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Archive for the ‘What Really Matters’ Category

Do Manners Still Matter?

A teenager pulls into the handicapped space at the store and flicks her cigarette on the ground as she rushes by you. A dad in a pickup truck snags the parking space you’ve been waiting for just as its occupant backs out. The store clerk ignores you to talk on the phone while you stand there, fuming.

If you leave home today, you’ll probably deal with at least one such scenario. Even if you stay in, some telemarketer is likely to call right when dinner’s on the table and rush through his script without asking if it’s convenient for you to talk. Suddenly you no longer feel like being polite as you hang up.

Whatever happened to old-fashioned manners? In one U.S. News and World Report/Bozell poll, a whopping 89% of respondents believed that incivility is a serious problem, 91 percent said it contributes to violence, and 84% said it erodes moral values. Three out of four Americans felt that incivility was getting worse. And sometimes it looks like there’s a whole new crop of kids coming of age that have a permanent case of the rudeness virus, with a good dash of meanness thrown in.

I first noticed this when my son was in preschool. He used to come home regularly and announce things like “Grant punched me in the stomach today, and I cried.” Early on, I tried to talk to him about the golden rule. “If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you,” I said. “If you share with them, they’ll share with you.” I had this conversation with him when he was just three years old. He looked at me gravely.  “Mommy,” he said gently, the way the nice nurses talked to the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  “They don’t share with me when I share with them. And they’re not nice.”

Even if kids aren’t more aggressive than they used to be, it sure FEELS that way, and isn’t that just as bad?  It’s like Rosie O’Donnell’s line in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. During a meeting, all of the women are hotly contesting a survey that says a woman over 40 is more likely to get shot by a terrorist than to get married. “That’s not true,” the women all insist. “That statistic is NOT TRUE.” “Maybe it’s not,” Rosie deadpanned. “But it FEELS true.”

So how do we teach our children to be civilized when all they see when they look around is evidence that the law of the jungle applies—that bigger, stronger, meaner kids get all the goodies in life? How do you teach kids to wait their turn when we’re stuck in traffic and they see car after car zooming down the shoulder, squeezing in ahead of everyone else? How do you emphasize self-control when so many adults around them routinely refuse to play by the kindergarten rules: share, wait your turn, and be nice?

You’d think that people who work in customer service would have this stuff down, but it seems the new policy is “How to Give Service With a Snarl.” People skills are apparently no longer a requirement. I walked in to get a haircut the other day and was ignored for 10 minutes by three stylists who refused to acknowledge my existence with even a “Hi—I’ll be right with you.”

People who work in the service industry, of course, have their own complaints: long hours, inefficient procedures, and impolite customers, whose behavior they may use to justify their own nastiness. But as someone who was taught to always be polite, I am astounded by the behavior that I see. Then again, I’m the kind of person who bumps into a mannequin and says “excuse me.”

Remember the “Practice random acts of kindness” movement that swept the country a few years ago? Maybe it’s time for a revival. Try holding the door for the person walking in the drugstore behind you, or offer to help that irritated mom struggling to carry a stroller down the stairs at the airport. You may inspire someone else to act a little better, too. At the very least, you’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.

Bad-ass on the inside

So I’ve been thinking about the phrase “growing old gracefully” lately. And I’ve decided it’s a crock.

I have no desire to grow old gracefully. The people I love and admire most are the ones who are kicking ASS while they’re growing old…joining roller derby teams at 40, teaching themselves to become mosaic artists at 50, moving to another country when they’re 70, skydiving at 80. What separates them from the people who get stuck in a rut and come home to the same TV shows night after night? It has to be a willingness to get out of your comfort zone. To embrace change. To look goofy. To BE goofy.

That’s where I think the magic happens–outside of your comfort zone. So as I head towards 50, even as MS makes my body weaker and more frail, I’ve decided to take more risks, not less. Double down on my mistakes and failures. Wear my tiara more.  Look more ridiculous (my teenager would argue that’s not really possible). And rock my purple lipstick, even when my best friends tell me it makes me look like I should be floating at the bottom of the river.

Here’s the deal: the older I get, the more I suspect that our business–our real business–is to be happy today.  And to help others be happy, too.  I know 80-year-olds who have more enthusiasm, passion, and joy in life than some 20-year-olds. When I grow up, I’m gonna be like them. As George Burns said, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

And I’m going to order myself a t-shirt that says “Bad-ass on the inside.”

Today’s top story: “Most people are decent”

Breaking news: “Most people are decent.”
That’s one headline you’ll never see leading off the daily newscast. But maybe, once in a while, it should.

For a news junkie like me, the world looks downright hopeless lately. Unemployment is still north of about 9 percent. We are in chaos: embittered, frustrated and scared.

The news bombards us daily with stories of murder, environmental disasters, massive deficits and debt, never-ending bloody wars, and a Congress that makes the Middle East conflict look reasonable.

Ask any journalist, and he or she will tell you, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

But when I look beyond the fear-based headlines, I see quiet stars that glimmer in the darkness of these days. I see my neighbor across the street who voluntarily mows my next-door neighbor’s lawn because she lives alone.

