I dispense a lot of advice on this blog.
Clothing advice, dog-raising advice, aging advice, housekeeping advice – and most often – happiness advice.
But it’s a lot harder to give advice in real life than it is to write about all my incredible (incredibly small, that is) wisdom.
I really do believe my advice is good… and that I truly possess a bit of wisdom.
Theoretically, I am a genius.
Everything seems so clear to me when it is not actually me.
In real life, I struggle.
But there are some things I know from my own experience, and not just from watching everyone and everything (which is my job, being a writer).
And there is something I need to share. A lesson I learned the hard way.
Stick your nose in someone else’s business.
Twenty years ago, when I worked for Humongous, Inc., I hired a smart, lovely young woman as a financial analyst in my department.
I had interviewed Lynn six months earlier for a different position, and though I liked her very much and was impressed with her skills, I hired another candidate, whose experience was just slightly more relevant to the job. But when I had another opening months later, I called Lynn and asked her if she were still available and interested. And so I just hired her over the phone and didn’t even bother to bring her back in.
When Lynn showed up for her first day of work, the change in her appearance was dramatic. While she had been very thin six months earlier, she was now emaciated. I asked her if she was well, and she told me she had been fighting with anorexia for years, and some periods were better than others. She was getting professional help though, and was responding again. She was open and optimistic.
Her work was accurate and timely. She was insightful, reliable, well-liked and cheerful. But she did not put on any weight. She became thinner and thinner.
Her co-workers became concerned. They came to me with reports that she ate a lettuce leaf for lunch, and then vomited in the bathroom. That she came in early so she could park as close to the building as possible, because she could not walk more than a dozen yards. That she took the elevator even when it was only a single floor to climb.
I worried. But I didn’t want to interfere. I didn’t want to intrude on her personal life.
I wanted to mind my own business.
I told my husband one evening that I thought it was only a matter of time before Lynn ended up in the hospital. I cared about Lynn, but I have to be honest and admit that I also worried about covering her responsibilities if she had to be out for an extended period.
The next time Lynn came into my office with an analysis, I asked her to stay a minute. I closed the door.
“I’m worried about you,” I said, “You seem even thinner than a few months ago, and you look so pale.”
“I know,” said Lynn. “I’m working on it and I’m in counseling and my family is really helping. Things are turning around and even though I look thin, I’m feeling better.”
“Your friends say that you don’t eat.”
“It’s hard for me to eat in front of people because I have lots of weird habits I’m trying to break. But I have a decent dinner with my parents every night.”
“We want to help you with anything you need,” I offered.
“Everyone is great here. I love working here. And HR has talked to me too, and they are very supportive.”
“That’s great!” I said. And I was extremely relieved. Relieved that she said she was feeling better. And relieved that HR was involved. And that perhaps I didn’t have to be.
Lynn called in sick on Friday. She said she had been in a minor car accident and was just a little sore.
And Monday morning Lynn’s sister called me. Lynn had died over the weekend. Her heart just gave out. She was 32.
I learned later that our Human Resources department had briefly spoken to her, but had not been very involved. I learned that she was not in counseling. I learned that there had not even been a car accident. I learned that Lynn was very good at telling people what they wanted to hear.
Could I have saved Lynn by intervening? By being more insistent? By interfering?
But I will never know for sure. What if I had been just a bit more interfering? And a few other people had too – perhaps our cumulative interference might have made an impact.
But it haunts me.
Because the truth of it is – I did not want to know. I wanted to mind my own business because it was EASIER. On me.
There are other words for Interference.
Concern. Involvement. Responsibility.
Please listen. Listen to me and listen to those who are in pain.
Don’t back off.
Don’t mind your own business.
You may not be able to save someone.
But you might.
What if you could?
In the parking lot at the Petco store, I watch a dad with his three kids. Two boys and girl. The boys are maybe seven and eight; the little girl perhaps four. At the entrance to the store, Dad stops. I see him tell the boys to wait a second. Dad has noticed that the girl’s sundress is all bunched up at the waist. He hair looks like it has been the victim of the open car window. Dad straightens his daughter’s dress. He adjusts her headband and runs his fingers as a quick comb through her hair. He nods his head. They all go into the store.
This is what a father does.
He takes care of his kids, whether it is making sure they are wearing their seatbelts or whether they need a hair repair.
Some people think dads are mostly oblivious.
