Saturday, November 17, 2018

Traditional Zoo


It was a zoo. Not a very well supplied one, though. I’d even say, as zoos go, it was pretty embarrassing. The animals were there in mass—hungry hippos, roaring lions, and plenty of vultures—all of them hangry. The zoo keepers looked haggard, working since the crack of dawn without appreciation. Stalls were crowded, the place was out of water, the meat surplus was missing. I don’t know when I’ve seen worse conditions.

Oh. Now I remember. It was last Christmas. Honestly, grocery shopping during the holidays is a bear. And there’s still another week until Thanksgiving.

There’s so much to be thankful for that the celebration shouldn’t be eclipsed by its preparation. But expectations run high. Every tradition we cherish hangs in the balance while we run ourselves ragged so our families can make another memory together. I see you cringing—it’s like fingernails on chalkboard, isn’t it?

Well, there are so many things to consider. Will one turkey suffice, or should we buy two? Is it worth learning how to brine it Food Network style, or should I call State Farm to see if there’s a fire insurance rider for turkey fryers? Do I want help with the food this year? I’m pretty picky about my mashed potatoes. And stuffing. And cranberry relish. And pie. Especially the pie. It’s really no trouble if I do it all myself—that way, everything will taste the way I want it to and nobody will be disappointed. In the food. I think.

Every year, after the meal is finished and I'm left standing in the middle of the catastrophe I used to call my kitchen, I wonder why we do this to ourselves. I don't have to wait long for the answer.    

Tradition.

And a mild case of masochism.

But mostly, tradition. 

Sometimes I wonder if we should take a step back and reconsider our long-standing customs. Hey, I’m just like every other hangry hippo in that grocery store. This meal represents going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, bringing comforting memories along with it. And it’s not like we do this every day, so it’s worth all the exhaustion and stress, right? Hmmm. When I think about how frantic that store was today, it makes me wonder. And it makes my grown children wonder. Some of them have thrown out the turkey with the brining solution and opted instead to eat street tacos on Turkey Day so everyone including the woman of the house can relax and enjoy the day and being together.

It’s not traditional, but it’s so easy it leaves everyone feeling thankful.

I don’t think I’ve really touched on the most stressful part of our family holidays, though. It’s not the shopping or the cooking or the cleaning or the menu. It’s the family. As much as we love them, gathering everyone together for a much-cherished tradition like Thanksgiving has a tendency to bring out the worst in us. I don’t know of any other event in life that can so easily result in a terminal case of hives as this one. There’s always at least one relative in the bunch who can sink our carefully constructed ship and leave us worrying that family dynamics might blow the house apart faster than that turkey fryer.

If not for Hallmark movies and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I might lose my mind worrying about all the things that could go wrong while I try to make every celebration the Best Holiday Pageant Ever.

But, oh, honey, there’s more. Step away from the turkey and pour yourself some eggnog. This is just the warm-up to the main event—our very own Holly, Jolly Christmas. The worksheet for that one is longer than Santa’s naughty list. Buy the Christmas cards. Check. Stock up on wrapping paper. Check. Real tree or x-mas tree this year? Lights on the roof, candles on the mantle, presents all purchased, equity loan on the house applied for. Check, double check.

There is nothing simple about the holidays. Come to think of it, there’s not much that’s simple about anything in our lives anymore. All the conveniences that were supposed to make our lives better have, instead, complicated them. Smart phones are a good example. Did you know they keep our heads down so much chiropractors report a new injury they’ve dubbed Text Neck? Not only are we making less eye contact with other human beings, we’re picking up our portable internet devices on average fifteen hundred times a week and spending three and a quarter hours daily scrolling through Facebook, emails, text messages, and Words With Friends.

That hardly leaves any time for learning to brine a turkey.

And there’s something else. I really hate to admit this, but every year I start worrying about Christmas demands beginning in July. (Hard to believe I’d stress about a winter holiday when it’s a hundred and fifteen degrees outside.) There are all those presents to buy and wrap and mail—what if I fall behind? Why didn’t I figure out a better way to organize all the decorations when I stashed them all in the garage last year? Are the lights in the box on the bottom of the stack? Did I pack the stockings with the creche or are they on that shelf in my closet with all the other things I didn’t want to cook during our Arizona summers? Can we make that artificial tree last one more year or do we bring home a real one with its nostalgic scent and risk of a house fire?

The biggest stressor of all is that I’m not willing to scale down one single thing in order to simplify either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I want all the tradition. I want the cozy feelings. I want to make more memories. But once I pull all that Christmas stuff out of the garage and let it explode all over my house for the month of December, another countdown begins. In four weeks, I’ll have to gather it all back up and rearrange the house again so the neighbors don’t point and laugh at the last home on the block with the tree in the window. That’s when I want to convert to Catholicism and celebrate Epiphany along with Jesus’ birthday—the Christmas season doesn’t end for those guys until the middle of January.

Which one of you Protestants out there decided to cut Jesus out of His visit with the Magi just so you could get all those pine needles out of the carpet sooner?

Still, it’s worth the trouble. All it takes is time. A lot of time. It takes me a solid week to put all that stuff back in our garage again—the tree, the decorations, the lights, the stockings, the paintings on the wall, the manger scene on the front lawn, the Rudolph figurines on the piano, and the nativity set in the living room. Seriously. A solid week. And another two weeks after that to find and reassemble all the stuff I usually have around the house. When you throw in seven full days of turning my family room into our version of a Winter Wonderland, and another three weeks of baking and wrapping and buying and mailing, the amount of time I spend pulling off Christmas winds up at a grand total of about six weeks plus Thanksgiving, another ten pounds I’ll probably never lose, and a pinky promise I make to myself every January and break every November that I’m going to simplify my life and scale back.  

It’s so sad. I could have spent all those hours earning my very own Text Neck.

So, this afternoon I stood in line at the sixty-seven thousand square foot zoo where I buy groceries, and settled for the full-price frozen turkey instead of the free one they would have given me if I’d agree to buy an overpriced ham, too. I couldn’t do that, of course, because the vultures had already snatched up all the free poultry. There was no distilled water anywhere on the shelves because, I assume, one must stock up on the stuff to put out flames from exploding turkey fryers. It wasn't all failure, though. I beat out a little old lady for the last two bags of cranberries. But in the end I was lost among the menagerie for so long, as I waited in line I nearly had a panic attack trying to remember where I parked my car.

