Monday, January 30, 2012

When gratitude hurts (other people)

“The reason I don’t like looking at Facebook is that everyone is just bragging about how happy they are!”

The sentiment came from an acquaintance during an informal group discussion about social media recently. Although I don’t know the woman who said it well, I do know that she has faced some very difficult obstacles in her life recently. But it surprised me nonetheless. I had never thought about expressing happiness as a form of bragging. I just think of it as, well, honesty. And an outward display of gratitude. And almost everyone agrees that gratitude is a good thing, don’t they? In Thornton Wilder's words, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

And yet I’m sympathetic to this acquaintance, who has endured with courage particular problems that are very alien to me. I don’t even think she and I are connected on Facebook, but her words gave me pause and made me think about whether there are times when it is insensitive to express gratitude.

Yesterday I thought of her as I sat down at my computer to dash off a quick update. Yesterday was the kind of day that was wonderful for its very ordinariness. I barely left home, except to teach Sunday school in the morning. Sunday school is far, far from being one of my favorite things to do, but it’s a little like the Vaudeville joke about why the man is hitting himself with a pipe: it feels so good when I stop, and after a successful class – which I define as one in which all the kids stayed attentive and contributed to the discussion – I feel great about the time I put into preparing for it. Better still, I had fit in a run before church, so I didn’t have to go through the morning with the thought of fitting in a run hanging over my head. After church I bought some fresh fruit, went home and made everyone lunch, and read the paper for a while. Then I put together a pot of vegetarian chili and let it simmer while two friends and I went walking in the woods for an hour, and after that I made chocolate chip cookies and spent the evening with my family.

But is it bragging for me to admit that? Or is it expressing gratitude? Of course, the fact that one person said she doesn’t like hearing about how happy other people are doesn’t make it uniformly wrong, but her opinion means something to me. I’m well aware of how many people face challenges that I don’t, or for whatever reason have not found themselves in the same fortunate circumstances I have. Is my being happy anathema to their sense of well-being?

I don’t know the answer. As I said at the outset, I was surprised that she said she didn’t like to read about other people’s happiness. I don’t think any the worse of my friend for her honesty. And even knowing that one person might be made to feel worse than necessary for my posts initially made me hold back from writing about yesterday’s pleasures.

But actually, I don’t think my expressions of gratitude are necessarily what she was talking about anyway. I wasn’t bragging about my children’s successes or my vacation plans. I was just taking pleasure in an ordinary day. And my guess is that she would understand that – the gratitude itself, and the good intent behind it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Thank you in advance

With great anticipation earlier this month, I turned to the list annually composed by Lake Superior State University of the words and phrases that it believes should be "banished" from the English language. I can always count on that list to include a few of my pet peeves each year. Would it have “move the needle”? “A lot on your plate”? “The elephant in the room”? Maybe even the ubiquitous "Seriously?"?

No, but nestled among “ginormous,” “baby bump” and “shared sacrifice,” it did have something I was surprised to see: a phrase I use all the time. “Thank you in advance.”

Thank you in advance? What’s wrong with that? I feel like I’m constantly closing emails with “Thank you in advance,” because it seems I’m always writing to ask people for favors. “Thank you in advance” means “I really hope you’ll do this for me, and so I’m thanking you now as capital.” But what it really means to me is “Thanks for taking the time to consider doing what I’ve asked,” except to put it like that sounds so plaintive. It suggests I’ve already taken advantage of the askee merely by expecting him or her to read through my request. It suggests I’ve already gotten as much from him or her as I can possibly expect: you’ve considered my request and I really can’t ask for more than that. Except I am. So thanks in advance for the fact that maybe you’ll do it.

Of course, that translation inevitably prompts the question: So what if the askee won’t do it? Do I then revoke my thanks? How do you phrase a conditional thanks: Thank you if you will; no appreciation from me at all if you won’t? Here’s my thanks, banking on your complicity; please return it with interest earned if your answer is no.

All of those are too complicated. “Thank you in advance” seems like a perfectly reasonable compromise to me. It gets in the all-important expression of humility, gratitude and appreciation while also conceding that some requests simply won’t be granted. “Thank you in advance" might could well be my epitaph: “Thank you for bothering to visit my grave; thank you to whoever commissioned this tombstone; thank you for standing here in this cemetery for a moment reading about my life.”

Who put it on the phrases-to-be banished list and why? Whoever it was, I hope he or she will reconsider, because it’s a highly useful phrase that truly has no reason to cause offense to anyone. So please give some thought to revoking it from the list. And thank you. In advance.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Be not afraid

During Sunday’s sermon, our Minister Emeritus shared his favorite quotation from Jesus: “Be not afraid.” The minister then ran through a litany of categories that most of us fear: change, stasis, sameness, differences, life, death, knowledge, ignorance, and so on.

