Proudly a Cynic

§   An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs. §

I’m proud of being somewhat cynical.

Never did this fact become more clear to me than when it was chosen as part of our weekly topic at the Monday night meditation and discussion group, Many Hearts, One Spirit, that I attend.  The actual point of that discussion was, I believe, to renounce cynicism–something along the lines of becoming as a little child again.

Happily, our open and receptive discussion group (unlike our nation’s current President) welcomes differing viewpoints, calm, courteous debate, and new insights, because, huh-uh. Nope. Ain’t doing it.

I was, for most of my adult life, profoundly naïve and gullible.  And that—trust me on this one—is not a good path to go strolling down.  I have worked hard to develop a healthy skepticism; hence my motto, “An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

So I heartily admit it:  I am somewhat skeptical.  I am minutely mistrustful.  I am always ever so slightly suspicious.  And I’m PROUD of it.

Taking people at face value, unquestioningly, trustingly, resulted in many a painful moment in my life: the narcissistic friend who played upon my caretaker personality and constantly gave me veiled commands and orders, all careful cloaked in compliments and kudos, so that I would not realize I was being manipulated; the husband who drank, took drugs and had affairs, all the while looking me directly in the eye and denying that any such things had taken place.  The boss who praised me for showing up, sick and bleeding, during the weeks of my prolonged miscarriage—and then denied me a raise by grading me down on my annual review due to the few sick days I’d taken during this devastating personal disaster. The repentant man who had totally screwed up his life and begged me to trust his transformation, but proved to be a sly emotional abuser; a misogynist and con man who preyed quite effectively on my caretaker tendencies and easily-bruised self-esteem.  The woman at my job who smiled to my face while behind my back claiming I’d stolen money from the office sympathy fund that I managed.

Such lessons did not come easily to me, and had to be repeated time and again before I finally learned not to give my trust until an individual had proved worthy of it.  And I simply don’t believe there is anything wrong with that stance: with requiring that trust be earned, rather than freely given.

Perhaps it is unexpected that I find one wonderful thing about being a skeptic, about mistrust, is that I am, happily, often proved wrong.  These are astounding and delightful moments, when my façade of cynicism is cracked like an ugly plaster mold, revealing the shining statue hidden within.  When that happens, it is more than a pleasant surprise; it feels nothing less than a miracle.

But the converse is also unhappily true. The crash of my spirit, the aching disappointment, when I am confronted, yet one more time, with proof that my lack of trust was appropriate–yes, those repeated disappointments are difficult to endure.

Still, my hardened shell of cynicism provides me with some protection.  No matter how great my disenchantment, if the disillusionment was not totally unexpected, it is less painful.  That is, I find, the greatest benefit of being ever so slightly mistrustful: the mitigation of recurring disappointment.

There are qualities of becoming a little child again that I dearly love to evoke in myself: a sense of wonder, for instance, and awe at the unleashed and unexpected beauty not just of the world, but of many of the people who dwell within it.  But the naïveté of childhood is a condition that I gladly leave behind.  I will always strive to remain, proudly and carefully, just the slightest bit a cynic.

Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

My “Nosy” Encounter

§   Thinking back on this incident, I’m both sad and proud. Sad, because I can see why vicious hate speech is so common in our society; proud, because I avoided my first reaction to grab the little snot and slap her. §

Well before the advent of the current social distancing, I was tooling about the Super Big Evilmart, when I happened upon an acquaintance (and, following what occurred, I suppose I’m glad that she was merely an acquaintance, not a friend, and now is no longer either). This woman was shopping with her pre-teen daughter and the daughter’s friend, and stopped to make conversation for a few minutes.

At a slight pause in the “Hi, how are you, what’s been happening” remarks, the pre-teen daughter, with a maliciously gleeful look crossing her young face, broke in with a question of her own. “Why is your nose SO BIG?!” she demanded. She and her friend broke into uproarious giggles at her non-joke.

