Friday, February 27, 2009

Volunteer Extraordinaire!

I decided to write a blog about people who do good things in the world, and to share some of my own observations in that realm. Sometimes I happily choose to do the right thing; other times I don't. There are people around us, and we all know at least one or two, who always seem to be able to go the extra mile in doing good. One of the many dedicated volunteers at my work consistently gives of herself, but due to extreme humility she'll be mortified if I use her name--we'll just call her Wonder Girl.

You can compare Wonder Girl to people in your midst, maybe even guess who she really is. She is a real person, but she is also a symbol of selflessness and of someone who is so content with her own life that she has much to give to others. Wonder Girl is a satisfied person; she is neither the richest, the flashiest, nor the most outspoken. Her self-esteem comes from her quick thinking, her creativity and her unhesitating work-ethic. She is a worrier (yes, a warrior, too!), like me; but she worries about those around her, not herself. She has gone from a meeting where we talked about a tiny little idea, to execution of that idea within hours--sometimes even minutes!

We cannot all be like Wonder Girl. She appears to live a life of such simplicity and organization that it would take me the rest of my life to assimilate. However, there is much to learn from people like her; they are a special breed. Their efforts are usually based on passion to see
a concept, an organization, or a community succeed. The things that motivate them are different from what drives the average person: affiliation with the cause, personal growth, and camaraderie are just a few. If you've ever had the chance to work with someone like this, you might have felt their contagious enthusiasm. Volunteers influence the happiness of those around them. According to a recent study published in September, 2004 by the British Economic and Social Research Council, "there is a strong link between communities with lots of volunteering and those where people are very satisfied with their lives," (see Links).

Perhaps this is the connection we see with certain people around us who are always happy. The synergy between many individual volunteers can make the community a happier place. The British study confirms, "The research has revealed an interesting link between helping others and enjoying a good quality of life. It seems that when we focus on the needs of others, we may also reap benefits ourselves. It means that voluntary activity in the community is associated with better health, lower crime, improved educational performance and greater life satisfaction." According to the data, it is not a higher standard of living that promotes quality of life; rather giving of ourselves for the greater good.

I'm no expert, just an observer. But when I see someone like Wonder Girl in action and smiling every day, it makes me want to be more like her and the others I know who are truly Volunteers Extraordinaire.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grace, and the DMV

My daughter Grace and I were driving to school yesterday, discussing the idea that if she did her part to catch up in English, as he promised Mr. Proctor would meet her halfway--the concept of grace itself. I was grateful for her attitude but hadn't even realized the connection between her name and the idea as it pertains to her education. In the afternoon, I was required to dig down deep and call upon the universe to provide a measure of grace on my own behalf.

I got a parking ticket a few days ago, due to an expired registration sticker. But I never received a notice in the mail and do not make it a habit to look at my own license plate; I had no idea. I stayed on hold for 22 minutes and 43 seconds calling the DMV on Monday afternoon to find out what the problem was and how to get it resolved. At 5:08 p.m. the call automatically dropped, they had now closed. Knowing this would be an unpleasant experience (how can a trip to the DMV be anything more), I geared up with some Dove chocolate and headed down the expressway on Tuesday afternoon.

Just as I had anticipated, at 3:30 p.m. I walked into a scene from Armageddon. Lines, crowds, desperate and frowning people with no place to sit. Luckily I had taken my work bag inside with five ski magazines that I had intended to read on the plane last week but never did. I heard the loudspeaker, "Now serving number A230." My number: B318. What does that mean? I used my cell phone to let everyone know that I would be very late, and squeezed myself into a single plastic chair near the "Now Serving" display. For an hour, I read my ski magazines and put myself into the "happy place" that Happy Gilmore describes.