He didn’t specifically mention dental surgery (nor did Jesus, as far as I know), but since I was 24 hours from my first scheduled gum graft, I took the message to heart anyway.

It’s so easy to let our fears rule us, whether those are truly profound fears such as terminal illness and national security or truly trivial fears such as temporary physical discomfort. My dentist first recommended that I see a periodontist seven years ago, and I’ve known since then that I’d eventually need to undergo gum graft procedures, but I managed to put it off year after year because I was so apprehensive.

The problem was that neglecting to schedule the procedure created a different fear: the fear of regular dental cleanings. First of all, the cleanings generate pain that might be alleviated once my gums are treated; but secondly, I always felt so abashed to have to admit that no, once again, I had not taken the dentist’s recommendation to schedule a periodontal appointment. Finally, two months ago, he instilled in me a new fear: the fear that my teeth would start falling out if I didn’t attend to this matter.

The gum surgery is now 48 hours behind me and I feel fine. Yes, there was a fair amount of discomfort during the procedure and a lot more as the Novacaine wore off throughout the afternoon. Yes, I’ve been hungry for the past two days since there’s so little I can eat during the short-term healing process. And yes, my left cheek looks like it is storing a golf ball.

But none of it is as bad as my fears led me to believe. “Be not afraid,” I should have told myself earlier, and then all of this would be done by now. But I was afraid, and so I’m undergoing the discomfort now that could potentially be seven years behind me by this point.

This experience, plus the minister’s reminder of Jesus’ words, made me think of the other fairly trivial things of which I’m currently feeling afraid. One significant source of apprehension in my life right now is seeing my kids grow older. At the ages of nine and thirteen, they seem to me to be at the absolutely ideal ages from a parenting perspective: they’re fun, happy, resourceful, independent and confident.

By this time next year, Tim will be in eighth grade and we’ll be learning about the systems and inner workings of the public high school, a setting I dread simply because it’s so unfamiliar to me. At nine, Holly embodies all the merriment of girlhood, but as Caitlin Flanagan’s controversial new book, Girl Land, and her frequent NPR interviews remind me, all kinds of scary things potentially lie in her path as she approaches early adolescence. In another sixteen months, our lease runs out and we’ll need to find another place to live. My parents and parents-in-law are healthy, but that won’t last forever. And are the kids’ college tuition funds in good enough shape at this point?

So much to be afraid of, and yet really nothing to be afraid of except the normal progression of a blessed life. Gum surgery isn’t pleasant, but not being able to afford or have access to necessary dental procedures is surely worse.

As I prepared to leave the periodontist’s office after the procedure, a woman in the waiting room smiled sympathetically at me. “You look really uncomfortable,” she said.

“Well, not uncomfortable enough to merit putting this off for seven years,” I admitted. Be not afraid. I’m not sure the singular experience of getting through a gum graft is enough to allay all of my daily anxieties, but it’s a lesson I’ll take to heart nonetheless, and try to put to good use going forward.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where the wind comes sweeping down the -- whoa!

Arson. Knife fights. Attempted assault. Vivid nightmares. Relentless jokes about promiscuity.

And I thought a film from the Golden Age of Broadway would guarantee some wholesome mother-daughter bonding time for Holly and me.

Quick, what are the images that come to mind when I say “Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’?” The surrey with the fringe on top, right? A box social? A square dance scene full of swinging skirts and prancing feet? A cowboy singing to the blue sky amidst waving stalks of corn?

It turned out there was a lot I’d forgotten. I lost track of how many times during the two-and-a-half hours that Holly and I spent huddled under a comfy afghan on the couch watching the DVD together I said “Is this too scary for you?” She just shook her head; the truth is she’s seen worse, thanks primarily to Tim’s affection for the entire Star Wars sequence and a few slightly graphic video games.

But still, this wasn’t the Oklahoma! I remembered at all, which makes me think maybe I’d never actually watched the film from beginning to end. In fact, it’s quite likely that my familiarity with this musical, as with many others of its ilk, may have come primarily from attending a high school performance of it when I was about twelve years old. And that would have been the stage version, of course; it might be that this was my first screening of the film.

I thought I knew the story fairly well, but what Holly and I viewed last night bore so little resemblance to my memory that it made me think twice about just how I knew the details. When I was growing up, my grandparents had an extensive collection of Broadway musical soundtracks on vinyl; when we visited them in the summer, my sisters and I would spend a fair amount of time playing the records. I think I probably read the liner notes to Oklahoma at some point and confused that with seeing the film.

So just in case any other parents of nine-year-old girls get the same urge I did to spend a cozy evening taking in an old-fashioned flick together, let me remind you of a few forgotten highlights of Oklahoma: there’s an attempted date rape in a carriage (which is thwarted when the horses bolt and take the carriage on a terrifying ride that ends in a near-collision with a train), a villain who tries to trick the hero into stabbing himself in the chest with a switchblade, a couple who nearly burn to death when the haystack they’re standing atop is intentionally set on fire, a predatory Peeping Tom, a scene where a man encourages his nemesis to seriously consider suicide, and a female character whose love of physical attention from men is the source of constant joking but who by today’s standards would likely be labeled both mentally challenged and co-dependent.