The young woman’s mother, looking uneasy, exclaimed her daughter’s first and middle names.  (As we all know from childhood, one name = Mom Conversation; two names = Mom’s Mad; three names = Duck and Cover!)  Her tone was that scolding timbre that mothers use exclusively to upbraid their misbehaving offspring. The girls paid her no mind, continuing to giggle, collapsing upon one another in their Mean Girl success.  The mother looked away from them, facing me with an sickly smile, unable to quite look me in the eye. Notably absent, though, was any apology from her for the girls’ misbehavior or even verbal acknowledgement of their insolence.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I know that my nose is, indeed, quite large. NoseWhile perhaps not of Cyrano dimensions, nevertheless one could probably mold at least two, if not three, average-sized noses from my beak. I’ve worn this honker on my face for 66 years, so I have no illusions about it. But those of my generation who weren’t headed off to Hollywood didn’t rush out to the cosmetic surgeon to have every body part from eyelids to labia altered to meet some insanely unrealistic cultural standard. Still, had I ever possessed both the funds and the time, I might have chosen to have my nose “fixed”. But, there you have it: it’s my nose, and I’ve worn it for a lifetime. It serves its purpose—to keep me breathing—and I’ve learned to accept it.

But it’s one thing to know I have a nose the size of Montana, and quite another thing to have some obnoxious, flippant little smartass point it out. My nose was bequeathed me via the Italian genes in my family, and staunchly half-Roman as I am, standing there in that humiliating situation, realization struck me in one blinding flash of comprehension: Although my family members casually and even proudly refer to one another on occasion as “Wops”,  it is done only amongst ourselves. Woe betide the outsider who uses such an appellation to reference us!

The same rule, then, applied to my facial appendage. I could say all I wanted that I have a snozzle the size of farm machinery, but no one else, ever, got to make that comparison.

So, after waiting the required beat for this kid’s Mom to grab her offending offspring by the upper arm and haul her forward to face me while demanding, “Apologize! Right this instant!”—well, with none of that forthcoming, I waded into the fray with my reply. “That was rude, cruel and unnecessary,” I addressed Miss Preteen, narrowing my eyes and dropping my vocal tone into the “verging on nuclear meltdown” registry. “It doesn’t show you to be ‘cute’; it just shows you to be badly behaved and not particularly intelligent. And it reflects badly on your mother, who I’m sure did not raise you to be so ill-mannered.”

The two girls stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. But the truly remarkable reaction was that of the mother. She just gathered up her bags in a close embrace and remarked, “Well, we’ve got to be getting home.” She turned and made a rapid exit with both girls trailing in her wake, casting wide-eyed glances at me over their shoulders.

Reflecting on the incident now, I’m both saddened and proud. Sad, because I can easily see why vicious hate speech, insults, trolling, and threats are so common in our society, from our reporter-insulting President on downward. Proud, because my actual first reaction, carefully reined in, had been to grab the little snot and slap her until her head rolled off her shoulders and bounced across the floor. It took an amazing amount of personal restraint for me not to do this, so, as I say, I am proud.

It’s painfully clear to me now that manners, as well as self-restraint, are rarely being taught to, far less required of many of  today’s children. And that is, I think, a tragedy, and one that we, as a society, will come to greatly regret.

The Color of Grief: A Very Different Mother’s Day Tale

§   I  passed those months in the Valley of the Shadow…  §

Long after my mother’s passing, I attended a grief support group. Despite the length of time—years—that had elapsed since my mother’s death, I nevertheless gained much benefit from the class, learning a great deal about the varied and painful paths people must take on their long walk to healing, and why mine was not so unusual after all.

But my mother’s death, while it had a profound effect upon my life, was far from being the worst grief I had ever experienced. Because our relationship had been so difficult, I mourned her actual passing less than I grieved the woman who could have been, and never was.