Finally, at 4:30 p.m. the numbers started whizzing by and mine came up. "Go to window number seven." I walked toward the window and said a little prayer that I would be greeted by a merciful DMV employee on the other side. No such luck. It was the end of the day and this gentleman was only interested in getting me out of there a.s.a.p.. I explained the situation to him and he authoritatively looked me up in the system, "You owe $834." I braced myself and tried to calmly ask how this could be, when I never even received a renewal notice in the mail. I had paid $274 last January, so it should have gone down slightly, not up. The worker maintained his position, and so did I. Finally, he typed a few characters into the system: "That will be $542, with the penalty." I wondered if it would help to let him see my tears, but I decided to just be strong.

I had been standing at window number seven for ten minutes with no resolve. The man looked at the clock, ready to go home, "I can't do anything about this. You owe a penalty for a suspended registration. Do you want to talk to a supervisor?" I was relieved to hear that position in the DMV budget was still in place. "Yes!" I smiled as he pointed me to window twenty-seven, the "outer banks" of the agency. Worker 27 did not look pleased to see me standing there at 4:45 p.m. "Did I call your number???" I told her that I had been sent there by Worker 7, and that I needed a supervisor. She seemed happy that I wasn't her problem, and she called over a handsome East Indian man who must have either just gotten a raise or was also looking forward to quitting time.

His name was something like Raj, and I looked him right in the eye with my story. He looked back, not as the typical bureaucrat but as a human being. I told him how I was really just trying to get my car registered but that this fee and fine did not make any sense if I never received a renewal notice in the mail. Raj took it in, and surprisingly in my favor (against the advice of the female worker at window 27), he agreed that it was not my error but the DMV's. The lady printed out a ticket, with the amount now showing $472. At least the number was moving in the right direction! She stepped aside to talk to him about the fee, and he insisted that the correct assessment was $271, three dollars less than last year. (Who knows how they really figure that out, anyway.)

To remind me there really is grace in the world, "Raj" had looked me in the eye and tried to understand my story. The lady at window 27 eventually believed him, and after her insistence that I still owed two years' worth of registration, she lowered it back to one and even offered to stamp my parking ticket to bring it from $75 to $10. Numbers aside, it's comforting to know that maybe there are still human beings at this organization after all. Well, there's at least one. And if you happen to have a problem that the DMV online or voice-activated-computerized calling service can't seem to figure out, you'd better talk to the supervisor and hope he's having a great day. For an experience I dreaded as much as tooth surgery, I was shown a bright spot to end this day that had started with a reminder that if we do our part, others will be there to help.

***If you absolutely must deal with the DMV in-person, I'll pass along my advice from "Raj" and Window 27: arrive at 4:50 p.m. From me: look them right in the eye with honesty and pray they're in a good mood, it released me from a battle over $834 with fines!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Wedding Planners

I was not aware that the average cost of a wedding has now escalated to many tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes even hundreds of thousands. At a family barbecue last summer I inquired of my brother Carl and his wife Lynne's friend, a high-profile wedding planner, how much her typical wedding event costs. She replied that to compensate for her time, she can only take on weddings with a minimum price tag of $150,000. I held my mouth closed and took a deep breath. For someone with one son and three daughters, that is a truly depressing concept.

On the other hand, we visited with our former babysitter, Jennifer, few months ago. She had recently married and happily started a family. She was proud to report that she had no financial help paying for her $3,000 wedding, and she had gorgeous photos to prove it was a splendid affair. Somewhere between those two conversations there must be a happy medium; but I'm still threatening my kids that we're not ready for anyone to be sounding the bells!

A wedding reception this weekend left me with a sense of hope that the important thing is still human relationships and celebration of the couple, not so much the elaborate gala that we often see these days. Those are enjoyable to attend, and memorable, but so are the receptions like Robert and Val's, which was planned with a group of ladies sitting around a dining room table: "the wedding planners."

