Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Take It or Leave It


When I was a child, the playground do-it-yourself merry-go-round was my favorite event. You held on, ran around and around to get up a good head of steam, and then jumped on for a long, giddy ride. My biggest choice in those days was whether to lie flat and watch the clouds spin by, or sit up and watch my friends’ faces appear periodically, like jerky frames in an old movie.
These days, I just wish I could stick out my foot and slow the ride down. Here are a few of my ideas.

Let’s slow the world down.

Recently I was roundly chastised by a fellow volunteer board member because I forgot to leave my home messaging unit on when I went out on errands. Three years ago I had a phone, with two extensions—whoopee. Now our family has access to Internet, IM, texting, Skype VOIP, voice mail, e-mail, fax machine,, cell phone, file attachments, and so on. All these things are wonderful. But they are tools. We control them. We can choose when and how to use them. It is up to us to control the expectations that result from a speedy, technologically advanced society. We may not want to be always accessible. We can choose to make time together, to make that time sacrosanct, safe from intrusion by the tools we have embraced.

Let’s keep the holidays as events, not as a 6-month ramp-up period for merchandising.

For instance, I heard the first television ad for holiday merchandise just after Labor Day this year. November and December used to be anticipated with pleasure; now many of us dread the term “holiday season.” We don’t have to acquiesce to this pushing. We can decide not to fight our way through two months of the year with heavy hearts, rushing from one mall, one event, one cookie batch to another. There are many great ideas for avoiding this. Here are a few: shop by Internet; spread out shopping for holidays over the whole year (this is less painful than it sounds); make mustard instead of cookies to give as gifts (it’s much easier); buy good, store-bought food as gifts, wrap it creatively, and keep your mouth shut. Turn down invitations you don’t enjoy. Believe me, it won’t be tragic if you are not there, and it’s absolutely liberating. Simplify and downscale your own entertaining. If you want it badly enough, you can have a wonderful, stress-free season.

Do away with “I should” thinking.

I like and admire Martha Stewart, but I don’t intend to go into beekeeping or topiary design as hobbies. I like to watch This Old House, too, but I don’t plan to tackle that home theater/workshop renovation on my own house. Let’s look at media mavens as teachers and not as guilt inducers. Don’t buy the women’s magazines in December. Clean out a drawer if you have a burning need to drive yourself crazy. Don’t agree to run the craft fair at the school (offer to “bake” something). Don’t acknowledge the power of this year’s Tickle Me Elmo toy search. Don’t support that madness. Don’t start a diet, for God’s sake. Don’t worry; be happy.

Let’s be nicer to each other.

Road rage. Mother-in-law and sibling rage. The thoughtless boss or co-worker. The rude clerk. The bank teller with an attitude. The teenager who makes your teenager cry with embarrassment. Let’s kill ‘em all, right? I tried this kind of thinking, and it just didn’t work well. I have found that maintaining my own standards of behavior works better. This doesn’t mean being meek and witless; you can still take action on that bank teller deal. What does it mean? Teaching my children well, for one thing. They need to be streetsmart—yes—but they need to learn kindness skills, too. Set an example. Open doors for people; help when help is obviously needed. Stand up when someone significantly older joins the group. Don’t stereotype generation X’ers or any other group. These tolerances don’t hurt us; they make us a community. I wish they’d teach etiquette in school. It greases a lot of gears. Throw bread on the water with your behavior geared to conciliation and non-violence. It will pay off for everyone. Okay, sermon’s over.

Let’s work to banish fear.

This is a tough one because the fears are based on real issues. We have a number of sex offenders residing in our town—-human beings who have hurt children. I am afraid of these people living near children—possibly near my very home. What kind of world have we become? I am homesick for my childhood, when we had no locks on the door; when neighborhood houses were drop-by places for juice or snacks; when we rode our bikes all day Saturday and never checked in. I would never dream of such behavior now.

However, some of the fears are overblown. Apparently, for example, we are curtailed by the food police from enjoying Chinese food, popcorn, Mexican food, Italian food, water from our faucets, any imported fruit, cider, fast-food burgers, produce touched by humans, anything cooked rare, chicken or their eggs, anything with caffeine or fat, and to top it all off—I recently read that enjoying Jell-O was a crapshoot because some cow disease could be in the gelatin. I should be thin from these fears.

I don’t really know what can be done about fear, except to take prudent precautions and try not to let our kids see us with a bunker mentality. We can’t let the horrible few poison our world; we can’t let our children live in a world with joy stifled. This is a bit of a tightrope, so let’s try our best to keep a perspective.

Let’s read more things that make us laugh or inspire us.

Let me give you a few pointers here—from experience. For funny: Bailey White’s books of essays about living with her aging, loopy mother in the Florida wetlands. Gerald Durrell’s stories about his family, in particular My Family and Other Animals. Paul Rudnick’s hilarious (and instructive—you’ll learn some Yiddish) recounting of a car trip through the Northeast with his mother and aunts, entitled I’ll Take It. Two family members took this book to baby labor and laughed through the hard parts. Patrick McManus’s tales of life in the outdoors with his friend Rancid Crabtree and others. Anything by David Sedaris (I particularly enjoyed his essay on the stadium buddy appliance for avoiding going to the men’s room. I also loved his tales of being an elf at Macys.) And, of course, Jean Shepherd’s classic In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. You may remember him and his Red Ryder BB gun from a movie called A Christmas Story. Read, laugh, read with the kids, read to the kids. For inspiration, read A Christmas Carol; read A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Read together and to each other. Just read.

And love each other; stay healthy. Everything else is small stuff. Everything.

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