Roll Down Like Waters

Last January Sonny burst through the door after a day of kindergarten and cornered me in the hall. “Did you know,” he asked. “Did you know that there used to be laws that said kids with black skin could not go to school with kids with white skin?” He rattled off the names of several classmates. “They wouldn’t have been able to go to our school! And their school wouldn’t even have been very good!”

Sonny was agitated. He stared me down, wide-eyed and waiting. Waiting for disbelief, for shock, for indignation that matched his own.

I hope he always becomes incensed upon reports of injustice. I hope that he always expects the same reaction of others.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin

Last month Sonny, Ace, and I were reading a story about Jackie Robinson and the abuse he endured upon joining major league baseball as the first African American to play Major League baseball: taunts, hate mail, racial slurs, physical attacks, threats to his life. Midway through the story I heard low growls beside me: Ace, who was flopping around on the couch, plainly uncomfortable.

“Don’t you want to hear the story?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But this story hurts my feelings.”

I hope that stories of injustice always hurt his feelings.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel

Sonny and Ace belong to a demographic that doesn’t experience racism. We in this demographic can too easily be oblivious to racism—the subtle kind and even the not-so-subtle variety. We can secretly, or unsecretly, believe that the Civil Rights Movement mostly eradicated racism and that any “vestiges” of it might best be quietly endured because, really, haven’t we come a long way? We in this demographic can easily be tempted to cherry-pick examples of stories that suggest claims of racism are fabricated or exaggerated.

I don’t want Sonny and Ace to ease into these traps, to remain sheltered from the reality of injustices, to become impatient or bored at the mere topic of racism. Not when this kind of thing is still going on. I want them to be outraged despite being unaffected. What can I do to help ensure this? Any ideas?

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5:24

Death of a Goldfish

Sunday afternoon I wandered down to the basement to feign some interest in the football game that the rest of my family was watching. On the way back upstairs, I passed the fish bowl and did a double take: Did we now have half as many goldfish as we’d had only hours before? Yes, it seemed that we did, if we define “goldfish” specifically as live goldfish.

Fireman Fish had shuffled off this mortal coil and was doing the back float.

Fireman Fish and his bowlmate had joined our household in the fall of 2011, compliments of the fish pond (okay, plastic wading pool) at the harvest festival on the library lawn. The enthusiastic fish-pond director cheered and coached Sonny and Ace on to victory: “Keep trying! Here, go for that slow one. I’ll block him for you,” said she, obviously determined not to be saddled with leftovers. Upon their success she presented them each with an occupied plastic bag. “Enjoy!” she said. And they did.

Sonny named his goldfish Fireman Fish after his heroes. Ace named his goldfish Otto after the fish in A Fish Out of Water.

(Confession: The deceased may not actually be Fireman Fish. It may be Otto. Because Otto was originally brown, I could once easily distinguish between him and his companion, but then he inconveniently and inexplicably turned orange, confusing me henceforth.)

Would Sonny and Ace be upset? I didn’t know, and I wondered how to break the news to them. But they fortuitously paved the way with a discussion about pets. Maybe they could get one, they thought. A hamster, perhaps, or an emu. Maybe a proboscis monkey, or cats like Aunt Sara’s. Then it occurred to them:

“But we have pets! We have fish!”

“But you can’t pet fish. Petting would hurt them because it would rub their scales off.”

“Maybe when they die we could pet them.”

I know a cue when I hear one.

“Um, guys? I have some bad news. Fireman Fish died.”

They looked stricken.

Ace: “Can we still keep him for a decoration?”

Sonny: “Do we have a waterproof marker?”

Me, envisioning my organized seven-year-old attempting to write directly on the carcass to label it for posterity: “Why?”

Sonny: “So we can write ‘Here lies Fireman Fish’ on a little stone when we bury him. And it’s not fair, because now I don’t have a fish and Ace still does.”

Ace nodded sympathetically. After a brief conference they decided to share the survivor. He would need a new name, though, to reflect the new ownership arrangement. They settled on Lloyd as a good new name for Otto.

Sonny remembered how excited he had been to finally scoop a fish out of the little pool. Ace remembered the little TV he had made from aluminum foil and sunk into the bowl for Fireman Fish and Otto to watch a few months ago. They agreed that they would miss Fireman Fish but were glad that they still had Otto . . . er, Lloyd.

