Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let 44¢ restore the thrill

Remember when you used to look forward to getting your mail? Whether you waited in your house for the sound of the postman’s step on the porch, watched for envelopes cascading through the slot in the door onto the floor (or ker-plunk into a closed mailed chute), or walked to the front of your property to retrieve items from your rural-style mailbox, it used to be fun to look through the daily mail. It wasn’t that long ago, either, when you'd likely find a notes—and on a good day, you might have a long, juicy letter—from friends or relatives catching you up on their lives.

Now, since e-mail has become the normal mode of communication between friends, most of us receive only catalogs and requests for money from merchants, Visa card banks, or utilities . . . or charities competing for our discretionary funds. Where is the thrill in opening an envelope stuffed with address labels, sun catchers, or pens when the accompanying letter begs for money in exchange for merchandise we didn’t want in the first place?

My “Restore the Thrill” campaign, launched from my house and announced only through this blog, is certain to bring a little smile to the mail recipient. It’s easy! All you do is this: once a week, jot a short note to a friend, add a stamp, and drop it in a blue US mailbox (or put it out for your personal mail carrier to take away). As long as your note doesn’t arrive on a special occasion for that person, you’ll take your friend by surprise and thereby give him (or her) a small delight. And your friend doesn’t have to live far away, either. You can delight someone this way who lives but one block away.

Just think of the power of forty-four cents! Cheaper than dinner out or a trip to the therapist, this gesture won’t take you much more than ten minutes. Imagine that little lurch of adrenaline when your friend spies a handwritten note mixed in with postcards from Safeway and the new pizza joint down the street, a bill from the power company, and a request for a donation from the retirement home where her Aunt Minnie was residing when she died three years ago.

Better yet, write postcards instead of notes. At a mere twenty-seven cents, they will be fun for the carriers, too—something for them to read (if they’re inclined). So you’re delighting two constituents for a little more than "two bits."

If everyone who can would write just one note a week, we could flood USPS with handwritten love notes, hi-there notes, thinking-of-you notes, and I-care notes. Let’s take back the mail and “Restore the Thrill” of picking up today’s mail.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Walking the fine line

I have realized, as Hubby and I falter over our plan to 'downsize' and live the next ten years in a home that's more manageable than our present abode, there's a fine line between planning for our aging and planning for our demise.

We've walked through a number of homes-for-sale with our realtor, making comments like, "That corner would be hard to maneuver in a wheelchair," or "If one of us were recuperating from surgery, would that main floor bedroom be big enough?" or "If we were stuck in bed all day, would we want to look out on that view everyday?"

Who are these people talking that way? How different from when we bought this house (twenty-three years ago), when we said things like, "That's where we'll put a vegetable garden," or "How about a gazebo over there?" or "Finishing the basement would be feasible and add another 500 square feet."

Are we being pessimistic? Or sensible? If we feel our next move is just taking us one step closer to the cemetery, naturally, we'll want to stall it. If, however, we feel our move is taking us to freedom from the burdens of a big house and a huge lot, we'll want to rush it. Depending on the day (and the aches and pains), we vacillate on our approach and attitude.

Monday, February 22, 2010

THE MAGIC SUIT, circa 1981

I came across this essay I wrote almost thirty years ago. Reading it again brought a distant incident into sharp focus for me (including a visual of bell-bottomed pants).
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Sherri is a Homecoming Princess, but doesn’t even have a date for the dance!” Pete’s voice had a sense of urgency in it. I turned to look at my fourteen-year-old son. It was too early in the morning to be conversing about anything except eggs, vitamin pills, and the cereal selection. I was spreading mustard on multiple bologna sandwiches, which would shortly be inside three brown bags on their way to high school. Before I could think of a response, he continued. “I’ve been thinking, Mom. Do you think we could buy me a suit so I could take her?”

