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A Few Things Nobody Wants To Know

Published in The Ferndale Record, June 25, 2014

Some people are natural conversationalists. They know how to crank up the energy of a chat and keep it flowing. Others among us are less talented and need guidance as to what constitutes pleasant, meaningful, or especially appropriate engagement with others.

What some consider icebreakers are actually conversation killers, usually shared by those who can’t wait to see the reaction they’re going to get. These subjects will torpedo any friendly banter you thought you had with another person. Because even though he may appear to be politely listening, what you can’t see is the shudder in his soul.

The following is a brief tutorial and may or may not apply to you or anyone you know.

Here are some things nobody wants to hear about:

What your dog ate. Anyone with an imagination can come up with an answer to this.

Don’t talk about a lump the size of a grapefruit they removed from your uncle. This story is usually whipped out around the time a waiter brings the appetizers.

How you bought underpants at 75% off at Goodwill. While your ability to sniff out a bargain is admirable we don’t need the visual.

We don’t want to know details about the foot fungus you picked up on your trip to India.

Please do not refer to the color, shape, or texture of anything you, or anyone you’ve ever known, has emitted from a bodily orifice—with the possible exception of the time you gave birth to a baby. We would like to know basic details concerning the baby. But only the basics, please.

What you found growing on your teenage son’s bathmat. It doesn’t matter to anyone if it’s science, nature or just filthy. Don’t talk about it.

People don’t want to hear about how no one appreciates you at work. We’ve all been there.

Don’t mention that time you did karaoke when you were drunk, or information concerning your comprehensive collection of old TV Guides.

Nothing about how your friend’s mother’s cousin knows a person who married someone famous, or the biology behind your tendency to sweat profusely when you’re nervous.

Skip the intimate details of pig farming, or the way you personally remove unwanted hair from your nose or ears. Also, please say nothing about the mating habits of insects, farm animals or your pets. If you were raised on a farm this may be excellent tinder for conversation in some circles, but not in most.

Other subjects that most people are not interested in: Embalming methods and preferences, how your bicycle seat doesn’t line up with your crotch, why you do or do not have abundant hair in certain places on your body, the IQ of your child or grandchild, the joys of snake-handling, specific issues concerning your septic tank woes, the exact size of the spider you found in your bathtub, what hot dogs and sausages are really made of, and anything you do in the bathroom.

The next time you begin a fascinating story and say, “Hey! Did I ever tell you about (insert cringe-worthy topic here)?” stop and think, and then please don’t.

This has been a public service. You’re welcome.

Lunch With The Boy

Published in the Ferndale Record, April 30, 2014

Many years ago when my father was hospitalized for a few days, I went to Oregon to see him and my mother. It was just me – no husband or children. I didn’t think much about it until my mom kept mentioning how happy she was, how grateful, that I’d come to spend time with her.

I was in the middle of the fray that is a young family and everything that means. Taking a few days to spend with my parents didn’t feel like a sacrifice, it felt like a vacation. But what was curious about it was my mother’s response. She never forgot and long after expressed her thanks.

Looking at this incident from a different angle now, I get her enthusiasm.

I remembered it again today when a tall, handsome, bearded boy that lives in Seattle treated me to lunch. He’d come to Bellingham for another purpose, but expressed desire to spend a little time with his mom. I was happy to oblige.

We sat across from each other noshing on sandwiches and salads and talked about everything from the intrinsic differences between introverts and extroverts, to making unpopular decisions, to why we like certain music, to how the human mind operates. There wasn’t a cell phone, or another person we knew, in sight.

When kids are little, you have to kind of work to make these things happen. You set up ‘daddy-daughter dates’, or ‘mommy and me’ time. The same is true with grown children, only the onus is often on them. My life is comparatively simple, and my schedule a little more flexible. When one of them chooses to hang out with me, it’s a gift of their time I don’t take casually.

So, today, for the bazillionth time, I noted the shape of his nose, the way he laughs, the texture of his hair, the growing wisdom in his thoughts, and the strength in his hug. Being a word person, I also felt a little glee when he used ‘reprehensible’ as part of conversation.

When he brought me home I got to hear him play the piano again, and talk about music a little more. I watched as he returned a phone call to his little brother, and waved as he drove away. And even though I didn’t ask for his support and love on this particular day, I felt it. And he likely didn’t realize, again, what all of this meant to his Saturday lunch date.

