Sunday, January 30, 2011

Open doors and Other Small Things

Sometimes when we are generous in small, barely detectable ways it can change someone else's life forever. ~Margaret Cho (b.1968); comedian,actress

My workouts at the gym have gone late into the evening during the past month or two, as I put the miles on training for a ten mile race in San Juan Bautista. One Wednesday night I ran on the treadmill for eight solitary miles and closed the place down. As I dragged myself into the foyer toward the double doors to go home, two men about my age chided each other about their basketball scrimmage. I was a pace or two behind them, so I let them go ahead assuming they would hold one of the doors--or at least not let it slam into me. Hormones must have been overflowing from their game, because they hardly noticed another human was in their midst and both doors clipped me as I tried to squeeze through.

The next night, I had a little stop to make at TJ Maxx on my way home from work to pick up a birthday gift. After
the night before and bumping into the doors under false assumption, I didn't want to embarrass myself so I reached out as another mom entered before me. Surprisingly, she made eye contact and then intentionally held the door for a few extra seconds to give me time to go through. All the mom's poking around at TJ Maxx that evening seemed tired like I was--just trying to do the bare minimum and go home. I was even more tired that night, just from hard work all day, so her gesture energized me just enough to find the birthday gift and head back into traffic.

The following Sunday in church I heard an old friend of mine give a talk about the little things we do to uplift each other, and she cited the example of her mom waving goodbye to the family as they drove down the street after their visits. She had other examples of small acts of redemption we do for each other, things that really make a difference. I thought about my observations over the past two years in this blog. Even though I haven't had the time to write about everything I've witnessed, the constant theme has forced me to look for more good during another somewhat difficult "transition time" in my life.

I was given a thankfulness journal in a church meeting last Fall, so I put it in the driver's door compartment of my car in hopes that I would find a few minutes each day to note some "small things" that others did to uplift me. I find that when I start writing, the list just goes on and on. Those days when guys at the gym let the door slam, or when someone is rude to me on the road, are turned around by so many others who take the time to stop along the way--to open the door, to say hello, and recently to bring a magic Valentine to our house. All are reminders that life is good, and the world is abundant with good people who do good works. The only way to truly appreciate this bounty is to watch for
and take note of all the small things.

Looking for small things you can do?
Check out the Random Acts of Kindness tool.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Dad, Dr. King, and a Day of Service

I grew up in the sixties and seventies here in the culturally rich region of Northern California, the Bay Area. When he was a teen, my dad couldn't wait to get out of Spencer, Iowa and after graduating from college he took the opportunity in 1957 to serve as a pilot at the Alameda Naval Base. Possibly there was a connection between the next-door Iowa county "Palo Alto," and his decision to settle in the extremely diverse community of Palo Alto, California. Even in those early years, this was a melting pot. For once in his life, my dad "fit right in." Northern Iowa was not the kind of place where a black-haired, blue-eyed, exotic-looking man could exactly blend into the community. Most were of German or Scandinavian descent, so Carl had to charm them with his intelligence and affability.

Sadly, my dad passed away unexpectedly from injuries sustained in a Memorial Day water-skiing accident just before my eleventh birthday. However, his star shone brightly and left indelible impressions on my soul about acceptance, fairness, and a sense of community. The town of Spencer, Iowa was a safe place for him but he longed to know other cultures and ethnicity; he longed to find his own. Being the strong personality that he was, I learned some important lessons from Carl at a young age. I'll never forget the day I learned that racial discrimination was inhumane. He had taken a few of us kids, including my neighborhood friend, to McDonald's on Blossom Hill Road for lunch, it must have been a Saturday. I remember ordering my favorite: hamburger, fries, and chocolate shake. (I'm convinced they tasted better in 1969!) A few of us sat in the rear-facing back seat on the way home, munching our burgers and slurping our shakes. As a few
people with warm brown skin walked down the sidewalk, someone from inside the car--selective memory prevents exact recollection--yelled out the now nearly-extinct racial slur for no apparent reason other than to harass the walkers. It didn't sound right to me, but as a painfully shy girl I giggled anyway at her brazenness.

My most vivid memory of my father is attributed to what came next...His slamming on the brakes of the station wagon, followed by flinging out of the driver's seat and to the back of the car and the open rear window. His towering, six-foot-four stature glared into our wide-eyed faces as he made it perfectly clear that we were out of line, "Don't you EVER say that word again, DO YOU HEAR ME?????" Then he called across to the couple walking and apologized for his naive children. Dad did not speak the rest of the way home down Almaden Expressway, and neither did we. I don't think I finished my chocolate shake, nor do I remember liking them nearly as much after that incident. But I do remember the message from Carl that day, and the message of acceptance that he continued to live throughout his short 39 years: We are all acceptable, none is better than another.

