Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Paper or plastic?

I feel as if I've been away for weeks. Sickness struck us, and I'm still blowing my nose and listening to my son cough. We survived, though.

During the hubbub of sickness combined with Thanksgiving preparations, I recently found myself waiting to check out at the nearby Giant Eagle store. Busy shoppers were pushing carts around the store, looking frantic, checking lists and store flyers and then plowing forward. I stood in a self-checkout line behind a tall, willowy blonde woman with a rather low-cut shirt on.

I didn't notice the shirt at first; I was looking at her cute little boy, maybe 18 months old, who sat in the front of the cart but tried more than once to stand until the woman instructed him to sit. "No, no, sit," she said. while she tried to unload items from her cart onto the belt.

I watched this exchange, thinking that she ought not to wear such a low-cut shirt to the grocery store, thinking that 13 years from now, all her son's friends might want to gather at his house in hopes of getting a glimpse of cleavage. I mentally shook my head at her (I'm not a nice person, really—I know this—and I admit without hesitation that I most definitely need a savior so I have a chance), and I thought about changing lines. I always change lines—it's an impatient behavior that I firmly believe is inherited—and for that moment, I was contemplating switching lanes. Perhaps I could skip over to the 15-items-or-less line, and I could drop in behind that old lady and zip right through...

And then another woman pulled in behind me. Oh golly. Now I was kind of stuck, unless I was willing to ask the new woman to move. (I wasn't.) And I felt, too, an inexplicable urge to just stay put. It was fine. Stop being so rushed all the time, the urge said. The little boy in the cart was trying to climb out again, and this time the woman spoke to him in a foreign tongue. I'm terrible with languages, so I'm not certain which language it was: Swedish? Norwegian? German? Are those all Germanic? Oh, I should have paid more attention in linguistics!!! I felt a twinge of annoyance, partly at myself (because I couldn't begin to identify the tongue) and partly at this slim, pretty, blonde creature in her low blouse with her darling boy who reminded me of my darling boy. The one who spends his days in school now. Sigh.

I looked at Ms. Low-cut, and the urge to stay put in line became a voice. Why don't you help her out? said the voice.

Me: What? Her? Low-cut?

Voice: Yes, of course.

Me: What if I insult her? She's foreign! What if she gets mad at me and starts swearing at me in another language?

Voice: Then let her. So what? At least you will have tried. Everyone in this store is in a hurry, but you all stand here watching people struggle. How pointless is that?

Me: Yeah, but, but... Oh. Okay.

And then, with my face feeling a bit warm and uncomfortable, I asked her (I had to speak twice because she didn't hear me the first time): "Excuse me, could I bag those for you?"

She looked at me, doubtful, a bit surprised, but after a pause she replied, "If you don't mind, that would be great." Slight accent, but clear English. I had no trouble understanding her.

I slipped past her and began putting things in bags, then into her cart. The little boy watched me with big eyes, not smiling but not unfriendly either. She commented that he was a busy little boy who could not sit still for long, and I agreed that kids get bored when shopping. I shared that I was missing my little guy, who was in kindergarten now; I couldn't believe how quickly it had gone. She agreed; she had two older girls, and she understood quite well that the years flew by. She scanned, I bagged, we chatted, and it was such a better use of my time than standing behind her judging her. At one point it crossed my mind that my purse and wallet were sitting back in my own cart, and that the woman behind me in line had overheard the entire exchange and could right now be casually sneaking her hand into my giant bag and stealing my identity. That would be just the sort of thing that would happen, right when you're trying to do a good deed, right?

But it didn't happen. No one stole my identity. No one swore at me in another language. In fact, we got the order checked out much faster and she thanked me as she left. And that was that.

Why have I never done this before? Why do I feel more comfortable standing around huffing at someone and thinking unkind thoughts than I do offering to help them? We're all in this together. I doubt I'd be moved to help every shopper, because some of them are downright inconsiderate and obnoxious. But honestly? I should probably try to help them, too. I never know what battle they're fighting, right?

I'm going to try to remember how much better it felt to reach out to someone instead of condemning them behind folded arms. I'll need to hold onto that feeling, that desire to serve, as I move through this holiday season. I'll have to remind myself daily that each one of us needs grace every morning.

And sometimes, that grace is delivered in an unexpected way.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who was that girl?

My somewhat recent forays into downtown reminded me of the first summer I worked there, so many years ago. I've been telling my son about that experience. My stories amuse him—and honestly, they amuse me, too.

I was such a young, small-town girl that summer. Coming from a safe, protected little college where the tallest building was an 8-floor dorm, the 'Burgh was incredibly "city" to me. I temped my way through a few warm, blissful months, living with an older sister, finding my hesitant and clueless path one day at a time.