It’s pretty simple, really. My mom was responding to time alone with one of her children, who had gone out of the way to be with her. And this afternoon I feel probably kind of like she did. Grateful, for sure, but also a little in mother-love – that goofy, inexplicable joy that only certain people on the planet, no matter how old they seem to get, can make me feel.

Individuals in families sometimes take each other for granted. We assume, we expect, we put pressure on and try to control our most important connections. But isn’t it lovely when we don’t, and things work out anyway?

Not So Fast, Ben Franklin

Published in the Ferndale Record, March 26, 2014

According to Benjamin Franklin, the only inevitabilities are death and taxes. As much as I admire the man, I disagree. Certainty is all over the place. Here are a few examples.

If you suspect your breath is bad, it is. Your neighbors, no matter how delightful and engaging eventually do something to annoy you. A plant you’ve kept alive for many years will, quite suddenly and without provocation, turn into compost.

When money is tight, you’ll consume lettuce that’s just a little too brown around the edges. You’ll also cut open a toothpaste tube to scrape out what’s left, because you’d rather buy food than toothpaste.

Milk sometimes turns sour before its alleged expiration date. A bird with a bowel disorder will perch on a wire above your freshly washed car. You find yourself in the longest line at the grocery store, bank, or gas station.

Someone, somewhere will help you for no other reason than the fact that you are alive and on his or her daily path. Someone you don’t know will call to inquire about your Internet and phone service. Another someone will quote something you once said to someone else.

A song or sentence will get stuck in your head. Loving another person provides you with your own brand of unimaginable joy and searing pain. Wearing the right glasses helps you see more clearly. Flowers bloom in the spring and leaves fall off trees in autumn.

Corruption in government spans the world. Fraudulent practices and deceptive national leaders are everywhere. One can find perfectly sized pants, but it usually takes more effort than hoped. Sometimes, airplanes disappear – they always have, and they always will.

A doctor will recommend you get a blood test. You will get something in your eye, and it will be irritating. After seeing a particularly good movie or devouring an inspiring book, you’ll say these words to another human being: “You have to see/read this!” You receive an email from Verizon Wireless (insert other carrier name here), even if you don’t use its services. You’ll be curious about the gender of your unborn child.

Cheap motel rooms smell like stale Pall Mall. Queen Elizabeth always carries a purse. People are never the sum of who you think they are. A particularly productive trip to the bathroom changes your day. A phone call, text message, email, or a letter received from the post office will change your life.

New babies cry when they’re hungry. If you’re over 50, staying up until 3:00am, for whatever reason, pretty much makes the next day a complete loss. Baseball is dubbed “America’s Pastime,” but football is more popular. Light and hope dispels darkness and despair. The Xerox copier at your workplace will become, if it isn’t already, a source of woe.

Golden Graham S’mores don’t last for long. Lemon sorbet cleanses the palate. Rooms that house teenage boys smell like a cross between a barn and a locker room. Best friends always disagree on something. And my final two inevitables: The birthday song at Red Robin and the birthday sombrero at your favorite Mexican restaurant.

Oh, and Mr. Franklin, there are plenty more.

Cold-Blooded Focus? I Can Do That.

Published in the Ferndale Record, February 26, 2014 

In a recent conversation with one of my children we talked about Olympic athletes. He’s met more than a couple and I asked him about their common characteristics.

After some careful thought, he said two things. First, they are gracious. Maybe it has something to do with representing our country, he said. But their kindness, willingness to engage the public and take time with fans was paramount.

The next thing he said was less predictable. “They are all cold-blooded killers.” Their sport is a primary focus and they are fierce competitors. Observing them in ‘normal’ conversation and then in their sports element is to witness acute extremity.

The Olympics inspire me even though I’ll never be an athlete on the world stage. I’m drawn to the dedication involved in the pursuit, the sacrifice, and the laser beam focus that prevails despite inevitable setbacks.

When our family gets together to watch the Olympics (yes, we do that), we see snowboarders and skiers climb into the sky performing impossible tricks, executing flawless landings. Our favorite thing to say (with mouthfuls of cookies) is, “I could do that, but I don’t want to.”

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci stunned the world at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and is just eight years younger than I am. At 22 years old, I thought whatever she did that made her great wasn’t totally out of my reach – if I really wanted to do it.

Fact: I never really wanted to do it. Well that, and of course, Nadia had that whole talent thing going for her.

But within my capability are the desire, the focus and perseverance that can accompany anything I choose.