But I had already experienced a grief so deep, a mourning so overwhelming, that it required interminable months of recovery. I went through this dark and harsh landscape of heartache when I miscarried my first pregnancy in a terrible event known medically as a “missed abortion”. Put simply, the fetus that I carried died, but my body refused to miscarry. I carried my longed-for baby dead, knowing it to be dead, for a full three weeks before medical intervention became necessary to prevent infection.

Never in my life have I done anything harder than carry my potential child, dead, for three weeks. My mourning began the moment the doctor said the words, “You do not have a viable pregnancy,” and did not end for months after the D&C had scraped the useless contents from my uterus.

Other than having left work early on the day I began bleeding, and for two days following the actual surgery, during those three weeks I held my head up and struggled into the office every day, working in a haze of emotional and physical pain so deep that it now leaves me breathless, remembering. (A few months later, my supervisor would grade me down on my annual review for using too many sick days…) But, beyond coping with my grief, the hardest thing I experienced during that time was not the necessity of dragging myself to my job, or being deemed a slacker, or even the agonizing process of packing up all the baby items I’d already purchased or crocheted.

It was dealing with the fact that I lost all my color vision.

Never, never have I read anywhere, then or since, of this inexplicable phenomenon that I experienced, when the grieving process stripped nearly all the color from my vision. All hues become muted; some were nearly  invisible. Wrapped in the dark cloak of my mourning, I didn’t really notice at first. But after a few days, I recognized that my vision had changed. A coworker wearing a strident hot pink dress seemed to me to be clothed in a pale ash rose. The normal blinding white of typing paper appeared a muted ivory. The burgeoning spring weather, with with flowers bursting into bud and trees cloaked in green lace, seemed to me almost as greyscale as the end of winter had been. Everything I looked at was filtered through a lens of grey and sepia.

I wondered idly if I should see an optometrist, or if the change would be permanent. But it didn’t matter; nothing really mattered. I scraped through the days, always thinking about how far my lost pregnancy would have advanced had I not miscarried, and wondering if I would ever have a child.

Then, finally, my grieving process began to wind to its natural close. Slowly, almost like spring appearing in fits and starts and regressions, normal tints and hues began to return, albeit palely, to my world. Finally, one day I looked at the indicator on a positive pregnancy test—and awoke the next morning to vision that was once more capable of seeing the world in a Disney-esque “paradise of color”.

I had passed months, though, in the Valley of the Shadow; in a world that was as dim and muted as though filtered through cloudy lenses of pale brown and subtle grey.

As I say, I have never read of this phenomenon anywhere, although I’ve researched it since, many times, looking for some explanation of the loss of my color vision for those  months. I suppose a psychiatrist would diagnose some type of conversion disorder—what would once have been termed a hysterical syndrome. Hysterical blindness and deafness have, I believe, been well-documented for centuries. So why not hysterical color-blindness? That may be as good an explanation as any.

But for me, looking back on the long weeks that I dealt, silently, with the loss of all the color in my world, the phenomenon was a blessing. Seeing a world of vivid, bright, beautiful spring and summer colors during my weeks of bitter anguish would have been almost more than I could bear.

It was, perhaps, a strange way to grieve for my lost child. But it helped me heal. And I will always remember the wonder of the newly-bright world on the day when the color returned.

 

 

 

There’s Always One

§   Heaven help all of us who have a Looney Tunes neighbor!  §

Everybody has one. A looney neighbor, that is.

The particular thorn in my side, best known to me as The Old Curmudgeon, seemed fairly normal when I originally moved to my small condo seven years ago. Oh, there was the time when he insulted my status as a State employee, but after 30-plus years, I was accustomed to that. People who arrive at a government office to make any one of the many transactions required by official entities think nothing of berating and disparaging the very employees who provide those services.

Despite the insult, I am the sort of person who attempts to be a good neighbor. The Old Curmudgeon was retired; I was still working. I’d often return home on trash pickup day to see that his bin, emptied, was still sitting out near the road. So, after wheeling my own bin back into my garage, I’d haul his up the slight incline of our conjoined driveways and park it in front of his garage door. I never received a word of thanks from T.O.C. for this neighborly act. Perhaps he thought the elves and fairies were doing him the favor.

Our condo association does not trim shrubbery, so I took care to maintain the small bush that was positioned between our two garages, as well, shaping and mulching it regularly. I weeded the area within the low brick enclosure surrounding our mailboxes, then cleared out the overgrowth of wild plants and saplings that had taken root around our  air conditioning units where they sat side by side behind our condos. Again, no thanks were forthcoming, but I reminded myself that I was doing this act as much for my own benefit as his. We had a bit of a tussle, though, over my rotted mailbox post, which the condominium association was supposed to repair (see Laughter in the Midst of Grief, December 27, 2018), but the problem was eventually resolved, and I, in absolute innocence, got my revenge, anyway. (Yes, you’ll really have to read that earlier post!)

And then I got The Letter.

I have The Letter to this day.   The victim of a careless postman who left the mailbox door slightly open in a rainstorm, it is waterlogged and smeared and difficult to read, but basically claims that I had moved my central AC unit closer to his, thereby causing the compressor of his unit to fail, and he was allowing me two weeks to move it back to its original position.

I was flabbergasted. MOVED my central air conditioning unit? That piece of equipment was huge! I was at the time age 61, and asthmatic, but even in the rudest of health and youth, I could not even have shifted the darned thing.

Ever the little peacemaker, I simply knocked on his door and asked what the heck he was talking about. That was when I learned the truth: While having his own AC repaired, he interpreted a “look” on the part of the repairman, glancing between our two machines, to indicate that my unit was too close to his own and had caused the failure. (Six and one-half inches closer than it had previously been, he claimed. I forbore to point out that there was something strangely Freudian about this claim.) Basically, T.O.C. was looking for something to blame besides the age of his AC unit, and hoping to make me pay for it.

I explained that I had not, would not, could not, have moved the machine, but promised to have my own HVAC tech look at the problem during my upcoming maintenance appointment and determine if the units were badly positioned. (They weren’t.)  An exchange of more letters—straightforward on my part, rude and accusatory on his—didn’t really conclude the problem, but it eventually drifted away since absolutely nothing supported his position.

However, inadvertent clues in his letters revealed one thing: Whenever I was outside on my own patio, Looney Tunes was watching me. Keeping an eye out. Running survillance. Snooping on me. Gladys Kravitz, without the comic relief.

This, more than anything, totally freaked me out. (Think: head spinning backwards!) What on earth did he think he would see?! And how long had this been going on? Since the day I moved in?

Terribly disturbed, I began installing a careful shield of garden trellis and ivy to block his view of my patio. Now, years later, with the ivy having grown thick and tall, I at last feel comfortable sitting out on my own patio once more. Look away, you nutcase! All you’re gonna see is a thick veil of ivy leaves.

However, necessity demands that I sometimes step off the patio into my tiny postage-stamp of a yard, as I did recently when an overnight windstorm carried my outdoor rocking chairs out and down the grassy alley to drop them behind his condo. Hurrying out the next morning to retrieve them, I glanced up and saw the faint shadow of what was surely a face peering out his window.

But time has made me stronger and a touch more brazen. Instead of quickly scurrying away with my furniture, and aware that he could not hear me, anyway, I merely smiled and gave a quick little finger wave as my inner rascal took over.

“Hi there!” I sparkled. “Don’t worry! I’m just moving my air conditioner!”

 

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.

Handshake, Schmandshake!

§   I originally posted this essay in September, 2018.  Now, with Dr. Fauci suggesting that we may never return to the gesture of the handshake, it seems a great time to repost it.  Ha!  I was ahead of the curve!  §

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  Unfortunately, this etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I truly preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning completely aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with both hands, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed this aspect of the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts recommended that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. It’s impossible to judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for introduction. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting someone to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture (the explanation of which so befuddled the current President after his trip to India), in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing. Fluff.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.

Surviving the Lockdown

§   Despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty.  I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.  §

Like a good portion of the nation right now, I am living in a State that is “on lockdown”. Those who work in essential fields – hospitals, groceries, pharmacies, that sort of thing—are permitted to go to their jobs; others who can work from home are doing so. Schools are closed (and a friend who has taught for many years tells me that preparing the e-learning lessons and homeschooling packets is much more difficult and time consuming than just showing up in the classroom and teaching). The children without internet access struggle through trying to complete instruction without a teacher, while far too many children who are much too young to be doing so are dealing with minimal supervision. Others who depend upon school meals for their nutrition make due with sack lunches cobbled together at school cafeterias, picked up and then ferried home.

I, who am retired and living alone, am blessedly exempt from many of the stresses endured by those around me as all of us seclude ourselves from an invisible enemy. I am aware of and grateful for my good fortune. I do not have small children for whom I must find nearly-nonexistent childcare; I do not have to supervise homeschooling. I do not have to endanger myself by working in public venue, constantly at risk of viral exposure. I venture out only on the most necessary of trips for groceries or medicine—or, recently, for the materials to sew masks for my family members. Retirement assures me that I do not have to puzzle out how to complete my daily work from home,  fulfilling assignments without coworker or supervisor input. Instead, I’ve been filling my days, or trying to, by spring cleaning and catching up on chores too long neglected.

But, despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty. Never  one to watch much TV, Netflix is just a pipe-dream for me anyway, since my internet provider severely limits my data streaming.  And so I read—books, news sites, magazines, other blogs and personal essays ad nauseam. I had never realized, would never have believed, that I could grow weary of reading. More importantly, though, since I live alone, the days have begun to feel torturously like solitary confinement. The only human voices I hear beyond those on videos are caught from people in the street as they walk for exercise, passing by my windows. I find myself quite literally aching—a genuine, physical ache, a hurt–for the touch of a human hand. I imagine with longing just a pat on the shoulder, a touch in passing, a hug. Families trapped in the confinement of their homes with one another hour after hour, day after day, would probably sell their souls, and cheaply at that, for a half-hour of alone time; I would gladly give a pint of blood and my right arm just to rest my head on another’s shoulder; to be wrapped in someone’s arms.

I call to check on others whom I know to be alone,  while waiting vainly for phone calls from acquaintances, desperate for conversation. Video calls, like Netflix, are a pipe dream, also; the cell phone provider which I can afford is just as ungenerous with data allowances as my internet company. And so I shiver to discover that I am holding full-blown discussions out loud with myself. My cats look on as if I’ve gone mad—who the devil is Mom talking to? But they glory in the fact that they’ve never been petted so much in their lives.

I pelt friends and family with too many texts and emails, again often waiting vainly for replies; most of them, after all, have other people in their homes with whom to hold face-to-face conversations. When they do connect with me, they tell me of irritations and disagreements and quarrels brought on by too much togetherness, and, envying them, I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.

Introverted and inadvertently solitary for much of my life, I plumbed the depths of loneliness for years, suffering  friendlessness and bitter solitude.  But I have never endured so piercing an aloneness as this I’ve experienced during lockdown. Stealing out for a legally-permissible few hours to provide necessary childcare for my granddaughter was like encountering a wellspring of rising joy that rushed torrentially upward,  then cascaded down in sparkling droplets upon my soul. As I clasped her small body close to mine, all the while praying to any available deity that I was not bringing her danger along with my love, I felt as if I had been re-humanized.

We—all of us who survive this plague, that is—will somehow get through these days and hours of social isolation, eventually returning to some form of normality. But for all of us, I hope, our eyes will have been opened, and we will never again take for granted so much of the simple fabric of daily life.

