“rain, rain go away,” and don’t come back another day!

You know you live in Seattle when the skies are gray, all day, and when you’ve got more water outdoors, than is running through your pipes indoors! I’m not certain anyone acclimates to the Pacific Northwest’s lackluster weather, but I know for sure Hawaiians don’t. I’ll bet if a poll was taken of the ethnicity of most travelers to the Aloha State during the rainy season, the biggest number would be locals returning home for a “shot of sunshine.” Maybe not so much in this economy, however, where passengers are having to pay extra for a lot more than we did in the “good old days.” Fun-loving, we Hawaiians can still be practical.

When my husband and I attended the Human Rights Campaign fundraiser a few weeks ago, we successfully bid on tickets to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Twyla Tharp Performance,” for this weekend. So tonight my daughter and I found our way into the city, where we met my husband, who was joining us after work.

I’ve never been keen on driving in the rain, in the dark, especially in heavy traffic. Of course the skies opened up, as we left the house minutes before 5 p.m. We were heading out right in the midst of “rush hour.” Already dealing with a slight headache from neck and shoulder tension, I looked like a deer caught in headlights, as I sat straight as a ramrod behind the wheel. I’m pretty sure I didn’t draw a deep breath until we got to our destination, an hour later.

My daughter knew my stress level was high; it was oozing from my pores. Normally happy to be nodding my head back and forth to Michael Jackson on  DVD, I asked her to find something calmer on the radio. She fumbled with the switches, unfamiliar with the area stations. I couldn’t even speak to help her. ALL my attention was on driving in the rain, cars flying by me on the freeway.

In the past there’s been a couple of instances when other drivers have caught my attention, not easily I might add, letting me know that my headlights were not turned on. I remembered this as I was stepping on the gas pedal, working my way up to the 60 mile-an-hour speed limit. Speaking in clipped phrases, my daughter and I tried to figure out if, in fact, I had the parking lights, or the head lights, on. I never yell, but my voice did go up several octaves, almost to a shrill. I decided they were on; my daughter wasn’t certain, but she thought they weren’t. I overruled her, since I had to return to focusing upon my driving. If this was another instance when a passing car had to tell me I was the one who was wrong, then so be it.

Thankfully, traffic moved along, me with it. Making it to Mercer Island, the exit just before crossing Lake Washington to enter Seattle, without any glitches, like an accident, was a huge relief. But the trip was only half-finished. I still had to get through the traffic in town, on a Friday evening, in the pouring rain.

Once I was out of the second tunnel, it was clear sailing until I reached the  beginning of the “bottleneck” on 4th avenue. Patience, and braking, saved the night. Passing through the Westlake Center area of town, I was well on my way until I reached another “bottleneck” near our destination.

My wonderful daughter reached over to pat me on the back as I parked, expressing her thanks for a “job well done.” Where she lives the freeways, and the in-town roads are wider than they are here in Seattle. She felt our roads, by comparison, were pretty cramped, making it seem like we were sandwiched in by cars on all sides, during the entire ride. Talk about making me feel better.

Compared to friends of mine, back East, and here, I’m a “wuss” of a driver. They will drive inter-state without any qualms. When I decided to make the trip with my daughter’s car from Atlanta, Georgia to Chautauqua, New York, where she was dancing for several weeks one summer, my girlfriend Becky drove the 13 hours. We did overnite in West Virginia, halfway through our trek. She didn’t mind, preferring to drive than be a passenger. Hey, that was just fine with me.

When “push comes to shove,” someone pushing AND shoving me, I’ll drive where necessary. It might take me longer than someonelse, and I might make a couple of unexpected detours, like to a state other than the one I’d had in mind.  I think that’s why my husband has always preferred to do all the driving. He likes to get where he’s going, without any detours, or any “pit stops,” for that matter. When it comes to driving, he definitely likes to be in control.

So you see, I’m a “shrinking violet” when it comes to driving. And I’m at the age, where I’m already beginning to think I might have to give up my driver’s license soon. I don’t think anyone will have to convince me that it’s time  I get off the road. I’ll probably make the suggestion myself. I’m a wimp compared to my mother-in-law who’s only now wondering if she should stop driving, at 85 years of age. God bless her!

I congratulate all the women who drive like men, fearlessly! You go, girlfriend!

driving like i’m still in maui…hugmamma

“service with a smile”

Having both worked in service-oriented jobs for many years, with my husband still in the business, we agree that customer service is a “dying art.” Shopping on the Internet has made it more convenient for consumers to surf the global market for all their needs. An appealing product, savvy marketing and a credit card completes the transaction. There’s no need to interface with a flesh-and-blood person. After all, Google can answer any of your questions. And if you’ve got a hankering for “warm and fuzzy,” click on “smiley face” or download your choice of YouTube videos, to get your endorphins moving.  

