Could be a case of thanks but no thanks

I wish my gratitude wasn’t dependent on your misery, but sometimes it is. I’m sorry about that, especially with this being the season of giving thanks and all.

The other day I woke up in a foul mood. I fluffed my pillow with an enthusiasm that bordered on violence. Facing the same old, same old, sitting in the same chair, staring at the same computer seemed like, oh, I don’t know, work.

And then I remembered a friend who has been without a job for nearly a year and I found myself thankful.

Not long after that I saw your car in a parking lot. It had a big dent in the front and the grill was messed up. My car is getting old and dinged these days, but it’s not as bad as yours, so I was thankful.

Sometimes I wish our son lived closer so we could see his family more often. And then I ran into a friend whose daughter lives in London. Ours kids at least live on the same continent that we do, so I was thankful.

There you have it: Thanksgiving relativity—thanksgiving predicated on the notion that it can always be worse.

It’s like that saying, “I wept because I had no shoes and then I met a man with no feet.”

That’s all fine and good for the man with no shoes (he’s feeling pretty good about himself now), but where does that leave the man with no feet? What’s he supposed to do?

A verse in the Old Testament (Psalms 22:3) says God inhabits the praises of his people. If that is true, I wonder where he is living these days. Our praises often seem a bit tenuous.

When our thankfulness is based on having something better, easier or slightly more comfortable than someone else, it’s not gratitude as much as it is an unspoken competition.

While it is always a source of comfort that things haven’t gotten as bad as they could, and probably will, that is not the essence of thankfulness.

What if the Pilgrims had that attitude at the first Thanksgiving?

They would have been quietly giving thanks that they had better clothing than their guests. “This smock may be worn slick and threadbare, but at least my thighs are covered.”

The Indians could have been giving thanks that they didn’t have to eat those bland dishes the Pilgrims kept trotting out. “No wonder they put them on a boat and sent them out to sea.”

The celebrants at the first Thanksgiving didn’t need a measuring stick of comparison to give thanks. They trusted the faithfulness of God all the while living the rhythm of plenty and want, life and death, joy and sorrow. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving marked by abundance, the Pilgrims fell on hard times and suffered again. Yet they continually marked their calendars with days of thanksgiving. They accepted their reality, both the suffering and the ease, and continued to be thankful.

Not a bad model to follow.

Thanksgiving requires a lot of dough

One of my favorite high-end cookware catalogs suggests that in order to cook a turkey this Thanksgiving, I should drop a bundle on a Bluetooth thermometer. It can monitor two temperatures at once, courtesy of a smart phone app. (Don’t test turkey temps and drive!)

If I want to be a truly state-of-the-art cook, I will also need a new blender. Not just any blender, but a 2-horsepower blender. To pulverize what? The driveway? It says particles are 50 percent smaller than particles pulverized in other blenders. Good to know. Nothing ruins a meal faster than a particle in the 65th percentile.

I might also want to take out a small loan to buy a new set of steak knives before Thanksgiving. They are sharp-looking knives, but listen, if you need steak knives for your Thanksgiving turkey, you’ve got bigger problems than dull knives.

I might also want to drop a couple of Ben Franklins on a technically advanced skillet with ultra-even heating. I might. Or I might just keep seasoning my cast iron skillet. It has such ultra-even heating that even the handle gets red hot.

Home Retail, parent to a chain of do-it-yourself stores in Great Britain, recently announced they will close a quarter of their stores, in part due to the rise of a generation “less skilled in DIY projects.”

We’re all a little less skilled in the basics with each passing generation.

Contemplating the wizardry that would put my Thanksgiving feast on the fast track to smart phone apps, more electrical cords and multiple credit card swipes, I realized some of the best holiday meals I’ve ever had were created by cooks often working without so much as a cookbook.

They learned by doing and I learned by watching.

Sauté chopped onions and diced celery in a pan of butter. A pinch of this, a pinch of that, a dash of salt and sprinkle of pepper. Dry your bread crumbs the night before. A little broth, not too much.

