Tuesday, November 11, 2014

And Now, A Break for Some Inspiration

More like random thoughts, actually.  I've been pinning thoughts to a board since I heard of Pinterest. Here's a sampling.  Didn't realize how much I like simple black and white.  Have a good day.

Add caption
Real Simple emails these gems every day.

This site has several great ideas.
This image from here
This image from here 
Found this on Brain Pickings, a site I read every day.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Veteran's Day Eve At the Post Office

Busy day at the post office, partly because tomorrow is Veteran's Day.  Some people actually knew the post office would be closed tomorrow, and were mailing early.  Many of these people (at least twenty) still asked if we would be open tomorrow, Veteran's Day, notwithstanding.  I gleefully told them we would be closed.

Some people (at least six) had come to the post office expecting it to be closed.  I know this because they said things like, "I thought you would be closed today," as they handed me items to mail.  After the first two, I stopped replying, "but here you are anyway..." Of course these people thought today was Veteran's Day, because all of our holidays have been converted to Mondays and Fridays to give us three day weekends. Several people, all apparently under thirty, expressed indignation at the notion of a non-Monday holiday when places like the post office would be closed, because really, what good is that?  

The onslaught of cool weather in the rest of the country has brought back many of our "snow-birds" who are still adjusting to life  in the desert.  They still seem a little bewildered-- maybe because they only need a light sweater when they go out in the morning and they are already hot by noon, when the temperatures are in the low eighties.  Year-round residents comment about how beautiful and "crisp" the weather is, how we've been waiting for it.  Snowbirds ask when it will cool off.  

It is the bewildered snow birds who were out in force today, asking about why the mail cost so much, and misinterpreting the meaning of "flat rate box."  The advertising wizards working for the US Postal Service have definitely scored with their message that there is a cheaper way to send mail anywhere in the U.S., but they have somehow failed to convey that "cheaper" isn't actually cheap-- cheap, meaning free.  "What about those ifitfitsitships boxes?  What about those?  I thought they were free."  Yeah. The boxes are free.  I'll give you the box... but they still cost something to mail when you pack them full of stuff and want to send them across the country.  

These are the same people who say things like, "No wonder the Post Office is losing money.  These prices are crazy."  This was from a woman buying a stamp.  Forty-nine cents, Oy!  She remembers last year, when they were thirty-nine... (They were forty six cents until this January.)

It was a stamp purchaser who won the prize today too. After asking for a book of stamps, and being asked which book of stamps she wanted, she said "The forever ones."  

"All of those are the forever ones, we have about twenty different kinds,"  I said, I thought I was being  helpful.  

"I want Liberty Bells."  I explained that those have not been available for a couple of years.  

"I need forty of them," she added. 

"No liberty bells, how about forty flags, or birds, or Santas?"

Heavy sigh.  "I really liked those liberty bells.  Just give me forty of anything." I pulled out two books of the flags.

"No, not those," she said.  I switched the flags for birds.  "Okay, but I need forty of them."

"This is forty, twenty on each sheet, eight on the front and twelve on the back." I pointed to each stamp to make it clear. 
This image is from here.
  It shows how the stamps in question appear on the sheet.

She took them reluctantly and proceeded to count them. "I need forty." She counted the first sheet. Twenty. Okay.
Then she counted the second, identical, sheet.  Twenty, she reluctantly conceded.

The line had built up behind her, but I couldn't help asking, "You didn't believe me, did you?" as she handed me her debit card.  
"It never hurts to check," she said sharply.  

To all the Veterans from all of us who owe them so much, a big thank you!  And not just for the chance to spend a day away from work...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Lament

I may have written before about my ambivalence toward Sundays.  

It's really more of a Sunday afternoon problem.  Sunday mornings are great. Even if you sleep in, there's usually a nice fat Sunday paper to look at and coupons to cut and crosswords to work on while you eat a late breakfast. It's still the weekend.  What could be wrong? 

But Sunday morning always turns into Sunday afternoon. Whether you are out after brunch or finishing up those nagging weekend chores or watching a game, the realization that the weekend is slipping away always intrudes.  Monday looms like the shadow of a dark tower over the sunny Sunday afternoon. (Can you hear the dramatic music?  Dum Dum DUM)

For me, it often hits around three o'clock, when I start to quiz the girls about whether they've done their homework.  Every little piece of clutter I see begins to irritate me because I know that it all has to be picked up and put away so that the week can start again.  The week will start again anyway, of course, but starting a Monday morning with the disarray of half-finished puzzles and not-quite-dry art projects and dishes from Sunday dinner congealing in the sink is somehow more Monday than I can handle.  

I walked around the apartment in circles for about forty five minutes, picking up here and putting away there, cleaning tables and wiping counters, barking directions at the girls and generally ruining everyone's relaxed Sunday mood.  Just so I wouldn't hate Monday so much. It's great when things are all about me and my need to control the world. 

The backpacks are ready. Showers are done and clothes are put away. The arena is clear. 

Was it worth it?  I'm kicking myself now, because I hate ruining Sunday, but if we get out on time tomorrow morning, maybe I won't feel so bad.  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Yep, It's A Bunch of New Yorker Cartoons (About Philosophy)

Still trying to work that post a day thing... but I used up all of my energy doing laundry this morning.  Then I had to lie down.  Energy crisis or existential crisis?  

When I felt better, I went looking for philosophy cartoons.  Full credit goes to the New Yorker... because really, where else are they running philosophy cartoons?

See you tomorrow.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Indispensable at Work Isn't All it's Cracked up to Be.

It did turn out to be food poisoning yesterday, so I am better today, but the idea of food is still not too attractive.  But now you know, if you live nearby or hugged me recently, you won't be coming down with a stomach bug-- at least not because of me.