I unloaded my cart onto the conveyor belt and looked at the weary clerk behind the counter who began to ring and bag it all up.

“How’s it going?” I asked her. “It seems pretty crazy around here.”

She smiled and ran my bags of sugar across the scanner. “I’m tired just like everybody else,” she answered. Then she leaned in conspiratorially. “But as long as we each keep our sense of humor, we might survive it all.” I smiled back, but she knew I wasn’t fooled for a minute by her little attempt at humor.

There’s a reason there are always monkeys in the zoo. They’re comic relief to the hangry hippos.











Thanks to Paris Buttfield-Addison for permission to use the photo above. The original can be viewed by following this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/parisba/




Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rest


Read that again. Then close your eyes. And feel your breath. Inhale, exhale, slow down, pause. . .

Rest. Well, I feel better. I felt better. Until I opened my eyes and looked at this page and realized I have a lot of typing ahead of me this morning and the last thing I need to do is waste time closing my eyes and putting my hands in my lap. I can rest after I hit my word count. Well, actually I haven’t done the dishes yet so I’ll tackle them once I’m finished here, and then I’ll rest. That is after I gather the laundry, of course, because I only have this little window of time where I can concentrate uninterrupted and . . .
Hold on. The phone. Gotta get that even though I’m sure it’s not . . .
Important. Time is what matters. That’s what’s important. Squandering it means I’ll never be able to check anything off my list. I only have a little bit of time for this project, whatever that looks like at this moment, because five more chores are in the queue ready to slide into place the minute I finish this one thing, so I can’t dawdle or daydream or pause for even . . . 
Just a second. The kitchen timer’s going off and I’ll never get my focus back if I don’t turn it off because I need noisy reminders or I’ll mess up dinner and we’ll all be . . .
Sorry. What were you saying? You’d like to meet me for lunch some time? Sounds lovely. Let’s be sure to do that. When? Well, this week is out, I’m booked to the hilt. And next week is Thanksgiving and we all know how busy that’s going to be. Christmas plans are already filling the calendar, I’m sorry to say—bet you’re getting busy, too, right? You’re not that busy? Oh. Well, I’d really like to get with you—whatever happened to the days when homemakers dropped in on one another for a cup of coffee and conversation? The world is spinning faster, isn’t it? It’s not? Well, I’d love to drop everything and pretend I’m in charge of my life so you and I can spend a couple of irresponsible hours together catching up, but I’ve already given away that time slot to something else. I hope you understand. You’re important to me, though, and the last thing I’d want to do is hurt your feelings—it’s not in my DNA to say no to anyone who asks me to attend their event or help with their project or be another body at their bridal shower—I hate to let people down because they need me and I need them to know they’re important to me or they might not invite me the next time. That’s the reason there are no margins in my life, no spare time for spare time, and it breaks my heart to have to turn down your invitation for lunch, but it’s just that I’m already stretched so thin.
How does February look for you? Oh, you thought I meant this February? Hilarious! Oh, man, that cracked me up! Hoo boy. Got a little tear in my eye there. February 2020. Can I put you down?
Hello?
Well, that’s too bad. I really thought that sounded like fun. It’s just that I’m so . . . busy. And important. And the things I’m busy doing are important. Too important to create margins in my life where serendipity happens and people know they have my full attention at the moment we’re connecting. That busy.

Maybe I’m too busy. 

Busyiness: (biz-ee-nis)
—noun
1.     The quality or condition of being busy

2.     Lively but meaningless activity
—antonyms: neglect, ignorance, disregard 

It’s kind of depressing when I put it like that. Oh, I know what we’ve all been taught. “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.” Which apparently means that if we don’t stay busy, we’ll find ourselves turning to a life of crime so we’ll have something to do. Well, that’s just ridiculous. I heard Wal-Mart is always hiring people who don’t have anything to do.
But when I’m worn out in my soul and it’s only mid-afternoon, I’ve got to ask myself—what’s wrong with “rest?” I think the problem with resting is that when we’re doing it, nothing else is happening. It’s like someone pointed a remote at us and paused us mid-sentence, leaving us frozen with that weird look on our faces that, if we were famous, some paparazzi guy could sell for a million bucks to the Enquirer and everyone would see how unattractive we look when we’re at rest.
Or maybe we have to prove that we’re not lazy. Or apathetic. “Back in my day,” even people my age have begun to say, “we knew how to work/keep a commitment/follow through/save a penny/blah blah blah.” First of all—when did I get so old? And secondly, people my age grew up in the drug culture/free love/avoid the draft/groovy era of the ‘60’s. That’s not exactly a decade anybody should hold up as a role model.
So maybe it’s our grandparents’ stories about how they became “The Greatest Generation” that have us so intimidated. They didn’t give themselves that nickname, by the way, but it’s still a tough act to follow. Turn any adjective into one with an -est ending and suddenly the competition is over. They were educated in one-room schoolhouses. They survived the Great Depression. They learned to cook without sugar during World War II.  They invented McDonalds. Finally. I knew they screwed up somewhere.
I know it’s important to have purpose in our lives. It’s also important to eat. We have to work or we starve. Houses don’t clean themselves. Children need adult supervision. Countries need governments. (Do they really?) Schools need teachers. Houses need plumbers. Grocers need farmers. I need Starbucks. We are needed. There’s no denying that. And we need to be needed.
But here’s my question. Am I omnipotent? Omnipresent? Can I meet every need at every moment, drawing on an endless supply of energy while I do it? Or am I restricted by the limitations of this one and only body which contains my one and only soul which needs . . . rest?
At the end of the day and the end of our lists and the end of our patience we come full circle back to that question where all of this began.
What about rest? Or more importantly, what does it look like?
It means to Pause. Slow down. Recuperate. Replenish. Be present. Maybe even erase some stuff off your exhausted calendar.
If you’re a musician, you know that every piece of music has rests built into it. They’re there for emphasis, for pacing, or just for a chance to catch your breath or change position. The only band I know of that played on with no regard for breaks went down with the Titanic. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend that.
We’ve already agreed that none of us are omnipotent. But I know of One Who is. He knows how to work—He created our universe and all the others we haven’t discovered yet. But six days in, He candidly surveyed all He’d done and decided it was not only good enough, it was simply and entirely good. And then He rested.
God. The One who never sleeps took time to rest. And by the time He bought us all back and made us His own, the only struggle He left for us might surprise you, as it did me.
“Let us strive to enter that (God’s) rest . . .” the New Testament reads in Hebrews 4:11. 
Strive to rest. Now there’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one.
When it’s time to work, let’s work. When it’s time to rest, baby, rest. And when you're replenished, give me a call—we’ll do lunch.
I’ve made room in the margins for you.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sixteen Times Three And Then Some


I never thought I’d get old. 