The film also includes the heroine's nightmare, which appears to be induced by hallucinogenic bath salts, about being taken prisoner in a bordello while a twister forms in the background. It occurred to me my daughter might be the first kid her teacher had ever heard complain that she had slept poorly because her mother made her sit through a Rogers and Hammerstein production.

Introducing our kids to timeless classics of stage and screen is one of the pleasures of parenthood, but next time I think I’ll pre-screen the production before we cozy up for a mother-daughter movie night. Either that or we’ll just watch Star Wars, where Holly already knows all the scary parts even if I don’t. This time she can tell me when to close my eyes or block my ears.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Breakfast on the house

One of them sings loudly. One doesn’t like to talk at all. One wants only water. One deliberately initiates a scuffle even though there’s plenty for everyone.

It’s a typical winter weekday morning: one on which between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30 a.m., I’ll feed four different meals to three different species in three different locations. In all, it’s 15 mouths to feed; or, put another way, 56 legs all making their way over to see what I’ve got to offer them for their morning repast.

Not all at once, of course. My 13-year-old eats first, fresh out of the shower and cheerful even though first light has yet to dawn. He takes one look at the thermometer, which hovers around the 10-degree mark, and begins to sing loudly: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song he learned from watching the movie “Elf” twenty or thirty times last summer, when it was most definitely not cold outside. Today it is, though, and as I listen to him do his best cabaret act while buttering an English muffin, I wonder where the stereotype of sullen teenagers slow to waken on a winter morning comes from. I may be wishing he’d go back to bed, but he’s clearly ready to face the day.

As he assembles his backpack for school, I make a quick stop in the laundry room to toss a scoop of kibble into the dog’s empty dish. I notice her water bowl is empty too and would prefer not to think how long that has been the case for; it continues to be a mystery of domestic life that in four years, I have never once known anyone in my family except for me to fill the dog’s water bowl, and yet at least twice a year I go out of town for two days or more, leaving the rest of the family behind, and when I return the dog is always still alive. Somehow it gets done by someone else if I’m not around, but most definitely not when I am. Another truism of motherhood.

After feeding the dog, I head upstairs to wake my very drowsy 9-year-old, who does not like to be roused one bit. The only thing that cheers her up in the morning is a somewhat maddening game of her own invention in which she answers my question about what she’d like for breakfast by forming letters with her fingers and expecting me to guess what breakfast food the initials represent. On a good day she flashes me an easy one: “O” for oatmeal; “B” for bagel. Other days it’s not so easy, and I waste six or seven minutes trying to figure out that “L” stands for “lightly buttered toast” or “M” represents “medium-sized bowl of Special K.” She always seems disappointed when she has to provide verbal clues for me; I’m just glad to be one step closer to getting everyone fed and out the door.

A cacophony of mooing greets me an hour later as I drive down the lane to the barnyard, where 12 cows divided into three groups based on weaning, breeding, and general compatibility are waiting to be fed. The adult cows point their faces skyward and let loose with their loudest moos; the calves stand in front of the gate and then skittishly leap to the side as I reach out to pat them.

The cows eat in their usual inexplicable pattern: although I throw five hay bales down from the hay loft for one sub-herd of seven animals, all seven of them cluster around the same single bale, shouldering each other out of the way while four other bales sit nearby, unnoticed. Two more bales go over one fence to a group of three cows; and the last group of two gets just one bale to share.

And then I’m done: everyone whose breakfast I’m responsible for has eaten. I still need to go running and then write some articles, but it all seems easy and relaxed after everyone has been fed. The kids are off at school; the dog is waiting to go running with me; the cows are chewing away, as they’ll do for the next several hours before they make their way through all the bales.

I’ve often said the reason I like feeding the cows is that it’s so easy and yet so satisfying. It requires so little judgment or analysis, just strength. And yet the results are so tangible: I’m faced with a herd of content, well-fed animals whose noisy clamor has ended. I suppose that's true of the other creatures as well. The rest of my day might be more challenging: writing compelling text, offering intelligent conversation, solving various problems. True, it sometimes seems like feeding hungry beings is my primary role in life, but at the same time, feeding is easy. And for now, feeding is done.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"One Little Word" challenge: Year 3

I first learned about the "one little word" challenge in 2010. The idea, as explained here, is to find one word on which to hitch your star for the upcoming year. Or, as project founder Ali Edwards explains it, “Essentially the idea is to choose a word (or let it choose you) that has the potential to make an impact on your life…a single word to focus on over the course of the year.”

