Don’t Be Dumb Tonight

old time halloween 2I believe in the young, who in many ways are miles ahead of the rest of us. Still, they do make some super-dumb moves at times.Below, four tales by way of illustration. Let’s call this a Halloween Night Sermon For Us All.’

EXAMPLE ONE : On a morning suddenly overcast, a young person called home from his workplace to ask his dad to put up the windows in his car, which was parked on the street. “Sure! Where are the keys?” his dad asked. “Where they always are: in the ignition,” responded the kid.“You leave your car on the street? Unlocked? With your keys in the ignition?” squeaked the dad in disbelief. “You don’t think it might get stolen?”“Oh no,” said the kid. “Who would do that?”

Let’s see, I can’t help thinking here: Maybe the person who took my neighbor’s bike right from his garage? Maybe the one who took my baby’s stroller from off my front porch and pitched it in the lake? Maybe one of the five separate individuals who stole my car on five separate occasions?

EXAMPLE TWO: A s16-year-old girl took a notion to go running. At 10 at night. On a street with narrow twisty roads. “But it’s not safe to run now, especially not there!” her mother told her. “Don’t be silly!” replied the daughter. “There aren’t even any streetlights!” (Huh?)

EXAMPLE THREE: One morning at a convenience store, a young stranger stocking shelves turned to me with a radiant smile and said this: “I get off work at 2:00 every day. Then I take a shower and go get drunk.”  “You don’t mean that,” I said. “I do. I get drunk! Every day! Right after work!” “You’ll regret that one day,” I said. “Maybe when I’m 40,” said the kid.(If you GET to be 40, I thought.)

EXAMPLE FOUR, and this by way of showing that I have been plenty dumb myself: When I was 18, I used to hitchhike. Kids did back then. Of course I always wore my good blue dress to show I was well brought up. I hitchhiked to western Massachusetts. I hitchhiked to New Haven, Connecticut. But when I hitchhiked to Cambridge to see the boy I would one day marry, he said I showed bad judgment.

It took putting my thumb out that next weekend to show me how right he was:

The man who pulled over that day had baby gear in his back seat of his car and looked a lot like Mister Rogers. When I approached his passenger-side window to find out his destination, he asked if I would do a particular thing. When I recoiled in horror, he asked if I would maybe just watch.

I hung up my thumb then and there.

And so, in this final hour before the blowout that Halloween night now is, I would say only this to the young: 

Sooner or later Time will claim your bike and your baby carriage; your brand-new car and that bright young sparkle in your eye. Earth is a beautiful place and and it’s ours to live in. But it’s also the place where we will die. It just seems foolish to invite an early departure. Other than that I say have a ball!

happy halloween


Trapped in an Elevator

trapped in elevatorImagine you and a stranger find yourselves trapped in an elevator and by some stroke of fate both your mobile devices are stone dead. 

Imagine you’ve already used the elevator’s emergency phone to report your plight, but the guy on the other end says everyone down in Maintenance is off celebrating the birthday of this other guy’s 30 years of service. They’ll get to your problem in an hour, he says, two tops . 

Then let’s further set the stage by assuming that the two of you share a common language and that neither one of you has to go to the bathroom. Thus, on these two fronts at least, you can relax and really inhabit this little soap bubble of time in which you find yourselves floating.

Now the question is, not what you’re going to DO, as this list drawn up by the funny people at The Onion, but rather what are you going to talk about? You know what you’ve been taught NOT to talk about: the forbidden trinity of religion, money, and politics. Stay away from all three subjects in polite company, you have always been told, but you can’t just look over the person’s head like people do on the subway. That would just be weird.

Soooo, what subjects could you turn to pass the time?

Well, people turn to the topic of their kids pretty quickly, so maybe you could start down that avenue, sharing information about their ages and so on. There would be no turning to your dead phones to get at photos of course, but that’s ok: you could paint a picture with language, old-fashioned concept as that is.

You could also say a few words about other family members, though this can be a tricky arena.  I once spent a mere 60 seconds alone in an elevator with a man who was so furious he was hissing like a teakettle. “Bad day?” I finally asked. “EXCUSE me?!” he hissed, greatly offended by the question. “I…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken,” I stammered. He only paused for about 20 seconds before blurting out, “My damn MOTHER-IN-LAW!”

So I guess you have to be careful choosing your topics.