Gravy? Stand back. Once that woman gets to whisking, there’s gonna be a whole lot of shaking going on.

There is something marvelous about tapping the vein of DIY resourcefulness. It makes you feel more human, less mechanized, less controlled, less at the mercy of a digital readout and 2-year warranty.

Knowing how to do a few things with your own hands, independent of expensive gadgetry, is satisfying. Maybe it’s learning to test a bird for doneness by wiggling the drumsticks, cutting butter into flour for a piecrust, sticking a tomato plant in the ground or growing rosemary on a windowsill.

Creating something, making something, enjoying the fruit of our labor and learning the art of improvise when things go wrong, are among our last remaining links to that original band of Pilgrims. They were the ultimate in resourcefulness.

That said, as highly as I esteem resourcefulness, I have been known to buy a box of Bob Evans’ potatoes, microwave them, sprinkle them with parsley and pass them off as my own. I like to think of it as resourcefulness of a modern sort.

Why we all need an aerial view

I recently came across an aerial photograph of my grandparents’ Nebraska farm taken in the 1960s. True to memory, the centerpiece was the big white house with the wraparound porch. Just as I remembered, a narrow ribbon of sidewalk led from the house past the chicken coop, the garage with the door that slid from side to side, the tool shed, the small milk house with the big sink and giant refrigerated tank, directly to the barn.

The black and white picture confirmed my piecemeal Farmmemories and put them together in a larger frame. The farm wasn’t as big as I remembered. It was bigger.

There were giant silos beyond the ground I normally wandered, a hog barn, a shelter for the tractor and the combine, and other structures as well. There was more to the farm than I saw as a kid kicking rocks down the lane.

That simple but sometimes startling reminder-that it is easy to fixate on the parts and lose sight of the whole-may be the most wonderful thing about flying. Actually, these days, it is probably the only wonderful thing about flying.

The plane takes off, the city below grows smaller and grayer, the vehicles and roads lose definition and a giant quilt, shades of green, brown and gold with pools of blue, unfolds below.

So peaceful. And beautiful. Why did I get so worked up about what he did? So vast. Can I even remember what it was that he did? Sheer magnificence. Why does life always seem so hurried?

When you gain perspective, the big things take their rightful places and simple pleasures seem more worthy of pursuit.

It’s good to be reminded.

One morning on that farm, my youngest uncle who still lived at home and was probably in high school at the time, let me ride with him on horseback to round up the cows for milking. We rode beyond the familiar and came to the ridge of the canyon. It was amazing terrain with deep plunging crevices. If the horse stumbled, we’d plummet to the bottom and never make it back out.

That canyon was so unlike the more familiar stretches of rolling hills and surrounding prairie that years later I sometimes wondered if I had imagined it.

I hadn’t. It’s in the aerial. But the small canyon with its ravines didn’t stand alone. Nothing ever does. It eased at both ends giving way to gentle slopes. There would have been several ways out. There often are.

It’s good to be reminded.

Looking at the old photo, I see the work boots that plodded down that sidewalk a thousand times to the dairy barn before daybreak and again in late afternoon, small legs that whipped through the grass, climbed fences and chased barn cats. So many cousins, wild and rambunctious, having fun. As for all the aunts and uncles, many of them are gone now. Only shadows remain.

Perspective compels us to take it all in-the breadth, the depth, the joy and the sorrow. The landforms, the water, the fields and the canyon with the steep ravines, are fixed points. We are the ones forever changing and moving, swiftly passing through.

Kidding aside, parenting outcomes can be amusing

There is no justice when it comes to having children. Frankly, there are days when it seems like you might have gotten someone else’s kids.

Our oldest is laid back and easygoing. As his mother, I know he wasn’t always this way and I have the crow’s feet to prove it. His wife genuinely is laid back, soft-spoken and reserved.

They were blessed with children who, if unsupervised, would and could walk on the ceiling. Naturally, they’d paint the bottoms of their feet first.