So, I ask myself: What do I want that much? What demands my unrelenting focus? What do I have to do to get what I want? Am I willing to do it?

For me, and maybe most of us, the answers don’t involve world-class training or years and money spent on coaches and training camps. It’s about what I’ve already chosen and how I can make it my best.

What do construction workers, artists, farmers, ballerinas, grocery cashiers, school teachers, plumbers, book editors, Mary Kay representatives, engineers, park rangers, bank tellers, custodians, meter maids, entrepreneurs and tattoo artists do to keep an unflinching, beady eye on important personal or career goals?

Olympic athletes don’t make up most of the world. But they have something to teach the rest of us. Reptilian, steely focus born of practice and desire is the stuff of dreams, whether it involves marriage, gardening or Zumba.

Jeremy Abbott, a U.S. figure skater, took a brutal fall against the boards during his short program in Sochi. He was visibly hurt and no one would have thought any less of him for limping off the ice. But he stood, gained his composure, and completed his skate – to a standing ovation from the Russian audience.

Most of us won’t get applause for showing up to our jobs when we don’t feel like it, or given 10.0s for sticking to our workouts, but the effect on our spirits is resolve and discipline.

We strongly suspect, and would probably be right, that we’re capable of more. 

Letting Go x Forever

I should know better by now, more than 20 years later, but I don’t. I still reel at the thought that someone I love more than my own breath will be standing precisely in harm’s way – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

I should be calmer in my heart. I should learnImage from the years of watching her defeat scary inner demons and slay figurative fire-breathing dragons. I should know better than to second-guess her hard won wisdom about her own life. Maybe, somewhere buried in my DNA, I do. But it’s not surfacing quickly enough for my liking. I’m a woman. A mother. I nurture and worry. That’s my natural state.

I tell myself this has nothing to do with letting her go. I’ve already done that. She’s not a child, a teenager or even a reckless adult. If anyone can take care of herself and those in her path, it’s her. In one of those situations where you have to trust someone to lead you through the jungle blindfolded, she’s the one I would trust to lead me. She would fend off snakes, native tribes and gorillas with swoops of courage, and I would make it safely to the other side – all because of her moxie. I want her beside me in earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and the apocalypse. No one else I know has her skills. No one.

Having said all that, I’m her mom. And she’s going to jump on a bicycle and ride it for many hundreds of miles and do what she’s been longing and planning to do for years. And suddenly I feel like she’s 16 again and calling to tell me she’s hitchhiking to San Francisco and will be in touch when she can (and in case you’re wondering, that really happened).

The questions pour out of my heart and onto the page: Why can’t I just have her safely by my side forever? Why do things have to get all tangled up and people make decisions that might hurt them? Why does someone living out a dream have to be so hard to watch? I know the answers. Because when you allow yourself to love someone, that’s what happens. What also happens is, if you want someone to stay in your life, you don’t fight it.

So, today when I mused about her upcoming trip the tears came hot and fast even though I’ve known about this adventure for months. It has nothing to do with missing her for the weeks she’s away (I don’t want to talk about that). It’s about these babies of mine living their own lives. When will this whole mommy merry-go-round stop? Here’s the answer: Never. And that’s why it really IS about letting go, times infinity.

I adore every socks-knitting, tattooed, Sherlock-loving, animal-mommying, pierced, brilliant blue-eyed, scrunched up nose, tip-toe when she walks, long wavy hair, piano playing, accordion shredding, pig-tail wearing, costume making, real food eating, techno music passionate, calculated risk taking, songwriting, pie making, life-gobbling, clear soprano part of her.

It’s the adoration, the trusting her at any cost, that makes this bearable. So for those reasons I will be her cheerleader. I will banish choking doubt and fear.

I will also be on the next plane if she needs me for any reason.

Lessons From A Five-Year-Old

Published in the Ferndale Record, January 29, 2014

In what could be considered a bold move, a five-year-old at school approached me after I’d bandaged her finger. “Maybe someday, when my parents are dead and I’m grown up, you and I can be friends.”

The whole “parents are dead” thing made me cringe a little, but then I remembered the mind of a child, and the unusually active and fertile mind of this particular child, and instead of recoiling, or explaining age differences and logistics, I smiled and said “OK.”

Then she said, “Maybe we can have a sleepover.” Again, my mind gravitated to that grown-up place of stark reality, but I quickly found my inner kindergartner and said, “Maybe we can.” She closed her eyes, hugged me tight and ran to class.

