Tuesday, January 25, 2011

About service...


Because I have not yet said anything Pollyanna-ish in this column—yes, I know this is only the first sentence, but I’m having a time getting started—I will say this: I really kind of like all this snow. No, I am not sick, although I have been this week, but you don’t want to hear about that. I’m getting better. But I’m looking out the front window as I write this, at the field across the road where the deer pose for us on nearly a daily basis. Male cardinals come to rest on dark logs and bare tree branches and stand out in bright and beautiful relief against the snow.

Last Sunday morning, the entire field—and everything else—wore a sparkling coat of ice. I know it’s something that happens every winter, and every winter I’m amazed by it. A few weeks ago, I wrote about finding color in winter. I didn’t realized that white gives us that color just because it’s such a splendid backdrop.

Common sense tells me this column would be more interesting if I had something to complain about, but the truth is, by the time I have a viable gripe, it’s usually already been covered by another columnist or someone writing a letter to the editor.

So I’ve been thinking about service. Please don’t ask me to explain this. It’s said that the mind is a terrible thing to waste, so I don’t waste it. However, it often doesn’t work in a straight line.

Sargent Shriver died recently at the age of 95. He had a life of wealth and privilege, was a part of the Kennedy family, and a partner in a law firm. He was also the first director of the Peace Corps and supported myriad social services and programs, Special Olympics (founded by his wife, Eunice Shriver), Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and Foster Grandparents.

Everything I’ve heard and read about him leads me to believe he was a hands-on person. He did more than attend meetings and smile for the camera. He showed up. He volunteered.

There is, I will admit, a downside to volunteering. There are many volunteer positions that would be paid ones if it were not for greed. I’m sorry for that. If I knew a way to fix it other than all volunteers staying home, I would suggest it, but I don’t.

The upside is a whole lot bigger. For the volunteer him- or herself, there are the unequalled perks of feeling good about what you’re doing and of being well enough to be of help to someone else. I know a lady who volunteers tirelessly at a nursing home. The fact that she’s older than many of the residents doesn’t slow her down one iota.

Then there are the receivers. The ones who benefit from the time, goods, and talents donated. While I know there are those who live their lives with their hands held out, there are more who pay it forward, who do for others because it was done for them when they had need.

We encounter volunteers much more often than we know. They are the ones who keep the wheels turning and the music flowing and the laughter louder than the complaints. They are the cardinals showing bright against the snow, the crystals of ice sparkling in the sun. They’re the ones who always show up.

Just like Pollyanna, I’m glad they’re there and I thank them.

Till next time.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Second guessing...

Ronald Reagan was never my hero. He still isn’t. But today I read that one of his sons is saying (in a book, of course, that I’ll just bet the junior Reagan got a hefty advance on) that he was showing signs of Alzheimer’s as early as the third year of his first term as president. I have not read the book, nor do I intend to, but I did read an excerpt from it.

Now, I have absolutely no medical training, nor do I even have caregiver expertise in Alzheimer’s, but in the excerpt I read, the president didn’t sound as though the disease was there and making quick progress; he merely sounded…well, old. Which he was. And he did more to make us realize that being old wasn’t a bad thing than nearly anyone I can think of, for which I thank him, but now there is the question. Was he just old, or was he running the country while he had Alzheimer’s?

Abraham Lincoln, who was always my hero and still is, has been much more closely examined all these many years after his death than he was in life, and it has been decided he suffered from depression. Well. He lost the first woman he loved and went on to outlive two of his four children. He was president during the war in which the country under his charge tore itself completely asunder. What did he possibly have to be depressed about? Plenty, it seems to me, but was it just depression from life’s slings and arrows or was it deeper and darker than that?

Second-guessing seems to be a pastime we’ve become particularly fond of. Ever since the shooting in Arizona, I’ve been reading about how no one tried to step in with Jared Loughner. Neighbors are coming out of the woodwork to tell what a strange home life he had, though they didn’t seem to have said anything about it before the shooting. Did his parents actually raise him with the goal and realization that he was a madman? I just don’t quite believe that.

Remembering that we do still have a First Amendment and that we are intent on stretching its parameters just as far as they will go, exactly what should someone have done that would have prevented what happened? Who really, truly knew he was going to wake up on a January day in 2011 and wreak havoc and indescribable pain at a grocery store in Arizona? When someone writes a book about the shooting in 100 years, how will it play out? Who will be the bad guys? Sarah Palin with her crosshairs? President Obama? The talk radio voices with their one-wing-or-the-other rhetoric?

Looking back over this, I see a lot of question marks. I’m sorry for that. It’s not good writing, especially since I have only questions and no answers—I count on people much smarter than I am to supply those. But I’m also sorry that those questions will be answered in the future by people who weren’t around at the time, who didn’t see the blood or bury their child or even feel sick as they watched the news. The questions will be answered by second-guessers, and I can’t help but wonder how accurate they will be.

Till next time.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

About criticism...

Criticism is just a really bad way of making a request.