Riding the trolley was worrisome; would I get on the right one? Could I get on a wrong one? How safe was this thing? What if I ended up heading the opposite direction? Thankfully, the system was pretty fail-safe even for a greenhorn like me. I can recall the first time I saw the underground platforms, how amazed I was. Coming up from those stations, sounds of traffic mingling with piped-in classical music, I had never felt like such a sophisticate.

The first time I temped at the Steel Building, I emerged from the largest subway plaza, confused, turned around... I asked a fellow passing by where I might find my destination, and the kind man stifled a chuckle as he informed me I was standing directly in front of it.

Arriving at the right floor in those days was a whole new challenge. Security was loose pre-September 11, but getting oneself to the proper bank of elevators provided a whole new obstacle. If a person has never been in a building more than 10 stories high, then how is that person to know that there are different sets of elevators to serve different groupings of floors? I distinctly recall having to ask someone about that system, too; thankfully, Pittsburgh is full of humble workers who clearly recall their own bewilderment when first faced with similar situations.

Eating alone was awkward as well; I'd managed to avoid that scenario as much as possible in the college cafeteria. I knew no one downtown, and as a temp I didn't stay in any office long enough to meet anyone; yet, I was so desperate to break away from whatever desk I was occupying that I made myself head out to little shops or parks or courtyard benches at mid-day to take in some nourishment. I was shamelessly self-conscious then (silly me, still thinking that everyone was watching my show). I became more accustomed to the solitude as the summer passed, began to frequent the bagel and sandwich stores that offered free newspapers, learned to stow a paperback in my purse at all times, because God forbid I sit at that table and look at my food or other diners or out the window!

Somewhere along the way, in the past 20 years, I've become more comfortable with myself; I've been liberated by the knowledge that, all along, no one was noticing. I've also been denied free time for large chunks of my adult life—which has helped me to realize now what a blessing an unscheduled lunch block really is. I've learned my way around our little city, and have even managed to maneuver myself through some larger cities as well.

I'm not the girl I was. Most days, I wouldn't want to be. But that girl? She had bright eyes, and a smile on her lips, and she carried sincerity and frivolity side by side in her heart. I wish, sometimes, I could keep my liberated old self while still maintaining that girl's energy and expectation. Is that possible?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One man's nightmare is another man's reality

I've been having more bad dreams recently. It happens mostly when I'm awakened an hour or so before my usual rising time, during the fitful sleep that comes after premature wake-up/before real wake-up. That half-awake state must breed strange, troubled thoughts. And why do I keep waking up prior to the genuine wake-up? Well, I might have touched on one canine reason here. It also does not help that stupid, rule-breaking *@!?*&# Verizon borders our backyard and sometimes decides to off-load trucks around 5am. Plus there's our neighbor down the street who owns a car repair shop and has a nasty habit of "un-muffling" antique trucks and then switching around the business's classic-car license plates so he can take turns driving all of said trucks to and from the repair shop and home again. (He gets up at the crack of dawn—did I mention that?!)

Oh my, I'd better change the subject or you might think that all these factors cause me stress. How silly! Of course I love all my neighbors. Just like you do. Right?

Anyway. Bad dreams. The one that's sticking in my head most was from several nights ago. In that fitful, almost daylight hour of trying to fall back to sleep, my semi-conscious mind took me to work in a high-rise building downtown. There had been terror threats recently, and we were all gathered in a large room for a meeting, and the woman in charge was explaining there was nothing to worry about. And then, in my dream, the building lurched and the woman nearly lost her balance. We all did. It was a big lurch, as if something had exploded below us.

At that point the dream became rather unrealistic—because amidst the screams and shouts, the whole room tilted, as if the building had been struck with such force that the top of it had been knocked off. I could feel the entire room falling sideways; it was like we were in the top of one of my son's Lego structures that had been hit from the side until the upper portion flew off and landed on the ground. Except in my dream, we were falling in what felt like slow motion; we all had far too much time to process what was happening. Also, strangely (because it was a dream), no one had been knocked of his feet even though the entire room was tilted on its side and we were hurtling toward the ground below. That was handy, because since we were falling in slow-mo, and since miraculously none of us had fallen down, I had sufficient time to remember that I should make arrangements for someone else to meet my son's bus. I was preparing to dial my cell phone in the dream when I woke up.

I was very relieved to wake up. Albeit completely unrepresentative of the conscious laws of physics, the dream was disturbing. Mostly, it disturbed me because in my dream, I had not known whom to call. Now, in reality, I do know whom to call. We have a couple of options, neighbors and various relatives. Still, the whole thing got me thinking: What if I have a heart attack during the day? What if I'm involved in a bad car accident while my son's in school? What if I'm at a temp job downtown and a crazy person does a terrible thing to a building there? My building?

