Slow Off the Mark

Man o' War in 1920

Man o’ War in 1920

When I was in elementary school, my dad told me I ran like the great racehorse, Man o’ War, but with a fatal flaw: I didn’t know what go meant.

What was he talking about? I learned the word go in first grade: “See Dick go. Go, Dick, go.” Fortunately, Mom saw my confusion and explained; Man o’ War and I both had long strides, but he started quickly.

And I understood. As a racer, I toed the line and listened intently to “on your mark” and “get set” but “go” flummoxed me. Then, while I gathered my scattered wits, my competitors raced away until even a Man o’ War stride couldn’t make up for the time I’d spent in a stupor.

I’m no longer a racer, but my tendency to be slow on the uptake continues to plague me.

Is there anything worse than realizing you have five markers in a row ten seconds after your infirm aunt and daft little sister have shrieked “Bingo” in tandem and won the prize?

Is there anything more humiliating than hearing the same announcement as the other travelers waiting at a gate, then watching, stupefied as they sprint to the customer-service counter to rebook their cancelled flight?

It’s especially embarrassing when Joel leads the mad dash through the airport, cleverly calling reservations on his cell phone while he runs, and I’m left chugging along in the stampede’s wake, hoping he’ll remember I’m with him.

Joel and I also dance a two-step stutter when we walk busy city streets. I drift along, mesmerized by the staccato sound of heels striding purposefully, brake lights blinking like fireflies, and the optimism of street entertainers. So when we approach an intersection, Joel sizes up the situation, sees a window of opportunity, grabs my hand, and strides into the street.

I take a step, hesitate, pull back, stop, and look both ways like a well-taught toddler as the window closes and Joel joins me on the curb with the head-tossing, feet-stomping impatience of a reined-in Man o’ War.

Unlike my husband, I find my failed jumpstarts amusing. With one exception. Several years ago, my tendency to hesitate cast a bleak shadow on my long-anticipated visit to a fabled foreign city.

I walked Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro just as a moisture-laden twilight made it difficult to distinguish the widespread arms on the statue of Christ that guards the city. Weary from the workshop we’d taught all day, five fellow teachers and I strolled barefoot in water-lapped sand through air smelling of salt, fish and wood smoke.

Suddenly, shadows surrounded us, took form, shoved in among us, grabbed at wrists and backpacks, threatened.

I looked at the hand on my arm and the impassive face of the teenage boy who gripped me. While my friends broke free and dashed away, I watched, helpless and terrified, as other shapes turned toward me.

Then a man in our group turned and shouted, “Janet, RUN!” He grabbed my wrist and wrenched it free, then dragged me along until my feet came to life and the attackers faded back into shadows.

I lost my sense of safety in a city I had begun to love.

And I’m still unable to laugh about it.

 

Frankly, er, if you will 

Clip Art Panda

Clip Art Panda

A few months ago, I read the following letter in Dear Annie’s newspaper column: “Over the years, my husband has developed an odd habit. When asked a simple question, such as, ’Would you like another cup of coffee?’ he replies, ‘If you are so inclined.’ I find this peculiar, not to mention condescending, and it’s driving me crazy.”

I’d have advised her to run away from home.

The mindless use of words or phrases we develop a fondness for and sprinkle throughout our conversations can be irksome, especially to our loved ones. My normally patient mother looked grim when my father, preparing his bowl of oatmeal, habitually said, “Please pass the shug, Shug,” Seems a small thing, but hearing it several mornings a week, year in and year out, might wear on a person.

Sometimes Joel mentions a flaw in my operating system, such as letting me know he hates it when I assume he’s finished and put his coffee cup in the dishwasher. After I give my routine reply, “I know you do, Joel,” I’m struck by his resemblance to my mother on oatmeal mornings.

My sister Barbara developed a conversational habit when young that turned her siblings mean. When asked a question, she’d answer it and add, “Hint hint.”

“Barbara, would you quit banging on the piano?”

“No I won’t. Hint hint.” Our days were filled with hint hints and thumps.

My first principal relied heavily on behoove. He behooved the staff to use less construction paper, the students to walk in the halls, and the school board to think twice. Every staff meeting ended with “And one last thing: it would behoove you to include more detail in your lesson plans.”

The oldest member of the staff began entertaining the rest of us during staff meetings by dropping his pencil to the floor each time he heard a behoove. He quit after a record-setting fourteen drops because bending over to retrieve his pencil so many times made him lightheaded.

While on a cruise, Joel and I along with fifty other good-timers crowded onto a powerboat that ferried us from our ship to the port of Belize. A young Belizean welcomed us aboard and explained the rules, relying heavily on “right” to check our understanding: “Life jackets for adults are under the seats, right? You should put them on children first, right? And please stay in your seats until we arrive, right?”

