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!”

 

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.

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.

Household Chores: Love ’em, Hate ’em!

§    I took an informal housework survey of some of the women I know and garnered the following intel on the housekeeping tasks that everyone loves and/or loathes.  §

I had an acquaintance once who explained rapturously that she just loved running the vacuum.  I looked at her like she’d lost her mind. There are two household chores that (despite doing them with monotonous regularity) I despise above all else: running the vacuum and changing the bedsheets. I have no explanation as to why these chore irk me so much. I don’t avoid them, but I absolutely and completely loathe doing them.

Of course, this same woman was one who, when guests were present and the evening had not yet quite wound to a close, always made everyone a bit uncomfortable by beginning to wash up the snack plates and wine glasses before people had even begun making “going home now” noises. Since her house was, like mine, an open floor plan, there was no disguising the fact that she was in there splashing merrily in the dishwater; she’d been seen to snatch up a cheese plate just as a guest popped the last toothpicked cube into his mouth. The sight of an unwashed dish in her sink apparently drove her to distraction, as she mentioned once while pointedly eying the neatly rinsed-and-stacked plates and glasses in my own sink whileI tidied up after a get-together. On that occasion, I thought she choked a bit as I turned out the kitchen light and walked away from the sink. But as I’ve explained before in an earlier blog post (The Dishwashing Analogy, 06/29/18), those dishes were going to sit in the sink until at least after breakfast the next morning, and quite possibly lunch, when enough would have accumulated to waste my time and water on. This was despite the fact that I actually enjoy washing dishes–so much so that my dishwasher is run only once weekly, and then just to keep the belts from rotting from disuse. I find dishwashing to be almost a meditative act; it proves to me the truth of what one of my grandmothers (a simply marvelous housekeeper) told me: When the hands are busy in a simple task, one’s mind is completely free.

Nevertheless, Grandma’s maxim doesn’t explain why some of those simple and repetitive tasks just drive me, or others, to the brink.

I took an informal housework survey of some of the women I know.  (I did not include any men because, [a] there are few of them in my life; and, [b] the only man I know who actually willingly does housework is my son-in-law).  I garnered the following intel on the housekeeping tasks that everyone loves and/or loathes. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were a lot more responses for the “LOATHE” column than the converse—including one heartfelt reply from a woman who said bluntly that she was “totally over” enjoying any form of cleaning. But what struck me in their responses was that I found myself not to be so odd, after all: tasks that one person simply could not stand doing were actually enjoyed by another person.

Into the Love To Do column fell the tasks of vacuuming (obviously, I do not choose my friends on the premise that companions must think alike!), folding laundry, washing windows, dusting, mopping, and (bizarrely) shampooing rugs. Many more responses, though, were entered into the Loathe Doing category, which included the self-same dusting and washing windows, along with scrubbing floors, cleaning baseboards, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning toilets…and on, and on, and on. I genuinely felt the pain of one woman who replied that there was nothing worse than dusting furniture that had grooves and curves and hollows. And I nearly dropped to my knees and praised heaven that I, OCD as I am, had never, as one friend explained, been in such housekeeping competition that when she learned someone had put three coats of wax on her kitchen floor, she rushed home to put a fourth coat on her own!

I am already in the throes of spring cleaning, the madness of which always overtakes me at some point near the vernal equinox and Easter–cleaning out the cave after a winter’s habitation, I always think of it. Preparing for that psychological and physical onslaught, I’ve also been considering my informal housekeeping survey. It struck me that, since few of us, if any, are in a financial position to hire our housework done, then how sad that we can’t all form some sort of housekeeping commune.  Each person would bop happily about to the houses of the others, accomplishing the tasks that she finds enjoyable—while someone else, who actually likes doing  her most hated chores, works at her home accomplishing her  “Loathe List” of housework.

If only…!  I feel absolutely certain that, not only would our homes be totally spic and span, we’d all be a much happier bunch of women!

