Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
Star and angels gave the sign.

-Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Perspective, again

I woke this morning feeling slightly achy; I'm trying to find the "right" pillow and I'm failing, because one is too soft and flat while the other is so firm and full-bodied that it actually causes me to slide farther down on the bed's surface until my feet are smashed. To top it off, I stayed up too late—and then the boy was coughing off and on all night, so the mom in me kept waking up to a) make certain the cough never turned into "cough-before-puke" (other parents might also be familiar with such a cough) and b) to make certain that the cough eventually halted. At one point, when I went into his room with medicine, the half-awake child burst into tears and refused to swallow the stuff...

So. Not a restful night. I was just beginning to wander down the woe-is-me path when I remembered where I'd been last evening.

A hospital nearby. In the cancer section.

I have wanted, in past years, to go caroling with members of my church choir. Circumstances never allowed it until last night. I drove to one of the big hospitals just across the river and met some other folks I know (and a few I didn't) so we could sing Christmas carols in the hallways. Our first stop was a quick one: a choir member's father was in one of the rooms, waiting to go have a procedure done. He's been sick for awhile. He's getting sicker. My friend wanted to drop off dinner for her mom, and hoped that a few of us would come with her and sing for him.

We did just that. Martin (not his real name) has no voice to speak of; his throat has been damaged by the cancer. He whispered hello to us; his thin frame was barely concealed under one of those shapeless gowns. The four of us sang a few carols, mostly hymns, and for the last couple of tunes, Martin's wife joined in with her lofty soprano. Martin listened. I think he wept a little. And we joined hands and prayed for him and that family. He thanked us. His daughter, the choir member, thanked us. We hugged her mom when she walked us to the door.

Then we set off to find the larger group of singers, gathering in a separate lobby. We were all rather shaky by then.

The others had mostly arrived, and we were about 15 strong. We took our packets of lyrics and music and made our way into the hallway. Our leader, the organizer, explained that we all needed to sanitize hands, and that if anyone had indications of a cold or other illness, he should don a surgeon's masks before going into anyone's room. We all sanitized, then soberly made our way to a cul-de-sac where a couple of patient doors were partially open.

We began to sing. One woman closed her door (we saw, then, that she was on the phone—oops!) but another fellow asked his wife to open his door a bit more. He requested "Silent Night," and we flipped through pages until we found it and then set off. We found out his name, sang another couple of songs, prayed with them. He was younger than I am. There they sat, smiling with red eyes, a few days before Christmas, in a cancer ward.

We moved down the hall to a different section of the floor. Another patient stood and came to her doorway, then asked if she could sing with us. "Of course! Please!" we said. We launched into "O, Holy Night," our new friend's mouth hidden by a protective mask, her hair shorn to just a centimeter or two. She had a beautiful voice, clear as a bell; she said she missed singing and that this was the first year she hadn't been able to lend her voice to a choir—but here she was! She could still join in and sing with a group.

It's difficult to be in a place like that for an hour or two, let alone to stay there. My eyes were stinging when I left, but at least I got to leave. I wasn't being held captive in a room, or keeping watch over a loved one, or trying to extract information from a doctor or nurse.

Yet, even in that sterile, hushed place where bad news is all too common, there was joy. Many of those people were sincerely thankful, for singing and family and hope. Even in the face of horrible illness, there is always hope. I came away feeling blessed, not just because I love to sing and the patients seemed appreciative, but also because I witnessed people who, in their darkest moments, have come to grips with the truest understanding of what matters, and Who we can rely upon.

Riches come and go, romance can fade, jobs can disappear, and health can fail. This is a fallen world. Our bodies are temporary, weak vessels. But it's Christmas. We have a savior. We have hope, and salvation if we merely ask for it. We are loved and forgiven.

My prayer for you is that you would know in your heart what matters most, and Who loves you most. Those people who are facing disease and death? I'm sure there are some who are bitter, but I glimpsed others who are clinging to Hope. I'm going to think of them, and choose joy. Even when my neck aches and I'm sleepy—especially when that's all that is wrong.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Balance in a world of agonies

I've been reading a book I borrowed from my dad: My War by Andy Rooney. Yes, the same Andy Rooney who's on 60 Minutes, or used to be—I haven't seen that show in ages so I'm uncertain as to whether Andy still offers his curmudgeonly commentaries there. Anyway, it's an interesting, sometimes funny, often brutal and upsetting account of Andy's time as a war correspondent during WWII.

A first-hand account of what someone sees during bloody wartime makes for some pretty awful stories. I wouldn't say the book is fun to read, because it's not. Parts of it are fun, parts are entertaining (his opinionated reports on George Patton and Ernest Hemingway are downright laughable), and parts of it are stomach-turning because they include factual accounts of death scenes I couldn't imagine in my worst nightmare.

Why am I reading this book? Well, I need to know more about American history, for one thing; I seem to be the member of my family most lacking in general historical knowledge. For another, I like Andy Rooney's style; I admire his succinct and sometimes caustic delivery. Lastly, I live in such an innocent little suburban bubble that I feel the need to expose myself to reality. Unpleasant, messy reality.

That sort of reality doesn't exist only in the past, as you well know. It's all around us. You can't turn on the news without hearing of death and destruction, fire and floods, murders and terrorists. Our world is a scary place. I can tune out and live in my bubble, but in order to exist in our culture, I have to expose myself to news coverage at least somewhat, especially if I want to know when the snowstorm is coming.

I guess if we want to live a balanced life, we need a little bit of both worlds: the dangerous place all around us versus the good place where most of us are blessed to be regularly. I read a book like the Andy Rooney account, and then I read an easier, happier, more escapist novel that gives me a little boost. Recently, I re-read The Secret Garden. That's a feel-good kind of story, and pretty much the antithesis of a war memoir.

I try to take the same approach to daily media consumption. Do I need to know that there are people in the world who are capable of burying a child alive? Is it necessary to hear that another drug deal went bad and someone was shot in the face? Must I be advised of a deadly dog attack, see pictures of a vandalized cemetary, or know the details of a little boy's drowning in a septic tank?

I don't know. I certainly don't want this information. Yet neither do I want to live so blissfully and ignorantly that I'm unaware of the fallen world around me. If I don't hear the bad news, perhaps the video of a soldier's homecoming won't touch me as deeply. If I'm never reminded of the evil that surrounds us, perhaps I'll forget to teach my child wariness of odd strangers or unfamiliar dogs. If I don't read the stories of tremendous casualties during combat, I might never truly appreciate a serviceman's duty done well, or the scars that service leaves.

We have to find balance. We have to be careful, because what you put in your mind stays there. If you fill it with gore, violence, and hatred, it will consume you. Likewise, if you fill it with mindlessness, with too many new cars and fashion and man-made fluff, it's probable you'll lose touch with real priorities. Lord knows it's easy to do that, with our silly, selfish, overly-comfortable lifestyles. It's important to read the comics; it's also important to read the headlines, the features stories.