Robert and Val met a year ago, and married during the holidays with no plans for a reception. The church ladies couldn't let that go, so a post-wedding celebration was coordinated in their honor. Beautiful handmade invitations, delectable food, scrumptious cake, classical music recordings, and close-up photography were each coordinated and donated by one or several caring members of the church community. Exotic flowers were purchased at Costco and seemingly arranged by a professional--Robert's elderly mother.

A sweet occasion such as a wedding can take years of planning and one's entire bank account. It can also be put together by caring friends and acquaintances on a Sunday afternoon. Either way, it's the quality of the relationship that matters. With the community support that was shown for this couple, it's hard to imagine what difference more money for the event would have made. Each person involved was able to share his or her talents as a special gift to the newlyweds. We're not sure who received the most service yesterday, the bride and groom or the wedding planners!

Friday, February 20, 2009


My teenage daughter was excited to be such a responsible driver that she could pick me up from the airport today. I had been gone for a week, with Grammie holding down the fort and taking care of the dog. As I awaited Meredith's arrival at baggage claim, I watched all the reunions taking place: hugs and kisses, horns honking, suitcases being flung into trunks. I knew this afternoon would be a blissful time at home. However, things in our house had changed slightly during the week, and suddenly I wasn't such a welcome sight. Mom's return meant more structure and maybe even more chores.

As the afternoon progressed, the girls and I went into a tailspin, a complete and total meltdown. Nobody was being nice to each other, Max even started barking at us--it's true! I didn't feel at all appreciated, and the girls said they didn't feel respected. We had invaded each other's space. I took a time out by going to the grocery store, but when I pulled into the parking lot I realized I was too cranky to shop. I picked up my cell phone and called my mom to say hello. At first, I felt like telling her how difficult life can be with teenagers, but I knew she had a wonderful time with them. I didn't want to disillusion her. I asked her about an upcoming trip and she proceeded to tell me how difficult life can be dealing with senior citizens!

By the end of the phone call, I had snapped out of my funk and was ecstatic to be dealing with people who are growing up and not growing old. I realized that in my reaching out to Mom for comfort, I had become the listening ear. All these years of her calling me to see how I was doing, and this was one of the few times when I felt like she was glad the roles appeared to reverse. I never told her my reason for calling, my breakdown in the parking lot. (When she reads this, she'll find out, oops!)

Perhaps I am at the point now where I can offer calls of solace instead of waiting for others to reach out to me. I can think of so many occasions when I was struggling with the latest trial, or even just a momentary difficulty, and the phone would ring. Often, I had just been thinking about the person on the other line, but didn't think I had the time to call. I've never figured out how that works; my credit goes to serendipity and grace. I wish I could write a list of all the people in my life who have called at "just the right time." I would send them all a big thank you! Better yet, I could pick up the phone and without multi-tasking, simply give them my undivided attention.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"One is Silver and the Other Gold."

This past week, as I have visited the place where I used to live, there has been a spirit of friendship in my life. Every day I've been able to reconnect with old friends and/or enjoy time with new ones. Those I've known for many years have watched my life take twists and turns for better and for worse. My new friends don't seem to care where I've been or who I was in the past; we relish each other's company in the present. Some of these friends have made special efforts to comfort me in times of need, or just to keep in touch when they knew I needed their strength.

Recently, I listened to a commencement speech given by Charlotte Maillard Schultz, Chief of Protocol for the State of California. She commented that one of the ten most important aspects of a successful life is cultivating friendships. Her husband, former Secretary of State George Schultz, is a great example to her for the effort he puts forth to maintain close friendships over a lifetime. She said that this has not come easy to her or her husband; they must constantly and conscientiously work at keeping this balance in their lives.

Not only does nurturing a friendship add equilibrium to the life of the person who instigates, but we never know if someone might be needing our support. I think of some friendships I could have had at times in my life, but I was either self-absorbed or going too fast to take the time for friends. I also cringe at the thought of those who could have befriended me but didn't, sometimes due to my lack of openness. One of those I got to visit this week only became my friend when both our lives simultaneously self-combusted. Soon after our "apocalypses," we discovered many things we had in common and we've been friends ever since. We laughed recently when she said she would have befriended me earlier, but that I didn't "look like" I needed a friend. I told her I'm glad I look like I need one now!