I had to leave work early because-- well really, because I shouldn't have gone to work in the first place-- I was sick and dizzy and utterly misguided about why it was important to go and stand behind the post office counter even though I was barely able to stand at all.  

I had promised to be there.  I was on the schedule.  People were counting on me... Yada yada yada.  

Somehow though, when I left, the postal world didn't stop spinning.  They managed without me. 

In real life, I don't think I'm indispensable, but in work situations, I somehow build up an idea that I HAD TO BE THERE.  But no.  Especially sick, where I really just caused more difficulty for everyone, including one poor customer who will bear the psychological scars of seeing me sink to the floor, ready to yiff, just as she launched into an explanation of her cell phone problem and why she had to send it back.  

Everyone wants to feel needed, I think.  Appreciated, at least, for contributions valuable to a team effort.  In our work lives, this often becomes the highest compliment-- "We couldn't do this without you." And since our economic stability is tied to our continued usefulness on the job, comments like these give us a little security. Worthiness and security are pretty important to most of us, but in a way, these values are constantly used to get more and more out of employees.  This happens especially often in a job market where employers feel more than comfortable letting employees know that there is someone waiting to take their job if they can't manage to meet expectations. Can anyone remember when we had a job market that wasn't like this? Yeah, me neither. 

But really... unless you are the world's leading brain surgeon, or the person in your region  who is most adept at defusing hostage situations, you are probably not indispensable at work.  Does everyone else's day go more smoothly when you show up?  Well, yeah, of course. Do you add a certain something and excel at your job?  That's awesome, but think about the pressure this adds to your work life.  I know, for sure, that someone else could do my job.  I just trained someone, and someone trained me.  Do I do my job well? fast? courteously?  Yes, but that doesn't mean someone else can't do it.  I work for a low wage, doing simple tasks. I like the location and the hours, and the fact that sometimes, like now, I can work on my own things while I'm here.  Sometimes I'm rushed and stressed and extremely busy-- Tax Day, Holiday Season, I'm thinking of you-- but let's face it, if I couldn't work here any more, someone else could do my job.

And I'm glad, really. I'd rather be an indispensable wife, or mom, or daughter.  These are tasks I don't always excel at, either, so it's good to remember that this is where I should be putting my effort, this is where I should be worried about being replaceable.  

I was down for the count by the time Mike and the girls came home last night-- 5 pm was as far as I could get yesterday.  Even though daddy was on duty and the evening went smoothly without me, the girls seemed pretty relieved that I was up this morning, doing my usual school day/work day prep.  It's too bad I had to feel so awful yesterday to be reminded about real indispensability today.  

Clever cartoon from here.  Wish I was as clever.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Two Words

The only thing I'm not completely sure of is which two words.

They're either:

Stomach Virus or Food Poisoning.

(Looks more poetic when I divide the lines up, huh?)

Anyway, in either case, I have been sick for almost 24 hours, so I'm hoping that whatever the cause, it's gone in the morning.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Conversation with an Actual Voter... Kinda

I was so wrapped up in boasting about my own voting yesterday, that I forgot to mention something election-related that happened at the bike shop post office this week.

On Monday, the day before election day, a fit, mussed, fortyish looking guy, wearing a plain white undershirt and a pair of blue pajama bottoms-- flannel, large plaid-- came up to the desk waving the yellow envelope that held his early ballot.  He wanted to drop it in the mail.  Not so unusual, people had been dropping them off for a couple of weeks. 

But, since the deadline for mailing the early ballots had fallen on the previous Thursday, I thought I would be helpful and let pajama guy know that, for his ballot to count, he would need to drop it off at a polling place. He was not the first citizen to have missed or simply ignored the deadline printed in red capital letters on the envelope.  I had already let a couple of people know they would have to drop their ballots off in person. They had thanked me.

"Where is one by here?" he asked, giving me the impression that maybe he didn't know what a polling place was. 

"At the high school gym, over on 82nd, or the middle school, off Granite Reef," I answered.  He still looked a little mystified about the fact that his ballot couldn't just be dropped off in the mail slot.  He looked annoyed that I had stopped him, actually.  He just wanted to drop off the ballot and be done.

He took a big breath, and sighed, and said, "OK, I guess I can go by there now." 

"No," I said, "there's no voting today, so you have to wait until tomorrow." 

Seriously, he asked me why he had to wait for Election Day for the polls to be open.

"They only have one Election Day, so no one's there for that now," I explained. 

"I can't just drop it off there? Won't they take it?" He was really annoyed now, wishing he'd never come in.  He could have dropped the yellow envelope into the mailbox in the parking lot and avoided this confrontational woman trying to keep him from voting...

"There's only voting on Election Day," I repeated, as though that would clarify things.  

"They only do it one day?" He looked disgusted, really miffed, as though something about having only one day to vote was deeply unfair.

"Yeah," I said, and because I couldn't help myself, I added, "that's why they call it Election Day." 

I don't think I was dripping sarcasm, exuding it maybe, but not dripping, for sure.  

He turned and shuffled away in his slippers, shaking his head about the stupidity of it all.  

I know now, from the results of the election, that he probably did get to have his vote counted.  

From the ice cream mogul my state has elected as the next governor to the evasively inarticulate gal we've selected to be our state superintendent of schools, to the prison lobbyist who will be serving as attorney general, the results are pretty disappointing from where I sit.  The current governor, Jan Brewer, beamed and fluttered her false eyelashes on every local newscast as the election returns came in last night.  The gal who rose to national  fame thanks to the viral image in which she popped her gum and wagged her finger in the face of the President, is apparently happy about the prospect of a slate of state officials who will ensure that Arizona will never escape her legacy of governmental buffoonery. 