I filter everything that comes into my world—books, papers, magazines, television, movies. You can't take something out once it lives in your mind. Be selective. Be perceptive. If something feels disturbing and wrong, walk away. I will forever be haunted by a taped 911 cell phone conversation I heard on a news show years ago: the last words of a woman who'd mistakenly driven off a bridge and into water, where she foolishly called 911 for help instead of getting out of the car immediately... That's a phone conversation I never wanted to hear, and it will never be out of my head.

Balance is difficult to achieve. I don't think I'll ever get it exactly right. I'm trying. Meantime, we watched It's a Wonderful Life the other night; it was nice to go there, and take a break from liberating the French countryside.

(Sorry—this is about as far from a light, Christmas-y post as you can get. But hey, Christmas is still almost two weeks away! Plenty of time left to be jolly! Now, where are those jingle bells!?)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A cold-blooded bunch

Recently, my little guy and I read aloud The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. (If you haven't yet, I highly recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy this little book.) I'd read it years before, but while revisiting this gem, I was reminded just how amusing and unattractively truthful are the events the story details. There's the narrator's mother, trying to conduct a Christmas pageant that's always been led by another woman who unfortunately has injured herself. And there are the various "church" people who pretty much exemplify why so many folks steer clear of organized religion. By and large, though, the most entertaining characters are the story's antagonists, The Herdman kids: a band of troublemaking near-orphans who've never set foot in church until they hear about the free refreshments served therein...

One thing that stuck with me was the outrage some of the Herdman children felt when they heard that King Herod had gone unpunished for his evil (but thankfully unrealized) intentions to murder the Baby Jesus. Herod apparently died many years later of natural causes, and one Herdman kid was flummoxed and thought that the pageant should feature the hanging of King Herod instead of peaceful manger scenes.

I thought about that a lot, how we as a pop culture are fascinated by murder and murderous thoughts, and how we want justice unless it falls on our own heads. I pondered the history of men, even the Biblical history, and how often murder shows up. There's David, lusting after some babe, and he has his way with her and then has her husband killed in the front lines of battle. Yes, he was sorry, but still... And there were other murderous kings, not just Herod; many earthly kingdoms have been won and lost based on which king has been murdered. Women have been murdered because of their aspirations, or just because a younger and sexier woman came along; brothers have been murdered because they were the favorites. Children have been murdered because they were a burden, or the new girlfriend or boyfriend didn't like them.

I like to believe that we as a people are not so base, so cruel and selfish. But we are. I spoke with a friend recently who detailed how her elderly neighbor had died recently, and she explained point by point why she felt certain his children had given him an overdose of morphine. You know what? I think she's right. This wasn't an elderly man on his deathbed, or suffering from terminal illness. This was a man my friend had just visited, who'd been in good spirits, who'd received a pacemaker and was feeling quite chipper. His daughter won't let people see him, he dies suddenly, and the day after the funeral the daughter's ex-husband, which whom her father had not gotten along, suddenly shows up at the house again. Coincidence?

My own neighbor down the street a few homes? Her sister died mysteriously—drowned in the bathtub. A few months later? Her widower husband remarries. Nothing can be proven. But it surely makes you wonder, doesn't it. I don't know if any charges have followed because I'm afraid to ask the neighbor; it's not the sort of topic we feel comfortable broaching. "So, was your sister murdered?" God forbid we call it what we think it truly is; that would be so unpleasant, so morbid and sordid and all those other unattractive adjectives that we'd rather not have to use when we describe human nature.

But I suspect this sort of thing happens much more than we realize. It's not just on television. There's a great movie, one of my all-time favorites: Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's a Woody Allen film from the 80s, and yes it's a tad dated, but mostly it holds up beautifully. (Even though I think Woody is a perverted near-pedophile weirdo, I also happen to think he makes great movies.) This film is a thought-provoking piece, mostly because it twists together a series of bad, somewhat-related events, and leaves the characters (and the viewers) to decide which of those events constitute real crime—true sin in its most base form. It shows people at their very worst: evil, selfish, thoughtless, unkind, cheating, stealing, even murdering. It's a disturbing idea, but it's done so artfully that you are left feeling rather somber and disappointed—in people, generally, and that so much crime goes unpunished.

We really are a murderous bunch of cold-blooded killers, deep down. I'm very glad we have a savior, and that nothing can separate us from Him. Even David, that killer, was still a friend of God. Still, it's a pretty unflattering and humbling history to bear.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Without warning, winter

OK, tell the truth, now—was I the only one who woke up yesterday, looked out the window, and muttered, "What the—?!"

That was really pretty unfair of nature, to throw that at us after the three-plus inches of rain we'd received in the previous 24 hours.

It's funny how we all react to the first snowfall to actually stick. I know that even as I bit back the rest of the phrase above, I felt a little thrill in my chest. Now, I had an adversary again. I had a reason to allow some extra minutes—for starting cars, or walking in mincing fashion on what might be slippery slopes, or driving among throngs of panicked people who'd been forced by circumstances to climb behind the wheel that day. I had to consider, beyond comfort, which shoes to choose that day.

There's a briskness about, not just in the air when it snows at first, but in the manner of folks around this area. Suddenly, we all grasp in very concrete fashion that we Western Pennsylvanians must unite once again to withstand this foe; we must embrace our shared spirit of survival. We need to start checking on people again, just as we did when it was 90 degrees, but for entirely different reasons. We need to find the gloves and mittens, extract the scarves and toboggans from their out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations. We need to keep more gas in the tank, and a blanket in the trunk.

Shovels and salt will be unearthed once more. Spare kerosene (or fire wood) and toilet paper will take up more space than they have of late. Bed times might move back a tad (they will at our house, anyway). The Crock Pot will make more frequent appearances, and I'll spend many minutes each day organizing piles of boots that drip icy, dirty water (hopefully into the proper repository, the boot tray).

Here we go again: Suit up and stand firm, friends.

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.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I mentioned in a previous post that we are dog-sitting this week, for a neighbor. The folks live close by, the dog is small and sweet, and he's able to stay in his own home and get by with visits and walks. The occasional field trip to our home is exciting for him at first, and then he realizes that we aren't hiding his people there, and the same dismayed expression comes over him before he sighs and lies down with chin between paws, looking pitiful.

Pet-sitting is good practice for us. My son is delighted when we dog-sit for these friends. He adores the dog, at least until he's bored with him, and it's nice to have a warm, fuzzy thing around again. (We lost our elderly kitty just over a year ago, you may recall.) We even did some fish-sitting earlier in the fall for a different neighbor while they vacationed at the beach, but I figure that somewhere in the word "pet" is a history of being able to actually pet and stroke the creature in question—and I don't see how that's possible with a goldfish, which in my mind eliminates the fish from any list of potential pets...

Anyway, not only is the sitting good practice for us, it's also a realistic reminder of what pets entail. For example, most of them have a distinctive animal odor. Sometimes they like to scratch and dig at things: themselves, you, the furniture, the floor. Our borrowed dog has the itchiest snout known to canines, and he loves to rub it on any and everything he can find. And some dogs (this one, for example) tend to regurgitate meals that are taken in too quickly, or when the pup's stomach is already upset from heartbreak over disappearing people.