The couple you might expect to have cooing doves somehow wound up with braying donkeys. Completely adorable and lovable donkeys, mind you, but children with an energy level and focused determination usually exhibited only by superheroes.

No two kids are ever alike.

At age 3, our youngest arrived for a family visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s one weekend, flung open the door to the mini-van upon arrival and yelled, “Don’t anybody try and kiss me!”

When she was about 9 and had stirred things up before school, I asked her if she woke up every morning wondering what she could do to cause trouble.

She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Yes.”

Guess who got the most easygoing, pleasant, smiley, good-natured, happy baby in the world?

Our three kids look at one another’s kids and marvel at the inequities of the gene pool. It’s almost like their children’s personalities were switched at birth.

Jerry Springer, line one.

I’ve seen it in other families, too. The wild thing grows up, marries and gets the demure children, while the demure sibling weds and has children that have to be dragged out of public places by the backs of their necks.

A young woman raised in a family of all girls has all boys, and a young father raised with brothers, football, baseball and basketball has ballerinas.

If only parenting required nothing more than navigating familiar waters. But it rarely does. Planning and anticipating are essential to good parenting, but the truth is, you can never fully imagine the future. Sometimes you simply live it when you get there.

You may wind up with a child who is nothing like the child you were for a reason—so that your mind can stretch, your brain will grow and your feet will learn to sprint.

Parenting is not about recreating a smaller version of you; it’s about discovering someone entirely new. It’s exploring how the pieces fit, who that boy was meant to be, what her talents and gifts are, what comes naturally and what needs a push.

Parenting is often learn-as-you-go. It is a lifelong endeavor punctuated with intense joy, sleepless nights and profound humbling—the humbling part is what keeps us all from becoming experts.

Parenting is the most challenging and worthwhile job you’ll ever have. Now go scrape those kids off the ceiling.

How I learned to speed read in less than a moth

I’m a speed reader. Have been since I was a teen. My mother worked for the continuing education department of a university and they were offering a class on speed reading and needed one more person to fill out the class. I became that one person.

The class only met for an hour or two for a few weeks, but when the goal of a class is speed, you don’t need to meet for long. The instructor said to make your eyes go across the lines of words as fast as you could and not be concerned about what the words meant.

I read “Animal Farm” in 10 minutes. Cover to cover. The instructor asked what the book was about. I said I didn’t know, but if I had to guess I’d say it was about animals on a farm.

He looked displeased.

I’ve been speed reading ever since. I can’t stop and I can’t slow down. Today, for example, I plan on reading Churchill’s four-volume “History of the English Speaking Peoples.” Over lunch. I hope it’s more memorable than “Animal Farm.”

As a result of all this speed-reading, I often experience a delay between what I think I read and what something actually says.

The other day I passed by a mall with a large sign that said “Auto Theft Sale.” I thought how efficient of auto thieves to bypass the chop shops and simply sell all the stolen cars in a big tent at the mall. A half-mile later it dawned on me that the sign had said “Auto Tent Sale.”

Last week I read a recipe that called for Monster cheese. I’d never heard of Monster cheese before. I kept reading and, in the back of my mind, I was thinking Monster cheese must be a really, really large block of cheese. Probably with green flecks. A second reading revealed it was Muenster cheese. If Muenster cheese has green flecks, it probably is monster cheese.

That faux pas falls in line with a local restaurant we frequently pass with the big red sign that says “Human Cuisine.” No wonder there are never many cars in the lot. Actually, it says “Hunan Cuisine.”

Every time I drive through a construction zone I gasp. The sign says, “Hit a Worker $10,000.” It reads like they’re offering a reward. Of course, it’s not an enticement; it’s just that my eyes rarely take in the last line that says “Fine.” It’s a $10,000 fine. Someone really needs to rephrase that one.

A department store chain keeps running a promo that says “FIND YOUR YES.” Inevitably, it registers with me as “FIND YOUR EYES.” I always note that my eyes are still in my head. I don’t know where else they would be, but the lettering is so commanding I feel it necessary to double check.