Don’t misunderstand—I’m not saying I am old. But a few people in my life have been telling me I am for about the last ten years. People like my grandchildren. Well, of course, you say. Short people like that always think taller people with gray hair, saggy skin and wrinkles are old. Exactly! I mean, sometimes strangers treat me like I’m old, too, especially teenage clerks who call me “honey” and hope I don’t trip on my way out the door. But I just look at their purple hair and wonder what’s happened to the younger generation. I don’t think that makes me old. That makes me terrified. Or intolerant. Depends on your point of view. And whether you’re an old person or a teenager.

I remember my sixteenth birthday. Don’t be surprised. I’m still young enough to have a memory. Usually. Sometimes. Never mind. My sixteenth birthday. I wasn’t driving yet, but my best friend was. My family took us out to a pricey cowboy restaurant where there was sawdust all over the floor and a country band played live music. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but my best friend did. The waitress took our orders, found out it was my birthday, and sighed the way old people sigh. “Oh, I remember when I turned sixteen,” she said. “I wish I was sixteen again.” 

I just wished I could drive and had a boyfriend and that old people would stop saying they wished they were young like me. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Now that I’ve seen the age of sixteen three times and then some (stop doing the math—I already told you that people think I’m old), I don’t know why anyone would ever want to be sixteen again. It would mean going back to high school and homework and algebra and insecurity and pimples and hormones and allowances and house rules and SATs. And dreaming I was standing naked in the school gym on the first day of school, which was pretty much the same dream I had every August when a new school year rolled around.

Clearly, I was never one of the cool kids.

Do you really want to have to relive everything you went through to become the wise, experienced, intelligent person you are today? Everything? Me neither. It’d be a gift to be so young again I could take it for granted that I was immortal so I could enjoy doing stupid things without dying or worse. But eventually I discovered I do have an expiration date and, honestly, I don’t want to face that realization for the first time ever again.

There are advantages to having stayed alive this long. For example, I’m glad I’ve driven so many miles now that I can read another driver’s body language from a half a mile away and get off the freeway before I wind up in the middle of the accident they’re about to cause. But look how long it took me to gather all that experience! Sixteen times three and then some.

I’m glad I don’t have to relearn how to sacrifice a year or more of sleep because there’s a new infant living in my house and I misplaced the instruction manual they came with. Do you remember that learning curve? If not, don’t feel bad. There are entire months in my childrearing experience that are completely missing, too, probably misplaced with that phantom manual during a three a.m. feeding. I used to love going to baby showers until I had a baby. Now I feel genuine sympathy for the blushing, excited mom-to-be who has no idea that it’ll take six months before she figures out how to put on her makeup in sixty seconds or ignore the screaming baby in the other room because she has to pee and she’s going to take a minute for herself and do it.

I’m telling you, not only is sixteen not what it’s cracked up to be, but twenty-six isn’t either.

There are one or two things I miss about being younger, though. Energy and my body. I don’t know how I misplaced two important things like that when I could really use them at my age. My husband retired a few years ago and, saint that he is, decided to take on some of my home responsibilities so I could enjoy retirement, too. Now he does all the vacuuming, unloads the dishwasher, makes the bed, cooks whenever I relinquish the kitchen to him, and helps me do the laundry. Every once in a while he can’t be around to help, and then I have to do all that stuff by myself. I need to take a break every ten minutes just to catch my breath and pull it off. How did I turn into such a marshmallow so fast? I used to do all of that in one day plus make dinner, wrangle kids, volunteer with the PTA, and herd the family into the car for church meetings four times a week. On six hours of sleep and no caffeine.

I think my body was pre-programmed on a sliding scale and my younger self stole the lion’s share of my oomph. That’s another thing I don’t miss about being young. Boy, was I ever selfish.

And my body. I don’t want to be too hard on something that’s always been there for me, but every time I watch Dancing With The Stars I remember that I always wanted to learn to dance and now it’s pretty much too late. You need oomph for that, too. And stamina. And a room with no mirrors. Or other people watching. Like I said, not gonna happen. I should have taken it up when I was twenty-six, but I was too busy going to church and giving up sleep for children. And Baptists don’t believe in dancing anyway. That’s why I’m not a Baptist anymore. So I can watch Dancing With The Stars and dream of moving my hips like that so maybe I could take up vacuuming again.

My best friend is forever telling me that growing old isn’t for sissies. It’s kind of a confusing compliment. First of all, I’m now nearly a thousand words into whining about the lousy part of aging, so clearly I’m a sissy. Therefore, I don’t qualify for growing old. On the other hand, as Hallmark loves to point out on that redundant birthday card I get almost every year, growing old beats the heck out of the alternative. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation until I remember that thing about experience and then I feel better about myself.

Take childrearing, for example. My little brood of ankle biters grew up despite my inexperience as their mother and have gone on to live perfectly normal lives of their own where they are now raising their own ankle biters. I’ve heard it said that raising children is a career you’re not qualified for until the kids are grown, but by then you’re out of a job and unemployable. (See the *oomph paragraph above.) The whole time I was mothering my tiny herd, I felt like I was winging it from one catastrophe to the next. Even though that baby manual had been MIA for at least fifteen years, I knew if it ever turned up and I leafed through it there would have been no chapter on how to handle the unique challenges I was supposed to guide my kiddos through. Just as soon as we figured out one solution, a whole new situation would surface and there I’d be, lost in the dark and back on my knees again with no manual.

