Know thy neighbor as thyself

Every week it seems there is a new way to check out your neighbors online. It’s a lot easier than walking over and talking to them. Besides, talking requires personal communication skills and who has those anymore?

Not that I’d look up my neighbors online, but — hey, I can see our house, too!  There’s our front yard! Our garage door is open!

In any case, if you are so inclined, you can enter an address and find out the name and age of everybody who lives at a particular residence, cities where they previously lived and, if you’re an exceptionally dedicated sleuth, you can set up an account and find out if the neighbors have ever filed bankruptcy or had a lien or court charges filed against them.

Yet another website will tell you if your neighbor is a Democrat or a Republican. (As if their yard sign wasn’t indicator enough.)  You can also see which political candidates they’ve supported financially.

Please. I’d rather not. I’m happier thinking we’re all on the same team. Sure, it’s delusional, but life is sweeter that way.

Of course, everything you can find out about your neighbor, your neighbor can find out about you.

Yes. Let’s just pause a moment and let that sink in.

Creepers.

If I want to know neighborhood news, I get it from my walking buddy around the corner who belongs to our neighborhood Facebook page. She’s faster than a website and more detailed.

Last week she informed me that multiple neighbors continue to have problems with stink bugs. Precisely the sort of news inquiring minds want to know. Oh, and complaints are still flying about a somewhat eclectic house on a corner that leads into the subdivision.

Personally, I believe the more yard ornaments they collect and the more vehicles they have for sale, the greater chance the house may serve as a deterrent to crime for the whole subdivision. People should stop complaining and thank them. Or at least drop off an old lawn chair or two.

Maybe it’s inevitable that we will one day all be virtual neighbors spying on one another in cyberspace and greeting one another with clever emojis on social media.

But a virtual neighbor will never watch two of your kids at 3 a.m. while you race a third one with appendicitis to the hospital.

A virtual neighbor won’t lend you a car, take in your mail, water your hanging baskets, or bust into your place with a spare key because you think you left the iron on.

No website will tell you that the elderly man at the end of the block who lost his wife to cancer got that big hairy dog to ease the loneliness.

Nor will a website tell you that the young gal helping do yardwork alongside your neighbor across the street is her 25-year-old granddaughter. Or that they’re all eating less meat (no beef or pork, just chicken and fish). Like the internet could tell you any of that.

There’s something about the word neighbor that implies personal—both for better and for worse. Virtual neighbors offering virtual banana bread will never replace the real thing.

Easter breathes new life

A friend asked for prayer for an extended family member who was about to undergo a lung transplant. While such things now happen with some frequency, and even a measure of predictability, they are nonetheless mind-boggling. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the entire picture and the complexity of all the elements converging—from the death of one that yields life to another, to the messy array of grief and joy, the magnitude of the gift and the phenomenal skills of the medical team.

Contemplating the marvels and dimensions of a lung transplant, I remembered a paper I wrote for a biology class in college, which is about the only thing I remember from college biology.

The paper was about the first breath a baby draws upon birth. We talk about the miracle of birth, yet often overlook the miracle of breath.

The first breath a baby takes within seconds of birth may be the most difficult breath of a child’s entire life. A baby’s lungs are filled with fluid during pregnancy and upon delivery the lungs must fill with air. Millions of alveoli, microscopic air sacs in the lungs, must inflate for the first time. Like the ignition of a jet engine that readies an aircraft for flight, that first breath ignites the entire cardio-pulmonary system. Inhale, exhale, buckle up and prepare for takeoff.

The lung transplant surgery went well for the woman. She shows no signs of rejection and is on the long road to recovery. Mornings begin with a cocktail of several dozen pills for breakfast. Oh, the many wonders we take for granted—the very act and gift of drawing breath.

The woman with the new lungs described her delight upon being wheeled into a garden adjoining the hospital a few days after surgery and seeing the first signs of spring. It is easy to picture a woman with new life enjoying the new life of creation.


