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.

Romantic dining room not what it seams

Wallpaper in other people’s homes usually says “classy.” The wallpaper in our home says “foreclosure pending.”

About four years ago, wallpaper seams near the ceiling began curling. I tried Elmer’s glue, which held for a couple of weeks. A while later, seams in the middle of the walls began curling. I tried old wallpaper paste. It didn’t hold either, so I moved all the wall hangings closer to the floor. Lower the focal points and nobody will notice.

Eventually, nearly every single seam began peeling and curling. I tried craft glue, super glue, double stick tape and lengthy consults in front of HGTV. If wallpaper curls on HGTV, they just knock out the wall. BAM! Problem solved. It seemed extreme, but, having stripped wallpaper several times before, I wasn’t ruling it out.

I finally settled on using the dining room only after dark and lighting it with two candles. Friends who come for dinner think we’re romantic. I don’t have the heart to tell them we’re not romantic—just lazy.

It was time to get serious, so I did what we all do when we get serious—I went to the internet and blew 15 minutes watching animal videos on YouTube. And yes, a praying mantis really can take down a hummingbird. (You’ll be sorry you watched it.)

After that, I searched how to remove wallpaper, desperately hoping there had been some technological advances in the past two decades eliminating the need for scrapers, buckets of hot water and endless elbow grease.

Good news indeed, the site I landed on touted a new approach to wallpaper removal. It said step one—a step that must not be skipped because removing wallpaper is a lengthy, drawn-out job—is (and this is a direct quote) “mental preparation.”

I found the husband. He was in the front room asleep on the sofa. For all I know, he may still be there. “I’ve started the wallpaper removal project,” I announced. “I’m on step one, which is mental preparation. Do you want to help?”

“What do you think I’m doing? This is step one—mental preparation.” Then he pulled a throw from the back of the sofa over his head.

“This isn’t how Chip Gaines does mental preparation on Fixer Upper,” I said. “He’s usually standing upright, wearing a tool belt, and flexing his muscles.

“Yes, and his perky little wife Joanna does cartwheels in the living rooms of empty houses.”

Point well taken. Neither of us are professional do-it-yourselfers of the HGTV caliber.

But, if I am ever tempted to wallpaper again, my step one will be to do exhaustive preparation, which will be to consider that the person who puts up the wallpaper will most likely be the person taking it down 20 years later.

 

The tough way to help kids succeed

There’s something your children may not be getting enough of these days. Sure, vegetables come to mind. And so does sleep. But it’s neither of those.

A chorus of voices from economists to neuroscientists, educators and psychologists say the thing parents aren’t letting their kids have enough of is adversity.

I know. Where do you buy that, right?

Dr. Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” started this ball rolling several years ago. Who better than a man named Tough to tell parents they’re soft?

Dr. Tough writes, “American children, especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up. If this new research is right, their schools, their families, and their culture may all be doing them a disservice by not giving them more opportunities to struggle.”

He’s right. We pick kids up before they hit the ground. We fight their battles for them and buffer them from the consequences of their actions. Then we wonder why they bail when the going gets tough. We never let them practice.

Tough says, “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”

I can’t think of Tough’s admonition without thinking of our son’s knee caps. He’s missing the groove that holds the knee cap in place. He used to fall down at soccer games a lot and we didn’t know why. Then one day a neighbor boy ran in the house and said, “You better come quickly.”

Our son was in the driveway where they’d been playing basketball. His knee cap was dangling at the side of his leg. It was the first of numerous dislocations, casts and crutches for months at a time, three surgeries and endless physical therapy. After one of his surgeries, his leg muscles were so atrophied they sent us home with a contraption that would send an electrical current to awaken them. He was doing half-hearted leg lifts, I was grimacing every time I gave him a jolt of current, and he looked completely dejected.

I got on the floor next to him and said, “I don’t know why you have flat kneecaps, but I know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character.”

He looked at me, eyes brimming with tears, and said, “But I don’t want to learn character!”