I was speechless. I wanted to retort, “You’ve gotta be kidding! When you’re growing three inches a year?” but I held my tongue. My female empathy for another woman, too young at fourteen to be in such a predicament, was my dominating response. Homecoming Princesses were elected by their classmates, which almost guaranteed—because of their popularity with voting peers—a date for the event. However, Sherri was a victim of the system: our high school had just switched from a three- to a four-year school that fall. Pete and his classmates had expected to be the top dogs in junior high; instead, they were the guinea pigs for the school board’s decision to meld its freshmen with the other three classes. Now, it seemed, we’d discovered a social pitfall with the new plan.

I knew Pete had no interest in dating as recently as yesterday—nor did any of the boys in the group he palled around with. But here was Sherri, his good friend since sixth grade, in an embarrassing situation, and he was trying to help. I was touched by his compassion.

“Pete,” I said, finding my voice at last, “that’s a wonderful idea. But we cannot buy you a suit . . . they’re incredibly expensive, and nothing we’d buy now would still fit you by spring. And the suit isn’t going to be your only homecoming expense, either—flowers, dance ticket, going out to dinner first. That’s a lot of money for a fourteen-year-old to spend in one evening!” I was thinking “especially since you only have one lawn job a week," but kept quiet.

“I know,” he agreed, “but I just feel so bad she has to go to the dance alone.”

“Who’s going where alone?” asked sixteen year-old Phil as he entered the kitchen. When Pete explained the situation to him, Phil’s comment was both sensible and cynical. “Hey, just go Dutch Treat. It’s stupid to spend all that money for one lousy night.”

I was surprised and pleased to hear my stance about it being too expensive backed-up by one of Pete’s brothers. Normally, they sided with each other in a parent-child disagreement, but Phil had spent almost sixty dollars of his hard-earned money the year before on a Homecoming date he didn’t much care for by day of the dance. The bitter lesson took him months to financially recover from.

Matt, our seventeen year old senior, leapt the two bottom stairs where he landed in the middle of the kitchen and the conversation. “What’s this about Homecoming?” he asked, tossing his book bag over his shoulder and reaching for his lunch bag. Then, as if he suddenly understood what he’d heard, blurted out, “You goin’, Pete?”

“Mom won’t let me buy a suit, but I would if I could.”

“What a bummer,” Matt replied, sounding angry. “I don’t supposed any of your friends’ moms will let them get suits, either.” He glared at me as I momentarily personified all those mothers who—at this very moment—were conspiring to keep their children from having fun.

“It’s because fourteen-year-old boys are growing so fast,” I defended. “A suit is an investment and a poor one at this age.”

“Wait! I have an idea!” interrupted Phil with sudden inspiration. “You can borrow my suit.” Phil was the recipient of a hand-me-down, three-piece suit from a friend of mine whose tall, thin son had outgrown it.

“Don’t be stupid, Phil. Yours isn’t gonna’ fit Pete,” growled Matt as he stuffed his homework papers into his backpack and stormed out of the kitchen. I was briefly grateful that he’d said this, so I didn’t have to the ‘the heavy’ again. He opened the front door, then turned back to Pete. “But . . . if she lets you buy a suit, we can double date.” He slammed the door and was gone.
Pete turned back to look inquisitively at Phil. “Are you serious? If it fits, I could really borrow it?”

“Why not? I’m not planning on needing it!”

“I’ll try it on tonight after football practice,” were Pete’s parting words as he and Phil both scurried out the door.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Pete. You’re not the same size as . . ..” The door slammed again. They were gone. Once the room was quiet, I couldn’t help smiling as I poured a second cup of coffee.

It was so good to see a glimpse of brotherly concern. Usually I saw only the typical array of dishtowel fights, belching contests, or feet engaged in tripping games. I pulled out my checkbook from my purse to look at its balance. Could I somehow eek out an extra expense this month? It was doubtful, but nevertheless I wished I could find a way to buy him whatever he needed to be Sherri’s escort. It was a wonderful idea.

