Entertaining Disasters

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Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for The Chicago Tribune, offers tips and tales of coping when trouble arises during holiday dinners.


Right now, Christmas is the day when everyone wants their home to look like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And if that's the scene with your family today, congratulations. We don't want to hear from you. We want to hear the stories of holiday disasters so massive that your family is still talking and, hopefully, laughing about them years later.

To get us started, I asked NPR's legal affairs correspondent and my mentor, Nina Totenberg, to tell us a story of the first time she ever had Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer over for dinner. Nina asked her husband to run the dishwasher before the guests arrived. And instead of putting dishwasher soap in the machine, he used dish soap.

NINA TOTENBERG: And at the appointed hour of 7:30, almost to the second, the dishwasher began to spew suds. It was like an "I Love Lucy" moment. I mean, they are pouring all over the kitchen. Ding-dong, the bell rings, and our first guests, Justice and Mrs. Breyer, arrive. God bless them. They picked up a mop and they helped us clean it up before the rest of the guests arrive.

SHAPIRO: And they've been back to dinner since then?

TOTENBERG: Yes. In fact, they've helped us do the dishes at the end of dinner. David even took a picture once of Justice and Mrs. Breyer, drying dishes at our house.

SHAPIRO: Think you can top that? If you are caught in an anti-Norman Rockwell moment today, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can check out what other listeners have to say on our blog: npr.org/blogofthenation.

Amy Dickinson is with us to help out with damage control. She writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune and she is joining us from her home in Freeville, New York.

Welcome, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, The Chicago Tribune): Ari, Ari, Ari. Let me set the stage, shall I?

SHAPIRO: Oh, please do.

Ms. DICKINSON: The time: this morning. The place: My mother's house. It involved an egg bake. Now, an egg bake is like a Yankee breakfast in a pot. In the oven, it burst into flames and so the numb moment comes where you go: do we call the volunteer fire department or can we put it out by ourselves? So as our guests arrive for breakfast - all of the doors were open, it, of course, it's 20 degrees outside and we were like fanning - my daughter was actually fanning the air with, I think, a rug. It was pretty nasty.

SHAPIRO: Well, you're the perfect person to help us with our listener dilemmas this hour, it sounds like. Does the house still smell? Is there still smoke in it?

Ms. DICKINSON: It actually smells like burnt egg bake for quite a while, yeah. It was too nasty.

SHAPIRO: That sounds delicious. That's wonderful.


SHAPIRO: Listen, Amy. I want to read to you from my favorite Christmas letter that I received all season. From a family who wrote their letter in a form of a quiz, about what the family experienced in the last year. I'm just going to read to you the first question.

Jonah(ph), age 3, found another use for which of the following objects this year? A, a Ziploc bag, B, a toy microphone, C, a bike pump. And the answer is B: the toy microphone also works for shattering new flat screen TVs.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh. Oh, my stars.

SHAPIRO: But don't you love that a family will just put that out there in their Christmas letter to everybody?

Ms. DICKINSON: I do love that. And actually, when I heard it was a toy microphone, of course, I imagined that it also invoked the bathroom.



SHAPIRO: Thank goodness, no.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, because you know how baby monitors, like, you always forget they're on, and you're talking about things, and then all of your guests can hear you. Yeah, that's fun.

SHAPIRO: Oh. Listen, before we get to our specific callers' disasters, do you have any general advice for if you have company coming over, say, a Supreme Court justice and something goes horribly, disastrously wrong?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I love Nina's story because it's like Lucy. You know, it's just classic, classic bungling, you know? And of course, there has to be a Supreme Court justice.

SHAPIRO: Right, of course.

Ms. DICKINSON: Who else would it be, right?


Ms. DICKINSON: But, you know, I always think it's best if you just drop your pretense, act very natural, laugh about it, get people to help out. You know, people love to roll up their sleeves. And the worst thing to do is to act as if, you know, pay no attention to the flames issuing from the oven. You know, that just does not work.

SHAPIRO: Because people know you're human. If you admit that you've got something that perhaps was unexpected…

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And of course, all of your guests will have had a similar experience in their own lives.

