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Friday, December 26, 2014

A Social Experiment

I started off my week with a Monday-morning doctor's appointment. It was one of those fasting-so-we-can-do-blood-work visits, so I scheduled it at a fairly reasonable time. By the time everything was over and done with, both Trent and I were famished, starved, and otherwise hungry. Since we had several things to do before we headed home, we decided to stop at a fast-food establishment before going to the grocery store. I am vastly in favor of eating before grocery shopping. If you go to the store hungry, you'll be likely to come home with half a dozen bags of snack foods that you buy just because you're so hungry you could happily eat the wrappers as well as the contents.

Anyway, we were sitting and eating our breakfast and planning out the various stops we would make along the way. I happened to look up at just the moment when a gentleman who was waiting while his food was being prepared happened to look in my direction. Without thinking, I said, "Hi! How are you doing today?" His face brightened as he smiled and said that he was doing well, how was I? I sort of quoted my friend Julie and said that if we were all still upright and taking nourishment, we were doing okay. He took his food and went on his way with a little smile on his face.

I told Trent that I was sad at some of the ways in which the world has changed. When we were younger, people greeted one another everywhere they went. Smiles might be exchanged, or a nod of the head or a tip of a man's hat. Pleasantries as simple as comments about the unseasonable weather or a simple "Good day to you," were briefly given, and the parties went on their way. Nowadays, though, it seems as though everyone tries to live in a bubble. They stand in line at a store and update their Facebook feed (I actually saw this happen this week), or they rush through their daily travels, trying not to make eye contact, or any human contact, for that matter. 

As I said to one of my friends, it's almost like everyone thinks they are living in New York City. This is not meant as an insult. People who live in places that are very densely populated, like NYC, have to sort of cocoon themselves in order to not burn out from sensory overload. With that seeming detachment, they can still be alone when they are surrounded by millions of other people. That is not to say that people in NYC are cold or distant. When I was there I saw some of the kindest, most caring people you could ever hope to meet. I still think fondly of the woman who helped my friend and I when we weren't sure if we were taking the correct subway. Yes, you might know that you need to catch it on a particular street to get from Point A to Point B, but if you are on the wrong side of the station, you'll soon be far from where you want to be. This lady said that yes, this was the train we needed, so we waited. A minute or two later, she was back. "Girls, this is the wrong track. Follow me." This New Yorker didn't simply tell us where we needed to be, she took the time to take us there. That's the sort of thing that's often missing these days, I think.

After Trent and I finished our breakfast and had moved on to grocery shopping, Trent showed that he is the wonderful person I know him to be. As a lady walked past where I was waiting while Trent looked at something, he said, "Hi there! How are you doing today?" She looked surprised, but in a wonderful way. She said that she was doing very well, and thanked him for asking. We chatted briefly, and all three of us continued our shopping with smiles on our faces. 

We had to make other stops at various places over the course of the first few days of this week, and kept up with our "great social experiment." We have spoken with people at banks, restaurants, shops, and supermarkets. Our chats have been with people of all sizes, ages, abilities, and hues. When we had to go into our incredibly crowded supermarket the day before Christmas, it helped us not to get overwhelmed by the throngs of shoppers. We discussed whether a youngster was ready for Santa to come, and may have been among the few who acknowledged the gentleman in a motorized wheelchair. It was great. 

So I guess Trent and I have started a two-person revolution. We are going to try to make sure that we don't act like everyone around us is invisible. We won't be pushy, and we aren't trying to make everyone we see be our new best friend. But making someone happy simply because you said hi feels really good. So for now, we're willing to try to change the world, one smile at a time.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Five What?

When I was in Elementary School, I had some wonderful teachers. One that everyone seemed to love was our music teacher, Mrs. Schlundt. Not only did we sing all sorts of fun songs, some from other parts of the world, but we also learned about legends that influenced music, like Till Eulenspiegel and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. We would draw pictures of the stories she told us, and sing the songs or listen to the music that they inspired. She also formed a few choirs in which I sang. Toward the end of my fifth grade year, we were invited to sing at the Governor's Mansion in Denver. A few days before we were due to make this appearance, Mrs. Schlundt was killed by a driver who ran through a red light. We decided not to perform. I lost my confidence in singing, and perhaps, temporarily, a little of my joy.