I probably won’t miss Fireman Fish himself, but I’m surprised to be feeling a little wistful. Maybe because his name was a vestige of Sonny’s devotion to firefighters, before his interest in lesser superheroes such as Batman set in. Maybe because my erstwhile preschooler and toddler displayed a level of excitement over the acquisition of Fireman Fish and Otto that they will probably never again exhibit over pets as mundane as goldfish. Maybe because Fireman Fish’s survivor looks a little lonely now.

I’m glad we still have Otto . . . er, Lloyd . . . too. Maybe we’ll read A Fish Out of Water tomorrow night, just because.

R.I.P., Fireman Fish (or Otto, maybe). Thanks for being our pet.

Should Auld Reflections Be Forgot?

I’m a wee bit addicted to the online Scrabble-type games Wordscraper and Words with Friends. The other day I arranged the letters of bursae, hit “Play,” and was awarded with 33 points, which initially seemed respectable. But then! A new feature called Hindsight popped up unsolicited to unhelpfully point out that I had missed the opportunity to play a more lucrative word—bruxes—for 65 points. Given that the my B and E were occupied in bursae and therefore no longer available to participate in bruxes on my next turn, I wondered why Hindsight felt the need to speak up.

Hindsight continues to haunt my games. Jades was worth 34 points, but jambes would have scored 48. Eve earned me 7 points, but guess what? Ajee would have brought 13. Wanly was worth 40 points, but knawel? Fifty-nine. (What’s a knawel?)

Sometimes hindsight can be a bit of a know-it-all. A useless know-it-all.

Of course, Words with Friends aside, hindsight and I are old acquaintances. It drops in regularly to explain what might have been handled differently.  For example, recently I made the two-ingredient pancakes that are lauded on Pinterest. In hindsight, I should have foreseen obvious: that egg and banana “pancakes” would bear no resemblance to pancakes at all but might more accurately be considered banana omelets. Disgusting banana omelets, because is there any other kind?

In hindsight, I should have known not to answer the question “Mom, what’s under there?” with “Under where?” And I don’t do that anymore unless I want to send Sonny and Ace into homonym-induced hilarity that will render them unable to stand.

Hindsight offers up the perfect combination of words after the opportunity to utter them has passed. O hindsight’s wisdom, where wert though as I stood there stammering?

Hindsight has pointed out that not every unreasonable demand needs to be met with resistance—sometimes it’s harmless to concede. And because hindsight is a mysterious animal, it has also pointed out that speaking up is sometimes preferable to being still. (If foresight could show up more regularly to help me discriminate between the two situations before I react, that would be great, because I too often confuse them.)

Hindsight whispers that some moments were more important than they seemed at the time and ought to have been treated accordingly.

So hindsight’s lessons are useful, and I hope to lure them with me into next year. No banana omelets at my house in 2015, and by extrapolation, no black-bean sugar-free cookies. (Avoided that one in time. Whew.)  In general, I hope to give foresight a chance to speak more often so that hindsight won’t need to hover around sighing and shaking its head at me.

Other times, though, hindsight is as useless as the belated revelation that knawel would have been the optimal word to play. It drums up regrets after one has done one’s best; and perhaps the choice that was made wasn’t the worst choice at all. Maybe not as good as knawel, but still good enough.

So don’t let any worthless regrets crash your New Year’s Eve party. Tomorrow is a new year.

Enjoy it.

Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

Last month I happened upon an article with the approximate title of “Twenty Parenting Hacks That Will Make Your Life Simpler.” Ever seeking a simpler life, I plunged in.

Hack #1: “Wash Legos in a laundry bag in the washing machine.” (Because evidently Legos should be washed once a week. Who gets to decide these things?) My admiration for whomever had come up with this ingenious (although undoubtedly noisy) method to purify Legos was overshadowed by a burning question: How is washing Legos in a laundry bag simpler than not washing Legos, which is what I do now?

I did not finish the article.

December brought an onslaught of other not-simple ideas masquerading as simple. “Thirty Hassle-Free Elf on the Shelf Ideas! Each simple idea takes less than five minutes to set up.” Wouldn’t leaving the Elf on the Shelf on the shelf, per his moniker, be even more hassle-free—if one doesn’t bar him from one’s home entirely, which, let’s face it, is the most hassle-free approach of all? Many families enjoy Elf on the Shelf, but let’s not pretend that having to pose that creature every evening lends simplicity to one’s season.