Speed reading has bitten me on the backside more than once. Especially as a writer. Just aks any of my editosr.

Special needs we all share

I was late to church. So I sat in the back row.

My seat on the very end of the last row gave me the great and pleasant distraction of a wide view. It also put me adjacent to, and several rows behind, a family with a young adult daughter who is severely disabled.

Her wheelchair was in the aisle. Her father was next to her and they were doing the dance—the one that parents of special needs children often do. She’d bob her head and her father would lean forward and whisper in her ear. She’d turn her face toward him, he’d lift a small towel and dab at her mouth.

The bob, the lean, the turn and the touch. One, two, three. One, two, three.

They are movements unconsciously synchronized through unspoken needs, knowing and time.

The father and the girl danced a bit and then the girl’s mother cut in. She whispered to her husband and they changed places. The mother was next to her now. The young woman in the wheelchair lifted her arm overhead. It looked like an involuntary reflex, but her mother knew its true meaning. The mother reached over and smoothed hair that had strayed from her daughter’s ponytail. The young woman raised her arm again, the mother smoothed the hair again, a second time and a third.

One, two, three. One, two three.

Contemplating how much that young woman is dependent on others, it dawned on me that while most of us can walk, talk and smooth our own hair, we are probably more like her than we are different.

We all share the same need for someone to sit beside us, to whisper in our ear, to make sense of what is happening, to help unravel events as they unfold.

We all share the same need for kindness, tenderness and a gentle touch. Not only from those we are closest to, but even from those who are strangers, the ones who help clear a path and open a door.

We all share the need for someone to help clean up after us, big messes, small messes, the tangible and the abstract.

We all share the need for someone to engage with, someone to crack us open and pull us out, to discover what we have to offer.

Maybe it is the similarities, not the differences, which often prompt us to turn aside from those afflicted and dependent. Instead of locking eyes, smiling and saying hello, we look away — not because it’s hard to look at them, but because deep down we know what we are really looking at is a partial reflection of ourselves.

Could it be those whose needs are displayed on the outside, remind the rest of us of the needs we cloak on the inside?

We all share similar needs; some of us just wear them inside out.

Go (silent) team!

It’s called Silent Soccer. Maybe you’ve heard about it—perhaps by way of hand gestures or a sporty little mime. Nothing loud or boisterous, of course.

Youth leagues have been implementing Silent Soccer weekends (fingertips to lips here) where parents and fans on the sidelines are told to put a sock in it. No yelling, no cheering, no screaming, no coaching from the sidelines.

Some leagues allow polite clapping, others do not. Some leagues allow parents to wave signs and rally towels, others encourage parents to bring lawn chairs, pillows, their favorite jammies and take a nap. Not really. But they could.

Believe me, at some of the soccer games our son played in as a little guy, a nap would have been entirely possible. In his first league, he even got the trophy to prove it. “Participant.”

But that was then and this is now, when a growing number of parents apparently confuse youth games for the World Cup. A few bad apples behave aggressively, yelling, screaming, berating their own children, making rude comments about other people’s children and bellowing to outcoach the coach. It’s not mature or attractive behavior, but on the upside, at least they’re looking up from their cell phones.

In Silent Soccer, the only thing parents and fans can say is, “Ssssshhhhhh!”

No whistling. No noisemakers. No breathing. I made that one up. You can breathe. But only with permission.

Don’t talk among yourselves. And keep your eyes on your own paper. I made that one up, too.

The next step will be requiring hall passes to leave the sidelines to visit the concession stand or the restroom.

It is just a matter of time before the NFL adopts “Silent Sundays.” I can hardly wait for the “White Noise Olympics.” Maybe next would be the “Would You Please Be Quiet World Series?”

I always thought learning to play the game involved learning to tune out the noise on the sidelines. Or maybe that was the goal of motherhood—learn to focus on driving and tune out the noise in the backseat.

Silent Soccer is an infantile idea imposed on the masses instead of addressing a few fans behaving badly. The bottom line is, if you act like a child, there is no shortage of people happy to treat you like a child. Even if you don’t act like a child, there is no shortage of people happy to treat you like a child. Unfortunately, we have sent a number of such people to Washington.

