Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Hooray if you both mind the business and mend the pants

Old and beloved dish towel
When I took one of my Christmas kitchen towels out of the washing machine yesterday, I noticed its corners had unstitched leaving fringe-like threads hanging from each corner. Since I've had the towel for years, my first impulse was to delegate it to the ragbag, the fate of most hand towels in my house.
As I looked again at the Santa image and thought about how fun it is to bring it out this time of year, I decided to mend it instead. Why should a towel be demoted to a rag just because it's gotten a little frayed (notice, I didn't say raggedy).

Dragging out my pin cushion with needles, a spool of white thread, a pair of scissors, and a thimble, I sat by a window for best light and began to mend. I thought about a conversation with a young friend who had joked about her generation just tossing things when I complained to her about my trip to a lampshade store, only to discover it had gone out of business. "My generation just throws out the lamp and buys a whole new one. We'd never go shopping for a new shade." I realized it had been a very long time since I had gotten out my thimble; I'm apparently losing my generational mindset of repairing instead of replacing. I also realized that making tidy stitches--a skill as essential as knowing how to make a bed--was a lot harder than it used to be.  

All four corners mended

The phone rang just as I was starting the project. The caller was a former employee whom I'd hired right out of college in the late '90s. We've kept in touch over the years because we both joined a marketing team several years later as peers and became friends as we worked on creative projects together. He is the person whose computer screen I stood over on September 11, 2001, to watch in horror the unthinkable event. That in itself would have bonded us forever, but our friendship has lasted for lots of other reasons, too. 

He is a brilliant, talented man, as well as a devoted husband and father, who has been deservedly successful as CEO of several east coast software companies. I told him what I was doing when he called, and he cheered. "I just mended a pair of my own pants that I like too much to give up," he shared. I nearly shrieked with delight. If this forty-something man, who has the means to toss and replace anything he owns, is willing to mend a pair of his own pants . . . well, there just might be hope for humankind. Of course, I'm being silly, but I loved knowing this tidbit. His company was just sold for more than $500 million. It's not something a person would normally convey in a once-every-two year phone conversation. My guess is when next year I bring out the Santa towel, it'll trigger a happy memory of today's chat with a forty-something corporate bigwig who is willing to mend instead of toss.

Monday, December 20, 2021

A Memorable Gift

What was one of my most memorable Christmas gifts? I'll think of one, then you think of one. Okay? 

Here's what instantly comes to my mind: a jacket. The year was 1973. First, let me set the stage. Our children were ages ten, eight, seven, and five. At least one was a firm believer in Santa--the others in varying degrees of suspecting and knowing, but not in a hurry to give up the magic. The days leading up to Christmas were exhausting for the parents, as well as the children, but finally! Christmas Eve! After homemade gifts for each other were set under the tree and cookies and milk had been put out for Santa, after "The Night Before Christmas" was aloud to pajamaed group by their father, the four were finally asleep. Hubby and I stayed up very late, tiptoeing through the house like two Santas, assembling toys like frantic elves, hauling wrapped gifts from their hiding places to position them under the tree. We wrapped a few last minute items and stuffed Christmas stockings with oranges, mini-cereal boxes, and tiny gifts. Of course there was the thank you note Santa had to write for the cookies and milk, and that Santa was always yours truly.

On Christmas morning we were both exhausted when the eight year old, always an early bird, woke up at 5:00 a.m., ready to sneak a peak at the tree. (Nope, not before all the stockings were opened in bed, an early church service, and a big breakfast eaten by all. Ah, we were taskmasters in those years.) But the minute the first child awakened, at least one of the parents (yes, it was always that same parent) stayed awake to keep him quietly engaged so the others could sleep until at least six a.m. Those early Christmas mornings also appear on my memorable Christmas Gifts List.

Finally we were ready for The Tree, which always took at least a couple of hours. After the extreme hype and free-for-all resulting in the discovery of the unwrapped Santa gifts under the tree, we'd begin on the wrapped gifts, which the six of us took turns opening. It stretched out the joy and anticipation of the day even more. But both of us parents were generally exhausted by the time we finished, ready for a nap, or at least, a little quiet. The children were by then immersed in the thrill of new toys--books, kits, games, Lincoln Logs, Legos, puzzles, stuffed animals, wind up toys, costumes, whatever. And tears. Something would inevitably break or else wouldn't be working quite right, so there was no time for a parent break. 