It is no coincidence that Easter nestles in the cradle of spring. The remains of winter, all that has died and decayed, sleeping beneath soil, layers of thatch and crusts of bark, stretches, yawns big and awakens, signaling the long-awaited arrival of new life and new breath.

For Christians around the world, Holy Week culminates in the celebration of new life. Just like an organ transplant, the death of one has given life to others.  Those who recognize that the life systems of their hearts and souls were on the critical care list celebrate Christ as the one who sacrificed to give new life and new breath.

Tiny grape hyacinth sway in the wind. Pink blooms on the crabapple sprinkle the sidewalk like flower petals lining the way for a bride about to walk down the aisle. The promise of life and newness permeates the air.

On Easter morning, Christians in sprawling suburban churches, inner-city buildings with leaky ceilings and hard wooden pews, as well as those around the world whose houses of worship have been bombed and are littered with rubble, will again breathe deep and hold tight to the promise of transplant—despair in exchange for hope, grief in exchange for joy, death in exchange for life.

Inhale, exhale.

 

Fans scramble to the “grand” attraction

For years now, experts have been saying that career-minded people should plan on having more than one career in a lifetime. Good thing I listened to the experts, otherwise I might have been caught off guard to find myself suddenly married to a rock star.

The husband didn’t start out as a rock star. Oh sure, he played drums for a band in high school, but they mostly played in a friend’s garage. He has been a journalist all his working years and did not become a rock star until about seven years ago.

These days, fans yell and scream and jump out from behind doorways, bushes and even furniture whenever they spot him. They run at him, charge him and nearly knock him down. If ever a man needed a security detail, it is this one.

To be clear, the husband doesn’t have millions of fans (more like nine), but they are loyal fans. They don’t follow his every move on Facebook or Twitter, but they do follow him through the house, the backyard and a nearby park. His fans also tend to be short—and young (ages 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 18 months and 15 months).

Like the other celebrities and stars that get so big they go by one name, he does, too – Grandpa (scream it like his fans do!). What his fans lack in number, they more than make up for in volume.

How does one shoot to rock star sensation level overnight? You become a human jungle gym. You let one kid ride on your back and carry one in each arm. You give horsey rides to two and three fans at a time. You let fans play with your reading glasses. Sure, you may have to buy them in packs of three, but such is the price of fame. You let your fans sit in your lap when they eat dinner (to their parents’ chagrin). You let them play with the comb in your back pocket (and lose it). You let them take pictures on your smart phone (hundreds at a time).

You become an overnight rock star by sheer charm and personality. You hold mini-pretzels in front of your eyes like they are glasses. You achieve hero status with a foray into the thicket to retrieve the ball. You courageously declare that anytime is a good time for ice cream.

You become a rock star by drawing funny pictures and reading books. Book after book, sometimes the same book after book—books about crocodiles, birds, bears, mice, machinery and talking vegetables.

Being married to a rock star has its challenges. Somedays the fans pass me right by as they sprint to the main attraction. But it’s OK, because somebody has to stay grounded. Somebody has to be responsible, pay attention to safety, nutrition and assess what bones might break if a small fan were to fall from a particular height.

The fans are gone now. The rock star is recovering on the couch in a deep sleep. He’ll probably want dinner when he regains consciousness.

Mine may not be a glamorous job, but somebody has to manage the talent.

 

 

 

 

 

Talking mirror is a scream

Remember the magic mirror in Snow White that talked back to the queen and told her she’d been eclipsed by a younger beauty with firmer skin?  Well, you can now buy one of your own talking mirrors.

It’s called the HiMirror; depending on your age and skin condition, you’ll either love it or loathe it.

The mirror will scan your face and tell you in real time what’s wrong with it. Oh, joy. It looks for wrinkles (are we having fun yet?) red spots (check), pores, fine lines (did I miss a few hundred?), dark circles (check) and brightness levels. The mirror rates each part of your skin on a scale of 100 with 100 being skin perfection.