Then there's the whole issue of following the furball around with a scooper and a bag. Just like cats who must eat soft food, I'm sad to share, the dogs on soft-food diets also have what must be the most squishy, malodorous waste in the world. Put a few bags of those treats in your garbage can (the outdoor one, of course) and you'll swear a couple days later that there's a dead body in there.

I realize dog-sitting someone else's pooch is not the same as having your own. Your own pet would rejoice at your presence, instead of eventually rebuffing you in sadness. Your own would have a different schedule, and you could fence in a portion of yard or control whether the dog was bathed frequently.

But I would not be able to control that the dog has favorites, and that it may not be me. This dog, searching madly for a replacement Alpha dog, is not happy unless Todd is around. The little guy will run around the house, searching for Todd. He'll bark at the top of the steps if he suspects Todd is downstairs (he's not), and will resist going back into his own home if he hasn't ascertained that an Alpha dog is still in the vicinity and still in charge.

I also would not be able to control the need for a dog-sitter in our home if we had to be away. We don't travel much these days, but it still bears considering. Are we able to cover days and nights away? Would we simply exchange favors with the neighbors? What if they get rid of their dog, or he dies, and the debt can no longer be repaid? What then? Kennels are expensive and traumatizing.

Additionally, I can see that if a dog should join our family (or even another cat for that matter), the bulk of responsibility would still fall on my shoulders. Am I ready or willing to take that on at this time? Not sure. Maybe when my son is a bit older, this will be a more attractive option.

Right now, I think I'm happy to borrow. Last evening, I was walking with my boy and this little neighbor dog in a howling, frigid wind, holding a make-you-want-to-retch bag of poo as far from me as I could, and I was undeniably immersed in the true meaning of dog ownership. Fuzzy companionship, loving eyes, and so much more. Maybe this isn't the season for us yet.

Please, remind me of all this if I start romanticizing pets come springtime. All it'll take is one whiff of puppy breath, one squeaky kitten mew, and I'll be foolish again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Train your child up...tight

It was a typical morning here.

First, let me explain that in my home (and in my mind), I am the Time Nazi. Being an undeniable type A-ish person, and having married a Type Z, I am relegated to being drill sergeant—especially in the mornings. Even when I'm not the first one out of bed, it still falls upon me to wake the little boy, wake him again, pack lunches, encourage the child to get dressed, force him to the table to put some sort of edible into his mouth, remind him of the necessity of shoes and a jacket before departing for the bus stop, do a perfunctory check of his brushed teeth and washed face to make sure he's presentable, etc. (I honestly don't know how parents of several children do this every day. I guess the older ones are enlisted, sometimes unwillingly, to help round up and prepare the younger ones. But still. Wow. My respect and sympathy go out to you.)

Anyway, all the while I'm going about my morning business, I am clashing with the Type Z who wants to wrestle with his son, eat breakfast just after I've put all the food away, and have meaningful conversation about his job performance while I'm hollering for the kid to put on both shoes, not just one.

I get a bit resentful at times, being the "driver" of the family, the one who must always be "un-fun." Sometimes we un-fun folks are not happy about our recurring role. Sometimes we feel stereotyped, and bitter. Mostly we just feel uneasy because we can't turn off that un-fun gene, and no one else seems to notice our approach to impending doom in an unplanned, untimely world.

I digress. I am the Time Nazi because I want my son to be aware of schedules and deadlines. I realize there are worse things than being late for school; I mean, he's in kindergarten for crying out loud. If he misses the bus, so what? I'll drive him. I'd honestly rather drive him anyway. But it's the principle of it all, the precedent that is being set. If we fool around and miss the bus now, I'm looking at 12 additional years of fooling around and driving him to school.

I often choose a course of action based on the principle of the matter. For example, why do we bother keeping the kid at the table even when he's finished eating? Because that will be an expectation for the rest of his life. There doesn't seem to be much point in letting things slide now when I know down the road that the sliding must cease; it's a lot easier to learn it right initially than it is to un-teach the wrong way when he's older.

Still, my uncertainty remains: How much uptight is too much? I can see and feel sometimes that I cause stress in my son. Not much, because he's wired a lot like his dad, too, and can drift happily and aimlessly for hours. He's five. But the facts remain: we need to get to the bus stop on time. We need to have enough presence of mind to remember to grab the backpack with all its papers and possessions. We might need to allow a few extra minutes to let out the dog we're dog-sitting.

I don't want to build my offspring to be a monster like me. Yet, I see how my child is already more responsible than many kids his age. It doesn't seem like a crime to foster in him a sense of awareness, an understanding that the world will not wait for him when he dawdles. High blood pressure? Stomach ulcers? Those are bad. But a comprehension of the daily timetable and how to function within it successfully?—that's my goal.

How do I walk that line? Do you, too, walk that line? Or are you the Type Z who is funneled and herded into formation?

P.S. I was slightly annoyed this morning when I got the boys out the door, walked the borrowed dog, and came back into the mess we'd left only to spy my husband's lunch box, full of healthy and paid-for food, sitting on the kitchen counter. Damn.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Down time is good

The temp job I've been doing is on hiatus while the client is out of town this week. I've been taking full advantage of the down time: painting (hence the piggy above), blogging, filing and tossing papers, taking stuff to Goodwill, etc. Chris over at Writing by Ear reminded me of the joys of reading, so I actually headed to the library yesterday and got—are you ready for this?—some grown-up books instead of children's books! I'm pretty certain the librarian looked at me askance... she was probably eying my history of check-outs and wondering where I'd hidden my child... OR she phoned the police upon my exit to report a stolen library card.

However, I am proud to say that there are now three real books on my dining room table. A classic (Twain short stories), a favorite (Anne Tyler), and an author I've yet to read who came highly recommended by a good and literate friend (Richard Russo). I am really hoping to crack open one of those beauties this weekend.

I need to make a deliberate effort to unplug and clear my mind instead of filling it with static. It's funny; I've talked to different pals, and most of us suffer from a sort of guilt when we have unscheduled moments. We want to tell people what we're doing, even people we barely know. We don't want to appear lazy, or shiftless, or unmotivated. It's a shame, really, because I am a firm believer in boredom for children; I think kids need to be permitted to achieve boredom in order for them to become self-sufficient and able to entertain themselves. If that's true for kids, wouldn't it also be true for adults? How can I ever think an original thought, or work through a tricky problem, or hear God's still small voice if I am constantly filling every minute with busy-ness and white noise?

It's a difficult state to achieve, inactivity—and even more difficult to maintain. Yet, it's worth the effort, or lack thereof in some cases. I'm going to try to make more unplanned, guilt-free time. Maybe I won't even read those books for a couple of days. Maybe I'll just sit, or stroll, or lounge with a cup of tea under a fuzzy blanket.