But the memorable gift? I still hadn't received it. By the time all the gifts were unwrapped, I was completely content with the several small but thoughtful items I'd received from Hubby. We generally exchanged modest gifts, choosing to spend our budget on things for our children instead of ourselves. Their joy was the biggest gift of all. I began cleaning up the wrapping paper/ribbon trash to restore the some order to the chaos. Hubby was stoking the wood fire in the Franklin stove as he turned to me and said, "Sal, would you mind getting my hat from the closet? I need to run out back to bring in some wood for the fire." I realized he must be as tired as I was. Why he couldn't get it himself? Nevertheless, I entered the front hall and opened the closet to grab his hat.

A gorgeous gray faux-suede hooded woman's coat trimmed in fake fur and lined in warm fleece was hanging on the middle of the crowded closet rack. Other coats had been pushed to either side, making this spectacular coat the sole focus of the closet. I shrieked. Then I burst into tears. I had not had a new winter coat in our eleven years of marriage! I was still wearing the coat my mother had bought me in 1960, which--although stylish then--was now the coat that wouldn't wear out (so its replacement could not be financially justified). 

I returned to the family room sobbing and in the process of donning the coat. It fit perfectly.  "Like it?" Hubby asked, beaming. Of course, he knew the answer. I loved it. Crying too hard to respond with words, I could feel my love for him notching even tighter. Yes, I'd say it was a memorable gift--forty-eight years later I can still remember how loved I felt because of it. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Final Thought about Thanksgiving

Yes, Thanksgiving 2021 is now behind us, and our holiday focus immediately shifts to the splashier of the two late-year festivals. But as I put away my relatively small amount of Thanksgiving décor this year, my grumpy pilgrims give me pause.

I bought these primitive, hand-carved items at a holiday market a few years ago and wish I knew the name of the elderly man who created them. When I spotted them nestled among a lot of Santa Claus carvings of similar size, I laughed and immediately plunked down my money to buy them.  What fun conversation they would make at my table! The expressions on their wooden faces amused me. But when I unwrapped them at home, I began to wonder about the desolation that inevitably was experienced by people in the 1600s sailing across an ocean to begin new lives. People  leaving behind dear friends and family, never to see and quite possibly never to hear from them again. 

After almost two years of separation from much of my family, I am overcome with gratitude for technology as I pull the bubble wrap over the pilgrims to protect them till next year. Thank goodness for being able to instantly communicate with my loved ones whenever I want, and to see and hear them within minutes of my desire. How different from never receiving even a letter which might have been written a year earlier. Thank goodness for LinkedIn and Facebook, Zoom and WhatsApp, and the still dependable US Mail Service.  

Why did I ever complain of isolation during the worst of the Covid-19 lockdown? Thank you, Grumpy Pilgrims. You have truly made me aware of how lucky I am.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Power of ONE Person

I wrote "Corporate Clown" in the mid 1990s, and refreshed it in the early 200s to submit to a writing contest. Although it didn't win, the judges wrote such endearing comments about the character of Chad, I decided to share it with my readers. I was thinking a lot about Chad today, maybe because I was squeegeeing the glass in my shower (See entry Dec. 20, 20017), but mostly because of Thanksgiving and the surge of requests I'm receiving for donations to alleviate food instability. He still inspires me.

                                      CORPORATE CLOWN

            My youngest staff member, a clerk-messenger, is currently touring the southwestern United States in his Volkswagen bus. Normally, he’d be reporting to me each morning at our downtown subsidiary of a large corporation. I’ve given him a five-week leave of absence, but today I’m wishing Chad were here.

            I need him to get the food-bank barrel filled. The barrel appeared a week ago as part of a semi-annual challenge from our parent company, accompanied by an urgent plea for local food bank help. It’s still empty, except for my donation of a can of tuna and box of dried milk, nothing yet from our other forty-five employees.