I know we don't like to think about this stuff. But it happens. A lady at my church lost her husband, younger than I am, because he suffered a brain aneurysm at home while caring for their children. The little kids sat next to his unconscious body for over an hour before anyone checked on them...and even then, people only checked because the wife had a weird feeling while at work. One of my son's schoolmates became father-less last year because the fellow fell from a building he was working on. Horrible as it is to consider, I am certain that there were at least a few kids waiting for a parent after the 9/11 tragedy. There had to be at least a handful of situations where the child was left without a back-up plan for a couple of hours or so. Don't you think? When that many people vanish in our busy and over-committed world, the ripples go out a long ways and affect many people.

It's scary. It gives me nightmares (literally). I can tell my child whom to find in an emergency, how to call 911—I can write down crucial information and stow it in back-packs, in wallets. But if he leaves the pack at school? No help. If I'm in a fiery crash and my purse and phone burn up? My careful preparations are ashes.

The whole thing gives me the heebie-jeebies and makes me short of breath. I guess I'll just have to make whatever plans I can, and pray that God protects my loved ones. (Would it be wrong to pray that the stupid pre-dawn disruptions cease, so I don't wake up, then try to sleep once more and have nightmares instead?)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just a little pinch

This post might make some people angry. I'm not even sure how I want to say what I'm going to say. I guess I'll be blunt (since that's really all I'm capable of being). Here goes: I'm tired of free programs to help the needy, especially needy children.

I love children (well, most children). I love the potential in every child. I love how each one was created by our Maker to be unique and wonderful. I also realize full well that I had a great childhood, a blessed upbringing that continues to bless me in adulthood. I am very thankful. I realize I was shaped hugely by those young years.

I did not have a luxurious youth; I had a youth where my needs were met. I was given the necessities, a few luxuries, and love. I was supported by a married couple who also happened to be my parents (that's a bonus, isn't it?!) and who had no problem reminding me—frequently—that I was the kid and they were the adults. The adults who also happened to be in charge.

So I didn't have everything. But I had the essentials and a few extras. It's a big difference. Giving a kid all the physical tools for success, instead of giving them what they most need (which may or may not be a kick in the pants and some chores,) makes for a kid who gets a lot of stuff... but misses out on the most important building blocks of life. And it can happen in needy families, for sure. Those kids often run wild, with little to no parental modeling and supervision, and no matter what "stuff" they get from society, it's not going to make up for what's missing.

Maybe it's the recent election that has me thinking about helpful programs in general. Maybe it was today's book fair at my son's school, where all the children will receive a free book from the PTO. (I think that's awesome, though, because a few of the children at the same today couldn't buy a book and looked rather downtrodden. Plus, the government did not purchase said books; the PTO did.) Maybe it's just the fact that I'm beginning to realize that I, my little family, what we value—I fear we're the minority. We're becoming even more of a minority every day.

And I'm wondering who is populating the country. Who's having all these kids? Based on the countless help programs out there, and on increasingly alarming recent statistics, I'm guessing it's mostly the uneducated, unmarried, unstable, too-young or unprepared population. And I'm thinking this awful but true thought: I'd rather give money for birth control than keep on supporting kids who are not getting, and won't get, the basics.

Before you call me a monster, please hear me out. I spoke with a friend who subs for the City of Pittsburgh. She explained how it's a jungle in many of the schools. She explained how even the regular classroom teachers, often seasoned educators, have to address the children in short, loud terms instead of kind, soft tones because the kinder, gentler voice goes unnoticed. The kids are so unaccustomed to hearing that sort of language that they don't even notice, let alone respond. She shared, too, a meeting where she'd gotten a good look at the curriculum for elementary students. "What they want to teach them," she said, "is wonderful. Teaching it to kids who don't even know how to sit down and be quiet? That's something else."

I feel as if we're trying to arm these kids with advantages, with free meals, with new books and classroom aides. Yet I believe, truly, that none of those things will make a dent if the children aren't first taught the most simple skills of sitting still, listening, focusing, and showing courtesy. If a child can't stop shouting, how will he or she learn anything? If the kid doesn't know that some words are inappropriate, then how can he/she be expected not to use inappropriate words?

And the ball continues to be dropped, so many times, because it seems to me (just IMHO, of course) that so often the very nature of helpful programs is rooted in a well-meaning, liberal-minded member or members of society—people who want to help but would feel quite uncomfortable putting a foot down with their own families let alone strangers, people who want to believe in the innate goodness of mankind. Perhaps it flies in the face of the good they're trying to do, this unwelcome idea that good can't happen until order happens, that change can't occur if it's unlearned the minute a child leaves the helper's presence. Or perhaps these kind-hearted folks just cannot be the heavy hand.

But a heavy hand is much in need. Self-control is learned, not innate; to boot, it's often learned through suffering. And my guiding principle? People are basically bad news, not good. (Again, that's my opinion.)

