Defining Your Word of the Year

§  I’ve used many Focus Words over the years, and I’ve learned to choose them very, very carefully!  §

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions nearly two decades ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sound advice: On New Year’s Day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to keep my attention focused on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that being reminded to focus on assertiveness did make a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them very, very carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I was astounded to learn that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but that we must also, humbly and with gratitude, receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  Foolishly brave, in 2019 I selected the Word “Restful”.  Oh, dear! I did learn a much-needed lesson: that we choose our response to events.  In 2020, I chose the word “Recognition”.  I am still discovering all the unexpected ways in which that word has come to play in my existence.

I would love to know what Focus Word you select for 2021, if you would care to leave it in the Comments section.

The Day I Had Nothing to Do

I often encounter an attitude from my still-working peers that retired people have time hanging from their hands like loops of yarn. I’m sorry to tell you this, but it just ain’t so! 

When I retired, multiple people, mostly those still working, warned me that I would often be bored.  However,  a long-retired relative gave me a very different warning: “Not only are you going to wonder how you ever got it all done before you retired, you’re not going to believe how much more there is to be done! It will suck you in!” I tucked her advice into the “Housework expands to fill all available time” file and promptly disregarded it.

Bad move.

She was right.

Following  a busy and stressful week, I woke on a recent Sunday morning pleasantly conscious that there was nothing I had to do.    As I stretched and swung my legs to the bedside rug, I congratulated myself on a “free” day.

And so I rose to immediately begin cleaning litter boxes, followed by feeding my complaining felines.  Necessary chores completed, I wandered upstairs to my computer, cup of tea in hand, to check my e-mail and read the news.  Then I wandered just as leisurely back downstairs to prepare breakfast and read a bit of my latest novel, sitting in my favorite battered green armchair by the living room window.  But that relaxation proved to be a mixed blessing, because the window looks out on my small rose garden.  Still blooming heavily at the start of autumn, the bushes looked awfully untidy.

An hour later, the roses were deadheaded and trimmed up a bit, the groundcover had been snipped back, and some dead hosta stems removed.  Carrying the detritus to the bin in the garage, I dropped a few leaves and stems on the garage floor.  Well, it wouldn’t hurt to move the car out and sweep the garage floor.  That done, though, I noted that the car mats could certainly use a vacuuming, and the whole interior of the car would look a bit better if it was cleaned of the pandemic-constant of disinfectant residue.  The windows inside were a touch smeary, too.  A bit of glass cleaner wouldn’t go amiss.  Oh, and before I drove the car back into the garage, I should run to the end of the driveway and grab the mail, still sitting in the mailbox since Saturday.

Returning the vacuum and cleaning sprays to the hall closet made me realize that I’d best get a bit of housework done: dishes to be washed, kitchen and bathroom floors to be swept.  Again responding to my pandemic-induced madness regarding cleanliness, those same bathroom surfaces should probably be disinfected. Although the floors had been thoroughly mopped four days previously, heaven alone knew what I might have tracked in since that time, so it wouldn’t hurt to fill the mop with solution and run it over just the traffic paths.  In fact, the carpet, also just vacuumed four days ago, should probably be vacuumed lightly along the traffic paths before the mopping was done, so nothing would track onto the hard floors.

Hauling the vacuum upstairs made me aware that my bed wasn’t yet made.  Just as well; the sheets needed to be changed.  I should change the towels in the bathrooms, too. Carrying these items downstairs to the washer, I noted that the medicine dispenser for my sick cat was sitting on the countertop and needed to be filled.  I really should do that now, and give her a dose, as well.  Oh, and the dispenser which held my vitamins and supplements was also awaiting a refill.  I should do that, too.  Drat, the mail was still sitting there on the countertop, unopened.  Ah, mostly junk…and bills.  Sigh.  Well, I should pay these bills.  And I really should update my budget spreadsheet.