I'd better hurry up and do it, though... clothes need to be folded, dinner needs to be planned and made, and I'll be meeting that school bus in less than an hour. Once again, life intervenes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bear’s family, discovered (another oldie)

Marcus has a small stuffed bear that he loves. Actually, he has three. All have come from the same bin of bears at IKEA Department Store. (It’s a great bear—Blund Soft Toy—and it’s just $1.99. IKEA—you can’t beat it with a stick.)

I purchased the first bear many years ago, when I bought one for my niece. I couldn’t pass it up and I was into collecting bears at the time. This initial bear is a light tan, and he used to sit on my bed.

Then I became pregnant. I was so pleased with tan bear that I thought I should get one for baby—it’s soft, has no buttons, has sewn-on features, is very flexible and smushy and easy to hold onto… it’s a perfect bear for a baby. So, I returned to IKEA and found the bin of bears, which were now chestnut brown. In every other way, though, they were exact replicas of tan bear on my bed. So I bought one.

After Marcus was a few months old, he began to attach himself to Brown Bear. Eventually, he slept with Bear, chewed on him, hugged him, played with him… they were inseparable. After carting the bear to a few homes and events, I became concerned: what if we inadvertently left Bear somewhere? What if he fell from the car as we entered or exited and was then tragically squashed by a tire? We needed this bear. It was Marcus’ only lovey. So, the next time I visited IKEA’s neighborhood, I purchased yet another bear; Marcus was still pretty small at the time and he was sitting in his car seat inside the shopping cart, so I simply picked out brown bear #2 and handed it to him; Marcus appreciatively chewed on his face. We paid for the soggy thing, thus purchasing a bit of lost bear insurance.

Fast forward a few months; Todd and I were at IKEA yet again, purchasing an entertainment center with a much-needed door to hide things inside from the kid (this is another topic altogether). On the way to pick up components for the center, we stopped off to get some baby safety products such as additional outlet covers and drawer stoppers. Lo and behold, these safety items were located right behind the bin of bears.

“Let’s see if he notices,” I said, pointing to the bin. Todd nodded and we rolled the shopping cart very slowly and deliberately past the bin. Marcus, seated in the cart, was looking around absently, tired of shopping (we’d been there awhile). He glanced at the bin, and then after a moment, he gazed anew upon it. He even leaned in for a closer look. There they were, scores of Bears, all staring back at him, some upside down or half emerging from under another bear, some embracing each other… Marcus made a barely audible utterance, a sweet sound of recognition, a breathy mix of “ah” and “hey.” He reached for the pile of bears, unable to grasp one but likely snagging a handful of them in his imagination. It was such a dear moment, his sudden focus and delight, his chubby paw reaching out as he leaned toward an entire bin of his small, brown buddies. I had a stupid, fleeting thought that we should buy a whole bunch of them, take them home, put them in a pile and just let him sink into that soft, safe, welcoming lap of many little brown friends… and then common sense returned to me and we hurriedly left the bear aisle before our child could pitch a snit that all his bear pals were staying put while we walked away.

On that day at IKEA, Marcus glimpsed Bear’s whole family. It was pure sweetness.

P.S. Update: I just looked online, and this bear is out of production. As a result, parents are paying ridiculous amounts of money to find replacements on Ebay. If you have one of them? In good condition? Think about selling that thang.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dragging out some oldies

Hey folks (all two of you who actually read this), I rediscovered some old pre-blog entries that I'd written. I'm going to be posting a few of them. I'll search beforehand and try to ascertain that they're not already posted on Melmoirs, but if I miss one and you've already seen it long ago, please forgive. I'm trying to get them all on here so I can clean up my computer--and possibly do a "self-publish" someday of several blog themes. Thanks for checking in!

The dreaded nursery

I’ll never forget the first time I left my sweet boy in the church nursery.

Our church is large. The nursery is often full of infants—and almost never do the nursery volunteers outnumber the babies.

That was the case the first time I had to leave Marcus there. He was nestled in his car seat, just 4 months old or so, starting to notice things but pretty much immobile. I gave the front desk his name, our names, filled out the necessary short form, and left my darling child in someone else’s care—a complete stranger’s care. I handed over the carseat, feeling ill, watching his confusion as I retreated without him. I practically had to run toward the choir room.

That wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part was that I realized my water bottle—the bottle I always have with me when I sing—was still in the diaper bag that I’d left with the nursery. I hurried back in the same direction, and as I got to the room, I was already scanning every adult to see who held him. He was nowhere to be seen. Oh my God! My child’s been kidnapped! What will I do? What kind of sick person would take my baby? How could the church be so irresponsible?! I stood outside the door, searching the room for him, trying to remain calm before I entered the nursery screaming frantically…

And then I saw him. Sitting quietly, still in his car seat, the seat on the floor in a dim corner of the room. He was looking all around, his small serious face perplexed and a tad frightened. Well, of course they’d set him down, he’s not crying, other babies are—why ruin a good thing by hauling him out of that chair if he’s happy there? So he sat, observing, quiet and unnoticed while other infants shrieked and flailed.

I wanted to weep, seeing him there, so defenseless and self-consciously unobtrusive. I didn’t go in for my water bottle; I was afraid the dam would break behind my eyes and I would grab him and run to the car to take him back home where he’s safe, where he’s the only baby, MY baby, the center of my universe. He shouldn’t sit alone in the dark, not understanding why I’ve left him. I’m terrible. Those workers are terrible. The whole world is terrible and I must protect him from it all, including the bratty children who will holler and yell and take all the attention away from the taciturn, obedient babes.

But I didn’t do anything, just turned and went back toward the choir room, empty-handed and waterless (except for my watery eyes.)

Now I know why my sister cried when she put her daughter on the bus the first time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I like soft things

This past weekend was a long one of sorts, with a couple of days away from kindergarten. We took full advantage and visited the Aviary (thank you, neighbor KB, for the Entertainment Book with coupons!) and the zoo (love that membership pass!) On Saturday, however, we tried a new course by heading slightly north to check out some barns and farms in Butler County. (Find more information here.)

I've been wanting to do this for weeks; there was an article in the Trib about a smattering of family-owned farms that are kind enough to open their doors so that people can peek in and glimpse a different world. It's all free, and relatively loose—you just follow the map and stop wherever you'd like. None of them appear to be more than about an hour from the city.

I'd picked out a few that were rather close, because Todd had to work later on Saturday; we had a limited window of time. We dug out an old, substandard PA road map, and I jotted down names and addresses of a few of the close farms.

If you're anything like me, you prefer a plan. The plan can be roughly laid, but it needs to exist, albeit in fluid form at times. Also, if you have a man in your life, you might have realized by now that they hate directions: asking for them, using them, acknowledging them, etc. So, a tiny portion of our drive (ahem, cough cough) was spent bickering about which way to go, how the road we were traveling seemed to end, why the dirt path running between 7-foot brambles was not a good choice for us, and how it made more sense for us to switch farms since we were driving past one that hadn't originally been a destination but now loomed just a mile or two away... Fun, fun.