Good dads should notice.
Good dads should be the dads of small things.
I come from an older generation. The generation where your parents took on the most traditional of roles.
Many of us had fathers who worked incredibly hard to support their families. My father-in-law, who I sadly never knew, always worked two jobs. He may have worked too much. He may not have spent as much time as he would have liked with his family. But he showed his love by working for them. I don’t undervalue that enormous sacrifice.
Dads may have been strict – the unwavering tough guy and breadwinner – back in my day.
But they also had a softer side – that today may be more common, but was just as cherished then as it is today. Maybe more cherished. A father’s time with his children was often limited, so we loved it when we were so fortunate.
My father never took us shopping, like the dad I describe at the beginning of this story. I don’t think he would ever have even thought of it. But he took us skating in the winter and swimming in the summer. And he took us out for ice cream cones. And he often didn’t have one himself (neither did my mother) even though they loved ice cream. Dad spent his money on us. Years later, he told me that he often put only a dollar’s worth of gas in the car so he could spend his only other dollar on ice cream cones.
And rides. Traditional fathers were good at rides. It seems today that Mom is mostly the chauffeur, but in my day, Dads did a lot of driving. Of course, we kids didn’t go to that many places that we didn’t walk to. But when we did, it was Dad waiting in his car at the end of our day.
I especially remember my best friend Doris’ father. His shift at the factory ended at 3:30. And if we could get to the town swimming pool, often by walking the long, hot uphill mile-and-a-half, he would be there in his big old Ford at 3:45 to give us a ride home. Always. And always cheerful.
Traditional Dads would teach you things. My father-in-law taught my husband to fix a car. My dad taught me how to play Cribbage and how to follow a football game.
My father taught me how to slow dance.
Traditional dads held you to a high standard. Good grades, chores, politeness – these were required. But they also let you slide on the stuff that was important to you, but what didn’t matter in the long run. They let you blow bubbles in your milk. And they let you – at least once – take a sip of their beer.
And while expecting great things of you, these old-fashioned dads let you know that it was okay to fail. My father may have taught me to play Cribbage, but he didn’t let me win. And all us kids got a “Good try!” when we didn’t make the team or get the part in the play.
These dads let you be silly. They told corny jokes and made funny faces. And they told you stories about the dumb stuff they did as kids. They made you roll on the floor.
Although my father was the traditional dad of the fifties and sixties, he was amazingly ahead of his times, especially when it came to traditional roles themselves.
My father was proud of my mother’s education and work as a nurse. And encouraged his three daughters to try everything and expect success.
Recently a Twitter hashtag game called for responses to the following:
Think there was anything a girl couldn’t do.
All three of his daughters (and his son) went to college and earned graduate degrees. We were all successful in our careers and our personal lives.
Dad believed that there was nothing we could not do. He supported every effort, every dream.
Here is a story about my traditional, old-fashioned dad that I have never told anyone.
When I was thirty, I was unmarried but desperately wanted to be a mother. I had heard about a woman who was bringing orphans from El Salvador to the U.S. for adoption. El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war and it was a dangerous place. I contacted this woman and found out what I would need to do in order to adopt one of these children. I completed reams of paperwork, was fingerprinted, and registered with the El Salvadoran embassy.
I waited. It was very difficult. Most of my friends and family and work associates were not supportive. Not out of any meanness or xenophobia, but out of worry. What if the child was ill? What if she could not adapt? How could I manage as a single mother? And the situation in El Salvador was so volatile that the regulations and standards for adoption changed repeatedly.
In the end, El Salvador shut down its U.S. adoptions before my source could find me a child. So it was not to be. Which I grieve for to this day.
But when all was still up in the air, when I still had hope along with fear, when my family was still trying to talk me out of it, my father took me aside one day.
“This is just between us,” he said. “But if you get the chance for a child, and if things change and the child cannot be brought to you – if you need to go to El Salvador to get her – I just want you to know, I will go with you.”
A father has many duties.
A good father will fix your hair.
Or go into a war-torn country to keep you – and your dreams – safe.
Happy Father’s Day.
Yesterday, I went out on my patio to enjoy the sunshine that had finally appeared after a few days of rain.
I noticed that on the patio stones were six little worms. I am no biologist, but I pride myself on being an expert anthropomorphologist, so I figured the worms were doing the same thing I was doing – basking in the warm sun.