SHAPIRO: Right. Of course.

Ms. DICKINSON: So it doesn't matter.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take our first caller. This is Andrea(ph) from Cleveland, Ohio. Andrea, set the scene for us.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. Well, I've actually just left my mother's house. She had about 20 family members over. And in the morning, one toilet broke, so we already knew we were down to one toilet. And after about a few guests used the second toilet, it broke. So we are…

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

ANDREA: …completely out of toilet with about 20 people there and, of course, beverages and food. So I'm actually on my way to Home Depot now, which is when I heard the show and I thought it's perfect.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

ANDREA: Hopefully, it's open and I can get some sort of valves my dad sent me to run and that - to fix one of the toilets.

SHAPIRO: Amy Dickinson, this may not be the kind of setting where you can ask your guests to roll up their sleeves in ditch in to help.


Ms. DICKINSON: You know what I love? You know what I love? Yeah. Try to find a plumber on Christmas Day. But what's great, Andrea, is you're - you know your father. You're going to call him from Home Depot. It's going to be closed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: And - or if it's open, you will bring home the wrong valve.

SHAPIRO: Amy, you're such an optimist.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. I know. But you know what's great, Andrea? This will forever be the Christmas when the toilets failed.


Ms. DICKINSON: You've got that. Next year's Christmas letter, you've got your lead.

ANDREA: Right. And it's kind of a coincidence. My grandmother passed away in November, and we always had Christmas in her house. So this is the start of a new tradition. You know, she only had one toilet and it was the joke because hers was very - you couldn't trust it. But it always pulled through. And, of course, it's like grandma's coming back just to say, ha-ha, like, you know? Your toilets are going.

SHAPIRO: Your grandma's spirit's with you.

ANDREA: It's fun. She's with us, so…

SHAPIRO: All right. Andrea, I hope that the Home Depot is open.

ANDREA: Oh, me too.

SHAPIRO: And thanks a lot for your call.

ANDREA: Everyone knows. Thanks.

SHAPIRO: Thanks.

Amy, with the last caller being one exception, can you shed any light on why so many holiday disasters tend to take place in the kitchen?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, partly, I mean, it makes perfect sense. A lot of us don't entertain quite as often as we should, Ari. So it's like you add a couple of dozen people, a very stressed out mom. And by the way, mom and dad had been up, you know - they got up at 3 in the morning to assemble the My Pretty Pony playhouse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is stressed out, and you're trying to prepare a meal under pretty extreme circumstances.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's go to another caller. This is Bob(ph) in Boise.

Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Hi. Merry Christmas.

SHAPIRO: And to you. Go ahead with your story.

BOB: Thank you. The story was exactly 25 years ago when my daughter was 7 months old. She woke up Christmas morning with a fever of 104.

So we went, you know, before opening anything - went up to the hospital. I had to call her doctor, wake her doctor up, break his Christmas all apart. And then finally, you know, it was a quick fever. It was over probably by 12 o'clock. But we had plans. I'm going to my parents' house and had nothing at all in the house to eat. For my daughter's first Christmas, we slaughtered the fattened rutabaga…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: …as our Christmas dinner.

Ms. DICKINSON: It's the Christmas miracle.

SHAPIRO: But you must…

BOB: Yes, indeed.

SHAPIRO: …you must have been so happy just that her health was fine. I mean, to wake up Christmas morning with that kind of a crisis on your hands.

BOB: Oh, it was really - yes, it was quite catastrophic, quite traumatic. And the wonderful thing about it, of course, was that fever that high for someone that young and that healthy, it broke before noon. So we really, you know, everyone was in great health and great spirits and we just had nothing at all in the house.

SHAPIRO: And now, 25 years later, you're still talking about this. This is probably one of the…

BOB: That's right.

SHAPIRO: …most memorable Christmases you've ever had.

BOB: Uh-huh. And I keep reminding my daughter - her name is Ginger(ph) by the way - I keep reminding her about it. She doesn't remember it except through me and her mother.

SHAPIRO: Right. And now you eat a rutabaga every year for Christmas in lieu…

BOB: Yes.