Happily, the weather was great. The scenery rocked. And our accidental landing zone was a huge, spotless alpaca farm. The little fella (lady???) pictured above was extremely friendly and we petted his/her woolly neck for many minutes. He (I'm hoping at this point it was male) gave me several nuzzles, and since alpacas eat pretty much only grass and straw, the thing even had nice breath.

It was relaxing, quiet, peaceful, and breathtakingly lovely. Then we were running short on time, so we stopped for ice cream and ate it in the grass under some fir trees. The day was complete.


But there's one other soft thing I am loving right now. It's the new, expensive, awesomely designed "Whisper Soft" toilet seat adorning the upstairs potty.

You know by now I'm a cheapskate. I will go for the low-priced item anytime, unless it's obviously junk. The toilet seat we had in place was not the best. We'd brought it up from downstairs after we replaced the upstairs system with a low-flow model, because the seat lid that came with the water-saver was cheap, bendable plastic. Not good. I'm not even sure how old the downstairs seat was, but it didn't matter: the metal parts on it were corroding away. I'd sliced my finger on it while cleaning the thing once, and had nightmares about infections for days. So. It needed to go.

I headed to Home Depot, ready to be tempted by many home improvement items and prepared to spend more than I thought I should. I'm thrifty, yes, but I don't like tetanus shots nor Neosporin-soaked bandages, and I knew I'd have to drop some bucks for a good seat. I guess it's like a mattress; you spend a lot of hours on it, so you should invest in something quality. Right?

I found many that would serve the purpose, but one spoke to me: the Whisper Soft. Does it whisper? No. BUT, it descends from its high place with slow, deliberate grace. Little boys in our home no longer need fear being hammered by a cruel, parts-crushing lid. Never again will the bladeless guillotine slam on unsuspecting flesh. Women, too, can rejoice in the silence that reigns in place of the awful banging noise that seats make when they crash down onto hapless porcelain.

It cost too much. But truly, it is worth it. So worth it.

Wishing you all your favorite soft things on this pretty day!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Good discombobulation

I'm not sure that discombobulation is a word, but I'm using it and believe me, it fits.

Late last week, we happily learned that my husband will be picking up part-time contract hours for a few months at a nice office where some friends of ours already work. We'd both been hoping, and waiting, and the offer was official this weekend. Part-time, contract work in his field, with professionals, in a great place—ahhhhhhhhh. He's excited. I'm excited for him.

However. While we were waiting to hear about that opportunity, and days were passing, and more days, I was feeling guilty. Here was my hub, trying to get a second job after I had walked away from my one. I decided to try to "look busy" and put out some feelers in the biz world. I picked out a few local companies, very close to our home, and dropped off resumes with general cover letters. I went to a temp firm and filled out some paperwork. I sent some more resumes to online work opportunities.

Then, we got the news about his gig coming through. I breathed a sigh of relief, stopped putting out feelers for a couple of days, and looked further into that Etsy shop I mentioned a few posts ago.

SO, yesterday I get a call from the temp agency. They have a job for me, part-time, a couple of months' worth, at a firm downtown who needs an editor. Go figure. I called them back, explained the need for flexibility (in-service days this week and next, looming sicknesses, the need to meet my son's bus) and my desire for not too many hours, etc. The temp liaison worked it all out and the company wanted to try me. I said okay. The plan was laid.

That meant errands today, because the company wants me to start tomorrow. I went to the grocery store, I stopped at FedEx and got scans of several paintings, I hit the bank and the gas station, I carried all my stuff home and—lo and behold, there was a message. From one of the local companies where I dropped a resume. They wanted to talk to me. I called them back, explained the same stuff I'd gone over just one day before, and they still wanted to meet. So we did, just a couple of hours after speaking. It's honestly not looking good (I think they'll need a bigger commitment in the summer than I can give... and what a shame that is, because it took me ONE minute to drive there. And they would give me less money but also benefits. HELLO?! Benefits!!!???) Sadly, I'm sort of assuming that this one is a lost cause. Still, my head was spinning when I got back home. I called a friend to get her input, and while we were talking, I checked email.

Wait for it.

There was a little message from one of the companies to which I'd sent my resume recently, in that flurry of "looking busy." Guess what? They want to talk to me. So, we're having a phone interview later this week.

Don't you wonder how things work out this way? Maybe none of these sudden developments will become real opportunities. Perhaps they've simply been thrown in my path to give me a little pep in my step, to revive my hope in the economy, our country, myself. I might go to this temp assignment and fail miserably. But it might be great.

Either way, the past few days have been rather exhilarating and also slightly disconcerting. There I was, poised for painting and bonbon consumption. Alas, I fear it is not meant to be, at least not right now. What a crazy ride.

I'll certainly share news if anything becomes more stable. Until then, I'll practice standing on some Jello, since that's sort of what it feels like we're doing these days.

P.S. All this activity, albeit slightly frenetic, confirms for me that I wasn't supposed to be cleaning houses. That's my interpretation, anyway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Squeaking by in style

If you read this regularly, then you are already aware that we've been treading water in some uncertain seas here at our house. The world of part-time, freelance, and contract work is financially a bit unpredictable; in addition, it is a world of pay-for-your-own-medical-benefits. Combine those two things and you have a serious need to cut out extras and live close to the bone.

I'm not complaining (at least not right now! ; ) I like to think that tight times, like hardships, build character and fortitude. I also believe that we as a country are a wasteful, greedy, spoiled bunch of brats for the most part. I don't want to represent that growing segment of the population.

Take those health benefits: I've had person after person tell me that I should try to get them for free, or less. It's the same story with every assistance program out there: "The help is there, you might as well use it," they say. I try to point out to these "helpful" sorts that we still have two running vehicles, jobs we can do, skills we can use, good and plentiful food from all the food groups, a home with heat and even A/C when it's stiflingly hot, a home computer, enough money to occasionally do something just for fun... I can see from the glaze in their eyes that it's not sinking in, but what I'm saying to them is true: we are not destitute. We have all the requirements for life and far more. If I can still pay for my health benefits, I will; I don't care that the state wants to give them to my kid. I don't care that we might qualify for some sort of assistance. We do not want for ANY necessities; that's enough information for me to decline all the handouts. If I really, absolutely, positively must take them, I will. If I am wanting for necessities on a regular basis, I will accept assistance from those programs, because people in those straits are the folks for whom such programs exist. But I'm not there yet.

You see, a lot of Americans have pride about the wrong things. They have no qualms whatsoever about taking any and every thing the government will give them, but they turn up their noses when I mention shopping second-hand. Or ALDI. Or knocking on a neighbor's door to ask if you may use the apples that fall from their tree and rot on the roadway. Why are we collectively more ashamed of shopping in the wrong stores, of looking less than wealthy, but not ashamed to accept handouts? Why are people reluctant to use coupons at the grocery, but unapologetic that they still get checks or money equivalents from Uncle Sam? Is is because Uncle Sam spares them the embarrassment of being forced to use coupons? What is wrong with coupons?