At 6:30 p.m. Pete came bounding through the back door. “I told Sherri that if Phil’s suit fits me, I can take her to the dance. She was really happy.”

“Pete, I told you not to get your hopes up . . . or Sherri’s, for that matter!” I felt irritated at him, knowing my how slim my budget was for extraneous purchases and how he didn’t have more than eight dollars to his name. There was no way I could imagine scrounging enough from my household expenses to advance him the necessary funds needed for this seemingly capricious event.

“Sherri told me her mother would help pay for the evening, if only someone would take her daughter,” he said, as if he were reading my mind. How desperate Sherri’s mom must be feeling, I thought, to have a daughter elected to the Homecoming Court, but without an escort. I would have made the same offer if Sherri had been my daughter. Suddenly I felt selfish, but I couldn’t feel as hopeful as Pete. He was four inches shorter and much stockier than Phil.

Undaunted by my pessimism, Pete ran upstairs to invade Phil’s closet. Minutes later he entered the kitchen. I hadn’t seen him in a suit since he was two years old, and then it was an Eaton style with short pants, a triple hand-me-down down from a cousin and two brothers. But now he was standing in my kitchen—a young man in a three-piece suit that appeared to fit perfectly—looking very grown up and beaming from ear to ear. “It fits, Mom! It fits!”

“So it does . . . and it looks wonderful.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was stunned. Had the suit changed itself upon the hanger in anticipation of this moment?

Within minutes, Pete had made his phone call. He bounded back into the room. “Sherri’s mom will treat us to dinner, so could you maybe just buy her flowers? I have enough money to pay for the dance ticket myself!”

I refrained from hugging him, knowing how he would cringe from such a display of affection. Matt gave him an affectionate punch on the shoulder and reiterated the invitation to double date. Immediately Phil began to give Pete instructions in necktie tying.

Other mothers raised their eyebrows when they heard Pete was going to Homecoming. “Isn’t he too young?” they asked, inferring they were better mothers to limit their sons’ social lives. I just smiled. I wanted to brag about my good-hearted son, but was reluctant to embarrass him. And who would believe me about the suit?

The event was a smashing success, from the modest restaurant Pete and Sherri selected and the nosegay of flowers priced at wholesale by my florist friend who happened to know Sherri’s mom, to the complimentary dance tickets that all Homecoming Court members received. Pete and Sherri opted to let their mothers do the driving—I did one direction, Sherri’s mom did the other—instead of doubling with Matt and his girlfriend. “It’s too expensive to go with them,” I heard Pete tell a friend. With no need to buy dance tickets, Pete’s eight dollars were available for him to be a big-time spender for two rounds of soft drinks.

The whole event had a kind of magic to it, more than just the suit’s changing itself upon the hanger. It was brought about by optimism, compassion and determination—the best kind of magic. No one in our family has ever forgotten it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What do my daughters-in-law have in common with Eleanor Roosevelt and my mother?

Maybe a lot of things, but one little-known and rarely remembered fact: the given names and spellings of their mothers-in-law were all Sara (officially) and Sallie (informally).

As a woman who has had trouble almost all her life with her ‘real’ name vs. her ‘nickname,’ I think a lot about this odd combination of names. I was named after my grandmother Sara Johnsone, who was known as Sallie. I learned many years later that my mother didn’t like the name Sara, but gave her consent to my father’s suggestion on the condition that I would be called Sally. I changed the spelling to match my grandmother’s spelling when I was in sixth grade.

So you might think even I was confused about my name, at least about its spelling. At my haircutting establishment, I am known as Sallie-Sara, a name I’m getting fond of, although originally I was outraged at the ignorance it conveyed. You see, once-upon-a-time, most women named Sally, Sallie, or Salli (I even knew a Sallee) were christened as Sarah or Sara. Becoming Sally was an endearment name, allowed to immediate family members and intimate acquaintances. Those were the days when a girl named Molly was officially Mary, when Betsy was assumed to be Elizabeth, and Peggy was predictably Margaret.