Nor does twisting napkins into Christmas tree shapes, suggested as a “simple” way to set one’s table. Festive? Yes. Simpler than a folding a napkin into a rectangle? No. Same goes for the six “simple” ways to decorate one’s car for Christmas. Really? Decorate my car? Hanging ornaments from the rear-view mirror is not complicated, but whoever decided that cars should be decorated was not thinking simply.

Still, I have found a few ways to keep the Christmas season a little simpler. Here are a few of my attempts.

(Note: It may seem that one or two of these endeavors are driven more by laziness or incompetence than by a noble quest for simplicity. Let’s just blur those lines, shall we? Potato, potahto . . .)

  • Believed that Sonny was already booked on the morning of the Christmas recital and therefore did not sign him up to participate. Was wrong about him being booked, a discovery that came too late for the sign-up deadline. Not preparing for a recital during an already busy season: simpler than preparing for a recital.
  • Tried a new recipe wherein “Batter may be soft” was a shameless understatement. Poured the batter into a 9×13 pan and offered it to the oven. Renovating would-be cookies into (mediocre) bars: simpler than making a new batch of cookies.
  • Resisted the fleeting urge to rearrange the ornaments after the tree decorating session. Yes, five of the six striped glass bulbs are clumped up together, nearly touching each other, instead of spaced evenly around the branches. Yes, the Nutcracker and the straw angel are both facing the tree trunk. But so what? The kids who decorated this tree are convinced it is “the best tree EVER, and perfect.” Besides, in a few years Sonny and Ace will decorate the tree more conventionally, or they won’t want to help decorate it at all, and I will feel nostalgic. Letting the decorators’ style remain: simpler than trying to refine the tree.
  • Accepted Ace’s offer to wrap presents. The result, many meters of tape later, is a pile of gifts that look like a five-year-old wrapped them. Martha Stewart would recoil and avert her eyes, but the recipients won’t mind. And the five-year-old is proud of having helped. Allowing a volunteer to wrap the presents: easier than doing it oneself (assuming an ample supply of tape).
  • Avoid irritating “Christmas” songs. Yes, music is a matter of taste, so I won’t specify any titles, but some of these songs are plain creepy (cough“BabyIt’sColdOutside”cough). At least one is a carol of self pity that has nothing to do with the Christmas season itself (“Last Christmas,” I’m looking at you.) And have you ever suffered through an hours-long earworm of “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song that is annoying even on its first pass through your head? So if you encounter a woman with her hands over her ears humming loudly to drown out the loudspeaker’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that woman might be me. Listening to meaningful music or just enjoying the silence: simpler (among other things) than suffering through “Santa Baby” and its ilk.
  • Trying to remember that Christmas will preval despite missed recitals, imperfect food, ideal plans (as defined by me) going awry, and too-high expectations of myself and others. It will triumph despite unmet goals and hangry kids . . . and cranky grownups. It will go on despite commercialism. These things are not what Christmas is all about. And I’m so glad.

There’s No “If” in Thanksgiving

A couple years ago at bedtime I asked Sonny and Ace our customary question: “What would you like to tell God you’re thankful for tonight?” Ace, then three years old, spoke up promptly: “Well. If you would buy me skates, I could tell God I’m thankful for those.”

Later, I laughed with J as we shook our heads. Such naïve bluntness! All those toys, and he wanted more! He was only one pair of skates away from happiness. Leave it to a three-year-old, right?

Or not. Despite my laughter I recognized that Ace’s “hint” reflected my own habits: of sidestepping thanks in deference to longing for something else. Of believing that one elusive missing piece would seal my contentment. Of allowing my desire for just one more thing to loom larger than the recognition of what I already have.

I would be thankful if I could avoid interruptions.

I would be thankful if my kids made a habit of behaving in ways that made me look like a competent mother. Oh, and if they would stop arguing. And stop bellowing.

I would be thankful if everyone followed my plans. They’re such sensible plans, after all!

I would be thankful if my kids didn’t have sore throats.

I would be thankful if I were not perpetually behind on the laundry.

I would be thankful if everyone around me could just relax. Then I could relax, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

I would be thankful if I heard more positive statements than negative ones. Then I could be more positive, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

And so on.

Sometimes these ifs come to fruition, and sometimes I am fleetingly thankful, but more often I quickly accept these gifts as my due. It’s easy to acclimate to what one has, after all. Also, as Sonny gently explained recently (in a context that I no longer recall), “Mom. You know, you do forget things.”

