Saturday, January 31, 2009

Snail Mail and Postage Stamps

You can believe it, snail mail is now an official term in the English language. When I emailed someone from work, asking her to snail mail me more copies of a community service brochure, she replied that she would "send them U.S. mail." I suppose it is a very casual term, or she was unfamiliar with it, but I'm thankful the idea of physical letters with stamps is still part of our culture. It's fading fast. The Washington Post recently reported that the U.S. Postal service may be forced to cut it's delivery service from six days a week to five, partially due to declining mail being sent. No longer does the mail carrier even need to come to my door every day; most of my bills are electronic, and most of my correspondence with friends and family is online. Niether do I need to purchase postage stamps every month like I once did; with the Internet, one roll can last indefinitely.

I hope I'm not the only person nostalgic for this very human part of American culture.
Some of the kindest things people have said to me over the years, in good times and bad, were said in a letter delivered by the mailman. These words would not have stayed in my memory from emails or text messages. I'm thankful that when I was in college and having a rough week with studies or personal matters, an inspirational card or clipped magazine article from my mom would arrive on exactly the right day. I'm thankful that my former neighbor, Colleen, took the time to send a letter and paperback book to our new address, wishing us well in our new community. And most recently I'm extremely grateful to a special lady named Ruthie, who repeatedly sent her sweet homemade cards over the space of a year when my life was falling apart. None of these messages could have conveyed the care by electronic means; the pen was the healer's touch.

Some messages are not so endearing. In another chapter of my life an unsigned neighbor didn't mail her letter to me, but dropped it off on my front porch when I had a newborn baby to feed and a small business to keep alive. She said our lawn was "going to seed" and she was going to report it to the city. She should have used snail mail, and I would have known not to even open it in the first place. But positive personal messages are always more memorable when sent by mail, rather than email, text, and fax. I have yet to try the fax, but something tells me it wouldn't be too well received. If the post office is going broke, why not share a little kindness with our friends and family by using a stamp or two?

After years of what I call "hyper-efficiency" and too much multi-tasking, I've decided to take another route: the slow road. And after all the nice letters and cards that have been sent to me over the years, I may as well include this more frequently on my daily agenda. Instead of scanning a recipe and emailing it to my domestically-gifted sister in Spokane, I dusted off the stamps, located an envelope, and dropped in a short personal note. Instead of texting or emailing my college-age children to see how their day was going, I pulled some unused cards off the shelf at my desk and wrote each a short letter. There is a stronger, even physical, connection made when we actually hand-write a message rather than striking a keyboard. I felt it when I wrote the cards and note the other day. I felt it when I opened my cards and letters from Mom, Colleen, and Ruthie. So, instead of the ultra-efficient e-birthday card I was just about to send , I'll be heading to my favorite card shop--I hope I can remember the stamps.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chores or Favors?

Ever since my kids can remember, they have been required to pitch in around the house with a daily chore of some sort, ranging from dish-duty or garbage detail, to yard work. I used to have it all written out, who had to do which job. Now we just operate on the fly, depending on what needs to be done. I've heard some whining over the years, but they seem to have accepted the fact that this will never go away so they may as well deal with it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a chore: "a piece of (time consuming) drudgery." Yikes. Is that what I've been asking them to do all this time? Ever the idealist, I actually thought we were "all working as a team to improve our home environment!"

Luckily for me, my girls who are still at home have figured something out: if you want Mom to be extra-happy, just pick a chore that you can do before she thinks of it herself and do it. They're catching on so fast to the idea they can choose their work that I don't even stop to realize all the household tasks that are being neglected. On the days when this happens, I'm just happy they're helping out without my asking. And this is the magical point at which a piece of drudgery becomes a favor, "an act of exceptional kindness," as described in the dictionary. What a difference! Our home is not, nor will it ever be, the Martha Stewart-approved habitation I always envisioned. But when my teenagers choose to approach household maintenance in the spirit of kindness rather than obligation, it's much harder for me to notice the dust and smudges and they feel a sense accomplishment from taking the initiative. The smiles and laughter I hear coming from their happy hearts are the perfect trade-offs at the end of a busy day; the chore list can wait.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"I'm There for You."