When I meet someone as old (or older) than I whose name is Sally, the first question after introductions is usually, “So, is your real name Sarah?” But younger Sallys are usually just Sally (Dick and Jane, Puff and Spot helped, no doubt, with the transition). If I ask them if they are Sarah—they look at me dumbfounded. Huh?

Abe Lincoln referred to his wife as Molly, and no one said, “Excuse me, Mrs. President, I thought your wife’s name was Mary.” If my younger acquaintances know me as Sara and hear my husband refer to me as Sallie, I usually get called on it immediately. Sallie? I thought your name was Sara! When I endorse a check payable to Sallie to the bank, I sign it twice, once as Sallie, the second time as Sara. One day a teller asked me, “So, who is this Sallie person you always sign for? She your daughter?” That day I changed my personal data at the bank to list Sallie as an AKA. Even Hubby asked me once why I didn’t just legally change my name to Sallie? But I love my real name and knowing I was named after my grandmother.

When I read that Franklin Delano’s mother’s name was Sara, but she was known as Sallie all her life (yes, spelled exactly those ways), I got very excited. Most things I read are forgotten within a few days; not this piece of trivia! Oh, and did I mention my doctor’s name is Sara and is known as Sallie? On the roster of practitioners at her office, she is listed as Sallie Sara Dacey, MD. So confusion reigns for all of us Sallie/Saras, Sara/Sallies and whatever else we’re known as. Call me anything but late for dinner.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I've been looking through old files of essays I've written over the years. This one, from early 1986, struck me as appropriate for Valentine's Day. To my children with love . . .


When I add together my four children’s ages, the sum is seventy-eight years. Seven-eight years of child raising has been telescoped into twenty-two calendar years. No small accomplishment, I think to myself. No wonder I have graying hair, a dumpy figure, slumping posture, and feel tired by nine o’clock each night.

I figure I’ve prepared over 85,000 individual meals, of which easily 10,000 were received with less than all-out enthusiasm, from strained carrots blown back across the handle of the baby spoon, to green pasta booed off the table and into the garbage can amid cheers. I’m beginning to comprehend why I feel uninspired as a cook.

I also understand, now that I begin my calculations, why we use one tube of toothpaste every week and why the shampoo bottle is always empty. We’ve worn out two refrigerators, one and three-quarters wash machines, five irons and four toasters. Actually, the irons didn’t wear out. One by one, they met violent (if accidental) deaths, knocked off the ironing board onto the cement floor as children chased each other around the basement on wintry, snowbound days or let teenaged roughhousing get out of hand.

In the seventy-eight child rearing years, their father and I changed about 12,000 diapers and spent approximately 9,000 minutes as instructors of student drivers. We paid for 1,000 days of braces, attended nearly sixty school concerts, more than 150 athletic events, and fifty Open Houses over fourteen autumns.

There is no way to tally the chats, nose wiping, or nights spent waiting for fevers to break. I have long ceased trying to recount the gut-spilling bedtime talks. And worry? Try 365 days times seventy-eight.

But sometimes unexpected insights appear, allowing me measure the outcome of all that toil and energy. Yesterday in our kitchen I overheard this conversation.

17-year-old son: I can’t believe how rude some of my friends are. I don’t think they’ve ever been taught any manners.

19-year-old son: Yeah, no having manners is really a disadvantage, Most people I know are all so rude!

17-year-old son: I know how to act at a nice restaurant or a play, or anything like that. I kinda feel sorry for people who don’t know how to behave in public.

19-year-old son: Right, it sort of makes you more secure if you have manners.

17-year-old-son: Actually, we were really lucky to learn good manners.

19-year-old son: Yeah, even though I used to think Mom was stupid to keep talking about them, she was right on.