Dad came from a homogeneous little mid-western community where he tried to fit in, and later when he arrived in the town I now call home he was determined to make others feel the acceptance he always craved as a child and teenager. I wish I could ask him how Dr. Martin Luther King affected him in those years, I have a hunch it was profound. In reading about Dr. King I see his timely themes of social justice woven into the empowerment of all races in America; this is evolving into present-day interpretation of contributing community service as a means to promote social equality and to celebrate his life. I can think of no better way to honor Dr. King, and Carl Steffens, than to give back to my community and to my fellow man on this relatively new national holiday. Thank you Dr. King for the legacy, and thank you Carl Steffens for making your unquestionable statement of racial equality to a bunch of ignorant little kids who didn't know any better until you set us straight!

Want to give back to honor Dr. King? This will inspire you:
Idealist Blog Post, Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a day on, not a day off.

These are yearly events:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Week of Service:
Sign-up for a Community Service Project - The Palo Alto Jewish Community Center is organizing a day of service, with more than 25 local volunteer opportunities, ranging from habitat restoration, making cat toys and dog biscuits for homeless pets, visiting senior citizens, serving meals at a shelter, working on crafts for hospitalized children and helping with the creation of a library in Botswana. Details: Info:
Community Service on Lytton Plaza - The City of Palo Alto in collaboration with Youth Community Service (YCS) will provide opportunities to donate food and clothing and to participate in a volunteer project on Lytton Plaza. Bring the whole family between noon and 3pm. There will be music and fun for all - and more importantly, this will be a chance to do something to help others.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Give a Little Push

We drove on frozen roads and braved a frigid blizzard in Salt Lake City last Wednesday during our vacation, attempting to rent snowboards for kids and pick up a cake for my daughter Sheridan's twenty-second birthday. I know every dangerous hill in town, having bumped into snowbanks and parked cars a time or two when I lived there. This time, we were in a heavier car with new tires so I wasn't too worried we'd get stuck. The police have become more considerate these days, diverting traffic from the hills where we used to slide, onto residential streets with less of a slope and better traction. I don't know why the snowplows there take so long to catch up to the storms.

As we took our mandated detour from 7000 South to 2700 East, the line of cars slowed to a crawl and then stopped. We looked ahead to the slight curve and no cars made it past. "There must be someone stuck on the hill ," we said to each other. We were tired of trudging through the snow and ready to go back to our holiday rental house for dinner. After five or ten minutes of waiting, slowly cars began to go around the vehicle to make their way home. As we approached the motionless white Saturn, I could see an elderly person in the driver's seat spinning the wheels--clearly not cut out for winter driving. A younger man futilely pushed from the back corner, ready to give up from exhaustion. He had been attempting to heave the car out of the ice since the beginning of the back-up. I couldn't refrain from commenting to Bob that these people must need some help. I would have understood if he had kept going; our car was sliding too. But he quickly pulled over as the other cars went around us, to find out why the Saturn couldn't make it up the little slope. Two more cars lost traction, Bob slipped on the ice in his tennis shoes, and the rest of us realized we would be lucky to make it back to the house without incident.

As I watched the first gentleman pushing the Saturn, and now Bob trying to help the stranded drivers I caught myself momentarily wishing we had just gone around them like everyone else. But if we had, I would have worried about them and felt horrible all night. "Patience. We are lucky and blessed," I thought. With three stranded cars at Cottonwood Heights, and Bob and the stranger offering their help, they started to talk about the feasibility of rear-wheel drives on hills in a snowstorm. Other cars, better equipped for the conditions, slid
sideways and past the curve. Then I saw the unexpected: Bob and the stranger talked for a few minutes and shook hands. Then the elderly man got out of his car, stooping shoulders and white hair, and walked over to the stranger's pickup. The stranger would take him home, we were later informed. The young girl in the little rear-wheel drive behind us also talked to Bob. Her dad would pick her up, she told him in a relieved tone.

When Bob came back to the car twenty minutes or so into our detour, I asked how it went. "Those cars are staying put tonight," he said. "I just needed to convince them not to try and drive them home." I was thankful that he was willing to get out and help, but even more thankful that he could reason with them--especially the elderly man. Sure, they've driven that hill in snow before, but why take a chance? When random strangers can pull over and give an old man a push, and then offer a ride after that doesn't work, my faith in mankind is restored. All they needed was a gentle reminder that the storm would not last forever, the car could be safely parked overnight, and there were other drivers willing to give them a lift. It's great to help someone push their car in a storm; it's even better to give them encouragement when it's time to give up and try another day. After we safely arrived back at the house from which we had started our little errands, I counted my blessings and expressed thanks that we didn't have to drive the storm anymore that night and that the stooped-over, white haired man was able to accept first the help of a stranger and second the life-saving suggestion of my husband in his slippery shoes!