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Katherine (sic) The Great Mistake

Strange and disconcerting to learn at age 61 that your name is not your name. I’m known by my middle name, Treacy, which was my grandmother’s maiden name.  That part is still good.

I’ve always thought that my first name was Kathryn, and believed that was my grandmother’s first name, too.  I never knew her; she died four years before I was born.  For decades, my driver’s license and passport have said Kathryn Treacy Colbert.  I’ve often joked that nobody but the DMV calls me Kathryn.

I let my passport expire years ago.  The renewal process, which I started last week, requires two government-issued IDs. That’s where the fun and the total confusion began.

I fished out my baptismal certificate and my hospital birth certificate, neither of which I ever scrutinized very carefully — a very black mark on my record as a proofreader.  Both say “Katherine.”

I was so sure that my first name was “Kathryn” that I thought, “Oh, those are typos,” convinced that hospital and parish workers weren’t careful with details.  So I sent for a certified birth certificate from the State of Kentucky and stared in shock when I opened it and saw, “Katherine.”

Apparently I’m not alone in goofing up the spelling of this name.  A recent New York Times article about the movie, “The Post”, included a correction at the bottom that publisher Katharine Graham’s first name was misspelled as “Katherine” in the original version of the piece.

In this account of the Treacy family,  my grandmother’s name appears there as both “Katharyn” and “Katherine.”  I searched for her grave on and see that it says “Katherine.”

Along with wondering how in the world I managed to get a passport and driver’s license that say “Kathryn” when I have no documentation to substantiate that name, I want to know what happened to Ashland Farm.  I could sure use 1,000 acres in my name, whatever it may  be.

KTC Grave



The Face of Retail

I wrote this piece back in 2014.  A friend’s comment about working her “retail slave job” and her reminder about being nice to salespeople made me dig it out and post it here today.

When I heard the customer’s angry voice on the phone, I laughed instead of feeling nervous, the way I usually would. She’d asked me about the store’s holiday hours. I said the store would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving and stay open for 25 hours straight, until 10 the following evening, Black Friday.

“I won’t be there,” she said angrily.  “That’s disgusting.”  I laughed and replied, “Well, I can’t say anything more, but I’m with you.” And I didn’t even mention that all employees were required to work a 12-hour shift during those 25 hours, because she hadn’t asked about that, and I doubted she would care.

I spent the last 23 weeks working in a part-time retail job, in what struck me as appalling conditions. Last spring I went looking for another job to supplement my income and keep pace with the high cost of our son’s college tuition. I showed up at what I thought was a “job fair.” I didn’t realize right away that it wasn’t a “job fair” at all, but a lure put out by this high-profile retail store that sells pricey, high-end goods. The false pretense should have been my first clue about the company.

“Tell me about your retail experience,” an earnest, beautiful young woman said to me that day, before it dawned on me that there were no other employers present at this so-called “job fair.”  My last retail job was 41 years ago, when I rang up Afro picks, 10-cent skeins of embroidery thread, and 2-cent chocolate covered mints on a heavy old cash register at J.J. Newberry’s in the Mid-State Mall. It’s been awhile, I said evasively.  Nonetheless, she took my resume.

A few days later, I got a call and a job offer to be a “sales associate” for an hourly wage that I’ll call modest.  Why not? I thought. I needed extra money to cover the times when writing or research jobs lagged, or when payment for a job I’d finished languished, unpaid, a common occurrence among freelancers. Tuition bills don’t wait.

Aside from the fact that the job was stressful and underpaid, I was repeatedly struck by the ongoing demonstrations of how very little the employees were valued.  The most graphic example of this was the requirement that every employee find a manager and open his or her bag or backpack before leaving the store for a meal break or at the end of a shift. Although a background check was part of the hiring process—which should reveal priors for shoplifting or stealing on the job—this policy showed that everyone was presumed to be a thief.

And presumed to be a thief on your own time, because employees had to clock out before showing their bags.  When the store was busy, which was almost always, a manager was often not available for several minutes, forcing employees to cool their heels, unpaid, while they waited for this daily inspection and humiliation.

There was never a “thank-you” or a “job well done” to the team of sales people. There were, instead, repeated hectoring, warnings, and threats of “documentation,” which I guess is the new corporate speak for what used to be “written up.”  We were sternly advised to “remember that this is a luxury brand, and to revisit the dress code.”  I loved the irony of this reminder and felt like scrawling on the memo posted in the break room:  “Ain’t nobody buying luxury clothes on these shit wages.”

Opening my paycheck was a regular exercise in dismay. Long days, arriving home dirty and frazzled after 11 p.m., even after a week when I’d been scheduled for 39 hours, the check was meager, especially after I deducted having to pay to park each time I went in.