I thought, “You and me both, buddy. But here we are.”

Nobody volunteers for adversity. Nobody waves their arms in the air and yells, “Over here! I want to learn character. Choose me!” Nobody intrinsically wants to struggle, do the hard thing, climb uphill or hurdle the roadblock. But sometimes, the very things we don’t want are the things that build strength and character and forge an ability to endure.

You can’t teach a kid character, perseverance or fortitude in a workshop or a class. But kids can learn from physical challenges, academic struggles, small failures and big disappointments. Of course, that’s providing parents will back off and let them.

Crafting like I’m 6

The great thing about your kids having kids is that it gives you a reason to act like a kid. I’m crafting like I’m 6.

I now buy construction paper, pipe cleaners and glue sticks like they are staples. So long, eggs, milk and butter.

Suddenly, everything in the house has craft potential—plastic forks, bottle caps and Q-tips. (They’re great for making skeletons, but the ribs are tricky.)

Before Christmas we were saving empty toilet paper rolls to make Nativity figures. It was either that or the holy family on tongue depressors. Tough call. The intentions were noble, and the final products were cute, but it still seemed wrong. So wrong.

After that it was marshmallow snowmen. You thread large marshmallows on a wooden skewer, then use frosting to add eyes, a nose, a mouth, buttons and a scarf. Some of them were charming, but some of them looked like they had staggered out of a Snowman Zombie Apocalypse. Where’s global warming when you need it? We submerged some of the snowmen in hot chocolate simply to see them disappear. On the upside, the bad dreams only lasted a week.

From there we moved on to coffee filter flowers. Quick, easy and pretty, although Grandma is apparently the only one able to securely twist the pipe cleaner stems around the base of the folded coffee filters. It’s good to feel needed.

I’m thinking of hanging a sign in the kitchen that says, “When the crafting gets tough, the tough get crafting.”

We are currently in the midst of a blizzard, or rather a snowflake craze. Snowflakes are for high-end crafters, which I am not. I remember making them in grade school and feeling inferior because the other kids turned out beautiful, intricate snowflakes while mine looked like moths splattered on a windshield.

“I’ll have to look up how to make them,” I say. “It’s been a long time.”

They hover near the computer, their hot little breath on my neck, as a Pinterest search pulls up directions for making snowflakes. The sample snowflakes are breathtakingly beautiful. Clearly, they have been created by engineers. With Ph.D.’s.

“Let’s make that one! And that one! And that one!” they howl.

“We’ll try. But they probably won’t look like these pictures.”

I fold paper, make a few cuts and unfold it.

“That’s not a snowflake, Grandma.”

True. But it’s a good Star of David.

I try again. They are beginning to lose interest, some playing on the piano, one dancing, another asking if it is time for a snack.

I try yet another with one child still intently watching. Her eyes study me as I attempt to make curved cuts in strategic places. She watches a little longer. Then, she turns to the others and yells, “QUIET!!!  SHE NEEDS TO CONCENTRATE!”

I spend the next hour helping fold paper and make tiny cuts with dull safety scissors. It would be more time-efficient to rip the snowflake patterns out with our teeth. Still, they are pleased with their creations and want to put their work on display.

We’re the house in the middle of the block with white moths plastered to the windows.

 

 

Old report cards still make the grade

Can someone please tell me why mothers hang onto their children’s old report cards?

I have a three-ring notebook full of report cards and standardized test scores squeezed in among my cookbooks. Every time I shuffle the cookbooks, I consider pitching the notebook. But I never do.

What am I waiting for? Do I really think our youngest daughter, now married and a mother of two, is going to take another run at an A in high school chemistry? Do I think our thirty-something son will somehow pull up that third-quarter D he got in sixth-grade music because he refused to memorize the school song?

To make the situation even more bizarre, some of the report cards are nearly meaningless. All three of our kids started school at a progressive elementary that only gave grades of C, S and N—commendable, satisfactory and needs improvement.