The seventy-eight years melt away and I, this newly congratulated parent, find myself standing a little straighter, tummy tucked in and head held high. (The gray isn’t as visible with my head up.) I’m smiling, but there are tears in my eyes, too.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Staying put for now

We picked up our escrow check after signing a form stating that we were withdrawing our offer for the condo, based on findings in the inspection. Now it's time to lick wounds and wind down from the frantic activities of the last seven days. Our house hunt will resume in a while, but I'm taking a vacation from thinking about it for a three day weekend, with bookend days on either side. Maybe about next Wednesday I'll start watching listings again.

Meanwhile, let me take a moment to praise a very nice realtor who--as much as he must have wanted our purchase to go through--was understanding and pleasant, even as he handed back our check. If you live in my neck-of-the-woods and you're looking for a reliable, honest, professional realtor (who is also a gentleman), let me know. I'll be happy to provide his name.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Condo . . . lences?

Yesterday I sat in the middle of the empty living room at our "new" condo, imagining furniture placement and enjoying watching the way the sunlight flooded the carpet. After measuring kitchen shelves, I relaxed for a few minutes and became fascinated with the light patterns on the walls. Periodically I’d wander about another room to satisfy my internal questions—how big is that closet? is there an outlet on the stair-landing? would the little mahogany chest fit on that wall?. Just think, I told myself, this fascinating home will be mine soon! Hard to believe we had finally found something we both wanted to live in after looking almost a year for "the right place."

All the while I measured and mused, the home inspector did his thing. That's why we were there. I would measure, make a floor plan, and muse; Hubby would shadow the inspector. For almost three hours Hubby did just that: listening and learning about the outer and inner workings of the house. Oh, the inspector looked at a lot of items visible-to-me, too—the stove, the dishwasher, the furnace and its thermostat, microwave, disposal—and checked out everything to make sure they worked OK. He was thorough, pleasant and professional.

The inspector found some areas of concern in the 'bowels' of the house. When he showed us pictures of what he’d found in the crawlspace, Hubby frowned—fully understanding their implications. I was oblivious and spent the evening imagining where I would hang pictures and store my dishes. Hubby, on the other hand, thought through the remedies and repercussions of the inspector's findings. This morning we got a final written report with details and photo corroboration of what the inspector saw. Problems. Now we have some serious stuff to sort through.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Night Terrors

Terrors in the night . . . that’s what both Hubby and I are experiencing as we near the finish line in our house hunt. We made an offer—and after a very long twenty-four hours, just got our answer. We’re moving to a condo!

We’ve never moved intentionally before, we realized yesterday. Our first studio apartment (kitchen plus living room with a Murphy bed) was too small for three, so we found a two bedroom flat with plenty of room for our new baby. It was perfect for the three of us, especially because the baby’s room opened into the kitchen where, as a dutiful young stay-at-home wife and mother, I spent much of my time. I could maintain constant contact with my baby as I ironed, cooked, folded laundry, etc. (before baby monitors were invented).

Our next move was landlord-induced a year later, as she frowned mightily at my growing belly and proclaimed that “One was OK, but two are not acceptable.” Hubby and I spent a month in a panic—trying to find a rental that was child-friendly and had amenities within walking distance for the stay-at-home mom; we had only one car. We found a place—a duplex situated in what looked like a strip mall. I had nightmares then, too, after we signed the lease and put down the first month’s rent. I kept reading “Houses for Rent” want ads, knowing I could convince hubby of the wisdom in losing our deposit if I could find a more wholesome and convenient place for our growing family. I found an ad that sounded too good to be true, and knew I had to act fast.