That first year, I chose the adjective “possible.” Much in my life was uncertain at that point, and there were many aspects of it that had the potential to go in either more positive or more negative directions. “Possible” seemed to be an accurate assessment while also striking an optimistic note: much is possible. Anything is possible. What you hope is possible.

In 2011, I chose the verb “succeed,” which to me was significantly different from its noun form, success. I hoped to succeed in many ways in the upcoming year. I didn’t necessarily have specific end goals that would determine whether or not my efforts had earned the title of success. I wanted to hitch my star to the concept of succeeding more than to any particular end product.

This year, I chose a very different word. It came so easily to me that I’m not sure I can explain its presence. It seemed to just organically be the word I wanted for 2012. This time, the word is a gerund: “walking.”

A somewhat odd choice, I realize. Most words people choose for the one-word challenge are more inspirational in nature: joy, serenity, gratitude, strength, balance, power, hope, fortitude. “Walking” is so quotidian by contrast, and yet in the past year I’ve come to realize how important walking is to me as a way to spend my time: I walk in the woods, I walk in my neighborhood, I walk on bike paths and city streets. I walk as a means of silent reflection; I walk while listening to podcasts or music , I walk with friends as a way of socializing. I walk the dog. I walk with the kids. On holidays at my in-laws’, I walk with my sisters-in-law. I walk fast, for exercise; or I walk slowly, to relax.

So many of my best memories from 2011 involve walking. Walking with friends on the trails in the state park behind our house. Walking on a sage-lined riverside trail in Colorado. Walking to the public beach in Portland with Tim and his friends during Tim’s birthday weekend. Walking with my college roommate on Moody Beach on a magnificent sunny September afternoon.

Beyond the literal meaning, walking seems like an appropriate guidepost word for 2012 in that it’s not a year I’m starting off with a significant number of goals or plans. A lot of things in my life are going well right now; if I could have one wish, it might be for nothing to change. Walking is a good image for how I’d like the year to progress: a calm, unhurried, mindful saunter.

Walking. It’s not an ambitious word, but it’s a fundamental and maybe even primal one. It is how most of us get through our lives, literally and symbolically. At times we run, at times we crawl, at times we stumble, at times we nearly fly; but when life is most in balance, we walk. I hope to walk a lot in the upcoming year: in the woods, on beaches, in the neighborhood, with friends. I’m starting the year with a calm, measured mindset, and this is the word that I find myself reaching for. Walking: a word that matches my current state of mind and, at the same time, reflects what I hope the upcoming year embodies.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Accounting for time -- whether in a weekend or a lifetime

This was the weekend of our annual retreat, and it’s a weekend that inevitably goes by too fast. For the past eight Januarys, I’ve joined a loosely structured group of about 20 other women – most from Carlisle, some formerly of Carlisle, and some from elsewhere who are brought along by Carlisle friends – for a trip to the northeast corner of Connecticut, where we spend Friday evening through lunch Sunday in a hundred-year-old house, reveling in our free time, enjoying silence, taking walks along country roads, and eating meals that are in fact quite tasty but whose greatest merit is that they are cooked by someone else, the retreat house’s kitchen staff.

“This is how life should always be,” someone always says, and of course they mean the relaxed conversation, the leisurely mealtimes, the camaraderie. But as I was thinking about how I wanted to spend my time, I realized how much meaning that phrase actually held for me.

Because the only problem with the weekend is that the time always goes by too quickly. I start out with plans to do lots of writing, and some reading, and go for a long run and take several walks. But then I get caught up in conversations, or just distracted by the option of having seconds at mealtime.

This time, I resolve each year, I’ll plan my time really carefully. It’s less than 48 hours in all; I need to make every second count. Conversation is important, yes; but don’t use it as an excuse not to pursue more difficult options like writing. And yes, the mealtimes are lovely here, but don’t linger at the table for so long that you end up skipping that afternoon walk.

And at some point it occurred to me that in that sense, the retreat weekend really is a lot like how life should be – or at least my approach to the weekend was how my approach to life should be. Camaraderie matters, but so does reflection. Don’t let laziness – or weather – keep you from enjoying the outdoors. Above all, don’t let the time squirm away from you, unaccounted for. Figure out what matters to you and make sure you’ve set your priorities, because your time at the retreat house is really limited, and the weekend will be over before you know it.

The words had a familiar ring, and then I realized that Henry David Thoreau said the same thing only a hundred orders of magnitude more eloquently when he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived.” Yes. That’s exactly what I was trying to tell myself. Time is limited; use it wisely and well. Above all, be aware of the choices you’re making before it all melts away.

I did end up using my time well during the weekend. I visited with the other retreat-goers over meals and during discussion group sessions, but I also spent hours reading and walking. It’s trite to acknowledge Thoreau’s wisdom, but that’s how I feel. He said it far better than I could, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use his words as a guidepost. Rules to live by, in effect, whether for the weekend or for a lifespan.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pass it on

Recently, some of my friends and I have unexpectedly found ourselves in a fairly high-stakes game of hand-me-down.

