Possibly the Worst Gift I Ever Gave My Grandmother

Yesterday my grandmother turned 102 years old. She’s in pretty good shape for 102. She lives in an efficiency apartment in an independent living facility. She doesn’t use a walker, although she has conceded to a cane to steady her. She’s not on oxygen, and she takes no medications whatsoever. She even still worries about getting fat. She says my husband makes the best Toll House cookies she’s ever had, so periodically I take her a box as a gift (because what else am I going to get someone who’s that old? It’s not like she needs anything) and she eats a couple, then freezes the rest to have when people come to visit her. My friends and I all agree that if we make it to 102, we are going to eat all the cookies.

As it happens, I have a friend with very outspoken opinions on grandparent names. She says (and I think she’s quoting some comedian) you hear perfectly rational adults say things like, “Well, I’m off to the airport to pick up MeeMaw and PeePaw,” and they just sound like idiots. We don’t call my grandmother MeeMaw (nor was her husband PeePaw), but we do have a sort of unfortunate nickname for her. And I gave it to her.

My grandmother has a cousin who has always been referred to in the family as Cousin Lucy. I don’t think I’ve ever met her—I’m not even sure she’s still alive. My grandmother always kept in pretty close touch with her. She lived with Cousin Lucy and Lucy’s husband, Cousin Clifton, at one point when she was young and right out of school. In any event, Cousin Lucy became a grandmother before my mother and her siblings started having children. Cousin Lucy’s grandchildren called her “Gumpy.” My grandmother always thought this was just the dumbest thing, and swore her grandchildren wouldn’t adopt anything so foolish for her.

I was the first grandchild, and when I learned to talk there was great concern as to what she and my grandfather would be called. I don’t mean to imply that she worried about it on a level with the Cold War or anything, but she was determined that her “grandmother name” would be something sensible. Why we didn’t just go with “Grandma” or “Granny” has never been explained, except maybe she didn’t like either of those options (I’ve never thought to ask her—I suppose I could; I did just say she’s still alive and pretty sharp mentally), possibly she didn't feel old enough to be a grandmother--she was only about 57 at the time, or maybe she was worried that a two year old would bastardize it and she’d end up as Gamgam or something equally abhorrent (since clearly that’s what happened in the case of Cousin Lucy).

My mother’s brother and sister were in college at this time, and still living at home. My grandmother’s real name is Eleanor, and my aunt and uncle used to call her Elsie as a joke, because of Elsie the Cow--my grandparents had a farm and raised beef cattle. My aunt suggested Elsie might be a good “grandmother name” because it was, after all, a real name 

“Oh, well, that’s all right with me. Tracy can call me Elsie,” she said.

Except, of course, I was unable to say Elsie, and what came out was “Ahtee.”  (Pronounced just like it’s spelled "ah" like you're having your throat checked + tee, and which spell check always wants me to change to “hate” which I think is pretty unkind of it, and a bit rude when it doesn’t even know my grandmother.) There’s a four year gap between me and my next youngest cousin, and by the time she came along, Ahtee was pretty well entrenched. My cousin’s brother is ten years younger than she is, so of course there was no turning back by then. Ahtee she is to this day, and with the exception of her actual children, everyone in our family calls her Ahtee.

At one point when I was a teenager, I got kind of embarrassed by the whole Ahtee thing (as teenagers do, convinced that everyone around me was judging me for this stupid nickname I was calling my grandmother in the grocery store, when in fact they probably called their own grandmother something equally as silly, or possibly even worse) and tried to call her Elsie, as had been intended all those years ago. It was, of course, a complete failure, and I was never able to retrain myself. Even if I had been, I’m not sure she would have been able to adjust to answering to it. And so Ahtee she is, and Ahtee she will be, forever and ever. I mentioned to her once that I wasn’t so sure she really came out that much better than Cousin Lucy, and she agreed, but I think after almost 50 years she’s made peace with it.

Do your grandparents have regrettable nicknames? Are you responsible for them?

Four Things I Learned at BlogU

I shared my humiliation and horror from my BlogU weekend with you, but I really did learn more than how to embarrass myself (I didn’t need a conference for that) and what happens when a squirrel lands on the roof of your car (squirrel blood on the windshield, which, when we noticed it, was almost as traumatic as Skippy’s death in the first place). BlogU is packed with useful information, and encourages introspection and self-examination. They present you with all the directions you could go: it’s up to you. Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the things I learned at BlogU.