 

The Evil Empire of Tech

§  There are still some aspects of  technology that should really make no sense to anyone–not even the programmers. §

For someone born in a pre-tech era, I am reasonably good at using technology, although I recognize that, in many respects, I’m far past my “use by” date. I actually dare to be proud of the few more complicated things that I’ve managed to learn. After all, as a person who learned typing on a manual typewriter, it’s quite a mental leap to comprehend tasks such as uninstalling the masses of recalcitrant factory-installed bloatware on my new computer, or to periodically locate and clear all the hidden temp files that disk cleanup doesn’t catch.

But I honestly believe that, despite my personal unfamiliarity with so much of the constantly changing landscape of the technological world, there are still some aspects of it that should really make no sense to anyone.

Take, for instance, the response of search engines when one either mistypes a word, or the voice-to-text misunderstands it. No matter what search engine one uses, pushing the cursor back over the errant word brings up two options: Add To Dictionary, or Delete.

For the love of heaven, I don’t want to do either of those things! I don’t want to add a mistyped word to the dictionary, and I don’t want to delete it. I want to fix it! I want to correct it.

But is there an option for “Correct”? Nooooo. I can’t count the number of times I’ve accidentally added some ridiculous misspelling to the dictionary as I try to backspace over to correct just a letter or two in the highlighted word.

Worse, the same dictionary that cannot seem to locate any of my personally added words or names when I do want them can always seem to find a mistaken word!

Also under the heading of “missing choices” is the fact that there has never been a keyboard containing a STOP! button. You know what I mean: the button you desperately need and want to hit when you’ve tapped or clicked the wrong icon. “No, oh crap! Stop! Stop!” There is no “Oh Shit Stop!” button on any keyboard or in any program.

Then there’s the fact that the Home edition of the most common system software believes that all those using it are bubbleheaded space cadets, incapable of deciding for ourselves when it is convenient to download and install updates. Nope, downloading usually begins totally without warning, right in the middle of some important transaction, such as logging into our banks or trying to make a purchase, slowing down or even completely locking up our computers. Usually when this happens, I find myself wondering if I’ve been hit with a computer virus or spyware, before the synapses in my brain finally fire enough to make the connection, “For the love of heaven, another damn update?!”

Then, of course, having totally botched whatever important transaction I was working on, that irritating flag slides across the side of the screen, proclaiming, “We’re Making This Program Better!”  No, you’re not. You’ve already locked up and slowed down my PC, and now you’re going to prevent me from turning the darned thing off without installing an update that I may not even want, thereby preventing me from (as I always do, since I am very conscious and careful about my utility use) turning off the computer and power strip completely at the end of my session.

Worse, the Evil Empire is never, never ever, going to make the program genuinely better by actually acting on the incalculable number of suggestions from its clients– such as the one I and others have made repeatedly, about creating a way to add a message to the Lock Screen without having to revise the whole (very bad word) registry.

My favorite, though, of all the nonsensical aspect of this ongoing home technological warfare was the time that The Evil Empire  pushed through a download of a new program version build while I was trying to set up my brand new PC.  That’s right. Given no advance notice, and, as a home user, no opportunity to stop the download while I got my new PC out of the box and began uninstalling bloatware and installing software that I actually desired, figuring out how to silence that bloody irritating Helpful Voice From Hell and to refuse their preferred browser in favor of one I actually liked, transferring my years of files and photos from my old (but beloved) Windows 7 computer, and finding ways to make Windows 10 bearable…nope, nope, nope! Instead of a straightforward computer set-up, I dealt with having my brand-new computer locked up like Alcatraz as it attempted to download a colossal installation.

It didn’t work, of course. The installation, not my new PC setup. I hit the off button, unplugged the computer, slammed the laptop lid shut, and left it to sit while I seethed for several days. Before I finally went back to work on it, a cursory examination of websites let me know that this particular download had massively corrupted a LOT of computers. I count myself lucky for having interrupted the download when I did.