On the bright side, the kids all received a lot of participation ribbons. I saved some of those, too—just to see the kids roll their eyes.

I’m not alone with my dusty collection of report cards. My mother saved every report card my brother and I brought home. She kept them in a closet in the basement along with the adult beverages. If you knew my brother, you’d think there may have been a reason my mother kept them there.

After my brother took a standardized test in second grade, the teacher called my parents for a meeting. She said in all her years of teaching she’d never seen a student miss every question. She suspected, because he was both bright and playful, that he did it on purpose. He pleaded the fifth.

Report cards and test scores aren’t the only things mothers save. I was part of a conversation recently in which women discussed saving baby teeth. One woman gagged at the mention; two others confessed to keeping the first tooth each child lost.

Why? It’s not like you could ever use one for chewing. Of course, the right kind of kid could have a lot of fun with a spare tooth at a family meal.

Other mothers save hair from first haircuts. Are they going to have a wig made?

What’s with our attachment to all this old useless stuff taking up space? Maybe without those old report cards I would have forgotten about that ridiculous grading system.

I might also have forgotten when our son finally decided to begin applying himself. That’s ridiculous. I’ll always remember. April. It was a Tuesday, 1:37 p.m. Partly cloudy. The sky opened and birds began singing. Some things a mother never forgets.

But maybe I truly would have forgotten the name and face of the teacher who wrote, “I’m praying for you,” on our oldest daughter’s report card when she missed school for frequent appointments at a children’s hospital.

Maybe the real reason we hang on to all this stuff is to remind ourselves of all the miles we’ve come—and how quickly the miles pass.

 

 

 

 

Building blocks of launching good memories

Our son asked if I knew what the favorite gift was he received as a kid.

I thought about saying “pony,” but we never got him one.

It’s a good thing I didn’t start guessing, because it turns out his favorite gift wasn’t from us—it was from my dad, his grandpa.

“A box of wood scraps,” he said, effusively bobbing his head up and down, like everybody on the planet knows wood scraps would be a kid’s favorite gift.

“Now do you remember?” he pressed. “You do, right?”


I didn’t. Actually, I couldn’t. I was preoccupied mentally tallying the toys, games, sports equipment and camping gear we had bought over the years when we could have saved a bundle by simply scavenging for wood scraps.

“Yeah! It was a whole box full of scraps —all shapes and sizes, all kinds of wood. Grandpa had been saving them and brought them over one time.”

It was starting to sound vaguely familiar.

“It was the best,” he said. “I remember nailing pieces together and making all kinds of things for days on end. So guess what I did?”

“Built your loving parents a new home out of wood scraps?” I ask.

“No, I’ve been saving wood scraps for my kids.”

So it’s true – you give the gift you’d like to receive.

“I gave them this big box of wood scraps I’ve been saving and you should have seen their faces.” He pauses and swallows hard. He may be choking up over wood scraps. It’s entirely possible. “They were so excited! They just started grabbing chunks of wood and hammering and nailing pieces together the same way I did.”

Naturally, I envisioned children with smashed fingers, flattened fingernails and blood dripping, but he saw none of that. All he saw was that he’d have given his kids one of the best gifts ever.

You think you know your children, but on some levels you really only get to know a child fully once the child becomes an adult—as they talk about the things they enjoyed, the activities they remember, how they saw life, how they saw you. It’s intriguing really, revisiting the past through a different set of lenses.

Our son’s sons and his oldest daughter had been building contraptions and configurations for several days when they decided to build a boat. Their grandpa on their momma’s side (a man of many talents) showed them how to attach small dead tree limbs to the bottom of the boat to help it float. Then he drilled a hole, inserted a dowel rod and the kids raided their grandma’s sewing scraps to craft a mast.

It’s not a fancy boat – the sail is far from taut and crisp—but it’s their boat. They’ll be having a launch one day soon. There’s an excellent chance that little boat will be a memory for a lifetime.