Helicopter parents get a bad rap for being overprotective. I can say this objectively because I have never had the privilege of joining their ranks. I've had a lot to juggle as a mom; maybe under different circumstances I might have hovered more. The degree of nurturing, caring, and fostering which helicopter offspring experience may look absurd to the outside world, but these promote self-confidence when children know they have a support system. I saw some mighty self-confident young people at the SAT test this morning, where I worked as a proctor.

When my son and oldest daughter took the test, I wished them well in the morning and they were on their way. Some of the kids I saw today received much more, and their quiet smiles showed the understanding that they were not alone. This was a 4-hour test on a drizzly Saturday morning, and several parents walked their students right up to the classroom door. One father even got special permission to help his son with accommodations due to a broken leg. Maybe the son could have hobbled in by himself and figured out how to keep his leg propped up, but I could tell he appreciated the extra care from his dad. We also had a group of seventh-graders taking the test, as part of the College Board Talent Search program. These students had mothers who waited at the door with them, and proudly arrived to pick them up with hugs and smiles the minute the test was finished. Though proctoring a test on the weekend might not have been the most exciting thing on my agenda, I learned about nurturing by watching the faces of these students. Sure, a balance between caring and empowering is always necessary, but a certain degree of doting is essential for kids to fully understand that they have our support.

Some parents have this figured out naturally, while others of us have to work at it.
While substitute teaching in a very nurturing classroom last year, I discovered an inspirational poster from Search Institute titled, "Fifty Ways to Show Kids You Care." Some of my favorites from this list were:
  • Make yourself available.
  • Celebrate their firsts and lasts, such as the first day of school. (Or, their first SAT test!)
  • Encourage them to think big.
How delightful it was to watch a few parents give these intangibles to their children and teenagers today. For the seventh graders who came, just having the gumption to show up with all the high school juniors takes a lot. One of the boys gave a very loud "Wooo-hooooooo!" as I announced the end of the test. His mom thanked me and told me they were going out for pizza. That boy knew a caring adult was available to celebrate his accomplishment of thinking big!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"You First."

Recently I navigated a crowded parking lot on a weekend, trying to get back out to the street along with everyone else. At an intersection in the lot, one of the four directions had a "Stop" sign, but the other three did not. One lane was full of people trying to get in and out, while the intersecting lane was a mix of some people trying to find parking stalls, and others coming or going. You can imagine the scene--chaos. We were all fighting for space. In my sometimes feisty moods, I have found myself in the push-and-shove mentality that pervades our fast-paced culture. I started to feel the irritation of the moment, but then I looked the driver across from me right in the eye and gestured, "No, you go first."

Don't get me wrong, this reaction did not come naturally or easily, but it did catch me off guard and I've been thinking about it ever since. How often do we stop worrying about rushing to the next place, to practice good manners? I witnessed this behavior today in an exemplary display of civility by our freshly sworn-in President, Barack Obama, and by his wife Michelle. No matter who any of us voted for or what he even accomplishes while in office,
today was a class act.

Due to the fact that we don't have television in our home (another story for another time), I found myself racing over to the gym at 8:30am this morning to hop onto a cardio machine that was connected to a TV. Luckily for me there was one left so I didn't miss the inauguration! I'm glad I kept going on the machine after the speech, the poetry, and the prayer. The farewell was the thing to watch: the Obama's escorting the Bush's down the long White House steps to their military transport. The commentators mentioned they had never seen this before, and I'm sure they hadn't. It took the utmost degree of respect to pull this off without it looking phony or rehearsed. Who knows if it was the new administration's idea, or those staging the event; the tone was set to remind us all that politeness, courtesy, and good etiquette still matter after all.

If you missed this part, go back and see what I witnessed. The announcers reminded us that the event was now a half-hour behind schedule. The luncheon guests were standing in a hallway, waiting for the President, Vice President, and their wives to climb back up the stairs. But the four of them patiently waited for the helicopter to fire up, and for everyone to get into position for flight. It was quite a while before the helicopter took off, and then the four remaining all waved, even threw in a salute. I won't tell you my political affiliation, but I will tell you this act of civility today was proof that the "old virtues" referred to in the inaugural speech are alive at the White House, and yes, Mr. Obama, they are "true." Thank you for getting us started with Civility.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Photographer

Sometimes we walk past, when our conscience says to stop and lend a hand. I'm glad the rocker dude and his platinum babe decided to offer a minute of their time today. It was another very simple act, but it made a difference for me and my family. I never have enough casual photos, so I asked my step-dad Chuck to snap one of all the girls--me, my daughters, and my mom--in front of St. Mary's Cathedral before we went inside for our friends' organ and piano concert. Chuck is the self-designated historian, and we like his work so why change the photographer? But the spiky-haired gentleman in printed t-shirt, blazer and jeans insisted that we all needed to be in this photo.