Businesses grew by leaps and bounds when consumers had quantities of disposable income. Customer service was unnecessary, so it became a thing of the past. A few retailers, like some purveyors of travel and TV’s QVC, continued their traditional practice of being solicitous towards customers. But some, like E-Bay, Amazon.com, Craig’s List, department stores, supermarkets, drugstores, fast-food chains, medical practitioners and airlines, may have opted to minimize service in favor of quick turnover, with a “get ’em in, get ’em out,” attitude.

With the downturn in the economy, companies are scrambling to win back customers who have fewer dollars to spend. Customer service may be on the rise again. I hope so. It doesn’t cost businesses more to have employees smile, offer a warm greeting, listen with patience, offer options for resolution, and express appreciation for ongoing patronage. However, a company may want to invest in customer service training. Even employees with impeccable manners and the greatest intentions, will meet their match in irate persons. I know, I’ve sat on both sides of the desk.

In my mid-20’s I worked as a customer service agent for the Hawaii Medical Service Association in Honolulu. It represents Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the islands. I had extensive training in the technical aspects of HMSA’s policies so that I could answer policyholder questions. I did so in person, and on the phone. I enjoyed helping people, especially when I could clarify or demystify the finer points of their coverage. Receiving their thanks, and seeing their smiles when they turned to leave, was extremely gratifying. Of course, there were some who were disgruntled with what I had to say. And there were a few who insisted upon speaking with my supervisor, hoping his response would be different. Sometimes a review was scheduled, but often his answer confirmed mine. One particular encounter left me “shaking” in my muumuu (long, Hawaiian dress).

A gentleman from the island of Molokai had called, unhappy with a bill payment. I think it was a hospital claim, probably of a sizeable amount. I explained how the insurance carrier had determined his coverage. Unhappy with the information, I can only imagine how the man’s eyes bulged, his belly heaved, and how difficult it might have been to breathe, as he screamed profanities through the telephone. The tirade continued when I handed the call over to my boss. We were mistaken to think we’d heard the last of the policyholder. Not long after, the huge Hawaiian man  arrived at our offices, having made the flight specifically to address us in person. I gladly introduced him to my supervisor, who withdrew to the privacy of his office, with the angry islander in tow. I think someone from upper management eventually joined the conversation, but I don’t remember the outcome. Needless to say, the experience left me wary.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been the irate customer. However I’ve certainly done my fair share of yelling, I’m sorry to say. But it’s always been when I felt inconsequential, the company having already snagged my business. There was the time we’d refinanced with a bank at a low-interest rate. Because the appraiser hadn’t submitted his report on time, our rate was due to be increased. Not until I spoke with the President’s secretary, shedding tears of frustration, did she resolve the matter in our favor. 

When my 19-year-old daughter’s VISA bill showed an annual $85 fee for fraud protection on a credit limit of $500, I went ballistic! If she didn’t pay the fee, she’d be slapped with a finance charge. And if that kept up, she’d reach her allowed max in no time.  It was ludicrous that a billion dollar corporation would take advantage of a teenager. Unfamiliar with marketing schemes, my daughter thought VISA’s $2 rebate check was a reward for opening a bank account. Cashing the check actually signed her up for credit card protection, as indicated on the back, in fine print. My nonstop tirade failed to move the customer rep until I asked how she’d feel if her teenager had been scammed. The rep agreed to remove the fee, without requesting repayment of the rebate.

Purchasing a used sofa back table in Atlanta for $300, I agreed to pay the dealer another $265 to ship it to my home in Washington state. He shipped with a small, regional carrier because of its comparatively low-cost. When the merchandise arrived in Tacoma, my husband was told that the price had escalated to $600. In speaking with the seller, I learned that the price change had occurred within the shipper’s bureaucracy. The clerk with whom the transaction originated, wrote up the piece as a “sofa bed,” not a “sofa back table.” Sight unseen, the receiving office modified the price accordingly. When we asked that they open the crate to verify that it was a table, not a sofa bed, we were aghast when the amount shot up to $800+. No reason was given, but I surmised the decision was made that the piece was an antique. If I refused to pay the exorbitant price to retrieve my belonging, it could be sold locally for a hefty sum. After phone calls to 3 different offices, I was directed to the company’s corporate offices in Alabama. I wrote a letter describing, in great detail, the events leading up to my outrage. I addressed it to the President of the freight company, copying the President of its parent company, and express mailed both. It was sent on a Saturday, and I followed up with a call on Tuesday. Long story short, the Tacoma branch delivered the table to my husband for the originally quoted price of $261. That didn’t include door-to-door transportation, but it did in my case.