But once they left home, and especially when they became parents, I discovered something remarkable about myself. I was wise. I don’t know how it happened or when, but good things would come out of my mouth that surprised even me. All that pressure and confusion and frustration and joy and heartache and victory that happened day after day for fifty years had transformed itself and now I was, at some level, wise. Sometimes my kids think so, too, but it’s okay if we’re not on the same page about that all the time. Suddenly I realized that I graduated from Childrearing 101 not only with most of my gray hair, but with some life skills and insights I didn’t know I was gaining. It’s not particularly useful to anyone most of the time, but it’s incredibly surprising to me. I just wish I’d understood then what I understand now.

True, timing has turned out to be way off, but that’s not really my problem. Once in a while when my kids bounce things off of me, I get the chance to contribute something helpful for them to consider. And in that moment when we’re all adults and they help me with their point of view as much as I am able to offer mine, it doesn’t matter who has the most energy or the most wrinkles. We’re in this game together and it’s a relief that we don’t have to do it alone.

It’s true that if I had it to do all over again (which is something old people say), I’d do a lot of things differently. I think. I don’t really know because that little matter of energy and the yet-undiscussed issue of patience is still a game changer in the world of immature children and inexperienced parents. It’s easy, even though I’m supposedly wise, to forget the utter exhaustion parents live with day in and day out until one day they’re out of a job and the kids are busy with their own lives and they, like us, have more than enough time to sit around and ponder regrets.

The thing is, I learned some stuff while I grew old alongside my growing children and it’s valuable to me. I used to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm when I was sixteen but was sadly lacking in much sense. When I was twenty-six I had more sense and still a lot of energy, but the enthusiasm was ebbing away with the kind of hits life continually lobs at our hearts. Now that I am sixteen times three and then some, I’ve made a little more sense out of life and enthusiastically applaud those who have energy. It’s the best I can do.

So, cheers to purple hair and youthfulness. They’ll be in charge before they know it, earning their own wisdom the hard way while somebody else calls them “honey” and hopes they don’t trip on their way out the door. It’s the circle of life.

I’ve earned these wrinkles and a tiny amount of wisdom. It’s about time I started appreciating the compliment, “you’re kind of old,” and started responding the right way.

“Thank you.”







With thanks to my inspirational friend from Tucson who gave me permission to use any photo of her that I chose. She's younger than me and still learning wisdom. ;)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Respect


The flags have flown at half-mast for the last two thousand miles. I’ve watched them wave in front of school yards and post offices and fast food stores. In Missouri, five steel poles stood at stoic attention beside the sixth, as even an amusement park outside St. Louis paid respect to the senator from Arizona. It stood out like a missing man formation. 
The senator from Arizona was gone.

I don’t follow politics very much. It usually makes my blood pressure go up when people who should be enjoying a nice Thanksgiving dinner bring out their political opinions in public and ruin everyone’s appetite. I don’t like arguing. I don’t like posturing. I don’t like debating. I’m not a black and white person. I see and hear many shades of gray on many issues. So many, in fact, that I fear giving my opinion to anyone lest I’m never invited to their Thanksgiving meals again.  

But I do have opinions. And now and then I can’t help myself. So, if you’ve hung in here this long, here’s what I think.

When a national leader dies, the tradition here in this country is to lower the flag to half-mast in his honor—especially in Washington, D.C. Not just for the required forty-eight hours, but all the way until sundown on the day he is buried. It’s not a political thing. It’s a matter of respect. If elementary schools in tiny towns in Kentucky know how to honor a man who gave sixty years of his life in service to his country, it only stands to reason that our president should know the proper thing to do, too, regardless of his personal feelings.

If I lived in the White House, it wouldn’t matter if I hated the politics of a Republican leader who passed away, the flag should still be flown at half-mast until sunset the night of his funeral. If I refused to play nice with Democrats but one of their own died while in office, same thing—half-mast until sundown after the funeral. This isn’t hard. It’s just what it means to behave like an adult.

Like I said, I don’t follow politics. I don’t listen to the evening news if I can help it. I don’t trust the media’s perspective and I don’t put my faith in politicians. But I’ve been reading up on the senator from my home state of Arizona, and I’m impressed not only by what he endured as a POW, but also by the way he handled himself in Washington’s pressure cooker.

For over a week, as we drove east across America, in every town and city every flag we saw flew in honor of John McCain. It impressed me every single time I saw it. I didn’t know so many people even knew about our Lion in the Senate, and maybe they didn’t. But what they did know was how to do the right thing.

I want you to know I’m proud of you, America, all your red states and your blue states. You put partisanship aside to show compassion to the family of one of our own in their time of grief.

That’s what makes America great.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Miss-Communication