I don't mean to harp and rant. I realize we are all making our own choices and that is part of what I love about America. I also realize there are a few people in this country who are truly doing without the basics and suffering. I just wish the idiots in charge would stop giving it all away to anyone who asks; they're creating an ever bigger, uglier monster of laziness and entitlement.

ANYWAY. That wasn't supposed to be the point of this post. This post is about squeaking by without feeling squeaked.

The other day, I saved my grocery store receipt to show my husband. Why? I was proud of that receipt. It wasn't for a huge purchase or anything; I simply pointed out to him that the amount of the purchase was $12.97, and the amount saved was $12.60. That's how I shop, people. One good thing about having more time and less money is that you can dedicate as many minutes as needed to planning and scanning: planning your list and menu, and scanning the store flyers to see where your best deals are.

I've put together a quick list of tips and methods on which I rely weekly. Following this list pretty much guarantees you'll save money. However, it's just like a diet—not following it guarantees nothing. Diligence works, while distraction and lack of discipline do not.

Cheapskate Mel's Shopping Tips

• Always keep a list of needed items in a central location. Write down each item immediately upon thinking of it. If you always buy certain items at certain places, then keep multiple lists titled by the appropriate store name. (Don't write the list on a chalkboard, whiteboard, etc. because then it is not transportable. The list must be easily transportable or you will not use it.)

• Use coupons, but only use them for items you already buy. Do not use them as a way to buy something unusual, unless it is something you've really been wanting to try anyway. Keep the coupons in your wallet, in your handbag (if you're a woman), or in the car that you drive. Do not keep them in the desk or on the table in the office, because you will never have them when you need them. Clip them together or contain them in an envelope. Before you go into a store where you plan to use them, take out the stack, find the one(s) you need, and put those coupons on top of the stack so they're handy when you check out.

• If your list is short and/or does not contain heavy, awkward items, do not get a cart; get a basket instead. Or, put the items to purchase into your reusable tote. (NOTE: I can employ this tactic now because I'm typically shopping alone; if your little one is still coming along, ignore this tip for now.) Having that basket limits you from impulse purchases. If you can't comfortably carry the impulse item, you will likely not buy it.

• Shop ahead of time and always have back-ups in the freezer or pantry to help you avoid panic purchases at more expensive, more convenient locations. Stocking up ahead of time allows you to take advantage of good sales involving multiple items. It also saves you from, when in a hurry, being forced to buy a pricey brand-name item because the convenience store doesn't offer generics. Ideally, you should buy an item only when it's offered at a sale price. Usually, with prior planning, that is an achievable goal. (This works best if you have a good idea of what things cost when they're not on sale.)

• If your list involves only one part of a large store, do NOT venture into the rest of the store. You will most certainly find things you think you "need." Fight the urge, check out, and leave the store.

• If you really have a hard time controlling yourself, use the cash system: roughly figure how much your total purchase will cost, and then take only that amount of money into the store. A limited cash "cache" will force you to restrain yourself and stick to the list. Apparently, gamblers do this, I've heard—they take with them an amount of money they can afford to lose. Um, hello? If you can afford to lose more than a couple of bucks, then please invest that money wisely instead of flushing it down the toilet!?! (Dave Ramsey, debt-free guru, frequently recommends a cash-only method to families; he calls it the envelope system, and suggests that financially strapped people set up envelopes each month, labeled by expense and based on what they can afford and what they realistically need to spend in order to survive. We haven't yet resorted to the envelope system, but I'm not ruling it out...)

• Plan your meals based on what is in season and what's on sale. Buying fresh food in season costs sometimes half as much as buying the same food out of season. It's better for the environment anyway; stuff that's out of season has to be shipped from far away, likely picked before it's ripe, and possibly preserved en route by the use of unhealthy and unnatural means.

• Like to read? The library is still free. Remember the library, before all those big-box book-and-coffee stores? And oh, yeah, they have movies at the library, too. If you have extra money, that would be a great place to donate a few bucks; thanks to our stupid leaders, public libraries really need more funding.

• Eat at home. I've already hit on this several times in past posts, so I won't go on and on. It's cheaper, healthier, and better for your family (if you have a family). I know it's hard to do sometimes, thanks to different schedules, sports, work, etc... Do what you can. Slow cookers still work well, and fresh food doesn't take as long to cook. Not to mention this is still excellent grilling weather.

• Make it known that you happily receive hand-me-downs. We have several folks who kindly share with us their kids' goods, and since I have more time, I can sort through them, label them, store them, and pass on any excess. Sometimes people have nice clothes, toys, books, etc. that they'd like to give to someone, but they're hesitant to pass things on in fear of insulting the recipient. Let it be clear to others that you detest waste and will accept with gratitude any of those items they're planning to unload.

• Shop second-hand. It's just smart. You pay $30 for something, and I pay $3 for the same item. I wash it, and it's clean. This is especially true of household items and furniture. Obviously, I won't buy anything that looks worn, beat-up, or straight from the 70s, just like I won't buy an article of clothing that's stained, or pilled, or has holes. I don't want to be a bum. I just want to spend money on things that really matter. (No, I don't buy undergarments second-hand. I have common sense AND standards.)

• Make a deliberate decision to live low-tech. We have done so and it saves us a ton. I know some of you may think this is easy for me to say because my child is still very small. However, remember that America is known for helpless children and helicopter-parents who hover. Maybe the answer is having emergency-only tech tools, just for older kids who are unsupervised more often. Perhaps we should all stop running around so much. Easier said than done, I realize—but some of our own suffering we bring on ourselves. Don't worry about keeping up with all the great gadgets. They're amazing, they're fun, and...they're expensive. Get by with the minimum, forget the frequent upgrades and newest versions, and have a face-to-face conversation or look up from that screen to see the world around you. The technological boom has done a huge disservice to free thought, creativity, and common sense. In my humble opinion, of course. As I type this on a computer. But hey, it's 4-1/2 years old already and it was the cheapest Mac available at the time.


Okay, okay. I'd better stop. I'm starting to preach, and no one wants to read that. Seriously, though, it is possible to cut corners and still live large. I'd welcome any additional money-saving suggestions!

To squeak by, you need to sort of rethink and question our culture. You have to pretty much forget about the Jones family and focus on the really important things in life. Thankfully, those things aren't terribly expensive, at least in dollars. And if you're worried that you'll short-change your kid, I disagree: you'll be teaching the younger generation that there is more to life than Wii, Abercrombie, new cars, the current restaurant fad, and the latest iPhone. Now, that's a lesson we all need to learn.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What I've been up to

The cardinal sat, half-finished, on my easel for months, probably since mid-March. Now, at last, he is free to fly.

And the other came together rather quickly, from real life; the tomatoes and little jack came from our garden.

Fun, fun!

I'm thinking more and more about starting a little shop on Etsy and selling prints and/or notecards featuring some of my favorite paintings. I'll keep you posted.