He had more than his share of charm and a bright smile, so the passengers began teasing him with a good-natured “Right!” in response. His smile increased, especially when he had the last laugh, “You don’t need to say right every time I say right. Right?”

I sometimes watch a cable talk show during which a panel discusses political issues and current happenings. One of the moderators begins most of her opinions with “I’m sorry, but….”

I long to tell her, “Frankly, my dear, it would behoove you to buck up, if you will. In other words, quit apologizing. Actually, you know, I don’t think you’re really sorry, get it? Like, in all honesty, if you’re sorry, technically, you, um, wouldn’t continue. Right? Hint hint.”

So anyway, I’ve lost my train of thought, OK? Could you, uh, share with me where I was? If you’re so inclined.

How Big Is Your Vehicle and How Powerful Do You Feel?                       

 

female trucker

 

My mind boggled when I heard an NPR report about a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science. Researchers found that most people feel powerful when they sit behind immense desks, in sizeable SUV’s, and on overstuffed chairs. So, evidently, while I’m sitting in a commodious recliner, I forget I’m a senior citizen with sciatica and think I’m Henry the Eighth.

Furthermore, according to the research, when we feel powerful, we tend to lie, steal, cheat and commit traffic violations. So my truck’s to blame for my tendency to park illegally? And my chair’s responsible when I assure Joel dinner will be ready in ten minutes when I know it will be thirty?

My head buzzed with questions: Does our tendency to abuse imagined power depart once we’ve exited our easy chair, six-foot desk, or four-wheel-drive vehicle? Or does it last until a week from Saturday? Also, does our own size matter? Who would be more likely to speed and ignore stop signs when driving a Humvee: Jennifer Aniston or Shaquille O’Neal? And finally, did all the research subjects lie, steal, cheat, and park illegally, or did some of them specialize?

I’d specialize. I’d lie. Or, better said, I’d resume lying. But while I’d like to blame a desk, car, or chair for the lies I’ve told during my lifetime, doing so would be like saying mountains make me feel small and insignificant; therefore they cause my overeating.

Is that the face of a liar? Couldn’t be.

When young, I never thought, “I’m feeling powerful today, so I’ll tell Mom that Bob made me eat all the cookies” Rather, I told lies to escape punishment. As I teenager, I lied to entertain, persuade, smooth awkwardnesses, and avoid hurting my friends’ feelings.

My worst lies flowed, not from power, but from weakness when I felt unimportant, disappointed in myself, or fearful of losing my parents’ approval. I regret those lies.

I forgive myself for social mistruths — my puffed-up term for little white lies. I’ll never tell a friend, “Yes, your butt looks big in those jeans, but, really, your butt is big.” A relative who habitually runs late will never know that while I wait for her, I want to scream, swear and attack her doll collection. And when an apologetic stranger runs over my toe with a shopping cart, I’ll choose to respond, “No problem; I’m fine,” rather than prolonging the encounter by telling the truth: “It hurt like hell, and I’ll have a bruise until Christmas.”

My regrettable tendency to ease situations by lying has decreased as my years have increased. I no longer tell my doctor that I followed her advice when I didn’t, the trooper that I thought I was going the speed limit, or my siblings that I don’t care if I lost the game because they cheated. Mostly, these days, I only lie to myself, and I’m ashamed when I do so.

One more confession: I’ve always been innocent of the claims made in the Journal of Psychological Science. I never, ever, told a lie because I was behind a large desk or sitting in or on any object of considerable size. Unless you count my posterior.

Things I Miss 

The fifties may have been a simpler time, but they weren’t all birthday cake and ice cream. I remember crouching under my desk, hearing my heart thump and my teacher’s hose rub as she patrolled the classroom during an atomic bomb drill. Then, the next day, she distributed iodine tablets my classmates and I obediently swallowed once a week to prevent goiters; we thought taking a pill was better than a large lump that bulged from our necks so that folks mistook us for turkeys.

That was fun?

My past wasn’t all cowering and goiters, however, and I miss many things that filled my childhood with pleasure. For example, I loved the shiny aluminum tumblers that crowded a shelf in our kitchen. When filled with cold beverages, the tumblers frosted over like windshields on a below-zero morning and made everything — grape Kool-Aid, tomato juice, homemade root beer, even water — taste better.

The tumblers also had the added benefit of being light and unbreakable; so when my siblings and I forgot our manners and hurled them at one another, they bounced off without inflicting I’m-telling-Mom damage. Best of all, their bright red, blue, green, and gold shimmer felt like holding a bit of Christmas every day.

I’d also like to hear the whirling clickety-click of a hand-pushed lawnmower again — though I wouldn’t want to push it. The soft, rhythmic sound of a rotary mower symbolized summer for me as much as bird song, butterflies, and sunburn. I even enjoyed the battles my brothers waged before the quiet clickety-clicks commenced: “It isn’t my turn. It’s yours. I mowed last week. I’m not mowing it, and you can’t make me!”

