A little conversation, please

I am missing wit today. Not mine—that train left the station long ago—but the wit of others. I miss hearing friendly banter, lively repartee and the clever twist of a phrase.

There’s a playfulness to conversation that is slowly disappearing. But then conversation itself is disappearing.

There is a growing brevity to our conversations today. They tend to be condensed. Telegraphic. We’re all in a hurry multi-tasking. It’s not easy doing six things at once and none of them well.It’s nearly an imposition to ask for someone’s time and presence. Plus, who needs a face-to-face when you’ve probably already covered the nuts and bolts of what you needed to say in an email, Facebook message or text. Or an emoji. Or a combination thereof.

“Happy Anniversary. I (heart) you.”

Check and done.

But conversation isn’t always about need; sometimes it’s about delight.

As we were led to our seats at a restaurant, we passed an alcove with low lights, beautiful décor and four different couples seated at tables for two. Three of the four couples were radiant—basking in the glow of their cell phones.

The fourth couple weren’t on electronic devices but looked as dull and glazed over as the couples on their cells. Maybe they were lamenting having left their phones at home.

I’ve never understood why people make plans with other people, clean up, drive to a mutually-agreed-upon place and then ignore present company while they interact with others in cyberspace?

There was a day a woman would have walked out on a man for asking her to dinner, then spending the evening ignoring her and talking to someone else.

I was at a deli where a 2-year-old was on her mother’s cell phone while the mother and grandmother ate and talked. Occasionally the child would grunt, thrust the phone at her mother and the mother would retrieve the desired screen for the child. When it was time to leave, the tot screeched and screamed, refusing to relinquish the phone. The mother pleaded and cajoled, then pulled out the big guns: “Give me that phone or you can’t watch cartoons when we get home!”

Does anyone ever talk to the child? Or does the child simply move from one screen to another all day? In some corners, even conversing with one’s child has gone from a pleasure to a duty.

I grew up in a family of talkers, as did the husband. Both sets of parents often had friends over for the evening, to have dinner, play cards or simply sit outside on a warm night with a cool drink and talk. They talked and laughed, and teased and talked, and talked some more, voices drifting down the hallway or through open windows hours after we’d been sent to bed for the night.

I’d lie awake listening, thinking what grown-up fun that must be to talk and laugh with your friends long after dark. I thought to myself, I’ll do that someday.”

We do. But not as often as we once did.

Meet the online calculator for snow days

I recently discovered an online calculator that can predict snow days.

There’s a catch to the Snow Day calculator—to get results you must enter your zip code and what type of school you attend. It only works for kids.

There are no snow days for grown-ups. So go warm up the car and drag out the ice melt.

And yet.

Our son who lives in Chicago says he instinctively knows when it snows at night and can’t sleep anticipating daybreak. He’s an 8-year-old kid trapped in the body of a 36 year-old man.

The snow they’ve been sounding alarms here for days has finally arrived. Frankly, it isn’t looking all that great. Not that I’ve had my nose pressed against the window monitoring it. Well, maybe a little.

The snow is granular—like dishwasher detergent before it came in pods.

You can barely call it a snowfall. It’s more like a snow sputter.

It’s been coming down for several hours and is barely covering the grass, just nestling in between the blades.

You can’t help but wonder if there is a heavier snowfall happening somewhere else. The snow is always deeper on the other side of the fence. One of the grands calls to say snow has covered the ground at her house.

Her mother can be heard in the background saying snow has not covered the ground.

“But it will,” says the voice on the other end, brimming with hope.

Flakes that look like dishwasher detergent now mingle with larger flakes looking like cotton balls. Not fresh, fluffy cotton balls, but teased out, scraggly looking cotton-balls.

This is what the hype was about? Ratty-looking cotton balls mixed with dishwasher detergent?

A while later there is a commotion outside. Snow is falling at an angle and birds are flocking to the feeder.

I grab a camera and freeze a chickadee on takeoff.

A bird in flight is an amazing wonder of beauty and engineering. The feet propel the launch, then the bird draws them in tight. Wings spread in graceful arcs and the bird’s beak, cresting the smooth curves of the dome-shaped head, slices through the air.

Birds land and depart and jostle one another around the feeder. It’s as frenetic as LaGuardia or Atlanta.

Snow is picking up and more uniform now. There is no swirling or spinning, just a fine sawdust cascading from a craftsman’s workbench.

By late afternoon, every inch of ground, every tree, car, mailbox and roof-top, have been layered with a blanket of down.

