Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everyone was once a five-year-old

Years ago, my very kind sister-in-law, Christine, taught third grade in a bad part of town. Many of the kids lived in poverty, some ran loose after school, a few had parents in jail. At one parent-teacher conference,  the father of one student showed up and demanded to know when his kid was going to be taught some f****** manners.  

I asked how she could tolerate people like this without getting angry or crying. She told me this:

"I picture them as a five-year-old."

What a simple and easy thing to forget. That, when the field of years beyond the very young ones still laid ahead, whether we were privileged or disadvantaged, rich or poor, loved or neglected we were probably, still, universally compassionate.  

What happens to people?

A while back, I hurried to meet my mother for lunch. I was late, I was frustrated, I'd already texted her to change the time twice.

I found a space in front of the restaurant, opened the door and stepped into the path of a man walking by.  I didn't really apologize, I just rushed to the meter to pay. It was cold, I wasn't wearing gloves, and so on. The man  came up behind me. "Excuse me," he said.

I turned to face him and he adjusted his glasses, they way I've seen people do when they're about to assert themselves. He was around my age, ruddy-faced, a little taller than I am, and  thin. He wore a knit cap, a thin canvas jacket and he carried a backpack big enough for a couple of books. I thought he might be a teacher until I noticed that  his hands were scarlet from the cold, and his sneakers were ripped. He wore no socks. 

Homeless, I thought.

"I wondered if there was any way you could possibly spare just fifty cents," he said. "I can get someplace warm if I buy something," he explained, looking over his shoulder.

Fifty cents, I thought,  who couldn't spare fifty cents?  He looked put together,  like someone I might know in my own  community. Bookish. Like a science teacher. He had his teeth, his eyes weren't bloodshot. He didn't smell. So why was he here,  calling me ma'am and asking for change when he looked like he belonged at Panera?

What happens to people?

Like many assume about panhandlers at on/off ramps, I thought he was probably lying about the warm shelter. Fifty cents, I suspected, was what he needed to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or waste my money in some other way. 

I pulled my parking receipt from the meter. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have it." I said. He watched me for a few seconds, then walked on.

Across the street, another man was hurrying in the cold.  His shoulders were hunched and he was smoking.

My homeless guy called out,  "Excuse  me."

Without breaking stride,  the smoking man looked over and my homeless guy said, "Is there any way I could trouble you for one of those cigarettes?"

"Pay for your own habits," said the man, "That's what I do." He added over his shoulder as he passed,  "Don't waste people's time."

The homeless guy continued up the sidewalk. The other guy continued in the other direction.

"Sir?" I called to the homeless guy. 
He didn't hear me.
I walked behind him, back up the hill.
"Sir?" I called.
Nothing.
"SIR!" 
He turned, and I asked him to wait. "Sometimes, I'm in too much of a hurry," I said when I reached him. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, well!  Oh! That's okay," he shrugged, "No harm done! I'm just sorry to have bothered you." His voice was soft, accentless.
 I put a twenty in his palm.
"Oh..." he said, "This is more than...Oh, thank you, Ma'am. I'm sorry. I just needed something to eat, someplace warm."
I  told him I hoped the day would be good to him. I let go of his hands, and went back down the hill.

On the way into the restaurant, I thought about the way he'd welled up and I wondered if that was part of the act. I believed it was not, and I believed it was irrelevant anyway. Before he wound up begging for change, and enduring the scorn of strangers, and putting his hands and dignity last, he was a five-year-old. 

Some of us are born fighting the odds. Some of us are born sheltered from them. But every life starts with potential. If we are in a position down the road to help a person who has fallen, shouldn't we reach across the circumstances which have differentiated us, and conjure the humanity that unites us? 

If you are lucky enough to live in a community where people are struggling to come with up with real solutions to housing and rehabilitating the homeless, support them. If there are meetings where you can offer input, go, and give it. 