We laugh about the big-ticket items we hand off to each other. A couple of years ago, one friend of mine was surprised to learn that I was anchored to my desk during writing time because of my desktop computer, so she gave me a lightweight laptop she no longer needed. When I confessed that I was somewhat taken aback by her generosity, she responded by asking if I could feed her cat for a couple of nights the following month while she was traveling. I agreed, and she claimed we were even.

When we moved out of our house last spring, we discovered that a family we know who seems to have every possible toy didn’t, in fact, have a pool table; our new house came with one already in the basement, so we had ours delivered to the other family.

A couple of months ago, a different friend invited my family over for dinner; in the course of a discussion about my lack of mobile Internet access, she announced that she could give me an iPhone that was of no use to her because it was incompatible with her phone coverage. I felt remiss; after all, it’s usually the guests who bring the host a present rather than vice versa, not to mention the magnitude of the gift she was sending us home with. But then a couple weeks later, the same friend said she was thinking of buying a treadmill; we happened to have one that no one had used for over a year, so we gave it to her.

Meanwhile, the iPhone, with its astounding array of features, replaced my need for an iPod and a camera, both of which I gave to my 9-year-old, as well as the need for my NikePlus pedometer system, which I gave to my niece.

As Amy Suardi wrote yesterday on the TLC Parentables website, sometimes it’s just a lot easier to hand something off than to try to return or resell it. Ebay serves a number of useful purposes, but for those of us who try to use it only occasionally, it can involve a lot of hassle: listing, responding to inquiries, packaging, mailing. Organizations like Goodwill and Big Brother Big Sister are great resources for giving away outgrown clothes and household goods, but sometimes it’s just so simple and satisfying to hand things off to people you know. When our landlords returned last summer to clean out the basement of the house we now rent, they asked me if I would mind dispensing of a few rather large toys for them – a toy piano, a workbench, a kitchen set. Surely I knew someone who could use them, they said, and save them a trip to the dump. My mother was willing to take them to her hairdresser’s grandchildren, who reportedly were delighted with the new toys.

Sometimes it seems a little like taking the lazy way out: when I hand things on to people I know, I almost always do so with the certainty that if I put a little effort into it, I could find a needier cause. At the same time, as Amy Suardi says, it builds a sense of goodwill and social capital. “Here, take this,” we say to each other. “Do you have any use for these?” “My son was too big for this jacket by the time winter arrived.” “I never open these cookbooks.” “Could your daughter use some skates?” It’s one of those things that makes our widespread community – the community of friends, relatives, parenting peers, townspeople – feel more like a village.

Genuine charitable giving of both goods and money is still important too, of course. But there’s a special sense of connection that comes with seeing a friend use your old camera or going for a ride on the bike that was once your sister’s. As Amy writes, “When you give stuff away, instead of trying to squeeze every last dollar out of it, you are exuding an attitude of abundance. The law of attraction says if you feel abundant, you will attract abundance. When you give, you will receive. … And by reusing things, you'll not only be saving money, you'll be saving the earth.”

I’m fostering friendships, spreading abundance, and saving the earth. It’s hard to argue with those benefits.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A snow-free winter wonderland

“Winter wonderland” is one expression we haven’t heard much this season. Just as in the Christmas carol of that name, it usually seems more applicable to a snow-covered landscape with ice crystals and fluffy white drifts than the barren brown expanse that so far has typified winter of 2011/12 in New England.

But last week on the NPR show Science Friday, host Ira Flatow and his panel of guests – including an astronomer, a meteorologist and a naturalist – gave that very name to their discussion of winter, and devoted the hour to all the ways in which winter is indeed a wonderland even without snowmen, snowflakes and sledding.

And as I look around, I have to agree. True, there’s something unnerving about a relatively warm, snow-free winter, but absent the irrefutable romance of snow, I’m reminded of all the other wonders of winter. The full moon was unusually bright last weekend; an article in the Boston Globe explained that the moon looks brighter in the winter because the sun is so low, detracting less from the light of the moon. The experts on Science Friday discussed other aspects of astronomy and meteorology that make the nature of winter unique as well, even without snow.

I’ve been walking in the woods almost daily ever since Christmas. The frozen ground is easy to navigate; what were muddy puddles and damp earthen patches in the fall are now solid ruts that make for easy balance. The bare branches yield to long sight lines through the forest. Ice edges the brooks and ponds, making lacy scalloped patterns contrasted against the black water. In the morning, gray dusk seeps slowly down from the sky while I’m already well into breakfast preparations. The sun, still so low in the sky, slants against the tree trunks to create dramatic angular shadows late in the day.

Sometimes, on mild spring days or warm summer evenings, I wonder how it could possibly not be preferable to live someplace with a year-round warm climate. Once we are far from winter on the calendar, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that this frozen season has its own merits.