No, technologically, I may be of the Neolithic period, but there are simply some aspects of the world of tech which simply should not be sensible to anyone. Not even the damnable programmers.

The Wrong Road

§  “…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken  §

Hmmm. Well, I didn’t take the road less traveled by. I took the one with a traffic jam.

I went to an afternoon party at a friend’s home (oh, heavens—now the first stanza of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” is going to be an earworm, running in my brain for hours!) No, I went not to a garden party but to a girls’ afternoon out–a tea party, followed by a movie. It was a friendly and delightful excursion; one of those lovely afternoons which make me ever so glad that I lived long enough to retire and therefore enjoy such innocent pastimes. It was a brilliant afternoon, too—soft and warm, with just the tiniest chill in the air hinting at the beginning of fall, while sunshine still sparkled.

Now, as happens all too often in Indiana, I couldn’t drive my accustomed route to my friend’s home, since most of the roads around her neighborhood were under repair. (As we who live here often joke, the barrier horse is the Indiana state animal!) But I was prepared for this situation, knowing that half the roads in the city had been under construction during the summer. So I found an alternate route, arriving at her home without any problem.

However, after the movie concluded and I had made my goodbyes, I realized that I was leaving right in the middle of rush hour. Again, not a problem. Although driving an unfamiliar route in heavy traffic can, and sometimes does, spark one of my anxiety attacks, in this instance I had nowhere to be at any particular time. I could saunter along toward home without hurrying, driving defensively. If worse came to worst, I decided, I’d just pull over at one of the stores along the way and shop for a bit until the traffic thinned.

As I approached one intersection, though, I had a choice to make: turn left, and continue the quicker route down the busy highway until reaching the cross street I needed, or saunter straight ahead for a distance down a road that crossed a lovely area called Banta Woods. The Banta Woods neighborhood had once had been a minature, heavily forested woodland. When housing was later constructed on the parcel of land, the building company saved and incorporated into the landscape dozens of the tall, old trees, as many as possible. Banta Road was was usually a very pretty drive, with sunlight dappling the pavement through the nodding leaves of the trees.

I chose woodland over highway.

It was possibly not one of my brighter decisions.

With so many of the east/west roads under construction and detoured, Banta was one of the few streets still available to the rush hour traffic. Within just a few seconds, all traffic had come to a virtual standstill.

I started to fume. Wasted time, wasted gas… But then, amazing even myself, I recalled the reason why I had decided to cruise down Banta Road in the first place. I reminded myself that I had no need to hurry. Lifting my eyes, I began to admire the lovely foliage: leaves shining under the soft afternoon sunlight, some just beginning to show a hint of fall color. I admired the landscaping of the yards surrounding the large, lovely homes of this luxurious housing edition. When the line of cars ground to a complete halt, I shifted the car into park and took a few moments to safely text my daughter. I watched as cars ahead of me whipped into neighborhood cross streets, their drivers’ faces set in grim lines as they made U-turns and charged back the way they’d come, thereby allowing the rest of us to slide ahead a few car lengths.

Eventually, finally, I came to the end of Banta Road and turned left onto the wide avenue that would take me to the cross street I needed. But what could have been an exercise in frustration had, instead, been almost a meditation. I arrived at the busy avenue refreshed and relaxed, and wended my way home.

I am still astonished at how a simple change of attitude turned a frustrating and irritating circumstance into a pleasant afternoon’s drive.

I did not take the road less traveled; I took the one with the traffic jam. And it did, indeed, make all the difference.

Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.

The Sturdy Pine

§  I found myself ridiculously anxious to see my little trees and discover if they had survived.  §

A few years ago my Dad called me at the beginning of summer, asking if I would like to transplant a tiny volunteer evergreen tree that had sprouted in his garden. Although I didn’t really have a place to plant a tree in the tiny yard of my condo, I agreed to dig up the little specimen, planning to see if I could nurture it in a pot on my patio. The seedling was not even four inches high when I spaded it up.

