Monday, December 6, 2010

Easing Into Laid-back Living

If you live in Florida you probably have them. Items you wish you could move to a safe place every summer and can't--or don't because it isn't practical--but you would hate to lose them should a hurricane blast your home to soggy smithereens.

For me they include the china I've collected for 14 years and twin mahogany breakfronts I bought on the lawn of a Naples beach house back in 1988. It was a relaxed, informal home with an enormous front-to-back living room and a swordfish above the fireplace. Sadly, the place was torn down years ago.

But last summer, as I prepared to leave our Naples condominium for our cottage up north, I felt uneasy about some items I hadn't worried about before. Then, I felt shallow and guilty for feeling uneasy, since they were just, well, clothes.

I confessed my secret to a friend who said, "I love my clothes. All of them. I can't imagine parting with a thing."

Neither, frankly, could I. Well, yes I could, because I do give away things over time--what I don't wear anymore--but not everything at once. It's taken me 35 years to find my style and the items that express it; many of those items I bought on sale. The thought of starting over again makes me almost possessed.

So possessed that one pair of shoes--four and a half-inch sandals that originally retailed for $395 and I got for under $20--I put in an upstairs shower stall, since I thought that was the most hurricane-proof spot in our condominium. Even worse, I'd had them for more than two years and still hadn't worn them. I was saving them for something "special."

I bring this up now, months before leaving for the north again, because an issue occurred with my clothes recently--or, actually, with the number of clothes crammed on the rod within my closet. The spindly thing not only had bowed, it almost entirely had pulled out of the wall.

I asked my husband if he could fix it and this was the week he assessed the problem. But instead of blaming the rod and installation, he turned to me and said, "You might want to consider getting rid of some things--and not getting anymore."

To which he added, "A general rule is an inch between each hanger."

It was a nice idea--and not surprising coming from someone with at least two inches between each item that hangs in his closet. But in my closet? Not even possible.

He had a valid point, though. It wasn't as if I needed so many things. I'd even turned that upstairs shower stall into a second closet--yet something else to feel guilty about.

Nevertheless he fixed the problem--without doling out any more advice--and now each morning I gaze at a neatly shored-up-in-two-places clothing rod. Of course, when I pull something out, it's as wrinkled as if I'd wadded it up in a tiny ball.

But as I told my husband, people shouldn't build a thing to hang clothes on unless it will hold as many clothes as a person can hang on it. Now, thanks to him, it does exactly that. Relieved doesn't even come close to expressing how that makes me feel.

Of course, summer will be here before I know it, along with another hurricane season; and I don't want to worry again. I want to be laidback. Relaxed. Like that beach house--the one where I found my mahogany breakfronts.

Sand between the sofa cushions, shells lined up on windowsills, windows flung open to capture the breeze. At least, that's how I imagine it was--how they were. How I imagine I can be.


Why live in Florida if I'm worried the beach will be tracked in my house--or a storm will blow it and my possessions to sea?

A beach person can't be bothered about that, not if she wants to enjoy her life. She can't let her possessions possess her.

For starters, I took those sandals out of the shower stall and wore them finally.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Self-Sufficient--Or Just Too Proud?

I would like to believe that my stubborn independence is due to my DNA. That my genes are the reason why, at 3 a.m., instead of calling a friend to take me to the emergency room, I dialed 911.

Why would I expect anybody else to do what I could arrange for myself, even if insurance didn't cover it?

Would my Mississippi great grandparents on my father's side ever have expected such help? All they had was hope and guts but still they claimed their government land during the brutal 1800s Oklahoma land runs. And on those 80 acres, they birthed nine children, grew corn and cotton, raised hogs and chickens and picked and canned wild blackberries. Their homesteader existence was reaped and sowed on indomitable self-sufficiency.

But also on common sense--which is why my wishful thinking about my DNA doesn't hold water.

In my great grandparents' time people had to be practical, so they understood the value of neighborliness--not just because it was the kind thing to do, but also because it was crucial to survival. If someone needed his strawberries harvested, my grandmother and her siblings were called on to pick them and were paid in berries instead of cash.

Connectedness was as vital as each person's independence. The two went hand in hand, creating a community that was stronger than the individuals alone. It took great strength to be self-reliant, but it also took strength to stifle pride and ask for help when needed.

Three generations later, community connectedness necessarily faded as my father pursued an upwardly mobile corporate career that uprooted his family regularly. So I never witnessed my parents ask for help when I was growing up--especially not at 3 a.m. What they thought they could handle amongst our family, they handled. What they believed they could afford to pay for, they bought.