Who wants the grief that accompanies confrontation? Not me, that’s for certain. I’d just as soon turn my back, leaving it to those with hardier constitutions. But as I’ve indicated in my earlier posting, “put a ‘face’ on the ‘unknown,’ ” sometimes I’m integrity gone amuck! As with most people, there’s a “line” which when crossed, Mr. Jekyl steps in for Dr. Hyde. At that point, I become “warrior mom,” battling until my opponent is “face down,” eating dust from under my high-heeled stiletto, specifically removed from moth balls for the occasion. 

In my travel experiences from one end of the country to the other, southerners and Hawaiians exude genuine warmth and hospitality. The tellers at my mother-in-law’s bank welcome her with sunny smiles, and assist patiently with any questions she may raise. I find Southern wait staff gracious in their greetings, and their drawls hold my attention as they enticingly describe the “specials of the day.” What both ethnicities share is a slower paced lifestyle. That seems to translate to great customer service. Of course, as with anything else, there are exceptions to the rule. But I enjoy spending time in those locales, where “getting to know you” and “service with a smile” are more than fanciful sayings. They’re a way of life. 

for amazing customer service, huge hugs…hugmamma.

been there, done that

Media coverage of President Obama’s recent vacation has put Martha’s Vineyard “on the map.” Not that it wasn’t already there. According to the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal “The release of  ‘Jaws,’ the 1975 movie about a man-eating shark, first drew the masses to an island that had been a some-time presidential retreat since Ulysses S. Grant. Celebrities such as Carly Simon, Meg Ryan and David Letterman own homes on the island. …President Bill Clinton’s frequent visits in the 1990s brought another surge of interest…” Though not celebrities, my daughter and I visited the island about 7 years ago. She had auditioned, and been accepted, to dance with “Stiefel and Students.” Because she was apprenticing with a ballet company midway through the summer program, Ethan Stiefel allowed her to attend the first 2 of the scheduled 4 weeks. She was delighted to train with an icon of the dance world, and have a great job lined up for her future.

The compound which housed “Stiefel and Students” was specifically built for the program. The owner, a wealthy contractor, was a patron of ballet, his teenage daughter dancing with a private studio in their home state of New Jersey. Because he’d guested as the Nutcracker prince to their daughter’s Maria, Steifel became a close family friend. Two beautiful homes sat on a couple of acres of prime land near downtown Edgartown. Each had several bedrooms and, baths, huge kitchen with living space, large patio and a sizeable dance studio. The student dancers, including my daughter, were in one house, while the instructors and guest dancers from NYC lived in the other. I don’t recall if one or more of the 4 chaperones lived with the students, or if they all stayed in the other dwelling. Needless to say this was  one of the best “dormitory” situations of my daughter’s summer dance experiences, which has included Banff, NYC, Atlanta, Chautauqua, Jacksonville, Portland, and Irvine.

Viewing this as the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was, my husband and I decided I should summer in Martha’s Vineyard while our daughter was there. So for 2 glorious weeks I lived among the rich and famous, and the middle class, myself being one of them. Having done extensive research, I settled upon a bed and breakfast called The Lighthouse Inn. The 1 bedroom, 1 bath, kitchen-living room combination was charmingly decorated and conveniently situated in the heart of Edgartown. My husband and I hoped he’d be able to take time off from work and fly out for a respite. But it didn’t happen, so flying solo, I poked around my environs leisurely, and with relish.

Being from Maui, I’ve never cottoned to the idea of vacationing on other islands. It isn’t so much that I’m a snob, although it might seem so, but there are other parts of the world which I’d prefer to visit before opting for an island vacation, other than returning to Hawaii to see family. Having said that, Martha’s Vineyard is an island for sure, but nothing like the tropical ones with which I’m familiar. The houses, churches, store fronts, flora and fauna, and yes, the people are a total reflection of New England which, of course, is where the island is located.

As with all popular vacation destinations, the population on Martha’s Vineyard swells to overflowing during the hot summer months. On days when cruise ships are in port, there are longer lines everywhere. Traveling alone was advantageous for without an entourage, I was seated for a meal more quickly, I could wend my way through a maze of people on sidewalks and in shops more easily, when to start and end the day was my choice as well as HOW to spend it. And having 2 weeks meant I could do everything without feeling hurried. Living like a local is always my idea of a dream visit.