On the upside, my town finally voted for a budget override that will put some money back into education. I'm going to take that as a victory, and try to ignore the rest for the next few years...

Full disclosure:  I confess to a nagging sense of judgement about the whole early voting thing.  I get absentee ballots-- you're out of the country, the state, what have you, you don't want to be disenfranchised-- but early voting when you're right here in town?  You can't take a couple of minutes to go to the polls on the same day as everyone else?  I'm sure there are good reasons for sending in an early ballot, so I know my judgey attitude is illogical, but still, come on, really?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Day

Yes, I voted today.  

I wish I could say it was a show of my optimism and deep belief in democracy.  Unfortunately, as I get older, it's a more curmudgeonly urge that gets me to the polls.  I have a vague, but persistent notion that I forfeit my right to complain about the foibles and mishaps of the local and federal governments if I don't at least do my minimal civic duty to participate in the process.  And I like to complain, I really do, so I put on my sweater and made my way to my polling place at the local high school gym this morning.  

In this election, as in the last, school funding was my pet issue.  Though I live in a community which has a lot of children who attend public schools, the voting population seems be comprised of single young adults and retirees who shudder at the thought of their tax dollars being allocated to the education of future tax payers. I say those retirees may be well out of it, but those young singles better be planning to move somewhere else when they need to get expert medical help in twenty years.  I voted for school funding because, at this rate, our children will go back to doing their figuring on slates that they bring to school themselves for the few hours it can be held open, given budget constraints. This year, one day a week has been shortened and music and art have been slashed because funding can't be found. 

Seriously, if I wanted my children to be philistines with extra free time, I would home school them.  

Of course, there were major races for governor, attorney general, senate and house seats, etc.  I had some strong ideas about these, and voted accordingly.  But there was also the whole back side of the ballot, which I confess I almost missed.  It was a list of judges, with the question of whether each of them should be retained.  It must have been over twenty people I'd never heard of and had no opinion about. I know that displays a deplorably casual attitude about civic affairs, but honestly, if I'm not arguing a case in front of them, or waiting for them to hand down my sentence, how can I really know whether any particular judge should be retained?  Oh I know, I could research their judicial records, but for that many judges, I would have had to start reading before they were even put on the ballot.  That just seems excessive. Since I hadn't done the research, I skipped it.  Being a lazy voter is one thing, but actually making uninformed choices just felt wrong. 

I think that yawning list was strategic though, because at the end of it, there was a little proposition asking whether we should increase legislative pay... Yeah it was buried under all those judges.  Had I actually marked all of those lines yes, I could have easily rolled right along and done the same with this proposition and voted a pay raise for people I've been complaining about since I voted in the last election. Oy! 

I must say I'm looking forward to the return of ads for low cost accident lawyers, pay day loans, and heating and cooling specialists, now that the election has passed, but that's likely to be the biggest immediate benefit.  I fear that the election will not really go my way, my vote notwithstanding. But believe me, tomorrow and every day until the next election, I will be exercising the right I earned to complain, because hey, I didn't vote for this!

Monday, November 3, 2014

All the Glorious Colors

This looks like the ones I used to do as a kid.
Sometimes they had black velvet flocking...
I found myself coloring the other day.  Not sitting down with the girls and doing a fun art activity, but by myself,  in a rare moment when I was actually alone, and I felt like I really couldn't do anything else, and no one was expecting anything else from me. The girls had recently gotten some folders and a notebook printed with intricate patterns ready to color and the notebook, covered with a pattern of black and white swirls which formed concentric circles, beckoned to me.  The markers were right there. Charlie Rose's insightful interview with Benjamin Netenyahu ended and Sesame Street came on, but I didn't notice until I looked up from my work and saw Big Bird talking with kids about the many glorious colors of their skin.

I had to go to an appointment before I was finished, so I left many of the circles blank.  The girls couldn't believe I was the one who had colored-- they accused each other first, but then decided that I should finish it, since I was already doing a good job.  I should hope so.  Even though I'm out of practice, I have been coloring for more than forty five years. For several years when I was in grade school, big Doodleart posters with intricate designs just begging to be colored often featured as prizes in all kinds of school contests.  We would hang them on our walls and work on them for weeks until every blank spot blazed with color.  

I think something is wrong with me.

But I don't think I'm the only one.

Doesn't everyone else out there feel overloaded sometimes?  Maybe a lot of the time? I think I feel overwhelmed six or seven times a day, sometimes before lunch.  I didn't feel overloaded when I was coloring, and that is something worth repeating. 

I don't often tune out the world and pick up markers though, because I usually-- no really, I always-- feel so guilty doing something that is essentially unproductive.  Then I saw this article and I felt better, because it turns out that coloring not only relieves stress, but exercises our brains because it combines the logic of form and pattern with the creativity of color as we make choices to mix and match different tones.  It was on the HuffPost, so it must be true. 

I didn't give the folder back to the girls, because they want me to finish it.  Now I'm thinking maybe I'll get my own markers, so that I can keep the points fine and remember to put the caps on-- something the girls can't always do.  I still have the lingering mark of an apple green permanent marker on the sole of my foot from when I stepped on on it in their darkened bedroom the other night. Classy, right? 

Hey, I think you can still get those Doodleart posters on Amazon... 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Just An Ordinary Day

Once again I find myself trying to get this in before the end of the day... Maybe this is my writing pattern and I should embrace it, instead of fighting it.  

This is the thing though, the days just seem to disappear. Especially the weekend days.  I start the day with a million and two things to do, and by the end of the day, I still have a million on my list. Today, Delia wasn't feeling well, and even though nothing really seemed to be wrong and she wasn't running a fever, she still threw up.  She felt much better afterwards, of course, because you always do, but there is no way to convince an eight year old, or even a forty-eight year old, that that is true, until they've yiffed, and feel incredibly relieved. 