But in the cold, still air of January, the earth feels quiet and invites contemplation. And so this is the time of year, with or without snow, that I remember just what about winter makes it a wonderland, year after year.

Monday, January 9, 2012

David, Goliath and me

It was my turn to teach Sunday school, and according to the syllabus, we’d reached the story of David and Goliath, whom I admit I have generally tended to confuse with Samson and Delilah. One of the best reasons to teach Sunday school is that it compels me to acquaint myself with material that I should already know. After a few hours of preparation for the class, I felt familiar with the basic details of the story.

But the best-laid plans, and all that. At our church, attendance fluctuates throughout the year. While we all love the tenets of religious freedom that govern the UU faith, those same tenets give many families the assurance that soccer, baseball and birthday parties are all good reasons to miss church. And Carlisle is a town full of skiers, so the pews empty out noticeably after Christmas, even on a low-snow year like this one.

When the director of religious education and I had a look at who actually showed up for church yesterday, we did some quick juggling. Only one of my anticipated six to eight members of the grades 3-5 class had appeared, whereas seven from the grades K-2 group were in attendance. It was decided on the spot that I would instead teach David and Goliath to this younger group.

I was a little disappointed. I’d put a lot of time into planning this class, and hit a number of minor obstacles along the way. Earlier in the week, the Director of Religious Education had suggested that I have the kids act the story out. She happens to be someone who loves theater and has had great success with putting kids on stage. I, on the other hand, couldn’t quite imagine urging a group of seven- and eight-year-olds to pretend to slay each other with slingshots. Our progressive textbook wasn’t much help either; the exercise the teacher’s manual recommended for helping the kids to imagine a giant like Goliath was to ask the tallest man in church to come to our classroom, lie down on a piece of paper, and let the kids trace his body. All I could picture was Gulliver’s Travels, with my eight tiny charges swarming over the poor man. And the fact that I’m currently reading a novel about the priest sex abuse scandal – a novel that happens to revolve around a false charge – gave me all the more reason to think having my students run over a church member with crayons was not the best lesson plan.

Instead, I decided to base the class on group discussion. First I mentioned that we hadn’t had a class in several weeks, due to the Christmas pageant and the holidays, and did anyone want to share a memory from their holidays or their vacation? Yes, all eight of them wanted to share something. All the boys recited the names of the electronics they’d received for Christmas; all the girls listed which relatives had stayed with them during the holidays. I now know that Carlisle houses were full of video games and grandmothers during vacation week.

Then I read them a version of the David and Goliath story and asked what they thought the life lesson it contained might be. “Don’t throw a rock at anyone because you might kill them,” said one student.

I agreed that this was an important and interesting aspect to the story, but what else? We talked about the concept that being smaller than other contenders doesn’t mean you are intrinsically unfit for a task: sometimes, as in David’s case, having faith and courage compensates for lack of might. I asked them for examples of times their abilities were underestimated because of their small stature. Two of the boys shared stories of turning out to be much better at football than their older brothers expected them to be. I asked if any of the kids who had younger siblings had themselves ever underestimated a younger and smaller child’s abilities. A girl told the story of the time she closed the door to her room, thinking it meant she’d have privacy, only to have her two-year-old brother break the knob to make his way in.

Before dismissing the class, I emphasized that the important thing about the story for our purposes was not that a large soldier could be felled by a rock catapulted from a slingshot but that faith and courage sometimes matter more than age, size and strength. “That’s what I think about driving!” agreed one of the boys. “My parents won’t let me drive, but I just know I could do it! I just need to keep begging until they see I’m not too small.”

I didn’t have time to explain that wasn’t quite the same principle. I’m the first to admit I’m not that great a Sunday school teacher, but during ski season, I’m often the best my church has to offer. And at least I can recycle the same lesson plan in another few weeks when the third through fifth graders filter back to church. I still don’t think I’m ready to try the trace-the-tall-guy exercise. But I’ve got the story straight in my own mind now and won’t confuse David with Delilah again.

Although perhaps to underscore the Biblical connections among the stories, we could get the woman with the longest hair at church to come to Sunday school so that we could trace her while we discussed whether faith and courage are enough to win a small child the right to drive the family car.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Life lessons and customer service

I was thinking of a piece of advice given to me more than a decade ago by a workplace mentor as I debated with myself whether to drive to a store several miles away to return a disappointing Christmas purchase.

Given the choice, I’d pretty much always rather stay home than go anywhere, and this is especially true during the work day. And yet I knew I shouldn’t just let this particular errand slide. Several weeks before Christmas, my 13-year-old had mentioned that he wished he had a clock in his bathroom so that he could keep track of time during his morning shower. I thought of the waterproof clock/radio combinations popular 25 years or so ago, a device Tim didn’t even know existed. With great excitement, I put it on my list of Christmas gifts to buy for him.