No, I didn’t say it, but I wish I had. Diane Sawyer quoted it from someone she’d interviewed, then pointed a pistol finger at the side of her head and said, “Genius.” She was right.

For the nearly 40 years I’ve been married, I have hated television. Not because I think all TV is bad, but because in our house, it’s on every waking moment of the day. When the house was full of kids and noise, the TV was the loudest noise of all, because not only was it on, people were watching it. From my point of view, which is admittedly only half the equation now and was much less then, nothing that was said on TV was as important as anything that was said between us. This argument has been shot down for 40 years. I have complained about the one-eyed-monster that lives in three rooms of our house and criticized its watchers for…well, you know how long by now.

I, on the other hand, want to read the news. And everything else. I read the newspaper daily, but get most of my news from the Internet. I am annoyed when I want to read a news story and end up instead with a video. If I wanted video, I would watch TV. (Just another argument I’m losing.)

I also like to read for entertainment,not watch TV. Until Duane bought me a Kindle, my books and magazines cluttered every flat surface in the house as well as the bookcases, my car, and several boxes in the attic. Not being particularly neat in any event, this clutter has never bothered me. It has, on the other hand, driven Duane crazy for, yes, 40 years. Before he gave up—as I did with TV—he was critical of my clutter and of the fact that I have to read things to get them; I can’t always absorb what I’m being told.

We have come to an easiness with the passage of time. He turns the TV down, though never off, and tries to listen to me even if what I’m saying lacks importance. I buy my books electronically and try to keep the magazines in semi-neat stacks, though I fail way too often. Because we like each other a lot, we’ve also learned to make some allowances for the other person’s quirks.

I can’t help but wonder if we’d have learned much faster if we’d just asked more often instead of criticizing.

We had elections in November, with all the newly elected people being critical of their predecessors and promising big changes and promising to keep their promises. Within two weeks of swearing in, we’ve seen broken promises and heard constant disparagement of how the new folks are doing the jobs they haven’t even learned how to do yet. The criticisms from both sides of the ideological table are vitriolic and downright mean. Fact-checking is tossed aside in favor of having the loudest voice.

Over the weekend, an Arizona congresswoman was shot. During the same siege, six people died, including a nine-year-old. Before the blood was washed from the scene, before anyone knew if Gabrielle Giffords would live or die, blame, accusations, and criticism were being bandied about like stray bullets.

None of those things do either Ms. Giffords or the rest of us any good. Until we learn to respect each other and each other’s points of view on everything from religion and politics to butter versus margarine, we will neither grow nor grow up. It is not necessary that we agree, nor that we all like each other, though I admit it’s easier when we do.

I said—over and over—that I wasn’t doing New Year’s resolutions because goodness knows history shows I never keep them, but this is one I think I’ll work on. Instead of criticizing, I’m going to try requesting when I want something to be different, and maybe I’ll take a long look in the mirror while I’m at it.

Till next time.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Day, New Year


I love mornings. Despite my earlier complaints about time changes—and, believe me, I’m still complaining about them—my favorite time of day is the silent hour before the sun wakes up and the 15-minute masterpiece in the sky when it does. When it is warm enough to sit on the porch with coffee, I can almost hear the colors settling in, deciding whether to go with purple this morning or stick with the red that always makes us do the “ahhh” thing. Then there are mornings like this one, when all is in shades of gray. When it’s way too cold for coffee on the porch because the only sound you hear is the falling of the wind chill factor.

Unfortunately, and maybe wrongly, these shades of gray are how I often think of winter once Christmas has passed. Sunny periods are short and often bitterly cold. The wind will steal your breath without so much as a “sorry” as it rushes past. Days are short, nights long and dark. Even the most hopeful among us often despair that spring and brightness and warmth will ever come again, even though we know it always does.

It’s the New Year, time to get used to writing 2011 and figuring out how to say it. Do you say “twenty-eleven” or “two-thousand-eleven” or just “eleven”? Do you still stumble over the term “21st century” even though we’re well into it? More than any time since the long nightmare of the year of 9/11, I’ve heard people sighing with relief at the last turn of the calendar. Whether for emotional, financial, or other reasons, the people I know are hoping for better times in 2011.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Our seventh grandchild was born this year, the job I’ve worked and liked for 30 years is winding down and I still have my natural hair color. Yes, really I do. It’s my choice to cover it up. The holidays were spent with family and friends and I only gained five pounds or so, bringing the year’s total to…never mind that.

Even so, though I liked 2010, I’m always ready for New Year’s. It’s like the morning of the day, when you have time for your own thoughts, your own dreams, when you believe everything’s possible.

It is.

But if the New Year dawns gray like this morning’s sky, it’s up to you to find the color and hear it settle in. If you think, as the paragraph above admits I too often do, that all of winter is cold and gray and bitter, that’s exactly the way it’s going to be. However—I always have a however; it’s one of my favorite words—if you remember that the days are getting longer now and the nights shorter, if you convince yourself that spring is just around the corner, being blown in by the breath-stealing cold, you’ll start to see streaks of red and orange and purple in the gray. And your New Year will be like morning. Make it a great one.
Till next time.


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