The following year brought us a new music teacher whose name I can't remember. Looking at the situation over the distance of years, I feel a bit sorry for her. She was following a legend, someone who was deeply loved by her students and died tragically in her prime. But we learned to enjoy our time with this new teacher, and even put on a short version of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical at the end of the school year.

I started on a train of thought yesterday, while we were out running some errands, that made me think of this teacher. We turned on the car radio to listen to some Christmas music, and there was a song that took me back to my childhood. I remembered singing the song "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" and being taught, shall we say, alternative lyrics for this and many other classic holiday songs by my friends and cousins. We thought we were very clever and brave when we sang, "Later on, we'll perspire, as we dream by the fire." We were wild men and women, at least in our own minds.

On the occasions that we'd sing these songs in school or while out caroling, a few of the brave and foolhardy souls among us would use the naughty lyrics or teach them to one another. The opening line of We Three Kings of Orient Are was followed by the words, "tried to smoke a rubber cigar. It was loaded, and explo-o-ded..." And there was always the classic Randolph the Shiny-Gunned Cowboy, or even the witty lyrics "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..." I'm sitting here shaking my head just thinking about it. What seems so silly now was so hysterical to us then. We thought we were getting away with something really bold and bad, but I am sure all of the parents involved simply chose to ignore what they thought of as our idiocy.

So, how does this relate to my (unfortunately nameless) sixth-grade music teacher? It's very simple, really. When it came time for our annual Christmas program, one of the carols she chose for us to sing was The Twelve Days of Christmas. This was a song that most of us knew and liked a great deal. For the few years that we had actually been old enough to learn and sing carols, we had worked hard to learn all of the lines, especially with a long one like this. But I think most of us felt up to the challenge of singing this song. But our teacher made a change in the lyrics. For some reason, she really hated, and I mean she told us that she absolutely hated, they phrase "five golden rings." I don't know why this would be a big deal for her. Maybe someone gave her a golden ring and it ended up turning her finger green, along with the romance, and the lyric was an annual reminder of the not-so-golden ring? I will never know. As we rehearsed for our program, we sang the song with the new lyric of "five go-old rings." We practiced it enough times for the lyric to come out of our mouths naturally. And that's when my problem began. For years, I had a stumbling block with the fifth day of Christmas. Were the rings gold or golden? It took me a good long while to get that confusion straightened out. 

When I hear old Christmas songs, from time to time I will think about the silliness we indulged in as children. And I also think of how my music teacher's intense dislike of one word in a song had me mixed up about the lyric for years. I sometimes wonder if any of my fellow students had the same problem, or if I was the only one left with fifth-day confusion. My true love gave me five what? I've gotten over my stumbling block with the song, and will gladly join in when it is being sung. "On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, Five Golden Rings..." Or were they gold? Darn it! Just kidding, I knew the right answer all along! 


Friday, December 19, 2014

Good Deeds

I'm not a person of great wealth. If I were, I'd probably be one of those people who gives gifts to random strangers just because it feels so good. But the truth of the matter is, we don't need to have a lot of money at our disposal to make others happy.

When we were leaving the supermarket the other day, I remembered a day about a year ago when we were at the store. It was really close to Christmas, and the parking lot was overflowing with cars. We just happened to have fortunate timing and find a really good parking spot. As we were walking out of the store, we saw that people were circling the lot, trying to find open parking spaces. I told Trent I was going to tell someone to take our spot. I split off from him before we reached the car, and flagged down a driver. I told him that if he followed me and left us enough room to back out, he was welcome to our parking space. The look on his face was priceless. To see the stress melt off of his face was a Christmas gift that I gave myself. Both of us felt warm and fuzzy the rest of the afternoon.

See? Nothing big is necessary to make another person's day. All we need to do at any time of the year is just take a moment to think about someone else. That's why if someone gets behind us in the checkout lane and only has a couple of items, we will insist politely that they should go ahead of us. Even though it feels wonderful to do little good deeds, it can sometimes make me a bit sad. Why? Because people are so stunned by strangers being kind or polite to them. It's a sad state of affairs when an act of courtesy becomes so out-of-the-norm. Apparently common courtesy isn't very common any more.

