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August 28, 2006

Unclenching

Twice lately, I've been shoved into a state of teeth-grinding anger, the kind of anger you just know they’re talking about when they refer to “unhealthy stress”.

First, there was Earl, the taxi guy.

My husband found Earl in the phone book and booked him several days in advance to take us all to the Oakland Airport at 7am. [I had suggested a different guy, a guy named Ala that my totally-on-top-of-it friend, Michele, recommended.] Earl was 15 minutes late, which is not late enough to cause any real problems but just late enough to make you pace, panic, reconsider, and bicker.

A 101 Psych student could have decoded my sudden coffee brewing as a nonverbal cue that I had lost faith in Earl. Finally, he pulled up. I must mention, though it doesn’t forward my thesis, that Earl drove a white stretch limo, the kind you may have rented with ten friends on prom night, the kind with fake, often mauve flowers and dusty liquor decanters clinking around in the “bar” area. My husband posited that Ala probably didn’t have nice place for our morning whiskey.

Anyway, as the girls marveled at Earl’s luxurious chariot, I passively aggressively coached them to "Get your seat belts on now or we're going to miss our flight." To which Earl said casually, "Plenty of time, plenty of time." I was really hoping for something more like "I'm sorry I'm late." It was then that I knew I'd be writing about Earl some day.

Next, the snit at the doctor's office.

S., as we’ll call her, is the manager of all the admins at the medical center I use. She became the manager, I presume, because she is extra good at following the rules. When I signed in at the front desk, S. informed me, over the shoulder of her tongue-tied subordinate, that I did not have the necessary authorization and would not be able to receive service until such authorization was in hand.

Did I mention that in order to be there begging S. for "service," I got a babysitter, drove through the rain and found the last parking space in a five-story underground garage. And did I mention that—as is often the case when people go to the doctor—I wasn’t in there for something optional like Botox or a new pair of perky breasts.

Anyway, twenty minutes after I promised her that my HMO didn't require an authorization for this procedure, S. was informed by her now-vocal subordinate that she had reached my HMO and apparently, I didn't need an authorization for this procedure. But by then, S. had sent the only qualified medical technician on duty off to lunch. He'd be back in about thirty minutes. Here's where an "I’m sorry" would have really loosened my jaw. S. just said, “Please be seated. It won’t be long now.”

I know the feelings that make apologizing so hard—a little shame, a dash of defensiveness, even a smidge of self-loathing. I know because I have to apologize a couple times a week, mostly for choosing to indulge myself in some way instead of doing something I’m suppose to. Like today, I wrote this essay instead of finding the eyeglasses my mom left in my car last weekend, the ones she’s called about twice so far. I'll have to apologize for that. And although it was on my calendar, I forgot my sister-in-law’s birthday, again. [She never forgets my birthday. Unfortunately.] And I borrowed my friend’s galvanized tub for a cocktail party I had a few weeks ago and as I type, it sits on my deck with the last few Sierra Nevadas on their side, sun bathing in an inch or two of water. So I’ll have to apologize for that.

But I will. I will "own it" as my therapy-lovin' friend always says. And as that same friend taught me, while I’m owning it, I will neither complain nor explain. In other words, I will not smother the apology in so many excuses that it is unrecognizable as an apology. I will just put it out there bare: “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back sooner.”

Thanks to people like Earl and S., a timely, unadorned apology is still an impressive act of interpersonal bravery. And like most acts of bravery, it will be rewarded. The payoff for saying those two little words is forgiveness, which is, as the old saw goes, divine.

But what to do with my anger? How to spare myself the buzz of self righteousness that may be doing permanent damage to my jaw? Well, there’s always breathing, sure. A mantra perhaps. An imaginary trip to my happy place? Maybe for you.

For me, I’ve decided the only way is to smile. Like a first grader in front of a camera. Big and dumb. Because it makes me laugh. Because it makes me remember that almost everything is silly and who really cares and it happens to everyone. All of us. All six billion of us. Every day. So really, next time life rubs up against you and leaves you chafed, refuse to give in. Force a smile, even a phoney one will do. Trust me. You’ll see.

