Sunday, May 31, 2009

Enjoy the nuts, they're free

I met my son for lunch the other day. I was expecting pleasant conversation and yummy food -- we met at a gourmet burger place that satisfied both his vegan requirements and my end-of-week desire for something unhealthy. I got that, and more.

Mothers worry about how their children are getting along, no matter how adult those children may be. At least this mother does. So our conversations invariably include my probing for how he's feeling about things -- is he happy? Does he have what he needs? Is he pursuing his dreams? What obstacles are in his way? Can I help?

At this point in his life he's struggling to define his way forward and doesn't appreciate my inquiries, but he usually puts up with them more or less patiently. This time, however, he took a different approach.

"Life is hard, Mom," he said. "It's just really hard. But if it's not going the way you want, you don't jump off the plane. You try to change seats, or wait it out until it lands, and when they come by with nuts, you take them.

"Enjoy the nuts," he shrugged. "They're free."

If Mr. James could talk, I think that's what he'd say. He'd probably substitute sniffing dog poop for snacking on airplane peanuts, but I choose not to split semantic hairs.

So in the days since, I've taken inventory of recent nut deliveries, so to speak. Here's the result:

* Two perfectly lovely May mornings, for long, refreshing walks.
* An elderly man riding a bicycle past me on one of those walks, calling out "Good morning, ma'm, have a great day!" as he pedaled by. His cheery greeting made my whole morning better.
* More than 14 hours of daylight now, and for the next 50 or so days. More light improves everyone's mood.
* Ripe canteloupe - as opposed to those awful orange chunks that pass for melon in restaurant fruit salads all winter long - with fresh raspberries and blackberries mixed in.
* Speaking of raspberries, a raspberry scone from the coffee shop.
* Discovering, totally unexpectedly, an absolutely perfect greeting card for somebody. I'll give it to her tomorrow and I can't wait to see her reaction. I'm pretty sure she will laugh, and she'll enjoy the moment of grace and support I intend for it to share.
* The air conditioner works as the afternoon sun heats things up.
* A phone conversation with a clerk in a government office who was friendly and helpful. You forget how rare it is to find someone, in government or anywhere else, actually willing to help you, and it's a little moment of joy when you do.
* And finally, hearing this quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, on tv this afternoon: "Arrange whatever pieces come your way."

Seems like another way to say, enjoy the nuts.

Friday, May 29, 2009

If it was a snake...

This morning when I made my daily stop at the coffee shop, the proprietor and barista were mid-conversation.

"I'm afraid those kids are going to be disappointed they they didn't collect much," the proprietor, said.

"Collect what?" I asked.

"Food for the Salvation Army food drive," she replied.

"I think their box is too big," the barista said.

"What box?" I asked, cluelessly.

At which point they both pointed to an enormous cardboard box with a big Salvation Army logo and a sign made by some youngsters participating in a food drive at the neighborhood elementary school.

An enormous cardboard box with quite visible signs, right next to the door I had opened every single day this week without noticing. At all.

If it was a snake, as my mother used to say, it would have bit me. Mr. James may well have peed on it on one of the mornings I combined my coffee run with the dog-walking.

As it was, I would almost have had to shove the dang box aside to get into the coffee shop without tripping over it. In fact, given my history with things such as bouncing into walls, stumbling over rocks and slipping on ice, it's a miracle I hadn't.

I have no defense, other than the likelihood that at that point in my mornings I am very focused on getting my caffeine hit. But after a year of making a conscious effort to be present in the moment, it would appear my progress is, uh, minimal.

This should not make anyone who shares the local roadways with me behind the wheel particularly comfortable. Red lights, stop signs, ambulances.... please, Lord, let me notice.

At least, now that I finally noticed, I have made amends. After enjoying my latte and taking the dog for a walk, I went to the grocery store and circled back an hour later to drop some jars of peanut butter and cans of vegetables into the big box.

But looks like Mr. James is going to have to step up his game if he's going to rehabilitate me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Paid to do nothing

I took today off to give myself a four-day Memorial Day weekend. It was a lovely day. I did my time at the gym, indulged in a latte and a scone, ran a few errands, walked the dog, got a head start on the weekend laundry, tuned into Oprah.

In essence, I spent a whole day doing nothing. It was great. Even better, I got paid for it.

So on this weekend to think about and appreciate those who have made sacrifices for our collective well-being, I am also thinking about whatever social force arose in times past to make the idea of employer-paid vacation a fairly standard benefit.