There was a weak and patronizing display of corporate benevolence during a storewide sale. During the sale, which lasted for nearly a month, all employees were scheduled for very long hours. The steady stream of customers, some of whom were very unpleasant—designer bitches from Newport Beach, you know who you are— and the incessant ringing of the phones made for extended, stressful days.

Management provided the worst, cheap junk food in the dirty break room.  I guess this was supposed to signify appreciation for the extra work and stress, but to me, it demonstrated the reverse:  cheap sugary sustenance so people could work longer, and the idea that the employees were low-income and uneducated, and would like this horrible, prepackaged food.

“This is all junk,” one young man said dolefully one day, surveying the random pile of ramen, Pop Tarts, Red Vines, and microwaveable mac and cheese which, unaccountably, sat next to a large can of Lysol.

As you shop throughout this holiday season, please think about the people who work in these retail settings. First, please mind your manners, and don’t get impatient or shout at the people working in these stores.  What you probably don’t know is that too few people are scheduled to cover each shift. It’s not that the retail workers are lazy, indolent, or go slowly in order to create long lines and interminable waits, it’s that the corporations want to shave labor costs.

Take a good look at the person who rings up your holiday toys, decorations, clothing, or greeting cards. He or she may not have seen a doctor or dentist in years, because retail jobs are part-time and offer no benefits.

As you browse the aisles, remember that retail companies schedule their employees for multiple shifts when the store is busy, and then abruptly cut hours or send employees home when store traffic slows down. There’s no warning or predictability to these boom-bust cycles of part-time hours. When hours are suddenly sliced, these low-wage workers hock their belongings,  dip into what meager savings they may have, cadge extra money from family or friends, or use credit cards to cover these income gaps.

There’s no commission on anything they sell, they are rarely given a word of encouragement or praise, their break room is dirty, and any “incentive” or reward is likely to come in the form of store gift cards, funneling the money back into the corporation, of course. If the corporation offers a retirement plan, the low wages don’t allow workers enough of a margin to contribute to it.

Do enjoy your holidays.  ‘Tis the season, after all.  But be nice to the people who are helping you in the stores, and remember that many of them work two or three jobs and barely squeak by. And by the way, it won’t kill you to put something back neatly on the shelf, in the box, or on the hanger after you look at it. The more you toss things carelessly aside, throw them on the floor, or separate them from their packaging, the longer a low-paid worker has to stay after hours to clean up your mess. Your extra kindness and courtesy won’t result in a raise for anyone and can’t fix the dismal state of retail employment, but at least you can make someone’s day slightly less discouraging.


An Ordinary Pumpkin

. . . won’t do. We stopped at a farm stand in Sloughouse, CA (pop. 154) on our way back from Sacramento last week.

2017 10 31 Sloughhouse MuralThere were all manner of hybrid gourds and pumpkins, the likes of which I’d never seen.  David and his mother relaxed for a few minutes in front of the pyramid.

2017 10 31 Sloughouse Pyramid

We chose a “Lunch Lady” gourd, pebbled and parti-colored. I usually buy a pumpkin or two every year to put on the porch or near the fireplace, but this exotic specimen has spoiled me for the common and familiar.

2017 10 31 Lunch Lady

Cairns and Moleskin

These were two saving graces on our hike to Palisade Glacier in the John Muir Wilderness. The trail ends before the glacier, so you have boulder the last three-quarters of a mile to reach the top. Other hikers thoughtfully mark the way with cairns; I’d never have found my way without them.


The last training hike we did to get ready for this climb dug a nasty, quarter-sized blister into my right heel and made it impossible to wear a shoe for a week. It was so painful that I thought it would sideline me, but I slapped moleskin over it, cemented it with tincture of benzoin, and thankfully that was enough of a temporary fix.


It was the final weekend of summer 2017, and the meadows were still partially in bloom.

Film star Lon Chaney Sr., the original Quasimodo and Phantom of the Opera, had this cabin built along the trail in 1929. Designed by architect Paul R. Williams, it’s unmarked and unused today, except for hikers who lounge on the deck and survey the stream. When the 12,400 feet nearly felled me with a severe bout of altitude sickness on the third day of our hike, I joked that I needed to ride the ghost of one of Lon Chaney’s burros back down to the trailhead.


Some hardier souls make this roughly 19-mile hike in one day, but we broke it up by camping one night near Black Lake, named for its ebony sheen, and making the rest of the trek the following day.


This view made the very tough hike worth it.


The perfect little ledge perched at the glacier’s edge looks like God decided to put a park bench there.


David and Vernon toasted our accomplishment with a snort of Bushmills over snowfield ice.

We witnessed nature in all her gloriousness, but returned to the sobering specter of all her destructiveness with more earthquakes and hurricanes.


There Is Superstition

. . . . written on the Ralph’s receipt. The total for my purchases Friday was $13.13. I wanted to ask the cashier to take something off, but there was a line and I didn’t want to delay the people behind me.  So I just exclaimed, “That is so unlucky!” as she looked at me uncomprehendingly.