Still, I got our bedroom closet in shape, and moved the stuff we had been storing in our room into new storage places.  I threw away a bunch of stuff-- old mail, daily school papers, unusable craft items-- and that always makes me feel like I've done something.  I cleaned the girls room, partly because I was afraid to face the onslaught of genuine contagious illness with the room still a multi-layered mess.  

Everything is easier to face without clutter.  I know, because I've faced lots of things, usually in clutter.  

And of course, I had that nagging, back of the mind worry about the kids being sick that doesn't actually have anything to do with the kids.  I had to be thinking about what I would do if Delia was really sick and couldn't go to school tomorrow.  Because I have to work every day this week.  How's that gonna work? No sick days, no personal days, because actually, I work part-time.  

I have been working more at the bike shop post office lately, and find that, though I am glad to have the extra money, I really feel cranky about having to be there so much.  What a first world whine, right? "Oh poor me, I have to go to work almost forty hours a week." I know that, given the economy and my circumstances, I should be happy to have a job close to home.   But still, I feel like I can't get anything else done, and I feel like, after all those years of going to school, maybe having a full-time, low-paying, relatively menial job is not what I signed up for.  And I can't stand the fact that I worry about more than the kids when they look like they might be getting sick.Especially for a job like this, where my main contribution to the betterment of the world is the smooth acceptance of items for the mail.   I hate that I hope they're not really sick so I don't have to call out, and I won't lose the pay, which I'll really need if they're sick.  My head spins sometimes.

And yet... now the kids are in bed, and I'm headed there soon myself. And we all had enough to eat, and even though I had to borrow some money, we paid our rent yesterday. It was a beautiful day here in Phoenix, because the weather has cooled to the seventy degree temperatures we love to enjoy while much of the rest of the country starts thinking about where their snow boots are and whether or not they have salt to throw on the front walk in the morning.  When Delia wasn't feeling sick, she was playing with Fiona on the balcony in the fresh air.  They must have gone ten whole minutes before the bickering started. 

So yeah, it was a great day off. Glad I got to write about it.  Hope you all had a good Sunday too. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Writing Reboot

It's ten minutes before nine here, so I guess I could have waited a bit longer to write something today, this first day of November.  I mean, hey it's already November 2nd in some parts of the country.  No matter. I am taking advantage of the quasi-official November Blog Post a Day challenge to try to get back into the habit of posting on the blog.  The summer hiatus turned into a genuine fall slump, as far as my writing goes, but November always offers a chance for writing renewal because it is the month that someone decided that if they wrote enough each day, they could have a finished novel at the end of the month.  The quality of the novel is not assured, of course, but for so many writers, talent will never be an issue because they will never get anything on paper.  I understand their difficulty.  

Enter NANOWRIMO-- National Novel Writing Month-- during which budding authors can feel some solidarity with other struggling wordsmiths who may be toiling in solitary obscurity as they all try to get something down on paper.  Of course, no category of writer wanted to be left out of this chance to grab the brass ring and get all creative this month, so the novel writing challenge has engendered poetry writing, essay writing, and yes, blog posting challenges in which writers can get writing tips, encouragement and nagging reminders all month long-- whatever it takes to get our butts in the chairs and some words on the actual (or virtual) paper.  

So even though I have taken on extra hours at work, and am still the mother of four children, two of which (two of whom?) are still young enough to need daily feeding and bathing, not to mention homework assistance, I am jumping back into blogging with the intention of writing every day for a month. After that, I should have formed the writing habit again, and I should be unstoppable... right. At least for now, I should have plenty of ideas saved up from all that time I wasn't posting, right?  Uh, yeah, for so sure. 

I guess all I have left to say for now is, "See you tomorrow."

Thinking writer image from here

Friday, September 19, 2014

It's Not All About Me This Time

I seem to have a lot of trouble blogging lately.  That makes it sound like maybe I've been writing something else, though, so in the spirit of full disclosure, I think I should say, I've had a lot of trouble writing lately.  Like, at all.  Even my shopping lists have been ineffective, gamely started on our kitchen whiteboard, sometimes transferred to a sticky note or the back of a coupon, only to be consigned to the bottomless chasm that is the bottom of any bag I carry anywhere.  I find them later, always after returning from the store, only to have them taunt me with the essential items that are, without fail, missing from the shopping bags.  Cheese! Napkins! Coffee! (And if I got coffee, I forgot cream. Oy!)  To-do lists have been equally futile. I noticed, looking back over the past month or so, that tasks carried over from day to day, sometimes disappearing for a day or two only to top the list again and spend another week undone.  Kind of demoralizing.  It's been a slump, but I'm determined to come out of it.  School is in full swing, and the little post office is getting busier, so I'm going to try to let the momentum carry me along. 

I'm at the post office now, as I have been every day this week, and I have to say, I'm over it.  Over writer's block. Over the post office, over working, over still being pretty seriously poor, work notwithstanding.  

I am not the poster girl for the power of a positive attitude.  

As I weeded out my email inbox in an effort to continue to evade writing this blog or anything else, I got to a note I had gotten in late May from a woman named Heather von St James in response to the blog.  She is an amazing survivor of mesothelioma cancer.  Mesothelioma strikes people who have been exposed to asbestos over long periods of time in their work environments. Heather was apparently exposed through secondary contact with asbestos via her dad, who worked construction when she was a kid. Heather got the diagnosis eight years ago, just three months after the birth of her daughter.  Mesothelioma patients are usually given about 15 months to live.  She has beaten incredible odds and survived, after major surgery to remove her left lung.  Take a minute.  Wow, right?