I don't know how that came to be. I know that it's not the case for all workers -- I am extraordinarily fortunate to work where I do. I'm sure it's not entirely born out of the goodness of employers' hearts -- if they want the best talent, they need to meet or exceed others' perks. But I suspect somebody, or lots of somebodies, in some time past, worked long and hard to instill the notion that paying people to be absent now and then would be in everyone's best interest.

Whoever they are, or were, I am grateful to them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All things in moderation

I wouldn't go so far as to say (as the writer of this essay wonders) that living in the moment caused our current economic problems, but this is an interesting point of view on how over-focus on "now" may not always be such a good thing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mr. James' morning walk

What better time to live in the moment than a perfectly stunning May morning? Mr. James notices everything on a walk - rabbits, birds, squirrels, the scents of past travelers, passing bicyclists and especially other dogs. I'm more inclined to spend our walks inside my head thinking about things.
But that's a habit I'm trying to break. So this morning I vowed to notice what I passed, and brought my cell phone along to snap pictures of what captured my attention.

Thus I present a travelogue of my morning walk with Mr. James.

Right out the front door, I noticed the pretty red flowers our next-door neighbors have placed outside their front door. The people who live here have been our neighbors for nearly 28 years. We share a drive with them. They raised 5 boys in this house, and now it's fun to see their grandchildren -- including, finally, some girls -- play in their yard. All quiet this morning, though.

Across the street, more flowers, on these blazing pink bushes.

Oh-oh. Looks like somebody ran over the traffic island at the end of my street.

Bicyclists out early this morning.

We also encountered a man walking a dog that was either a Boxer puppy or another Boston terrier. He didn't speak English well so I couldn't quite understand the particulars, but the dog's name was Chula. She was much better behaved than Mr. James. I'm sorry I didn't get a good picture of her and her person. I appreciated meeting them this morning.

On the left is a look at my view from the walking trail, built on the route of old streetcar rails that once served what were then city suburbs. On the right is the view from Mr. James' perspective. I like my view better. I doubt that he cares.

Volunteers from the neighborhood plant flowers and bushes at the bus stops and street entrances. I am not one of those volunteers, for good reason -- the plants would not survive my care. But I appreciate the effort of those who tend them throughout the year.

And now we're almost home. The house is that of our neighbor to the east, the brick steps lead to our house. The trees are sweet gums, which drop nasty spiny balls in the fall, but right now they shade the street beautifully.

I love my neighborhood. Thank you, Mr. James, for encouraging me to pay attention to it this morning.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's worthwhile

I get the idea of focusing time and attention where they will make the most impact. There's only so much time, and so much (less so lately) money; we are smart to use these resources strategically.

And yet... maybe it's not always about being smart and strategic.

I volunteer for a local adult literacy agency, on a committee recruiting volunteer tutors to help functionally illiterate adults learn to read and write. We staff tables at author booksignings, speak at book festivals, go wherever we think we can find people who will consider giving their time to teach someone to read. We also try to make potential students aware of this free program that can literally change their lives.

So that's why I found myself heading off to a local branch library today to speak, along with another volunteer, to a group of young women attending a "women's empowerment seminar." While perfectly willing to do this, I was puzzled about our purpose. Being able to read is surely a foundation for empowerment, but I wasn't quite sure how what we had to say fit into their program - or what their program actually was - nor who the audience was. Were we talking to potential tutors or potential students? Both? Neither?

When I asked the fellow volunteer who arranged the appearance why we were doing his, he responded: "Because they asked."

Now, there's a smart, strategic reason.

We were welcomed by La'Keisha, an energetic and delightful young student at one of our local colleges, who has taken it upon herself to organize quarterly seminars for a small but engaged group of young women in her community. As attentive as they were, I am pretty sure there weren't any potential tutors among them. We might have indirectly reached a possible student: one of seminar participants picked up our handouts to share with a friend struggling to pass a test to be a certified nursing assistant, in case better reading skills will help.

The time was not without redeeming value. At the end of our presentation, La'Keisha gave me a trophy with an image of helping hands as a gift and my fellow volunteer, who had done this gig last year and thus already received his trophy, got a pair of movie passes. We also got to congratulate one participant who had contributed a trash bag full of teddy bears to another of La'Keisha's projects, donating teddy bears to the police department for their use in working with children in scary situations.

But against our primary goal of finding new tutors, not a productive use of time. Against our secondary goal of making potential students aware there is free help available for them, so-so.

Not smart. Not strategic. But will I do it again next year?