Consequently, we didn't borrow sugar from a neighbor or hire a therapist when someone was down. But we did pay housekeepers and hairdressers for their services and, briefly, a cook--until my mother discovered the woman fried everything and my father had high cholesterol.

And of course we hired movers. By the time I was 16, we'd lived in three countries, six cities and nine residences.

Constant displacement became so natural that between the ages of 21 and 29--before I settled into the condominium that my husband and I now occupy--I moved eight more times on my own. Two were cross-country, five included a truckload of furniture, and each time I paid professionals to help me. The one exception was after college I asked a brother to drive my car from Pennsylvania to California and, two years later, a college roommate's parents to help sell it. But I was so uncomfortable requesting help outside my family, I'm ashamed to say, that my gratitude was overwhelmingly disproportionate to their generosity--as if denying their assistance made it somehow not real.
Recently, when I told close friends what happened that night at 3 a.m., their reactions were much the same: "Why didn't you call me?" One friend, I was surprised, was even angry.

But I remember how sick I was. I'd been throwing up so much I was disoriented from depleted sodium and potassium. Even still I defaulted to familiar and called a service for help.

That was three years ago; I'd do things differently today.

My self-reliance--and my ability to pay for help--wasn't a sign of strength. At least, it wasn't that night. It was a weakness that looked deceitfully good on the outside but deep down really wasn't. It separated me from the people I don't want to be separated from.

Not that it's easy asking for help. When I've exhausted my resources and I'm at my most vulnerable, the last thing I want sometimes is for others to know.

But humility softens my edges, makes me more pliable and opens me up to the opportunity to grow, which I need.

It also reminds me how equally vulnerable every one of us is--and keeps me from being such a proud pain in the you-know-what.

Besides, who would want to deal with an ambulance if they didn't absolutely have to?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Curbing My Overactive Expectations

The grocery store I've been going to for the past 21 years has been remodeled, which I think is great, because it now has more organic items, among other things. The problem is, other people seem to agree--so much so that they must have given up their previous grocery stores to frequent this one instead. And frankly, every time I go to the place it's more crowded than I prefer. So I sometimes have to temper myself when another flock of wide-eyed shoppers bungs up the isles with their carts.

Of course, I know they're not the real issue. My brother Mark made that clear 34 years ago.

When he was 19 he sent me a plaque for my 16th birthday. This motto was inscribed on it: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Mark was and still is notorious for teasing me, so I wasn't sure if he was making a joke or attempting to share something profound. At the time, he was a penniless college student, so an extravagant gift wasn't an option.

I remember sitting cross-legged on my canopied bed, staring at that shellacked-wood plaque, when it finally dawned on me just how clever my brother was. Maybe he couldn't afford to buy me much, but at least he could give me something that might teach me a lesson in taking responsibility for how I reacted to other people's gifts.

Unfortunately, it didn't exactly sink in.

If it had, ten years later I might have been able to more graciously receive the gift my husband would give me.

I was 26 and we were celebrating our one-year anniversary of dating. Tearing open that wrapped box, I expected something as lovely as the Lalique crystal candy dish and pedestal bowl that he'd given me for Christmas six months earlier.

It wasn't even close.

I stared at the thing, looked at him and blinked.

“You mentioned your iron was broken," he said. After which I lectured him on the kinds of gifts girls expected on dating-anniversaries.

I wasn't able to appreciate that he had actually listened when I told him my iron had broken--or that he was giving me something he thought was meaningful, because it was useful and something I needed. When you're filled with want for pretty and frivolous, you have no space for practical.

I'm often not aware I still do that--expect something--until some person, place or thing doesn’t exactly match up to what's envisioned in my head. Then I know it. I feel it. It’s as uncomfortable as a too-small shoe.

A few years ago I ordered a watch from a jewelry store and was told it would arrive in a week. When a week passed by, and I didn’t hear back, I called the store. The salesperson said the watch hadn’t arrived, so she called the watch company, who told her the band I’d chosen had been discontinued; therefore, they couldn’t send the watch.

So I chose another band and was told the watch would arrive in a week.

When a week passed by, and I didn’t hear back, I called the store. The salesperson said the watch hadn’t arrived, so she called the watch company, who told her the order had been submitted incorrectly; therefore, they couldn’t send the watch.

So the salesperson resubmitted the order and told me the watch would arrive in a week.

You’d think at this point I would have detected a pattern and adjusted my expectations. But I didn’t. I wanted that watch and I wanted it now. It was an established jewelry store, so I assumed they would get their act together and get the watch when they said they would.