Bless his forthright little heart. He’s right. I forget things, not the least of which is to be thankful.

I forget that those close calls could easily have gone other ways—tragic, unthinkable ways.

And that most of the time, the people who interrupt me are the ones whom I love the most and that any time with them is worthwhile.

And that having too much laundry means that we have more clothes than we need.

And that most of my problems are also of the first-world variety.

And that my fighting, bellowing kids are also funny, loving, loyal, helpful, good-hearted kids.

And that many parents long to exchange their kids’ diagnoses for one as mundane as a sore throat.

And that it shouldn’t take someone else’s tragedy to stun me into gratitude for what I have.

I forget that there’s no “if” in thanksgiving.

O Lord, that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.”-  William Shakespeare, Henry VI

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

Here There Be Glow Sticks: The Teal Pumpkin Project

Sonny and Ace have been planning for Halloween for weeks. Maybe even months. Possibly since last November 1. It’s probably time for me to start paying attention to their plans—especially since none of Google’s results for “easy porcupine costume” look sufficiently easy. I foresee toothpicks and a hot glue gun in my very near future.

And candy. I foresee lots of candy, as over the last few decades people have grown generous with their offerings. While back in the day my sisters and I were generally issued one Tootsie Roll midge or hard pink bubble gum pellet per house, Sonny and Ace often score a multiple candy bars or a handful of Skittles packets with each ring of the doorbell. On the one hand, the plethora of sugar and food dye makes me cringe; on the other hand, without it how would I be able to surreptitiously pillage my sons’ treat bags for Milk Duds?

Fondness of Milk Duds notwithstanding, I consider it good news that FARE (Food Allergy Research and Communication) has launched a new tradition this year: The Teal Pumpkin Project. Participants in this campaign will display a teal-painted pumpkin or sign (download and print one here) to indicate the availability of non-edible treats. This helps kids with allergies, intolerances, diabetes, and other dietary restrictions to fully and safely participate in the evening’s fun.

The Halloween purists have popped up, however, questioning the distribution of anything other than sugary treasure on October 31. Common comments and questions about the idea include the following:

  1. Kids will resent being given a pencil or sticker instead of candy. Some will. But tastes vary. Some kids resent being given M&Ms. Some kids resent being given candy corn. Most kids resent being given those black licorice taffies or Necco. (Just being honest here.) And I recall resenting a certain mysterious rectangular confection apparently composed of nougat and birdseed. But that’s okay. Win a few, lose a few.
  2. Kids with allergies have to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Oh, they’ve learned that already. They’ve learned that from foregoing cake at birthday parties. They’ve learned from ordering salad while their friends order pizza. They’ve learned from sprouting rashes after consuming even a smidgen of food dye. They’ve learned from sitting at isolated lunch tables so that peanuty air wafting from someone else’s sandwich won’t cut off their air supply. So, rest easy: receiving a glow stick or a spider ring instead of a Kit-Kat bar won’t catapult them into a life of egocentricity.
  3. If they can’t eat candy, they should just stay home. Really? Trick-or-treating is about wearing costumes and having fun in one’s neighborhood. Why should they skip an evening of laughter and running house to house—remember how much fun that was? These kids will have a good time even if some, most, or all candy is off-limits to them. (But being offered a pencil or a glow stick would be a bonus, don’t you think?)
  4. Why are these kids (or their parents) acting so entitled? Nobody is demanding anything. Nobody is acting entitled. Teal pumpkins simply serve as a signal that non-candy treats are being offered. Voluntarily offered. (Actually, isn’t the expectation that one should receive candy instead of bookmarks or little containers of PlayDoh in itself somewhat entitled?)
  5. Aren’t trinkets more expensive than candy? Not necessarily. This depends on the particular trinkets and the particular candy, of course. I spent only about five dollars for about 75 non-edible treats—spider rings, stickers, and Halloween erasers—from the dollar store.
  6. That plastic junk won’t last long. No, probably not. Spider rings break and tattoos rub off. Glow sticks fade within hours. But Milk Duds (just for example) don’t last long, either. (Not that I would know anything about that.)
  7. Won’t this stuff eventually end up in the landfills? Some of it will—along with all of those candy wrappers and possibly much candy itself. (Especially that composed of nougat and birdseed.) But some non-edible treats, such as pencils and erasers, can be used up instead of thrown away.
  8. Why must Halloween become so complicated? Is it complicated, or is it progress? Is it complicated, or is it thoughtfulness? It’s no more complicated to buy Halloween pencils than it is to buy Nerds; painting a pumpkin teal—or printing out a sheet, coloring the pumpkin with a teal crayon, and taping it to your front window—is no more complicated than preparing any other Halloween decoration.
  9. If I hand out trinkets, can I still hand out candy, too? Yes. It’s helpful to offer them in separate bowls to avoid the risk of contamination.
  10. Halloween is about candy! Non-candy treats takes the fun out of everything. Actually, they add to the fun for those who can’t eat candy. And at the risk of using the word voluntary too many times in one post— this gesture is voluntary. If handing out spider rings would ruin your fun, then don’t do it!
  11. Do I really have to do this in order to be considered a good neighbor? No. Nobody will point and tsk at you you if you hand out candy. (I recommend Milk Duds.)