A few weeks later, while weeding my daughter’s garden, I found another tree seedling, this one a black walnut. I transplanted it also, again to a pot on my back patio.

In the years that followed, these two saplings thrived. During the bleak winter months, I carefully moved their pots from the patio to a more sheltered area of my yard, swathing the ceramic in bubble wrap and piling straw on top to warm their roots. Each spring I waited anxiously to see if the thin stick that was the trunk of the black walnut would sprout new leaves; each summer I watered the evergreen tree just as anxiously, telling it to hang on through the hot and humid months. I regularly provided Dad with progress reports on the condition of the small evergreen, measuring it like a little child standing against the doorway to see how much it had grown. Both trees were re-potted into successively larger containers, while I worried each time that transplant shock might harm or kill them.

But the little trees continue to thrive. Carefully sheltered, bitter January winds and ice storms did not bow them over; scorching summer heat failed to dry them out and bake their roots.

Finally, though, it became clear that these now not-so-little saplings could not survive much longer in their current environment. They were outgrowing their pots at a faster and faster rate. They needed to be put permanently into the earth if they were to survive. I spoke with a relative and we agreed to haul them out to her acreage in the country.

We carefully chose a spot where the black walnut would not affect any garden plants and I dug a wide hole for the roots and set it into the earth. Then we selected a space nearer her cabin, although not sheltered by it, to plant the small cedar pine. I wished my carefully-nurtured little saplings the best and told them to continue to grow strong and healthy.

It was over a year before we returned to her cabin to tromp through the woods and picnic and enjoy the outdoors. I found myself ridiculously anxious to see my little trees and discover if they had survived.

IMG_20191114_091840As we pulled into the parking area in front of the cabin, I smiled: there stood the sturdy little evergreen, now thigh-high and bushy, still thriving. But a quick review of the area failed to reveal the black walnut. At last I found it, upright only because of the bittersweet vine that had wrapped around the little stick of a dead trunk. Looking at it, I felt infinitesimally sad. I realized that I had invested a great deal of myself in nurturing both these little trees.

There’s a metaphor somewhere in this story, I think. Much like any two very different siblings anywhere in the world, both little saplings were given the same care, attention, and nurturing. Both were appreciated, despite their differences; both were beautiful, each in a different way. Both were released to be on their own in the world. But only one survived that transition.

So it is with one’s children. Parents raise them with the same care, attention, and love; appreciate both their beauty and their differences, and finally send them out to succeed or fail on their own in the wide world. Some of those children survive, or even thrive, while at other times they crash and burn, destroying their own lives and, sadly, sometimes the lives of others in the process. Parents, being parents, often blame themselves for their failures of their offspring, despite all they did to nurture them. Parents invest a great deal of their spirit in their children, and it’s painful to watch when that investment fails.

Now it is with a touch of trepidation that I look forward to returning to that cabin in the woods once more this year, to discover if the sturdy little pine continues to grow. I hope it will do so; I hope I have added one long-term green and growing thing to our struggling planet. But, live or die, I’ll always appreciate the lessons taught me by the little black walnut and the sturdy cedar pine.

IMG_20200802_143351521 (2)Update:  The Sturdy Little Pine, in a new photo taken a few months after this post, in August, 2020

 

 

The Freedom of My Years

§ What I really remember about her essay is how profoundly sorry I felt for this young woman.  She still hadn’t managed to figure out that growing older is inevitable, but growing up is optional. §

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog (see Barbie Shoes, published November 13, 2019), for many years one of my favorite ways to waste time at the office was to read a Lifestyle section which scoured the Net for interesting personal blog posts. The essays shared there were rarely boring.  Shocking, irritating, enlightening, silly, funny or thought-provoking, but not boring. Some still stand out in my memory.