But all my assuming and wanting couldn’t make it so.

It was three more weeks, six weeks total, before the store received that watch. I can’t remember the reasons they gave for the delays, but in the midst of it all I felt frustrated, irritated, neglected, disappointed and lied to. I could have easily canceled the order, gone somewhere else, chosen a different watch. Or just accepted what was. But I didn't.

It's so annoying when my brother is right.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Coping With Rude People...Like Me

Contrary to how it may seem, I don't purposely try to be thoughtless, aggressive and idiotic. I just come across that way sometimes, for various reasons. Not a great excuse, but it is the truth. Rudeness is a byproduct, not my intention. So I'm always inspired by and grateful for the understanding and patience of others.

The other day, two girlfriends and I stood still in a restaurant doorway, blocking others from getting in or out. We were so caught up in talking to each other as we started to walk out the door that we never exactly got out the door--proof, obviously, that we need to work on our walk-and-talk-at-the-same-time skills.

But the woman in front of us was nothing but respectful, even cheerful, when she smiled and said, "Excuse me." And personally, her lightheartedness about our gaffe was a much more persuasive inducement for me to pay attention next time than had she been rude back.

Unfortunately, I've done much worse than prevent the hungry from getting to a meal. Eight or so years ago I decided to drive to the post office before going to a meeting. But because I didn't leave myself ample time, I was worried about being late. Consequently, I was frenzied, and I zoomed my Jeep past a pedestrian in the post office parking lot, nearly giving her a coronary.

I apologized as soon as I got out of the car. She accepted, but not before giving me a well-deserved talking-to. Things would have gone a lot differently had I taken a moment to stop and think before leaving home that morning. I'd have scrapped the ridiculous post office idea, driven directly to my meeting and that woman would have never experienced a lunatic in a WMD.

But as I learned from a man at my cable company, kindness does wonders for enlightening we serenity thieves.

Last year, when my husband and I repeatedly had trouble with our cable, phone and Internet service--at times we had no phone for chunks of a day--I felt forsaken in a sea of corporate circumvention. Twice technicians had come to our home during a period of several months, and the problem had always reoccurred a week or two after they left. In between, again and again, I was on my cell phone with and put on hold by service representatives, supervisors and technicians.

Aside from nobody knowing how to fix our problem, there never seemed to be a record of previous phone conversations. So I continually re-explained my problem, only to hear the same advice over and over again.

Through it all, not once did anyone say, "Wow, that's terrible. I'm sorry you've had to go through that."

Instead, everyone at the other end of the line sounded just as automated and unfeeling as the recorded voice I repeatedly endured before reaching an actual person.

I felt so frustrated, helpless and irritated that by the time I got to my final service representative on the phone--whom I will forever refer to as Oh Thank You God--I was not in a good mood. My words were not unkind, but I'm sure my tone wasn't patient or peaceful. Actually, there's a pretty good chance I came off pissed off since, well, I was pissed off.  And the fact is, feeling and behaving pissed off offers nothing positive to the planet.

But instead of acting affronted--or worse, like a soulless, mechanical robo-rep--this man was serene. It wasn't what he said, but more how he said what he said. He was genuinely sympathetic, and he made me feel like he considered me a person, not a faceless whiny customer. That shocked me, so I apologized. Come to think of it, I even had tears.

And wouldn't you know, the service technician he sent to our home fixed our cable issue.

If only we all were as compassionate as Oh Thank You God when faced with an ill-mannered person. Because, like it or not, no matter how much we wish we could fix or correct other people's rude behavior, we can't. Rude people are the only ones who can fix and correct themselves.

And yes, I am working on that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Retired And Too Old, Say What?

Friends had warned me it would be coming soon, and I didn't believe them. Was sure they had to be mistaken.

But they weren't.

The AARP solicitation for membership came two months and a day before my 50th birthday, and I was stunned this group was contacting me. I knew the multi-word name this acronym stood for, and the R really annoyed me.

I am nowhere near being "out of use", "too old for work", "withdrawn from circulation", "isolated", "removed" or whatever else that dictionaries call retired these days.

I am also not old, let alone "too old," even if plenty of younger people may think I am.

At least, I certainly don't feel like it. I feel 21. Actually, make that better than 21, because I now have the benefit of 29 additional years of experience.

Since my birthday back in August, two more pieces of AARP mail arrived. One was lumped in with a free mailer. The other I don't recall. And I can't tell you what was inside either one, because I never opened them; I shredded them. But in the first envelope I received before my birthday, there wasn't a note or letter.  Nothing that even said, "Well done." Only a bland white form with boxes to tick--membership categories of one ($16), three ($43) or five ($63) years.
And for Heaven's sake, doesn't turning half a century warrant more than that?