            When I approved Chad’s request for his unpaid leave, he hesitated at my office door. “Uhm . . .” (he often starts an important discussion with this mantra-like syllable) “Thank you. But maybe ‘thank you’ isn’t enough. I want you to know that this trip, uhm, this trip is going to make me a better person and change my life.” He blazed his smile and left my doorway to return to his tasks.

            Because he is gentle, twenty-years old, and looks like a Deadhead, some of his more senior coworkers believe that he is indifferent to sensible values. He has conformed to the company appearance code by tying back his mid-shoulder-length hair into a ponytail and complies with the dress code by purchasing the requisite neckties and dress pants from thrift stores, combining colors and patterns reminiscent of a retirement home’s golf tournament. I’m certain he’s the only person in our building who sports a pair of polyester-plaid pants pegged with safety pins down the inside seams.

            I’m sure there are more than a few men in our building who—on seeing Chad in his getup—wonder if they, too, don’t look just as foolish, given the conventions of male dress. There’s a thin line between ironed and un-ironed in terms of looking snappy. And Chad’s bright red Doc Martin shoes evoke a look of righteous disdain from people in highly polished Italian loafers. But I digress—back to the barrel.

Chad does a fantastic job as clerk. He is always thinking and masters his work-related responsibilities by asking why it’s done that way—then listens to the answer. But he keeps asking questions, even when performing routine duties, about deeper things that make his coworkers tick.

“Why would anyone not want to donate to the food bank?” he asks me, his brow scrunched up like an inside-out sock.

            “Oh, I doubt if people really choose not to,” I answer. “It’s probably because they are busy or forgetful, or they wait for the last minute and accidentally wait one day too long.” I realize I sound defensive.

            “Uhm . . . but don’t people know that others will follow by example?  It would only take a few more cans in the barrel to inspire others. Then it would snowball.” Already I am making a note to myself to bring a few more cans of soup tomorrow.

“Maybe they gave at home,” I quipped one time, and he smiled in genuine appreciation of a middle-aged supervisor with a mind still agile enough to make a joke. But the bottom line is that Chad does his full citizen-share, and he’s amazingly effective at getting others to do the same. For instance, he’ll haul in a big bag of groceries—practical, good food, such as pinto beans and peanut butter—and after depositing them into the barrel, manage to talk up the food bank and the good it does while making his desk-to-desk delivery rounds. Almost single-handedly, Chad has gotten the barrel filled in the past. I’ve heard him offer to help our officers transport their donations (“If you can bring it in tomorrow, I’ll come down to the garage and haul it from the car for you”) so subtlety they scarcely know they’re engaged in a Socratic dialogue with the lowest man on the totem pole.

            “Uhm, maybe you can answer this,” he says to a manager while removing outbound mail from her desktop. The manager looks up, disarmed by Chad’s need for her advice. “Do you know why people who are financially comfortable are reluctant to donate a jar or two of peanut butter to the food bank?” In the process of answering that question, the manager starts making a mental note to bring food tomorrow.

At his next stop—the financial officer’s private office—he asks, “How can people who get paychecks be certain they won’t someday need to get food themselves from a food bank?” When the officer begins to pontificate about the power of savings or financial planning, Chad listens intently and then responds, “But isn’t it possible that fortune could turn the tables on the luckiest of people, so they become the unluckiest?” Then he pushes the mail cart to its next stop.

            Because Chad’s job takes him from desk to desk, he reaches everyone—from the CEO to his fellow messengers—and has frequent opportunities to listen intently to the opinions of others. Last year during an office campaign to give to the annual community-fund drive, he told me, “I’m only one paycheck away from being a taker, but as long as I have a paycheck, I can be a giver. I am thrilled to be a giver.” And he was the first one to turn in his pledge card.

            In various fund raisers through the year, from raffles benefiting social services’ providers to the far-reaching consolidated drive, the big guys—senior management—are always rumored to give less than others. Friends who work in human resources at other companies tell me that this is a well-known pattern, and we’re not talking a smaller percentage, either—it’s frequently a smaller dollar gift that come from the most affluent. But when there’s recognition to be had for that same giving (such as a donor’s plaque or a luncheon to honor benefactors), those big guys line right up for their thanks.

