Thursday, April 28, 2016

That's What Friends Are For

Supposedly, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield first used the word 'etiquette' in its modern meaning

Facebook is a big deal and everyone from your mother’s boarding school roommate in 1946 to the former student who now sells you your weekly Malbec at the local liquor store has a profile. What began as a printed directory (a university “face book”) for college students to get to know each other at the start of the academic year is now a worldwide multibillion-dollar social media business, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg. (My son, kind of an old-fashioned guy, still won’t friend me because I’m not a college student.)

In keeping with a multibillion-dollar business, Facebook has a seven-page Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to which to adhere. There is a separate webpage to cover Data information and collection and yet another for Community standards, i.e; how to report harassment, dangerous organizations or criminal activity. But nowhere is there any mention of etiquette. I suppose I’ll have to do it.

1. When you see a picture of an adorable baby or a puppy cuddling a kitten, the correct response is “Awww...” not “Awe.”  If the baby is eating the kitten, you may be in awe, but even then it is not the appropriate comment. Try, “Sweet Mother of God, keep that stuff off of Facebook!”

2.  Facebook is for your personal use and not a forum for all the people in the world who disagree with you. It is, however,  a very public forum and you and you alone are in control of that. This means that if you post your opinion, someone, probably a “friend” is going to come along and comment on it. If you enjoy such banter, post away. If you don’t want such nonsense mucking up your perfectly reasonable observations on politics, women’s issues or religion adjust your privacy settings accordingly. That’s what they’re there for and that’s what makes your Facebook page personal.

3. Back to the personal use thing: I once posted an announcement about a contest I had lost, but that I was happy to have been a part of it. One of my “friends” came along and added a comment that she had won the very same contest! I thought it was a little tacky, to say the least. I’ve seen this over and over again--people jumping on someone else’s bandwagon to promote their own good fortune. Good for you if you are finding success. But that’s what your Facebook page is for; don’t blab it all over all your friends’ pages. Really. Have some class.

4. And speaking of minding your own business, there’s nothing more irritating than being a part of a conversation thread about, say, your community’s conservation efforts and having two or more participants begin a whole other conversation about their vacation plans. Or their mother-in-law’s hiatal hernia surgery or any other off-topic subject. Again, this is what your own page is for, or better yet--pick up the phone and call, text or email them personally. We community minded sort aren’t really interested in poor Mildred’s reaction to anesthesia. Seriously. 

5. One of the great things (or creepy things depending on who’s looking) is being able to see all the beautiful and stunning pictures people post of their new homes, their exotic vacations, or their adorable grandchildren. It’s one of the things I love about Facebook because it has allowed me to reconnect with many family members and old friends. I especially love seeing that all my former high school classmates look as old as I do. (Most of them, there are a couple of women I am definitely going to stay away from when the cameras come out. They are stunning.)  I enjoy clicking through four or five pics of sandy beaches, beautiful blue eyes peeping out from an Easter bonnet or a family sitting down to a sumptuous meal at Christmas or Passover. What I don’t enjoy are a hundred of these pictures. Sometimes there is a little +97 in a box to indicate what you’re getting yourself in for, but I guess sometimes miss it. There I am, twenty minutes later, still looking at your damn beach house. I get it. You’re lucky. Put your camera down.

So, there you have it . . . a few guidelines on decorum and good manners to help everyone continue to be friends on Facebook. I’m sure other issues will come up from time to time and I promise you I will bring them to your attention.

I just want to be a good friend. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's only human

A pissoir with three stalls, Paris, ca.1865
I was talking to a couple of women the other day, who I will not identify because we were talking about peeing. The topic was where and if you can “go.” (For the purposes of this essay, we’ll just use the word “go” to differentiate from simply peeing. I’m polite that way.)

Anyway, I said that I can go anywhere--public, private--if there’s a seat with a hole in it I probably won’t have a problem . . . suspicious smells and flimsy locks notwithstanding. But even the lack of a lock won’t stop me if I really have to go. Holding the door closed or securing it with my purse strap usually does the trick. The other two ladies did not share my comfort level with this process. One of them said she could pee in most bathrooms but that’s it. The other one said she just saves it all up for home. I pictured myself knocking down pets and small children on my way to the bathroom if I tried waiting all day.