You were a five-year-old too. Who knows what happened to that kid who helped you back up when someone else pushed you down?




Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Writers: know your comment-bully


A writer-friend of mine recently published an essay in a well known parenting forum. In it, she considered the challenges her non-competitive child might face in the big wide world as he faces off with kids who have been groomed to "win."

I'll come back to that. But first, a word of support for parents of all children, new or grown:

Nothing makes parents fret like the big, wide world.


Our tiny people come into our little worlds and we fret. We fret about fretting. We fret about not fretting.We fret about projecting our fret. 

Then, they go to the elementary school world and we contain our fret. Maybe we stop fretting altogether. 

Then, they go to the high school world and we fret anew. Nails get bitten, faces get lined, tempers get tried, a good night's sleep is so elusive, we talk about it when it happens. 
But then...
Remember how masterfully you coped with labor, and how you felt when it was over and you discovered that in fact, you hadn't split in half? So too, will your children leave for the big wide college world and handle it so deftly you won't know if you fretted them into their successful transition or just fretted them away from disaster. Either way, you won't care because you'll be sleeping again and your face will look better. 
In the meantime, we have online parenting communities.
As published writers hope will happen, my writer-friend's thoughtful piece generated discussion, up and down.

And then... 
One called her a "navel-gazer," referred to her concerns as "comical" and  promised she'd screw up her child for life with her constant insecurity.  Another called her article a "fake mommy fail column" full of paragraphs of "meta-parenting self-righteousness." 
Not all comment-bullies are angry morons with limited vocabularies.  
The first time I was called out  by commenters like these, I had just published an agreeable little piece called "It's their nest too," discussing the differences in how men and women react to a last child's exit. It was not a divisive, provocative piece. It was as controversial as a weather report.
And then... 
In a couple of impressively worded, perfectly punctuated comments, I was accused of overstating the difficulty of the empty nest transition on purpose – for attention. It was suggested that I probably wasn't sensitive to my husband's experience at all, but resented him for not joining me in my "phony suffering." And, I was accused of wrongly speaking for the universe.That part was true.

Snarky as they were, these comments were polite compared to what many parent-writers experience. 
But these days, when it's not horrifying, I find the comment-think in these threads intriguing. I don't mean among  readers who disagree with a point,  or even those who get kind of hot when they make their own.  And I don't mean trolls who misspell their insults (which, trolls, game over). 
I mean the same, chronically fed-up readers who  appear in the same space, every day, as if by bus, who seem geographically mixed but advanced intellectually, and who revel in taking swings at the pinata-writer.
What do they want, I wonder, these articulate, often informed and mean-spirited people?  They don't want  normal intellectual discourse because they don't engage, they alienate. They aren't civil, they're hostile. They aren't  angry morons with the limited vocabularies, but they are troll-esque in their penchant for lobbing insults from behind obscure online identities that  in a million years, they wouldn't say to another parent IRL.
Some writers have learned not to take comments personally ( if they ever did), but it's counter-intuitive because they're meant to be personal.  And telling a writer, whose wish is to stimulate discussion, not to read the comments or be stung by a well-phrased insult is like telling a cook who has produced a grand meal not to be hurt when one guest says to another, "Well, that  really sucked."
Discussion is discussion. You want to be worth arguing with, even. But it's tiring to tease comment-bullies from the earnest, thoughtful ones. Much the way it was tiring to remember that your mother thought you were lovely when the mean kids were telling you that you were actually, well, other things. I feel for parent-writers in particular who are new to a national forum. They're harder on themselves than anyone and it's easier to believe wrong things before we choose not to.

Parent-writer friends, newly or oft-published, I offer this: when you get nicked, remember that we write because we have to and always will.  Comment-bullies don't care if we do or don't write, and never will.  They may not even read all the way through. What they want is a chance to push you from the swing, while their friends watch.
As my own comment-bully might suggest, they do it for attention. 
But whatever they do, and whatever you do, do not abandon that swing. Get right back on.