It was a fabulous backdrop, so after some prodding we finally gave in. His girlfriend smiled as if to acknowledge this was just normal behavior for her darling man. Sure, it may be typical for your average Joe, but this guy did look extraordinarily cool. Now Chuck will also be in our visual record of a family outing on a beautiful afternoon in the city. And to tell you the truth, I think all of our smiles are more gleaming because of the gorgeous young guy behind the lens!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mercy: "Give me a break!"

This was my first thought one morning as I felt like my head was going straight for the chopping block. And it did. Without the details, it was about to be a bad day, and there was absolutely no way of going over it, under it, or around it---I had to go "through it." (Thanks, Mrs. Pankovitch, for teaching me this over and over again in the bear hunt at Hillview Elementary.) How do we brace ourselves when headed into stormy weather? As for me, I beg the Powers That Be for mercy on my own behalf. And guess what the answer was on this particular day? "Give mercy, and you will find mercy." A disturbing thought for someone who was self-absorbed in her own troubles as I was. But I accepted it into my heart and went on with my day, chopping block and all.

The outcome of my meeting was bleak, to put it mildly, and all I could do was hold back the tears to preserve my dignity. I drove off in my mom's car, which I had borrowed for a day while mine was in the shop.
"Ugh, triple ugh, and grrrrrr," I thought, "why doesn't life ever fall into place for ME?" Yes, there I went again, "me, me, me, me, me." Due to the news at the meeting, I knew I would continue to have more spare time on my hands and less money, so I may as well take this afternoon to gas up my mom's car and return it. I even had a pre-paid car wash coupon that I purchased the week before, so I could take the vehicle back in good shape. But, as I fueled Mom's white wagon and realized it was recently pampered, I noticed the gal across the service station island next to her black sedan---a color that shows every spot. I looked at my mom's wagon once again, then at my car wash coupon, and then at the lady. She reminded me of myself, maybe struggling in some way. Without thinking much, I walked up to her and gave her the coupon, "I already washed my car, and this is about to expire." Sorry Mom, but I'm sure you won't mind hearing that I was able to brighten her day, and mine.

This blog is not about "me, me, me." I'm way past that in my middle age. As good as I felt giving away a free $8.00 car wash, I completely failed just two months later when it wouldn't have cost me a dime to do the right thing. I was teaching skiing to some little kids, feeling picked on that I wasn't on the big hill any more after skiing with the teenage rippers for four days. My next assignment was back to the beginners. I figured I needed to "pay" somehow for the fun I had with the big mountain skiers, and I would just grin and bear it with the munchkins. But they were darling, and I bonded with them. So, when an adult learner came barreling down, heading straight into my little 4-year-old ski student and crashing as her ski tips touched ours, I growled with my eyes. "Grrrrrrrrrr." "Sorry," she apologized. I gave her an authoritative glance. "Watch it," I thought. I figured since I didn't
say the mean words, I was okay, right? But guess what, I still feel badly to have left this innocent person, who meant no harm, with a negative feeling about the world.

The difference between my little car coupon gift, which did cost a few bucks to give away, and the forgiveness I could have extended to the ski bunny, is Mercy. It would have taken more for me to act charitably in the second case, and this is where I failed. I didn't need the car wash, anyway, so it was really no sacrifice to give it up. But giving away
a part of myself, in being charitable at a time when I didn't feel so inclined, was the bigger test. One definition of mercy implies "a kindly understanding and tolerance in judging others." I hope next time I am faced with the opportunity, I will be able to give that person a break.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Moms of Teenage Boys

As I drove home from a hillside walk with a friend at dusk, I reflected on the day and thought maybe I missed my chance to observe any good works. But then I remembered the in-depth conversations I had with two moms who are each struggling to find ways to help their teenage sons. What a lesson to me this was. When my son was this age, he gave me the signals to stay out of his business and I took it personally. This was my loss.