The idea is to track your skin so you can see if the beauty products you are using are helpful and worth the cost or if you would have been better off applying Crisco.

As they say on TV—but wait! – there’s more! The mirror also enables you to watch yourself slowly age. Would somebody please stop this fun train?

Some really do regard this as a fun train – like the 30-something reviewer who scanned her face, noting that she didn’t mean to brag or anything, but every test zone on her face scored in the high 90s. I’m happy for you, dear. No really. Go have some french fries. Or one of those blooming onions.

Naturally one of the most convenient places to hang the mirror, with the built-in internet-connected camera that can store thousands of images, is on the bathroom mirror. A mirror in the bathroom with a camera connected to the internet and a companion phone app. What could possibly go wrong?

Personally, I think the bathroom would be a great place for the smart mirror. After I received the results of my face scan and then watched myself slowly age, it would be a short walk back to the bed, where I would collapse in a tech-induced depression.

It’s probably just me, but I can think of other things I’d rather spend money on than a mirror that talks to me about every flaw on my face and charts my progress or lack of progress in making improvements.

I am quite content with low lights, thank you —and living in delusion.

If the talking mirror sounds appealing to you, hold on to your age-defying anti-wrinkle cream, because there’s more good news where this came from. The same company also makes a smart scale. It looks like a plush bath mat and measures not only weight but body fat percentage, body mass index, total body water, skeletal muscle mass, bone mass and basal metabolic rate.

Welcome to the hi-tech bathroom –  now known in some quarters as the new house of horrors.

 

 

 

Here’s the dirt on paying kids for chores

A lot of depressing press releases fill my inbox, but the one announcing that spring cleaning is around the corner is among the worst. As if the husband writing “Feed Me” in the dust on the coffee table isn’t reminder enough.

This particular press release was littered with awful phrases like “dusting baseboards, washing windows, cleaning behind and under appliances, vacuuming air vents, freshening up the yard.”  Who are these people?

And then I saw something intriguing. “These people” was a man by the name of Gregg Murset who advocates children help do chores, especially spring cleaning. Murset references the claim that science shows children who do chores are more likely to be successful at, well, pretty much everything.

Being that this was a man after my own heart, I picked up the phone and called him.

“Gregg, does science say anything about men doing chores?”

“Hmmm,” he said. “Science says we’re supposed to do more than we do.”

Smart guy. We had a connection. Sure, it was a connection born of furniture polish, brooms and toilet cleaners, but it was a connection.

“Are you a pretty helpful guy around the house?” I asked.

“I’m a breakfast guy. I mix it up; we never have cold cereal. I do French toast, eggs, bacon, pancakes, waffles, cream of rice and—what’s the other one?”

“Wheat.”

“Yeah, cream of wheat.”

The man has serious cred – and a wife and six kids.

“Let me get to the heart of things, Gregg. Do you find a lot of men are afraid of vacuum cleaners?”

“Yes, and they’re stupid. The best way to make your wife happy is to vacuum.”

I agreed. But then we disagreed. It’s a disagreement parents have had for ages – paying kids for chores or not paying kids for chores.

Murset believes you should pay kids for doing chores, while I am of the “I’ll Pay Kids for Chores When I See a Twenty Dollar Bill at the Bottom of the Ironing Basket” school.

He said he understood the school I was coming from (and graduated from), but thinks paying kids for chores motivates them, instills a work ethic and is a great way to teach about money and investing. He’s even developed BusyKid, an online system that helps families chart chores and sends parents a text reminding them it’s time to transfer money from their account into the kids’ accounts.

When our son turned 18, he had nearly 30 lawn-mowing clients and knew the money in his bank account would soon flow to our bank account to help pay for college. Same transfer of money, different directions.

Yet, Murset’s system works, too. When one of his sons turned 18 and was asked what he wanted for his birthday, he said an IRA. I am warming to Murset’s school of thought. It has possibilities we may have missed.

He also suggests that after kids have reached a work or savings goal, the family should have a celebratory meal. Good idea, but one more question — who’s on cleanup?