This is why I say Yes, teach love for others, teach tolerance, teach abstinence. Give to good causes, help the little people of this world who don't have much, who need square meals and their own books and a warm bed and coat. But first, address the behaviors that make improvement impossible. And if you're not willing to go there? Then please, tell me where I can give money for those hormone shots to be administered to any and every young woman who isn't willing to go there either. Especially the ones who already have a child or two or five. For the love of God, let me give to that fund instead of watching us all try to play catch-up in a flawed and feeble system that, by the way, is failing miserably.

It doesn't "take a village." It doesn't require nearly that many people, at least not in this country. We need to start being honest about what it really takes to be parents.

See? I told you I'd make some people mad. Now, please excuse me while I go establish the "Free twice-annual BC shot if you opt out of other child support options" program. *

* Think about the money we'd save: the cost of shots twice per year, compared to the thousands upon thousands of dollars expended in raising a child—especially a child who is more or less supported by the taxpayers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Big day!!!

Tomorrow. November 2. Election Day!

You're voting, of course. Right? Especially you women. I got an email forward today, reminding me that less than 100 years ago, women were being imprisoned, beaten, and tortured because they had dared to stand up to the political big shots of the day and demand the right to vote. Don't let that fight have been in vain.

Of course I long to tell you for whom you should vote. But it's a personal decision, and we all live in different districts or townships or areas so our choices won't be identical, anyway.

Of course, I want to tell you to vote for people who represent freedom, and hard work, and common sense. Decency is nice, too. I realize that a lot of people are sucking off the government, and letting go of that free teat will be hard. But it's good and necessary. People need to work; people need to be thrifty, to feel a sense of accomplishment by actually accomplishing something. The innate human nature requires purpose and effort; we all feel better when we are spent, NOT just when we spend.

Of course, I hope you'll vote for folks who respect life. I'd love it if you found candidates who loved God and weren't afraid to say the name Jesus out loud (and I don't mean as blasphemy).

The people in charge today seem to enjoy, for the most part, our growing dependence on them. However, that dependence brings with it the assumption (a correct one, I think) that the provider can dictate how you use your allowance. I support that way of thinking; I'm with Michael Bloomberg. I'm tired of food stamp recipients being seen purchasing lobster and steak. I can't remember the last time I bought either of those things with cash. That doesn't seem right. (Well, we bought steak a couple of weeks ago, actually... but trust me, it doesn't happen too often.)

I honestly don't know why we don't have separate shopping posts for government programs. Why can't WIC have its own outlet? Why can't welfare checks be redeemed at a healthy, necessities-only shop? If the government is buying your snack food, then you can settle for the store brand like I do. Oh, and limit the government-funded junk food and soda, or cut it out altogether. That stuff is bad for your health, and since the current government wants to pay for everyone's health care, perhaps they should restrict nutritionally bereft options. Yes?

Anyway. Please vote. Please do your homework if you're still undecided. Find and select the candidates who will help preserve this nation instead of further chipping away at its foundations. Let the people help the people, by taxing less and giving away less; let's support those who work, try, sacrifice, and create. I don't think overfed inactivity ever did much to foster genius in any culture. It's okay for America to suffer a little bit, but not the way we're suffering now. I'd much rather cut spending in my home than receive a check with strings attached—and I feel the same way about our country.

Remember: eventually you run out of other people's money. Especially when you keep punishing the successful earners.

See you at the polls.

P.S. For your inspiration, enjoy some quotes from Americans:

If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
-Ronald Reagan

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
-Will Rogers

"[N]o arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."
-Ronald Reagan

He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.
-Benjamin Franklin

We don't have a trillion-dollar debt because we haven't taxed enough; we have a trillion-dollar debt because we spend too much.
-Ronald Reagan

Hollow mom

I run errands by myself these days. Each morning, I take a too-small child to a bus stop, where he climbs on a big, yellow transporter with a bunch of mostly older kids, and we wave and blow kisses at each other until he's out of sight... Then I make my lone way back home, or to the store, or to the bank, or wherever the day demands I go.

It's not the same. I feel adrift, un-ruddered, nostalgic for days past. I'm wondering what he's doing while I shop, thinking of what he'd say if he were with me, envisioning how I'd turn a sign into a teachable moment. I'm talking to the radio, to myself, casting sad and envious glances at other moms or dads with their little one still in tow.

I know it's not bad for him to be away from me now, and that he needs to be around other kids his age; I am certain that he'll benefit from professionals who are trained to work with small children and who are far more patient than I. But must he be away for so many hours every day? He's still so small; he still needs his mommy.

I'm at a bit of a loss, even two months into this separation. Staying busy, working, will not fill the void left by his advancing years. When he climbed onto that bus, he took some of my purpose with him.

While he was an infant, a toddler, I longed for time by myself. Now, I have it and more—yet I find I am not nearly as interesting as I once was.