Friday, October 30, 2009

The Dance We Do

As often happens, I will awake with something on my mind, and as I tour the blogs I read regularly I will see an echo of that thought in various posts. Replying to one such post elsewhere, it brought to mind something that happened a couple of months ago, as I attempted to help my son find the right balancing act, the correct steps to a dance of courtesy.

Mr. Smith (very clearly not his real name) is the father of one of my son's friends. My son is nineteen, the same age as his friend, and the Smiths are very fond of my son. They invite him to family picnics, boating trips, dinners, and evenings out at the movies. As it happens my son didn't make friends with the Smith's son, Joe (oddly enough, his real name, so common as to not need changing) until they were both old enough to drive. Therefore, I've only had minimal contact with the Smiths. Usually my contact with them has involved polite wrangling sessions in which I try, and fail, to get them to accept reimbursement for the things they have taken my son to do. I'm covered in failure on that particular mission, I've never been able to get Mr. Smith to accept a dollar, and even making sure my son has money with him has failed, they won't take his money any sooner than they will take mine. We've asked Joe to accompany us on things as a way of balancing the scales, but frankly, the Smiths have become so fond of my son that they invite him along, even now that Joe is out of state, at college.

So it came to pass that Mr. Smith, whose son was in California, needed help with a landscaping project. He called my son, and asked for his help, offering to pay him. My son told me about this situation and I cautioned him, "Buddy, you can't take his money. I mean, you really can't take his money. It's not right after all they've taken you to do, you need to just help him out for free."

Did I mention that the Smiths are not a particularly well off family, and that one of the bones of contention for me is that they can't well afford to take my son with them on the things they do. At least, not by my estimation, and clearly, it's not really my business.

Off my son went to assist in the project, and when he returned I asked him if he'd refused the money, he answered, "Mom, I tried, I swear. I said I wanted to help, and he insisted on paying me. I said I'd really feel more comfortable doing something for him, for a change...and he launched into a ten minute speech on how they love me like I'm part of the family, and I'm a good influence on Joe, and I had no idea what to do, so I thanked him for the money."

"Actually, you did the right thing. It would have been rude as all get out to refuse the money after that. Don't worry about it, okay? You get to a certain point in this dance we all do when it comes to being courteous, and it's rude not to accept an extended kindness."

"How do you tell?" My son asked, obviously confused.

"Eh, it differs from person to person. Someone offers, the polite thing to do is refuse, they offer again, and the only answer is to say, 'Are you sure, you don't have to." they offer again, and you have to accept. At that point it's just ungracious, and unkind if you don't."

"Oh yeah, nothing complicated about that," my son said, rolling his eyes. "How did you figure all that out?"

My son knows enough about my childhood to assume that no one taught me these things. It's a long story, and there aren't any villains, that's just the way it turned out.

"I don't even know that I have figured it out, hon." I said. "I hope I have. It's hard to go wrong if you set out not to hurt the feelings of others but that's no guarantee. That's really what it's all about. You let Mr. Smith off the hook in terms of any obligation, but when he insisted, he's offering a kindness...and know, just like what happened with you, you just get a sense for when you are supposed to push, and when you aren't. We still all mess up from time to time, and try again."

My son munched morosely on a strawberry as he contemplated this. I was in the middle of making shortcake at the time.

"Mom, who taught you how to cook?" he asked, changing the subject to thing closest to his thoughts at most points: food.

"Fannie Farmer and James Beard." I answered truthfully.

"Oh my God, you knew someone named Fannie? Did her parents hate her?"

"No," I laughed. "They're books. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks when I was a kid. Those were the two that were in the house. I did better with Fannie, than I did James, come to think of it."

"Too bad there aren't books on how to handle people." He said, the intended irony was clear. "People are complicated."

After asking when the shortcake would be done, my son went off to the basement where he doubtless plunged into a video game in which he saved the earth, or battled villains. The rules clearly outlined, the help menu just a click away. The steps of the dance much clearer.

I felt like telling my son that no matter what we do, there will be times when we feel like we are clog dancing through a minefield when it comes to other people, but I suspect he already knows that. Sometimes what we set out to do has to change dependent upon the person with whom we are dealing. Sometimes we accidentally blow things up in our wrong-footed ways.