Maybe what the soccer leagues need to do is proclaim “Grown Up Saturdays,“ where adults are encouraged to root, cheer, and have a good time, but act like adults. Let the coaches coach, the kids play, and the adults model some self-control by leaving the attitude and the trash talk in the car.

Missing tooth takes a bite out of guilt

For nearly three years I’ve been waiting for this moment. Our oldest granddaughter, age 5, has lost a tooth. It’s not the first tooth she has lost, just the first tooth she has lost naturally.

She lost her first tooth when she was 2. At our house. On the patio. She was running and fell face down. Blood everywhere. Blood and crying. Blood and crying are like the chicken and the egg; you don’t know which comes first and it doesn’t matter. They come together—profusely and loudly.

Should such a thing happen on your patio, let me save you time. Don’t bother finding the tooth, submerging it in milk, or finding a dentist who will call you back on a Sunday. The tooth is history.

The toddler will live with a gap and you’ll live with grandma guilt. That’s right, just when you were shedding the last remnants of mother guilt, you now wear the weight of grandma guilt.

Every time she smiled I felt responsible. Sure, I didn’t have anything to do with it and her parents and other adults were present, but it happened at our house. Grandma’s house is supposed to be a fun and happy place, not a place where you to go get your teeth knocked out.

I was so sorry it happened and especially sorry that if something like this had to happen, it couldn’t have happened at her other grandma’s house. But then her other grandma doesn’t have a concrete patio. She does have a lot of gravel and steep hills though. Oh well, it happened here.

Our son and daughter-in-law got over it quickly. They never let it become an issue. The smile with the missing tooth gradually became part of who she was. She’d smile and the missing front tooth would say, “I have charm, personality, and do not mess with me on the playground.” If others noticed the missing tooth, they didn’t inquire. (Thank you.)

And now she has lost her front bottom tooth, directly below the missing top tooth, which means one really great thing – she has a gap. A marvelous, wonderful gap.

Do you know what fun a gap is? You can do great things with a gap. A gap is the kind of fun you should have at Grandma’s house.

She’ll be the centerpiece of every Christmas celebration this year singing, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”

She can insert straws in the gap, do tricks with her tongue, shoot water and perform dazzling feats that will make her the envy of everyone at the kids’ table.

She can whistle through that gap—even when she doesn’t mean to.

She can leave unique teeth tracks in a banana, clearly marking it as her own.

A gap puts her in the same category as famous actors, actresses and supermodels. Granted their gaps align a different way and are substantially smaller, but still.

The best thing about being 5 and having a gap is that it means your permanent teeth are coming soon and Grandma will let herself off the hook.

Difference between collector and scavenger is negotiable

There is a world of difference between a collector and a scavenger. Or so I’ve been told. The husband says he is the former, not the latter, which is a matter we will likely continue to debate for another 30 years.

This collector penchant explains why we have one of the coolest toys ever that we constantly trip over in the garage. It is a pliable 3-inch square casing about 6-feet long.

When I asked where it came from, as he dragged it from his car one day, he was vague. When I asked exactly what it was, as he washed it off with the hose, he was vague. Collectors often are.

The point is, he immediately knew, and I never would have guessed, that this casing would make a great straightaway for Matchbox cars. Kids can drag the long floppy thing into the house (“Watch out for the clock! Don’t knock dishes off the table! Her head! Watch your sister’s head!”), prop it up on the arm of a sofa and send small cars through it. The higher you prop one end of the tubing, the faster the cars go, the more dramatic their exit, and the wilder the laughter and screaming.

To a collector, every single thing has a thousand potential uses. My collector refuses to acknowledge that even small scraps of wood are trash. To him they are the makings of a teeny, tiny fence or a teeny, tiny house or a teeny, tiny chair. I don’t know who the teeny, tiny people are, but apparently they will be coming to live with us.

