Saturday, January 3, 2015

"This Middle-Aged Dog Can Learn New Tricks," Ch. 12 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

My grandmother had died in 1982; I was forty; Randy was in college; Beth was a junior in high school; and my parents were clicking along without needing much help. My friend Alice suggested we start a wallpapering business. We had been papering for our families and friends forever, anyway, so it wasn’t much of a leap to start charging for it. We knew we were good enough. Alice was tired of nursing, and my nest was getting pretty empty. We put an ad in the local paper and waited. “Small World Decorating” was open for business.

Our first tool box was a picnic basket, so we weren’t the most professional looking contractors our clients had opened their doors to. But we were “cute.” I think most men found us amusing; women, on the other hand, thought we were brave to give it a go – and spread the word to their friends. We got busy and were having a great time.

Alice and I were born to work together. We didn’t need time to adjust to each other’s work habits; we already worked the same way. It was rare that we didn’t anticipate the other one’s needs. I’d realize I’d forgotten to bring the level up the ladder with me only seconds before it would appear next to my hand. Now, that’s a good work partner!

Other areas of our partnership were not quite as harmonious, however. Being older (sorry, Alice), she had been out in the big, bad, business world for some time; I had not, and was not nearly as assertive, by nature, as she was. She also thought we could do anything if we set our minds to it! Most of the time, we could; but on occasion, she clearly had delusions of grandeur about our abilities. “How hard can it be?” she’d say.

“Well, we don’t have a big enough table. We’ve never worked with this heavy vinyl before. We don’t have a long enough straight edge to double-cut the seams. The suede will stain, and if we screw up, we’ll owe them a fortune.”

“Oh, chill out; we can do it,” she’d say.

Fred, Alice’s husband, had once said, “The word ‘can’t’ isn’t in your vocabulary, is it, Alice?”

You were right, Fred, it isn’t. The clients settled for not paying us. They didn’t charge us for the wall coverings we’d ruined. Thank you, very much! We had already invested in more equipment just to attempt the job. If we’d had to pay for the wall coverings too, we wouldn’t have had enough company money to pay for the gas to our next job.

Funny thing is we’d never laughed so hard. The deeper the s*** we got ourselves into, the harder we laughed – sometimes during, but certainly after the fact!

Probably ninety-five percent of our jobs were uneventful, but those that were not are indelibly etched in our brains and regularly revisited for a laugh.

I heard a quiet “Juuudy, help” from across the room. I turned and water was gushing from a hose dangling from the huge aquarium on the opposite wall. I dove to the floor looking for a clamp that must have come loose. Alice was trying to get out from the eight-inch space behind the tank while stemming the flow from the hose. Alice is 5’2” and weighs 100 pounds, so when we were estimating the job, she assured me she could fit. But, in her haste to fix the problem, she had turned sideways and gotten stuck. There was no visible clamp or shut-off valve, so I took the hose from Al, so she could get unstuck. It’s hard to believe, but she started giggling – and so did I. We were soaked with aquarium water, and our chances of fixing the problem looked grim.

“Is she home?” I whispered between the giggles.

“Yes, I think so,” came her muffled reply. We couldn’t stop laughing, but we were desperately trying to be quiet.

Fortunately, the client didn’t hear us, and we had time to compose ourselves, reattach the offending hose connection, and clean up the mess before she came downstairs. Not everyone would see the humor in that escapade, but Alice did and showed me how to. All you have to do is picture any ridiculous scene as a bystander might and you’re bound to laugh. Think Lucy and Ethel, if you’re old enough.

Working outside the home, especially with Alice, provided many “teachable” moments. She was a mentor, of sorts, but mostly it was the work experience itself that taught me to be more assertive, both with her and our clients. Before then, I could be steam-rolled by just about anyone, because I trusted everyone’s motives to be as honorable as mine were. Live and learn.

I also came to recognize my talents more. I felt really, really good about myself! I always had been a self-reliant, productive person, I think, but the eighties was a decade filled with feminist mantras. Feminists, it seemed, didn’t value my house-bound talents at all; as a result, I didn’t either.

When I started earning my own money, however, I fit their view of the admirable “independent” woman. Instant self-esteem, which begs the question: If it was my acceptance of the feminist dogma that caused the rise in my self-esteem, why did they blame Ashley for my supposed low self-esteem? Doesn’t it make more sense to “blame” cultural and peer pressure for the down side too? I mean, Ashley didn’t put me down for not working. They did. It was not he who changed; it was the culture, and I, it seemed, was adapting to its new rules.

Ash, by the way, didn’t like my working at first, but he came around and ended up being quite supportive. He doesn’t adapt quickly (if at all) to social rule changes. He demands a practical reason for a change in attitude, not, as so often is the case, a reason that is predicated on the beliefs of a politically motivated entity, like the hard-core feminists. Good for him! We should all be that logical and cynical before we accept the dogma of the day.

While I was and am more influenced by cultural and peer demands, as my hard-wiring dictates, Ash is more influenced by his hard-wired dependence on his logical brain. Fortunately for our relationship, my logical brain is visited frequently too, but the difference – or one difference – between our conclusions about anything stems from the incredible amount of knowledge he has to pull from. The man remembers most everything he’s ever read, ever seen, and ever heard, and can and does apply that knowledge to every opinion he holds and every problem he solves. It’s like living with a freakin’ encyclopedia.

That I (and nearly everyone else) will usually show deference to this knowledge is not surprising, but I think it’s this deference that has created some of the eccentricities he brandishes. He doesn’t need to “fit in.” Most people (excepting his children) accept him, or at least, tolerate him, as is. He’s a curiosity.

I have handled numerous phone calls from his clients over the years, and some have been rather startling. One guy, a stranger to me, must have questioned me about Ash for fifteen minutes: Does he always leave without saying goodbye? Yes. I’ve been asking for a bill for two weeks. Do you know how much I owe him? No. Does he always look like that (ripped crotch, uncombed, and unkempt)? Yes.

He went on and on relating Ashley stories while apologizing for his interest. Finally he said, “I’m really sorry, but he’s the smartest, strangest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met!” Well, yeah.

On the flip side, Ashley is very generous with his time and talents to worthy recipients. His humor is acerbic, funny, and quick, unless you are the target. Then, it’s hurtful. But I’m relating good stuff now. He’s never petty, except about tattoos and nose rings; he never nags, except about my moving his stuff from the kitchen counter; he seldom nit-picks or complains.

He has a very odd combination of traits, many of which are admirable, and many of which make him very hard to live with – especially if the media are intent on making him the bad guy, and you’re his kid!


We are serializing But at What Cost: A Skeptic's Memoir, written by
Judy Axtell and edited by me, published by Outskirts Press, and available from them and from on-line booksellers like

You are invited to visit my writing-editing-coaching site,

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