Like my mother, I am very superstitious.  I run like hell to avoid a black cat crossing my path, throw spilled salt over my left shoulder and make a wish, regularly chastise David and Christopher for putting a hat on a bed, and wouldn’t consider having any plant with ivy inside the house, as that would surely hasten someone’s demise.

The ominous receipt was only one indication that we shouldn’t have hiked Jones Peak yesterday. I didn’t want to go in the first place, as the description of the hike – vertical climbs, loose soil, scrambling – didn’t appeal to me at all, but David talked me into signing up.

The onramp to the 91 East was closed when we started driving yesterday morning, another warning that we should have turned back, but we went another route, making two wrong turns and arriving scarcely in time for the 7 a.m. start of the hike.

The hike leader mistook the trail, so after one very rough vertical climb we came to a 1,000 foot drop-off and could go no farther, meaning we had to scramble down and get to the right path and start again. One member of our group sensibly said adios when we got down from that initial errant climb.

The rest of us soldiered on, but David and I didn’t make it to the top. It was extremely hot, and David got brutal leg cramps, meaning that we had to stop every few minutes.  What should have been a four-hour hike took us seven hours, and we didn’t even scale Jones Peak!  We got within about a half-mile of the summit and decided we had to start back down, oh so slowly, hobbled by cramps, sliding down the steep incline some of the time, falling again and again.

But there’s more. Buckwheat is still blooming all over these hills, attracting lots of bees.  When a few buzzed around my face, I idly swatted at them. This was a mistake. I succeeded only in driving one up my nose, where it stung me.  Now I’ve been stung by a bee many times and never experienced this as terribly painful, although it’s unpleasant. But being stung in the nose produced a shocking, violent pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt.  I screamed and screamed like a bloody banshee – David said later he thought surely I’d been bitten by a rattler.

After we got home, filthy and exhausted, I Googled “stung by a bee inside nose.” The first result was “The Worst Places to Get Stung by a Bee.”  Evidently the nostril tops the list at 9 on a pain scale of 1 to 10, even higher than the male unit and the lip.

Now I really, really wish I’d asked the cashier to put that green salsa back.

Unlucky Receipt

Stick a Fork in It

I saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Ahmanson Wednesday night. I loved the Mark Haddon book about Christopher, the eccentric boy pursuing the murderer of Wellington, his neighbor’s dog.

Curious Incident

The production startled me. I wasn’t expecting computer graphics, choreography, or a clanging soundtrack, but these special effects worked wonderfully as Christopher, played with brilliance by Adam Langdon, parsed out complex maths problems, grew disoriented and frightened in the London train station, and mimed being afloat in outer space.

Even while intent on the play I thought a lot about my own Christopher, who read “The Curious Incident” when he was only 10. I knew he’d love the book, so I read it to him first, carefully skipping over the F word, which peppers every page. But he seized the book from me and devoured it on his own, and decided to do his “Book in a Bag” project on the story.

This alternative book report format requires a book summary, a decorated paper bag with items from the book inside, and a copy of the book displayed on students’ desk. Christopher tucked a fork, a tiny plastic dog, a scrap of yellow cloth (Christopher in the book abhors yellow), a letter, and a model train in the bag. He was in 5th grade in a parochial school at the time, so the adult book with the salty language gave the project a deliciously subversive quality.

His teacher, Mrs. Hapgood (name changed to protect the incurious) bestowed an A on his project, but never asked about the book or flipped through it to see what it was about. Christopher and I shared a conspiratorial snicker about that.

I went to the theater alone Wednesday night, riding the Blue Line from the Wardlow Station in Long Beach and trekking the mile or so from the 7th Street Metro Station to the Ahmanson and back after the play ended. Everything about the evening seemed somewhat strange, wandering around Los Angeles on a weeknight, being in a theater audience, which is now a rare experience for me, and listening to the assortment of slightly mad people on the train back home.

I told David the following morning that I wanted to go to the theater every night from now on.  So far I haven’t made that come true, but I can always fantasize.






Christopher left today to begin his new job in Sacramento. This felt different from other leave-takings—he is no longer in school with all the structure—and expense to us—that college education involves. He won’t have the luxury of coming to visit during long breaks from school, and we won’t have the treat of seeing him that often.

After he graduated from UC Davis in June he spent a month in Europe, biking from Prague to Vienna, seeing the sites in the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Spain, France and Ireland, having his possessions stolen from a hostel in Nice, connecting with friends here and there along the way, and arriving back in the U.S. dead broke.

He was here for 10 days before taking off to start his post-grad career, strewing his belongings about, eating gargantuan amounts, and making us realize again, as we have every time he has come and gone, that we will miss him terribly.


CJD in Barcelona