My daily routine, more or less, would begin with rising (not too early), breakfasting at some quaint nearby eatery, and then going for a walk. Some days I wandered different paths through town or residential neighborhoods, other days I strolled barefoot along the quiet, sandy, white beach a few blocks away. But wherever I went I always spent my days people-watching, a favorite pastime. Just glimpsing passersby, their differences, similarities, relationships, habits, is always interesting. New England’s culture could not be further removed from the Hawaiian culture in ethnicity, spirit, dress, food, religion, architecture, and perhaps, sensibilities.

Of course the first thing I noticed was the predominant, if not quasi exclusive, presence of White, Anglo-Saxon Americans. Although my complexion is brown, I’ wasn’t “put off” because by then I’d lived and worked amongst Caucasians for 26 years, having moved to the mainland in 1977. While more formal than Hawaiians, there was a semblance of relaxed informality among those who dwelled in Martha’s Vineyard. Of course there’s no mistaking a New Englander by the way he or she dressed. More than likely they’d be striding along in loafers, sandals, or sneakers with socks, rarely flip-flops. If in shorts, they’d be like the bermuda shorts of the 60’s, often topped by Izod, Hilfiger or Calvin Klein. The ladies wore coordinated knee-length skirts in small prints and blouses in white, or some other solid color. Designer purses or pretty colored totes hung over their arms or on their shoulders. Perfectly combed blondes and brunettes sported ponytails or loosely coiffed hair that caught the ocean breezes. They all wore sunglasses, probably also having lotioned themselves with sunblock beforehand. Children were dressed like replicas of their parents. The only ones who may have digressed from the traditional New England “look,” were the teenagers. There were some in cut-off jean shorts, barely-there tanks, flip-flops or bare feet, and unkempt hair as if they’d just awoke.

From my recollection, the food was pretty good, but probably pricey since everything had to be shipped in. I remember dining  in a family style restaurant, cozy B&B bistro, fine Italian eatery, hamburger joint and a diner whose concerns for food safety seemed a little sketchy. Their late hours dictated my daughter and I choosing to eat there once, against our better judgement. We left full and satisfied, so the place suited our needs just fine. Sometimes I prepared my own food, enjoying a comfortable evening in the apartment, dining on a home cooked meal while watching a good television show. Perhaps my solitary time on Martha’s Vineyard encouraged my fledgling habit of speaking with waiters and sales people. They were companions of sorts, if only for a brief interlude. I’m glad I’m still very much in the habit of treating strangers like long-lost friends.

One weekend, a best friend from Redding joined me for some much-needed rest and relaxation. She always worked too hard, still does. It was a pleasure having her along on walks, sitting across the table at a restaurant, and perusing shops for souvenirs. But our ongoing conversations about everything and anything, as though we’d never been apart, were the best part of our shared time. Sometimes talking into the wee morning hours, we were able to scurry out the door in time to greet the dawn. Huddling against the chill morning air, we planted ourselves on the sand dunes revisiting our previous conversation, or we’d just as likely drift onto another topic. But we were always wowed by the brilliance of the rising sun. We didn’t need to make the long, arduous trek up Maui ‘s dormant volcano, Haleakala (“House of the Rising Sun”) to see what we beheld on a beachfront, steps away from our front door. After my girlfriend’s departure, I never saw another dawn on Martha’s Vineyard. I’m never awake at that ungodly hour, if I can help it. But I will always associate sunrises on that New England island with Laurie, my forever friend.   

Nothing screams New England more than its architecture. Martha’s Vineyard was no exception. Stately churches standing tall and erect on tree-lined country roads in residential neighborhoods, where traditional homes with rocking chairs on wrap-around-porches, sat alongside salt-box homes in shades of blues and grays, fronted by English-style cottage gardens. Everywhere I turned was like looking at a postcard with pictures of idyllic, pastoral scenes. They took my breath away. Though an island, Martha’s Vineyard is of a different breed, one that this islander could truly appreciate for its unique beauty. I don’t think my first visit to that charming location could ever be improved upon unless, of course, I returned with my husband and daughter. But then there are other places I have yet to visit, and so…

been there, done that…hugmamma.

coffee with friends, so much more than

If women were the world leaders of governments, corporations, learning institutions, medical facilities, courts of justice, sports teams, the entertainment and music industries, and any other body having great societal impact, they’d probably do their venting over coffee with girlfriends.