While doing that update, though, it struck me that I had work to do for a friend, updating her business manuals and flyers.  Well, as long as the computer was booted, I might as well devote an hour to working on those.

But as I completed these chores, I glanced at my fingers on the keyboard, noticing that my cuticles were ragged and my nails all of differing lengths and badly shaped.  Hmmm, well, as I seemed to be finished with cleaning products for the day, it might be a good idea to tend to them, and give myself a quick pedicure, too.

By this time, it was now 5:00 p.m. An hour later, manicure and pedicure completed, I decided that I really should consider cooking dinner, since breakfast and then the leftovers that I’d reheated for lunch were beginning to seem a very long time ago.

Rinsing my dinner dishes and stacking them in the sink, I took a deep breath and called a halt.  Washing dishes could wait until morning.  I wanted to read my book again for a bit before trooping upstairs to have a shower and wash my hair and finally fall into bed, exhausted from my “free” day.

I really hope I don’t have too many more days with nothing to do.  I’m not sure I’d survive them.

If  you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “Clearing the Clutter”, which can be found in the Archives from January 15, 2020, or “Household Chores: Love ’em, Hate ’em”, published March 18, 2020.

The Person at the Other Fax Machine

§  The most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  §

I rarely speak of current events in this blog, since doing so would counter the purpose of my motto: May Something Said Here Touch Your Heart, Make You Laugh, or Give You Hope.  Few situations in our current world could achieve even one of those goals!

Yet there are some incidents so dreadful and obvious that it would be almost immoral to evade them. They cry out to be acknowledged, no matter how dissonant and disheartening the subject.  One of these situations is surely the horrific behavior of those who, in the guise of standing up for their rights, threaten or attack others who reproach them for not wearing face masks while in the middle of a worldwide plague, and contrary to the orders of local governments or the requests of private property owners.

I won’t take up the questions of whether masks are protective or not; whether they are a violation of one’s constitutional rights; or even whether they shield the wearer or those with whom one comes into contact.  Those matters can be endlessly debated.  The real question that I’ve uncovered (while watching countless videos of people being attacked or beaten or threatened) is why society has degenerated to such a point that these behaviors are accepted with little more than a shrug or a sigh.

I run through just a few of the incidents, all captured on camera, watching them play horrifically across the movie screen in my mind:

The hapless individual threatened by a livid man in a local Costco:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/07/08/i-feel-threatened-who-protects-shoppers-angry-anti-maskers/5389199002/
The elderly disabled veteran brutally punched over and over:  https://www.newsbreak.com/washington/spokane/news/1615195034250/see-it-suspect-caught-on-video-punching-elderly-disabled-veteran-during-mask-dispute-cops-say-perp-knocked-victim-unconscious-broke-his-jaw
And, perhaps worst of all, the middle-aged organ transplant recipient heaved into a bone-shattering crash by a hefty young woman:
https://www.nj.com/bergen/2020/07/woman-with-cane-violently-assaulted-at-nj-staples-after-asking-customer-to-wear-mask-video.html

Of all of them, I think this last incident shocked me the most—not because of the violence, since other videos and reports have displayed far more brutality; even fatalities.  But what I found most disturbing in the attack by Terri Thomas on Margot Kagan wasn’t the fact that a beefy young woman would brutally assault a slip a lady who was not only old enough to be her mother, but who probably weighed in at 95 pounds soaking wet. No, that sort of unconscionable behavior is all too common these days. Nor was I flabbergasted by the inaction of the employees and customers captured in the video (despite later claims that they rushed to the victim’s aid after the close of the surveillance clip).  Their immobility as the victim lay injured on the floor was shocking, but not surprising; compassion and courage–gallantry–are all too lacking in today’s society.

No, to me the most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person (man? woman? I think it is a woman) in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  Watch carefully, and you will see that, as Ms. Thomas storms out of the store, this customer cautiously toes aside the fallen cubicle divider that was overturned in the fracas—pushes it away with a foot, and then calmly returns to her copying or faxing or whatever transaction she had been making before the violent altercation began.