Thanks for considering this. A safe and happy Halloween to all.

 

One Good Deed

Once upon a time, after a bombing that killed many civilians in Beirut, some reporters crowded around Mother Teresa as she helped load two wounded little girls into an ambulance. One reporter asked her if she considered her relief efforts successful—after all, another 100 children waited in another bombed-out hospital, and she wasn’t helping them.

Mother Teresa only replied, “Don’t you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?”

In defiance of the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question, the reporter repeated himself: “The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?”

Employing the patience of a saint, Mother Teresa simply stated, “I think it is a good thing to help these children.”

—————————–

Last week a Michigan police officer pulled over a driver for a traffic citation and noticed that the woman’s child was not restrained in a booster seat as the law required. The mother explained that her daughter’s booster seat had been repossessed along with her car in August. (If there is a good reason for car seats to be repossessed—perhaps a better word would be stolen—along with cars, I’d love to hear it. Anyone? Anyone?) She couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Officer Ben Hall could have issued a ticket for this violation. Instead, he invited her to the nearby WalMart and bought her a car seat with his own money.

The story of his generosity has gone viral. I’ve read articles from many news sources, large and small. While doing so, I have, against my better judgment, occasionally descended below the article into the Reader Comments sections. (This is always a bad idea.)

Many of the comments have been positive and encouraging. But naturally, this being the Reader Comments section, many aren’t. The usual band of naysayers are naying fervently, lest . . . I don’t know; lest the Internet implode without their input?—shoring up the dictum that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Survivalists: “My generation never sat in car seats when we were kids! We wandered around the station wagon and even rode in the back of pick-up trucks. Somehow we managed to live.” (Except the ones who didn’t.)

The Eeyores: “That was nice of him. If the mother was telling the truth, that is. She probably wasn’t.” (No, she probably was. People often do.)

The Leapers of Logic: “That cop gets paid with my tax dollars, so my money bought that seat!” (Huh?)

The Projectors of Their Own Sexism: “He only did this because the driver was a woman. A father wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.” (Had a father gotten off this easily, someone would have claimed that it was because he was a man. Just a guess, here . . .)

The Tossers of Bones: “I’m not sure I’d believe every sob story from every person who is about to get a ticket, but at least his heart was in the right place, so good for him.” (Yes. Good for him.)

The Jaundiced Eyes: “I wish someone would buy me stuff.” (That would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

The Yawners: “Slow news day? How about some real news? This article is a waste of space.” (More so than your comment?)

Cynics: “He did this for the publicity.” (How could he have predicted that this story would make news?)

The Tangential Ranters: “One good deed doesn’t offset other cops’ actions of rape, assault, murder, corruption, murdering their spouse and family members, filing false reports, lying, etc.” (Okaaaay. See also: Leapers of Logic.)

And on, and on.

But while the naysayers, in their many subspecies, continue to nay, a child is now safer than before.

Do you think it is a good thing that Officer Ben Hall helped this child?

I think it is a good thing.

Weird Things I Once Believed

When I was very young I thought that the tails side of a penny featured the trolley from the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

tailpenny     rogerstrolley_437x220

When I was very young I thought that monkeys imprisoned in off-site towers operated the traffic lights. Someone had to control them, after all, and flipping switches at set intervals all day, every day would be too boring of a job for people, so: monkeys. Obviously.

When I was very young I thought that a bear lived in the cedar closet at the bottom of our staircase. My dad asked me once why I always ran up the stairs instead of walked. “I don’t know,” I answered, but I was thinking, “Well, because of the bear. Obviously.”