Interspersed with the friendly visits this week, Sheridan and I have been adding some decorative touches to her apartment. It should be no surprise to me that a happy, energetic 20-year-old would chose photos of her family and friends to adorn the walls. These are her priorities, and friends come close to the top of her list. Because in the end, we should all remember the song, "Make New Friends, but Keep the Old. One is Silver and the Other Gold." The ultimate service is sincere and lasting friendship.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Give Me a Lift

An old friend offered me a ride today; we enjoyed a nice conversation as we drove up a windy six-mile stretch, starting the day off in the spirit of camaraderie instead of seclusion. Usually I drive up that road alone, listening to the radio or sinking into deep thought. Solitude is nice, but the synergy between friends can be inspiring.

We spend too much time in our cars alone lately, and it doesn’t usually occur to some of us to double up. We’re accustomed to driving to our destinations with the windows rolled up, the music on, waving to a friend or neighbor as we roll on past. We often don’t take the time to arrange rides together; it’s easier to stick to routines. Or sometimes we’re afraid of people we don’t know well enough to spend that much time in the car. I’m thankful to all the people who have given me a lift—it’s more fun that way.

When I was in high school, there were two or three friends whose parents could always be counted on for transportation. Now that I have high-schoolers of my own, it is comforting to know that several of us parents are sharing the duty. And with my busy schedule, I welcome the chance to ride with a friend. It’s a time to talk casually about the day and arrive at our destination in a positive mood. No matter where we’re headed, there is probably someone we know going our way. Offering a ride not only helps another person, but it can lift our own spirits as well!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Forgetful Sisters

Yesterday was a dream come true: a family ski day! My parents met on a double date at Alta ski resort. My dad, Carl, flew his little plane from California to Utah with a buddy and they lined up the date with my mom Joan and her ski-bunny girlfriend. The only problem was that dad really didn't know how to ski, and he was in way over his head with the rest of the foursome. They were patient with him, waiting part-way down each run while he picked himself up. Mom tried to teach him a few techniques and eventually he figured it out. It didn't take long for Carl to develop the same passion for skiing that Joan had, and after they married and had children it became a family tradition to ski together every winter vacation.

Those are some of my sweetest memories, driving to resorts with a station wagon full of gear, leather boots on our feet and cable bindings on our skis. Lunch traditionally consisted of french bread, cheese, a giant link of salami (the kids fought for the "end"), and some fruit. The parents would take the daredevil runs like "KT22" and "Westward Ho," while the kids would stay on the green and blue runs, practicing our 360's and goofing around with a special whistle so we could find each other anywhere on the hill. I've tried for years to re-create these happy times, but that's not easily accomplished in this high-speed world.

Any time my kids will go the resort with me, I rejoice. I hope for those old-fashioned memories even though it's never quite the same. Just the fact that we're all there is enough to bring me joy. When extended family is in town and they want to go skiing, I'm elated. We had a small family gathering at our favorite Wasatch resort over Christmas, and I just didn't get enough together time. President's Week brought another opportunity to be with my college age daughter Sheridan, my sister Katie and her husband Courtney, and their nephew Chase--a family ski day! We set the rendezvous time and place, knowing that we would wait for each other no matter how long it took. That's just the way skiing is, a game of extreme patience.

Thankfully, everyone in this family assortment arrived well stocked with the trait yesterday or it could have been a less than pleasant experience. First, Katie called from her cell phone as Sheridan and I drove up the canyon to ask us if we happened to have an extra jacket in the car that she could borrow? They had already arrived at the resort to find an item missing as they unloaded their car. How a grown woman could forget the most important garment, not even Katie can figure that one out. So we brainstormed back and forth on our phones until we creatively strategized a raid on the lost and found. Her forgiving husband was ready to go out and ski powder, but he was sent in to retrieve a coat for Kate. Patience.