Here’s an idea: People love explaining their scars, I’ve noticed, though this might not be the right setting for that particular show-and-tell.

Ailments also make a reliable topic but they too might be dicey in this context, especially if your elevator-mate has been on earth long enough to have a nice long medical history. I mean, you might never get your own turn to talk!

The weather’s a pretty tired topic and sure there’s sports but what are the chances you’re both fans?

I’ll tell you what I go to when all else fails:

Television. You’ll never go wrong with TV shows. I don’t care if you’re Cleopatra the Queen of the Nile, you watch TV. 

At least a little.

Admit it.

Even if your tastes differ as to genre – I, for example find sitcoms almost unwatchable these days what with all the wink-wink of sexual innuendo – I bet within two or three minutes you’ll find common ground. And then you won’t even realize that the guys down in Maintenance have moved on from eating cake to doing shots. You have another human being and the chance to talk and talk, and really, what’s nicer than that?

Why I Volunteer – and HOW I Do It

all of us together

For mother of three Terry Marotta, connecting her volunteering to her early career as an inner-city teacher was essential. Finding organizations whose missions matched her youthful goals felt instinctively right, something she recommends. Marotta works for two nonprofits devoted to diversity: A Better Chance, which identifies talented young people of color for study at top middle and secondary schools; and her town’s Multicultural Network, helping people build inclusive communities.

“As a high school English teacher in my twenties, I had had the chance to live out and uphold similar values to the ones these two boards cherish. In Room 334, we all listened with respect to one another, we learned to celebrate our differences, and before long got to [a point] where we were all really glad we had come to class each day.”

Marotta knew the nonprofits were a fit when she felt the same way she did as a young, ambitious teacher. Her feeling of purpose has been key to her success as a volunteer.

Many people are passionate about causes but unsure if they have the right skills. “Banish all such thinking!” Marotta urges. “Try to see if you can identify a couple of people—even just through social media—who work with the nonprofit. Ask what the joys and obligations are.”

Then, she says, observe how the group acts. Perhaps you can sit in on a meeting. Get a sense of the organization’s tenor. Just visiting the group’s Facebook page may help you see how members interact.

Most of all, Marotta says, consider your legacy when joining a group.

“How do I know that ‘my’ work will live on? It sounds corny but I think I know it because of something that Mother Teresa said: ‘All that is not given away is lost.’ So give it away, your time and your love and your attention, and you will never be sorry, because the people you have given these things to will in time give away their own store of them,” she advises.

Of course, volunteering can be taxing, especially with family pressures. Marotta worked  with  the Winchester (MA) Chapter of  A Better Chance for ten years when she was young, then took two decades off before returning. When she did, Marotta says, “I was a different person with a new ability to laugh, to survive setbacks, to keep things in perspective.” Now, she says, “I have much better boundaries. I know how to practice self-care. What I give, I give with a full heart.” Make sure you have the time and the energy to devote yourself to your chosen cause, so when you give, it’s without resentment or pressure. When this is the case, the gratitude—for both the volunteer and the recipient—is immeasurable.

“I’ve seen this again and again,” says Marotta. “There is almost no greater force for good than the power of careful attention to another person.”

So thanks Kara. Thanks for helping me say what I deeply believe. And thanks to my fellow board members on the Network for helping me stay mindful of the many good reasons I do any kind of volunteer work. I’m a lucky girl.



My Lucky Day

today it seems to me there are signs and wonders coming thick and fast…

hang-him-at-dawnAll I can say is sometimes you just get lucky. Me, I got lucky three times in a 24-hour period, and each time it was because I put myself out there, either by picking up the phone or by walking instead of riding to run the day’s errands.

The first time was on Sunday morning when I used my feet instead of a car to cover the two miles downtown and back. Just as I was passing the doughnut shop, I spotted a 12-year-old boy striding along with his father. They were both laughing and the dad had his arm slung affectionately around the boy’s neck when suddenly he stopped them both mid-stride and kissed the child smack on the side of his head.

Seeing that would have made my day all by itself, but I got lucky again just a few hours later when I made myself call the cable company to see about locking in a good rate.

“Your wiring is extremely old!” exclaimed the customer service rep.

 …AND, you need a better router,” she added. 