The  Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has a very informative website that tells all about this rare, yet completely preventable disease. Heather had asked me to help her meet her July goal of educating 300 people who had never heard of mesothelioma.  Well, clearly I missed that window of opportunity, but Heather was gracious about it, and I am hoping we can help her cause at least a little bit.  Her very powerful story is available on this website.  Watch it, and please share it so that Heather can get the word out about mesothelioma, and more importantly, about hope.  The video shows her baking with her lovely daughter and offers commentary from her and her husband about what it was like to get such a dire diagnosis and how they managed to defeat the odds. She says in her video that she has been "accused of wearing rose-colored glasses," all her life.  Well, luckily for her and her family, and all of us, she's still here so we can see how great they look on her.  

And if that isn't enough to grant us some perspective, I ran across this the other morning, first in the Huff Post, then in facebook feeds of several friends and blogs that I follow.  This is the final post from a mom named Charlotte who blogged through her battle with cancer.  She prepared it knowing that it would appear after she died. 

Charlotte reminds us all to embrace life and live it as fully as we can.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't include cranking about work and writer's block and feeling poor.  I'm pretty sure it doesn't include any self-pity at all.  I often start writing about something that happened to someone else and turn it so that we can all see how it relates to me.  I'm glad that today, I managed to start out with myself and take it up a level to talk about other people, Heather, and Charlotte, who can teach us all something we need to know.  

Picture of typewriter from this page. Picture of Heather von St. James from the mesothelioma site. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Haboobies! or What I Did on my Summer Vacation

You have to understand that I didn't intend to take two months off from blogging, but it was summer, and the girls were home, and first, I took a few days off, and then it was weeks, and suddenly, at the end of July, it hit me that I had taken a summer vacation... So I waited a couple more weeks, until the girls went back to school, and then another week, for good measure, and here I am, back in your browser, hoping you haven't forgotten that I even have a blog...

Not that the summer was all fun and games.  I do live in Arizona, high temperature capital of these United States, so even before school ended, we were battling the crankiness and lethargy that invades days where the low temperatures start with the number 8.  We did hit record lows this summer... record HIGH lows, as I tried to explain to Fiona.  That means we had a couple of days when our low temperatures were the highest they have ever been; those numbers started with 9s.  We also had (are still having) what's called "monsoon" season here in the Phoenix metro area, which means that it gets humid-- taking away the one advantage we claim: "It's a dry heat!"-- and turning even the sun-baked retirees, who fled here with their aching bones from snow-packed Minneapolis and Buffalo, into whining, sweaty, babies.  During the monsoon, moist, grey, dusty air hangs heavily for most of the day, until the "storm" gathers enough momentum to move across the valley in a dust wall called a "haboob." 

These dramatic pictures I cribbed from the Huffington Post show a 2011 storm, but they all have the same defining features. The feature I especially like is how the girls giggle at the word "haboob" not just when they hear it from the weather people on TV, but for days on end, when they point to each other and say, "haboobies!" and fall down screaming with laughter. You can bet that never gets old...

Sometimes, it actually rains, after some thunder and lightning.  We often get as much as twenty solid 
minutes of serious precipitation, though usually, the rain lands somewhere across town and we only know about it because the evening news shows that people  have palm fronds ripped from the trees and crazy, patio-furniture related debris in their pools.  And, at least once each Phoenix summer, the newscast turns into an awesome action adventure show called "Who Got Stuck In the Flooded Wash?" See, that twenty minutes of heavy precip is enough to flood some of the lower lying boulevards and avenues in town, and drivers know this, because signs are posted in these lowlands with a big red slash and the actual words "Do NOT enter in heavy rain" and everything.  Some people must relish the opportunity to be seen on TV climbing out of the rear window of their floating SUV.  Or maybe they cry "NOT IT" as they start through the flooded area, hoping that will protect them, because, dammit, going around the long way is gonna make them late for that appointment and cost them money...What no one thinks of is the unassuaged scorn of the viewers at home, or bill they'll get from Fire and Rescue on top of the fine from their local municipality.  Oh well, some people just like to throw the dice, I guess... and it does make for some good comedy TV.

When I think about it, this summer vacation was a lot like the ones I remember when I was a kid, except that I had to go to work three days a week, and I never got to go to the beach.  We had some lazy mornings though, and the girls went to fun day camp at the Boys & Girls Club on my work days.  We went to the library and to the dollar movies with friends once a week, and swimming on the weekends.  And we had a couple of days when we all stayed in our PJs all day or closed all the blinds and popped some popcorn and watched three movies in a row. The best thing about this summer was the chance to share the essence of summer vacation, about the absolute value of time spent lolling on the sofa with nothing on the agenda.  There are small windows in life to enjoy low-pressure days.  I think the girls got it, because even though the first week of school was only three days long, they were still looking forward to the weekend when they could sleep late, go swimming, and shut the blinds and watch a movie.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Maybe this Post Should have a Trigger Warning...

Sunday morning-- well, afternoon, really, because who gets through the whole Sunday paper in the morning?-- I read this article in the New York Times about calls for "trigger warnings" on assigned literature in college classes.  


The way I understand it, students and some faculty members at colleges and universities across the country are lobbying their administrators for some kind of warning labels about content that could make some students uncomfortable.  My first question was, "what kind of pornographic, violent, or otherwise seriously offensive crap is required reading at these two-bit institutions?"  Then I read further and saw that there were references to books including The Great Gatsby, The Merchant of Venice, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some of the colleges named were Oberlin, Rutgers, and UC Santa Barbara.


Apparently there is some concern that students who have suffered trauma, such as rape, or the horrors of military service in a war zone, might be taken by surprise by violence or other elements in such books. Thus startled by literature, they might suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.*  Trigger warnings would accompany texts which contained war, violence (especially against women), racist or sexist or antisemitic language, or other elements which could upset sensitized individuals.  While I sincerely believe that people do endure tremendous genuine trauma which may sensitize them for the rest of their lives, I can't agree with the notion of requiring literature to come with warning labels. 

