Birthdays

9
June

BIRTHDAYS

            Among the immutable facts of life is your birth day.  Everyone knows the date they were born and when their next birthday arrives.  When young that is a very big deal, the major social event of the year – a day highly anticipated.  There will be a party with family and friends, good eats, gifts, of course, along with hearing everyone declare that you’re growing up, becoming a “big” boy or girl.  And when you’re young, getting older means so much.  Who wants to be regarded as a “kid”?

By the early teens birthday parties have become old hat, lost much of their allure (sweet sixteen’s being an exception).  They’ve become stale, not all that noteworthy (except when you come of age for a driver’s license.)  Getting to twenty, however, is worthy of celebration.  You’re now reasonably mature, but need not assume much in the way of responsibility.  Immersed in the process of “finding yourself,” you’re at a stage of trial and error, a period of adventure, without firm commitments or permanent location.  Anything is possible.

Thirty must be taken more seriously.  At your party are friends who are married, some with kids, others on solid career paths.  You can remain a free spirit, experience wanderlust maintain serial relationships, but questions are beginning to be asked.  Have you considered “settling down?”  “Do you have a job with a future?”  “Where will you put down roots?”  There’s no panic at 30, you’re still “young” but you can’t expect to continue on like this.  Enjoy your party, but the days of reckoning may not be far off.

At your 40th birthday you should be in full stride, life choices made, potential being realized.  To be 40 is to be both “young” and “old”, certainly experienced enough.  Physically robust, mentally sharp, a career advancing, kids growing up.  And while you’re certainly not worry free (college tuitions, economic downturns, aging parents) there’s enough time and energy to address these issues.

Your 50th birthday is a watershed, likely represents a wake-up call.  The word “old” once used in jest, now appears closer to reality.  Your friends have entered the same age category and people in their 20s and 30s now look like kids.  Changing jobs or careers at this point appears unduly risky.  Aches and pains once readily dismissed or transitory now emerge with worrisome regularity.  Still, you don’t believe you are aging, are exercising vigorously staying sexually fulfilled, still able to keep up with your kids (who no longer are “kids”).  The future still looks bright; you’re still inclined to assume new challenges and welcome new possibilities.

Your 60th birthday, while not depressing, certainly is sobering.  You’re aware that not long ago, people reaching that age were regarded as “old.”  But now it’s different.  Sixty is the new fifty you’re told.  You believe it.  You feel fine.  You’ve not slowed down, still hard at work.  Looking in the mirror you see nothing that’s alarming.  But conversations about retirement crop up now and then.  You’re aware that Medicare coverage is not that far off.  Is this the time to buy “long-term care” policies?  You’re no longer inclined to advertise your age.  People might not react positively.  Potential employers, should you venture into the job market, may not be impressed.  If you have job security, be grateful.
At your 70th birthday, if your health is intact and your finances in order, you should be comfortable where you are.  You’ve made it through the turbulent world of work, your “kids” are adults and you’ve made your mark.  So what if the hair has thinned and you’re no longer at your full height.  You can relax, travel if you wish, sleep late, pursue a lifelong hobby, volunteer because you’ve now retired.  There are likely to be grandchildren to fuss over, steady babysitting assignments – if you live close by (not always the case these days).  You’re hoping for smooth sailing.  Surveys, you’re aware, indicate that those in their 70s consider these times to be the “best years of their lives.”  Still there are more doctor visits than ever before, chronic discomforts, while your eyes, ears and knees no longer perform up to par.  Filling up your days becomes an issue.  And people you know – relatives and friends – are now passing away at a pace you’ve never before experienced.  How many years do you have?  Entering your seventies normally indicates you’ll be around in your eighties – but there are no guarantees.  Best be more careful (don’t fall) than ever before.

On your 80th birthday . . . .  (to be continued)

ANNOYING PEOPLE

19
September

People can be kind, generous, supportive, loving, engaging and just wonderful… but they can also be downright annoying.  We’ve all witnessed such behavior; the kind that rubs us the wrong way.  I’m referring here not to complicated relationship issues, family feuds, work place power plays but simply to observable everyday behaviors, some no doubt unintentional but trying nonetheless.  Everyone has their own lists but I expect there’ll be considerable overlap with the situations described below.

MANY VOICES

14
August

The other day my wife called our daughter Rebecca who works as a banquet manager at a well-known Chicago hotel.  She picked up instantly and in the most friendly, upbeat voice responded, “Hello, this is Rebecca.  How may I help you.”  “This is your mom calling”, my wife said.  “Oh, hello, mom”, we heard next, but now the voice was flat, all the energy and enthusiasm suddenly drained out of it.  The contrast was startling.

