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.

Moments of Clarity

 

janet-and-grandchildren

Throughout my life, I experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future: moments of insight that arrived unbidden and surprised me with their power.

At fourteen, rather than going home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, five friends and I took a joyride through the countryside in an old Ford. I climbed into the back seat with the Anderson sisters as we defied parental authority and took a joyride through a lake-tinged night.

The newly-licensed driver, the oldest among us, chattered nonstop, her ponytail swishing as she turned her head to look around, waved her hands for emphasis and ignored warning signs about an upcoming curve.

The sisters — made anxious by the speed, the darkness and the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover this crazed ride — held hands and worried in silence. But a sudden understanding liberated me and filled me with anticipation: I had lived my life based on the expectations and conventions of others; but as I traveled into my future, I would have the power of choice. My decisions, wise or foolish, would decide my future. Sensing my coming independence, I laughed aloud in the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my special-needs charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a 4th of July party where everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon. We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with garbled speech, multiple disabilities and the mental age of a child, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return. I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree, glad my husband Joel and our daughter Jenny were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Grahame Green’s Jabberwocky and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure, and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, felt I was an interloper. Then, on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children and their siblings, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but when they do, they enrich my life.

What’s So Funny About That?

jeering

“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.

“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”

The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.

“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”

In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”

“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.

I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.

I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”

This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”

My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.

Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”

“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”

Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”

The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.

After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:

“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Charlie Chaplin

He then dismissed us.

As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.

If Only

clipart kid

clipart kid

If I were to win the lottery, I know for sure I’d never again board a plane and park my posterior in economy: never again squeeze myself into a rear, middle seat where folks monopolize arm rests, and I stare at the bald spot of the reclined snorer in front of me while a robust child kicks the back of my seat as regularly as a clock ticks. Instead, when I win lots of money, I’ll occupy spacious first-class seats where there’s no need to be unruly and folks sip free drinks without their knees being in the way.

If I hit the jackpot, I’d also do something about shoppers who gather in crowded store aisles to chat with friends they haven’t seen since yesterday or block an aisle with their loaded shopping carts while they wander around in search of turkey pepperoni. I’d hire crotchety, roller-skating referees armed with frowns and whistles to keep traffic flowing during peak periods.

Perhaps my referees could also weed out the people who stand in line at eating establishments to order food and, when it’s their turn, have no idea what they want: “Oh, gee, uh, what kind of sandwiches do you have? Oh, right, yeah, I see the list up there. Um, do you have salads? Well, look at that, you’re right; salads are listed as well. Hmm. Which would you recommend? No, I don’t like avocados. Mary, hey Mary, what are you getting? Nah, I don’t feel like having a burger. Well, maybe I’ll just have soup. What kind do you have?”

These oblivious folks are probably the same people who block traffic while they wait for a car to pull out of a parking spot close to a store entrance when they could easily park a short walk away. This curious behavior is especially galling when the business they want immediate access to is a gym. I’d pay to have their cars towed.

Next, I would replace every wobbly table in every eating establishment in the United States. I hate it when, engaged in conversation, I lean forward to comment and send tidal waves of liquid sloshing into the laps of my lady friends. When I try to fix the problem by bending over — until my rear dominates the landscape — to wedge a balled-up napkin under the errant leg, the wobble worsens; and I lose my dignity.

I would pay someone to (1) produce packaging for dental floss and makeup that can be opened without broken fingernails or stab wounds and (2) to make cell phones that automatically disconnect within five feet of anyone in a public place who doesn’t want to hear a loud conversation about the user’s chronic bladder infection.

And finally, I’d use some of my payoff to offer a huge cash reward for anyone who could put an end to the passwords and personal identification questions required by computer land: “Please select and enter a password with four numerals, one special character, and three letters — two of which must be upper case; in addition, you should provide answers for any two of the following security questions: your middle school’s mascot, your father’s shoe size, and your favorite city with a population between 100,000 and 125,000.” Maybe my money could stop this madness.

You should send your lottery tickets to me. Obviously, I’d make good use of your winnings.

I Hereby Resolve

unknown

As of January 1, 2017, I will no longer describe my latest ailment to anyone who will listen. It will be a difficult resolution to keep; I enjoy clucking away about my physical difficulties to those who don’t retreat when I lean close and confide, “You know, I have this rash…”.

I’m not alone in thinking others want to hear about my bunions, sore elbow and arthritic thumb. In my late fifties, I participated in an animated discussion with friends about our physical woes: dry eyes, insomnia, tinnitus and leg cramps. We described symptoms, “It’s like my head is filled with buzzing bees,” suggested remedies, “”Pull your toes back as far as you can for as long as you can,“ and shared our expertise or lack thereof, “You mean there’s a difference between floaters and flashers?”

Later, we couldn’t believe we spent an evening talking about our maladies rather than our jobs, families, movies and sports. Physical problems had plagued all of us our entire lives, but never before had we felt the urge to share them with all the fishes in the sea.

Like most people, my friends and I grew up in a maze of childhood sicknesses, wandering cluelessly from colds to mumps to measles to chickenpox. We suffered earaches, stomach-aches, sore throats, pink eye and the flu. We worried about tonsillitis, which could lead to a dreaded tonsillectomy, and lived with the threat of polio, which lurked in the background of every day, an uninvited and dreaded guest.

We were quarantined to our rooms and confined to our beds. We whined, complained of boredom and dreaded the agony of vomiting. We sweated under mustard plasters, soaked in Epsom salts and scratched our red spots when our mothers weren’t looking.

At one point, to cure my chronic sinus congestions, the doctor told Mom I had to forego sugary treats and, when it was cold, wear a stocking cap to bed. For weeks, I blew my nose and ate a banana while my siblings enjoyed cherry pie and made fun of the raggedy knit hat I wore to bed.

Yet I never inflicted a detailed description of my malfunctioning sinuses on my young friends; nor did I introduce my hangnail-infected big toe into a late night conversation with my college roommates. My impacted wisdom teeth and stress-related headaches were never discussed in a faculty lounge.

Now, however, Joel and I consider a day poorly spent if we don’t devote several minutes of conversation to the quality of our sleep and the status of our chronic issues. At family reunions, my siblings and I provide health updates to a sympathetic chorus of sighs and advice: “You can’t wish your sciatica away. You need physical therapy.” And my friends and I compare symptoms at length: “My mouth gets so dry my husband says I have a speech impediment.”

I admire my sister-in-law, a successful professional woman and involved grandmother, who has wit, intelligence and complex health issues, problems that would allow her to dominate any discussion. But she never mentions them. Ever. When directly asked by those of us who love her, she responds simply and briefly and then gracefully changes the topic to grandchildren, pets or politics.

So, in 2017, I’m going to follow her example and stop pouring a detailed description of my latest symptoms into every available ear.

But I don’t promise to quit writing about them.

The Gift of a Child

merry-christmas-free-clip-art-merry-christmas-clip-art-7-jpgEvery Christmas, I think about the gift of a child and remember my brother’s birth.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a rackety car approach and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Anderson’s car.

She slammed the car’s door behind her — launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment — then walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as tired as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me — my scattered paper dolls, their cut-out costumes and her sewing scissors. Then, saying nothing, she slowly stirred the coals in the stove with a poker. Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause: Was it her visit to the doctor in town or my use of the forbidden scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mother had delivered family news, introduced me to a new word and shared a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later, my family arrived at church, and I rushed to catch up with my best friend. “Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom in her new, ballooning outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it would kill her.”

My insides shriveled. A few years before, my mom had nearly died giving birth to a baby sister who hadn’t lived. When she told me she was old and tired, did she mean having a baby would kill her this time? My world slowed to a standstill; and in the following weeks my anxiety grew along with my mother’s stomach.

In September, shortly after Mom told us the baby could come any day, she and Dad went to Provo, saying they’d be home by dinner. But they weren’t. So we ate the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fixed for us; then, sent to bed, but wide-awake and worried, I crouched by a bedroom window and hoped the headlights I could see across the fields would turn at our lane. I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the new baby’s diaper without complaining, if Mom was in that car rather than dying, far away in Provo, trying to have a baby when she was too old. The headlights turned.

A week later, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before, Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

Again, I tracked our car until it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped and studied the sky. Why was he looking at heaven? I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. You have a new brother. We named him Blaine. They’ll both be home Friday. Looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?”

A few days later, I experienced an unexpected rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, smelling new, small fists waving at nothing. I smiled up at Mom, and my last worry vanished as I saw that she, too, loved this baby.

In that moment, as I exulted over the birth of our baby, I began to understand why hearts overflow with joy, love and hope each Christmas.

Stresses of the Season

janet-stressedYears ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit the day after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears. She wasn’t crying about her dead dryer.

On Christmas Eve, she and her husband were helping her recently married son and his wife prepare dinner in their new home when her son said, “Why don’t you let Mom fix the gravy, Bev. She knows how I like it.”

In response, Bev burst into tears and said to Judy, “I’m sick of hearing about your perfect Christmases, your perfect cooking, your perfect dinners. Why don’t you go home? Here, take my car. I’m sure you’ll drive it perfectly.” Then she grabbed her keys, threw them at Judy and ran from the house, leaving an open-mouthed family, a half-cooked turkey and a doomed merry little Christmas behind.

“I felt like I was in a country-western song,” Judy told me, “It was terrible.”

More recently, friends and I discussed the anxieties of gift giving: “I need guidelines,” said one, “What do you buy for the grandchildren you loved when they already get too much for Christmas? What do you give babies who have no concept of Santa and would rather chew on a cardboard box? Or teenagers who have demanding taste in clothing or want specific, expensive technology?”

Another friend added, “My husband and I buy things for our children and grandchildren throughout the year, when they need it; we also help finance school trips and events, and we’re happy to do so. We spent a lot last year, so we gave less expensive gifts for Christmas. And I felt guilty the entire season.”

Fortunately, we have media experts who tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday without exploding into hysteria, eating a pound of peanut brittle, or crawling under a bed. Their advice flows freely: Get enough sleep. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished and stick to it. Stay within your budget. Relax in a bubble bath before your guests arrive.

Right.

They also warn if we deny ourselves the foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows or stray chocolate chips. Instead, we should enjoy the goodies that come our way by sampling them: take half a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

Seriously? Might as well ask a flea not to bite.

Despite such expert advice, most of us experience some stress during the holidays. We over-schedule our lives and become cranky as we rush about. We grow too weary, or drink more than a sip or two of eggnog and then say things we regret. We wonder about gifts we receive — elf house slippers or salt-and-pepper shakers from Branson — and worry others won’t like the gifts we chose for them.

We also wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Experts answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated; nor were they perfect.

I remember seeing a photograph taken by my aunt when I was eight — the year I asked Santa for a red-headed princess doll — that shows me using a blonde baby doll to bludgeon Bob as we battle fiercely in front of a tree tilted awkwardly to one side as though trying to escape.But, in my memory, 1950 was a perfectly joyful Christmas; and I wish the same for you in 2016.