“We have the stupidest conversations.”
I’ve said this to my husband at least once a week for the last ten years, but knowing we have this communication problem changes nothing. In other words, knowledge is not power. We still participate in ridiculous dialogues.
Sometimes I try to describe it by saying we have parallel conversations, where we’re both saying the same thing, but we each insist that the other person come over to our side of the discussion and phrase things our way. You know what I mean? The crazy thing is we actually agree with each other, but that’s not the point. The point is we each have our own dictionary and we want everyone to buy a copy and use that one exclusively. Refusing to admit we understood each other all along is the way we roll. Winning is the goal.
That’s not really the way communication works. I sometimes think I have no idea how communication . . . works.
Case in point.
There’s a lot of down time when you travel by car across country. I know most people prefer to fly because it’s quicker, but we like to take the long way and drive so we can see the country and perfect the art of confusing one another while we do it. We’re just sick that way.
Last month we put another six thousand miles on the new engine in our old Tahoe and spent some time with friends in Idaho followed by three days imagining what Glacier National Park would have looked like if we’d visited there while it wasn’t pouring rain. All in all, that provided approximately seventy-hours belted into a moving vehicle while we practiced both the art of communication and finding fast food that wouldn’t kill us. Each is an exercise in futility.
Out of the blue somewhere along a back-country road north of the Idaho line, Rob suddenly glanced into the rearview mirror, rubbed his belly, and said,
“I still got a little bit o’ gas.” 
Well, I didn’t know he felt bad after dinner the night before, so I asked,
“When did you get gas?”
“Don’t you remember?” he said, throwing me an agitated glance that looked for all the world like he was certain I had contracted a severe case of Altzheimer’s overnight. “Last night. At the Circle K.”
I started blinking. I sighed in confusion, squinted at him while I rubbed the back of my neck, and desperately zipped through the mental videos of every place we’d eaten anything the day before. What could he possibly have consumed at Circle K that would upset his stomach?
Right. Everything.
I didn’t answer fast enough, so he repeated the question. “Don’t you remember? You asked me last night when we were by the Circle K.”
“I did? You didn’t tell me you had gas.” 
Now he was convinced I had Altzheimer’s. I was beginning to wonder, too.
“Yes, remember? At the Circle K,” he emphasized, “when we saw all those Chinese people go by.”
“What Chinese people?”
“It was like a tour bus let out or something, and then I got gas," he snapped.
“You got gas from seeing a bunch of Chinese people???”
“No!! At the gas station . . .” Long pause. “I filled up the truck last night at the Circle K gas station.”
I blinked. “Well, why didn’t you say that. We have the stupidest conversations. I thought you said you had a little gas left after eating last night . . .”
“Yeah, I did,” he said, and that was the end. He couldn’t get anything else out once he started laughing. He just scrunched up his eyes and held his gassy belly while his face turned red and he struggled to breathe. Anybody else watching him would have thought we should call 911.
“I couldn’t figure out why seeing a bunch of Chinese people would give you gas,” I gasped, barely able to talk either. Now my stomach hurt as I doubled over against my seatbelt and howled.
“Why would seeing Chinese people give me gas?” he sputtered, beginning to lose control.
“How should I know?!”
This is a game my son loves to play every year when we make the four-thousand-mile journey to the wildlands of distant Kentucky where he lives. The first one to make Rob lose his breath while he laughs at himself wins. And if he passes out while he does it, you get bonus points. I never win that game usually. But today, in one stupid conversation, all that changed.
Soon Rob was driving and laughing and crying and driving and laughing but not breathing . . . Finally, he pulled over on the side of the road before we got into an accident, took off his glasses, and dried his eyes. It was ten minutes before he could get back into traffic, and a half hour before we could think about the whole thing without pulling off the road again.

Well, it’s not my fault. 
He should have been using my dictionary if he wanted to talk about things that give you gas.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Six-O

I turned sixty this month. What a rush.

I was so excited for my birthday celebration, I could hardly sleep the night before. Then I could hardly sleep the night of. Finally, the night after, I crashed like a baby and still woke exhausted.

I don’t think I’ve got enough energy to be sixty. I might have to repeat fifty-nine and take another run at sixty again next year.
I’m one of the last of my friends to reach this milestone, and believe me, they’re some stiff competition. They’re all still beautiful, some of them are athletic (I kind of hate them for that), still kicking butt and taking names, showing the world that sixty is the new forty. They’re such good role models I wasn't afraid to join the Sixty Club at all.
So, I embraced sixty by getting my first (and last) tattoo and living to tell about it. Pretty sure I’m the first in our Club to do that. I might have taken things a little too far. Once again, I think I’ve proven I’m not mature enough to be sixty and might need to be held back another year.
I’m always reading on Facebook how getting old isn’t for sissies. That your body really starts coming unglued in this decade and if you don’t stop eating sugar and swallowing carbs, your inflamed brain will self-combust and leak out your ear right in front of God and everybody. But I haven’t seen any brain goop so far and I’m already two weeks into this.
I think it’s just an ugly rumor that growing older is horrible. “Beats the heck out of the other alternative,” one of my birthday cards read. True. If you woke up alive today, you’re doing better than all those people in the cemetery. Just stop and think about that for a minute. You’re welcome.
I was still in my thirties the first time somebody warned me about aging. “The day you turn forty,” they said, “your body is going to start falling apart.” I’m not sure why I wasn’t terrified by that birthday, but I think I had the same stubborn reaction as when I overheard a nurse tell my husband during the long labor of my first child, “She’s too tired to go through with this, and is definitely going to need a caesarian.” 
“The heck I will,” I thought to myself, and pushed that kid out like he was a tube of toothpaste.
I’ve faced naysayers before. Watch them raise a white flag above my fortieth birthday cake? “The heck they will,” I thought in defense of my middle-aged body, and kept on breathing and walking and living and loving just like I’d done the day before, when I was thirty-nine.
I’ll admit I don’t have the body I had when I was twenty. Well, I do—with the exception of a few missing parts—but my chassis has changed from being a new model to a classic. There are plenty of dents and scratches after all the miles I’ve put on it, but it’s served me well and I’m not ready to trade it in yet. I just keep taking it back to the mechanics for repairs and tune-ups, and head down the road for another hundred thousand miles.
I’m not sure how this crossed over into an automobile blog, but since we just put a new engine and a new transmission and new brakes and new tires on my favorite SUV because I still love to drive that thing, it seemed to fit. After all, she’s taken us on two hundred thirty-four thousand wonderful miles and still has a lot of life left in her. At this rate, I think someday Rob’s going to wind up burying me and my Tahoe together.
So, here’s to sixty! “How do you feel?” a close friend asked me after I blew out all those candles. “Liberated!” I told her. And then I went home to take a nap.
Hey, if I’m gonna make it another ten years, I’ve got to pace myself.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Cincinnati Chili