            In Chad’s opinion, if there were a checklist on the barrel with each person’s name on it, everyone would bring something in—even if just a can of beans or soup. Individuals would want to check off their own names, hoping others would think they’d brought the ham, even if they brought the Jello. Chad says this without belligerence, blame or recrimination. He almost always smiles while he talks. It’s hard not to agree with him, and likewise, difficult not to feel betrayed by what looks like stinginess on the part of the well-paid employees.

            I’ve decided that Chad is our company’s own corporate jester, disguised as a young kid full of questions with a manner that threatens no one and questions that sound naïve enough to chip away at our corporate hypocrisy. Every company needs such a clown. He invites us to look at ourselves collectively and change. What’s so endearing about Chad is his genuine need to know—his constant puzzling over life’s mysteries—which makes us professional types eager to show him the “right way.” (Oh, Chad, please do as we say, not as we do.)

            So, while we genuinely believe we’re teaching him how to be part of corporate America (and we probably are, in all the worst ways), Chad is effecting our change, too. Helping us to be a little better at the human game without ranting, protesting, or civil disobedience, he’s there as our little-guy conscience. I will welcome him back from his trip, and no doubt I'll share my disappointment about our near-empty barrel for food collection. But I hope his trip isn’t life changing. We need him just the way he is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Rarely have I been so moved

It seems somewhat pointless to rave about a stage production that has come and gone, but I have to write a few words about the most recent Metropolitan Opera's Live HD performance this past Saturday of Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard. Although you cannot get a ticket for it any longer on stage, you could catch the encore production of the live-stream offering when it's offered in cinemas tomorrow, Wednesday, October 27. Eventually, it will be made available again via streaming, and because the production totally sold out at the Met (unusual for that to happen), perhaps it will be available sooner rather than later. For more information, click Take me to The Met

Why would anyone seek out an opera with such a grim and horrifying plot line as sexual molestation of a seven-year-old boy and how it affects his next thirteen years?  Until you see the opera, don't even try to answer that question. The title is taken from the Book of Jeremiah and is a fitting metaphor for the effect that his older cousin's behavior had on young Char'es-Baby. The work is simply magnificent--so beautifully constructed and cutting so deep, I doubt if anyone could see it without being moved to tears. But then realize it's written by a black composer, a black librettist, based on the memoir written by a black man--which makes a lot of 'firsts' for an opera company that's an icon of productions of classic works written by white males over multiple centuries. I was blown away by this history-making production and trust it will be the first of many operas not about the black experience, but of and from the black experience.

Friday, October 1, 2021

RACE to the END

I recently came across this personal essay written twenty-five years ago (I have about two hundred essays that need to be re-read, then tossed or kept in a "keeper" folder). I enjoyed it, and hope you will too. And now my readers can easily appreciate how much I need to get rid of before I move to a smaller place, including the written word by yours truly.  sg


In our guestroom hangs a photograph that astonishes me every time I stop to look at it—sepia-tinted grandparents in their sepia-tinted living room in the late thirties: Grandfather is sitting on the chair that today takes up a corner in our living room; Grandmother is standing by the same fireplace-bench by our dining room wall; tiny candlesticks decorate the mantel—the same candlesticks that now sit on my desk. Come to think of it, the desk was my grandfather’s, too.

There’s no getting out from under the mass of things I inherited. We still use old-fashioned lace-edged linens on our bureaus, a phenomenon that my husband comments about whenever I change them twice a year for a freshly laundered-and-ironed set. “Can you even get dresser scarves any more?”

“I doubt it—if they’re new, anyway. Only in a vintage or antique store.”

The napkins we use for celebratory dinners are almost as big as pillowcases. They were handmade from damask, given as wedding gifts seventy years ago to my mother. At Thanksgiving I iron what I need, but that is the only time I use them in an entire calendar year. For fifty-one weeks they hibernate in my ironing bag, waiting for their moment in the world—like the patients in the movie, Awakenings, who come to life on drugs. These are old geezer napkins—yellowed from time and frayed around the edges, and getting thin, too.