None of the places where I usually buy electronics had shower clock/radios in stock, so I ended up at Bed Bath and Beyond, which carried one model for $19.99. It looked a lot like the ones I remembered from 25 years ago, but imagining how surprised Tim would be by the gift and hoping that a little Top 40 during his early-morning shower might put an extra spring in his step made me delighted to find one at all.

When he opened it on Christmas morning he was pleased, if not what I would call overwhelmed. But it was downhill from there. The suction cups didn’t adhere. The radio reception was awful -- static from one end of the band to the other. No Top 40 to get Tim singing before breakfast after all. As I tinkered hopefully with the tuning, Tim said “The radio’s a nice idea, Mom, but all I really wanted was to be able to keep an eye on the time while I’m in the shower. And the clock doesn’t work.”

He was right. After 24 hours, the digital time display had gone blank.

It was maddening, and yesterday morning I thought about returning it. But I really don’t like doing errands during the work day, and I really don’t like going to Bed Bath and Beyond in general, and I really don’t like the highway drive to the store. How much time and aggravation can $19.99 justify?

That was when my former workplace mentor’s advice came to me. It was when I was trying to decide whether to pursue a transfer to a different division of the company. “Rather than list the pros and cons, here’s what I like to do,” my colleague said. “Picture yourself six months from now if you do make the change versus six months from now if you don’t, and consider what might be different.”

As I looked at the white plastic face of the clock/radio, I thought about my dilemma. If I didn’t take it back to the store, I’d avoid the brief unpleasantness of doing errands and driving on the highway in the middle of what could otherwise be a very serene and quiet work day.

On the other hand, six months from now – for that matter, six days from now – I’d still be irritated by what a bad purchase the clock/radio had been, and I’d still be thinking toxic thoughts about Bed Bath and Beyond. Those toxic thoughts could go on forever. Whereas if I just drove to the store to do the return, even if I didn’t get a penny back, I would have at least been proactive in trying.

I rehearsed what I would say and how I would throw myself on the mercy of customer service: “It’s just not a worthwhile item. The clock doesn’t work. The radio doesn’t get any stations. I know the original packaging is long gone, and yes, it’s been hanging in our bathroom for a couple of weeks, but could you take it back anyway?”

The drive took less time than I expected: only 16 minutes until I was in the store’s parking lot. The store was a lot less crowded than I remembered it from before Christmas. The customer service rep was pleasant. And to my surprise, she apparently couldn’t have cared less why I was returning it. She asked me to sign a receipt copy and then announced that the purchase price would be credited back to my credit card.

It was certainly easy. At the same time, it was a little disquieting. I can’t help wondering why the store has such an absolutely hands-off policy when it comes to customer returns. Didn’t they want to know that the clock display didn’t work, that the suction cups didn’t stick, that the radio reception was negligible?

Apparently not. So what happens to the piece of merchandise now? Does it go back on the shelf for someone else? Does it go to a marked-down bargain shelf? Does an employee get to take it home for free?

Or, more unsettling, does it go straight into a landfill?

I don’t know. I appreciate the refund of my $19.99 plus tax, and I appreciate the fact that the trip was easy and the customer service rep didn’t make me feel bad. But I’m a little bewildered.

Still, my long-ago colleague’s advice succeeded for me once again. Six months from now – six hours from now – I’ll be glad the defunct clock/radio is out of my house. Tim was delighted when I offered him an old digital watch to hang on the shower caddy in his bathroom. It even has an alarm feature, so he can set it for when he needs to finish his shower. If he wants Top 40 music, he’ll sing it himself, I guess.

But I’m not sure what the lesson is. Not to shop at Bed Bath and Beyond? Not to buy inexpensive electronics? Or to just get up and go when a potentially worthwhile errand needs to be done?

The bottom line is that I’m now free of my acrimony toward Bed Bath and Beyond. It’s one less source of aggravation in my Iife. And if that’s the best I can do for a lasting life lesson, it might still be good enough.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

913 miles

I didn't know that finding out the sum total of the distance I’d run in 2011 was literally as easy as the touch of a button. But it was.

I knew the website I use to maintain my running log, www.LogYourRun.com, had a feature called “Week View”; I use it often to see how one week of running compares with the one that preceded it. But not until I opened my 2011 running log on New Year's Day did I glimpse a feature I’d never noticed before: not only does it have Week View, but Year View as well. I clicked on it and found a button that said “Total Distance.” And just like that, I had the results of the preceding 365 days of running in front of me: 913 miles.

It sounded like a lot to me at first, with its proximity to the lush round number of 1,000. It sounded like a worthy reflection of another 365 days of running: days 1,239 through 1,603 of my now more than four-year running streak. Then I divided by 365 and discovered it averaged out to only 2.5 miles a day. I would have guessed more, but the important thing to me was that I’d run all 365 days, ane when I thought about my usual pattern – two miles per day most weekdays; four to six miles per weekend day – that average made sense.