In a heartbeat. Because they ask.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When it really needs to be real

Picking up a prescription at the drug store this evening I overheard the pharmacy tech talking to a coworker about her upcoming graduation. She will receive a college degree but because she took most of her classes online due to her work schedule. she's apparently been told her graduation ceremony will be online as well.

Not good enough, she said. She did real work for that degree, she wants to walk across the real stage, shake somebody's real hand, pick up a real diploma and hear the cheers of her real friends and family.

That got me to thinking. There's plenty of stuff I used to do in the real world that I now accomplish in front of a computer screen. Bill-paying, for one. Research for another -- both on topics I need to learn more about, and products I want to buy. Shopping -- that's a big one, at least for some things. I still want to try on clothes in the store, but I haven't been in a bookstore or a library in ages, because everything I used to find there, I now can get online.

But the morning newspaper? I like hearing it thump on the sidewalk before dawn, and I like holding it, scanning the headlines and sipping my coffee before the workday begins. Yeah, I'm old. I know it makes more environmental sense to read the news online, and I know it doesn't much matter what I like, there aren't enough of me to sustain the newspaper's business model. But I like the real newspaper.

I like real cards and letters. I like email, too, and I love being able to touch base with my family through text messages. But kids, if you're reading this, know that I want a real Mother's Day card, with a real note in your real handwriting. And a real hug.

It's fun watching YouTube videos, but I like being present at real concerts. I like chatting with friends and colleagues on Facebook, and I'm sure if I ever tried Second Life, I'd find it intriguing. but that can't beat an evening in the company of friends in the flesh, with a real burger, chips and beer.

Through blogs I can read about experiences I can barely imagine, like the family friend (and follower of these words) who writes so eloquently about living and working in Haiti. Her words paint poignant, breathtaking images. But I'm pretty sure it's not like the real thing, and I'm thinking her parents back in Kansas agree it's not like having their sweet daughter close by.

Those are things that really need to be real for me.

What about you?

Oh, and to the pharmacy tech at Walgreens -- I agree with you. Make 'em let you walk across that stage. You've earned the real thing.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


When I was a kid, my mother told me a fairy tale about a boy who cried "wolf!" I don't recall the details, but it seems the boy repeatedly pranked his fellow citizens with false alarms about an impending wolf attack. Eventually people figured out there was no wolf and started to ignore his cries. So when an actual wolf showed up and the boy screamed "No, REALLY this time!!" nobody paid any attention.

I don't remember who the wolf in the story ate (Little Red Riding Hood, maybe?) and I certainly wish no harm to a child. But if the boy is a metaphoric reference to today's community of infotainment tv talking heads and the wolf has swine flu, I kinda hope the wolf enjoys a satisfying meal.

Because I've had it to here with the siege of media-fueled swine -- make that, N1H1 -- flu hysteria. Near as I can tell from the relatively calm updates issued by assorted public health officials, there is a reasonable level of caution being applied to the situation, and if we all were to use the brains we were born with, we'd be appropriately alert but not pandemic-panic-stricken.

Reasonable and appropriate, however, do not garner attention on the endless stream of babble that has become the 24/7 news cycle. So instead we get frantic "developing story" and "breaking news" reports.

As I type the U.S. total is (earnestly concerned brow-furrow) 160 cases. Worldwide total is now - cue the graphics package - 658 cases in 16 countries.

Yes, 658 cases out of a global population of 6.76 billion. My calculator can't even compute what an infintessimal percentage of total that is.

There aren't even 658 people living in my two-square-mile neighborhood. If I tried to convince a journalist that 658 people using my employer's product represented a trend worth reporting about, I wouldn't even get a polite hearing, much less a breathless breaking news spot on the nightly newscast.

And while the 16 deaths reported thus far are no small matter to the families and friends who loved them, according to the Worldometers statistics site ( 23,000-some people around the world died today of something we pretty much already know how to prevent - hunger.

No special-report graphics for them. Nor for the 36,000 who die, on average, each year from the regular old non-newsworthy flu.

So let's have a little perspective, people. True, we don't know much about this virus. Yes, we know that in 1918, a new strain of flu had its way with a few people, went dormant for a time, then returned with a rampage that killed millions. Incidentally, one of them was my mother-in-law’s father, so trust me, I don’t take the possibility lightly.

But I think we’ve learned a few things about public health in the past 91 years. So if those who speak with reason and knowledge can be heard over the din of the flapping jaws at the news desk, if the worst happens I think we should be able to minimize the harm.

Unless by then, we’re so over the swine flu story, we don’t believe a word of it.

Meanwhile, I will wash my hands, sneeze into a tissue and ignore cable news. I suggest you do the same.