You don’t have to do all the things
I took a couple of sessions that were enjoyable and informative, but that I walked out of thinking, “Yeah, that’s not happening.” It was useful to learn about SEO, but the impetus of it is to make Google think you’re an expert on your subject. If I were still food blogging, or if I were a beauty or fashion blogger who needed authority behind my information or advice, the SEO session would have been gold. As it is, I consider myself a humor blogger. What’s Google going to think—that I’m an authority on being a sarcastic wise ass? (On a related note: I AM.) So while I was interested to learn about SEO, it’s not anything that I’m likely to spend an exceptional amount of time implementing. And that’s OK.

BlogU is as depressing as it is inspiring
I know that doesn’t sound like a positive take away, but hear me out. There’s so much information to absorb, so many ways to improve, so many people with similar goals, it just seems overwhelming. But as I was thinking about how much there is to do, it occurred to me that breaking down a massive amount of work into manageable actions is what I do all day long. I can apply my professional skills to my personal goals as they relate to my blog and a writing career.

Beyond that, I can apply my professional skills in my writing career. As in, I can write about what I do and how I do it. Plenty of people are unsure how to create a plan, what the process of planning involves, and how to go about it. I’ve gotten countless marriage  proposals from other women over the years because they want me to “run” their lives. Instead of doing that, I can teach them how to do it for themselves, how to create repeatable processes, along with the documentation, scheduling tools, and risk mitigation strategies that a plan entails.

To be fair, this has been percolating for awhile. In fact, it started when I was reading Jen Lancaster’s most recent book I Regret Nothing. She had some very depressing (and unfortunately accurate) thoughts on the state of the publishing industry and its future. She talked about starting her own business, in addition to writing. After years of women saying, “Will you marry me?” and trying to help my children create processes to keep our lives from imploding into a swirling supernova of chaos and despair, I realize that I have a marketable talent, an area of expertise. I haven’t thought through the whole thing yet, but I know what I’m not: I’m not a professional organizer, nor am I a life coach. I’m not going to tell you to buy a bunch of plastic totes and stick pictures of the shit you put in them on the front, neither am I going to help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up. What I can do is help you get from point A to point B with a clear plan that takes into consideration possible detours and roadblocks, and when appropriate, I can help you make that process efficiently repeatable. More on this later—I’m still putting together a plan for it.

Write “you”
This was reinforced in a couple of sessions. In one case it was was explicitly stated, in another it was implied. But either way the point is you have to write your material in your voice. You can’t go read Jen Lancaster or Tina Fey or any of ten thousand other funny people and try to imitate their style, or write on their subjects. I understand Jenny Lawson said something similar at BlogHer last year, which was to write your own story; everyone  has a story, and it’s what makes them unique.

I confess in the past I’ve been guilty of being untrue in this way. I try to think like Jen Lancaster and figure out what overarching project I could embark on and write about. Or like David Sedaris and try to decide what two or three stories I could intertwine to instill an undercurrent of meaning into my essays. This is all wrong. I can’t do those things because I’m not them, and if I tried to imitate them my output would be as pale as copies made when the toner is low in the printer, with uneven streaks and wan imagery. I have to sit down and write what’s in my brain from my experiences, using my voice.  I’ve stopped thinking I want to be the “next” anybody, because what I need to be is the first me. I know the day will come (fingers crossed!) when I’ll have to draw comparisons for the purpose of illustration, but for now I’m focusing on what sets me apart from the million other voices screaming on the internet.

Don’t change your clothes three times a day at a conference
It will confuse people and they’ll forget who you are because you were wearing a skirt two hours ago and now you’re in jeans. Also it will mean your suitcase is super full and there’s a chance you’ll risk breaking the zipper when you shove everything back into it to go home. Not that anything like that happened to me. I’m just observing. (On a related note: why is it that the stuff always fits into it fine on the way to your destination, but when you go to pack for the trip home, everything seems to have swelled and now it doesn’t all fit? Even if you didn’t buy anything new. Every damned time.)

BlogU: An Ode to Skippy

BlogU was a great experience in many ways—meeting wonderful people, learning lots of things, generally having a good time—and although I managed to embarrass myself (it was pretty much inevitable), overall it was a great experience.

Except for one thing.

I killed a squirrel.

Everyone says it’s not my fault, and I know they’re right, but Skippy’s death still weighs on me. (He was a squirrel--of course his name wasn't really Skippy. I just decided it was an OK squirrel name, and since I killed him, I owe it to him to at least give him an identity beyond just “that squirrel I killed.”)