Then, just curious, I clicked on my 2010 running log and checked my yearly total. 926. Huh. Thirteen miles fewer for the year that just ended than the one that preceded it. I’m not sure where those thirteen miles went, but most likely they were buried in the snows of last winter. Once there’s so much snow that the town no longer clears the footpaths, running becomes a lot more dangerous and I tend to restrict my route to our common driveway. By running up and down it a couple of times, I can easily clear a mile, but it gets boring quickly, and I don’t often do much more than the minimum. Last winter was a long snowy one.

I suppose it’s natural to be a little bit disappointed that I lost 13 miles between 2010 and 2011, even though it’s not a specific goal of mine to increase mileage every year. And of course, well past the age of 40, I know it would be fair to give myself a little bit of a break, not necessarily expect more and faster (I don’t even bother to track speed of my running these days) from one year to the next. It’s not like I really expect my fitness level to increase every year, now that I’m undeniably in the midst of middle age.

The goal wasn’t to run farther or faster; it was just to keep running. In some respects, that doesn’t seem like a particularly impressive goal, either literally or symbolically: just keep maintaining the status quo? That’s enough for you? Really? On the other hand, the fact that I haven’t missed my daily mile in over 4 ½ years continues to amaze me, not for what it says about my fitness skills or even commitment level but rather about my good luck. Another 365 days without injury, illness, catastrophe or emergency. Truly a blessing of astounding dimensions.

My shortest run of the year was one mile, done on the morning of Tropical Storm Irene, when I was too afraid of falling branches to go farther than the end of our road and back. My longest distance was six miles, a couple of different Saturday mornings; and there were plenty of entries in the 5-mile-plus-a-few-tenths range.

In between those two were the usual variety of runs that fill out any runner’s year. The hottest run: mid-eighties in the early morning during last July’s record-breaking heat wave; I was lucky to get out before 8 a.m., since by noon the temperatures would register well over 100. The snowy runs: by February there were snowdrifts more than four feet high lining the driveway. I discovered new running routes once we moved across town last spring, though I still run the familiar routes around the center of town most days. Because we now live close to a state park, on weekends I found myself in the company of other walkers and runners more than I was previously accustomed to. I headed out one Saturday morning intending to run three miles, then turned back after one mile due to lightning flashes not far ahead. I ran in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maine, Washington DC and Colorado.

So it was another good year of running and another solid 365 days. Perhaps I should make it a goal to reach 1,000 miles this year, just this once, though I’m not sure where I’d add on another 87 miles compared to last year. If I can make it another 366 days – it’s a leap Year, of course – that will be enough for me.

Snow. Lightning. Heat waves. Tropical storms. With a little luck, I can do it all again.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Un-decorating

Putting away Christmas ornaments feels like a task that embodies the spirit of New Year’s Day, even more so than putting out Christmas ornaments embodies the spirit of a Saturday in early December. As joyful a feeling as it is in the weeks before Christmas to fill the house with sparkly things and fragrant things and little objects that glitter, it’s an even more welcome feeling to put them all away on the first day of a new year.

Setting up the tree ushers in the holiday season. The kids love this job; they remark over each ornament as they unpack it, reminiscing about where it originated – as a preschool crafts project, a gift they still remember unwrapping, a memento bought on a vacation far from home and far from Christmastime – and working together cheerfully as they decorate the tree’s branches and then carefully arrange the larger Christmas decorations elsewhere around the house.

Three or four weeks later, when it’s time for the un-decorating, the kids tend to disappear, consumed suddenly with other necessary tasks in other parts of the house, but I don’t mind. It doesn’t bother me to put away the ornaments and decorations by myself. I love seeing the living spaces of the house miraculously become uncluttered: tabletops bare again, the corner where the tree stood once again open, nothing dangling from overhead in the entryway. It’s the biggest and yet also the easiest decluttering process of the year: no big decisions about what to keep and what to discard and where to store what; it all goes into the big plastic Christmas bins, and from there down to the basement.

I’m not good about treating the ornaments delicately. Though they may look as if they should each be wrapped individually in tissue paper, years of experience have taught me it isn’t really necessary: storing them in layers with soft items such as Christmas stockings or tablecloths between layers is almost always good enough to preserve them intact for the next year. It gets the job done quickly, and it gives me the instant gratification of seeing my nice neat house emerge from under the holiday glitz once again.

A tidy, sparsely decorated house for New Year’s feels exactly right: clean open lines to welcome a new year that hasn’t itself been claimed by ornamentation or themes yet. The year will develop its own details as it develops; plans, events and memories will eventually dot the calendar like decorations on a Christmas tree. Right now, the year is still unclaimed, and so are the surfaces and spaces in the house that yesterday were still filled with Christmas d├ęcor. It’s good to have breathing space – in our house, in our minds – as we welcome 2012.