Daylight fades and the snow takes on a beautiful cast of blue. The blue grows deeper, darker and richer, culminating in a breathtaking sapphire before fading into night.

Maybe snow days aren’t just for kids after all.

 

A tale of tiny tutus

Dance class started today. No, not for us. We did that once—worst money ever spent. Sorry, Arthur Murray. It wasn’t you; it was us. We lasted for one fox trot and half a waltz before we two-stepped right out the door.

Two of the little ones, cousins, have enrolled in dance class. We’re hoping they last longer than we did.

There’s nothing like low-to-the-ground, full-bodied toddlers swathed in bubbles of pink netting attempting to master the willowy bends and arcs of professional ballerinas.

There’s a buzz in the hallway before class. The teacher emerges from the classroom and introduces herself to each of the girls. Then come the good-byes, big hugs and lingering embraces.

“Mommy will be waiting! Be good! I LOVE YOU!”

It will be a long journey for the little ones—approximately 10 steps around the corner and into the dance studio. Parents are not allowed in the studio, but can watch on a monitor in a waiting area.

It appears the teacher’s goal today is to get eight preschoolers to stand in a straight line.

The teacher explains something to the group, then patiently goes down the line, on her knees on hardwood, and puts eight pieces of tape on the floor, instructing each girl to stand on the tape.

The teacher then goes down the line a second time, again positioning each dancer on her tape mark. Dancer No. 1, Dancer No. 2, Dancer No. 3, all the way to Dancer No. 8.

All eight are on their tape marks.

Class is halfway over.

Tiny dancers then sit on the floor and bend to touch their toes. Those with long arms are at an advantage.

Dance Class Lesson No. 1: All arms are not created equal and life is not fair.

Dancers advance to standing position, attempt to point their feet and lift their arms overhead.

The teacher then demonstrates how to skip. She motions for the girls to skip in a line. There is no line. Dancers are moving in every direction, crisscrossing, zig zagging and roaming in loose figure 8s.

The girls are not grasping the concept of following one another.

Girls are instructed to go to their backpacks and put on tap shoes.

One returns with sunglasses. Another removes her tutu in order to put on tap shoes. She tugs at her leotard and tights but apparently decides to leave them on.

They commence tapping their toes when the teacher turns to a little girl, picks her up and carries her to the camera. Did she want to wave to her mother?

No. The teacher indicates the girl needs to go potty.

Another dancer lines up behind the first dancer. The teacher indicates that this girl, too, needs to go potty. Then another dancer lines up. And another and another.

They can do something in succession! Line up for the potty!

Three little dancers remain on the dance floor.

Not a single one is on her tape mark.

Both eyes on the dentist

Our youngest just texted that her root canal was over and that she fell asleep in the dental chair. I wasn’t surprised. It’s a family tradition.

When our children were very young and exhausting (I was exhausted, not them), I once went to a dentist for a cleaning and fell sound asleep in the chair. The dentist had to shake my arm to wake me. It was the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep I’d had in months. I asked if I could come back for another cleaning the next day, but he said no.

I’ve always wondered if dentists are offended when patients fall asleep in the chair. I’m one of those people who become very eye conscious when I go to the dentist. Are you supposed to keep your eyes open or your eyes closed? It’s like those awkward moments when you don’t know what to do with your arms and hands.

I was at the dentist recently to have a filling replaced. The spot was hard to reach. When the dentist’s hand, resting on the side of my face, moved for better positioning, it pulled my left eye closed.

I had one eye open and one eye closed. Do you open the closed eye, or close the open eye?

I’m in the group that keeps my eyes open because the dentist and I talk. That’s right, even shot full of Novocain, the entire side of my face numb and swollen, ice picks and a large vacuum in my mouth, I can still talk. I was telling the dentist something about one of the kids and he was trying to recall what her teeth looked like. I said, “Yoo no—da un hoo neher ushed ad ahays ad good tee.”

“Oh yes, the one who never brushed and always had good teeth.”

Our dentist is also very good at interpreting.

Once, at the hair salon a woman fell asleep under a hair dryer. Several stylists tried to wake her with no success. Someone was on the phone with 911 when the woman finally woke.

Not long ago, I was in rush hour traffic when a back-up began. Cars were swerving around a stalled vehicle. I swerved too, looked into the stopped car and saw the driver with his head back and his eyes closed. Another driver threw his car into park, jumped out, knocked on the car window and the man woke with a start.

Maybe sitting down for more than five minutes is so rare that our eyelids automatically slam shut these days and we start to snooze.