Sheridan and I made it to the meeting spot for the day, and finally we were all feeling ready to stash our belongings in my seasonal locker. I could grab my skis from the locker and head into the fresh snow with the group. But, oops, just one little detail, the locker combination. I used it when I was at the resort in January, but here it was six weeks later and the combo had escaped my memory bank. Katie cheered me on as I tried using "the force," extreme focus and concentration with energy from the cosmos, to bring the numbers back to my fingers as I spun the lock. No use. Courtney came looking for us and I thought he might lose it after the jacket caper. He just gave us a pitiful smile, thankful that his memory was still in tact. The middle aged sisters eventually left the combination dilemma for later; we rented a day-use locker and went upstairs so I could borrow some skis from the demo shop.

The collective attitude of patience yesterday allowed us each to have a great time, regardless of our comedy of errors. We all used this trait throughout the day when one or another in our group of five was thirsty, hungry, frostbitten, lost, or in need of a pit stop. That's the only way to have fun on the hill, by just relaxing and forgetting one's personal agenda. It's the only way to ski with family and friends, the only way for a sport like skiing to be a unifying activity. This is why some people are better off left in the valley, like one friend I'll call Don. He came up to join us on a family ski day over the holidays, and he couldn't understand why it took us an hour after arrival at the resort to get our act together. One daughter had forgotten gloves, another lost her goggles. Finally he sent us a text message: "Hurry, I'm waiting!" He'll need to find another family group to ski with next time; ours is all about patience.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Infirmary

Mothers with children at home cannot, must not, and absolutely should not ever get sick. It is not in the Great Plan, the balance of the Universe. No matter what, at all costs, the march must go forth without interruption--or else. The alternative is the dreaded consequence of unwashed dishes, piles of laundry, towels and socks on the floor, even a dog whining for dinner and a walk. This is not to say spouses can't pitch in, or that children don't help out. But something goes off kilter in the home when Mom is in bed.

This last week brought back memories of my bedridden mother when I was about five years old; she had cornea transplant surgery and was to be completely still for several weeks. (Fortunately the procedure is now done almost painlessly). All I had from Saturday night to Wednesday was an intestinal flu, but my helplessness undoubtedly scared my teenage daughters. They would be surprised to hear it scared me even more. Grace was out of town for a cheerleading competition over the weekend, so Miss Meredith was required to step in as Nurse Meredith and Taxi Driver Meredith. What a great job she did with both duties.

People in our families never seem to get sick when it fits into the routine. I remember so many crazy and unexpected illnesses when my kids were young. Each one of them has taken a turn or two to completely change our plans due to a health crisis. Parents are equipped to deal with this. When the tables are turned, it's not so easy to for children and teenagers. I remember tiptoeing around the house after my mom had her eye surgery and she would ring a little brass bell whenever she needed help. This week I was wishing I had a bell or something, like a hospital buzzer to call for my little helper. She kept checking on me, especially on the worst day when I thought the bug would never leave me.

It's not easy to forget yourself when you're seventeen. There are class assignments to complete, friends to text, and Facebook pages to update. Remembering the old lady at the other end of the house, and trying to figure out something that she might be able to digest, would probably be last on the list. It takes a certain level of compassion and maturity to see another's need. Thanks to Meredith's care and concern this week, I was never forgotten.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Plumeria and Other Growing Things

For anyone who has lived in a tropical climate all their lives, this may not make any sense at all. How can we know the frigid, brown earth of winter if we haven't experienced it for ourselves? It looks pretty in photographs, the world a still, calm place with snow-capped peaks. Having been raised in a mild climate and then living in a more seasonal locale for many years taught me to appreciate the beauty of growing things--flora and fauna that never die due to frost or snow. I would come back to visit family in January to be reminded that somewhere on this planet, flowers were still in bloom. Now that I'm back in the Bay Area, my senses are constantly aware of the beauty that surrounds us. That's why plumeria made my day.