What makes it worth it? Why do we try? My best guess is that we need each other.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Falling victim to 'isms

I grew up primarily with my father, and if he thought there was anything I couldn't do, he failed to ever mention that. As a result, it wasn't until I was an adult that I realized sexism was alive and well in some quarters. Truthfully, I'm not much of a feminist, but I do believe in Gender Equality as a way of life. Having all choices available to both genders. Equal pay for equal work. Not subscribing to traditional gender roles for society as a whole. I don't think it particularly matters what it is you choose to do, but having the choices is key.

Which leads me to my driveway, naturally. When we bought this house, with its three car garage, we looked forward to the snowy months when we would no longer be scraping cars in the early morning hours. We failed to factor in that, instead, we'd be shoveling the driveway. It was a trade-off and one well worth it. Shoveling snow is good cardiovascular exercise, whereas scraping off a car involves huddling miserably in the snow.

When we moved here, the people who owned this house before us gave us a tutorial on the pool, as well as telling me about our next door neighbors on both sides. Francine (not her real name), my neighbor to the East, is a widow. She's somewhere around seventy-five-years-old and her husband had died not long after they had moved in.

"We take care of her walks and drive for her when it snows," the former owner informed me, "maybe your husband or son could continue the tradition?"

I managed not to shoot the man a disgusted glare. In this household, I'm the one most likely to be home during the day. I'm the one most likely to be wielding a snow shovel. Hey, I work out. Lift with your legs, and all that. Goooooo endorphins.

"Sure, we can take care of that," was all I said in reply. I was rather proud of the amount of restraint I had shown. Normally I'd read someone the riot act over such an assumption, or at least let them know what was what. Why, I must be mellowing, I thought, with a self-congratulatory smile.

Today as the snow falls heavily, I've been outside shoveling on three occasions. My son is now home, and he'll be taking over, because this much snow calls for teamwork. On my second shoveling I began tackling Francine's walk.

The truth is, I've never really spoken to Francine much. She's a little bit hard of hearing, and will tell you that as soon as you meet. For the most part I wave heartily in her direction, rather than discuss things at a shout. As I made my way to her driveway, Francine popped out of her garage, snow shovel in hand.

"I've got this," she said, in a loud, cheery voice. Gesturing towards the snow with her shovel.

"Are you sure?" I asked in the accustomed increased volume.

"Oh yes! It's good training for my skiing, you know," Francine stooped to begin shoveling and therefore missed the startled look on my face. "We call it the Over the Hill Club. Isn't that great?" I allowed as how that was indeed, great. "I didn't ski when I was younger, but after my husband died, I didn't have a running partner any longer, so I took that up."

Well this was becoming mortifying.

"I'm sorry, David told me you'd need me to take care of your walk and drive." I said, feeling my already pink-face beginning to flush with embarrassment. I'm sure people in the next county must have heard me, as I might have been overcompensating to distract from how flustered I was.

"Oh him," Francine laughed. "He meant well, God love him, but between you and me? He was a bit of sexist."

I laughed ruefully and bid my very fit, very capable neighbor a good day.

The phone was ringing when I walked through the door, and it was my husband telling me he'd soon be home.

"What are you doing?" He asked.

For a moment I considered saying, "Being thoughtlessly ageist and sexist, what are you up to?" but instead I told him that I was making chicken and dumplings for dinner. Even if Crow Pie might have been more fitting.

I set to work chopping some vegetables and couldn't help but laugh. David might have been a bit of a sexist, but I think I accidentally won the 'ism trophy for the day.

After all, in one fell blow, I combined ageism and sexism. Well, I suppose the only way to work on ones faults is to go ahead and recognize them. Admitting them to the internet at large probably is a fitting enough penance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Day with Little to Do

Right now, even as I type, I was supposed to be sorting food for the food bank. However, the snow gods have been angered here in Colorado and I awoke to their expressed displeasure. The only bad thing about the food bank where I started volunteering is that it is rather far away from where I live now. Long drives in bad weather in Colorado aren't the best idea, particularly since it's still snowing as of this writing, and is likely to for the rest of the day. Ah, crumbs but that's the way of things, the best laid plans, and all that.