However, I also know from my vast experience of childhood worm-watching, that these worms would very quickly shrivel and die in the sun.
Why do they do that? Put themselves in such dire circumstances? Again, I am no biologist but I have been given to understand that worms breathe through their skin, and when it rains and the soil is completely saturated, they come out of the ground so they don’t suffocate. And they can move pretty freely when the ground is wet.
But the ground – especially the sidewalk (and my patio stones) dry very quickly, and then they can’t move. And they are stuck.
The poor worms don’t understand that.
They don’t have the brain power. As a matter of fact, earthworms only have about 300 neurons in their whole nervous system. Even an ant has 250,000. Cats have 760 million. Dogs have 2 billion (sorry, cat lovers). And human beings have 86 billion.
So worms are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to reasoning skills.
And consider the bell curve of intelligence. If worms have a bell curve like human beings, just think about the poor worms on the wrong end of the bell curve. No wonder they ended up on the patio. And it isn’t their fault. They were born that way.
If we can feel a little compassion for the brain-challenged earthworm, let’s spare a little for human beings too.
That bell curve.
Because you are reading this essay, I am guessing that you are at least in the middle of the curve. You actually read the word ‘anthropomorphologist’ – which you probably understood even though I totally made it up.
So if you are at least in the middle of the curve – or maybe even on the high end, since you are smart enough and patient enough to read about worms – just consider all the people in the world in the lower half.
They struggle, I think. They haven’t got nearly the intelligence of you or me, and yet, just like you and me, they have to get through childhood, find jobs, raise a family, learn how to get where they need to go, buy stuff, prepare meals, and pay their bills and their taxes.
And yet somehow they manage. With less intellectual resources, millions of people do okay. They live. They love.
Sometimes I am more in awe of the mentally-challenged person who cleans her house than I am of the genius who lives in a mess.
And we should be willing to cut some of those people a break. To help those on the lower end of the curve with a measure of financial help and as much education as we can give them. We can give them medical care and food assistance. We can be kind.
After all, we are the privileged ones – the ones to whom the world is not an unending mystery.
We should help.
And – back to the earthworm story:
I took a stick and picked up each little worm and gently put it back on the lawn. Even the one that I was too late to save. I scooped up his tiny body and gave him a soft spot in the grass as his final resting place.
Reincarnation could be a thing.
If I come back as a worm, I hope that Karma is kind.
When I was out driving yesterday, I was suddenly engulfed in a blizzard.
A pollen blizzard.
The sun lit up the millions of pollen bits and dandelion fluffs floating through the air.
It was the Dance of the Allergens.
And I just laughed. Because those awful things reap havoc on me… and yet they were so beautiful.
Which makes me think about other things that are terrible and lovely at the same time.
When I was a kid, I lived near a very big factory, and I used to love the puddles in the parking lots after a summer rain. Not only was there a rainbow in the sky. There were rainbows in the puddles. Oh sure, you may call them oil slicks. But they were so pretty. The blues and purples and golds. Those beat-up cars left these portraits just for me.
Then there’s food that I just can’t stand – but I have to admit these comestibles are just lovely. Oysters and mushrooms. And most of all, bleu cheese.
The world is full of scary things that are beautiful too.
Sharks and octopus, lions and crocodiles. They can be awesome as well as frightening.
But even the simplest cobweb can take your breath away.
And then there is the category of things that I used to find ugly… that with time I have found beautiful.
Perhaps not ugly, perhaps only invisible, unnoticed.
The gorgeous way the leather has aged on my thirty-year-old checkbook:
And getting back to Dandelions – why do we not consider them beautiful?
Just think how much easier your gardening would be if we suddenly realized that these persistent and prolific petals were also … perhaps pretty.
And of all the things that I did not appreciate – whether they were scary, or threatening, or invisible – where I now see incredible beauty:
A few years ago I wrote a post – Oh, Grow Up! – in which I wrote about the childish things that we need to leave behind.
Don’t get me wrong. I think we should act like children a lot more often than we do – especially because we mostly still feel like children inside. And so we should let our little angels and monsters out to play a lot more often.
As a matter of fact, a friend of mine posted recently on Facebook that she was feeling uninspired. She has recently moved out of state, and she has been very busy. She has been devoting a lot of time to volunteer work – at a hospice, at the local library, as a literacy tutor. But she writes: “Why does it not feel like it’s enough? What am I missing?”