Last week, on a particularly gray morning, Anne from the Garden club was volunteering at my work. The flower aficionado that she is, she brought a little plumeria blossom for each of us in our office to pin to our shirts. She could have kept the sweet smelling buds to herself, or she could have shared them only with her closest friends, but she brought enough to share with all of us. She was fluttering around delivering her little gifts to anyone who would accept, and we all did. I walked around that day feeling quite special that a flower had been delivered to me.

It doesn't take a dozen long stems to brighten someone's day--just a bud will do. Those are the best, most cherished presents that I can remember. My children used to bring these little tokens when they were young; as they walked home from school they would randomly pluck a flower from a nice lady's well-tended garden and give it to me. I tried to hold back the laughter when it was a dandelion, and the horror when it was a prized rose from the not-so-understanding neighbor. But they always went into a little cup or vase in the kitchen window to remind me it was spring and everything was new again. Even though I miss those seasonal gestures, it's refreshing to have a flower or two from an acquaintance or friend to remind me of what's important and beautiful in the world.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Just Say It

Last Monday I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I was feeling impatient about things in my life over which I have no control. It would be my day off, as I planned to work the following weekend. Usually that's my day to restock the shelves at home, run other errands, and get in a long work-out of some sort. After sending the girls off to school, I decided to do the shopping quickly in my sweats before the stores got busy, then I would work out mid-day. I think it was Zsa-Zsa Gabor who said she never goes out of the house without her make-up on, and I should take her advice. I ran into several nearby stores looking pretty tattered, but all I cared about was finishing the "to-do" list and heading outside for a run or a ride to free my mind.

As I walked the aisles of my favorite big-box store, I kept thinking too much about life's complications and started to become even grumpier than I was when I woke up. I dragged myself past the meat counter, and suddenly a friend called out my name and snapped me out of my funk. She gave me a big smile and asked me how I was. I'm surprised she even bothered to say hello, judging from the expression that was probably on my face. But her two little girls were adorable and I couldn't consider my own issues when I saw them. I remembered how I had failed to pull myself together for the day and began apologizing, but Jennilyn didn't seem to notice or care. She just wanted to say "hello."

This greeting, as simple as it was, struck me and convinced me to never avoid someone I know and always take advantage of that chance to greet them. As reported in a recent edition of Reader's Digest, Joe Kita did an informal study on the effect of this greeting. He reflects, "
It is an acknowledgment of existence. It is a pause, however brief, to affirm another's worth (and have yours affirmed in return)." After one month of greeting everyone in his path, he noted that his marriage was healthier and his overall sense of well-being had improved. By examining 11 common benefits, he concludes, "So maybe we can make the world a better place by just saying hello."

I know my day was made better by someone greeting me. And the story grew. After finally finishing the to-do list, I set out on my bike toward the bay and into the foothills. There I was, lucky enough and healthy enough to be riding on a perfect, crisp afternoon. First it was the the grandmother on her cruiser bike with her husband close behind. She said it: "hello!" Then, half a mile or so later, going across the bridge a bearded man in his 50's said it: "hi." Around the other side of the trail as I traveled west, the park ranger gave a very emphatic wave, "hello." This was my message, all of these people today acknowledging my existence with a greeting or a wave.

Sometimes all it takes is that one "hello," "hi," "how are you," to completely turn another person's day around. We have no idea what is going on inside their head. One of my daughter's friends complained that I looked right past him without saying anything. I told her I was so busy thinking about something else that I didn't even notice he was there. A group of kids at the local In n' Out hamburger shop called out my name last week as I walked in with my other daughter. Thank goodness, or I might not have noticed them, either. Now that I realize the impact of hello, I'll try harder to get outside of my own thoughts and be more generous with a simple greeting. It made my world such a happy place last week!