To say that this display of utter indifference chilled me to the center of my soul would be to describe Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell as a cool spring breeze. I watched that entire disturbing video over and over, each time thinking perhaps I had missed something—that there was some mitigating factor, some reasonable excuse, that this person blithely turned aside and continued processing paper.

But there was none.  No mitigating factor, no reason, and certainly no excuse.

The very idea that someone—anyone—would turn their back upon the victim of a horrific assault and coolly continue running off copies, casually ignoring the entire situation, speaks terrifying volumes about the moral state of our populace.

Somewhere, someone has seen that video, and recognized the person at the fax machine.  Someone—some friend or family member, perhaps even a pastor or rabbi, has gazed (in horror? unsurprised?) at the behavior of that individual.  Perhaps they said something; tried to rebuke him or her.  Perhaps (more likely) not.

The rest of us will almost certainly never know who it was standing at the other fax machine that day.  And I doubt that individual will ever read this blog post.  But I say now, and will forever say, that their behavior was an affront to human decency as grave as any assault committed by those who threaten, slap, punch or spit upon their masked counterparts.

I’m sure The Faxing Person would shrug, as unconcerned by my opinion as they were for the victim of the assault. But their display of inhumanity was deplorable. And they should be ashamed. Quite thoroughly ashamed.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Political Civility”, in the Archives from July 3, 2019.  (On the other hand, you might absolutely hate it!) 

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.

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.

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.

Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

Rah-Shar!

The other evening I poured myself a glass of sparkling, barely-alcoholic blush moscato wine, using one of my lovely pink Depression glass stemware pieces. I held the glass up to the light and admired the bubbles of rosy wine sparkling within the equally-pink glass, and then sat down to sip my treat as I relaxed with a book.

It didn’t quite work out as I had planned.

Having perched myself on the corner of the couch, I set my glass down on the wooden arm and picked up my Kindle. A moment later, reaching for the stemware, I knocked the glass right off the arm of the couch, splattering wine everywhere and smashing the glass into a thousand shards and fragments as it hit the wall.

Whereupon I exclaimed, “Rah-Shar!”

You see, years earlier, my Chosative (Chosen Relative: for an explanation of that term, see my 12/18/17 blog post) had told me of a magazine article she’d once read, which explained an especially lovely concept: When some beloved, treasured item breaks, it is essentially taking the hit for a loved one—taking harm upon itself, so that the person or people you care about will not be harmed. Consequently, instead of regretting the loss of something unique or cherished, one should acknowledge the event by exclaiming the word which embodied this concept.

We both loved this idea. Unfortunately, my Chosative hadn’t written down the foreign word and was quite unable to recall it.  The two of us spent the next few years searching for the word across the vast reaches of cyberspace, to no avail.  We even each separately contacted one of those of  public radio shows that explores the delightful concepts of language, but they failed to respond.  Perhaps they couldn’t find the word, either.

And then one day, while desultorily once more searching for the word as she waited for a repairman, there it was. Algerian.  The concept was part of the consciousness of several Eastern countries, but the word itself, the single word embodying the concept, was Algerian.

“Rah-Shar!”

The listing was far down under the thread following a question, “What do you say when you break a glass?” There were many answers, ranging from the downright silly to the rude, but a number of Eastern countries seemed to have assimilated this concept that a broken treasure was protective; that to break something beloved or cherished was actually lucky, for it meant a family member or friend was now safe, the broken object having taken upon itself the harm that would have otherwise befallen them.

“Rah-Shar!”

Considering this concept, I compared it to what I had once written in this very blog in November of 2017: that we should never refrain from using our beautiful or special things, never save anything “for good”, for our good is right now; that as much as our guests deserve to be served upon our fine china, with our costly glassware or silver—even as they deserve to dry their hands upon those lovely embroidered guest towels, or to enjoy the scent of our expensive perfume–so do we deserve it, also. We are, always, every day, deserving of our own best.