The Kindly Neighbor and the Generations

§  To imply that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced.  §

A friend asked me—not in an accusatory manner, but just curiously—why none of my recent weekly blogs had discussed the coronavirus pandemic. My initial reaction to her question was, “Dear God, don’t we all have to read and hear enough about it every day?” But, the simple truth is that my blog posts are usually scheduled as many as four to six weeks in advance, leaving them very little probability of corresponding to current events.

Only a day or so after her question, though, I received an e-mail lightly connected to the pandemic which simply set my teeth on edge; so much so that I decided to rearrange some scheduled posts to include an essay about it.

I cannot name the original source of this material, since the e-mail I received did not include it. Here, however, is the article that arrived in my email in-box, along with a note remarking that it was “just beautiful”.

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My reaction to this essay was swift and very negative. I re-read it multiple times in dismay, finally summarizing it for myself as follows: A kindly, thoughtful person makes special effort to ask if an elderly neighbor needs anything during a national crisis, and receives in return a rant, a harangue; a tirade closed by a scathing, condescending remark. And while I have rarely been the recipient of offers of neighborly helpfulness, I am certain that a critical lecture and nasty remarks would not be my first choice of response.

My second reaction to the account was that of weary disgust: I am so tired of generation bashing! Whether it is the self-named Greatest Generation deriding Baby Boomers, or Boomers disparaging Gen X’rs and Millennials, or Millennials ridiculing Boomers and Generation Z…I am sick of it. Each generational group is composed of individuals—individuals who differ greatly from each other despite their shared experiences. There are things we can all learn, wisdom to be gained, from appreciating one another’s viewpoints–but that wisdom cannot be gained so long as we continue to disparage each other.

No generation has a premium on dreadful events.  Each generation endures pain, and war, and sacrifice. Pearl Harbor was no more shocking than 9/11. The “police action” of Korea and the undeclared war of Vietnam were just as horrific for those who fought them as the Second World War. And I feel certain that those soldiers who battled through the First World War could easily have spoken just as scathingly to the man of this story as he did of subsequent generations.

Nor is disease limited to any one generation. A survivor of the Black Death from the Middle Ages, transported through time to the era of Spanish Flu, might well have laughed ironically: people were not, after all, dying while lying on straw pallets, covered with lice and fleas.  Lesser diseases were not under the sole proprietorship of the Greatest Generation, either. A Boomer myself,  I had classmates who survived polio; I endured measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella.  I was dreadfully sick with whooping cough as 40-something adult. My daughter, a Millennial, caught chickenpox before a vaccine became available.  I watched two co-workers barely survive MERSA.

Boomer children grew up under the horrifying reality of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and the grip of the Cold War; we daily walked past the radiation insignia of the shelter areas within our schools as we ran practice drills for surviving nuclear annihilation. Sissies?  I feel sure that “duck and cover as you prepare to be vaporized by a nuclear warhead” did not comprise part of childhood  of that 80-something man.

To say that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced. True, they do not recall a world without instantaneous communication, even from the battlefield, but the very world they have been born into is dying: the polar icecaps and Antarctic ice fields melting away; bees, butterflies and bats, all our pollinators, dying off at unprecedented rates. They have grown up in schools drilling not to survive nuclear war, but active shooters; they have watched their classmates mown down before their very eyes. And now they are dealing with the first genuine world-wide plague for 100 years. For them, this will always be the defining moment of their generation: when they had to shroud themselves in a chrysalis of isolation, afraid to hug a loved one or touch their hand; watching their parents and grandparents and even classmates succumb to an invisible enemy and barred from them as they died, gasping for breath.

No, I have reached the conclusion that the real man in the sad little tale I was sent was not, as declared, that full-of-himself 80-year-old, declaiming his one-sided story,  lauding himself while deriding all those whose experiences did not match his particular world view. The real man, was, I think, that kind-hearted neighbor who, unasked, came to see to the needs of an elderly man…and who came away, quite unappreciated and totally belittled.