Maybe when I was younger and had to work in offices where there was a constant stream (pun intended) of bathroom users going in and out of the facilities, I might have been more private about my functions. As I’ve gotten older, the concern that others might know I’m peeing has waned to the point of being almost non-existent. I go in, attend to business, wash my hands and leave. I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings or to who else is in there because their business is not my business. Only recently have I become aware of others in the public bathrooms and that is because some people apparently can’t put down their cell phones even when they are peeing. The first time it happened, hearing another woman talking in one of the stalls, made me a little curious because I couldn’t imagine how two people could fit into that little stall and what were they doing in there anyway? Until I realized the woman was on the phone. That’s gross on so many levels, not to mention having to be the person on the other end, listening to what you can clearly hear. Nobody call me while they’re peeing, please.

But, here’s why I’m talking about this most basic of human functions: It’s a basic function. It’s not a political function or a social function. It’s a basic human function. If you’re a human, you have to go to the bathroom. Just ask Abraham Maslow. Maslow identified a hierarchy of human needs that have to be addressed in order for a person to thrive and grow. On the very first level, before anything else can take place, are the basic needs: Breathing, water, food, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. Basic. That means everyone has to do it and nobody should be able to tell anyone else how to do it. That’s why we have bathrooms in our homes and out in public and everyone knows what to do when they get there.

The so-called bathroom bills that have stirred the latest pot of fear and controversy are discriminatory and dangerous and not in the way you think. Chances are pretty good that if you are worried about your son or daughter, you’ve been listening to some fear-mongers. Most of the people I know go to the bathroom like I do; with little in mind but to pee, wash their hands and leave. This includes the people I know who are transgender. To deny any person this basic human right is, in my opinion, outside of legislation.

Will there be the occasional ass/headline chaser who tries to create fear and panic by spreading stories about the dangers of “letting” people use the bathroom? Of course. That’s because asses live among us in every corner of American life. People act out of anxiety and ignorance because they don’t bother to find out about the other humans with whom we live alongside. It’s scary out there sometimes. I know this. But bathrooms aren’t what we should be scared of.  There are plenty of things we can turn our attention to before we start worrying who is using the bathroom. (And who are the guys writing these bills, anyway? I think I’m more worried about them.) Besides, if you’re that concerned about bathrooms, you can always hold it until you get home.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My Erma entry

Probably either "Clean the gutters" or "the house needs painting"

If there's one thing you can say about me, it's that I can be persistent. (Never mind those other things right now...) I have entered the Erma Bombeck Writing contest the last three times it's been held and each time I have failed to win, place or show. But I have my own blog, don't I? Without further ado, I submit to you my 2016 entry...

Honey Do
You know how ancient cave paintings are assumed to be some meaningful representation of Neanderthal life? A symbolic, historic creation, most likely illustrated by a caveman elder or chief?  I don’t believe it. I think the artists behind all those drawings were cave women. And I think those drawings are the first Honey-Do lists.

That’s right, the age-old Honey-Do List. As in, “Honey, do this. Honey, do that.” That stick figure chasing a wolf? It’s not hunting--this clearly translates as, “Take the dog out.” Images of boar and mastodon etched in stone supposedly for “hunting magic”? Nope. “Pick up dinner on the way home.” And I’m pretty sure the human figures depicted balancing large red discs in their hands is Neanderthal for “Put the dishes away.”

The Honey-Do list placement has to be strategic. (It’s probably why they first appeared on the walls.) If my list isn’t positioned prominently on the fridge, the things I need my husband to do rarely get crossed off. Unless the season changes . . . no sense installing screens in December. Make it too obvious, say, taped to the rear view mirror in the car and you’re being obnoxious. Leave it helpfully on the counter next to the birthday card he has to sign for his mother and it wasn’t noticeable enough: He would have checked the list, but he couldn’t find it.

Even everyday tasks require supervision. On one day alone I returned the kitchen scissors to the knife block after my husband used them to cut duct tape; vacuumed up tortilla chip crumbs from in front of the couch where he sits to check his email; replenished the ice tray after he filled his water bottle; retrieved his hat from the bathroom and returned it to the “hat and glove” basket--purchased specifically for keeping track of hats and gloves, and signed and mailed the aforementioned birthday card. He went off to get a haircut with barely a backward glance at the chaos left in his wake. Was he raised in a cave?