So I set about doing other things, throwing in a load of laundry, digging into some work I was saving for tomorrow, but I've also just been goofing off. Isn't funny that when we become adults we start to feel guilty about goofing off, having a lazy day, and accomplishing little?

When the snow fell from the skies when I was child every kid within the city boundaries of Kidom felt their hopes soar. Perhaps school would be called off! A day of nothing to do but play in the snow, perhaps watch The Price is Right --something considered far, far too boring to do in the summer months was an odd treat in January-- and be free from responsibilities of any kind. A day of eating soup and watching bad daytime television held as much excitement as the prospect of something truly wondrous. Our views of the world certainly do change as we become older.

A day where the unexpected happened was different when I was a kid, and different was often fun. It is now also, but I realized that there is a certain comfort in the expected. I suppose that's how we form our sense of security.

But it isn't that a change in plans can sour my mood as much as I was looking forward to going where I was headed today. When I checked the sky, and then the weather report that indicated that who knew what the roads would be like this afternoon, I felt disappointed in the same way I would have on a snowy day in my childhood, where school hadn't even been delayed.

I've still got plenty to do today, and I'll get it done but aren't we funny creatures? I stood and watched the snow falling, and it is truly very pretty. I'll get back to the food bank, too. I'll shuffle around the to-do list and make it fit at another time.

And today while I get things done, I've got bad daytime television blaring in another room to remind that having plans interrupted can be as much of a gift as I choose to make it. Yesterday afternoon I even made soup.

I suppose that today, regardless of interruption to what I had planned, is simply a good day of a different kind than I expected. Kind of like when I was a kid.

In other news, I'm driving myself nuts trying to add a video in a post, but that's just as an aside. On the To Do List? Go stark, staring mad, evidently.

Is that it? Did I do it? Did I get something done? I did! Well, now I didn't expect that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What are the Huron to do?

Everyone has their secret language with the people who know them best. Phrases, words, inflections that mean something only to them. It's part of how we feel connected. Whether it is referencing a specific memory of an event or saying something with, for instance, on outrageously bad French accent, we reinforce our ties to one another with cues about our history together.

My oldest friend and I can dissolve into a fit of giggles if one of us says, "Follow that Bug!" because that's all it takes to evoke a long ago escapade we embarked on together.

I sometimes listen to instrumental music while getting things done. I can't just put my iPod on shuffle because changing music tends to hold my attention. Instrumental music blends into the background and helps promote thought rather than demanding focus. I'd love to claim that I listen to the great composers, but I don't do that frequently, instead I tend to have the musical soundtracks for movies that I've liked. Why? I don't know. Again, classical music is something I tend to focus upon, soundtracks just exist in the background, pretty much by design.

Long ago when I met my husband I was listening to a soundtrack while compiling a project.

"What is this?" My now-husband asked.

"It's the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans."

My now-husband didn't know me all that well at the time and said, "I didn't think you liked cheesy romances."

I stared at him for a moment. Let's see, was the scene of Magua ripping out the heart of his enemy cheesy? Or the scene of Chingachgook practically vivisecting Magua what he thought was coated in fromage?

"Huh?" I replied, because no one speaks eloquently all the time.

"Stay alive, I will find you!" He quoted. "Talk about drippy."

"You've never actually seen the movie, have you?" He confirmed that he had not. I downed tools, went in search of the DVD and sat my action-adventure-loving then-boyfriend down for a viewing party. As it happens there are a lot of cheesy elements to the movie, but it's visually gorgeous, and it's actually rather violent.

"God, this is hardcore." My husband said, staring at a scene I'd rather not describe seeing as I don't have a mature rating on this blog. The movie segued into one of its cheesier moments when poor doomed Duncan translates the Chief at a speed only seen in movies, and envied by those who work for the United Nations.

"What are the Huron to do?" Soon-to-be-crispy Duncan translates at a breakneck pace, and in a very amusing French accent. My then-boyfriend started laughing and parroting him.