Sitting with my sister Barbara in our Radio Flyer

Sitting with my sister Barbara in our Radio Flyer

For more than a decade, a 1940’s-era little red wagon, a Radio Flyer, served as an all-purpose toy for my siblings and me. We pulled each other in it, dumped each other out of it, and threw snowballs from behind it. We used it to transport garden produce to the house and to parade Barbara, costumed as Betsy Ross stitching a flag, along our small town’s main street on the 4th of July. Periodically, we tried to give our resident dogs, cats, and chickens the pleasure of a ride in it so they’d return the favor, but the dogs were uncooperative, the cats mean, and the chickens crazy.

Five years later on the first day of school: same wagon, new Bray baby named Blaine

Five years later on the first day of school: same wagon, new brother named Blaine

Bob and I once spent an afternoon playing a delightful game of our invention with the wagon: I ran evasive patterns with it as fast as I could while Bob tried to ram it with an old lawn mower. Mom ended our fun when she saw us putting Barbara in the wagon to increase the excitement. I miss this indestructible wagon, though now I’d probably plant petunias in it.

I complained about cranking our Dazey butter churn as a child, but I actually enjoyed making butter. First, I turned the handle listlessly, thinking my life would end before the cream in the jar began to look milky. Then, when it did, I spun the handle with vigor, making its paddles whirl and blur. Soon, tiny, yellow specks danced by the glass before gathering into bigger and bigger clumps of gold until I declared myself a winner and proudly carried the churn to Mom.

Aluminum tumblers, rotary lawn mowers, a little red wagon, and a butter churn. Everyday items that enriched my childhood. But the thing I miss most from my past is my younger self. And she’s never coming back.

To see some of the interesting things people remember fondly and collect, buy, or sell go to: http://www.invaluable.com/collectibles/pc-BQWOG3FLWY/.

Happy April Fool’s Day

Each year, as the optimistic and abundant personality of spring begins to establish itself, I think about a dear friend who had those same traits; a man who created April-Fool’s fun every day for everybody.

Ernie shambled into my classroom — gleeful smile, low-flapping ears, bulgy nose, blue eyes bleached from years at sea — and handed me the construction paper I’d ordered from the supply room. “My, my, my, aren’t you the busy one,” he remarked.

Though his droll manner amused me, I refused to be diverted and managed to catch him as he slid a box of multi-sized, multi-hued rubber bands onto my desk along with the paper.

“Ernie, that’s the third box of rubber bands you’ve brought me this month; I don’t need them; I never use them.”

“Well then, Missy,” he replied, grabbing the construction paper and clutching it to his chest, “You shan’t have this either!”

A previous custodian at Grace Bordewich School had purchased two cases of rubber bands, an item teachers rarely request. Boxes of the aging bands littered the storage room in untidy stacks and offended Ernie’s navy-developed sense of order.

No matter what a staff member ordered—penmanship paper, a box of staples, a set of Magic Markers — Ernie delivered the requested supplies along with a bonus: a box of rubber bands.

One year Mary, the school librarian and Ernie’s inventive equal, baked a lavishly frosted, chocolate cake for Ernie’s birthday and invited the staff to come to the library after school to share it with him.

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

Ernie praised the beauty of the cake, predicted its deliciousness, then seized the knife Mary offered, and cut — attempted to cut — the first piece. It was tough going: with each swipe of the knife, the rubber bands Mary had stirred into the batter wiggled, sproinged, and snapped.

When Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle; and, always, his gulping guffaws caused others to join in. Bedlam broke out in the library.

Eventually, the birthday boy, stifling snorts, carried the cake away to show others.

The next morning, Mary found a note on her desk. It explained that Ernie’s mom had taught him to never return an empty dish. Mary’s cake pan sat next to the note, filled with rubber bands of various sizes, many in pieces, and all carefully washed, though here and there a chocolate crumb lingered.

A few years later, when I went through a divorce, I discovered another side of Ernie. I sat in my sunlit kitchen, tears dripping from my chin, telling him about my hurt, self-doubt, anger, and fear as I faced life alone. He listened quietly, shook his head, and made no attempt to reassure me or tell me what to do.

He didn’t talk about his divorce, didn’t offer to keep my car running, didn’t suggest I work my way into the singles scene or get a new hairdo. Instead, he looked at me with concern and affection and murmured, “Oh, Janet. Oh my. Oh, Janet.” He understood I needed a listener, not an advisor.

Every year, as April breaks, I miss my generous, fun-loving friend.

Too Good to be True

S&H Green Stamps

My skepticism toward customer reward programs began with S&H Green Stamps. Along with colds, oatmeal, and Allen Nielson’s cooties, they burdened my childhood.