Then there are the days my husband doesn’t seem to need a list at all. One night, he picked up take-out from my favorite Thai restaurant (which I ordered), took the dog out for a walk in the cold winter evening (after I found the leash), and put the dishes away (once I washed them). Afterward, as he “watched” the 11 o’clock news, I covered him with a blanket and joined him on the couch. “Thanks, honey,” he mumbled sleepily, reaching for my hand, “I love you.”
He can get to the rest of the list later.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Conversation with Myself

Based on a true story.

It was a rainy and cool Sunday that promised a lazy morning in comfies and nothing more strenuous than possibly a few passes at the laundry pile. Literally hours stretched before me to do . . . what? 
“I don’t know what to do,” I mused aloud.

“Yes, you do.” The disembodied voice came from just behind my left ear. I turned to see who was bothering me. (I didn’t turn fast . . . I was reasonably certain no one was in the house besides me and Angelo.) Disembodied or not, the voice had a point. I did know what to do. I could write, I could read. I could catch up on email. All productive activities that required my attention. However, I was leaning towards earning another level or two in Hungry Babies. (Don’t ask.)

Then, that voice again.
“You’re some writer. Didn’t I see an event on iCal that actually says “Writing” for today?”
That sounded like a challenge. I don’t care who had the gall to interrupt my Sunday morning; a challenge must be met with self-assurance. 

“Well, yes, but, because of my schedule, my writing times are flexible. I move them around to fit in when I can.”


Clearly, what I was hearing was the voice of my inner, nagging critic and she decided to make an appearance and butt in on my indecisiveness this morning. Apparently she thought she could goad me into doing something more industrious than catching up on the news from my daily Skimm email. Voice identified, I was pretty certain I could hold my own in this verbal contretemps.

“I haven’t had breakfast yet. Angelo is going to build a fire and I was going to read…”

“How much breakfast do you need? And Angelo can build a fire while you write...he doesn’t need your help.”

Why don’t inner voices sleep in on Sundays?

“Alright, alright. Fine,” I said. (I drew the line at acknowledging she was right.)

“Who are you talking to?” asked Angelo, heading towards the fireplace with an armful of kindling.

“No one important,” I said. (Ha! Take that, inner critic!)  I pulled my laptop out of my work bag and booted it up.

It turns out, it was a great morning for sitting in front of a fire and catching up on writing. Not responding to email or reading the thriller I was 100 pages away from finishing or even wasting an hour on the silly game I originally downloaded for Luca. Actual, satisfying, long overdue writing. My inner critic is always making me second-guess myself, in just about everything I do: parenting, grandparenting, finances, clothes, potato chips (I usually win that one). I should spend more time listening, though, because, isn’t my inner critic essentially a combination of my own intuition and learned lessons?  That’s the last thing I’ll tell her, though. Like she needs any more encouragement.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Luca the Brave

Sure kids! Go play right down there by the road!
In case you missed it, I have a grandson. Luca is wonderfully smart and capable. He’s articulate, with an amazing ability to problem-solve and process information and he gets along well with others. And we’ve barely let him out of our sight for more than a minute for all of his four and a half years. Until last night.

There’s no need to worry . . . he wasn’t lost. And honestly, he has spent some time out of our sight; he plays in his room or goes to the bathroom without even one pair of eyes on him. Twice in his young life, he and his parents lived with Angelo and me, so that meant, at the very least, one of at least four adults was always aware of his whereabouts. And at the most...all four of us had eyes on his every move. Hostages don’t get that kind of attention.

But, he does need attention, so last night, when Daddy was at work and Mommy needed to get some grocery shopping done, Papa and I got to “watch” Luca. We had plans--there was a magic show at the church right down the street. After a quick dinner of apple slices and chicken nuggets (for him...our more adult dinner would be later. Think wine and cheese) we got our coats and walked to the show. It was as one might expect:  Hordes of kids hopped up on Keebler cookies and lemonade cheered and jumped at the magician’s tricks. Luca sat with us, also slightly hopped up on a couple of fudge-striped cookies and the one brownie I let him have. When the show was over, he was ready to roll...and we nearly ran back home.  About five feet from the edge of his yard, he looked at me and said, “Gramma. You go this way and I’ll go that way.” The door we use is at the back of the house, so he was suggesting that I head around this side of the house and he would go around that side. Meaning he would continue on down the sidewalk, walk up the driveway and go to the back door. By himself.