The itty bitty ones live life, play and love hard until someone or something, completes the siphoning of his or her original spirit – and they eventually morph into what others think they should be, not who they really are. It’s hard to watch.

In adult land, we normally don’t say it right out loud. There’s a kind of dance, some posturing, image to consider. And it’s true, asking someone – even a platonic friend you like a lot, to have a sleepover is well, kind of odd.

I guess the question is: Should it be? Is it really so socially askew to say what we’re thinking, especially if it’s kind, complimentary or loving?

I read a book once about a gutsy woman who decided to “never suppress a generous thought.” I get what she meant, and I think that’s what children and truly genuine people already do. No hating or bashing allowed. Go with the good stuff.

It’s like giving kudos to your best friend on her new haircut because you really love it and it doesn’t even occur to you that this declaration might make your own hair any less stunning. Or, maybe telling a coworker that you saw a thing he did when he handled a tricky situation with grace, without being afraid this compliment will make you sound like a doofus.

If we get over ourselves, our egos and insecurities, handing out generosity makes us feel great, and doesn’t diminish who we are, but connects us to the people around us, and the world in general. We become shareholders in a giant community of givers, and the perks are endless.

Can we really learn all that from a five-year-old? That, and more. One day as she was leaving the school, my pure and vocal little friend began gushing to everyone. “I love you lunch lady! I love you office lady!”  No one thought this was too much or inappropriate. It was simply a manifestation of who she is.

People sometimes back away when others emote. Most of us have been in a room dripping with emotion, and it made us squirm. But choosing to forego deep feeling exacts a price on our capacity for happiness. We don’t have to express it like a child might, but if we want the accompanying joy, express we must.

Someone once said “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten.”  I would argue it happens before that.

Tiny Gratefuls

Published in the Ferndale Record, November 27, 2013

November, in her chilly, stormy glory, ends up being about gratitude. Like friends and random people I don’t know on Facebook, I’m grateful for the gifts of life, home and family. Following is a bit of minutiae that also keeps my happy motor running.

I’m thankful that spiders can’t fly. I’m thankful for Cruisin’ Coffee’s chocolate nonfat yogurt shakes, with no whipped cream, an extra shot of chocolate, and one of those dome-shaped lids.

I’m thankful that four rolls of toilet paper at Rite Aid are only 88 cents on Tuesdays, and that two tiny loaves of banana bread at the Starbucks’ drive thru total $5.33.

I’m grateful for people you don’t know who pay you a compliment out of nowhere, and for grocery checkers who aren’t compelled to make small talk while scanning my items.

I love that the universe is so much bigger than me and that I don’t understand everything yet, leaving me with a constant source of untapped knowledge to break into. I’m thankful for friends who inspire me to be a better person.

I’m sincerely thankful for an honest mechanic who not only knows how to fix my car, but gives me a fair deal – every time, and I’m grateful that the seven years I wore braces really straightened my teeth – forever.

I’m thankful for cinnamon-flavored dental floss, and that because I live alone I don’t have to clean up my mess or do the dishes everyday. I’m thankful I can go to bed as early as I want, which one night not long ago was 6:30pm.

I appreciate people who smile with acknowledgment when I wave them into traffic. I’m thankful for those flower baskets hanging downtown Ferndale every spring and summer, and for the guy in the little water truck that keeps them hydrated and looking spectacular.

I’m thankful that Stephen Colbert, his over-the-top pundit character and talented writers come up with brilliance that makes me laugh, sometimes to the point of tears. I’m also thankful for artists and musicians who know how to string words, sounds and images together, making my brain travel into places it normally wouldn’t go.

I’m thankful I bought gas for my car at $2.99 per gallon last week, and that at work, a kind person gave me a box of chocolate covered mint patties. I’m grateful for mornings when I can sleep in until I wake up naturally, and for BelleWood Acres apple cider.

I love that when I lay in my bed I can see the river gurgling by and tall trees waving to me in the breeze. I’m also thankful for people who remember birthdays and are not afraid to venture a little past silly – sometimes way past.

I’m thankful for these qualities in an individual: Quick wit, a sincere listening ear, and someone who gets my obscure movie and TV references. For instance, when I say I “crossed the streams,” and another person recognizes it as a line from Ghostbusters, I’ve discovered a kindred soul.

Thankfulness for tiny things makes up my days, which, I suppose, makes it pretty significant. But then, gratitude has a clever way of creating a joyous life, which is what most of us want. And there’s nothing unimportant about that.