In the same vein, then, we should never hesitate to use our lovely things: our glassware or silver or china, our best perfume, our embroidered towel—even the favorite toy still kept in the box and never played with. For if these precious things do shatter or tear, if they break irreparably, they are serving a much greater purpose than that of merely providing us pleasure: they are protecting those we love.

As I cleaned up the fragments of my once-lovely pink Depression glass, I murmured a thank-you to the wreckage. And as I placed the remains in the trash bin, I said quietly once more, “Rah-Shar!”

Lessons in the Thimble

I’ve read quite a number of self-help articles and books in my time, and what I’ve learned from all of them, taken together, could be aptly described by the very old country adage, “Shake it all together and stuff it in a thimble and blow it in a bed-bug’s eye.”

Oh, this isn’t to say that I learned nothing from dozens of manuscripts purporting to reveal the mysteries of life and/or the best way to live, for I did learn a great deal–especially from those authors who were humble enough to admit that these ideas were simply methods that they, personally, had found to work in their own lives.  These unpretentious authors tended to suggest that the reader could adapt and apply all or part of these lessons to her or his existence.

But what I actually learned from most of the self-help sages was that I was intelligent enough to debate their pronouncements—sometimes arriving at the conclusion they were insightful; occasionally gaining only a scrap or two of wisdom amidst a whole lot of nonsense; and, sadly and most often, finding discovering egotism and conceit in their writing.

For instance, reading one child-rearing article some years back, I learned that to handle a toddler who was throwing a tantrum (said child wanting Mommy to participate in building a Lego fortress at a time when she simply could not stop to play), Mom should solemnly promise to play with the Legos “next time”.  Of course, I thought to myself, “next time” will occur when good old Mom is preparing a formal dinner party for ten, but, what the heck—this is an EXPERT talking.  There was also the childcare expert who suggested that, in order to teach a child that a stovetop was hot, the parent should see that the kid burned his little fingers “ever so slightly”.  I am not even going to tackle my reaction to that sage piece of advice!

Later I encountered the trendy “Two Different Planets” concept of couplehood.  In the chapters of that book devoted to those actions women must absolutely take to preserve their unions, I particularly remember a pronouncement that couples should take weekend trips away together to renew their relationship–and that, if she was under the impression that they just couldn’t afford to do so, she was wrong.  Uh-huh.  Yep.  Just wait until the bills begin piling up in the inbox after that romantic weekend getaway, I thought, and see precisely how much good it had done their marriage.  Buyer’s remorse was going to set in once the checkbook reached government-style deficit financing proportions, and the resultant quarrels would be beyond ugly.  Not to mention the fact that, since this “how to preserve your relationship” ploy was pronounced by this expert to be her responsibility, she would be the one locating the B&B and making the reservation while also lining up babysitters for the kids or pet sitters for the dog and cat. And although he would likely see that the car was gassed up and the tires aired prior to their jaunt, she would be the one rushing home from work to hit the kids’ soccer game and dance lesson before getting the laundry caught up so that suitcases could be packed…and all of this only to learn, much too late, that the whole romantic getaway had been planned in conflict with the weekend of the Big Game.

What a great way to save one’s marriage.

All too often, though, I learned that the self-help gurus themselves had the proverbial feet of clay. One, whose popular book I could not finish despite the fact that it contained genuine nuggets of insight, provided telling examples throughout his narrative of the points he was making.  But every single negative example he provided was illustrated using the behavior of one gender, while each of his positive examples was delineated by describing the behavior of the other.  Noticing this anomaly only a few chapters into the book, I thought that it must certainly change as the work progressed, so I skimmed quickly through the remaining chapters, searching for further illustrations of the author’s points. And the singularity was consistent. Negative examples were always illustrated depicting the behavior of one gender; positive examples, the other.  I was so appalled by this bias that I could not finish the book, despite what might have been some very helpful guidance.

It’s a rare day now when I read either self-help articles or books. After half a lifetime of taking all those books and magazines and putting their lessons into the thimble, I’ve learned that listening to self-proclaimed savants is  just a way to test one’s own wisdom; that arguing with the individual who has all the degrees “proving” their erudition is futile and something best done in the privacy of one’s own mind; and that, finally (and most importantly), hidden within my own soul is all the wisdom that I’ve ever needed to run my own life well and competently, if I will but listen to and act upon it.

Beware the DST, My Friends!

I woke at just a little after 5:00 a.m. this morning, roused by a small furry animal who does not comprehend the latest clock change. I can’t really blame her; my body, too, has yet to adapt to this most recent nonsense of yanking the clocks backwards and forwards according to some mysterious formula which supposedly reduces energy consumption for lighting—lighting!–in an era in which air conditioners and electric furnaces operate year-long, and desktops, tablets, laptops, phones and all manner of other tech devices run ceaselessly, constantly in use, endlessly charging.

I grew up in an Indiana which refused to do Daylight Savings Time. Like Hawaii and Arizona (rational states in which the populace recognizes the salient fact that another hour of heat during the summer months is NOT desirable), most of Indiana, smack in the center of two warring Time Zones, stood in solitary and sane splendor.  Because their populace tended to cross the artificial borders of the various State lines for their work commutes, the northernmost of Indy’s 92 counties aligned themselves with Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, while the southernmost counties aligned themselves with Kentucky.

In actual practice, what all this meant to me, as a State employee, was that the Central Training Unit for which I worked for several years had to constantly figure out some way to gather regional employees to a designated site for a day of training that somehow encompassed different working hours. It also meant that (back when long distance calling rates varied according to the hour) my late friend Anastacia could never figure out what the heck time it was in Indiana when she was calling from Massachusetts.  And the lack of a time change spawned a pretty entertaining Eerie, Indiana episode.

But we dealt. We made it work. And most of us were pretty content with the status quo.

Eventually, though, the Indiana General Assembly decreed that Indy would join ranks with the other 48 split-personality states and do Daylight Savings Time. As to exactly why we were going to do this, I remain uncertain, although I personally blame former Governor Mitch Daniels.  I never liked the man, anyway, so it’s easy for me to blame him.  (Ah! To be a retired State employee and be able at last to say anything I can about the State’s governors, past and present, without fearing for my job!)

In any case, the State legislature gleefully announced that all of Indiana would be on the same time at last. All 92 counties worth of us.  In reality, though, we are no more on the same time than we were before the advent of the Dreaded DST.  A dozen Indiana counties, perched on the northern and southern tips of the State, remain aligned to Central rather than Eastern time.  So, the simple truth is, nobody outside the State—heck, not even most of the residents inside the State!–well, simply put, to this day, no one knows what the heck time it is in Indiana.

The real problem as I see it, though, is that I have yet to meet a single person who likes Daylight Savings Time.  Whether they align themselves on the “spring forward and leave it alone, for God’s sake!” or the “fall back and never touch the damn clocks again!” side of the debate, they are all united in one simple belief: DST sucks eggs big time.  It wrecks people’s internal body clocks.  Parents of small children lose their minds for fully two weeks after the twice-yearly time change, trying to help their children adapt to the lost-or-gained hour.  (It’s not, after all, like this is something one can explain to a newborn infant!)  And hungry pets demand to know why their palatial offerings of kibble and canned food are not being presented when the REAL timekeepers—those little clocks in their tummies, like a mantelpiece novelty—are informing them that it is, too, time for breakfast!

Sadly, since Indiana, (ever regressive and rural, despite its contemporary pretensions), remains one of the few States in the Union which denies its citizens the right of voter referendum, so that residents can place issues on the ballot, I don’t expect the unhappy Daylight Savings Time dispute to be resolved anytime soon. But I’ll continue agreeing with the proverb:

You can’t cut the end off a blanket, sew it to the other end, and pretend you have a longer blanket.