His little face exuded so much confidence that I said, “Okay. See you in a few!” And off he went, strutting self-assuredly in the direction of the driveway.
“Where is he going?” asked Angelo.
“Around back,” I told him and I turned and raced towards the back of the house. In the 5 seconds it took me to get there, I imagined 14 horrific scenarios where this hadn’t been a good idea. I reached the stones of the back patio and I continued check on Luca’s progress. But, before I could get a foot further,  there he came...same confident stride, hands in his pockets, looking as if walking up the driveway alone was something he did every day. I backed up a little so he couldn’t tell I was about to come looking for him. I walked toward the door to unlock it as if I had just gotten there myself.

“Good job, Lu,” I said, opening the door and letting him in. Right behind us came an anxious Papa. He had followed a distance...up the driveway. “Is he here?” he asked and looked quite relieved when he saw him already in the kitchen, taking off his coat and shoes and putting them in the closet. When relating the story later, to Mommy and Daddy, he added each time, “and it was dark!” He was so proud of himself.

It made me think of a time when I was about six years old. It’s a fuzzy memory, but it goes something like this: Some terrible transgression had been committed against me, probably involving my siblings.  I was either sent to my room or I stormed off there. At some point I decided I should run away from the unfairness of it all and I packed up my little red suitcase and snuck out the front door of my house. I made it outside without discovery, which was too bad, because my plan probably didn’t include “after I get outside...”  I ended up sitting on my suitcase in the small space between the garage and the house. I don’t know how long I sat there--it seemed like hours. All I remember is that no one came looking for me. The memory dims at that point; I don’t remember going back inside, whether or not anyone noticed or if I simply snuck back upstairs and unpacked.

How different that is from our vigilance with Luca. And not only him, but with most kids today. Yes, there are greater concerns about leaving our kids to their own “devices” but how do they discover their independence? Luca was confident and so proud at his success, I wonder how often we deny our kids that important, self-esteem-building feeling. I used to walk the half a mile to my elementary school. My own kids used to walk to the library from our Main Street apartment, also about a half a mile. Now, I felt like letting Luca walk up the driveway alone was bordering on negligent. Of course, he’s four. But I think I’m going to let him do it again.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Noises off . . . and on

The long, long hallways of Bay Village
My parents live in Florida, in a pink, high-rise retirement community called Bay Village. It is very fancy, not at all what I expected the first day I walked into the place. I looked around at the crystal chandeliers and the thick carpeting and sparkling clean marble-colored tiles--and this is just in the lobby--and asked my mother, “Are we rich?” No, we weren’t, they had just lucked into this wonderful, friendly place after they made their last move. Until the next one . . . which won’t be an apartment. Aging and death are not sugar-coated here; the staff honor the residents who have passed away with 8x10 glossies and a single rose in a vase on a shelf next to the lobby coffee pot. The indications of age are all around. One indication in particular are the noises.

It’s a blessing of nature that as one ages and bodily noises increase, hearing diminishes.  The first time it happened to me, I thought I was just clearing my throat during a conversation, but a sound emerged from my mouth that reminded me of the old Mr. Ed television shows. And not Wilbur--Mr. Ed himself. Extra air bubbled up, my lips blew out and a blubbery poof erupted that reverberated in my ears, but apparently not to anyone else in my vicinity.  What the hell?” I thought to myself and didn’t think anything of it...until the next time. And there was a next time, wasn’t there.

Nearly every part of our body begins to make sounds. Creaking joints, whining hearing aids, grinding teeth and the dreaded expulsion of errant air and gas manifested in burps and, er, toots.  It’s the theme song to aging. I don’t even know what produces half the sounds I make, but I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t hear so well. Right now, I’m slightly self-conscious about the whole business.