Dentists probably aren’t even aware of whether patients have their eyes open or closed, or if they have one eye open and one eye closed. All that really matters is that dentists keep their eyes open. And get a good night’s sleep before using that drill.

Putting a little polish on the new year

My mother was an excellent housekeeper. The woman never once wrote her name in the dust on a piece of furniture to decide if she needed to clean.

Nor did she ever stand on a chair to make herself the height of a tall son-in-law to see if she should wipe down the top of the refrigerator.

She had a few surgeries over the years, and before each one she’d have my father move the stove out from the wall so she could clean behind it. Who can relax under a general anesthetic if you know there might be dust balls lurking behind the stove?

The entire house was neat and organized. Even the kitchen junk drawer knew better than to slouch in disarray. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place.

We had a clothesline in the backyard of our first house. Mom would hang the sheets outside for maximum clean and freshness. If storm clouds gathered, she would fly to the backyard, race down the lines, rip pins off and throw the sheets in the bag, then race back to the house as the rain started, satisfied that a major catastrophe had been averted.

We were spoiled rotten with fresh bedding, fresh linens and cookies fresh from the oven. There is a compelling allure to fresh: the beginning of a school year, the start of a marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a new place, starting a new job.

Fresh is the draw of the new year—turning the calendar to a new beginning that is not yet muddled and cluttered, marked with rings from coffee cups and neglected To Do lists scrawled in the margins.

A new year will dawn fresh. It always does.

The question is—will I?

Maybe I need to do some housekeeping myself. A good sweeping would find some interesting tidbits in the dust pan – a lazy habit or two and new challenges that fell by the wayside.

How about that layer of dust building? The sort you can write your name in. The dust goes by the name resentment and it is time for it to go.

Maybe it’s time to clean out all those drawers crammed with junk — the ones holding old tapes that replay the things I regret doing and the things I wish I had done.

I could use some polish as well — a readiness to listen more than I talk. Glass cleaner is in order, too—something to remove the smudges for a clearer view of the things that matter and things that don’t.

Cleaning is rarely my first choice of activities, but I have my broom, dustpan and furniture polish in hand, ready to go. Here’s to fresh starts and a new year.

Search is on for the missing Jesus

Jesus is missing.

We’ve unpacked all the decorations, hung the bulbs and lights on the tree, arranged the Christmas carolers on a shelf, looped artificial evergreens around the banister and smacked a wreath on the front of the house.

No Jesus. Can’t find him anywhere.

We bought him at a downtown dime store on our lunch hour the first year we were married, along with Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph came undone long ago, but baby Jesus held on.

Plastic. About 2 inches by 3 inches. Bright blue eyes, pink lips and full head of blond curls. He looks nothing at all like a true newborn, let alone a Middle Eastern Jewish newborn, but still. We have history together.

Until now. No Jesus. No peace.

There’s only so much hunting, fretting and stewing you can do before it’s time to move on. Still, it nags me that he is nowhere to be seen.

I dash to the grocery store, throw it in park, grab my wallet, cell phone and list. A Salvation Army bell ringer greets people with a big smile on the way in. Not now. I’m stressed by my own carelessness and in a hurry.

I race down the aisles, grab things and get in line. It’s the cashier with the bad teeth. Sometimes they hurt so that she squeezes the side of her head against her neck. Counter pressure to the pain. She has four teeth that need pulling but hasn’t had the money. As we talk, she says a health clinic run by a church downtown pulled her bad teeth. She feels better now. The constant pain is gone. She looks good today. She’s a stern woman, but I almost thought I saw her smile.

On the way out the door, I nearly smack into a woman who stopped abruptly by the bell ringer. I maneuver around her and see she is rustling through her handbag. She pulls out a couple of greenbacks, carefully folds them and tucks them into the red bucket.

“Merry Christmas!” the bell ringer booms.

The sun is setting and traffic is stalling. The wait at the stop light by the row of fast food franchises is interminable.

The usual characters are out, the ones with cardboard signs. You can never tell who is destitute and who is scamming.

A man in a hooded parka dodges between cars, crossing two lanes of traffic, clutching a Chick-fil-A bag. He places it in the hands of a weathered man with an even more weathered sign. They exchange nods and smiles and the man in the parka dashes away.

The sky has turned soft pink, swirled with brush strokes of orange and ripples of turquoise. I hit the radio. Two shootings, a baby beaten by the mother’s boyfriend and more sex scandals. Why did I turn it on?