All due respect to AARP, but it felt like yet another reminder of how little our culture values growing older--except for the profit that might be made from it.

And as far as I'm concerned, entering this third quarter of life--this autumn, if you will--is such an important occasion, it's worthy of more than a membership solicitation. It deserves a rite of passage.

After all, now is the time when we finally can reap what we have sewn, so it's cause for celebration. Maybe even a coronation.

I've always liked the idea of a crown.

Okay, granted, maybe that's over the top. But author and gardener Rose G. Kinglsey didn't seem to think so--at least, not when it came to autumn in her garden.

"Autumn is indeed the crowning glory of the year," she wrote, "bringing us the fruition of months of thought and care and toil."

And are we human beings not just as worthy of such ennobling attention?

Because I, too, have had months of thought and care and toil--50 years worth. I have also finally fruited. Or, at least, have begun fruiting. So I know things. Cool things. Things you can't possibly know unless you've actually lived through them.

I may not have the physical youth I had at 21, but I possess so much more, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. That's why I don't wish to be categorized as old or retired or otherwise. It feels ageist, as if my culture is unceremoniously shoving me into a box--to be kept there until 65, when I will then be flopped into another box labeled "Senior Citizen," until I am ultimately dumped in that final box, which ends up in the ground.

And maybe that's my issue with all of this--the unceremonious-ness of it all. Where is our society's recognition of the joy and honor of the journey of aging?

Ceremonies and rituals focus our attention on the divinity of something--the deeper, more significant meaning of it, and they show our gratitude for what we've been given. Their purpose is to empower our imagination and awaken our spirit. And when endorsed by the larger community, they affirm our value within --and support by--that community.

Unfortunately, when the only thing my community does is solicit me for money when I reach part two of my life, I don't feel empowered, affirmed or supported.

But I know this group didn't mean to offend me. I also know that I'm responsible for my reaction to their solicitation. No person or group can make me feel insulted unless I allow it.

Our society is what it is; I have to accept that. And if I want to feel empowered, affirmed and supported as I grow older, I will have to create those feelings for myself. Doing things on my own always makes me stronger anyway.

So…where to get that crown?

Monday, September 27, 2010

When Normal People Are Mean To Animals, What's To Be Done With Ourselves?

My husband tells me a cat has begun hanging around his place of business and the staff has taken to feeding it.

“What does Fluffy think about that?” I ask. She's the Himalayan they rescued 10 years ago.

“She hasn't noticed yet,” he says, his eyebrows arching as they often do when he detects the need for surplus caution.

I brought our dog Keeley to visit him once. Took her off the leash, unaware of Fluffy's presence. She was a rescue herself, with two docile cat-sisters at home. So she didn't know any better when she cornered Fluffy who, naturally, hissed and struck out. Keeley, who was five times Fluffy's size, screeched away terrified, her bowel contents spluttering behind.

For obvious reasons we didn't put them together again.

But Fluffy's cast-iron proprietorialness—-and her latest feline rival--speaks to the potential in all humans to be generous-hearted to animals.

Or at the very least to be kind instead of cruel.

And lately, I needed to be reminded of this--that people aren't inherently hateful. It's when they're hurting that they also hurt others.

How else to explain why Mary Bale, when she walked home from work last month in Coventry, England, put a cat named Lola in a garbage can?

Had Lola's owners not had a surveillance camera, they probably never would have learned why she spent 15 hours imprisoned and covered in her own excrement.

Lola's owners posted the footage on YouTube, and a viewer identified Bale.  Last week, she was charged with two counts of animal cruelty; her court date is set for October 19.

But the reality is, while publicity surrounding Bale's offense may be fading, her motivation for doing what she did probably isn't. Unless she undertakes her own personal inventory, there's a good chance it never will.

And that worries me. Lola wasn't physically harmed, but Bale's story feels more treacherous than the blatant animal cruelty of the Michael Vick variety.

Bale doesn't look like someone who would purposely hurt an animal. And her act appears eerily reminiscent of a scene from an adult animated series like Family Guy.

Actually, what happens on Family Guy is even more sickening. In an episode originally aired on April 19, 2009, they torture and kill a pet cat with a razor.

So I can't help wondering, When did cartoons and normal people become so dangerous?

Didn't Bale understand a cat is a sentient person? Would be crushed once dumped in a garbage truck? At the very least couldn't she feel at her core how mean it is to imprison any creature against its will?