"What are ze Uron tu dew? What ARE ze URON tu DEW?", and then Duncan meets his incredibly grisly fate and that shut him up as effectively as throwing a switch. He switched tones, "Gaaaaaahhhhh! Don't mess with the Huron!! Don't mess with the Huron! The Hurons get things done!!"

Now over a decade later, we still say that to each other when trying to accomplish something. It doesn't really fit with the scene in the movie, but it's one of our points of connection. That personal shorthand we work out with the people who know us best.

Every October a blog called Tomato Nation rallies together and helps to fund public school projects through an organization called Donors Choose and I was fortunate enough to participate last year. Here's the funny thing, I don't read Tomato Nation. That's not any kind of judgment on my part, it's a good site, but there are only so many hours in any given day. I found the drive through a blog that is now defunct, but I still read Velcrometer, the blog of a humor writer whose work I've always liked.

It's a great feeling to be able to participate, but I understand that not everyone can. Still, it's a fun thing to check out because people get together, address the problem of under funded classrooms, and make a difference together. Shorthand on the internet for getting things done, and all that.

We all feel a little bit lost sometimes. We have things come up, we aren't sure how to solve some problems. Life is sometimes a difficult path, but there are other things that come up, things that make us feel as if hurdles can be taken on, and put behind us.

When I found that another blog I read was linking to TN's efforts, I went to my husband, who is the family accountant. He loves this project. Like me, he is a fan of direct impact charities. We're fortunate people, and grateful to be so, and we try to make a difference in the ways that we can.

Even if you can't participate, check it out. It's just amazing to see the "Project Funded" icon put in place through the efforts of people banding together to bring a problem down.

Sometimes we all feel helpless to our problems, and sometimes we get to feel as if no effort is wasted.

"Remember that school funding organization?" I asked my husband, as I entered his home office. He was busy doing something, I'm not sure what. He was playing music, the kind with those distracting lyrics, I don't know how he gets anything done.

"Hmmm." He answered, then he turned around and said, "Oh yeah, I do. Well, What are the Huron to do?"

Our personal shorthand. Sometimes we also say, "Release the Kraken!" and sometimes we actually communicate in fully intelligible sentences, just not in this instance. We'd been discussing a budget for this last month, and that we had done in actual, understandable English.

"Be the Halloween Cat, just be him." I answered because when you get right down to it, I married the right guy.

By a lot.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Return of the Magic Door

For ten years I lived in a house where, on any given day, the doorbell might ring and present an interesting scenario. Our neighborhood was located near a busy street with a lot of foot traffic. Our house was not far from a light rail station. On many an occasion, something I could never have predicted sought me out through my front door.

A friend of mine joked that I must have a magic door because the only people that ever visited her house were people trying to sell things. To offer a sample of the varied situations that ended up at my door: I once had a woman in active labor ring the doorbell. Another time a man seeking a blanket taught me more about the human decency we all possess than an entire childhood attending church did. A lost monk once sought direction. More than one lost pet found my front porch, and found its way home by being glimpsed through that door. Those are only a few of the situations that came into my life, over the course of a decade. The ways in which life came to my door and sought me out were many and varied for the simple reason that I was there to answer the ring of a doorbell, or glimpse a shadow on the porch.

In the suburbs the only time the doorbell rings is when something we have requested comes to call. Certainly when neighbors came by to introduce themselves, the doorbell rang. Visitors, friends came to call, but mostly pizzas, UPS packages and the occasional lawn service were the only things that found the front porch. We don't even use the front door, we mainly enter through the door in the garage. There's a swing on our front porch I've never even sat upon, and the two wicker chairs that decorate it were left by the previous owner. I missed my magic door.

I spent a lot of the summer fretting about two things: Health care and a soap opera taking place at my husband's work. Health care reform has taken a beating, and I've already done everything I can to participate. Now I just watch with an increasingly sore heart. The soap opera resolved itself with no harm done to us, but my view of basic human decency took a bit of a beating in more ways than one.

This is a planned community, in fact, this is a planned city. All of it is centered around the idea of a planned community. There are rec centers galore, paid for by a group of homeowners associations. The entire city is a homeowners association, I'm not joking either, I moved to a suburb with a lot of planning and approval committees. It's a strange, but tidy life where the doorbell never unexpectedly rings.