Many of her friends told her she was wonderful, terrific, selfless. “Hang in there,” they said.
But I wrote and said, “FUN. You are missing FUN. Have some.”
And she said. “You are right! Everything feels like work.”
So I believe in Fun. I believe in experiencing childlike joy. And I even wrote a blog a while back – “In Praise of Childish Things” – extolling the virtues of returning to those simple pleasures.
But I also wrote about the annoying immature stuff that adults should leave behind.
And one thing I wrote, in particular, haunts me.
No one cares that it’s your birthday. Everyone has one. You aren’t special. Don’t expect your co-workers to remember. Consider yourself ahead of the game if your spouse remembers.
Well, I’ve changed my mind.
I was wrong.
Your birthday is important.
You should celebrate the day you were born. Everyone you know should celebrate the day you became our companion in this world.
Your presence should be celebrated every day. But if we have to pick just one day, let it be your birthday.
Years ago, my brother-in-law called me on my birthday to say “Happy Birthday.” He asked what I had done that day.
I said, “I went to work.”
He said, “Why didn’t take the day off?”
“Because I’m not seven,” I answered.
Once again let me say this:
I was wrong.
Not because I didn’t take the day. off.
Because I didn’t think it was big deal.
It’s a big deal.
I have a sweet friend that NEVER forgets a birthday. She keeps a special list and every single one of her friends gets a birthday card. She must buy cards by the hundreds.
And I have another, newer, friend, who has some inside information on people’s birthdays and brings cards to Zumba class for everyone to sign.
And another friend who is the best cake maker in the world. And if you work in her office, there is birthday cake in the conference room almost every week.
Today is my husband’s birthday. He joined the human race today.
And we’ll celebrate his existence.
And share the cake and ice cream, please.
When I go to the beach, I spend most of my time counting.
I watch everyone. I worry about someone drowning. Someone might not be watching someone they love. Just for a split second. Someone looks away and someone goes under. It won’t happen on my watch.
Because I watch.
My mother watched.
I must have been a lifeguard in a previous life. And my mother was a lifeguard in her previous life. Perhaps we have lifeguards going all the way back… my ancestor counting heads as Moses parted the Red Sea.
I like to read at the beach, but I stop after every two paragraphs and count. Where is the little boy with the striped bathing suit? Where is the girl with the blue bikini? Where is the old woman in the straw hat? The pale man with the hairy back?
Everybody will stay safe under my watch.
I count heads. Twenty-four now. Oh, that family is leaving, but here are two more families. Twenty-nine now. I count.
Okay. The little boy with the sailboats on his shorts has put on a sweatshirt. He’s here.
Ah, there’s Moses, my ancestor said. He’s safe.
When I was nine, my little brother wandered away at a relative’s lakeside cottage. My father thought he was with my mother. My mother thought he was with my father. Then they realized he was gone. And the lake was so big. I think that was the most frightened I ever saw my mother. She was terrified. My brother was found. He was safe. And still my mother cried.
She forgot for a moment to count.
And so I count.
There is the lady with the white sunglasses. If she takes them off, I must remember her hair. She has a braid. I won’t forget her.
There are the teenagers kissing. They will watch each other. But I will make sure. They could go under together.
Not on my watch.
Everyone will stay safe. The children on the shoreline, the brave ones in the water, the elderly under their umbrellas, the readers, the sleepers, the frisbee throwers.
I count people because people count.
Last year I wrote about Being Kind – To That Special Someone.
I think in this difficult time – and in good times too, all time, really – we need to be a lot nicer to ourselves.
Use the good china. Buy yourself flowers. Take a walk and look at the trees instead of your phone.
And please, please, please –
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
I don’t understand where all the self-criticism comes from.
Why, I like myself more than I like just about everyone else. And although I can readily admit my mistakes… (well, maybe not ‘readily’, but ‘eventually’)… I am also extremely forgiving of my mistakes and shortcomings.
After all, I have to be with myself one hundred percent of the time. It’s so much easier if we don’t fight.
I see and hear people fighting with themselves all the time. Self-criticism. Discouragement. You need to get over your disappointment in just how much you let yourself down. Forgive yourself a little. I forgive myself for so much I am constantly surprised by my generosity.
“Don’t worry, you’re fine,” I reassure myself.
“Oh, you are too kind,” I answer.