Occasionally, one can see that Fate/Karma/Heaven/Whatever Works for You rewards kind behavior just like it seems to frequently punish unkind behavior. Wednesday evening was our apartment complex Christmas party. The leasing office was decked out for the holidays, and food was catered from Macaroni Grill. There's just one thing that I don't like about these parties. There is only one table available for sitting down and eating. There are lots of places to sit, but most of them require using your lap as your table. We like to sit with a few other residents that we usually only see at these parties. There's Marge, Vera, and the famous Mary. Mary is ninety-six years old. She lives alone, but comes to the parties with her son. And although he must be in his seventies, he will always be her baby, so she still calls him Tommy. Well, we wanted to make sure that Mary would be able to sit at the table, so we got there early and moved enough chairs to seat all of the people mentioned. And just because we were the first ones there (simply to make sure everyone had seats) we were given a gift. I am pleased to say that Mary and Marge also won prizes in the drawings that were held throughout the evening, but we were thrilled to be given an assortment of treats just because we wanted to make sure Mary had a convenient place to sit down and eat.

I am glad that I have always been aware of the importance and potential impact of small acts of kindness. I like to do them as frequently as I can, because I am selfish. Selfish enough to want to feel that warmth and happiness whenever possible. I don't need to get a prize for doing something decent. The good feeling I get is enough reward for me. 


Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Santa, Baby!

Tap, tap, tap.

There's someone tapping on the front door. We aren't expecting anyone to come over and visit. In fact, we had an incident one evening last week that was a bit disconcerting. We were sitting and watching tv, minding our own business, and someone turned the doorknob and pushed on the door to see if it was unlocked. We looked at one another, a bit stunned, and were glad that we make a habit of locking the door even when we are home. We were also quite relieved that we didn't have some stranger just walk into our home.

After a momentary delay, I looked out through the peephole in the front door, and there was nobody there. I opened the door to find a notice that there was an attempt to deliver a package, and the package would now be delivered to the leasing office. Well, we knew that it would take a bit of time until the driver made his other stops and went to the office, so we simply called to see how late the office would be open that evening. Knowing our wonderful staff, though, we shouldn't have been surprised that we received a call later telling us that our package had been delivered.

When we got to the office, we found that it was a package for me. As I eagerly opened it, I found a lovely red-wrapped package inside, sent from an online merchant. The gift tag had the name of someone I know but have never met. And it was a book that I really want to read. How did all of this happen? It's quite simple, really. I am on a social network known as Google Plus. Every year (this is my second year participating) there is a wonderful thing that happens on this network. A group of elves maintains a page for Secret Santa. In November or early December, the notification goes out for people to create wishlists, and where they will be located. 

Some people don't create wish lists, preferring to be Secret Santa's helpers and sending gifts to members around the world. One can simply put their list out there, or also be a gift giver. There are no firm rules. And that is how Mary Z., whom I've never met, and who lives across the country from me, came to send me a book that I really, really wanted to read. I was thrilled and touched, and posted a picture online of myself with my nose in the book, so to speak.

I'm not entirely sure that I will have the funds to send anyone a gift this Christmas. Last year, I did manage to send one, and it felt really good to give. I also was sent a couple of gifts that I was thrilled and honored and touched to receive. A friend in Ohio sent me a lovely jar of Hungarian Acacia honey, and another in Switzerland sent me a Chromecast device. Both have been immensely enjoyed, and always remind me of the kind people who gave them to me.

I have been trying to delay reading my new book so that I will still have some of it left to read at Christmas. It's been really hard to put off reading the book, but I keep trying day by day. Every time I pick it up, I think of Mary Z. and how wonderful she made me feel. I hope that her Christmas season is full of joyful surprises like the one she gave me a couple of nights ago! Many thanks to Mary, Rich, Eve, and all of Secret Santa's helpers. Your gifts made my holidays very happy.


p.s. I know that if there is anyone out there who is as inquisitive as me (inquisitive, I said, not nosy!), they will be thinking, "Hey! what was the book?" It is called Full Dark, No Stars, and is a collection of four stories (long short stories? short books? novellas?) by Stephen King. One of the selections, Big Driver, is about a female author who takes a shortcut on her drive home from a speaking engagement, a shortcut that leads her into horror. Another story, A Good Marriage, is about a woman who literally stumbles on evidence in the garage that her husband is a serial killer. You know, basic mellow bedtime reading!