Coffee with the women means, friends gathering together to vent about anything, and everything. Surely centuries old, this female ritual has probably saved countless marriages, and kept our prison population from overflowing. Our ancestors, cave women, must have wanted to crack a few skulls. Being dragged around by the hair would not have been an endearing prospect. Native American women didn’t drink coffee (or did they?) but using smoke signals to communicate their marital woes was, perhaps, the start of environmental pollution. A frontier wife might have envied Annie Oakley her skills with a gun, when her cowboy came through the door smelling of whiskey and women. And a Victorian lady must’ve ripped off her corset and took a swig, when she was in a snit. Would Sonny and Cher have continued as a duo, if she’d had regularly done coffee with the women? “And the beat goes on, and the beat goes on. La, de, da, de, do, la, de, da, de, day…”

Women, coffee and conversation are like a game of Ouija. One speaks, another interrupts, the first resumes speaking, and the ebb and flow of conversation continues. The chatter is spirited, peals of laughter ring out, continuing to ripple through the group. Then voices quiet into whispers, while knowing glances and nodding heads silently agree that “it’s so frustrating…” whether it’s talk of jobs, husbands, children, mothers, even mother-in-laws. All agree that these sessions are more productive than paying for psychotherapy and a lot more fun as well.

The best coffee gatherings are among women whose personalities are in accord. Allowing one another time to speak, rather than hogging the conversation is also important. Egos are stroked, each feeling uplifted knowing others care, so that they needn’t continue shouldering their burdens alone. Coffee (for me) with a good friend (tea for her) became an important “life-line” when I moved with my, then 16-year-old, daughter to Atlanta. For two-and-a-half years I chaperoned her while she journeyed toward a career in ballet. My husband, our financial support, remained behind.

When my daughter was invited to train with the professional company where we relocated, our family consented without hesitation. Rushing forward without thought, we moved into an apartment with my husband’s help. The day he departed for home, we breakfasted at a pancake house. It was then that the finality of our decision hit me like a “ton of bricks.” I burst into tears. Ever the pragmatic one, my husband assured me he’d visit in a month or so. That seemed like an eternity to be without my best friend of so many years. But as moms have always done, I “placed one foot in front of the other,” and carried on.

It’s been about 5 years since I returned home to my husband. Having apprenticed with a ballet company in another state, my daughter was promoted to full member a year ago. She begins her second season this fall. Through hard work and maturity beyond her years, she has accomplished every young ballerina’s dream. There were peaks and valleys to be sure, but my daughter weathered them with our help, and the encouragement and prayers of many who have loved and supported her through the years.

Offering me a shoulder upon which to lean, or cry, was a woman who became, and remains, a very dear friend. It wasn’t unusual for Becky and I to linger over a cup of coffee, or tea, for hours, kibbitzing about her son and my daughter. Both aspired to being professional ballet dancers. We’d compare “war” stories about people with whom we had dealings, who seemed insensitive to the difficulties our children encountered. Very little was ever resolved, but reinvigorated, we could return to parenting, knowing a friend was nearby.

I was able to offer Becky some advice, since I was already in the midst of helping my daughter wend her way through the maze of becoming a career ballerina. It is such a singular path, not like being in college with thousands of like-minded youngsters. How one dancer succeeds is not a ready prescription for another’s success. But from my observations, certain facts seemed applicable to every wannabe professional.

Success seems dependent upon 50% talent and 50% other factors like a solid work ethic, quickness at learning choreography, resiliency to criticism, continuing good health, and a lot of luck. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be “in the right place, at the right time.” When it comes to casting, being a favorite of resident and visiting choreographers is a plus. Less tangible is having “the look” that an artistic director wants for a role or for the company in general. This alone can force a dancer to audition wherever there may be openings, in the hopes of a perfect match. With much effort and good fortune, a job is found, if not, the dream will likely end.

Deciding to go the college route, Becky’s son graduated with a Fine Arts Degree in Dance. To his credit and due diligence, he is in his second year apprenticing with a ballet company. This is no small feat in the current economy when the arts are suffering the loss of patronage.

Belonging to a rare breed of women, moms of professional ballet dancers, Becky and I continue to enjoy a mutually supportive friendship. Circumstances may prevent us from meeting as we once did, but given the ease of travel these days, it’s not too far-fetched to assume we’ll be meeting for coffee, tea and friendly conversation somewhere, some time… 

it’ll be like old times, only better…hugmamma.