But back to that classy retirement community, where jackets are required for dinner and there are parking areas for walkers. Even the quick trip to the pool can be a cacophonous journey.  Meals in the dining room are manageable; the sounds of dinner being served and tables being bussed disguise more of the obvious noises. But just put all those models of good manners and proper etiquette together in the elevator to go back upstairs and it’s all snort, snort here, and a burp, burp there; here a belch, there a belch, everywhere a toot, toot. And nobody hears a thing. And if they do, they’re not saying anything.

One morning when I was visiting my parents, I headed down to the computer room to print out a coupon to a restaurant we were going to try for dinner that 5 pm.  The computer room, beauty salon, craft room, mail room, and resident services are all brightly lit spaces clustered along a hallway that culminates at the auditorium. It’s the Grand Central Station of Bay Village.  I followed a petite, gray-haired woman with a crisply ironed white blouse tucked into trim Capri pants dotted with tiny embroidered palm trees. The whole way down the hall, I was treated to the putt-putt-putt of her procession.

As she turned into the mailroom she saw me behind her and she gave me a crooked little smile that reached up to her eyes. I smiled back.  She might have smiled because she was simply being pleasant, or maybe in case I was someone she was supposed to know. But I think her smile said, “I know what I did just there, but I don’t care.”

Now that’s an indication of age I can get behind.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Avid Reader’s Guide to Book Reviews

These days, if you’re an avid reader, or even a casual one, I am certain that at some point during a conversation, a reading, online or within shouting distance at a bookstore, an author has exhorted you to leave a “review” for their book. It might even have been me.

The currency of 21st century publishing is reviews and it is probably due the immense changes the industry has seen. (For a primer on that, see this article. If you’re really interested, this one, too.) There are many choices for an avid reader in 2016; traditional hardcover books, trade paperbacks, electronic devices like Kindles, Nooks, iPads. A reader doesn’t have to yearn too long for a new read. Libraries, bookstores, used bookstores, book fairs and the Internet provide new books at the touch of a button, the click of a mouse, the swipe of a credit card. In addition, the new publishing landscape has allowed thousands, maybe even tens of thousands more writers to become authors every year. For an author, one way to rise above that gargantuan pack is to hope that the people reading your book will help promote it by leaving a review online.

Because, of course reviews help, right? I read reviews when I’m buying nearly everything these days. Coffee filters, energy drinks, winter coats.  For books, reviews keep them in the running, particularly at Amazon. Success on Amazon helps push sales. This is true of most of the books you are reading. There is a magical algorithm that does it, but of course no one knows what that is. But not just Amazon; online reviews at Goodreads and Barnes & Noble - wherever your favorite online book community is, leaving a review for a book you like helps.

Personally, I am just as happy to recommend a reader go into an actual bookstore and speak to the owner or the staff; they will happily help you choose a book and have probably read most of them in order to do it. But just in case you’re hanging around the Internet and are interested in bolstering a few authors, I have some ideas for writing your next review. (My brother once told me I should use the term, “comment” instead of review because leaving a comment is not as intimidating as Writing a Review.)  So, without further ado. . . 

4 Easy Review Tips for Readers

1. Keep it Simple: A short paragraph or two will do; this isn’t high school English Composition and you’re not getting a grade. Take a deep breath--you can do it.

2. A Title by any other name will still sound just fine: Worried about making up a title? Of course you are; it's intimidating. Use this one: “A Great Read”. Or, “I Liked (Loved) This Book.” Or possibly, “I Recommend This Book.” Don’t be intimidated by other clever or snarky titles. A clear title helps other readers. Also, see #1 - Keep it Simple.

3. The Main Thing: What was the main thing you liked about this book? Begin your comment with, “I liked this book because...” and just go from there. Remember? No grades. The readers of your comments are looking for company in enjoying the book they are considering, so just be honest.

4. The Formula: Who, What, Where and Why? Who wrote the book--did you like the author? What did you like about the book? Was it really short? Did it have snappy dialogue? Lots of sex? No sex? Where does the book take place? In New York City? A hundred years ago? Solely in the author’s head? And Why did you like it? Why should anyone else read it? Why would you read another book by this author?

If you’ve gotten this far, I think you’re ready. Try your hand at it. Because, yes, reviews--I mean comments--help. But please know, even if you don’t ever write a word, I speak for hundreds of thousands of authors who are already grateful that you're even reading our work. Thank you.