I feel I can speak about this with some sense of what sensitized individuals must be going through, because I was the victim of repeated, life-threatening, domestic violence, which I narrowly escaped by sneaking out on one of the rare occasions while my ex-husband was at work. That was after secretly packing my children's clothes and toys in black garbage bags which were thrown over the side of  my second floor balcony to generous family members who were willing to help me get out.  Before I could file for divorce, I had to obtain a restraining order so that I could go in and out of my parents' house without encountering my screaming, crying, threatening, soon-to-be-ex.  I've also been the object of sexist and antisemitic language, including quite a lot by that husband. I hadn't ever considered myself traumatized by it, so I offer that only as a background fact to support my claim that this is a discussion I am qualified to take up.  I returned to my college studies after I left my abusive husband, so I could have found myself among those deemed potentially sensitive.  

Wow.  Just reread that.  Maybe what I'm really sensitive about is whether people will think I'm qualified to talk about something.  Maybe I'll take that up in another post.  Or with a qualified therapist...

All of that qualifying brings me back around to saying, emphatically, that the whole idea of lit with warning labels is something that's not only ridiculous, but in some sense, appalling.  I'm sorry, I thought that the purpose of literature was to touch human beings and affect them viscerally.  I thought the idea of studying literature was the opportunity to grapple with, discuss, interpret and deeply understand the human condition as it is presented on a page by writers who have done some of the same grappling and interpreting. Literature, in fact has been found to increase empathy in readers according to the study discussed in this NPR squib.  Though the study cites that the immediate effects are short-lived, the researchers conjecture that repeated literary reading will exercise "empathy muscles," and improve such social skills over the longer term. 

So, even if you ignore enjoyment and pedagogical value,  reading literature still has to be considered a good idea, even though it might trigger upset in some people. But really, what harm might come from requiring instructors to put warning labels on some books?  Well, it actually seems like kind of a lot, because once requirements starts, the nature of what might need a warning could grow exponentially.  If you think for a moment about all of the traumatic experiences people might have and all of the experiences portrayed in literature, you realize how gigantic the overlap is, and what a Pandora's box we might open if warnings are deemed necessary.  There's also a point raised by a professor quoted in the NYT article, who mentions the "chilling" effect such requirements might have on untenured faculty members who are concerned about how student complaints might impact their employment.  More and more classes are taught by adjunct, part-time and junior faculty than ever before, so this opens up the possibility that a number of important books will be effectively banned from the classroom because everyone is afraid to teach them.

One more thing.  And maybe this will make me sound mean and insensitive, but come on, how much can any of us expect to be warned about? Part of me wants to tell sensitized people to just suck it up.  I know that's wrong, but there is something about the call for trigger warnings that makes me think of it as an extension of the "helicopter parenting" which has become prominent in some socioeconomic groups in the last decade or so. There are parents who try to cushion every possible blow for their children, taking away their opportunities to deal with adversity and effectively impeding the kids' ability to handle life when the real shit hits the fan. 

David 3 Names 
And it will. Some way, somehow, because none of us entirely escapes adversity-- even if we are warned about it.  It looks like literature, at least literary fiction,  helps with this too, as noted so eloquently by David Foster Wallace: 

Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it finds a way both to depict this dark world and illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (from Conversations with David Foster Wallace)

Wallace was no stranger to darkness within and without-- he ended up taking his own life-- but he was also a proponent and producer of literary fiction that opened up the world in the way he described.  Even if literature wasn't enough, in the end, he said it helped.  I believe that literature connects us to circumstances and to each other.  It seems that having to think too hard about what will upset some people might keep others from getting the help that literature gives us.  Losing that, even in the service of sensitivity, would be an incredible shame.  

*This is a summary-- the call for these warnings is much more nuanced on some campuses-- but here, I want to take up the general idea of these warnings, even though I know there are details I am eliding. Please read the Times article, and know that I read it too.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Cake from Eileen

Today, both the girls have the sniffles.  Nothing serious, just a Spring cold, I think.  Annoying, but not catastrophic.  I would have had them stay home, as it is an early release day, so school lets out just after noon.  I couldn't though, because while they're at school, I'm going to nip over to the dentist's office and have a tooth pulled.  It's a broken, cavity-ridden tooth that's been giving me trouble since the end of last year, but I have been babying it, because doing something about it costs money.  Last week, when my jaw started to ache as if someone had punched me, I figured I couldn't wait any more, and sure enough, I was put on some antibiotics for the raging gum infection below the bad tooth, and told to come back this week for the extraction.  It should be a fun way to spend an hour before I need to pick the girls up, and then I plan to spend the afternoon sitting on the couch and letting all of us watch something I don't usually allow, like a binge-watch of Wizards of Waverly Place or the umpteenth showing of Frozen since Easter, when the girls were gifted with the DVD.

That's today: cranky, sickish kids, tooth pain, and the possibility of several spontaneous interpretive dances to "Let it Go."  I know, you wish you were me.

 Yesterday, however, someone gave me a cake.
If you want to make yourself a chocolate bundt,
this recipe  looks like a great one. 

I was working at the tiny post office inside the strip mall bike shop, and Eileen, one of my regular customers stopped in to buy some stamps.  I had some time to chat because traffic in the post office has recently declined pretty sharply owing to a combination of factors.   For one thing, the Easter and Mother's Day rushes are over, and then, of course, a half of the regulars are what we real Arizonans call "snowbirds" or "winter visitors" (what the state lawmakers call "tourism dollars") who have now gone back to wherever they live when they are not escaping a hundred feet of snow in their own backyard. They've already created their own little postal rush here, sending boxes back home, trying to calculate when to send them so they get there before the boxes, but don't have to wait too long to get them.  The grand kids do not want to wait around for that Cactus candy they were promised...

Also,  tax season has ended, so we don't have people waiting in line to mail their tax returns certified, with return receipt, so there's no chance that the bastar-- er, government-- will lose the the filing this year.  Honestly, I have heard enough horror stories about people's tax returns to think that there must be monkeys working in the mail rooms at all of the IRS facilities in the country.  Not the cute circus-trained monkeys with the little fez-style hats either, but crazy monkeys who treat precious envelopes like they were so many banana peels to be flung about for sport before they are hidden or discarded.  (I apologize now to everyone who thinks I am unfairly stereotyping monkeys, or, for that matter government employees.) But I digress... 
Picture from here

The customers still coming in are stalwart Arizonans who hang here during the months when the temperatures rival those on the surface of Mercury. (I know, I'm exaggerating, but really, we are closing in on the beginning of the 100 days over 100 degrees and I am not looking forward to that...) They are chatty elders who remember when a first class stamp was ten cents, guys who work in the hardware store and pharmacy here in the shopping center, and parents of kids who go to school with the girls. These are people from the neighborhood, who like to chat while I get them stamps or put postage on their packages.  One of these is this lady Eileen, who often mails birthday and anniversary cards to nieces and nephews across the country. She is always up for a joke, and sometimes tells stories about her thirty years as a stewardess-- because she started when they were proudly called stewardesses, when that was the way for an adventurous single girl like herself to travel the world.  She flew international flights out of New York for years, but she grew up here in Scottsdale, back when it was a little pueblo surrounded by the undeveloped, cactus-filled desert.  Her eyes still have that twinkle that must have charmed plenty of pilots and world travelers back in the day... not that I've heard many of those kinds of stories.  Eileen is a fun gal, but she is definitely a lady

She lives in our neighborhood, so I sometimes run into her at the library, or the pharmacy or, most recently, the grocery store.  The girls and I were trying to decide which of the on-sale Popsicles were the perfect compliment for a pizza dinner, when Eileen came around the corner with her cart, heading for the Lean Cuisine.  "Are these your beautiful daughters?  They are?  Oh my gosh, could you just die? So cute.  One sweet blondie and one stunning brunette. Aren't they just wonderful?"  

"Thank you," I said, mumbling something about how they "have their moments," and we talked for a minute about the weather and a movie she just saw and then we decided on Popsicles and moved on.  

The next day was my birthday, and the day after that I was working when she came in to buy some stamps.  She likes the ones that say CELEBRATE!  for birthdays and graduations, and we got to talking about Mother's day, and she mentioned my beautiful children, and she talked about her mom, who passed ten years ago, and she misted up a little, then said it was her birthday the next day, and I said that must be why we get along so well, our birthdays are so close.  By then, I had a couple of other customers, so she waved bye and we wished each other happy birthdays again.  

Twenty minutes later, she was back with a chocolate bundt cake from the grocery store, and she had festooned the plastic dome the cake came in with pink and purple ribbons.  She sang Happy Birthday and told the customers that I was helping that I was wonderful and had wonderful children.  And she misted up a little, again, and so did I,  I mean, she brought me a cake, and she barely knows me.  "Share it with those beautiful daughters," she said, "and tell them it's from the lady they met buying Popsicles."  

And I did.  And we had cake for breakfast today too, because when you have the sniffles and you still have to go to school, even for a half-day, or you are getting your infected tooth pulled, and having to pay to have that pain inflicted, you should eat cake for breakfast.  I'm going to tell Eileen next time I see her.  I think she will approve.
If we keep this up, I may have to get this,
from here, to hang up as our motto.
Note:  I actually started this post the day I had the tooth pulled, but couldn't get back to it until today.  Good news is the girls are better, and my jaw doesn't ache anymore, but sadly, I have the sniffles now and we are out of cake....

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Nothing Doing

In Arizona, where we live now, school ends just before the month of May does.  Since today is the first of May, I think I can confidently say that the countdown to summer vacation has begun.  As much as the girls like school, and as quickly as they will start thinking about life in the next grade and all the fun and glory it will surely bring, there is the sense now that summer is out there, and it has some fun and glory to bring first.  Of course, summer weather in Arizona compares to a cool evening in the first ring of hell, so I have some trepidation about the season to come, especially where my air conditioning costs are concerned.  That's generally overcome, though, by a nostalgic feeling from my own school days when summer stretched out like a three month magic carpet, where anything was possible, and nothing was compulsory.  
Phineas and Ferb, seen almost daily on the Disney channel,
doing their best to enjoy every day of summer vacation.

That, I think, is the real allure of summer vacation:  the daily grind of school days is suspended and the requirements of homework and learning and just plain having to show up every day disappear with the warm breeze of the summer months.  Summer days seem to evaporate.  And that's okay.  The pressure to get ready for the next day, to get through the week, to make it to the weekend, doesn't exist during summer vacation.  A most excellent vision of this is available on the Disney Channel series Phineas and Ferb, in which the title characters strive to make the most of every day of their "104 days of summer vacation, until school comes along just to end it."  The amazingly intelligent and well-adjusted stepbrothers are often seen relaxing in their backyard until the big idea for the day comes to them, as Phineas exclaims, "Ferb, I know what we're going to do today !"

That's how it when I was a kid. (Minus the kicky music, the zany inventions, and the pet platypus, of course.) I'm sure it makes me sound nothing but ancient to say this, but when I was a kid, time after school was kind of like that too.  Kids played on sports teams and had piano lessons, and there was plenty of homework, by my reckoning, but there was also time to to just hang out. I would say it was like a taste of summer vacation in the middle of a school week, but it wasn't a big deal then, to just spend an afternoon hanging out at a friend's house, playing or reading or listening to music.  It wasn't anything as formal as a "play date," it was just a matter of everyone checking with their moms, then getting on their bikes, or getting out some toys.  

There are any number of reasons why kids are so incredibly scheduled these days, and if I were more inclined as a social scientist or better with statistics, I might be able to offer some kind of explanation.  I could rant about it, but that's only going to raise my blood pressure.  Instead, I can just express some nostalgic sadness and some righteous outrage for the lost opportunity to do nothing.  At least I won't be alone.  I ran across this article by writer Anna Quindlen, which pinpoints the importance of free time so much more eloquently than I ever could:

Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.

What really strikes me about what she says is how clearly she associated the free time she had to sit around doing nothing (and sometimes, to be totally bored) with the growth of her creative mind.  It seems kind of crazy to think that we need to remember that our kids-- all of us, really-- need time to sit and dream.  The thought that this is wasted time is a sad feature of our culture, when all of us can be connected to others 24/7, without ever being left to entertain ourselves with our own thoughts and actions.  Most adults, and I include myself here, can't sit and wait for more than a few minutes without picking up our phones or tablets and trying to find out what everyone else we know is doing or thinking.  it doesn't make for a very introspective or creative future generation, does it?  And the way the world is going, we might need our kids, and theirs, to be skilled creative thinkers...

So as we look forward to summer, I think am going to impose a requirement on the girls while school's out:  Do nothing!   Get bored, then make up something to do.  I want them to take time to let their minds wander until they get to some fantastic world of their imagination, populated with princesses and Lego men and flying horses and stuff I can't even imagine anymore.  But I'm going to try.  It will be my summer vacation too...

Schoolhouse pic from this page.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why I'm Going to Try to Unitask...or is it Monotask?

I don't know how it is at your house, but here, we struggle with homework.  The biggest problem is getting the girls to sit down and concentrate.  In an effort to get the homework done, I have now banned after school TV and activities, engaged in mid level bribery involving after dinner desserts, and threatened to text and email teachers about the lazy, lazy children in my household who will not do their homework.  (I have gone so far as to complete the text and wave the phone in my child's face with my thumb hovering over send.) None of these measures work for longer than an afternoon, so we tend to get into a constant cycle of threats, bribery and recrimination. And even with all the drama worthy of an episode of Scandal (but none of the fun) I still constantly find myself telling the girls to focus, for the sweet love of G-d, just focus, and get your work done.
This image used from this page

I recently realized, of course,  that I might be to blame for their inability to start and finish a single task.  I've been setting a horrible example, see, by constantly trying to do several things at once.  And I'm not talking about things like reading the paper while having a cup of coffee or working on beads while listening to music. I'm talking about multitasking episodes like putting the groceries away while talking on the phone while opening and trying to read the mail.  This might explain why I recently found the envelope for my electric bill in the kitchen cupboard.  I'm talking about cooking dinner while giving one girl a shower and helping the other with that pesky homework.  This could possibly be the reason that I find myself trying to clean up a ring of burnt, boiled-over rice from the stove-top while figuring out how to make it look like Fiona's homework does not, in fact, have the dried remains of a soapy hand print obscuring two of her spelling sentences.  Ay-yay-yay! The multitasking never ends!

And now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to reveal that I am fine-tuning this post (I know, who thought I fine-tuned, right?) while I'm at work at the post office.  So this isn't exactly a rant against multitasking, but more of a reminder to myself, and anyone else who thinks they need reminding, that we might be losing something when we try to do too much at once.

Which brings me to another realization:  apparently, what we call multitasking is actually task switching. Even though we think we're doing several things simultaneously, we're actually juggling activities quickly. And we all know what juggling leads to, don't we?  Eventually, all you have left are broken balls...

This article notes that we humans have been trying to do multiple things at once since we started, you know, doing things.  It's an adaptive survival skill dating from the stone age when hunters and gatherers had to search for sustenance as they avoided becoming sustenance for the bigger animals.   Those left at the cave (let's face it, probably the cave-gals) had to be aware of many things at once too, like predators, the elements, ways to use that dangerous new thing called fire to make the hunted and gathered food edible without burning everything else to a crisp, rock-climbing cave-kids hopped up on sugary berries... the list goes on.    
Image from Wikipedia

No wonder we find cave drawings... who could have all that going on and keep little ones from drawing pictures on the walls?  Maybe that helps explain why, according to studies published late last year, (detailed in this Huff Post article) women may be better at this quick switch than men. Who would have thought that energetic toddlers had possibly had a positive effect on mothers' evolutionary adaptation?  

But what good has all of this really done?  Those of you with a well-developed sense of irony probably already guessed that it hasn't done any good.  This article , directed at business people, but pretty appropriate for all chronic multitaskers, outlines the perils of trying to do it all at the same time. (From a site called The One Thing. It's also the source of the nifty fallen juggler image, above) The news that hit me was that multitaskers are actually less efficient than people who focus on one thing at a time, because they use their brains less effectively, failing to filter distractions.  

Which brings me back around to why I started in on this is the first place-- how do I get myself off the multitask merry-go-round and set a better example for the girls, so that they can use their brains effectively and efficiently to get their homework done?  Apparently, there is help.  This article reminds graduate students of "the lost art" of how to do one thing at a time, in order to get a project finished.  It seems that those of us who were sold on the wisdom of multitasking have trouble giving it up. The suggestions in the article are so simple, they should work for me and my kids.  Clear your space.  Clear your mind.  Put your butt in the chair.  And focus, for the sweet love of G-d!  All I can do is try to set a better example...