One that I remember vividly had been written by a woman who was just entering her 30s. It was directed to other females of her age group who, she felt, were failing to take seriously their sudden elevation into true “grown up” status. It was time, she chivvied, to cast off the last remnants of wild, uninhibited youth and start behaving like mature, responsible adults. To this end, she offered a great deal of advice, most of it having to do with makeup, hairstyle, and dress. (Surprisingly, she provided no suggestions about behavior, which makes one wonder if she really comprehended the concept of “mature”, but, well, shrug…).

Her first recommendation was: No Graphic Tees. It was time to give them up, she pronounced. Graphic teeshirts were for teenagers and 20-somethings, and We’re All Adults Now. Plain colors and quiet prints only, please.

Then there was eyeshadow. No colors, she directed–no muted blues or soft greens; no lilacs or lavenders, and certainly no wilder shades, no matter what one’s eye color. Ivories and sandy browns and smokey greys, only, please, with perhaps the barest hint of eyeliner. A touch of pale lip color and mascara, but not much in that department, either. Remember, We’re All Adults Here Now.

Fingernails, too, had rules: no bejeweled nails, nor longer lengths; no sparkle, no swirls, no deep, dark colors. Soft, rosy tones or a French manicure, and a single shade only; never different colors on each finger. Don’t even think about unnatural shades, such as electric blue or diamanté black! The same rules applied, of course, to pedicures: muted colors, no shimmer, one shade only.

And hair! Chop off those long locks. Get a very short, wash-and-dry style, and never, ever, choose a hair color other than the normal brown, black, or dark blonde, or, at a stretch, red.  Highlights were acceptable, but, again, only in quiet shades. Don’t even think about adding a streak of purple at Halloween, or Kelley Green at St. Patrick’s day! Adults, remember! Adults!

This “mature” blogger provided numerous other rules for the adult females of her acquaintance; these are only the ones I recall. But what I really remember about her essay is how profoundly sorry I felt for this young woman. At the minimal age of 30, she had become an old woman. She still hadn’t managed to figure out that growing older is inevitable, but growing up is optional.

At 65, retired, I no longer have to deal with office clothing. I have one dress for weddings, and one outfit for funerals. All the rest of my clothing consists of teeshirts, shorts, jeans and sweatshirts.

And every one of my teeshirts is a graphic tee. Every last living one of ‘em.

I have teeshirts from which tiger and cat faces stare out; teeshirts with funny mottos; teeshirts with cartoons. A wide-eyed kitten proclaims, “Doom Is Near!” The shirt that I wear when feeling particularly grumpy reminds me, “No Bad Days!”

During the months just before my retirement, I took to wearing glittering gold eyeshadow. I wanted some bling in my life, I explained, and eyeshadow was one way to begin. Eventually I tired of ending up with sparkles on my contact lenses, but I still occasionally break out the glitter shadow just for the hell of it   I also have a sort of muted gold dust shadow that I periodically take to wearing. I line my eyes heavily when I’m of a mind to, and I prefer rich mauve and berry shades of lip gloss that stand out and define my lips.

I rarely paint my fingernails because the paint always chips and looks awful, while the feeling of fake nails drives me nuts. But for my daughter’s wedding I wore sparkling, iridescent eggplant-color nail polish that exactly matched my gown, while my toenails shone in my sandals with glittering, besparkled bright purple polish. In fact, throughout each summer, my pedicured toes are almost always topped with glittering polish that shimmers in the sunlight.

And my hair, long for most of my adult lifetime, is long still. I wear it up in topknots and Gibson Girls, and down in braids and twists and ponytails. And every five weeks it is still dyed the very standout shade of a brand new copper penny, which brightens my ultra-pale skin.

And, yes, I sometimes even wear a red hat trimmed with a clashing purple ribbon and a sparkling purple rhinestone brooch. Because I can. Because I no longer chose to follow the “grown up” rules. Because my years have given me the joyously complete and utterly unfettered freedom to be young at heart—a freedom that the genuinely young can never experience, but may (if they are lucky) someday come to understand.