What I witnessed from the dedication of the friends I spoke with today is all about sacrifice and letting go. They will go to the end of the earth to provide emotional support for their sons, but they are both realizing that the best thing they can do to help is
let go momentarily when the time is right. This is an art, and anyone who has raised teenage boys will attest it is not mastered easily. The delicate balance between nurturing and smothering is something that can only be achieved by losing one's own ego. We cannot control exactly how our sons will turn out, we can only help them along the way to develop into the the people they are.

This type of compassion and service is not the kind that can be doctored up on occasion or contrived; it is authentic and all-encompassing. The hardest thing for mothers like my two friends can do is to take time for themselves occasionally. Their job is never done; their example to me lasts forever.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


The older I get, the less enthusiastic I become about celebrating my birthday. Most of us are this way. If we don't acknowledge another candle on that cake, then we're only as old as we feel, right? But Jenny is the secretary at my work, and she will not allow any of us to be in denial about our birthdays. To her, it's one more reason for a celebration! And it's no small celebration, either. The entire department is invited weeks in advance of the occasion for the monthly birthday gathering. We are all requested to participate heartily with food, drink, decorations, singing, and the works. It's a fun half-hour or so, where we middle-aged kids get to be self-absorbed like teenagers--and we love it. Today, not one of us felt any shame at munching away an entire plate full of carb-laden treats at the party Jenny arranged.

So here's to all the Jenny's of the world, for whom life presents endless opportunities for celebration. She helps all of us who are lucky enough to be around her feel young at heart.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Riley the Bewildered Retriever

So, my goal yesterday was to watch for neat things that other people were doing for each other, I see them so often in my everyday work and activities. But Riley stopped me in my tracks--literally. I was mortified as I witnessed him being lightly struck by one car and narrowly missed by another traveling along Embarcadero Road. Drivers were honking, a jogger was yelling, a man in a business suit was talking on his phone and he just shook his head. Why did nobody stop? I was supposed to be the observer of good works; here was the opportunity and nobody was taking it.

Riley limped off in a daze to the nearby school parking lot, surely about to go right back into the street and be run over again, for the last time. I understood why nobody took the time to deal with him after I pulled over and tried to find an i.d. tag--he was the world's strongest dog! There was no tag, but his owner had written a phone number on his collar. Luckily for me, a mom dressed in yoga clothes pulled up in her Mercedes and offered to take Riley home. She didn't know exactly where he lived, but said he looked familiar. I wondered if she hadn't shown up, could I have dealt with Riley, the world's strongest dog, without letting this little inconvenience frustrate me because of having to change my schedule?

The chance to help doesn't always come at the most convenient time, for sure, but we never regret seizing those little opportunities along our path. I'll be forever grateful to those who rescued our family dog, Max, three years ago when he was also off on an undetermined adventure---along highway 101 at 2:00 a.m.! Luckily, someone took a minute to load him into the car, exit the freeway, and bring him safely home. Inconvenient, yes, but worth it. This week Riley has reminded me to slow down and stop along the way, something that's not easy to do in this hurried world of ours.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Starting Over with a Smile

Sometimes life requires us to start over, from the ground up, as if our lives were emerging from a tidal wave. That's how I felt when I visited Costco a few months ago to purchase a mattress for a bedroom I inherited from my oldest daughter, who decided to stay in her college digs year round.

I should have been happy to have my own room back, but instead I felt somehow deserted. As I wheeled my Sealy Posturepedic out to stuff into the back of my trusty little SUV, I noticed a wiry red-haired man smoking a cigarette next to his car. Someone had parked approximately one inch away and he could not get into the driver's seat. Even if he had climbed through the passenger side, it appeared that there was no way to clear the side mirrors of either car to pull out. After all I'd been through, I thought my first reaction would be to yell, cry, or key the other car! This man left such an impression on me by silently waiting for the vehicle's owner to return. I stayed around to watch the impending explosion of expletives. When the other gentleman finally came to carefully move his car without scraping the little man's compact, the latter calmly breathed a sigh of relief, got in the driver's seat and smiled! I could not believe my eyes.

Though I usually try to display patience, this situation would have set anyone off. I said a "thank you" in my heart to this person for showing me how to slow down (without the nicotine, of course), and just smile--things always work out in the end. I couldn't muster the courage to openly praise this stranger for his service by example, but in a show of support I gave him my own smile and a little wave. Often that's all we can do, but it's those simple smiles that can get us through the day when patience runs thin. Try a smile today :)