U.S. 50 is a pretty good road that runs east to west, or west to east depending on your point of view, and about midway across the country pauses right dab in the middle of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ohio River separates Ohio from its football nemesis, Kentucky, and I discovered long ago that the airport in Cincinnati sells just as much blue and white as it does scarlet and gray. I’m not a football fan and I had to google that information but I do think somebody in the Ohio airport is really a Kentucky Wildcats fan. Just saying.
My husband researched the route we took for months and in one of his magazines he discovered that Cincinnatians are pretty dang proud of their chili. There’s a big rivalry between some of the restaurants in the area and Rob told me it just wouldn’t be a decent road trip unless we sampled some Cincinnati Chili.
I was skeptical.
First of all, we live in Arizona, a.k.a. the desert Southwest. The only state who could possibly beat us in a chili flavor profile is New Mexico, but that’s because they invented Hatch Chilies, which have a scoville rating higher than Mt. Vesuvius. Only people with scarred tongues can eat that stuff.
So believe you me, we know something about chili. And it’s been years—about a hundred and fifty years—since anyone thought Ohio qualified as being “out west.” I can see Cincinnati having a reputation for serving good chicken pot pie or something like that, but if they think they’ve got something as earth shattering there as our Hispanic and cowboy cultures can serve up, they have some serious convincing to do with this Arizona native.
Here’s a kind of important thing for you to know about the way my husband and I travel—he’s generally (and by ‘generally’ I mean always) The Driver, and I am The Navigator. I don’t actually want to be The Navigator. I won the job by default when he climbed into the driver’s seat. 
I’m not terrible at this job, and even my husband will tell you I’ve gotten us through some pretty tricky places the old fashioned way . . . no, not by prayer. Well, yes, by prayer, but also with a map made of paper and bazillions of chicken scratch lines. For example, I got him through Chicago at night one time. Without an accident. On this trip, I got him through the streets of San Francisco and never collided with a single cable car. I’ve navigated my own way (as The Driver) through Orlando, Florida. And I got him safely in, around, and beyond Boston. In a van. With two children inside. 
Yeah. I’m that good. 
I do have one little handicap, though. I am directionally challenged. True north, in my head and deep in my soul where it really matters, is always whatever direction I am facing. Up. Pretty much just that—north is always Up. I know that’s not acceptable in civilized societies, though, and so I’ve learned a clever little trick when using a map. Whenever we turn left, I turn the map left, too. A right turn means I’ll turn the map right. This way, the grid in my head always matches the grid on the map. Genius, right? In military terms, this is called ‘orienting the map.’ There’s no real explanation for how I wind up disoriented on occasion, but I suspect driver error. Now and then he doesn’t trust me. Weird.
But this time things were different. We still went to AAA for a triptik and maps and tour books, but we only got them for a backup. For the great Ocean-To-Ocean Trip of 2014 we bought an iPad. Ta dah! We also bought a fancy ice chest and some new underwear, but the iPad purchase was a stroke of genius. Once we forked over the bucks to turn Rob’s phone into a hot spot, we were a traveling internet wifi, using our new gadget to book hotels and keep up with Words With Friends. 
And—it came with a navigation system. Cue the angelic choir.
I love this feature. An iPad, in case you’re technologically primitive, is at least four times bigger than the screen on a smart phone and when you stretch the screen a lot, you can almost read the letters on the side of buildings on the streets. Well, you can do that on Google Earth, too, but it’s a lot more impressive on an iPad out in the middle of nowhere.
I got really good at directing my husband in and around cities and towns and dinky desert off-roads. I never even took a look at the box of paper maps on the backseat. I just followed the flashing blue orb that represented us as it slowly made its way across America. It was so easy. It was almost like little munchkins serenaded us on our journey with their theme song, “Follow the flashing blue orb!”
Finally, I could take a nap. Finally, there was no road stress. Finally, we had a fool proof way of surviving new cities. Until, finally, we drove into Cincinnati. I no longer care about the rivalry they enjoy in their stupid town on the hill. They single handedly destroyed all my illusions about how I could navigate us to the moon as long as I had an iPad. All it took was a roadtrip in search of some infamous chili.
About twenty minutes west of Cincinnati, we passed a restaurant where happy diners sat in the window of a Skyline Chili diner, innocently enjoying the meal Rob had dreamt of for the last six months.
“Hey, honey,” I pointed out, “there’s a Skyline Chili place. Want to stop there?” All it would take was a quick left and another quick left and we’d be in the parking lot, all set for an early dinner. We didn’t even need the iPad to pull this off.
“No,” he responded, eyes never leaving the highway, “I want to eat Cincinnati chili in Cincinnati. I want . . . the Cincinnati Experience.”
Not since the engineer on the Titanic assured the captain they’d be home in time for supper has anyone ever regretted such a simplistic statement. Let me just say here in front of God and everybody, Rob and I got . . . the Cincinnati Experience.
The thing we’d read about the way Ohioans eat their chili kind of gave us both pause. Cincinnati chili is served atop spaghetti. That’s just not normal. They also top it with beans and onions and cheese, which is normal, but not on top of spaghetti. I repeat—That’s.Not.Normal. And we’re talking a lot of cheese. We had no idea how much cheese until we waded through it trying to reach our table when we finally arrived. Boy, do they ever love cheese in Cincinnati. But that spaghetti connection?  To this day, the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that their freeway system also looks like a plate of spaghetti. 
And that’s the reason I could not figure out how to get us to the Skyline Chili place I’d located in downtown Cincinnati. Because of spaghetti highways.
I dropped a red pin on the navigational map iPad offers, pointed the iPad in the direction we were driving and watched the flashing blue orb head east towards supper. Of course, that involved a diversion onto another strand of highway which would take us north where we faced a creative path navigating one-way streets. But I was confident that our trusty blue orb would deliver us safely to the red dot sitting smack on top of an authentic Skyline Chili in downtown Cincinnati.
I forgot that even iPads are only as smart as the person operating them. I couldn’t figure out how to get off the U.S. 50 strand and merge onto the new northbound strand while traveling 65 miles an hour. I watched helplessly as our flashing orb floated away from the red pin representing Skyline Chili.
“Where do I turn?” The Driver asked. 
“I have no idea,” I answered frantically, “but the blue dot is nowhere near downtown now.”
I turned the iPad the direction we needed to go, but that’s where I realized paper maps have the edge on technology. Paper maps do what you tell them to do. iPads are self correcting. The screen righted itself and now I had no idea whatsoever where north had gone. East, with the orb, I suspected.
We got off the freeway and pulled over so Rob could look at the derelict blue dot.
“Well, we’re headed to the river,” he announced, “and we’re not going to find the city down there.” He was a firefighter for thirty-eight years and has mastered the obvious. He turned the truck around and began driving into downtown Cincinnati on surface streets. The obedient blue orb flashed along happily beside him. Traitor.
It was Saturday, late afternoon, when we finally were within reach of our target. Another thing we forgot about big cities is how little parking is available. As the roads shrunk, sidewalks grew and hordes of pedestrians spilled over into the streets, we realized that whenever our blue orb shook hands with our red pin, we might have to abandon them both for lack of parking. 
But to our surprise, as we closed in on our supper, a huge, empty parking lot materialized next to the restaurant. I guess if we were a little more worldly, we would have realized how suspicious that was. But at that particular moment, all we cared about was paying for a parking space and getting the Cincinnati Experience.
“Parking costs three bucks,” my husband said, holding up a single dollar bill for my inspection. I looked in my wallet and found its twin. “We only have two dollars?” Rob said in frustration. I was pretty much done with the whole adventure, too. Digging in my stash of cash, I pulled a different bill out and handed it to Rob.
“I’m pretty sure the city of Cincinnati won’t mind if we give them a two dollar tip,” I said sarcastically. 
Rob took the five, deposited it into the hungry parking meter, and returned with a receipt allowing us to stay parked until next Tuesday, but no change. We no longer cared. We were parked. We were hungry. And we were sick of aggravations on the noble search for an epicurean delight called Skyline Chili.  Hand in hand, we walked down the sidewalk toward the front of the restaurant.
It was closed.
Of course it was. Locked up tighter than an angry woman’s lips in a lovers’ quarrel. There would be no happy ending thinking Fate had smiled on us and given us a parking place right next to our supper club. Instead, Fate was on the floor, laughing hysterically at the colossal joke made at our expense. We were no closer to tasting this famous chili or filling our grumpy stomachs than we were while taking the scenic route along the Ohio River an hour ago. But instead of losing our tempers, we fell against each other and laughed, too. Hey, it was either that or cry, and why should Fate have all the fun?
We turned to go back to the parking lot and tried to figure out what to do next, but our discussion was suddenly interrupted by an intruder.
“Hey, buddy,” the large man said, eyes wide and glazed, “I’m starving. Can you help me out? I’m an ex-Marine and I’ve just been released from the hospital.” He showed us the picture I.D. wrist bands he still wore. My husband recognized the soldier’s inebriated state right away, but the wind must have been blowing away from me because I didn’t pick up on that at all. All I knew was we were all alone now on the sidewalk with no one else in sight, blocked on the path by a large, pickled ex-Marine who hadn’t told us just how many men he’d actually killed with his bare hands. We had a truck full of apples and cheese sticks, but I didn’t want to volunteer that information or the location of our vehicle—I’m kind of selfish about cheese sticks. Rob just didn’t want him to know where his wallet was.
Drawing on his years of firefighter/paramedic experience where he often dealt with people down on their luck and high on chemical substances, he spoke gently with the stranger and assured him he’d go get some money for him if he promised not to use it for alcohol. I just wanted him to promise he'd let us escape in one piece. Well, two actually.
“No sir,” the Marine said, sitting down on a window ledge against the building, “I wouldn’t spend it that way. I’ll just wait here,” he finished.
Reaching the safety of our parked truck, Rob found another five dollar bill, went back and gave it to the seated soldier—who didn’t try to beat us up—and then we got in our truck and locked the doors. We’d been parked for five minutes, were out ten bucks, and still hadn’t had any Cincinnati Chili. It was the most expensive dinner we’d never eaten.