Headlights and taillights glow as evening falls. I turn into the subdivision behind a friend’s car. She’s probably returning from her parents. She’s been caring for them for 10 years.

Sentence fragments and random phrases float through my mind.

I carry groceries into a dark house and walk from room to room flipping on the lights. The bare spot on the piano where the baby Jesus should be looks at me accusingly.

The sentence fragments meld together. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:35-36.

I wonder if I’ll ever see that small representation of Jesus again.

Maybe I just did.

Naughty or nice? Grandma makes the call

When we gave my mother a grandma necklace years ago, we never dreamed a woman could get so much mileage out of a simple gold chain with five little figurines.

Mom loved wearing the necklace. She said it was a way to keep the grandkids close to her heart. The thing was, you never knew how many grandkids were close to her heart. Some days all five might be on the chain; other days there might be only three or four.

“I see one of the grandkids is missing, Mom. What happened?”

“Your brother’s youngest smarted off. I took him off the chain until he straightens out.”

If one of the grandkids got cheeky with her, she took them off the necklace. She didn’t really take them off, but she would fling their figurine around to the back of the chain. Swinging in style one minute, gone from glory the next.

She told whichever kids had been acting up that they could come back to the front of the necklace and join the others when they straightened out. She was a matriarch who knew how to hold a crowd.

Her antics with the grandma necklace were second only to the Great Pillow Caper. Mom and Dad, completely devoid of all rationality, once rented a huge van to take 11 of us a fair distance to a family reunion. It was a tight fit, elbows in one another’s rib cages, window space at a premium, crying babies and cranky kids. Squabbles mounted on the long drive home. A dispute ensued between a couple of the kids over a pillow.

Grandma demanded the pillow be passed up front to her and announced she would “dispose” of the matter once and for all. She lowered her window. Then raised it; then lowered it.

The kids were spellbound.

Kids nothing —we all were.

Someone yelled, “Do it, Grandma! Show ‘em what you’re made of!”

Of course, she wouldn’t really throw a pillow out of a vehicle window, which would be both illegal and hazardous, but it did keep the kids at rapt attention with the possibility that she might.

The fighting stopped immediately. Those children, now all adults, are exceptionally well-behaved on long car-trips but have an aversion to traveling with pillows.

Being that the grandma baton has been passed to the next generation, it only seemed fitting that I, too, have a means of holding a crowd. I, too, have a grandma necklace.

There are nine little figurines on the chain. The grands know that I love wearing it and love keeping them close to my heart. They also know that jumping out of closets in order to hear me scream, or commenting about the wrinkles around my eyes will get them removed from the necklace.

Periodically, chaos erupts when we are all together and an instigator will run over, check the necklace to make sure he or she is still in place, then take off yelling, “I’m still on the necklace!”

“For now you are! Don’t push it!”

 

Warped comments fly at warp speed

A friend who has a peculiar habit of thinking before she speaks refers to the seamy side of what transpires on social media as “popping off.”

“That’s all it is,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “Just people popping off.”

It is a struggle to remember life before people began popping off, before you could barb someone with a snarky comment, take a swipe at someone on another continent, or decimate a total stranger in 240 characters or less.

In an effort to limit my exposure to all the popping off, I make it a practice to avoid the comments sections that follow online news stories. Except for when I don’t. My self-control needs work.

I fall off the wagon every now and then and read a few comments. Then, there I sit, picking crumbs out of the computer keyboard, wondering if there is intelligent life left on the planet.

We all have opinions. People always have had opinions. Just like people have always had conflicting opinions. But there’s something different about disagreements today.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo anonymity that spurs us, or the adrenalin rush of speed, seeing thoughts fly from our fingertips into cyberspace. Whatever the impetus, we seem to be—and I don’t know how to put this gently—a bit more, well, rotten.

Nasty. Aggressive. Bellicose. Belligerent.

Being that I can be given to popping off, I once wrote some dictums on an index card that I keep in a desk drawer. I would do well to look at the card more often and I tell myself I must. But then that old problem with self-control pops up again.

The first one asks, “Is my opinion timely?”

Timely is not about being the first out of the gate. We’ve mastered that one.
Timely is about finding the apt moment. Maybe I don’t need to say what I wanted to say right now. Maybe the opportunity passed, or maybe what I have to say would be better heard at a different time and in a different setting.

The second one asks, “Is what I am about to say true?”

Is it true because it came from my friend’s former co-worker with an aunt in Montana whose daughter, now living in the D.C. area, does yoga with the niece of the person under discussion? Or is it true because I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes?