For example, I just wrote that I will readily (eventually) admit my mistakes. I have found that it is much much easier to admit a mistake, and then get on with your life. At work especially – the sooner you admit to your mistake, the sooner everyone else forgets it too.
But – once in a while – I have found myself covering up a mistake. Finding an excuse (the file got corrupted) or just plain lying (I missed the deadline because I was sick). Oh, this is a terrible thing to do. But holy cow, work is hard and getting yelled at is hard and confessing to being stupid is hard. So try not to make sad excuses. But if you do, forgive your excuses as much as your mistakes.
Or sometimes you pay a bill late. Someone I know had just completed a hostile phone call informing the credit card company that the check was sent WEEKS ago, only to discover it was really six weeks ago, and that was last months’ bill. Oops. So: Apologize. Apologize to the billing person you hollered at. And then apologize to yourself. Time flies. It’s trite but it’s true. It’s so easy to think you JUST did something that you didn’t do at all.
Sometimes your standards are just too high. You have not failed as a mother if you give your kids Cheerios for supper. My mother used to say – “I can have a clean house or I can have happy kids. Sometimes I can have both. But not always.”
And it’s not only the kids eating Cheerios. We all intend to eat healthily. And sometimes we do. And sometimes we have chocolate covered caramels for breakfast. In this country, we are bombarded with food. It lures us from the cupboards. It seduces us from the refrigerator. It beckons us from the pantry. It shouts to us from the TV. Shit, even the gas station sells potato chips. Just do your best.
I just read a story a woman wrote that was filled with guilt. She bought something expensive she did not need. And came home to find her husband had lost his job. Crap, that is bad timing. But that is all it is. We all buy unnecessary shit. That’s what seems to keep the country going. You did not cause your husband to lose his job. Your purchase will not directly result in your car being repossessed. But do return it if you can. And if not, try to find real pleasure in what you bought. It may comfort you during difficult times.
My husband worries that our dog Theo is not very well behaved. Well, I suppose he isn’t. Theo’s spoiled and willful and I give in all the time. Discipline is not my forte. But when I think back to the dog I had as a kid… to the dogs we all had as kids, expectations were different. We didn’t expect a dog to spend four hours in a crate. Or stand perfectly still while a squirrel ran by him, or keep quiet when the mailman walked into our yard. (By the way, do you know that my dog can set off the house alarms if the UPS truck comes while we are not home and he barks too near the windows? We know that now. So do the police.)
Anyway, maybe you should think about your crazy dog with a different perspective. You are brave enough to have An ANIMAL living in your house and he doesn’t poop on the furniture and hasn’t eaten you yet. Pretty damn good!
I am appalled and saddened by how hard people are on themselves when they are learning something new. “I suck at this,” I heard someone in my painting class say. Really? Did she never fall down as a toddler or crash her bike? Was she fluent the first day of Spanish I? Why do people expect to be so good at something so quickly? I have been practicing Yoga since 2001. I am still in the beginner class. That’s why they call it “practice.” It’s been many years, and I may still improve, but if I don’t, then I am proud of my patience and perseverance.
To that lady in my painting class – and to everyone learning a language or learning to dance or to play a musical instrument; to teenagers learning to drive or learning a sport; to older people filling in Medicare forms: You don’t suck at it. You just don’t know how to do it. YET. You will. Don’t say “Holy Shit, I suck!” Say “Holy Shit, I have POTENTIAL!”
My Yoga practice: Tree.
I drew this several years ago, but I have improved.
My drawing, not my Yoga. But who cares? I have POTENTIAL!
Back in December, I wrote a post to my mother, apologizing for all the aggravation I caused her. I finally understood how aggravating I actually was, now that I had a dog who was demonstrating to me every possible aggravation a mother can feel.
I never showed that post to Mom, however. Sometimes she’s a little embarrassed that so many people know her through my blogging. I tell her not to worry: I’m not exactly famous, so neither, unfortunately, is she. But she deserves to be in the Mother’s Hall of Fame in about a zillion categories: wisdom, integrity, cheerfulness, patience – to name a couple.
This year, for Mother’s Day, I have turned that blog into a little book.
I had it printed up, and I am delighted with the results.
So this time, I will show it to her.
Here it is:
Happy Mother’s Day to all the aggravated Mothers everywhere in the world!
(PS – I would love to know if you think there might be a market for this little book. I am considering offering it for sale on this website.)