And then...stay in the write. 



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An extra-small story

With effort, with effort,
 I will not buy this for Gus.
But I may need to buy an extra-small dog.
Here is an extra-small story that you'll like.
Occasionally, I go to Petco-Where-the-Pets-Go for the food that Gus, my writer-cat, likes as well as filters for his fountain which he doesn't like as much as the faucet.
Usually I pick up a toy or two because I imagine he will be checking for this when I come home. Actually, I know that's not really true, which is why I didn't buy him a Christmas cape in December. 
With effort. With effort, I didn't. 
At Petco, people are allowed to bring their dogs on leashes because, recall: 
Petco is where the pets go.
The dogs are usually well behaved enough, some are better behaved than the owners who don't pick up their excited dog's doodies left in the path of cat owners like me. But I ignore this because it's not: 
Petco, where the people go. 
The other day, a clutch of people stood with their leashed and sniffing dogs, while they chatted about God knows what, because I couldn't eavesdrop from the register. 
But nearby, closer to where I stood, a man the size of a shed crouched  on the floor before a display of glittery, bejeweled collars for "extra-small dogs." He frowned, chin in hand, picked up one collar after another, turned it over, tugged at it for give, put it back. It took a while (I let a couple of people go ahead of me), but finally, he chose a bracelet-sized, black velvet collar with pink sequins. 
With effort, he rose and headed to the register, still looking over his pick. He probably imagined his extra-small dog being excited about the purchase. Maybe he was recalling the dog's reaction to his or her extra-small Christmas cape. 

Even at Petco, where the pets go, people do little things worth mentioning. That one made my day.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wearing jeans to the symphony and other ways to live out loud.

No, I don't lay out my clothes like this
every day. I just didn't feel like buying a
graphic and Gus wouldn't pose. 



I once received a card from my sister-in-law Christine which praised me for "living out loud."  It was special to be regarded that way, but it was also special because Oprah Winfrey hadn't yet started using the phrase every time she spoke, nor had it started to appear on every other cover of O Magazine.
I do live out loud. I lived out loud in particular two years ago, when I trailed a stranger in Boston to get the name of her perfume. She wrote it down for me on the back of a restaurant tab. I went home, looked it up, gasped at the cost, and half-seriously (half), put it on my Christmas list. When I received it I almost dropped and shattered  it in my half-shock. 
It's light and beautiful like a fragrant cloud and when I wear it I remember rich things I encountered before I discovered it, and those I have encountered since. I wouldn't trail a stranger for less. Once, I wouldn't have trailed a stranger for any reason but at some point, it was worth appearing odd to have that perfume. 
Which brings me back to living out loud. I am a person who has always dressed up for the symphony:  black dress pants, black heels, nice top, nice jewelry and of course, more recently, expensive perfume. 
A while back I would nudged my husband at the sight of someone in jeans and boots at the symphony and  said, "Nobody dresses up anymore. Nothing is special." 
A while back, I would have responded to the phrase of "living out loud" with, "As opposed to what, living in silence?" Because, years before I chased that stranger, I was that person - kind of jaded, kind of cynical,  kind of dumb and kind of smart. All dressed up and greeting the truth of simple, honest living with a snide response. 
I can't believe that I once behaved this way and still expected to attract friends, but anyway.
Along the way, enough to have earned that card, I've thought about this living out loud business, what it means and what it doesn't. Living out loud, is not about dressing appropriately for an experience meant for the senses.  It is about trading drama for grace and allowing hard truths to pass, while greeting and urging the gentle ones to stay.  It isn't about hiding behind correct formalities, but letting formalities cook off  so that the essence of experience can reach the senses. With others, it is about showing your belly, because any connection lacking the trust to do that isn't, as my father would say, "the real deal." 
It is about honesty. 
And so, I'm wearing jeans and boots to the symphony tonight. I'll add the nice jewelry and perfume, but I'm wearing jeans to the symphony. I'm going to listen to Brahms in my warm sweater and silky scarf. I will hear Don Quixote in flat soles and soft jeans. I will not be aware of the temperature while wearing uncomfortable clothes, or my correct posture in a too-small seat, and most of all, I will not be aware of whether or not I've won the approval of complete strangers. 
Living out loud is about remembering the best experiences with more heart than mind because your heart has perfect vision while your buzzkill mind is a keeper of information.