When the gate was left open, and he spotted my little white dog trotting toward the highway last week, he coaxed her into following him back home. When I thanked him profusely for finding my baby, he simply said, “That’s what neighbors do.”

I think about the middle-aged dad in the red Camaro who drove up beside me two minutes after I blew out a tire on Interstate 35 last month. As I sat there deciding what to do, this total stranger in his perfectly pressed khaki pants crawled underneath my car in 100-plus degree heat to put on my spare, waved off my attempt to pay him and disappeared.

I am acutely aware of these gifts, these blessings that seem to appear around me without any effort on my part. So I started thinking about other angels who are roaming around town in street clothes.

Last year in Hickory Creek, a mom lost her husband unexpectedly, leaving her with no insurance and two young kids to support. Local moms Jenni Bresler and Robyn Hirneise gathered donations at a warehouse for a week, then held a garage sale, netting over $3,000 that they gave to the young widow. I remember pulling up with my SUV full of items to a line stretched around the block. It seemed everyone in the Lake Cities was there, waiting patiently to give.

From my friend Char’s cousin’s Facebook page: “Thank you to total stranger Kevin Fairfax. I ran out of gas (duh) at MLK and St. Clair. Kevin stopped to see if I needed help, then took me to his house, got a can of gas, and I was rescued. Thank you, kind stranger.”

From my 87-year-old friend, Ina: “I go to Baylor Dental for my teeth. The parking lot at the entrance charges $5 a day with no attendant. I only had a $20 bill, so I asked a young woman walking by if she had change. She said no, but she handed me a $5 bill. When I mailed her the money back, I included a note of thanks and told her that that it gave me hope to know that there are still kind people who trust each other. Her answer was, ‘It’s a sad day when we can’t help each other out in this world.’”

From my sister: “I was so distracted after my second child was born that I accidentally left my purse in the shopping cart at the grocery store. When I went back, someone had actually turned it in — along with the $400 in cash inside that was for the nanny. A couple of months later, I found a wallet on the street. My daughter and I tracked down the owner and returned it to her.”

The web of community is not found in the streets, buildings or city hall — it’s created when we give something back.

Few of us will perform great acts in our lives, but we can all perform many small acts of generosity. This feels suspiciously like grace to me, this ability to give a kindness as well as accept one. And I don’t believe it’s random. I think it’s a choice we can make every day.

Lindsey Townsend of Lake Dallas is co-authoring a book on Letting Go (@LettingGobook on Twitter) and former editor of Dallas Home Design and Dallas Woman. She is also a Community Voices volunteer columnist and blogs for the Dallas Morning News. Her website is www.lindseytownsend.com. Her email address is lindseytownsend@live.com.

Pursuing Perfection

I’m not proud of this, mind you, but I am just a teensy bit influenced by mass media. This is an occupational downside that comes with being a writer who reads obsessively and thinks too much.

Case in point: cover blurbs on magazines tend to annoy me. Just yesterday my favorite home and garden magazine arrived in the mail, testily ordering me to GET THE LOOK.

Which prompted me to challenge, in only a slightly angry way, what exactly is THE LOOK? Is it something impossible for me to grasp, but obvious to everyone else in the room…kind of like the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously defined pornography: “I know it when I see it”?

More than 92% of homeowners report that the images they are bombarded with of high-end homes in the media make them feel their home is inadequate by comparison, according to a statistic I just made up.

First it was the super-models who established the standards we “normal” women will never meet: 5’9 and 110 pounds, with nary an age spot, stretch mark, or blemish on those airbrushed, lithesome limbs.  Now it’s the million-dollar homes we see everywhere that are setting the bar just a tad too high.

Where are the scratch marks from Hot Wheels on these homeowners’ hand-scraped walnut floors? Has no child ever left a chocolate stain on their supple Italian leather sofa…as mine did just last week? (Ok, you sticklers for editorial accuracy, it might have been my Ghiradelli bar).

As a faithful estate-sale shopper, I want my home to be both beautiful and comfortable. Casual elegance is the goal. But the reality of life–kids, dogs, friends–all too often collides with my pursuit of the “perfect home.” My rebel response: let’s define what the “perfect” home really is. It’s the one filled with the things that you love and that matter deeply to you.

And yes, that just might include “tacky” photographs on the fridge of the people you love.

Build your home around the things you identify with, historically, symbolically, or literally, and I promise you: you will discover THE LOOK. For example, hope and humor glimmer throughout my friend Lindy’s French Powder Room, the one she painted and decorated after a devastating divorce. Its French accessories, purple silk shower curtain, and black-and white-photos remind her of a trip she took toParisto heal her soul. “I even painted a reproduction of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Can Can scene and hung it across from the toilet,” she says. “So whenever someone’s on the can, they can view the ‘Can Can!’”

Instead of striving for someone else’s idea of perfection, let’s all just relax already. Let your instincts guide your decorating inspirations, and feather your nest with the things that make your heart sing, not the latest trend from a designer who doesn’t know you or what you value.

“The perfect home does not have to look like a spread from Architectural Digest,” says my wise friend Diane. “I feel my home is “perfect” when someone walks in and makes that contented “o-o-h” sound, which tells me they find my home peaceful, comfortable and welcoming.”