True, our society mistreats animals every day--as commodities in our quest to feed, heal and beautify humans. But there is increasing public pressure to improve the lives of these animals by employing kinder, more responsible practices or eliminating animal use completely. Not perfect, but definitely progress. Proof that humans understand no animal is "just an animal."   They feel pain and fear and stress like us.

In the video footage of Bale, it's apparent that she knew what she was about to do was unacceptable. She glanced up and down the sidewalk while she pet Lola--then picked her up, dropped her in the can, closed the lid and left.

Bale thought before she acted.  But for her, maybe it was too late. Whatever hurt had been building up within her was so far gone she snapped.

And whenever we react in a way that's incongruous to what's actually in front of us--or do things out of character, which is what Bale claimed she did--it can mean we've denied our feelings for too long and, ultimately, displaced them.  Sometimes to a place perceived as more safe, such as a pet or spouse or child.

It's frustrating to think her story fades here.  Hopefully it can be something more. A turning point for her.

An opportunity for myself.

I wouldn't put a pet in a garbage can, but I have and still could unleash hurts and resentments with cruel, avenging words and actions.

But none of us is a lost cause. I can do better tomorrow.

So can Mary Bale.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Seven Dumb Things I Did and Didn't Do Freshman Year of College

My niece has begun her freshman year of college, so every few days I scan her Facebook page for recent news. Finally the first photograph is posted. She's standing arm in arm with six new girlfriends, excited, happy, hopeful. It's titled, with supersized conviction, “WE ARE...”

That was me, I think to myself. And then, before I know it, I'm Monday morning quarterbacking my own freshman year 32 years ago.

Hindsight is like that. It thumps you on the head after you've messed up and can't do anything about it—except, of course, to try to not repeat the same mistakes and, if possible, to pass it on. Like a road, experience begs to be shared.

And so, what follows below is for all college freshmen. They'll know whether they can apply it to their lives, now that they're traveling the same road I did.

After all, WE ARE...each on our own individual journeys, with our own lessons to learn.

1. I gave a part of myself away for a friend. She was already in a sorority, so I pledged hers instead of the one I wanted. I was afraid if I didn't our relationship would suffer. And it might have, but a true friend wants me to do what's best for me.

Fortunately, it was and is a great sorority. My favorite actress is even a sister, as is an amazing U.S. First Lady. But still I wonder what might have been had I followed my heart, not fear.

2. I didn't have the courage to be honest. I agreed to a date with a guy I didn't want to go out with and then phoned him to cancel it. Worse, because our conversation was growing long, I began unscrewing the mouthpiece on the receiver to create interference on the line. Then I hung up, hoping he'd assume I had telephone issues, instead of a wussy personality. No surprise, he never called back.

3. I ate to ease boredom or tension, even when I wasn't hungry—or skipped meals altogether--ignoring my body's innate rhythm. Eventually it became a habit, and by the time I graduated I'd forgotten how to eat naturally and healthfully. It was years before I finally learned to trust and follow my instinct again.

4. For fun I tried smoking, but got hooked. I quit 10 years later when I got asthma. I was luckier than my father; he died of emphysema.

5. I didn't keep in touch with my old friends and eventually lost contact completely. Thanks to Facebook, I've begun renewing some of those friendships. But I've missed out on sharing so many weddings, births and more, which I wish I hadn't.

6. I parroted other people's ideas instead of forming my own. I even skipped classes, as well as the assigned books, and memorized Cliff Notes. If it hadn't been for a professor early in my sophomore year, I might have continued on that path. But she didn't want her students to repeat by rote what others thought; she wanted to know what we thought. She cared about our opinions, what we actually believed, and it changed me forever. It taught me the importance and value of questioning and challenging, forming my own ideas. Of staying teachable--even by those I don't particularly like--but also of making my own conclusions.  Ultimately, adopting another person's concepts without question reflects a lack of self-respect.

7. I judged a stranger's character by his (future) profession--and didn't choose a public place to meet for a first date. He came to my dorm after dark; we walked to a quiet spot on campus, sat down on the grass and began talking. One thing led to another and we were kissing. Before I knew it, I was sprawled out flat with him on top of me. No guy had ever moved that quickly before; I knew something was wrong. I told him I wasn't comfortable, and told him again, but he wouldn't listen. Finally I threatened to scream if he didn't get off me--which he did, thank God, and I never saw him again. But here's a scary thought: He was a medical student, studying to be an Ob/Gyn. Or so he said.