 

 

 

New and Improved Just Isn’t

§  The simple fact is, newer isn’t necessarily better.  § 

I admit it: I truly liked the old-fashioned hand crank windows on cars. They were wonderful. Excellent. Unlike power windows, the mechanism virtually never failed, leaving one to the excruciating necessity of duct-taping heavy plastic over a window to keep out the driving rain or bitter winter winds until time and money finally permitted a trip to the repair shop. And on those rare occasions in which a car became so classic that the crank mechanism did, finally, give way, it was a fairly simple repair. But, more importantly, a person could “crack” the window to just precisely that right point to ventilate a parked car. No pressing the power button up and down, over and over, attempting to get the glass just a smidgen or skoosh further down. Nope. One simply turned the hand crank just a tad until that window was in precisely the right position.

Of course, I am also old enough to recall the miraculous front window vent that was once found in every car. When weather was cool enough to drive with the windows down, passengers in the back seat were never blown right to Oz by a fully lowered front window; one cranked (yes, cranked) the windows down, slid those triangular vents open to a 45-degree angle, and voila! Air circulated around and through both front and back seats without power washing either the  passengers or the driver.

The simple fact is, newer isn’t necessarily better. Take, for instance, heating pads which turn themselves off. Now, having known someone who unwisely used an old-school heating pad without an automatic shut-off—used it overnight and incorrectly, lying on it—and received a bad burn thereby, I understand the sense of the automatic shut-off on a heating pad. The problem lies in the fact that such a shut-off doesn’t allow for personal preference or need. In my experience, just about the time when the heating pad has reached the “Ahhh!” factor, easing a muscle ache or abdominal pain, that’s the moment when the dratted thing powers down completely. And with most models, simply pressing the off button for a few seconds does no good. Nope, a complete reboot is necessary. The user must get up, walk over to the wall plug, fully unplug the cord for at least 60 seconds, and then plug it back in to have the cooled pad start cycling upward to heat once more. That get-up/reach-down/unplug-and-wait motion pretty much undoes any good that the heat had begun doing to a tense or torn muscle. For heaven’s sake, why, oh why, isn’t the user permitted determine an automatic shut-off time that might possibly work for an individual ache?

But then, clothes irons these days operate on much the same principle. (And, yes, unlike the Millies, I do occasionally iron some clothing, especially in the summertime. I appreciate the crisp appearance of a freshly starched and pressed pair of linen slacks or cotton shorts, and a clothes iron wastes far fewer kilowatts of electricity than a dryer cycle.) I understand the concept of not burning one’s house down by leaving the clothes iron on to overheat; I simply don’t comprehend why it must shut off right in the middle of pressing the transfer paper to make a graphic tee.

I had one friend whose country home contained a working, antique hand water pump in kitchen. Although their well-water operated, as most do these days, on an electric pump, the hand pump functioned as backup, and she was not about to have it removed—which proved to be a wise decision during the numerous times that thunderstorms took out the power lines.

Newer is simply not necessarily better—as proven by the reaction every time Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows or Word. People loathe them. They despise them. They hate then so much so that, frequently, even hard sell doesn’t reconcile a tech-battered populace to being forced to learn yet another new version. One site after another pops up online, guiding suffering users to ways around all those irritating and unwanted “new and improved” features. I myself, having upgraded to Word 2016 after years of using 2010, have seriously considered paying a simply outrageous amount of money for a program that will allow me to restore my icons to the old 3-D versions instead of the butt-ugly “clean” icons that Microsoft has now foisted on users. (Where are my “Find It” binoculars? How am I to remember that a right-leaning magnifying glass is “Find”, while a left-leaning one is “Zoom”? How, I ask you?!)

No, newer is simply not necessarily better. And so-called progress is often two giant steps backwards—not one small step for man nor woman, and certainly not a giant leap forward for humankind.