Friday, December 5, 2014

A Friendship Lost

I've been thinking a lot lately about a friend I had many years ago. Her name was Donna, and she was substantially older than me. In fact, she was old enough to be my mother. We met and became friends because we both sold Avon products and were in the same sales district. Yes, when I was much younger than I am now, I spent a few years as an Avon Lady. But that's a story for another day. 

Despite our age difference, Donna and I had some great times together. She was willing to try new things and to go to different places. She is the one who introduced me to a little restaurant that I have in turn sent numerous friends to, Andre's Confiserie Suisse. Oh, what a delight that place has been! The lunch menu consists of two or three items, one of which is always vegetarian, and the price of lunch includes your choice from a fabulous selection of freshly made pastries. She was the kind of person who was more than willing to drive across town or into the mountains to enjoy a delicious meal. We went to movies and rode to sales meetings together and had a grand time all around. We could be silly or serious, and we were good friends for one another.

Along the way, however, there were cracks that appeared in our friendship. Some of them taught me to be a more patient person, and some taught me that sometimes it becomes necessary to move on. One thing that drove me batty was her wrong-name phase. It all started when we got a new District Manager whose name was Kathleen, if I remember correctly. I will be the first to say that Katrina and Kathleen are somewhat similar names. But Kathleen and I had very different personalities, so when Donna started calling me Kathleen all of the time, it really irked me. Actually, she didn't just call me Kathleen. She called me Kath-a-leen. I would say, "Katrina," to her, and it really ticked her off. One day, I decided not to put such importance on her calling me by my own name and quit correcting her. As soon as I quit correcting her, she began always getting my name right. Go figure.

Then we started arguing about almost everything. She was always right, even when I was, so this became quite frustrating. After she had changed lanes on the highway and kept driving for miles with her blinker on (a very irritating sounding blinker, it was!), I'd mention it casually. She'd blow up at me, telling me that it was broken, because it should have turned itself off after she eased into the other lane. I knew it wasn't worth even trying to explain that it would only do so if her wheel had turned more. And the time that she was driving in the city with her high-beams on because one of her headlights was burned out? She got angry that so many other drivers were flashing her with their bright lights. When I asked if hers were on, she said yes, and I said that was probably why they were flashing her. She retorted that she needed them on to see, so that was their problem. Which it was, indeed, since they were blinded by the light.

One of the final nails in the coffin came when we had gone to see the film Gandhi. After the movie, we went out for a burger (booger in Donna-speak) and began talking about the movie. She began to tell me that as a Christian, she was upset that the Indian people thought of Gandhi as a god. No matter how many times I tried to tell her that Mahatma meant a great soul or a wise person, she wasn't having any part of it. They were all terrible people because they revered this man as a god. I cut my losses and changed the subject. I didn't want a side of indigestion with my burger that night.

The final death knell for our friendship came when the AIDS crisis started really hitting the news. At first, many people assumed it was a disease that only affected the gay community. This was quickly proven to be wrong as the illness spread through all facets of society, rich, poor, straight, gay, young, and old. I can't even tell you how the subject came up, but Donna pronounced her judgement and opinion of the situation. "God sent AIDS to get rid of queers," she told me in a matter-of-fact tone. I was stunned and hurt, but most of all, I was furious. I retorted that if God was sending AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality, babies wouldn't be getting it too. Donna refused to talk about it any further. She knew (felt?) that she was right, and I knew (again, felt?) that she was wrong. There was no point in discussing it any further.

That was pretty much the end of our friendship. We had come to a point where we both realized we were no longer good for one another. We had a lot in common, but we also had a lot that would force us apart. We drifted away from one another before things became contentious, and I'm very glad for that. Although I remember some of the bad times, of course, I still have memories of the much more numerous good times that we shared. I have no regrets. I experienced and learned many things, and grew as a person because of our friendship. When it was over, I was sad, but ready to move on with my life.