You’d think once we made it safely out of the parking lot that all our stress was over. Not exactly. We still had that neurotic flashing blue orb to deal with. It only took a couple of blocks for us to realize that leaving downtown Cincinnati took us deep into the heart of the less attractive side of town. Finding the freeway out of here was our top priority now, followed closely by my Christmas wish not to get mugged on the way out of town.
I’ll admit. Sometimes the biggest enemy I face in a situations like this is my own imagination. I pictured paper-sack-carrying loiterers mobbing our truck, busting out the windows and stealing every last one of my cheese sticks. I’m pretty sure I read about something like that on the internet once. 
Still, even Rob was uncomfortable with our surroundings and, just like that, gave up on eating Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati. The fun in this experience was pretty much over, and the frustration built as even our flashing blue orb had no idea how to reach the elusive freeway and rescue us from our big adventure. I’m pretty sure I saw it sulk off onto the margins of the iPad screen. Fine with me. I was about to give it a timeout anyway.
Rob went into firefighter/navigator mode again, drawing on years of experience and logically deducing that if we drove north—away from the river—we might get out of here alive. Ten minutes later, a freeway on-ramp suddenly materialized and we got on it. I didn’t care if it took us south to Kentucky or north to Toronto. I was done with the merry-go-round we’d been on. And did I ever have some choice words for the AAA tour book that bragged about this elusive chili in the first place. 
We crossed the Ohio River, immediately transported into the civilized state of Kentucky, and voila! Right there across the river, in Wildcat country, another Skyline Chili materialized. Rob decided he’d be satisfied with eating their chili while enjoying a view of Cincinnati and pulled into the parking lot. The free parking lot. Right next to the restaurant with the “OPEN” sign in the window.
I’ve never loved Kentucky more.
As for the infamous chili we’d talked about for the last three thousand miles, let me just say that New Mexico has nothing to worry about. I have no idea what all the fuss is about in Ohio. And serving chili with beans, onions and cheddar cheese on top of spaghetti is stupid. By the time Rob finished his authentic “Five-Way” Chili (they also offer three-way and four-way—don’t ask me, I don’t even want to go there), his plate was a watery wasteland of pink noodles and a couple of vagrant beans. 
That’s just wrong.
By the time we finally got inside the elusive diner, I had no sense of adventure left. I ordered a chili dog and a salad and dove into the dog before Rob ever even sampled his Five-Way. When I got to the house salad, it was so covered in grated cheddar cheese that I couldn’t even see the lettuce. I’m telling you the truth. I took a picture of it on my cell phone just because I knew no one would believe me. I literally pushed aside the cheese in the middle of my salad bowl until I located a suffocating slice of tomato and some comatose romaine. When I finished the salad, I pulled the cheese back over the top like a blanket on an accident victim and gave it the Last Rites. 
I realize you yourself may be from Cincinnati, Ohio.  And possibly, though not logically, all of my griping about the ‘famous’ chili from your hometown might even seem a little offensive. But it only took a couple of bites of this creative concoction to discover the secret flavor additive in an otherwise unremarkable bowl of meaty tomato sauce. 
Nutmeg. 
They put nutmeg in Cincinnati Chili. Then they pour it over pasta, drown it in cheddar cheese and call it a masterpiece. More ridiculous than the double entendre names for the types of chili you can order, more than the half pound of cheese that adorns even an innocent bowl of salad, I am stupefied by the addition of a Thanksgiving seasoning in a sauce that is supposed to be. . . chili.
So here, in a nutmegshell, is my impression of you, Cincinnati. You are a very nice city with an impressive river and lots of nice artwork outside your downtown buildings. At least one person in your town was very friendly to us and even stopped us on the sidewalk to say hello and ask for a tip. No one in the sadder part of your city made any attempt to steal my cheese sticks. For that I am truly grateful. And when your unintelligible freeways wearied of harassing us, they gave us an exit and escorted us out of town. 
On the upside, it was an interesting afternoon. 
On the creative side, you convinced an entire metropolitan population how to be proud of a plate of schizophrenic spaghetti.
On the downside, I haven’t had this much fun since I had my wisdom teeth removed.
But  . . . I will never forgive you for convincing my husband that we just hadn’t lived until we risked our lives to taste tomato sauce with nutmeg.
I hope Guy Fieri pays you a visit some time. Cuz, Lucy, “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Friday, April 20, 2018