This is what happened: I had dropped a couple of friends off at the dining hall (I don’t think I clarified that BlogU is held on a college campus with the attendees having the option to stay in the dorms; meals are served in the dining hall), and was going to get myself a bottle of water. I was driving along the road back out of campus at a measured pace—there was nothing reckless or imprudent in my speed. As I passed under a large oak tree, I heard a horrible, loud WHUMP on the roof of my rental car. I slammed on the breaks, and just as I was wondering, "...the fuck...??" what looked like a fur-covered burrito rolled down my windshield and off the hood of the car.

I threw the car in park and jumped out. There on the pavement lay Skippy. The worst thing was he was still twitching. He wasn’t dead, but in another five minutes he was going to be. That squirrel was a goner. I covered my mouth in horror and stared at him. Two other conference attendees passing on the sidewalk stopped and stared with me. They told me there were actually two squirrels up in the tree, and they’d heard them chattering, and seen them chasing each other. I started to wonder if this really was an accident. It was starting to look like maybe Humpty Dumpty was pushed, if you know what I mean.

The thing is, wildlife would do well to steer clear of me. There seems to be a trend in negative survival outcome with undomesticated creatures that fate casts into my path. Cats and dogs do fine, but squirrels and birds not so much.

The first time this happened I was about nine. We found a baby bird, and did the whole shoe box house-cotton ball bed thing. I don’t remember what we fed it, nor how long it took to get to a point where we could release it, but the day surely came. A deceptively beautiful early summer day, a day which doubtless this innocent creature in no way suspected would be his last.

I’d been told I could release him. I took the box with the bird outside and sat down on the bench on the front porch. The sky was a perfect cloudless blue, a slight breeze whispering through the trees. I spent a minute just savoring the moment. (I was kind of a weird kid. I know. Shocker.) I opened the box, and the bird hopped up to edge of the box, then down onto the bench next to me. I could practically see him take a deep breath before spreading his wings and soaring off to land in the grass of my neighbor’s front lawn. 

At which point our cat lunged out from under a juniper bush and killed him, because I’d forgotten to make sure she was inside before I set the bird free.


There followed a few more birds and a baby squirrel named Davey who didn't make it, and bunch of box turtles who, to be fair, did not perish in my care and were actually saved from fairly horrible deaths to be set free in our back yard, although not before peeing all over the floor of my mother’s car. I don’t get it—every damned one. We’d pull over, pluck the thing from almost certain annihilation under the wheel of some other car, and put it on the floor of the passenger side, where it would show its gratitude by instantly peeing all over the floorboard in terror. Or something. Assholes. Fortunately we didn’t have carpet floor mats.

Since this whole thing makes me sound like a really horrible wildlife ambassador and possibly some distant cousin of Josef Mengele, I’ll leave you with a happy story about me and an animal I rescued.

One evening when I was about 24, I was watching TV with my dad. We heard a sort of scratching noise at the metal screen door of the house. My dad was passing the front door when we heard it, so he opened it and almost immediately slammed it shut again.

“It’s a skunk!” he insisted.

Not beyond the realm of possibility, because at one point there was a skunk living under our front porch, but there was something wrong with the idea of a skunk scratching at the door. I opened the door slowly and looked out. What I saw on the porch was not a skunk, but a ferret. At the time I worked for a veterinarian, so I had some familiarity with them. I brought it in the house, gave it some of the cat’s food, and let it spend the night in the garage with a litter pan. We put up signs, but after two days there was no response to them. I didn’t want a ferret (they’re a weasel—they have a funny musky scent to them) so I took it to the vet’s office and one of the staffers adopted it.

So there, you see? I didn’t kill every wild thing that was placed in my hands by the universe.

Except now that I think about it, ferrets are considered domesticated animals. Poop.

BlogU, or I Can Make an Ass of Myself Away From Home Too!

You’re about to see the Internet explode with praise and enthusiasm for a blog conference called BlogU (and it is well-deserved praise and enthusiasm, I might add) that I attended this past weekend. This was the second year BlogU happened, and I couldn’t make it last year, but I’ll be making it next year and any other year they'll have me. BlogU offers “classes” on subjects of interest to bloggers of all kinds—subjects like SEO, collaborative blogging, and building a brand. There were many fabulous faculty and guest speakers, including New York Times bestselling author Jen Mann of People I Want to Punch in the Throat. She’s also the editor the anthology in which I was published, so I was looking forward to stalking meeting her. The story I’m about to tell you is really only funny if you know who she is, so if you need to pop over to her site and familiarize yourself with her (although why don't you already know her? Because she is hilarious), be my guest. Maybe buy a book while you're there. I’ll be here when you get back.