SHAPIRO: …of, you know, a ham or a turkey?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: Oh.

SHAPIRO: You know, Amy, this must make you feel great about - a little bit of smoke in the kitchen that's nothing compared to a backed up toilet, a child with 104 fever.

Ms. DICKINSON: Hey, you know what? I don't have the problems. I just try to help others. But you know what I love about this story is that talk about a real shortcut to reminding us all of what's really important. And the best disaster stories, of course, end well.


Ms. DICKINSON: And they serve as lessons for all of us. And I love how this family - 25 years later, of course, they'll never forget that drama of that day.

SHAPIRO: Right. And the fact that everyone has their health makes a little burnt egg seem minimal.

Well, Bob, thanks a lot for your call.

BOB: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go to another caller. This is Jessie(ph) in Reno, Nevada.

Hi, Jessie.

JESSIE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine. Thanks. What's your horror story?

JESSIE: Well, a couple of months before Christmas, my grandmother gave me all of her old scrapbooks and all of these beautiful old photographs. And I decided to take a few of them and, like, archive them and then enlarge them and whatever, and then I was going to give them to her for Christmas. And on Christmas day, I gave them to her, and she gets this stunned look on her face and storms up out of the room…


JESSIE: …and leaves. And I guess one of the photos I made for her was of the day that her mother abandoned her, which no one told me.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

JESSIE: And then the other photo was this old photo taken in the '20s of, who I thought was my grandfather but it was his brother…


JESSIE: …(unintelligible) this infamous molester.


SHAPIRO: Oh. Amy, how do you recover from something like that? Amy Dickinson, any advice?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, Jessie, that's the gift that just keeps on giving, isn't it? It's terrible.

JESSIE: We laugh about it now. But I swear, that day I was like, what did I do?

SHAPIRO: Did your grandmother ever realize that this was actually, you know, a well-intentioned mistake?

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes. But let me tell you, every single family function since then, I will never leave it down. Someone has to pull me inside - outside and say, you know, that photo that your grandma, that was the molester.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, no.

JESSIE: I know. I know.

SHAPIRO: Does the album still exist? Is it still around?

JESSIE: Oh, it is. In fact, it's got - there are just hundreds of photos and I've been archiving them. I'm a photographer myself so I've been trying to save them and re-photograph them and stuff. I mean, I know that the photos were maybe of bad moments, but they're really neat photos to look at, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Well, it's a great story. Thanks a lot for the call, Jessie.

JESSIE: Thank you. Have a good day.

SHAPIRO: You too.

Let's go to Anne(ph) in Portland, Oregon.

Hi, Anne.

ANNE (Caller): Hi.

SHAPIRO: Go ahead. What's your story?

ANNE: Well, you know, it's a turkey story. We put the turkey - well, first of all, we forget to put the turkey in the oven.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

ANNE: And I thank God I'm not responsible for the turkey. It's my brother. He is supposed to put it in the oven, never got put in the oven. Then, when it finally - they get it, put in the oven, he forgot to put it on bake, so he just turned the temperature on.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, no.

ANNE: It's - needless to say, everybody ended up eating turkey but they had to stay really, really, really late into the evening and have the turkey dinner.

Ms. DICKINSON: So what do you do - well, do you throw a magic show? Is it, come on kids, you know, camp singing. What do you do?

ANNE: Well, I mean, we entertain ourselves, you know, drink a lot.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: But there's nothing like, you know, possible septicemia to make a Christmas really, really memorable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Which leads us back to the broken toilets. All right. Thanks a lot for your call, Anne.

ANNE: All right. Thank you.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, Ari, the turkey story is in its own kind of category. I would put turkeys in their own subset of the disaster category…


Ms. DICKINSON: …because there's always a family that tries to deep fry the turkey in the driveway…

SHAPIRO: Uh-huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: …leading to, of course, a fireball.


Ms. DICKINSON: They're like magnificent proportions, where the neighbors come out to watch.

SHAPIRO: And then you got the pets-plus-turkey stories, which is a subcategory of the turkey category.

Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly, because you cannot have a turkey without a dog basically gnawing it and running off with it. And then you have to fight the dogs for the turkey leg, and then you try to paste it back together. Everybody knows about this.

SHAPIRO: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION.

And we have a special guest with us here in studio. Sue Goodwin is the executive producer of TALK OF THE NATION.

Sue, thanks for coming in on Christmas.

SUE GOODWIN: And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Ari. Thank you for filling in today.

SHAPIRO: I understand you have a hair-raising, so to speak, holiday story.

GOODWIN: Well - hi, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Hey, Sue.

GOODWIN: Here's my story. Every year, I have a very big Christmas Eve party and 20, 30 guests, as many guests as I can fit in. And this particular year - it was a couple of years ago - while I was getting the house ready, my friend asked if she could drop her kids off.


GOODWIN: And she had a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old. And the 4-year-old was scratching his head a lot.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, no. No. No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWIN: So she came back so I could finish my shopping. I said, you know, you may want to check his head. He's scratching it a lot. Oh, no, no, no, no. I'm sure he's fine. I get to the Safeway to finish my shopping. I get a tearful cell phone call from my friend who is just beside herself because her child has lice.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GOODWIN: So she wants me to buy the lice medicine for the hair and take it to her, and I go up to the pharmacist and buy the medicine and then say, by the way, I'm having a party tonight, should I be concerned? And the pharmacist said, oh, you can't have a party tonight. You need to fumigate your apartment. And I was thinking, okay, hundreds of dollars of booze and food and what am I going to do? I buy everything possible that you can to clean the house.

SHAPIRO: You fumigate the house?

GOODWIN: Well, you spray all the furniture with this stuff and you brush it off. I took every comforter, every pillow…

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

GOODWIN: …every - and took it downstairs to the coin-operated and washed it all, and I'm going to have this party. And the question, Amy, for you is should I tell my guests about the risk?

SHAPIRO: I think you just did, but go on.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know - and I - honestly, I would say no because, Sue, I have been there with lice on Christmas.

GOODWIN: What? You're kidding.

Ms. DICKINSON: What parent hasn't had a lice-filled Christmas? And the thing is once you tell that - here's the deal: lice is special. Once you tell people about lice, they get what I call hysterical lice.

GOODWIN: Yes. Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: People will start to scratch and they think they have lice when they don't. So, no - better left unsaid. So you did have the party, right?

GOODWIN: And I did not tell my guests.


GOODWIN: And didn't get any phone calls later on.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, thank goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: All right, Sue, thanks for coming into the studio.

And let's go to another caller. This is Dean(ph) in Cleveland.

Hi, Dean.

DEAN (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Ari. This is Dean in Cleveland Heights. And - so when my son was about 6 years old, he had a pet mouse, and I thought it would be nice to make a house for him. I found this pattern in a book that I had and it was a thing that I made out of plywood and it has sliding glass doors on the sides so that was panes of glass so that you could see the mouse in all its activities…

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

DEAN: …and little ramps and so forth. Well, he was very excited and we put the mouse in the house. And just as the little mouse came up the ramp, I lowered the…


DEAN: …sliding glass side.

SHAPIRO: Did the mouse make it?

DEAN: And the tiniest little bit of blood…


DEAN: …emerged on the mouse's little nose. And within five minutes, the mouse was dead.


DEAN: And - so we had to go through all of that. It was a cold and snowy day here in Cleveland. We had to go outside and inter the mouse in frozen ground. And - so we always think of that as a very bittersweet and sad Christmas.

Ms. DICKINSON: Dean, I'm so sorry. Does your son call you Robespierre by any chance?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: That's a violent…

DEAN: He didn't call me Robespierre, and he doesn't call me that now.

SHAPIRO: All right, Dean. Thanks a lot for your call.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, no.


Ms. DICKINSON: Animal.

SHAPIRO: I'm afraid we have to end on that very sad note.


SHAPIRO: Amy, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. And she usually talks to us every other Thursday right here on TALK OF THE NATION. She's been joining us from her home in Freeville, New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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