Hope you're having a lovely autumn.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Throwing in the dust cloth

I quit the cleaning job.

I feel awful. I feel like a quitter. I guess I am a quitter.

I feel relieved, in a way, because I did not enjoy it and I felt my brain beginning to atrophy. And yet. Did I do the right thing? Time will tell.

I didn't think through the initial decision; I see that now. I didn't even make it through the first week of school before I slipped into panic mode and began making arrangements to jump into this job. When will I actually live the "trust God" theory that I regularly recommend to others? Why do I even believe for a moment that I am in charge and can change things? Why can I never wait?

I didn't think through the sheer labor involved in deep-cleaning for hours at a time. I did not think through my blood sugar issues in the morning. I did not imagine that I would be required to carry heavy supplies up and down stairs, nor did it occur to me that people who pay for cleaning services sometimes have giant mansions. I never considered how the immensity and extravagance of those homes would gall me. I did not entertain the thought that I might not be good at cleaning. I forgot that instead of having my sweet boy interrupting my thoughts and making me long at times for privacy, my dearest little guy would now be gone all day, every day, and that my loner tendencies might be exacerbated by even more time spent alone or around people who are trying to ignore me.

I just did not think hard or long enough about this decision.

The part-owner who's been trying to train me was not amused when I shared the news. I don't blame him. I'm sure this happens a lot, and I caught him at a bad time, and while I was trying to end the situation before it became even more complicated and clients started to know me well, there really is no good time to bow out and leave people in the lurch.

So, he can be cranky with me and I will bow my head and bite my tongue because, frankly, he probably has the right.

What am I supposed to be doing? I just don't know. I do feel pretty certain, though, that cleaning is not what I'm supposed to be doing. The deciding factor was Gramma Sally's apartment.

One of the places I tidied last week was absolutely charming. When I stepped in the door, it felt as if I'd stepped into an embrace. Walls were filled with artwork, beautiful stuff, warm colors and nature everywhere. Rich-colored pottery sat on shelves, cozy and comfortable furniture beckoned, simply pretty curtains adorned every window, and beyond the sliding doors was the most inviting little porch I've seen outside of a magazine. Photos filled every flat surface, and a knitting basket adorned a chest at the bottom of her bed. (I knew it was a woman's home as soon as I entered. It just reeked of woman.) It was not a fancy place, it was not luxurious in any way—it was wonderful and homey to the extreme.

As I went about my work, I did some light dusting in the office. Sally (not her real name) had left some letters and envelopes out; I glanced at one of the papers, then was curious enough to examine some of the paintings on the walls. Sure enough, the name was a match; Gramma Sally was the artist of nearly all the framed pieces.

And I stood for a moment and pondered: here is this woman, talented and crafty, and she has made all these beautiful things and surrounded herself with them. Why am I here, cleaning her home, admiring her craftiness, instead of trying to create my own? Is this really what I am to do? Is this really the area in which I excel?

The answer was a resounding no. Couple that with the mantra that had been swimming 'round my head all morning ("Clean your own damned house") and you can probably see why I was having a hard time with this career move. Everything about it felt wrong. It's not using my strengths; it's keeping me from performing tasks that I do relatively well. Ultimately, I may not be engaged in even remotely artistic or creative work; still, I had to admit as I stood there that I possess many other strengths that lay cast aside while I struggled to do this job instead.

So, there it is. I'm unemployed again, but hopefully a tad wiser. I really need to stop worrying and rushing. I'm not supposed to worry; doing so implies that I don't think God has it under control. Rushing isn't very smart, either, because it gets you into positions that compromise your integrity and makes you do things that you know are not cool. For example, quitting a job after a couple of weeks. That's not cool. It's been a learning experience, and I'm a better cleaner because of it (in theory, at least) but I've thrown a wrench into the works for those hard-working people who own that business. That was not my intention. When I rush in like a fool (hence the phrase), there will be consequences.

I really hope I get some direction from God soon. I feel rather adrift. Sailing is okay, but it's more comfortable for me when I can glimpse the next island on the horizon. Right now? No islands in sight. Floating. Floating. I know He will hold me up, but I'm still going to scan for that island.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The perils of not drinking wine

So, my husband turned 40 recently—if you read this blog regularly, then you already know that.

For his 40th, he received a bottle of sparkling red wine, purchased by a loved one especially for consumption with walleye (a tasty and locally available fish). Todd placed the bottle atop our dining room cupboard, which is graced with a pretty little wine rack shaped, oddly enough, like a fish. There the bottle has rested for a couple of weeks, lying on its side in proper wine-storage fashion. We didn't think too much about it, because we're all relatively short here in our house, and it hurts my neck to look that high. So.

Saturday night, Todd worked and the kid and I went to a marching band festival. Fabulous weather, a pleasantly cool evening, good music and big crowds... we left shortly before the festival ended, since my boy was fading fast in the past-bedtime night, and we arrived home saturated with the sounds of tubas and trombones, with batons flying in our minds. Into the garage, through the basement, up the steps, ready for a quick snack and a cozy bed... but wait: where had all that blood come from? The blood on the dining room floor? Spattered across the room, on the walls, into the kitchen?

Marcus heard my gasp (he was coming up the steps behind me). "Momma, what is it?"

I pondered how to answer that. Where had blood come from? We currently have no pet, and although we are babysitting a small goldfish, he couldn't possibly have made that much mess! Anyway, he was still swimming in his tank (out of reach of the blood, thankfully).

Then I realized what I was really seeing. I looked up, at the top of the cupboard. Sure enough, the cork was missing from that bubbly bottle. Also, the open vessel appeared to be the release point for the mess of red that decorated our walls, floor, and table. To further confirm my suspicions, there was the cork lying haphazardly on the other side of the room, far from its blasted beginnings.

People, I might have said some bad words. I was so annoyed that they might have slipped past my less-than-vigilant lips. And I apologize for whatever I might have muttered. After I had misspoken, instead of relaxing and reliving the music we'd heard earlier, I helped the kid slip past me into Legoland (our living room) and I retrieved the mop from the basement and got busy.

Three moppings later, my feet no longer stick to the wood floors. Sadly, the many blue lines left by rivulets of wine are still running faintly down our dining room walls. Cream paint, red wine—apparently they love each other because one can't seem to release the other. I see an unplanned re-painting in our future.

I am going to write a letter to the vineyard guilty of this explosive little gift, as soon as I'm not so irritated. I know they didn't mean to pummel us with their product, but I do think they should know what happened. I am really glad we weren't home when it exploded, because it literally could have taken out someone's eye. I am not so glad that we didn't come home sooner, because I might have been able to save our walls.

Is that not bizarre? And you see what happens when you don't just crack open that bottle of goodness and enjoy it—hence this post's title. Now, go drink your stored wine; it's for your own safety. Really.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On switching gears yet again

So, I was a little bit stir crazy that first week of school. I'd been watching our savings account slowly dwindle over the summer. And I had been looking at jobs online for weeks; I'd been noticing a disturbing trend among the so-called "writing" jobs.

