annie thought I was a long lost cousin. “You know I’m Jewish, right?”

“Yeah, that’s why I thought you’d appreciate this.”

“What is wrong with you? Is there some alternate definition of ‘appreciate’ I’m not aware of?”

“It’s history!”

One man’s history is another woman’s extreme shock. Perspective matters.

Earlier this week, my home school district met to address some of the local team names that might be offensive to certain groups, namely African Americans and Native Americans. My high school was on the list. Through the magic of a Facebook group set up for “early year” alums for my school, I learned that a number of, shall we say, pale alums from my high school’s early whitebread period were outraged.

“I graduated a Rebel, and I’ll always be a Rebel!” Dude, you graduated a Rebel in 1972, when it was still considered OK to pat strange girls on the butt, because you’re “just telling her she’s pretty, and she likes it.” Today, that’d get you a kick in the crotch and a face full of pepper spray.

“I never heard anyone complain about it when I was in school.” Just because a minority doesn’t complain to the majority about unintended racial issues, doesn’t mean mean they’re happy or accepting of it. Did you ever ask?

“People are way too sensitive and PC. This is dumb.” To you? Sure. Then again, I don’t think anyone carrying particular flags have come marching down your street to yell at you, scream at you, or intend to do harm to you or your property. Your demographic has likely never been on the receiving end of organized virulent, violent hate hiding behind certain ideals and symbols that others feel are just history. Mile. Walking. Someone else’s shoes. Just saying.

What I’ve really found interesting about this outrage is that I’d be willing to bet that an overwhelming majority of those screaming loudest haven’t even stepped foot in the school’s hallways since they’ve graduated, nor would they have given the place a second thought if the Facebook group didn’t exist, or if this issue hadn’t come up. But now, someone’s going to change something they were a part of 30 – 40 years ago, and they’re all

Really? This upsets you? Things change, people. Our time at that school is long over. Yeah, we were Rebels, and a new mascot won’t change that or affect our memories. This change is not about us. We’re gone. We’re out of there. Most of us never looked back. While we were out living our lives with no thought at all to our alma mater, the neighborhood changed. Society changed. The school demographic changed.  Maybe some of those students want to be able to cheer for, or play for, their team without feeling conflicted. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a person of color to be on the field, pouring out sweat and blood, for a crowd waving Confederate flags. Forget sports, how difficult is it for a student of color to even feel pride in attending a school that shoves in their faces symbols that have never given them warm fuzzies? So, why is our antiquated rah rah sis boom bah seemingly more important than that of current students — you know…the people for whom the school exists? Why are people so angry over a topic that is neither about them, nor affects them?

The bottom line is kids and their families should feel pride in their school. They shouldn’t feel alienated. They shouldn’t feel intimidated. Those who do, finally spoke up and did something about it. This is not a bad thing. Unless the new team name is something that can be eaten by, or get the shit beaten out of by, a cardinal.

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I Was Lucky

I couldn’t find the shirt I wanted to wear this morning. I know I washed it. I know I folded it. I have no idea what kind of journey it is on post laundry basket, but it is not where it should be. As a result, I’m wearing a whole other shirt today. It’s a complete coincidence that, on a day we’re supposed to be wearing purple to support that bullying is bad, I’m wearing a lavender shirt. Sorry, folks. While I don’t support bullying in any way shape or form, I didn’t get the memo about wearing purple, and I was completely prepared to wear a black-and-white striped shirt today.

Today I’ve read a few blog entries online from people who were bullied as kids, including one from Wil Wheaton, which implore parents to teach their kids to respect others, rather than make excuses for them. These blogs made me think about my own childhood and I realize that, as weird and different and not being especially pretty as I was, I was never bullied. This is not a complaint.

Being weird and different and not especially pretty didn’t exactly make my childhood super happy fun times all the time, but no one ever laid a hand on me over it. Oh, other kids said things, mean and hurtful things, that are the root of any self-esteem issues I still have today, but no one continually taunted me, or went out of their way to find me and be mean to me. I thought about that as well. I’m well into middle age, but things people did say to me as a child have stuck with me a very. Long. Time.

All too often there are stories in the news about some kid committing suicide, or going postal, after being verbally or physically abused by classmates, and how social media makes that bullying easier. As much as the comments I got as a kid truly got to me, I can’t imagine being a kid now with Facebook, and text messages allowing 24/7 mean kid access, as well as the added courage of not being face-to-face with the person being taunted. I can see how a barrage of horrible comments can make a kid feel less than. Less than what, you ask? Fill in the blank with “good,” “attractive,” “wanted,” “smart,” “human.” Eventually, something is going to give, and the results can be tragic.

My reasoning for this post isn’t to share my own tragic story, because my story isn’t tragic. It’s to show that, if the negativity I received as a kid affects me as an adult today, imagine how full-on bullying affects a kid through adulthood. I would love this post to call attention to a few things we can do to make this better.

  • We’re the adults. If a kid comes to you about bullying, assume it’s bad. Kids don’t talk about being bullied until it gets bad, so do something about it. There should be no excuses.
  • If another parent or teacher comes to you about your kid bullying another, do something about it. No kid is the complete angel his or her parents think they are. Talk to your kid. If your kid professes innocence, fine. But let them know your eyes and ears are open, and there will be consequences if you learn differently. If you learn differently, follow through on the consequences part.
  • Yes, kids will be kids. But ya know what? How about parents be parents, and teach their kids the concept of boundaries and respect. We were all little shits as kids. Each of us was mean to another child at least once, but I would guess that most of us never tormented or beat another child just for the hell of it. Parents need to provide consequences if their kids exceed those boundaries or disrespect another kid. Hint: As soon as your child beats the crap out of another kid, and it wasn’t self defense, it’s time. Another hint: If your kid is going out of his or her way to verbally threat or torment — in person or online — another kid, it’s time.

The bottom line is that we can wear pretty colors all we want, but until we do more about this than make a conscious wardrobe choice, the bullying will grow.

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And With a Series of Bangs, It Was Gone

I’m getting to the age where places from my past are, quite literally, going up in smoke. The buildings in which I graduated high school and college no longer exist, nor does the hospital in which I was born. This is my way of saying, “I’m old. I hate your music. Get off my lawn. Is it time for Matlock?” Sunday, September 22 marked the destruction of another building in downtown Houston. Some people know it as the downtown Macy’s store. For those of us who grew up here, that building will always be Foley’s, a department store chain born in that building in Houston well before I was born.

I know what you’re saying. “But, Rhonda. You hate shopping. The sole reason you want to create a clone is to send a more willing Rhonda to buy your clothes. Why so emo about this?” Well, for me, Foley’s was “the store where Bonpapa works/worked.” For 20 years, my grandfather designed and altered furs for Foley’s, putting into practice the trade he’d learned and practiced for years before coming to the United States. When I heard about the plans to destroy the building, apparently to make room for yet another nondescript office tower, I felt sad, partially because another Houston landmark was being torn down, and partially because news of the demolition made me realize how much I still miss my grandfather. I sat with my mom that Sunday and we did what Jews do — we ate, had coffee, and reminisced about about relatives.

In case you missed the three-letter word above, yes, my grandfather was a furrier. He had a job that now ranks only slightly lower on the politically  incorrect scale than “head researcher for Rush Limbaugh.” But the man was a master craftsman. In Europe, he would make coats for my grandmother to wear, but they were never really her coats. They served as advertisements for him. “This is the furrier’s wife. That must be the best coat in the history of coats! I must have it!” And they would. And Bonpapa would make Bobonne another coat.

My mother’s coat, made from Persian lamb, with a mink collar.

Back in the day, even in this hot and humid place, fur was a status symbol and completely accepted. Women wanted it, and department stores like Foley’s, Sakowitz, and Neiman Marcus not only sold it, but they provided a storage service to preserve the fur during the summer, or what we in Houston like to call “April through October.”

When my newlywed parents moved to Houston from South Bend, IN in the late 50s, my grandparents weren’t far behind. Moving from Indiana to Houston meant giving up a few things like, oh, winter, which is kind of important to those in the fur trade. Down here, there were few independently-owned fur shops, but Bonpapa didn’t want to work for anyone else, so he worked for a dry cleaner for a while. Later, realizing opening his own fur shop in the Land of Perpetual Summer, was a horrible idea, he found work with someone else’s shop. Not surprisingly, the shop was not overly busy. Later, he applied for a job at Foley’s, because department stores tended to do more business. Bonpapa’s ability to perform pretty much all tasks associated with designing, creating, and altering fur coats all but assured his getting the job. Foley’s was his professional home until his retirement in 1981.

Bonpapa in the Foley’s fur workroom with a young visitor from Belgium. 1977

In his last months, my grandfather lived with my parents. They’d gone out one night, so I went over to visit with Bonpapa. We started talking about fur, and he pulled out a box in which he had a few skins. He dug one out and set it on the kitchen table. He closed his eyes momentarily and caressed it. Then he explained the meticulous process of piecing furs together so they looked like they were part of one skin. As he spoke, I noticed the way his hands seemed steadier when he would show me, on the fur, how he would mark a pattern, and how he would lay it alongside other skins. It was the last time I would see the twinkle in his eyes.

Sure this looks like tiger…

…but a close inspection shows they’re numerous individual strips of mink, meticulously sewn together to create the effect.

As much as a box of animal skins makes my grandfather seem like the Leatherface of the animal world, he was really more like a Polish Native American. My mother mentioned being a child and watching him in his workshop. He would sadly, and respectfully caress the fur, much as I witnessed that night on my parents’ kitchen table, and utter something like, “poor animal” before starting a project. One other thing Bonpapa did was take scraps of fur from the shop and make other things — sometimes stuffed toys for my brother and me, sometimes rugs, throws and pieces of art. He respected the sacrifice of the animal, and tried to be sure as little as possible was was wasted by making things that made people, mostly his family, happy. It was always the pieces he made for us that meant the most to me.

Here’s my mother’s bunny dog. It’s a stuffed dog made from rabbit fur.

He made a cowhide and suede vest for me to ensure I had something Western to wear for Go Texan Day.

Even my dolls reaped the fur benefits! Here’s a pair of rabbit fur doll booties.

My grandfather worked for years on a piece, made of Persian lamb. The piece steadily grew to enormous size, until my grandmother said, “Enough! You’re through with it, already!” Seriously, I could hide under this fur piece, and still have room for two other people. In 1974, Bonpapa entered the piece in an arts and crafts fair Foley’s had for its employees. He won.

Sugar added for scale. This piece is huge. Click to view a larger image.

Goodbye, Foleys. Thanks for the memories.

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What’s New, Pussycat

The title of this blog post might imply that I have a new cat or, at the very least, that I might be delusional and am attempting small talk with members of the feline kingdom. As blogworthy as those two ideas are, I have not lost the few marbles I have left. I just feel it’s time to catch the few of you up on my life, and why I’ve been silent for the last few months. Here it is in a nutshell.

I was really busy at work the first part of the year. I’d been working on a product release that was overdue. We finally released to great fanfare, but a bit too late to change the company’s performance for the fiscal year. A couple of weeks later, much to my surprise, I was laid off, along with 129 similarly surprised other people worldwide. I put up a brave front while simultaneously starting to think about the body parts I might have to sell in order to keep the house if I didn’t get another job before my severance ran out.

Thanks to some serious networking, I was interviewing within two weeks. Six weeks later, thanks to a recommendation from my former boss, I had a job offer in hand and retained possession of my vital organs. What did I learn? Job hunting has changed significantly since the last time I had to look for a job.

The last time I found myself (sorry, Shakespeare) from employment untimely RIFed, the only thing you could do was spend hours at the Texas Employment Commission, standing in a series of lines to get your unemployment benefits set up. Then you had to update your resume, and print copies of the resume on nice, conservative paper stock with matching envelopes.

You got on the phone to call old colleagues and friends, you scoured the paper, subscribed to snail mail job lists, and you never left the house, unless you owned an answering machine. In short, you mailed shit out, and you either received a rejection letter or an interview. After the interview, you either received a rejection letter or an offer.

Today, you can search for a job in your underwear. Wait, that implies jobs are hiding in your Victoria Secrets. If that’s the case, you need not have a resume. But I digress. Let me try this again. Ahem…Today, job hunting is like computer dating — every neurotic, excruciating part of computer dating. You fill out the form, make yourself look good, press “Submit,” and wait. Eventually you’ll get a call, which is either a phone interview or a screening call during which the phone interview is set up. If there’s mutual interest, you get to set up the face-to-face date interview.

So you get all excited, and you put on your best outfit to meet your potential new girlfriend boss. You meet each other, smile, sit and have some small talk, and then you talk about how you would be the perfect spouse employee.

After your date interview, you go home and send a followup email detailing how perfect you are for each other. Within a day or two, you have heard nothing. You start to wonder, “Is it too early to call? I don’t want to seem like a Stage 5 Clinger. Why, God? Why won’t they call?” Then you get a call, but it’s to arrange a date to meet the parents management team.

Realize that, much like ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” you’re dating interviewing with multiple suitors companies, which introduces a bit more stress. Which will pick you? Which will you pick? Do you pick the first one who asks, or wait for something better? Can you even afford to turn any of them down? After all, you’re well over 35 unemployed, ya know.

As someone who actually gave up computer dating (and, pretty much, dating in general) before meeting Lindsey, you can see how this could have gone to hell in a hand basket rather quickly, landing me in a tub full of ice and a body devoid of one or both kidneys. Luck was on my side (luck and some great recommendations). Social networking is the employment matchmaking of the internet, but I refuse to call my former boss Yenta.

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Go Get ‘Em, Tiger!

Funny thing about having a blog. You have to, you know, actually write entries. If you hop into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, you’ll see I’ve been in a state of literary silence throughout 2013. That changes tonight, thanks to something I saw on my Facebook feed. One of the bicycle pages I follow is having some kind of contest in which people are invited to describe their first bikes — the one that sparked their love of cycling.

Yep, I am a cyclist. I’m one of those people in Lycra, you sometimes see on the road or in Memorial Park. I love the smell of bike shops. I drool over the terms “carbon fiber” and “titanium.” I know enough about the term “monkey butt” to know I’ve never had it, and I don’t want it. Two-thirds of the vehicles I own have two wheels. I believe, much to Lindsey’s chagrin, that bicycles live inside. Cycling must be in my blood. After all, the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, is a Belgian. Why, here I am not winning the Tour de France.

Not Winning the Tour de France

But where did this love of two-wheeled things start? As with most kids, learning to ride a bike was a rite of passage, that major step from a tricycle with streamers on the handlebars to a bike with streamers on the handlebars. The only thing I remember about my first bike is that it was red, and had rickety training wheels. To be fair, though, it might have been my dad’s rickety handy work at play in that instance. Once the training wheels were off, I was zooming around with the other kids in my suburban jungle.

If you ask me what I really remember about my first bike? It had the coolest grips on the face of the earth. I could try to describe these grips to you, my rabid readership of eight, but I couldn’t do them justice. You’d read it, and think, “Really? What was so cool about that?” I decided to go to my guru on top of the mountain to get insight into this problem. Guru Google was most insightful. I know the bike wasn’t new, so much as it was new to me. Guru Google not only verified that fact, but he found photos of the grips — a 1965 Esso advertising gimmick.