Paper Calendars

§   I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to use a paper calendar, despite those convenient (and often so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone.  §

I use paper calendars. I do put the odd reminder (“Take the trash bin to the curb”) into my phone, but my paper calendar is sacred to all the genuinely important things in my life: not just the birthday, but the date by which I should mail the card or wrap the gift or call the person celebrating. The unpleasant reminders of dental visits. “Write to the twins.” “Touch up my roots.” “Babysit Morrigan”. “Shakespeare in the Park performance tonight”. Those events are entered the right way: with colorful stickers and bright marking pens and occasionally even glitter—entered, and then satisfyingly marked off.

As the close of each year approaches, I take down the paper calendar, now grown wrinkled and spotted, and, sifting through its pages, transfer vital notations—the birthdays and anniversaries and all the other important detritus of daily life–onto the pages of the pristine calendar that I will be using in the coming year.

I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to do this, either, despite those convenient (and so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone. I know it can’t be just me using this old paper method, for the stores each fall are clogged with pretty paper calendars and desk pads and planners, while charity organizations (the same ones which so consistently dun me for donations) also mail free wall calendars by the dozens.

But I am choosy when it comes to selecting my annual calendar. I require spacious boxes in which to write notations—none of that square-cut-into-triangles nonsense squeezing in a date at the bottom of the page! I have one other very specific requirement: that the photos which decorate the pages of specific, special months always be ones I like.  Everyone using a paper calendar knows precisely what I mean, I’m sure: out of a dozen lovely photos, there will always be at least one, if not two, that just don’t appeal. I find it acceptable to look at a few such unappealing pictures throughout the year just so long as the scorned photos do not decorate the pages for my own month of birth, nor that of my daughter and granddaughter. Those pages must always contain pictures that I genuinely enjoy. I also appreciate seeing notations for phases of the moon, as I am moon-mad, loving to witness the changing lunar landscape. I’ve been known to page through the dates of the upcoming year making notations such as “Blue Moon”, “Super Moon”, “Lunar Eclipse”. One of my old calendars bore the rare notation “Transit of Venus”; others remind me of the annual Perseids meteor shower.

But these days when I hang up my new calendar, I always recall one year, one very sad year, when I waited desperately for New Year’s eve so that I could pull down and dispose of the very lovely calendar hanging on the side of my refrigerator.

My calendar that year had been a gift—and a constant reminder of a terrible day. A friend, Terry, diagnosed one awful afternoon with stage four lung cancer, had wakened the very next morning to the death of her sweet old giant of a dog. Having no family close by to help, she reached out to her friends.  After we ferried poor Sadie dog on her final journey to the vet’s office for cremation, two of us kept Terry occupied, first with brunch and then shopping.  It was then that we’d found some lovely paper calendars, and our friend bought one for each of us.

That same paper calendar was hanging in its usual spot on the side of my refrigerator when, just nine months later,  Terry died.

Each month that year as I turned the calendar to a new page, I’d been reminded of Terry’s diagnosis and loss and consistently failing health. Each month, I wished that I’d hung up any other calendar–even one I didn’t like–rather than this one which bore such sad associations.

Three months after Terry’s passing, I was finally able to consign that lovely, unhappy calendar to the trash bin. I hung up another, brilliant and new and totally free of links to distressing events.

I still use paper calendars, and plan to continue doing so. But I have learned an important lesson: I’ll never again put up a calendar chosen on a day with painful associations. And I will forever keep a spare calendar in abeyance, to be substituted if necessary, should the one I am using become connected with a terrible pain or loss or death or sadness.

I’ve never lived a year of my life without heartbreak occurring somewhere on the page; I don’t expect I ever will. But I hope to never again keep a reminder of sorrow hanging for months on the wall of my home.