A perfect response, indeed.

Life’s Not Fair

Japan got decimated with a tsunami. We didn’t.  That’s not fair.

Millions of babies around the world die from famine and lack of clean water every year. Mine didn’t. That’s not fair.

I complain because every time I turn around, there is a mountain of clothes to wash. Other people don’t have anything more than the clothes on their back. That’s not fair.

Here are 29 other ways I have benefitted from life not being fair:

1. I did not die when I went whitewater rafting in Class V rapids, the boat went down and I dislocated my shoulder.

2. I have a healthy son who is the light of my life.

3. I had the courage to leave Chicago. And start over.

4. I know what love is.

5. I have never personally experienced domestic violence.

6. I have never lost a child to war.

7. I have never personally experienced racial prejudice.

8. My parents did not abandon me in an orphanage.

9. I was an adult before I lost my parents.

10. I’ve been stupid enough to drive after drinking but lucky enough that I never hurt anyone.

11. All of my mammograms have come back clear.

12. I was born in the U.S.

13.  I was able to pay my bills this month.

14.  I have health insurance.

15. I did not hit my son that time I pulled in the garage and didn’t see him standing there against the wall.

16. My plane has never crashed.

17. I have a home that brings me joy and a payment we can afford without stress.

18. I belong to an amazing book club.

19. I hung around with some very bad people when I was younger but nothing really bad ever happened to me.

20. I’ve had MS for 12 years and you would never know it by looking at me.

21.  I’ve had a car and a driver’s license since I was 16.

22. I started getting paid to ride horses when I was 14.

23. I grew up in a safe, beautiful place where I could explore outdoors.

24. I spent the last two weeks of my mom’s life with her and was there to hold her hand for her final breath.

25. I have a supportive husband who is fine with me working my own schedule and making less money so that I can be the parent I want to be.

26. My inlaws are loving.

27. I had a father who taught me that people are more important than things.

28. I have lifelong relationships with girlfriends.

29. I have a sister I love who understands my family’s own particular brand of insanity.

Enjoying Every Sandwich

Photo courtesy: http://www.freeimages.co.uk/

Despite the fact that all my best body parts have apparently decided to head south for a permanent vacation, I still believe in magic.

Just think about all the everyday miracles that we take for granted in our 21st-century brave new world.  Airplanes that fly.  Seeds that turn into flowers. Computers that let you chat with a friend in Australia as easily as the neighbor next door, as well as see a picture of her two-year-old daughter.

Life is basically a risky business, one in which we all eventually have to learn to live with the loss of many things sacred to us, whether it’s the wedding ring that disappears in the bathroom one day, the best friend who fades out of our life, or the soul mate who got away. The trick, I think, is having the courage to go forward into the unknown, because it is increasingly clear to me that old age—if we’re lucky enough to get there—is no place for sissies.

I was at an awards banquet the other night and ran into someone I know professionally. I asked about a mutual acquaintance of ours, a writer about my age.  Martha gave me a strange look. “Suzanne passed away two months ago,” she said. “Didn’t you hear? She contracted some kind of virus, and it took her pretty quickly.”

I was floored. Although Suzanne wasn’t a close friend of mine, we were always friendly when we saw each other. Now that I’ve heard the news, her shadow has decided to follow me around. Here she was, a woman just like me…caught up worrying about her latest work project, thinking about wallpapering the kitchen, calling the phone company to straighten out a bill, having an argument with her husband. And then one day, despite the fact that her in-box was still overflowing and the laundry wasn’t done, she was gone.

She was a fellow night owl who also preferred to work when everyone else has gone to bed and all the good ideas are just lingering in the air, ripe for the picking. Once I sent her an e-mail at 1:00 a.m. and was shocked when her “Hi out there” came back to me instantly. It felt like trekking through the Sahara desert, a thousand miles from civilization, and running into an old friend from high school at the oasis. I rather liked the idea that somewhere out there in the black night someone was toiling away, alone with her thoughts, just as I was.

Since I have heard about Suzanne’s passing, I have become aware of every extra day I have been given that she has not. I find myself sitting in traffic no longer cursing the time I’m wasting, but enjoying the beauty of the shifting clouds in the sky. I read the obituary page, looking for a man or woman younger than me who has died. I always find one.

We always know at some intellectual level that we’re going to die, but we don’t really believe it, do we? We’re too busy.  Now’s not a good time. In Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Morrie says that in order to be prepared to die, we should think about the little bird. “Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?”

So these days I think a lot about that little bird. And I’m paying attention to those little joys that are tucked into the pockets of the ragged patchwork quilt of my life. Cold pillows. No-lick stamps. People who make me laugh. Books that make me cry. Music that makes me remember. A steaming cup of tea. Teenagers who still say, “I love you too.” Friends who are always there when I say “I need to talk.” Seeing a pelican on the shore. Plain M & Ms. A sister who understands my family’s particular insanity. Any houseplant I buy that survives more than three weeks.

These days, those simple pleasures mean more to me than any high-ticket item at Nordstrom’s.

How about you? What everyday miracles are you grateful for in your life?