In Defense of Millenials


“It’s a different world,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, his weatherworn face etched by at least eighty-five years of living. “Young people don’t want to work anymore.” His companions nodded in agreement. Encouraged, he went on. “We knew how to work,” he emphasized.

I swallowed another bite of pancakes, having no choice but to listen to the voices nearby. Their geriatric opinions floated out in all directions inside the Missouri restaurant where we all sat comfortably eating breakfast while millennial waiters hovered nearby, serving us. I frowned as I heard the global generalizations by the old-timers and the pessimistic view they held of their grandchildren’s grip on their baton, long passed.
It seems every generation has a dim view of the next. 
“Back in our day,” the rhetoric begins, “we got up at four a.m. to milk the cows then walked to school uphill both ways OR never bought new OR never heard of cell phones OR watched tv by listening to a dresser-sized radio, OR . . .” You fill in the blanks.
Back in their day, the weary story goes, the choices they were forced to make based on the resources available to them were somehow superior. Right. I still remember the eight hundred square foot building—one giant room—filled with six-foot tall steel boxes which lined the perimeter of the space. “This is what a computer looks like,” the man bragged, proudly leading me on a tour of his employer’s 1970 facility. “Wow,” I said in amazement. 
Now, nearly every six-year-old I know has his own personal iPad and can access more information than that entire room of salvage metal ever did.
But just because some tasks are easier than they used to be, does that mean baby boomers like me, or Generation X, or current millennials don’t appreciate hard work? Definitely there are some, just as there have always been some, but so far I’ve never met them. Every Starbucks where I go to feed my addiction is run by twenty-somethings with bright smiles who arrived there at three a.m. to open up at four and went to bed the previous night at eleven (if they were lucky) after studying for their college classes. The only thing I get up for at three a.m. is to go to the bathroom.
Guess the old man wasn’t talking about barristas.
Nor did he seem to be criticizing the young waitress who kept his coffee cup full, as she did every morning when he and his party appeared, delivering their heavy breakfast platters despite her torn rotator cuff. (Well, as I implied, they were talking pretty loud. I could recite the names of their children and maybe a couple of phone numbers they mentioned, too, but it’s not very interesting.) If their waitress was the target of their criticism, I hope she spat in their grits.
So, where is this lazy age group who doesn’t want to work? Who’s ruining the America built by the Greatest Generation? Maybe they’re the ones wreaking havoc on my commute to the grocery store by working in foul weather to improve our roads? The lazy jerks.
Probably they’re the pampered single moms who stand on their feet all day, checking out groceries for people like me who have the luxury of driving home to a husband who helps me unload the car.
Come to think of it, all those nurses and doctors who take care of the old guy next to my table must have been born the day after he was and completely support his fear of specialists half his age. Wait. No, that’s unlikely. I’d bet a dollar this guy has outlived all his favorite doctors. Sooner or later, though, he’s going to have to trust a physician educated in this “whole new world” he complains about—the ones who are currently keeping him alive.
In every generation there are lazy people who’ve learned to manipulate the system and are happy to do it. But they’re not the majority, nor do they deserve to be touted as its mascots. I never heard the name “millennials” espoused by my sausage-eating neighbor, but clearly they’re the ones he was referring to. He’s not alone in his criticism. For a generation characterized by their astute understanding of technology and social media, they’ve been surprisingly betrayed by it. One of the worst critics of today’s young adults is the media itself.
I find that ironic. Aren’t most newscasters millennials themselves—born between approximately 1981 and 1996?
It is a different world. Things are changing at an unnerving pace. We’d do well to be grateful we can leave it in the hands of millennials—the only people on earth who can navigate Microsoft updates with one hand while changing baby diapers with the other. Easy peasy. 
I’ve got to agree with baseball player, Sam Ewing, though—class of ’67 and a fellow baby boomer, in case you’re interested. “Parents who wonder where the younger generation is going,” he said, “should remember where it came from.”
Amen.
Let’s be honest. Nothing in all of history has ever remained the same. Nothing, that is, except the way the older generation always thinks the younger one is about to destroy civilization as they know it.

“Our earth is degenerate . . . there are signs that the world is . . . coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common. Children no longer obey their parents. Every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
Assyrian clay tablet, 2800 B.C.

I didn’t know they used Tablets in 2800 B.C. 
Maybe the guy at Cracker Barrel was right. It is a different world.