 

 

 

 

Incivility needs a time-out

An “Old West and New West” cartoon shows the “Old West” side with a cowboy holding his hands above his holster, ready to draw. It’s labeled Gunslinger.

The “New West” side shows a man in jeans, T-shirt and a bandana with globs of mud in both hands and more globs of mud at his feet. It’s labeled Mudslinger.

It would be even funnier if it weren’t so true.

We’ve taken mudslinging to new heights. Make that new lows.

 

If you don’t like someone’s stand on an issue these days, start calling them names. Fascist is a popular choice, as are racist and bigot. Liar, moron and homophobe are in the top 10 as well. If none of those do the trick, pull out the big guns – call somebody a Nazi.

 

The smear has become standard operating procedure. Don’t attack the argument; attack the person espousing the argument.

And we’re the grown-ups. Well, in name at least.

It’s like the entire nation needs a time-out to contemplate incivility.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill went to the mat in vehement disagreement over policy. They often made witty but disparaging comments about one another (name-calling light). Yet at the close of many work days they sat down for drinks together in the White House.

Today, opposing factions would be more tempted to throw drinks on one another. Our incivility is all-encompassing – from Wal-Mart brawls to both sides of the political spectrum.

The internet and social media have become cesspools of incivility. The pseudo-anonymity of posting online serves as a cover for knee-jerk, brash and reckless. Post now, regret later. Or never. People say things online that they would never say to someone face-to-face. (Hopefully.)

Online media outlets are forced to close the comments section on articles due to incivility of readers’ remarks. Someone posts a comment relative to the article. A second poster questions the IQ of the first poster, a third poster slams the second poster for slamming the first poster and it’s a slugfest.

On Twitter, you can barroom brawl in 144 characters or less.

Incivility shuts guest speakers out of venues on college campuses, places that were once bastions of the free exchange of ideas. Odd, isn’t it? We punish bullying in some quarters but give it free rein in others.

Incivility is why some are contemplating discontinuing Town Halls. You can’t have a public forum when nobody can hear what anybody else is saying over the din of rabble rousers. Those who can crank up the volume the most seem to be winning.

Or are they? When incivility wins, everybody loses. When incivility becomes standard fare, civil people pull back. They want no part. Mudslinging, hurling insults and vitriol are degrading and embarrassing to all.

We don’t have to agree with one another. We don’t even have to like one another. But in the name of survival, we do have to be respectful of one another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for a leader dog to rest

When she bounded out of the back of their SUV, they wondered how she would get along with their other dogs, two outside dogs that paced the perimeter of their acreage and sang karaoke at night under a full moon.

The outside dogs took immediate notice of the black and tan German Shepherd with the distinct markings and stately stance. They watched her go in and out of the house, something they were never allowed to do. As close as they ever got was inside the garage. They didn’t seem to mind that Casey had special privileges. Maybe they understood. Maybe they sensed that she was there for my nephew, serving as a second set of eyes.

Casey was a touch unbridled at first, not always responding to commands, sometimes steering my nephew off course as she explored something that caught her eye. She was curious, full of life and adventure. She didn’t just give my nephew increased mobility; she gave him confidence and courage in a dark world.

Shortly after the two joined forces, my nephew had a lot of dental work done. My father sat with Casey in the waiting room as she lunged and pulled, howled and barked and tried to scratch through the wall. The dentist invited Casey back to the treatment room. It was either that or replace drywall.

She was never far from her buddy. There was not a restaurant table or enough chair legs to keep her from getting close. Sure, her big paws, long nose and tail might be splayed on four different sets of feet, but she didn’t mind. Nobody else did either.

She’s been a fixture at every family celebration from graduations and birthday parties to baby showers. When my dad died, she was there lying in the hallway outside his bedroom door. As the end approached, she lifted her head and let out a long mournful cry. “You speak for all of us, girl,” someone said.