Sometimes I playfully think of my hand-me-downs as elderly in-laws. Although I didn’t know them originally, they have ingratiated themselves over the years as they live under my roof and abide by my rules.

Sometimes I am tickled to be part of this ancestral chain of merchandise. With pride I dig out the silver candelabra, hoist down the porcelain cups, and unwrap the soup tureen. I boast about my heirloom dining-room table handmade for the family two hundred years ago, and point out with pride my cherished console table belonging to a great-grandmother. I can tick off stories about family stuff in every room—couch, chairs, paintings, figurines—each with a family connection.

Other times I feel sorry for myself. How in the hell did I get saddled with so many hand-me-downs? Wouldn’t it be fun to throw everything away and buy all new items? How thrilling it would be to go on an Ikea spree, or even one at Target. Cheap, bright, maybe poorly made—but new! Not to use anyone else’s anything! My grown kids have all furnished their homes with things they have selected. How liberated they seem. Would I even know how to shop for furniture?

Just like us oldsters who require more maintenance work on our teeth and bodies now than when we were young, caring for antiques can add responsibility to our lives, too. I was shocked recently to see the trouble my sister takes with her heirloom sterling flatware. She literally washes and dries each individual fork tine and lets the forks sit out on her counter for twenty-four hours so they are thoroughly and completely dry. I refuse to pamper my possessions. I wash, dry and toss my flatware back into its silver-clothed wooden box and slam the lid down until the next time I scrounge for what I need. I polish it rarely.

Maybe I’m careless with my things to show them who has the upper hand. I have to admit that a part of me is secretly happy when I see things wearing out. A pillowcase springs a hole. Do I try to mend it? No! Just because my grandmother hemstitched it is no reason to be sad. Instead, I rip it up to make new dust cloths, congratulating myself for not being nostalgic. As the backing of my oriental rug appears with wear (giving the appearance of lint flecks needing to be vacuumed), I get out an array of deep rose, purple, and green magic markers and color in the threadbare places. Sure, my rug is valuable, but I am so sick of it! I have never lived in a house where it wasn’t lurking in one of the rooms. I fantasize sometimes how much fun it would be to roll it up and push it down my hillside driveway, then watch it roll away like the runaway gingerbread man. Only I wouldn’t chase it.

My husband loves to remind me that “Nothing lasts forever.” There’s a positive side effect of attrition through moldering. I will probably never need new things, but at least, eventually, I will have fewer things to care for. And, if there’s any justice at all, my aging household goods will wear out just about the time that I do. I hope my kids can just take the furniture to the second-hand-store and never look back . . . except for the dining room table, the hand carved chairs, the linens woven by appointment to the queen, the old tiffany forks, the . . . 


Monday, September 20, 2021

The advantage of being old

Not every day does a big tree come crashing down just two feet outside the fence that rims our community, although a number of years ago a tree fell and broke through our fence. That was high drama . . . with a lot of repairs, to boot. 

But yesterday the tree pictured fell outside our fence across a regional trail, creating--in the words of a neighbor friend--the newest 'bridge' in town in less than one minute. Rainfall (after a prolonged drought) and a little gusty wind was all it took for the tree to break off and topple across King County's highly used Burke-Gilman Trail. 

The good news? No one was underneath; no one was hurt. Within hours, the obstructing branches were removed by the City to reopen the trail, but within hours of that activity, a small segment of the 18 mile-long trail was closed to be safe. 

Today, when I opened our gate to go for my daily trail walk (in the opposite direction), a white haired walker had stopped to stare at the barricades. "That tree is not goin' anywhere," he said, as he nodded at me. "It's not gonna fall in our lifetimes. It's stuck there! Maybe if we were kindergartners," and here he stopped to chuckle, "but not anytime soon!" I had to smile at his comment. Yes, there are advantages to being old; we probably can walk under it without any fear. But I noticed he stopped short of the tree and turned around to the junction of the Sammamish River Trail to continue his walk. 

Me? I'm going to honor the barricade regardless of my age, but I'm going to smile every time I see the fallen tree.