The stamps were given as a reward for purchasing groceries and gas. They came in gummed sheets that had to be glued into booklets, which were redeemed through S&H’s catalog or at its redemption centers.

Mom collected her S&H stamps in a shoebox. When it was full, she dumped stamps and booklets on the kitchen table and told her children and any strays to start licking. We argued about whose pages were the least misaligned and stacked our filled booklets in a moist tower. Speaking with difficulty because of our gummed tongues, we tried to convince Mom to trade the stamps for toys; but she held out for an iron or maybe pillow cases.

After I left home, I collected stamps of my own, but used a damp sponge to glue them — going to college evidently improved my problem-solving skills. I remember wandering around the redemption center in Reno as a newlywed, clutching my booklets, looking for Christmas presents to send to my family. But I didn’t have enough stamps for anything anyone would want. That was the year I gave my 10-year-old brother an imitation leather shaving kit.

He never sent a thank-you note.

coupon

Today, I experience similar frustrations with coupons. I diligently rip coupons from newspaper advertisements and magazines because I’ve read that people save hundreds of dollars a year with them. Not me.

First, I have trouble keeping track of the validity dates. I invariably present a coupon to the checker before its time or after its passing. Then, embarrassed by my inability to read numbers, I buy the product anyway.

I also have difficulty finding the products specified, even when I put on my glasses and bend double to examine the bottom shelves. If I do find something that matches a coupon, I’m so thrilled I buy it — even though I don’t need it and never have. Last week I came home with Triple Awesome Grape Kool-Aid.

voucher

Airline frequent-flier miles also make me crazy with blackout dates and limited seat availability: “Actually, ma’am, you can only use those miles on Tuesdays during the months of February and July of alternate years on flights to Detroit or Helena, and we have only three seats available on each flight so you’d better book soon. Thank you for flying with us.”

I was once included in a class action suit against an airline now defunct. If I could confirm my flights over a five-year period with either ticket stubs or a completed form detailing my flight dates, itinerary, and fare, I would be eligible for free flights.

After arduous hours of researching my credit card and bank statements, I submitted my evidence, dreaming of a free flight to Tahiti or at least Topeka. Eight months later, I received $100 worth of vouchers in $10 denominations that had to be used within a year. Only one voucher could be used per trip. Excluding blackout dates. Pending availability of seats.

Here’s an idea for all corporations wishing to reward my loyalty: could you forget the rewards and lower your prices instead?

“But I’ve Always…”

stressing out above computer

Young children in my classrooms resisted when asked to abandon the familiar or the anticipated: a substitute teacher at the door, a field trip canceled by bad weather, math after recess instead of music.

They protested these unforeseen changes: “Why didn’t you tell us you’d be gone?” “But you said we’d go to the post office today.” “We always have music now.” One year a second-grade girl seemed unsettled by my appearance: “You’re wearing the wrong shoes. You always wear red shoes with that dress.”

Sometimes, when faced with change, I act like my indignant students. If Joel suggests we relocate the TV, I gape at him with dismay then wail, “But it’s always been against the wall.” I also argue with myself when I think about altering my habits or behavior.

Recently, I’ve struggled with the idea of writing less.

The notion of cutting back the amount of published writing I do first popped into my head when I wrote a post about the rewards of dithering. I wondered if meeting the demands of my newspaper deadlines and self-imposed blog schedule took too much of my time; if my must-do writing limited other activities I enjoy: immersing myself in a book, knitting hats no one will wear, writing poor poetry, and gazing at sunsets of gauze and crimson.

Recently, Joel said, “I’m going to the hardware store for some paint. Why don’t you go too? It’s a nice day. We could ride out to Loudy Simpson Park and take a look at the river.”

Head buried in my writing, fingers flying on my computer, I said, “I can’t. I have to get this column finished. Sorry.” As he drove away, a verse from “The Pasture” by Robert Frost crept into my mind:

“I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.”

Though this poem is widely interpreted as Frost inviting readers to explore his poetry, I’d always thought of it as a depiction of a strong relationship between two people who like one another’s company.

Normally, I would have accepted my husband’s invitation, but this day, feeling pressured, I chose writing instead.

On the other hand, I have to write; it is essential to my life.

I knew I needed to find a balance.

Another bit of poetry encouraged me as I contemplated changing my routine: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

So with Dr. Seuss and Robert Frost holding my hands, I decided to adjust my blogging schedule. Beginning with this post, I’ll blog on the 1st and 15th of each month, rather than every Tuesday. I will read, enjoy, and respond to the blogs of others as I always have, but during the weeks I don’t blog, I will be indulging in the delights of dithering.

The struggle to achieve balance in our lives is universal. It is  also unending.