August 21, 2006

The Way of the Peaceful Sherpa

You shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing. It can't be done and it makes the pig angry.

Or so goes one of my favorite quotes. I used to share it with co-workers who found our mutual employer to be impressively stubborn and unyielding. It soothed us all, partially because it reminded us to stop spitting into the wind and partially because it cast our boss as the pig, which is almost always fun.

Now, I share it with girlfriends who husbands never seem to change for long. I've learned. See, my beloved almost always walks up and down the stairs empty handed, sometimes stepping over or around little piles of shoes or stuffed animals in the process. In his special “off duty” goggles, he can’t see these items.

For me, going up and down the stairs is nearly always an opportunity to "get something done," like carrying the laundry up from the basement, or taking empty glasses from our nightstands to the sink. It's simple but it's a worldview too.

If your worldview is, "everything in the house that needs doing will be done by me sooner or later," then you might as well grab those old magazines from the bedroom and drop them in the recycling bin out front now, because you're gonna have to do it eventually anyway. See, I live in my workplace and my to do items are neatly organized on a list beside my online calendar. No, they are sitting everywhere I look, on every surface, on every floor, of every room. And unless I have a documented fever of 102 or higher, I am always on duty.

If however, your worldview is, "everything in the house that needs doing will get done by magic," or perhaps better said, "by witchcraft," you'll find that it's much more pleasant to go up and down unfettered by shoes, newspapers and bath towels. If you have left work and shaken off your work mood, your home is a haven, a place to put your feet up, a place to rest before the next day begins.

And so, in what I consider to be record time -- only six years of marriage -- I have stopped trying to teach my sweet pig to sing. I have accepted my role as household sherpa and my husband’s role as American Tourist. Lovable, oblivious, a good tipper.

August 01, 2006

Heat, as an entrée to bigger ideas

Kelly Corrigan's column is printed here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

IT'S GOTTA PASS.

This is what I keep saying to myself as pour another glass of ice water and wipe my daughter’s hair off her sticky forehead. This is what I say as I toss out the three red candles that were too close to the window, the candles that folded over on themselves like playdoh.

But what if it doesn’t? What if this punishing heat is what environmental scientists, and their celebrity-sponsor, Al Gore, have been waving their arms about all these years? Is this what global warming feels like? Does this qualify as “climate change”?

It’s an obvious question. Like a couple million other people, I saw An Inconvenient Truth this summer. Besides being wowed by what Power Point can do these days and wondering if Apple paid to be Gore’s leading lady, I left the theater (the dark, cool theater) as motivated as I have ever been to make changes in our family’s wasteful ways. So far, we’re investigating three things: replacing old windows with double paned, energy efficient versions, putting solar panels on the backside of our roof—the side we never see, the side that bakes in summer sun for eight hours a day—and buying a hybrid.

These three changes have a few things in common; they cost money initially and save money over the long haul, they are visible to others, which helps nudge the country closer to what Malcom Gladwell calls “the tipping point,” and they help us talk to our kids about more than today’s swim lesson and tomorrow’s birthday party. It’s this last thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning.

Our kids are young, just starting school this fall, so we keep it simple. For now, it’s about sharing. Just like at preschool, where there are only so many glue sticks, and so many orange popsicles, we’re all sharing a single set of supplies—water, gas, electricity. So, I explain, when you refuse to use both sides of a piece of paper, or you turn the volume down on your CD player instead of turning the whole thing off, or when you stuff all your clean clothes in the laundry basket after playing dress ups with your friend, we’re using more than we need. At some point, that means that someone else, like some baby trying to nap in Modesto where it’s 113 degrees, might not be able to use her oscillating fan [which means that baby will cry for her hot, over taxed mother and I think we all know that hell hath no fury like a hot, over taxed mother.]

This conversation has the immediate benefit of keeping my bills lower and my conscious cleaner. But better than that by a mile is that this conversation implies that there is a giant world out there, a world that doesn’t go to The Piedmont Pool or to birthday parties at Kids In Motion gymnastics, a world that I so hope my girls become more and more mindful of. Because they can’t make it better if they don’t know it exists.