When I was very young I thought that old folks were wrinkled because everyone grows an additional layer of skin every year. Can eighty layers of skin lie smooth? Of course not. They naturally bunch up, creating wrinkles.

When I was young I thought that quicksand was an omnipresent danger. Every sand pile and patch of dirt was suspect. Keep to the sidewalk everybody, lest you sink helplessly into the ground!

When I was young I thought that nothing of inferior literary quality could be published. When I’d try to read a stilted or plotless book, I’d slow down or re-read parts, searching for hidden meaning or cleverly understated character development. Surely I must be missing something, because nobody would publish a poorly-written book. (Right?)

When I was young I thought that adults could be trusted to have kids’ best interests at heart. And that adults were never petty. And that adults always knew exactly what to do.

When I was young I thought that the sovereignty inherent in adulthood (the freedom to choose what to eat, for example, or to rent unlimited VHS tapes from Blockbuster, or to skip one’s chores if one felt like it) would eclipse any day-to-day adult hardships—assuming such hardships even existed.

I once thought that any baby could be easily trained to sleep through the night. (Certain books really ought to come with disclaimers; that’s all I have to say about that.)

I once thought that any child whose whining was not accommodated would quickly cease to whine. (I know, I know. Go ahead—point and laugh!)

I once thought that only someone who had been sappy since birth would tear up at her child singing “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas program, or bounding into school on his first day, or offering her a dandelion or tulip head picked “just for you, Mommy!”

And I once thought that I would be upset if my child beheaded the only surviving tulip in the yard.

As it turns out, I’ve often been wrong. And I still am. I still find myself on the trolley headed toward the Neighborhood of Make Believe once in a while. (The trolley that, in case you are wondering, I realize is not the subject of a penny’s tail.) To wit:

Expecting that late-onset elegance will wash over me any day now.

Believing that it’s okay to pass judgment on others.

Supposing that one of these days, my house will become perfectly (or even mostly) organized.

Thinking that extra patience will descend on me so that, with no effort on my own part, I will always speak calmly to Sonny and Ace.

Presuming that lecturing and nagging my kids will in any way be fruitful. (Doesn’t everyone just love to be lectured?)

Assuming that there will always be some other day for me to let people dear to me know how much I care about them.

I’ve come a long way since fearing a bear in the cedar closet, but I guess I still believe some pretty weird things.

What weird things have you believed?

A Tale of Two Strangers

The other day I went to the post office, an errand that always reminds me of a day about four years ago.

Sonny and Ace, then 3 and 1, and I were in line to mail a package. As waited, a woman on her way out of the building glanced down at my sons and then at me and announced in a voice leaking scorn, “I sure don’t miss those days.” And on her way she went.

What? Sonny and Ace were just standing there quietly. They weren’t throwing fits, begging for snacks, running, or kicking the nice man in front of us. They were not having any sort of bathroom issue. They were in no way channeling Caillou. They were not robbing the stamp machine. They were not doing anything that could be construed as annoying, even to that demographic who tend to conveniently forget that they, too, were once children, and imperfect ones at that. They were just standing there. Quietly.

I did not understand what had motivated this drive-by show of contempt. But I refrained from asking Ms. Grouchy Pants what had crawled into her Cheerios and died that morning and simply ignored her—outwardly, that is. Inwardly I was rather miffed.

It doesn’t take much to diminish someone.

A few minutes later, our business completed, we headed back to the car. On the path we met another woman. Her wrinkles had settled in all the right places, mapping out decades of smiles. She looked down at my sons with fondness and then looked at me.

“Well,” she said. “Well. Aren’t you lucky!”

Yes! Yes, I was. My irritation vanished.

The woman smiled at each boy and at me, nodded in emphasis, and went on her way.

It doesn’t take much to encourage someone.

Thank you, Woman Number Two.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” –Seneca

Ten Things I Learned from My Dad

Have you ever shopped for a Father’s Day card? Too many of them rely heavily on bathroom humor or remote-control jokes. Or incompetently executed home repairs. Or the assumption that dads are the biggest doofuses ever.

None of these work well for my dad—or more dads, I suspect. (Can someone please clue in the greeting card companies?) I’ve learned many things from my dad, none of them related to bathroom humor or swearing on the golf course. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Just because other people have one doesn’t mean you need one. For several years our house was devoid of a television set. Any suggestion to rectify this situation was met with “And why would we need one of those?” In high school, my sisters and I didn’t have our own car. (Because, why would we need one of those?) And so on. We must have survived these deprivations, because here we are.