And, of course, it is about finding a delicious fragrance to bring it all back on demand. 




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More than fourteen things I learned in 2014

"Wow, what a year."
---Writer cat, Gus Bonifant
With my entire being, I adore Christmas. I shake off stress, I smile, I hum, I hug and whistle off-key on purpose.  

Every 12/1, I slide papers and projects to the side and clear my schedule of all but essential appointments. I'm patient in heavy traffic and find the good in trying people. If I feel cross, I get over it. I tell people why I love them and leave 100% tips all over town.

I spend December panning for the best memories and this year's take was rich: an actual songfest around the piano (a few glasses of wine into the evening between us, but never mind), gifts that surprised someone into silence more than once, and cozy gatherings of people eager to be in each other's company. 

But enough is enough.
"You're welcome."
At the supermarket yesterday, and for the first time in six weeks, I didn't hear Madonna singing "Santa Baby" or yet another version of "The Christmas Song." I heard "Dancing on the Ceiling" by Lionel Richie.
 Good, I thought. Bring it. Bring all those other C+, tepid tunes from the seventies, too. Bring "Silly Love Songs, "Sad Songs" and "Reminiscing."
It is the big December morning after.

The refrigerator is full of foil wrapped items that are probably not "okay to eat" now, the unlit tree looks resentful, and the finally-silenced Christmas CDs are stacked and ready to be put back in a drawer which we will forget about immediately.  I am off restaurants for now and in fact, I believe I am actually craving raw vegetables today.

As our full house empties of people eager to get "back to normal," cheerful, easy spirits have gradated into the focused, all business mindset of jobs to do and places to be. New energy has begun to push us forward and the new year waits like an unopened gift.  

For now, and with hopes that you too, are remembering moments you could only imagine thirty-one days ago, I have been panning for the best things I learned – or practiced again – in 2014. 

Most of them have something to do with attitude. Not because attitude is important, but because attitude is everything.  

Herewith:

RELATIONSHIPS
  • The best  relationship advice I heard this year came from writer-friend, Dr. Margaret Rutherford , a therapist who suggests we can end many of our relationship problems with one question which is hereBottom line:  stop personalizing things that have nothing to do with you.
  • If you're hurt, bring it up. If you're irritated, let it go. We don't forget hurt. We won't remember irritation. 
  • The tiniest kind gesture can turn someone's mood and attitude around for a very long time. Think of that power you have. How  would it change your life to turn your own someone's mood and attitude around for a very long time?
  •   Let people make you happy. Let them go to some trouble for you. When someone offers you something to make your life nicer don't hand it back with "No, you don't have to" or by downsizing a compliment.  Accept the offering if possible, say thank-you and mean it.
  • If they ask for it, forgive people for things they didn't do on purpose and can't fix now. And if you've wronged someone, apologize.  "I'm sorry if you're upset" doesn't count.
COMMUNICATION
  • When people give you unwanted advice, they aren't telling you what you don't know, they're telling you what they have learned. It's better to say "I can see why you feel that way," than to tell them they're wrong. You're both likely right.
  • A mind can only expand by making room for the other side of things. You won't sacrifice your own point of view by understanding someone else's. Bonus points if you say this:  "So what you're saying is..." and then paraphrase correctly.
  • When your gut feeling fights with your wish to be agreeable, defend your gut feeling.  It will give you back your bravery and with it, the confidence you need to do everything better.
  • Don't interrupt. Everyone does it. Everyone should stop. I know someone who, when he interrupts, actually puts a knuckle to his lips so he won't keep doing it. Let's be like him.
PARENTING
  • Don't punish yourself for the times you dislike parenting, or even the kids themselves when they're wretched.  Nobody is likable all of the time and our good and bad feelings exist to make us appreciate both. When they're most trying, you'd still walk into traffic for them and that's what counts.
  • Embracing who and what our children are becoming can't happen without being willing to grow ourselves. It's one of the myriad ways they give back without knowing they're doing it.
  • If you must  dwell on parenting mistakes of the past, don't forget context. Remember that there were circumstances which coalesced to make you into that huge jerk that you became for that brief time. Few people wake up and say, "I think I'll be a huge jerk today."
  •  Be grateful that all of your parenting mistakes weren't worse and admit  them to your children.  Someday they will make their own mistakes, and they'll want to tell an approachable, knowledgeable person about them.  Be that person.
  • The worst thing entitled parents teach their kids is how to be liked by a small population of very tedious people and vice versa, how to alienate large populations of people worth knowing.
PERSONAL GROWTH
  • Don't ignore parts of yourself that you don't like. Fix them. Don't call the puzzle done when there are still pieces under the couch.
  •  If you're aging and fear you're losing your looks, don't disappear with them. Remember: there were things about your nature and personality that made your mother love you when your teeth were too big for your face and you were cutting your own hair. There probably still are.
  •  It's better to understand powerful things that only older people know, than cling to what you think you have in common with younger people.
  • Be your own buddy. You have a 24/7 voice inside telling you the truth of things, including what you deserve. Don't let others talk over it. Don't confuse fear which hurts, with truth, which heals. It's time to find that inner peace you've been making fun of. It works.
  • We shouldn't say we don't care what others think of us. Everyone cares about somebody's opinion. It's learning to ignore the right ones that frees us.   
Thank you for visiting in 2014  and helping me grow the blog. It is Worth Mentioning that many of you brought friends this year in numbers which surprised me into silence and I love you for that.

But mostly, I cherish the possibility that in some way, I've made your day, or any part of it just a tiny bit nicer.

Be loving, be safe, be happy in the coming year.

Love,
Susan

Here is my picture of the last sunrise of 2014
Everyone may be a writer, but clearly,  not
everyone's a photographer.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's the holidays. Here's a tip.

Make someone's day.
It's the holidays.
When I was in college, I was a server at the legendary Durgin Park restaurant in Boston.  I only worked twice a week, but they were fourteen-hour days and it was excruciating to look at the clock at 1:00 and know I had nine hours left.
I tried hard, but I was terrible at it. I had trouble yelling, "Hot behind ya!", I couldn't deal with the sulky bartender's insults, and I couldn't do that stacking of plates thing on my forearm. The night I tried, one of the prime ribs I was carrying tilted, dumping au jus into the lap of a business guy who became furious and made me cry in the bathroom.
It was the penultimate serve of that long day, and the bill for the large party was sizable. My tip, of course, was $0.
The last party of the day left without paying and my boss took it out of my pay. 
It was the first and last time I quit a job without notice. 
A couple of years ago, I became writer-friends with Jacqueline Tierney DeMuro who maintains a blog called Ambling and Rambling , about the things and people she encounters as a restaurant server. Her writing is casual and comfortable and though her blog is sprinkled with posts not related to the serving industry, when they are, I read and think about her experiences. 
I only needed that one year at Durgin Park to develop a lifelong appreciation for restaurant workers. They work hard, they deal with countless aggravations, in the kitchen as well as on the floor, and even if most people are gracious and nice, one self-important jerk, one short-staffed evening, one wobbly prime rib can send a day toppling. 
Jacqueline's observations have only affirmed my respect for all servers.
It's the holidays. It's time to say thank you.
I'm proposing we all do something for our server community and for ourselves too, and it is this: pick a restaurant and take someone to lunch or dinner. Order as usual, and then, leave a 100% tip on the total. Then leave. Don't lurk, or wait by the door to be thanked.
Peering from the sidewalk is permitted, as long as you're not seen. If  you're the commenter type, come back here, report on your mission and get your praise coin.
I challenge everyone reading this blog today to do that, for two reasons:
You'll lift the spirits of whoever has served you, and who knows? You might be putting a small financial woe to rest for him or her. Equally important, you'll lift your own spirits to know you really are as gracious and nice as you tell your own kids to be. 
However and whenever and wherever, write out that amount, total it, draw a little picture of a heart, or a snowman or whatever, and be on your way.
But do it. 
It's the holidays. Say thank you.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I am not in enough trouble to warrant police attention.