For years now, she and my nephew have gone to work every day at a warehouse where people assemble faucets, the sort that go on the outside of your house. Casey rests at his feet, leads him to the break room, back to the work table and out the door when the shift is over.

Each night she beds down on the floor beside his bed, but sometime after midnight begins her first patrol. She pads out of his room, down the stairs, through the living room, the kitchen and into the master bedroom where she checks on my brother and his wife.

Then she retraces her steps back upstairs and turns into the guest room. You sense someone or something nearby, crack open an eye in the dark and see the big eyes of a German Shepherd inches from your face. She nuzzles in close and waits for a few pats on the back.

Finished with patrol, she pads on back to him, her best friend and loyal companion.

But now time has gotten the best of her. Her hip is bad. She struggles on stairs. Her sight and hearing are nearly gone.

And so it has come time for the inevitable. The day of dread.

And now? Well, now it will be like Orville without Wilbur.

Tom without Huck.

Calvin without Hobbes.

Casey really was a young man’s best friend.

 

 

 

Excuse me, is that Mountain Dew you’re wearing?

The husband would gladly take a root canal over shopping for clothes any day of the week. But because the pockets in a pair of beloved dress pants finally wore out, he went shopping for a new pair of dress pants with absolutely no prompting or prodding from me. And you thought Donald Trump winning the election was a shock.

I was still in a stupor when he came home with the new dress pants. I shook them out to see if they needed pressing and commented that the fabric felt a little thin.

”This fabric reminds me of something,” I said.

“My old dress pants?” he asked.

“No, it’s something familiar, but I can’t quite place it. They sort of feel like, oh, what is it? I know – a Ziploc bag!”

A tag fell into view that said, “Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles.”

“So my new dress pants are made of 2-liters?”


“Yep, looks like you could be wearing Coke Zero, Gatorade, Mountain Dew and a touch of Dasani.

“We buy applesauce in plastic containers, don’t we?”

“We do. There could be some Musselman’s in here, too.”

We stared at the pants, mesmerized like natives viewing their first Polaroid. It was stunning to think we could go from water bottles to recycling bins to men’s wear. And who knew the husband was a trendsetter.

He’s not alone. Nearly half a million graduates will wear caps and gowns this year made from recycled plastic. There are also name brand athletic clothes, messenger bags, backpacks, jeans, car upholstery and fleece now made from recycled bottles.

It turns out, processors collect plastic bottles and shred them into flakes. The plastic flakes are then purchased by a company that converts them into small pellets. The pellets are melted, extruded and dumped in a large room with a young maiden with long hair who spins them into polyester yarn by morning.

It’s an involved process, but no doubt more efficient than engineering sheep to grow polyester.

I’ve always wondered what happens to all those plastic bottles that accumulate in recycling containers, and now I know. The husband is wearing them.

When he goes shopping in another seven years, men’s dress pants will probably be made from burger wrappers and used ketchup packets.

“I wonder what happens if you wear them in the hot sun?” he mused. “You think they’ll melt?”

“Naw. I think it will be like when women in skirts sit on vinyl car seats that have baked in the August heat. You’ll just let out a high-pitched scream.”

He is not amused.

“Wonder what happens to them in the cold?” he says.

“Probably like any polyester in the cold, the wind will whip right through them and you’ll feel like you’re freezing to death. On the upside, you can probably walk through a car wash and remain completely dry.”

When culottes was spelled c-o-o-l

Once again I find myself making fashion history and not necessarily in a good way.

One of our daughters texted me a picture of a short dress with wide legs and asked what I thought.

“Culottes! The ultimate in cool!”

“So you’ve seen them?” she asked.

Seen them? I created them!

I sewed culottes in home economics class in ninth grade. When I wore my homemade culottes I felt like the epitome of cool. It makes for a difficult life when you reach your fashion crest at age 15, but for some of us that’s life.

In any case, I loved my culottes and I wasn’t even good at sewing. The inner facings around the arm holes sometimes bunched up because I hadn’t bothered to “tack stitch” them. Girls talked about things like tack stitching, side-placket zippers and blind hems in high school because we didn’t have Facebook, Instagram or Stitch Witch.