I want to stress that this is not an indictment of Donna's Christian faith. There are many people with Christian beliefs, and there are variations of thought among them. For every Westboro Baptist or similar church that has far more extreme beliefs than Donna ever dreamt of having, there are other Christian sects that preach love of one's fellow humans. Donna fell somewhere in the middle. She was a good person, and I am glad she was a part of my life.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Go Scrooge Yourself!

Okay, before you get all worked up, reread the title, please. This is my way of telling you that I wish everyone would take some time to read (or re-read, as the case may be) Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol. Actually, the full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. It was published in 1843 and has never been out of print. That is pretty amazing. Many books come and go, and after they have been published, they might be reprinted a few times, but publishing houses quit doing so because they don't sell enough copies to justify the expense of printing. Pretty amazing for a book about a miser who changes after experiencing a memorable Christmas Eve.

Why do I love this story so much? I could give numerous reasons. The most obvious, of course, is the change undergone by Ebenezer Scrooge when he is given the chance to look back at his life and his Christmases. He sees himself alone at school over the holidays, sent away by a father who has become bitter over the loss of his wife. This is the first step toward creating the man he would eventually become. He watches himself a few years later, apprenticed to Mr. Fezziwig, who has a party for all of his family and staff. The dancing and food cost very little, Scrooge realizes, but created so much happiness. Scrooge continues to try and better himself in life, hoping to earn enough money to be able to afford to have a wife and home. After a while, though, his hunger for security alienates the woman he loves. She releases him from his promise to her because she knows that she has been replaced in his heart by his need for more money.

Scrooge is then shown people celebrating Christmas in numerous places and in many ways. He sees people clasping hands in goodwill and sharing whatever they have, even if it is only their friendship or love, in celebration of the holiday. He has the opportunity to see his nephew, who never gives up on inviting Scrooge to dinner, and his wife and friends celebrating the day. His former fiancee and her children are also visited, along with the family of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's underpaid clerk. Even though the Cratchits have very little, they celebrate joyously, and drink to Scrooge, the founder of the feast. Scrooge learns, to his great sadness, that young Tim Cratchit will die if there is no change in his family's circumstances.

Finally, Scrooge has the chance to see the future. There are people talking, bragging in fact, about taking things from a dead man. They sell these various items while laughing about him not needing them any more. There are also men who were business associates of Scrooge talking about the same man's funeral. Most agree that very few people will be attending, even suggesting that they might only go if a luncheon is provided. He asks to be shown some tenderness associated with a death, and is transported to the Cratchit home. Bob is late coming home from work because he stopped on his way home to visit the grave of his beloved Tiny Tim. Scrooge is heartbroken at this news, and also when he finds out that the dead man the others talked about earlier was him.

Scrooge's transformation is miraculous. He changes willingly and completely. He begins to share his enormous wealth with others, especially with the Cratchit family. Tiny Tim's life is spared, Scrooge begins to have a relationship with his nephew and his nephew's wife, and much happiness ensues. At the end of the story I feel happy and inspired.

There have been numerous film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and I have seen and loved many of them. There's a great version from 1951 called Scrooge, a title which was used again in a 1970 musical version. There's also the 1988 version, Scrooged, which someone let me borrow over Christmas that year. It helped me at a time when I had recently been released from the hospital with a diagnosis of lupus and was still weak and struggling. I must also admit to a great attachment to a made-for-television animated version, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. I've loved it ever since the first time I saw it, and still do.

While all of these are wonderful ways to appreciate this story, there's nothing to compare with reading the book. Dickens' use of the language and his powers of description are marvelous. When I reread the book in the coming days, I can almost guarantee something that will happen. I will come across a description that is so marvelous that I will make Trent stop what he's doing to listen as I read it aloud. Here's a sample from the visit by the Ghost of Christmas Present:

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the
waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling
out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy,
brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of
their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in
wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at
the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high...

The language is both beautiful and delicious. Yes, I really love this book! I really hope you'll find some time, at any time of the year, to read this wonderful story. I hope it enriches your holiday season like it always does mine. And now, I'm off to read...