Four reasons to be grateful, right here.
There's a line in "TheMan with Two Brains" when widower Steve Martin is trying to figure out if a new relationship is a mistake. He appeals to a portrait of his deceased wife: 
"Just give me a sign." 
The house shakes, lights blow, the portrait spins, there is moaning, "No! No! No!"
"Just any kind of sign," says Steve Martin.

I've been thinking about gratitude. 

I am grateful. My God knows that I am. And when my God turns out an extra effort - when my children travel safely from one place to another, or a friend's bad luck turns around, or a biopsy comes back negative, or a loved one soldiers through a tough stretch and falls into feathers - I am extra grateful.
And, when bad things do happen, I don't ask my God to "take care of it," because my God is not a genie or Samantha from Bewitched. I just ask for strength.
Here's another
We count our blessings, I shared with my God, but we take them for granted, too. We get used to our blessings. If too much goes right for too long, complacency is what happens next, when we are surprised by things that go wrong and maybe even a little pissed off.
And so, my God, I wondered, how shall I say thank-you?
A few minutes into this pre-dawn exchange, a siren rose, and was followed by another. We are a tiny town. We rarely have sirens – or, as Officer Bubba refers to them, si-reens – and it seemed appropriate to pause. 

Was this my Steve Martin sign? Well, maybe not, but I've decided to make it one. 
Because, while I don't feel guilty about my good fortune, I am wondering about someone in my town, right now, who is in enough trouble to warrant police attention. It's not me.
According to my God, that is because gratitude isn't always about what is, as much as what isn't. 
To wit:
I am not in enough trouble right now to warrant police attention. 

Nor am I without power, or a laptop, or heat, or food.
I didn't leave the door open last night and lose the cat.
"You'd better not lose me."
Or wake up with a hopeless problem
None of my children called to tell me they were laid off or ended a relationship
My parents are not sad or unhealthy
Nobody I love was diagnosed with a terrible illness.
My friends are not in trouble with their lives.
I didn't hurt someone's feelings by mistake.
Everyone I care about is in a place where I can reach them
I am not starting a day of things that will test me, or my character, or my sense of humor.
There is not a single abusive person I must deal with in my life.
I am not going to a job that I hate.
A Mummy to be grateful for

Gratitude is sometimes what isn't.
And so, I plan to show my gratitude this week:

I'll smile at a nervous teenager in a new job.
And show an elderly person kindness who doesn't expect it.
I'll buy a card and send it to someone who is down but doesn't know why
And listen to someone carefully enough to hear what they aren't saying.
I'll tell someone out of the blue, not that I love them, but why.
I'll remember that up or down, everything is right now.
I'll say to young parents who are teaching small children to respect others: "Nice job. Really."
And let someone go in traffic
I'll answer the phone when a friend or family member calls, no matter what.
I'll look harder, hug and smile more. 
I'll seize moments I often let fly from my life, forgotten.

It is against the law to include fewer than two pictures of 
Gus in any post where he is mentioned at all.







I'll remember it's the tiniest of unasked for gestures that make a person know they have been noticed, and heard.

To my husband, children, friends, family, and with all my heart, to readers who have found this blog Worth Mentioning, it's not enough, but just the same...
Thank you.