Ready? OK, Jen Mann is very down to earth, funny, and approachable. She posted a comment in the Facebook group for the conference on Thursday evening that she was in the lobby of the hotel having a drink if anyone wanted to join her. I had gone out to dinner with a few folks, and saw it when I got back to the hotel. I messaged her and said if she was still there, and still looking for company, I’d be happy to join her.

“Sure! Come on down!” she responded.

I got to the lobby and joined the group of ten or twelve women. I introduced myself to a few of them, and we chatted. Jen was involved in a conversation with someone else the whole time I was there, and I didn't want to interrupt. I finished my wine and headed back upstairs because it was getting a little late, and I knew have other chances to meet her, so no big deal if it didn't happen then.

As I sat down in front of my computer for one last social media check, a message popped up from Jen.

“Are you coming down? We’re wrapping up here.”

I replied that I’d been there and had just gotten back to my room. I asked if she wanted me to come down, that I was still wearing regular clothes and so forth.

“Yes!” she said. I went down and we had a lovely chat about this and that. I assume I gave the impression I was a normal person. That wouldn't last.

Friday morning I was sitting in an almost-empty auditorium waiting for the first session to start. Two ladies a couple of rows back were discussing the upcoming parties (one on Friday night, one on Saturday night). They were a bit alarmed that we’d been given only two drink tickets at check in. Was that it for the weekend? Only two drinks? Of course I couldn’t help but overhear them, so I turned around and joined in their conversation.

“I think it’s a budget thing and it’s only two drinks tonight, but on Saturday it will be unlimited. I wasn’t here last year, so I’m not a hundred percent sure, but that’s what I’d guess. I mean, you know, don’t quote me or anything…”

One of the women began (jokingly) grilling me. “Yes, what’s your authority on this? I am going to quote you. What’s your name?”

I held out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jen Mann.”

Since everyone at the conference knew who Jan Mann was, and I clearly was not Jen Mann, we all had a laugh at that.

Fast forward to the Friday night party. I found Jen and said, “Hey, Jen, can I tell you something funny?”

“Sure!” she said. I told her about my conversation with the women in the auditorium and that if she heard of anyone going around campus impersonating her, it was me. Thankfully, she thought it was funny.

The next morning the first session I attended was one Jen was teaching. Because I clearly have anxiety about stupid things, I got there early to get a seat. Jen and her lovely co-presenter JD Bailey (of Honest Mom) were getting ready. Brown nosey teacher’s pet that I am, I picked a seat in the front row. JD was doing something with the computer, so Jen had a free minute.

I said, “Hey, Jen, can I tell you something funny?”

“Sure!” she said.

And I proceeded to relate to her the exact story I told her at the party the night before. When I finished, she just looked at me without blinking for whole seconds (yes, seconds are short, but several seconds strung together are very, very long, especially when you’re sitting in front of a New York Times bestselling author whose next anthology you'd like to be in—trust me).

“You told me that story last night, and I laughed.”


I swear I wasn’t drunk, wasn’t stoned (I don’t even do that anymore), was completely in what’s left of my right mind. I just have a terrible memory at this point, which is why I write down anything I really need to remember. Apparently now I also need to start writing down things like, “Told funny story about impersonating her to Jen Mann at Friday night party. DO NOT TELL HER AGAIN.” Talk about embarrassing.

However, I will say this, I got a lot of mileage out of the How I Humiliated Myself in Front of Jen Mann story for the rest of the conference. And in another conversation, Jen mentioned that a few times she’s met people and said things like, “Great to meet you!” and they’ve said, “We’ve met before—we had lunch together last year” or something, then she feels sheepish for not remembering them. I don’t think that’s going to be my problem. I think  next year when we meet (assuming she doesn’t avoid me the way you avoid a hyper chatty semi-stalker who for all you know is a psychopath and can’t remember what they said twelve hours earlier), she’s going to say, “You’re not gonna tell me that fuckin’ story again, are you?”

She’s probably hoping I won’t even remember her. But I will. 

Because I wrote it down.