If I knowingly say something of a dubious nature, or patently false, I should probably ask myself, “Why do I like throwing gasoline on the fire?”

The third question asks, “Is what I am about to say kind?”

I know—what if it’s not kind, but it’s true? Truth cancels out kindness, right? Not so fast. With some finesse, grace and thoughtfully chosen words, it is possible to speak the truth with kindness. I’ve seen it done. Once. I think it was on a Tuesday.

Finally, “Is what I am about to say necessary?”

As much as I’d like to think what I have to say is necessary, it’s probably not.

I’ll end now.

Stand up, sit down, oh never mind

I’m coming to grips with the fact that whatever I do, it’s never quite right. Anything. Everything. No matter what any of us do, it’s never quite right.

I was pacing before I wrote that opening paragraph.

Why?

Because researchers say we sit too much. Even if you exercise 30 minutes a day, sitting for extended periods increases risk for developing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

I wrote the previous paragraph sitting, but nonalcoholic fatty liver disease sounds so disgusting that I’m standing again. I don’t have a treadmill workstation or standing desk, so I am upright with my back and shoulders hunched so my fingers can reach the keyboard. I am probably doing damage to my spine.

Ergonomic experts suggest that for every half-hour of office work, people should sit for 20 minutes, move around for 8 and stretch for 2. To accommodate all that non-productive stretching and moving around time, the 40-hour work week could easily expand to 60.

Another suggestion is to go cycling 10 minutes of every hour. Still another suggestion is to avoid the conference table and schedule walking meetings. Why not just cycle while you meet?

There’s more, but you’ll want to sit down for this one. Other ergonomic experts warn that too much standing can also have negative effects: varicose veins, back and foot problems, and carotid artery disease. I guess to be healthy, you need to be a virtual Jack-in-the-Box.

Plus, it turns out we’re losing our grip on our handgrip strength. According to the Journal of Hand Therapy, millennial males have far less grip strength than their 1985 male counterparts. If they’d done studies on young males fresh out of the service after World War II, they would have encountered men like my father and all of my uncles who all enjoyed exchanging crushing handshakes. Too much or not enough?

Then there’s the battle over carbs. My personal physician, Dr. Web, MD, states that eating too few carbohydrates causes blood sugar to dip too low and eating too many carbs can elevate blood sugar.

Whether I am eating too many or too few, I am doing the wrong thing and not getting it right.

The coffee debate never stops brewing. One camp claims drinking several cups a day will make you smarter, help burn fat and lower your risk of Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and is good for your liver. In the other corner of the ring people claim that coffee causes restlessness and insomnia, leaches minerals from your body and is addictive.

What we all need to do is sit down, stand up, grab a coffee, run in place, take a load off, stretch for two minutes, dump the coffee, cycle a while, have a seat on the sofa, eat some carbs, abandon pasta, practice opening vacuum-sealed jars and think these things through.

I’m reasonably certain you’ll come to the same conclusion I did—it’s impossible to get it right.

Calling all chocolate mice to the kitchen

As requested by a number of readers, here is the recipe for the chocolate cookie mice mentioned in last week’s column on traditions that come with a “tail.” Ahem. Am posting a few other goodies as well.

A word of warning, I left the mice on the counter a week ago and a certain 3-year-old kept buzzing in and out of the kitchen with an oh-so-happy look on her face. She’d been eating the tails.  Not big on chocolate shortbread, but loves licorice!

Lock ’em up! The cookie mice — not the kids!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may the spirit of thankfulness to God, the “Giver of every good and perfect gift from above,” permeate every day of your life, rain or shine.

Chocolate Cookie Mice

3/4  C  granulated sugar

1/2  C butter or margarine, softened

1/2  C  shortening

1  tsp vanilla extract

1  egg

2 1/4  C  all-purpose flour, or unbleached

1/4  C  unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2  tsp  baking powder

72    miniature chocolate chips

36    red or black licorice strips, cut into 2″ pieces

Preheat oven to 325

Beat the sugar, butter and shortening until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and egg; blend well. Add the flour, cocoa and baking powder; mix well. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls.

To form a mouse, pinch one end of the ball to form the nose. For the ears, make 2 tiny balls of dough and flatten slightly; gently press into the dough on the upper front of each mouse body. For the eyes, press 2 miniature chocolate chips into the dough below the ears. Place the shaped cookies 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 8 to 13 minutes, or until set. For the tails, immediately place a piece of licorice into the rounded end of each cookie. Remove from the cookie sheets.