2. Whatever you own owns you. Why gather stuff when you’ll just end up catering to it? Temptations to accumulate things notwithstanding, this is the bare truth. With this in mind, sometimes I envy the Ingalls family despite their having to haul their own water, contend with Nellie Oleson, and keep one eye out for panthers and wolves at all times. Everything they owned fit inside a covered wagon. Freedom!

3. One secret to happiness is recognizing what is and what is not your problem. I could expect this advice when fretting about a situation that didn’t concern me. The mean girl mocking me? My problem. My sister’s chores? Not my problem. I still check in with this truth occasionally. Turns out a lot of things are not my problem, and I am happier when I keep this in mind.

4. Don’t noise up the place for no good reason. My dad would often each over to turn off the radio (despite having probably selected the station himself), saying, “This music is not an improvement on silence.” Nothing wrong with stillness; no need for mediocre background noise. Just appreciate the quiet already.

5. Work and play. My bedroom window overlooked the back patio; I remember waking up on snowy mornings and looking out the window to check for his footprints to determine whether he’d been called to the hospital before dawn, for he worked at all hours of the day and night. Other childhood memories include him chopping wood, gathering maple sap, shoveling snow, picking corn with my mom (and gleefully piling it in front of the designated huskers, aka his daughters). They also include him attending concerts with my mom, enjoying afternoons the beach, building snowmen, playing chess, driving the family on road trips, walking in the woods, cross-country skiing, picking up our friends to take us all out for ice cream, hanging out at a cottage for a week. He works, he plays—he has found the balance.

6. People aren’t watching you as closely as you think. My dad once told me this once when I was in the throes of adolescent angst about . . . well, something. I’ve long forgotten the (probably trivial) situation, but I just knew everyone was jeering at me. Turns out, he implied, that probably nobody had noticed, and those who had probably weren’t even thinking about it. This was a gentle way of telling me to get over myself, a crucial step in overcoming self-consciousness—especially the misplaced variety.

7. Be there for your family. He does this and always has, in many different ways. He and my mom once came home from vacation a day early in order to see me in my school play. When I was sick and J was traveling out of state, he drove over 70 miles to hold newborn Sonny for a couple hours so I could take a nap. When his parents were in declining health he traveled regularly across three states to check in. Later he moved his nonagenarian father to across those three states to a residence a few miles away so that he could care for him. You get the idea. So did I, early on.

8. You can’t have too much garlic. Although my mom has always been the family cook, whenever the menu featured spaghetti or lasagna my dad would prepare the garlic toast. Heaps of it, heaped with buttery garlic. He’d smuggle garlic into the scrambled eggs and once, I suspected, over the popcorn. Whenever anyone would object, he’d simply reply, “You can’t have too much garlic.” He loves garlic.

Not being quite the garlic fan that he is, I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating on this idea: “If you enjoy it and it’s not harmful, indulge to your heart’s content.” Dark chocolate, for example. You can’t have too much of that.

(Turns out that garlic has been declared a superfood. So has dark chocolate. I guess we were both on to something.)

9. Be a jokester once in a while. One April Fool’s Day I woke up in my sister’s room and she in mine, having been the victims of a midnight switcheroo. Occasionally—rarely enough to catch me off-guard, but occasionally—I’d find myself sprayed with the hose while minding my own business in the yard. And only a couple years ago I was baffled by an egg that refused to crack. Turns out he’d smuggled a ceramic egg into my egg carton while visiting one day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be on-site to witness my confusion when I’d try to break it open. Want to hear him laugh? Ask him about the egg.

10. It’s okay to be the minority in one’s own house. “Oh, your poor dad,” some folks would say with various degrees of jest upon learning that he had three daughters but no sons. And he would occasionally lament about being outnumbered—usually when my sisters and I were hosting sleepovers, or when his favorite reading chair was occupied by Barbie paraphernalia, or when the kitchen reeked of three Ogilvie home perms. But what I remember most clearly is the time he told my sisters and me that he was glad to just have daughters.

As the mother of sons, I have been offered sympathy and encouraged to have another child to give myself a chance of having a daughter. But you know what? I’m thrilled with having sons, content with being outnumbered. And just so Sonny and Ace are clear on this, I follow my dad’s example and tell them that I am glad that God gave me boys.

And, I am glad that God gave me the parents that he did.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.