My dear friend, Karen, who was working at the YWCA in Seattle’s U District then, agreed to go with me that night to look at the house. (Hubby was unavailable because he was moonlighting at an evening job.) My mother babysat with her sleeping granddaughter while Karen and I drove my mother’s car to look at the empty rental. It was love at first sight; I agreed to lease it on the spot, pending my husband’s approval, which I knew I’d get. It was a wonderful place to live, and we stayed for three years, during which time our two older sons were born. But . . . with the eminent arrival of our third son/fourth child, the up-to-that-point-very-nice landlady paid us a visit. “No more kids in this house,” she said—and then apologized for sounding harsh. “You’ve been wonderful tenants, but there’s just too much wear and tear on the property.” We were off on another house hunt, panicked! Who in his right mind would rent to a family of six?

Thanks to the generosity of my mother, we were able to assume a mortgage on a large house in a friendly neighborhood with plenty of space for the children to play and excellent nearby schools. But four years later came the unexpected: all untenured faculty was to be laid off from the university where Hubby was teaching. Our next move was once again necessity based. After an arduous job hunt, Hubby took a job at Marquette University. We sold our house and relocated to Milwaukee.

Not knowing the city, the schools, the neighborhoods—we decided to rent for a year before locking ourselves into home ownership. We rented half a triplex (yes, that is NOT a typo) in a good school district and a neighborhood that came highly recommended. The kids had to be shushed up from time to time (both the other tenants lived above us, which was lucky, and they were very nice, besides)—so sharing walls proved challenging. By the following school year we bought an old house (circa 1920) a few miles away where the kids could gallop up and down stairs, build things in the basement, and yell as much as they liked. It was a wonderful house for a family of six. Hubby and I shared one tiny closet in our master bedroom and crammed off-season clothing and all other occasional-use stuff in its walk-up attic. I always expected to see the ghost of Miss Havisham sitting in her bridal gown whenever I went up there to retrieve or deposit stuff.

When all four kids graduated from high school, a tantalizing opportunity beckoned Hubby and we returned to Seattle. In keeping with our “let’s get a lay of the land” approach to housing, we rented for a year, then bought the house we’re still in today Needless to say, we looked for a house with ample closets! We’ve lived here for twenty-three years. And what memorable years they’ve been.

Yesterday we wrote an offer on a condominium about twenty miles from where we live now (in Seattle’s little-sister city of Bellevue) on twenty-five acres called Woodcreek. It’s a development of 150 homes, made up of clustered and landscaped four-plexes. Bellevue is a thriving city with its own respectable high-rise skyline bordering Redmond . . . and generously hosts its rush-hour roads and lunchtime restaurants for a large percentage of Microsoft’s 43,000 employees. Woodcreek is in an area of single family homes and condominium communities built in the seventies and eighties. The residents and realtors all tell of the golden era of Woodcreek (before the recent real estate ‘bust’) when these homes didn’t even get listed with realtors. According to them, you just whispered to someone you were going to move, they told a friend, and three degrees of separation later, you got your asking price—and then some. Now there are a half-dozen units for sale—some on the market already for several months.

Hubby and I ask ourselves, “WHY ARE WE DOING this crazy THING?” We love our neighborhood, our nearby friends, our comfy old patterns. Then we answer each other: BECAUSE condo living makes sense as we age; BECAUSE we want to have less property to care for; BECAUSE we want to be closer to more amenities; BECAUSE change is good and less is more. Less house = more time to play. We've been looking in earnest for almost a year. Nothing until now has appealed.

“WHAT WERE WE THINKING!” the nightmare begins again. ARE WE CRAZY? We will downsize a little bit; sort out twenty-three years worth of junk; host a great rummage sale; start over fresh in an intentional move! Our own dear house will go on the market soon; we will be in chaos and turmoil for the foreseeable future. More . . . later. But now you know why we are having night terrors.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Green line of moments

Who says time moves slowly? Only the young.

Check out this 24 hour clock to watch life going by.

From the top down, you can see the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years whooshing past the green line. I hate to think of squandering time, but it's fun to look at this graphic. It might even might be a good stepping off point for meditation.

If that's too graphic for you, try this one: