Living Consciously

Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

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Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.

 

This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

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Adventure Travel

Last month I spent two delightful weeks in New Zealand. One of things I discovered is that tourism there is designed for the adventurous. You’re invited to roar along rivers in jet boats, bicycle up and down mountains, climb mountains, leap off of mountaintops with a parachute, bungee jump, ice-climb on glaciers, and hike on trails where signs warn you that rocks might fall down upon you at any moment.

I’d like to tell you more about one of those adrenaline-boosting choices. Join me in your imagination, and let me take you on an adventure.

First picture a deep, narrow gorge with a cold, fast-moving river at the bottom. Scared to death, you’re standing at one end of a bridge that spans this gorge. You take a deep breath and start walking onto the bridge. You glance down at the water—a big mistake, because you can see just how far down it is. You could change your mind and go back, but your friends are cheering you on and you don’t want them to think you’re a chicken.

At the middle of the bridge you are met by an athletic guy who, in an annoyingly cheerful and encouraging manner, fastens a harness around your ankles. You just hope all the cords and fasteners are as secure as he reassures you they are. You do your best to listen carefully to his instructions, but you’re so nervous you can hardly comprehend them.

Finally, when he seems to think you’re ready and you can’t think of any reason you aren’t, he opens a gate. You step out onto a platform at the edge of the bridge. You gulp. You gasp in one last deep breath and squeeze your eyes shut. Just before the annoying guy has to push you off, you jump.

You plunge headfirst toward the water. You’re falling so fast you can’t breathe, and at the same time everything is in slow motion so it feels as if you fall, and fall, and fall for a long, long time.

At last you hit the end of the bungee cord. It isn’t the whiplash jerk you were expecting, but your head feels thumped, and your stomach tries to push itself into your throat, and there’s an endless spine-stretching moment when the rope starts pulling you up while gravity is still pulling you down.

You bounce back up, then down again, then back up and down, at the same time swinging forward and backward like a human pendulum. You open your eyes, then quickly shut them again because the upside-down view of the world makes you dizzy. Your heart is pounding so hard you can feel it in your ears. Your upended lungs feel so squashed that you can’t get enough air.

What seems like hours later, the swinging slows and stops, leaving you dangling at the end of the line with your arms hanging. The blood rushing toward your head makes your brain feel too big for your skull.

Then something grabs one of your limp arms. The pickup team in their little inflatable boat has reached you. They haul you in and undo your harness. You collapse in the bottom of the boat, shaking all over. You feel a strong urge to curl up into a ball and burst into tears.

From what sounds like a long ways away, you can hear your friends cheering. You’ve done a bungee jump, and you might even live to tell the tale.

That’s our adventure. It’s finished; please take a deep breath. We’re all okay, except that I need to explain something.

I have no idea if this description is accurate, because I made it up. I didn’t—wouldn’t—couldn’t—ever jump off of that bridge. Just watching other people bungee jump was more than enough adrenaline rush for me. I don’t have the kind of physical daring for stuff like that. Or the disregard for my well-being. In fact, I secretly suspect that bungee jumping was invented by a cabal of chiropractors and massage therapists as a way to increase their clientele.

I didn’t try parasailing, either. Mountain climbing? Forget it. Glacier climbing? Not a chance. Jet boats? No, thanks. Though I did hike a couple of trails where signs warned me that rocks might fall down upon me at any moment.

I also stood with one foot on each side of a spot that is adventurous in a way that thrilled the geologists in our group: the Alpine Fault. The Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet and slide past each other at this fault, which extends through much of New Zealand and where earthquakes can and do happen regularly. None did while we were on the spot. I was grateful.

Otherwise, our group explored spectacular landscapes: Sharp-edged young mountains carved by glaciers. Dry rocky hills pockmarked with old gold mines. Thriving farmlands fenced with trees sharply trimmed into tall hedges. Rain forests so green and lush that it felt as if lingering over a picnic would put you at risk of being covered with moss like everything else in sight.

We also learned a bit about the history and culture of this fascinating land, from the Maori who arrived first to the various Europeans who came later. We discovered why flightless birds probably evolved that way (predators in the sky but not on the ground) and that several of them, including the country’s iconic kiwi, had to be brought back from near extinction after predators like the stoat were introduced. I learned that the New Zealand accent is much easier to appreciate than to imitate.

Along the way, I was reminded that for me, the adventure of travel isn’t a physical one. I don’t need the adrenaline rush of stepping out of my physical comfort zone. It’s more interesting—and quite exciting enough, thank you—to venture out of my emotional comfort zone.

That kind of adventure travel involves having the conversations that help me learn a little bit about other places, other cultures, and other people. It requires me to be both a curious and a courteous visitor. And perhaps most important, it means keeping one thing in mind: I’m among people whose landscapes seem exotic and whose pronunciation seems strange to me. At the same time, they might be seeing me as someone who comes from an odd place and talks funny.

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Digesting Everything I Needed To Know

Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but I didn’t. Possibly because I never went to kindergarten.

But I did learn, not quite everything I needed to know, but a lot of useful and interesting stuff from Reader’s Digest.

In a household where both parents and all four daughters were avid readers, there was a lot of competition for the fat little magazine when it showed up in the mail every month. My memory is that it often had the bad timing to arrive on housecleaning days, which meant Mother would stash it somewhere until the work was done. There it sat on top of the fridge, out of sight but not out of mind, its unread jokes and stories a distracting temptation while we vacuumed and dusted. It was a strong incentive to be the first one to finish, of course—though, oddly enough, quite often the person who got to it first was Mother.

Reader’s Digest was a predictable mix of material that was mostly condensed and republished: a long excerpt from a nonfiction book, at least one story of a dramatic rescue or recovery, short pieces of insight and observation, and, of course, the jokes scattered throughout the pages like chocolate chips in the cookie.

I read the whole thing. It’s a bit surprising, all these years later, how many things I remember. (None of which I can think of right this minute, but I could call you later when they surface in my brain. Would two a.m. be convenient?)

I do recall the awfulness of one story about a girl who was about 11 or 12 (close to my own age at the time) and dying of leukemia. During her last days in the hospital, her parents told her if there was anything she wanted, they would do whatever they could to get it for her. She had just one wish: to see her brothers and sisters one last time. But hospitals then didn’t allow kids under the age of 14 to visit, and rules were rules. As I remember it, the parents didn’t even ask. The best they could do was sneak the oldest sister in for an illicit visit. The unkindness and unfairness of that sad story made me angry at the time. It still does.

As an adult, I continued to subscribe to Reader’s Digest for years. While its formula didn’t vary much, the content did evolve over the years as society changed. This was brought home to me once when I bought a box of books at a garage sale. In it was an aging little paperback of “Playboy Party Jokes.” I opened it, prepared to be suitably shocked. But the book was even older than it looked; I had already read most of the jokes in Reader’s Digest.

One of my high school teachers warned us not to use Reader’s Digest as a source for any assignments. Always go back to the full version of an article wherever it was originally published, he said, because “they chop off the ending to make room for all the jokes at the bottom of the pages.”

This was sound enough advice as far as it went, but even as a teenager I knew he was mistaken about the editing process. The Reader’s Digest editors may have made lots of cuts, but they used their red pencils more like scalpels than hatchets. It’s an example I try to follow as an editor myself. Possibly some of my current or former clients may disagree. Unfortunately, their comments had to be deleted due to lack of space.

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Thankful for Small Things

When it comes to being thankful, of course what matters most is family and friends—those wonderful (well, most of the time) people who make life such a joy (well, most of the time).

But I’m grateful for plenty of minor things, too. Such as:

Bathrobes. On a cold morning, nothing quite matches the cozy pleasure of slipping into a soft, fleecy robe that wraps you in warmth from chin to ankles. Then there are luxurious silky robes that make you feel like a Hollywood star from a lavishly costumed 1950’s movie. Cool cotton robes just right for summer mornings. Practical terrycloth robes. Given enough cash and closet space, I could easily become the Imelda Marcos of bathrobes.

The taste of a crisp slice of apple with peanut butter on it. And the fact that grocery stores now have so many scrumptious varieties of apples—Gala and Fuji and Honeycrisp and more—besides the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smiths I remember from childhood.

Peanut butter itself, for that matter. (Hint—try it in oatmeal.) Thank you, George Washington Carver.

Seeing deer in our yard. Sometimes, like this morning, it’s the flash of a white tail disappearing into the trees. Sometimes it’s a browsing mule deer that acknowledges us with the twitch of a big ear as we walk past, but who isn’t even concerned enough by our presence to stop chewing.

My African violets that bloom so beautifully year-round, in spite of the haphazard care that they get.

Colored pencils and calligraphy markers.

The washer and dryer right there in our very own laundry room.

Bad puns and wordplay. Such as the editor’s favorite breakfast, synonym rolls. Or the fish in schools who sometimes take debate. Or, perhaps appropriately to the season, the fact that the roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference. Who got that way, of course, from too much Pi.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Toasted Dust and Toasty Toes

There’s nothing quite like the cozy pleasure of turning on the furnace for the first time in the fall. Oh, you can postpone it for a while, even when the mornings are getting cool enough so you wake up and are tempted to pull the covers up to your neck and stay tucked in for another few minutes. You know that during this “shoulder season,” you might need to put on a jacket to go out and get the morning paper, but it’s still likely to get up to 80 degrees before lunch time.

But eventually comes that first genuinely cold morning when you know the time has come. You get out of bed, reach for your short summer bathrobe, and realize your goosebumps are telling you it’s time to scurry over to the closet and get the heavy winter robe instead. You put it on, then perch on tiptoe to minimize the contact between your bare feet and the cold floor while you rummage through the clutter in the bottom of the closet for your slippers.

Wrapped up but still shivering, you go down the hallway and nudge the thermostat up from 50 to 70. Almost immediately the furnace, which has been hibernating since the middle of May, comes to life with a soft rumble. Warm air begins flowing out of the vent in the bathroom, bringing with it that distinctive autumn aroma of toasted dust.

When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee, you linger at the counter while it brews, your toes stretching in the delicious warmth coming out of the vent below the cupboard. You curl up in your chair under an afghan, cold fingers wrapped around your first cup of steaming coffee, contemplating the cold-weather pleasures of soups and sweaters and bread baking in the oven. The house begins to surround you with comfort.

And you didn’t have to do anything but adjust the thermostat. No chopping wood, no carrying coal, no building fires. It’s practically a miracle. All you’ve had to do is wave your magic wand—er, pen—over your checkbook and pay the gas bill.

*By the way, it’s much easier to celebrate the joys of crisp fall mornings on a late-October day when the predicted high is 70 degrees.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 2 Comments

A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

Don’t Follow Good Advice Too Closely

As bike wrecks go, it wasn’t that spectacular. I was pedaling along with the rest of the family—not racing, not trying to ride with no hands, not doing anything except follow my stepdaughter along the bike path. Until she cut a curve too short, swerved off of the pavement, tried to swerve back on, and crashed. I jumped/scrambled my bike over hers somehow and crashed just beyond her.

Yes, I was wearing a helmet. But my cheek still connected with the concrete hard enough to make my ears ring. Until then, I always thought seeing stars only happened in cartoons.

While I sat on the pike path collecting myself and realizing that blood was starting to drip from my scraped wrist, a woman who had been behind us stopped to inspect the damage. She told me earnestly, “That’s what can happen when you follow too closely.”

In that moment, I learned one of those difficult life lessons that are so good for one’s character.

Oh, not the lesson about staying a safe distance behind another cyclist. (And why is it, anyway, that people who ride bicycles are called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers?”) Believe me, I had already figured that out for myself.

No, what was good for my character was realizing I had developed enough internal wisdom and poise that I did not swear at this woman or call her names. Not only because I was too shaken up. Not only because it might have shocked the children. But because a) it wasn’t worth the trouble, and b) I recognized that she was well-intentioned and even caring in her own way. Never mind that her way was interfering, pushy, bossy, annoying, and condescending.

Or, worst of all, that she was right.

It’s a good thing, all these years later, that I’m over it.

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The World As Seen By . . .

Not everyone sees the world the same way I do. By now this no longer surprises me, though it sometimes leaves me bemused, baffled, or bewildered. I do understand, really I do, that having a perspective different from my own does not make people “wrong.” Of course, bless their hearts, it doesn’t necessarily make them right, either.

We are told that the best way to understand someone else’s perspective is to walk a mile in their shoes. Or at least to walk a few steps, if those shoes happen to be three-inch heels with pointy toes. So in the interest of broadening my perspective, here is how I imagine the world must look to some of the people whose point of view is different from mine.

Celebrity chefs: We all have plenty of time to cook and ample funds to buy only the finest organic ingredients. We all have convenient access to lavishly stocked grocery stores and markets selling local produce. Our kitchens all have generous pantry space fully stocked with exotic ingredients that are never past their expiration dates. We have a complete and well-organized array of cookware and utensils. Our knives are always sharp. We have no picky children who will only eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off. We know and appreciate the difference between quinoa and spelt, and none of our family members or close friends think kale is a NASCAR driver.

Fitness instructors: Everyone looks better in Spandex. We all have time to work out every day. And we all want to.

Anonymous online commenters: All politicians are corrupt power-grabbers. All public employees are incompetent and overpaid. All rich people are greedy, selfish crooks. All poor people are either (a), hard-working, downtrodden victims, or (b), lazy, addicted, cheating parasites. Everyone who disagrees with the commenter is stupid. The world is not only headed for hell in a handbasket; it’s hovering just above the flames and going down fast.

Home/decor/lifestyle magazine publishers: Our living spaces are creatively enhanced with art objects, old stuff repurposed into quirky new stuff, pops of fashionable color, and artfully placed heirlooms. We redecorate beautifully for every season and holiday. Our children’s toys are so cleverly sorted and stored that they are always neatly put away. Our closets are optimized and organized. Our socks all match.

And best of all, our homes have no clutter. No boxes of stuff stacked in the garage, no plastic bins bulging with Christmas lights that may or may not work, no guest rooms with under-the-bed stashes, no closets that are dangerous to open. The materials for all our creative ornamentation magically store themselves . . . somewhere.

Twitter users: Every opinion, philosophy, bit of life wisdom, or clever thought can be expressed in 140 characters—and should be.

Two-year-olds: Other people? Who cares how they see anything? It’s all mine!

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What Mother’s Day Cards Don’t Say

(I wrote this several years ago. It’s still true.)

I hate picking out Mother’s Day cards. Oh, not because I don’t love my mother. I do. I also like my mother, respect her, admire her, and enjoy her company (except maybe for all those times when she beat me by more than 50 points at Scrabble). I’m deeply grateful that she’s a part of my life. But it’s still hard to find a card that suits her.

Mother’s Day cards are generally divided into two styles. First there are the neutral ones, those with the carefully worded, noncommittal greetings. They’re generic enough for almost anyone. You might send them to your mother-in-law, or your neighbor, or your aunt—or your mother, if the two of you didn’t get along very well. Those don’t exactly convey the loving message I’d like to send.

Then there are the other cards—the soppy, sentimental ones. These must be produced by writers who are trained by attending a boot camp for greeting card writers. They spend six weeks locked in windowless rooms, where they are required for 15 hours a day to read and reread Little Women and the more sentimental novels of Charles Dickens. Only then are they considered qualified to write Mother’s Day verses.

The problem with these cards is that they aren’t written to or about real people. They try to invoke an idealized version of “Mother” who is endlessly patient, kind, understanding, loving, dedicated, noble, and self-sacrificing. This mythical creature is a mishmash of June Cleaver, Ma Ingalls, and the Virgin Mary, with touches of Florence Nightingale and Lassie thrown in for good measure.

Real mothers aren’t like that. Nor, in my opinion, should they be. Still, I love my mother, and I’d like to send her a suitable card. If I could find one, these are some of the things it might say:

For my mother—
• Whose walls are decorated, not only with her own beautiful quilted creations, but also with antlers of her own deer.
• Who patiently spent long-ago summer evenings helping small daughters fish when she surely would rather have been left in peace to tend her own line.
• Who taught me that preparing a meal for 25 or 30 people doesn’t have to be a big deal.
• Who took loving care of her own elderly mother and mother-in-law.
• Who taught me that, in times of crisis, sentiment might be noble but practical action is a lot more help.
• Who taught me that half the fun of playing Scrabble comes from knowing the meaning of the words you use—but there’s still nothing quite like using the “Q” on a triple word score.

And who taught me that being an adult—whether you’re a parent or not—means showing up, day in and day out, and doing what needs to be done. And if, in return, someone gives you a little chocolate once in a while, that’s not a bad deal.

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