When I moved here I searched for a charity within the city to see if there was anything I could volunteer to do. In an entirely planned city it turns out that there isn't much need. Feeling a little let down, I wasn't sure what to do. This is an enclave of privilege, and whereas I'm very grateful for my life, I actually don't relate well to people who appear to be strangers to hardship. Appearances have always been deceiving though, and I'm old enough to know that.

In this house we have a large formal living room which is still almost entirely empty, and will remain so until I decide what kind of furniture to buy for it. Not exactly a heavy burden to bear, is it? We bought this house primarily because we wanted the pool.

I was standing in my living room, for no reason whatsoever beyond having paused there, when I saw a brown paper bag on my front porch. One with a white sheet of paper stapled to it. I knew what that signaled, someone was collecting for a food bank. I've always liked food banks. Direct impact charities are wonderful. If you buy a can of beans for a food bank, that very same can of beans will end up in the hands of someone who needs it. Direct impact. No sitting back and waiting, or watching for anything.

But it wasn't the average food drive run by the Boy Scouts, which was what I had assumed. It was from one of my neighbors, a man I'd never met, but who at some point during that morning had walked up on to my front porch and placed it there. He was collecting for a food drive run by his church, but he volunteered for the organization in downtown Denver also.

My son was nearby when I picked up that bag, and the attached paper listed the goals of the church's food drive, but also mentioned that the food pantry of the Denver charity was empty. Empty underlined twice.

My son went to the store with me, pushing a separate cart to make it easier to buy for our household, and the food bank separately. The haul exceeded the limitations of the brown paper bag, so I needed to contact my neighbor to arrange a time to drop off the food. Then it turned out that help was needed in sorting it. Then it turned out that volunteers were sorely needed at the downtown facility. What the heck, right? I had the time.

On Tuesday the public health care option took a terrible blow. Insurance reform seems the best we can hope for now, and whereas that is something, it won't address the needs of many. Having access to health care being tied so firmly to an individual's job is precarious, to say the least. Particularly in times of a recession, when the shelves of food banks end up empty for a reason. As that story broke, I was busy thinking about grouping protein sources, and thinking it would be helpful to people to have a list of what items aren't particularly helpful to donate. All the Hamburger Helper in the world doesn't mean much if a person can't buy the hamburger to put in it, after all.

Reading opinions on health care had made me wonder how it was that so many had come to care only about their own, personal concerns, but my front porch led me back to the knowledge that regardless of views on the role of government, people often do care very much.

There's nothing magical about the door, is there? That's what you probably want to tell me. My neighbor left those bags on everyone's front porch. Nothing mystical going on there.

You're right, of course. Only my very nice neighbor isn't a very practical man, in some respects. You see, there is one other thing about this community you should know, we're on high ground and the wind coming down off the foothills is intense. He hadn't put the bag underneath the welcome mat, or the box for our milk delivery. He hadn't secured it in the door either. He'd laid it politely on top of the welcome mat, and because he works at home during the day, he'd hadn't thought of how many people would not be home during those hours, and set them out early. Most blew away as mine was trying to do when I caught sight of it.

Nothing to that other than good timing. Again, you're right, of course.

But I do find it interesting that the charity I searched for when we moved here was a food bank. Anyone who knows me, knows I have a soft spot for food banks. When I do someone a favor, and they say they owe me one? I tell them to give a couple of cans of food to a food bank and we'll call it even.

I'm willing to accept that there is nothing magical about my front door, even though it saved me from fretting myself into a state of despair. Wondering what will become of our nation if we cannot learn to care about, and for each other would have likely plunged me into dark thoughts on Tuesday had it not been for a paper bag, and a well timed glance out of a window.

Nothing magical, but a stroke of luck, to be sure. At least in the timing, and I submit to you that there may have been magic in that timing. After all, after a summer of fretting my faith in people was beginning to be lost. On Tuesday five Democrats were key to voting down the public option. That public option was the best hope of many. Hope was lost in one area, and I was busy thinking about how to group foods for a food bank thanks to some good timing, and the return of my magic door.