The main reason I felt so confident in my culottes was because our home economics teacher, Miss Grove, approved of culottes and she was the definition of cool. She was young and pretty and wore her long brown hair in a perfect Mary Tyler Moore flip. If that wasn’t enough, she was the first person any of us had ever known to wear contact lenses. You could tell someone had contacts because they constantly batted their eyes.

Culottes and contacts – it was a total win-win. Oh yes, and Miss Grove could walk with a book on her head, something we girls were encouraged to practice at home. Today, it might seem strange sustaining eye contact with a female wearing a dress with baggy legs, balancing a book on her head and furiously blinking as though a piece of sawdust, or even an entire 2×4, just flew into her eyes, but there was a time it was cool.

We were full of cool back then. We were full of a lot of things back then.

Batting your eyes was nearly a status symbol.

“Wow, look at her blink.”

“So you think she—“

“I heard she did. And get this – they’re tinted!”

The first generation of contact lenses not only came in tints to enhance eye color but frequently fell out of the wearer’s eyes, which is why there were often large groups of people crawling on their hands and knees on shag carpet (also making a comeback) looking for someone’s contact lens.

CRUNCH! “Found it!”

Our cool factor was not limited to culottes and contacts; we also teetered at dangerous heights on platform shoes (also making a comeback) and swished about in long maxi dresses (also having made a comeback).

It’s not fine-line wrinkles that make a woman feel old; it’s seeing the fashions of her youth recycle. Even our 30-something daughters must be feeling old, as hair scrunchies and jellies they wore as girls poise for a comeback.

It’s entertaining watching the fashion gurus recycle old trends, but I do have one urgent request—please, no shoulder pads.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This columnist dines on humble pie

I’ve received a lot of kind emails from readers recently and it has me biting my nails. When I get a lot of positive feedback, I can be certain someone’s also going to whack me pretty good to take me back down a notch.

It’s email’s way of keeping columnists humble. Not only do readers help hold my ego in check, friends and family help as well.

A friend recently told me he found one of my older books at a Half-Price Books. He was excited that he got it at a bargain price. He wanted me to sign it, but first he had to tear out the page where I’d already signed it to someone else. “I can’t remember what you wrote, but it was really nice.”

“I’m sure it was.”


 Another friend mentioned she’d spotted one of my books in a free lending library along a bike trail. She thought it was great my book was being circulated. I was thinking it’s great when a book actually sells and I see a little money. But I’d had some nice emails that morning, so I kept quiet, knowing it was the lower case taking down any upper case attitude I might be developing.

The husband also does a wonderful job of keeping it real. He has a good eye for detail and has edited nearly everything I have written the past 25 years before it has gone out to another set of editors. (If you’re a retired English teacher still furious about something I wrote with glaring errors, send your blistering note to him, not me.)

Anyway, twice a year he might write “Great” at the top of a piece and once in a blue moon he writes “Fine.” Other than that he just marks misspellings, careless mistakes and challenges me on commas. Often he’ll edit something for me in the evening and fall sound asleep reading what I’ve written. His head goes down, his pen falls to the floor and he even starts snoring. And yet I still keep getting out of bed in the morning.

Fortunately, I once heard Jack Benny’s daughter give a lecture. She said that when she was a small girl, her father often let her sit in his den when the comedy team came to the house to write. They’d write a joke or a skit, someone would read it out loud, and they’d discuss whether it was funny or not. Nobody ever laughed.

In that moment she unraveled the mystery of my entire adult life—I married Jack Benny.

There is probably nothing more humbling for any writer than a poorly-attended book signing. After two hours of giving directions to the restrooms, you begin questioning the meaning of life.

On a more positive note, I had an email today from a retired police officer in upstate New York. He said I had a talent for writing and that he particularly enjoyed a recent column. “You could end your career on that one if you wanted.”

It was a compliment. I think.