Writing does not require any real training or skill these days—did you know? Any opinionated fool with an internet connection can share his or her lunacy, however poorly worded or ineffectively expressed, for the entire world to consume like soda pop and salty chips.

I knew it was coming to this, I did. I foresaw it with texting, and responses on YouTube, and comments on every online article (even the news), and even in the rapidly growing number of blogs. I could easily predict that the value of the word would plummet as words became more and more common and available. And indeed, that has happened.

The turning point was a writing job advertised on craigslist, which specified that no writing experience was necessary. I followed that one by clicking on a cleaning job that paid better anyway. You can probably guess what happened: I called about the cleaning job. And got it.

I don't know how long I'll last. I've only been at it for a week, and part-time at that. I've been in some unbelievably swank, sumptuous homes—the kind of homes I did not believe existed except among celebs and sports heroes. In fact, I've been in a celebrity home of sorts, a name you'd recognize (no, not a sports hero, so get your skivvies untangled). It's been eye-opening to say the least. If this is the world of home-cleaning during a recession, then HOLY COW, people, I don't think I'd be able to take it when the economy's good. I might end up at Gatsby's house, and then who knows what could happen...

I've learned that I'm actually not such a good cleaner. All this time, I've been known as a neatnik. Some people (including me) actually thought I had OCD tendencies; not so. Actually, I am only bothered by clutter. For all these years, I've been absentmindedly avoiding the real scum in my home. Well, I can't do that any more—my blissful, if smudgy, ignorance has been wiped unforgivingly clear. Happily, I've also begun to learn some of the tricks of the trade.

I've suddenly become mindful of how a single hair left on porcelain can undo an hour's worth of scrubbing in the eyes of a client.

I've learned that even rich people's kids make messes with toothpaste, and sometimes miss the toilet.

I've learned, too, that I never want to own stainless steel appliances.

I've learned how one industry is taking advantage of the two income, work-or-run-constantly lifestyle, and making it profitable. More power to them; these people earn every penny. I never dreamed this was such grueling work. I thought I was in pretty good physical shape, and knew how to get a house in order. Wrong. I will never again take for granted a shiny hotel shower, a perfectly vacuumed carpet or spotless tiles. Those cleaning people, carrying a giant bucket of supplies, toting a mop or broom? Never again will those people go unnoticed by me. They are slaving, doing an honest day's work. They deserve my recognition.

I've learned there are far worse jobs than this one. While I'm scrubbing, or dusting, or whatever, my mind is focused on the job at hand. When I'm done, I'm weary, sometimes sore...but not in a bad way. I don't have to feel guilt about what I've done. I haven't talked an older person into an unnecessary home improvement. I haven't sold a gadget that doesn't work. I haven't contributed to someone's poor health by creating an unhealthy food item, or selling cigarettes or trans-fatty donuts. I haven't even been forced to make yet another round of pointless, expensive changes to a client's advertisement, newsletter, or catalog.

Still. This is hard. And humbling. And I don't know how long I'll last. It's money, it gets me out of the house, and it's probably good for me. Is it ultimately what I'm supposed to be doing? I don't know. Is it using my best God-given talents? Doubtful. And might I be fired because I stink at it? Perhaps. I've left every job by my choice, in my time, except for one: the first I'd ever had, where I was let the local supermarket. It seems I do not excel at the menial stuff. Hmmmm. Go figure.

I'll keep you posted. Until then, say hello to the next cleaning person you see. And if it's me? Try not to snicker.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Deliberately preserving a memory

I just spent some time viewing images and videos from September 11. Yes, it was upsetting. Yes, it made me feel ill; it always does. Yes, once again Google has failed to observe this day in any way, even though they celebrated the invention of a toy recently, and a somewhat obscure artist's birthday, and all sorts of wishy-washy, grey events that offend no one. Pansies.

I remember being at work that day. In the kitchen at the office, which was always crowded on Tuesdays because, in the golden days, Tuesdays were "bagel days." The toaster got a workout, the butter and creamed cheese ended up smeared on the counter, and while we were milling and toasting and spreading fatty goodness, a co-worker stepped in from the back door and announced that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.

We were all stunned. At first, people thought it was a small plane, some clueless person, perhaps a pilot who'd suffered medical duress. And it went on. I remember when we heard about the second plane, saying to someone, "This is an attack." I knew it, then. No accident, no human illness had caused such damage. And again, it went on. More people hurt and killed. More flames and debris, paper and soot raining down on the streets of New York City, at the Pentagon. We all gathered in a back meeting room, someone found the old TV on a cart, and an intern acted as a human antennae so we could get a clear enough picture to view the screen without headaches—and the view was so clear that we watched the second plane hit the towers. The woman next to me gasped when it struck, inhaling with such horror that the sound represented every agonized soul in that room.

A friend called me when I was back at my desk for a brief moment; he was in some other, far-flung state. Texas? I can't even recall. He'd heard about the Shanksville plane before I did. He told me another one had gone down, not far from Pittsburgh. "What the hell is going on?" he asked me, aghast. I did not know. We hung up, and I found more updates confirming what he'd said. No one really knew what the hell was going on. We knew it was bad, very bad.

Another friend who sat across from my desk was frantically phoning her husband, a pilot. Who'd flown out that morning. Was he okay? Yes. It took many minutes, but she reached him. He'd had to fly back, or land somewhere unplanned. He was okay.

Should we stay at work? Should we go home? No one knew what to do. We were on the North Shore, not really downtown, and even though the folks in the heart of the city were evacuating, many of us were loathe to do the same for reasons we couldn't quite express. Was it fear? Many of us were young and single, living alone. Perhaps we glimpsed the terror and uncertainty that waited in our empty apartments. At the office, we were together, united, shocked as one. We knew, even then, that leaving that communal space and returning home meant hours and hours of watching the coverage, reliving the stomach-turning moment of those buildings imploding in a downward peeling motion. Most of us stuck around until mid-afternoon; nothing was accomplished.

Even in the days that followed, little was accomplished. Everything was changed. I remember walking to get lunch somewhere, and looking up at the beautiful, clear, empty skies. No planes, No air travel whatsoever. The vast blue was strangely silent, after years of constant airport and hospital traffic. It was eerie. It made me feel like hiding. Even when the skies reopened, I can remember rushing out to look when a plane sounded too close, an awful fear clamping down on me when anything looked remotely abnormal up there.

It will never be the same. I still cannot comprehend that sort of hatred. I found a little editorial that pretty much captures my feelings, so I will defer to this fine author and let my flag and my defiant Christianity say the rest. I know the Crusades happened, and were misguided and terrible; I'm sure those aren't the only negative examples of my Jesus-loving forefathers. However, I also know that the faith I follow today, the faith that predominantly built this nation, condemns heinous acts like those of nine years ago.

I encourage you to read this (below). And AGAIN I apologize for the non-link; please just copy and paste it in your browser. I think I need to switch servers, for many reasons.