“I can actually send a technician out tomorrow, would that work?” She said he would be here for several hours, she and no, there would be no charge (!) And didn’t that technician sure enough come, the very next day. He slapped a ladder up to the side of the house, descended into the Land of Lost Things that is our basement and in general worked here for three solid hours, leaving me at day’s end with a signal strong enough to let me Facebook with the folks on the International Space Station.

Then the last piece of luck came along the next morning when, headed into the city on business, I left my car on its perimeter to save on parking costs, then took a taxi the rest of the way.

My driver was a woman in her 60s with dreadlocks and a big wide smile, whose cab was filled with the most wonderful music, to which she was singing along. Finally, I just had to ask: “What IS this?”

She tilted the rearview mirror so she could see my face. “Caribbean music!” she said laughingly. “The music of Haiti!“ And then she gave a five-minute tutorial, with examples, on the difference between her Haitian French, called “Creole,” and the French that is spoken in Paris.

I loved the lesson. “But I have to know,” I said then. “Who is this singing? “

“Oh!” she said. “My friend and I made this CD. My voice is the deeper one,“ she added, and resumed her singing by way of demonstration.  

When we reached my destination, she picked up a worn Bible from its place on the passenger seat. “This was our text,” she said. “It’s from the Book of Acts, Chapter 20,” she said and showed me the passage, all in French. “Take a picture of it with your phone!” 

So I did take a picture, and once I got home, I  looked up the English for this piece of Scripture that in part  has God saying, “I will show wonders in the Heavens above and signs on the earth below.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” I thought, because today it seems to me there are signs and wonders coming thick and fast all around us – and all we really need is the eyes to see them.

Not The Best Day

flowers for ChandraWhen I lose my focus I overdo things, and spin off into all this activity around taking care of other people, forgetting every time that a person is  supposed to take care of her own self first.

Today for example: I tried to go into the city to hear a speaker at the JFK library whose glass walls reflect back so beautifully our cold Boston Harbor.

I never did get there, because I also wanted to:

One, mark the birthday of a dear friend who is just turning 86. I had already mailed her a card and I knew she was out today but, I thought, I’ll bring her a book. No, two books. But first I’ll wrap them in this nice gift paper if I can find it. Oh and I know she doesn’t cook much anymore so why don’t I stop at Whole Foods and get her something she can enjoy for supper.

Two, sand and paint an old bookcase I want to use to house the books another who is dear to me left in my basement a couple of years back because he had no room for them in his dorm room. “You can just throw them out, it’s fine,” he said when I wrote and asked what to do with them. But how could I do that when I know how much he loves these books? When I know that every book he reads, every sky he looks up at, every walk he takes feeds his poetry, for he is a poet born? So today I worked on the bookcase. Then I drove 20 miles north to get more of the paint which that the manufacturer isn’t making anymore in my color, as my four phone calls to hardware stores all over revealed.

Three, make two flower arrangements to say thanks for two people who have given unsparingly of themselves in service to others, one a medical man who for the last 30 years given free care to  those who need it, and the other a chef who has made our local ABC house a real home for the dozen people she has fed every weeknight for the past five years. She leaves tomorrow to work more intentionally on her Master’s degree and will she ever be missed.

The flowers took a long time because I’m choosy and because the hydrangea blooms outside my house were so heavy with moisture I had to stop and go put on a raincoat to harvest them. Both bouquets are done now but as I look at the clock I see that it’s hours and hours too late to deliver them.

I didn’t get to deliver the two books or the hot food either. A two-hour medical appointment I had mid-day spoiled that whole idea.

I didn’t get on the treadmill, which my body fervently prays I will do every day, to pull it out of its stiffness.

I didn’t work on my weekly column, which is due Friday.

I didn’t connect with my sister by picking up the phone and how hard would that have been?

So I guess I will close now, at almost 10 on this school night. I I don’t feel great about how I operated today but maybe I’ll be better tomorrow.  In the meantime I’ll take pleasure in the pretty blossoms that came into my hand today.

flowers for Dr. Wilson

My Almost Famous House

No. 9 dressed for fallA text arrived from my next-door neighbor saying that a “location manager” had just spoken to her about using both her house and ours as the setting for a major motion picture. Could he ring our doorbell too in a bit?

“Sure,” I said, and 20 minutes later he was here.

This wouldn’t be the first time a film crew had chosen our house. Fifteen years ago, a public utility made a commercial here using just the outside. Then, five years after that, some college kids used the inside too, to make a movie that affixed so many wires and cable to our newly painted trim that we had cause to muse on the futility of any and all home-improvement projects.