Collectors and non-collectors see things through different lenses, including television programs. My collector enjoys “Antiques Roadshow,” a program where people bring treasures they inherited or had tucked away somewhere to an appraiser who puts a price on them.

“You say this shot glass was hidden in the pie safe of your great-great-great-grandmother? Well, it is obviously hand-blown glass. The markings tell us it is from the mid-1700s, similar to shot glasses used by Ben Franklin, which means it is worth $3 million.” The owner of the shot glass staggers in disbelief. My collector cheers and I, the non-collector, say, “Goodwill couldn’t sell that thing for fifty cents. It’s only worth what someone is willing to pay.”

On the other hand, I enjoy, and my collector does not, “American Pickers” where two guys in a van drop in on hoarders—I mean collectors—rummage through their stuff and buy it from them.

“Look at them ripping that guy off!” my collector fumes. “He could get so much more for it. Don’t sell!”

Meanwhile, I’m cheering, “Sell! Sell it all! Clean out that entire barn and you could have a really great party room.”

Despite fundamental differences, it is possible for a collector and a non-collector to make peace and live in harmony, albeit amid substantial clutter.

A collector will continue to acquire oddities, while the non-collector will quietly set said oddities beside the trash on garbage day and hope they will disappear. They do. Another collector has picked them up and the great collecting cycle continues.

Whatever it is I may have managed to set out, keep it. Please. I insist. From a non-collector to a collector, it is my gift to you. Except for that long hollow tube thing; we’re keeping that.

Add housekeeping to the resume

My friend who is a nurse now cleans her own office. In a cost cutting move, the powers that be reduced housekeeping services throughout the hospital. Now, in addition to scrambling to see to patients and process vast amounts of paperwork, my friend or one of her co-workers now lug a vacuum to work once a week.

It may be the nurses today, but you can be sure it will be the patients tomorrow. Soon you’ll schedule surgery and be sent pre-op instructions that say, “Please leave all jewelry and valuables at home, but do bring a broom, dust pan and toilet brush.”

Another friend, who works for a pharmaceutical company, has had his trash can taken away. Poof! One day the wastebaskets disappeared. Workers in his department were told to bring plastic bags and cardboard boxes from home and take out their own trash. Corporate America embraces no-trace camping.

Hotels also have implemented cost-cutting moves by reducing housekeeping services and staff. But aren’t hotels largely about housekeeping? If you stay more than one night, many chains now offer the option of having your room fully cleaned, partially cleaned or left untouched.

Those with housekeeping jobs are seeing hours cut and positions eliminated. They’re considered dispensable, if not downright disposable. Housekeeping has never received the respect it deserves. I say this as someone who has kept a home running, doing dishes and laundry, dusting, vacuuming, stocking the fridge, organizing closets and cabinets and tending all manners of ill health.

My nurse friend doesn’t think she’s too good to clean. She’s raised three sons; she knows a thing or two about dirt. My other friend doesn’t think he’s too high and mighty to take out the trash. He does it all the time at home. But it is one more thing that takes time away from the thing they were originally hired to do.

It is time to admit that multi-tasking is overrated. Often a job calls for focus and concentration, the ability to follow a thread and to insure that the next step happens, that a project moves from A to B to C quickly and uninterrupted.

When everyone does their appointed and specialized jobs, it creates harmony and efficiency in the workplace, just as multiple people doing multiple jobs creates harmony and efficiency in the home. I cook; he sets the table. I marinate the meat; he lights the grill.

Housekeeping cleans the office; the nurse sees another patient. Janitorial takes out the trash; the scientist concentrates on cells in the Petri dish. Hotel rooms are cleaned in a timely manner; guests check in without delay and consider a return visit.

Housekeeping, although often underappreciated, has always been a cog in the wheel than enables the wheel to turn—efficiently, quietly and most often without germs and contamination. It is the behind-the-scenes ordering, cleaning and setting things right that allows the fresh start of a new day.

I hope those cutting housekeeping are taking out their own trash, cleaning their own restrooms and vacuuming their own conference rooms.