Rawr! Best. Grips. Ever!

Rawr! Best. Grips. Ever!

I tore up the sidewalks on my little red bike, with the awesome tiger grips, which gave way to the five bikes I’ve owned since. None of my bikes, including my current bike, makes me smile the way the mere memory of my Tiger Bike does. Guru Google informs me I can actually buy a set of these things. Now, is there a way to put it on the Giant?

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My Family’s Glorious Military History

I generally don’t blog about my family, mostly because there are only four of us now, and I really want them to still like me. I also don’t think we’re incredibly blogworthy. As families go, we are quiet and assuming, and there are no interesting stories, even though it’s a long-running joke that my family tree doesn’t fork as much as it should. I still remember going to my parents’ house and my mom saying, “Good news! Your dad’s parents weren’t first cousins. They were second cousins.” This past weekend, though, I learned a new story, and I realized there was definitely a theme with regard to my family.

I remember wearing one of my dad’s army shirts when I was in high school. I was a punk, and wearing military shirts and jackets was a very punk thing to do. My dad still tells army stories now and again. He served with pride, and I believe he enjoyed the experience, which led him to his lifelong profession as a pharmacist. Of course, as an immigrant to this country, it makes sense he’d be the only one to serve in the US Army. But what about my older relatives in their native countries? Read on.

Months before my maternal grandfather passed away, we chatted on the couch in his small retirement apartment. I’d learned to listen when he told stories about his youth. Those stories were rare golden nuggets of family history, and the man had a way of telling a story with a smile and a charm that I miss to this day. On that evening, I learned about how he immigrated from Poland to Belgium. Bonpapa was drafted into the Polish army. He showed up at the appointed time and place, along with all the other draftees. After the briefing, the new soldiers were told to go home, pack a bag, and come back the next day. My grandfather said, “I thought it was stupid, so I went home, packed a bag, and went to the train station.” Yep, my grandfather got to Belgium by way of Germany after deserting from the Polish Army. Lest you think that makes him a coward, I’ll sit your ass down and tell you what he did for his family when the Germans invaded Belgium and, inevitably, came for the Jews. Oh yeah, and the man single-handedly overturned a US tank. It wasn’t on purpose, but that’s beside the point, and another blog post.

When Dad came to the United States, he lived with his Aunt Esther and Uncle Sam in South Bend, IN. I only met Uncle Sam once, when I was about two years old. Esther was Dad’s mother’s sister, so I know she was Polish, and despite being only five or six years old the last time I saw her, I remember her having an accent. During a recent conversation with my parents, I realized I erroneously assumed Uncle Sam was American, but he came to the US from Russia. I told my dad I didn’t remember Uncle Sam having an accent, but there were a few things I did remember — Uncle Sam had black horn-rimmed glasses, he wore white buttoned shirts and black slacks, he used a walker, and he was missing a finger.

“Do you know how he lost his finger?”
I turned to my dad and replied, “Didn’t you once tell me it was a work accident or something?”
Slight smirk from both parents “No.”
Dad went on to explain that Uncle Sam was drafted into the Czarist Russian Army and had no desire to serve the czar, so he did what any young man in that position would do to avoid serving. In a slight fit of irony, he shot off his trigger finger.

With this said, I will point out that my paternal grandfather did serve in the Russian/Polish military during WWI. He was sent to the front, and was promptly shot in the leg, thus ending his war service within less than 24 hours.

Because everything is about me, I’ve internalized all of this, mostly because it explains so much. I have no patience for stupidity, I have made rash decisions, and I’m a little accident prone. It’s just a family tradition.

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And There Was No Pie

Despite our best intentions, Lindsey and I did not take part in our Black Friday tradition of Pie in the Park. Instead, we were wooed to the zoo by Lindsey’s dad and step-mom. It was my first trip to the Houston Zoo in years, and my first ride on the train since I was a kid.

We even fed the animals.

For more photos, click here.

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