“Oh, but this is the big time!” said the man, and that sounded true enough to me when I heard the names of two of the actors who have already signed to the project. “When we leave, you won’t know we were here at all.”

“Even with that crew of 80 you mentioned?” I asked. 

“Even with that crew of 80,” he said. All we had to do was (a) agree to be relocated for “seven weeks give or take”, (b) allow all our furniture be relocated too, and (c) give permission for the walls be repainted and the wallpaper be covered with other, temporary, paper as the film’s visionaries saw fit.

But! All would be restored when the project was complete. AND, besides covering our housing costs, we would be compensated for our trouble with a fee to be mutually agreed upon.

He took scads of pictures, talked more to my husband David, newly returned from the office, and left, with the understanding that he would come back in a week with six even bigger bigshots.

When, that evening, I told my cousin about this potential offer, her reaction was swift. “WHY though? Why would you do this at all?” It was a good question.

Over the next few days I began to see that I would say yes to the project mostly to see if we still had wings, as well as roots. Were we still capable of signing up for such radically new “dance suggestions” from the universe?

Because we have been here one very long time: Little House on the Prairie was still airing fresh episodes when we got here. For almost four decades, I have watched the morning sun touch the tops of the tall oak trees across the street.

David, who is equanimity itself, thought it might be an adventure, but I happen to know that he can be happy anywhere as long as he has his books and the daily crossword.

I am not like that.

I got worried about my houseplants, all still at ‘summer camp’ on the screened-in porch? Where would they go, some storage facility in South Boston? And could I actually live in a hotel, even for those seven weeks ‘give or take’?

As promised, the man came back with the bigshots, who spoke not a word but slithered like eels, all silent, around our rooms. As they left, our man thanked us and said he would call in a week with the decision.

And when he did call, it was to say that they had decided to go with an another house in another town.

Was there disappointment around here? 

Not for my houseplants. Not for the two rooms we freshly repainted just last month. 

I walked outside to where I could see those trees that greet me each morning and felt a slow smile cross my face. Because how lucky a thing is it to go from youth to age looking out at the same window at the tops of the same stately familiar trees, not just those oaks across the street, but this ginkgo and her graceful final shedding.

Originality is Overrated

alka seltzerSpeaking of writing your own poems as I was here, the more I think about it the more I realize how hard it is to be really original. I mean, who among us CAN be original with all, ‘pop pop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is’ buzzing around in our heads? (And if you remember  that jingle, you’ve probably been receiving AARP the magazine for at least a decade.)

Used to be, folks memorized things not accidentally because of commercials and popular songs but on purpose, because our teachers made us memorize. Used to be, every kid with an 8th grade education was walking around with all sorts of lines in his head: The poetry of the ages. Scripture. The second and even third and fourth verses to all the patriotic songs.

Wouldn’t we be better off if we 21st century types had that rich lore at our fingertips today?

We pay too much homage to originality anyway, which I really do believe is mythical in the first place. Example: I once thought of myself as quite the witty one-of-a-kinder; but the then why did I name the journaling manual I wrote The Trail of Breadcrumbs. The reference is from Hansel and Gretel natch, with the subtitle “Journaling to Find Your Way Home”. Pretty UNoriginal that one!

Now I’m wondering if all the titles of the books I brought out were also pretty derivative I Thought He Was A Speed Bump may SOUND original but actually it isn’t at all since I stole the phrase from the little boy next-door who, when he was three years old, ran over his friend’s tummy, not once but twice, with his tricycle. It’s true I haven’t yet heard of a book besides my own called Vacationing In My Driveway but I’m sure people use that phrase in every day life. I mean, that’s why people laugh the minute I give its name: they get its message at once. 

Nope, the real originals are few and far between. I give Francis Scott Key a lot of credit with the Star-Spangled Banner whose lyrics are seriously original even if he used an existing drinking song for his tune. I mean, seriously, who else ever wrote lyrics like this? The “Oh say”  phrase alone, never mind those bums bursting in air as a million little kids so lustily sang? For really original stuff we should look to the lyrics the kids think are the real lyrics to any song or prayer. Theres bound to be some fun in mining that vein: Blessed are the monks in swimming and Round John Virgin” alone, from the Hail Mary – and that’s before you even get to that someone in the kitchen with Dinah strummin’ on the old man’s joe.” 😉