“Is that how you react to your mother?” to which she replied, “Now this is my normal voice; the other is how I answer potential customers.”  Having explained somewhat satisfactorily that sudden loss of affect, the conversation continued at conventional vocal levels.

What struck me is how many of us employ a variety of voices (signaling, for example, sarcasm, anger, joy  surprise, etc.) and are able to shift rapidly from one to another, depending upon circumstance, just as we quickly assume different roles and behaviors in the course of a day.  I’m certain most everyone has noticed how we – and that includes most of us – pick up the phone (when the caller is not identified) and assume an aggressive and unmistakably unfriendly tone of voice in the event a solicitor is on the other end of the line (which can prove to be mildly embarrassing when the caller is a close acquaintance). Observe also how an individual engaged in a heated exchange with someone present will upon picking up the phone assume a dramatically different voice, especially when the person is someone whose call is most welcome.  An angry voice is likely when one is phoning to complain, a sweet and gentle one when you’re requesting a favor or special treatment.  Then there are the folks who are total telephone turnoffs, uncomfortable in their role, their voice hesitant and monotonal, lacking the slightest animation (but who during face-to-face encounters are entirely engaging).  Continue reading

“JUST BE A MINUTE”

19
June

The voice over the phone tells you that “an operator will be with you momentarily”.  Back to the phone on another occasion when you’re informed that “the waiting time is approximately five minutes.”  Sitting uneasily in the physician’s office the response to your inquiry is that “the doctor is running behind, but will see you shortly.”  Standing in a crowded restaurant you’re assured that “a table will be opening up real soon.”  Waiting impatiently at home for a service person to arrive you call in and hear that “he’s on the way and should be there in a matter of minutes.”  Having ordered your meal some time ago your question to the waiter prompts him to respond that “your food will be out momentarily”.  Standing alongside your disabled car after much time has passed you call back and hear that “you’ve not been forgotten” and that “the truck will be out to you very soon.”  Closer to home, as you prepare for a night out, your wife reassuringly tells you that “I’ll be ready in just a few more minutes.”

Given my experiences with situations such as these, it’s fair to conclude that everyone who tells you your wait is about over – LIES!

Most all who convey such news have had considerable experience with this sort of thing.  They know how impatient people can be, how the potential for rage lies just below the surface and that matters can easily get out of hand to the great distress of all involved.  They understand that they cannot ignore these inquiries or respond with information that does not offer hope.  They recognize how important it is to be reassuring, even sympathize with those experiencing delay – even as they themselves remain uncertain how much time actually will elapse before the “problem” is resolved.  Every encouraging word buys additional time:  the clock gets reset, begun anew with each successive inquiry.

And on the other side, repeated reassurances are welcome, even if unconvincing.  These folks have been there before, consider the verbal sparring as part of the process.  Each side accepts their role, both aware of how it will likely end.

POSTAL PERCEPTIONS

29
May

There are few public spaces other than the local post office where people in the community can gather regularly to conduct business and to socialize.  Indeed, such interactions are often cited by those opposed to post office closings, especially when such facilities are situated in smaller towns and rural communities.  I wasn’t out to test this proposition, but allow me to describe what I observed at my local village post office the other day.

You never know how long you will be there, especially when mailing a package.  In most instances, you’d best be prepared to wait (which is why I saw people who, after sizing up the line, performed an about-face and promptly left).  Predicting wait times is difficult because of the wide range of services offered.  If it were just about stamps, there would be few delays, but it can also involve packages, passport information, insurance, return receipts, money orders, mail pickups, special delivery, etc.  Were there a sufficient number of postal workers at the counter, all could proceed relatively smoothly.  But inevitably there seems to be one too few, or worse, a clerk stationed at the front (behind a “Window Closed” sign) performing some mysterious administrative task, and therefore “unavailable”.  That was the situation on this occasion.

Once the line grew it didn’t take long before those waiting recognized they had a common grievance, and by word or gesture began venting their displeasure.  (Being in no particular rush I did not join in.)  Growing increasingly impatient they began muttering darkly about the poor service and wondering, out loud, why more postal clerks were not out on the floor.  The woman in front of me, visibly upset by the situation, suddenly bolted the line and headed for the exit.  Not before angrily exclaiming, however, that “I’m never going to get service here.”  Meanwhile, someone turning to one of the clerks shouted, “Why is it taking so long?”  This elicited an immediate response from yet another person.  “What do you expect?  It’s the government”, which in turn prompted a worker who, ignoring the question, shot back, “Listen, I got one year and eleven months to go before I’m out of here.”  At that point a man next to me, in a tone that of resignation, observed that, “We’re going to have to pay the pensions of those guys”.

When I at last arrived at the counter (with a large package) it was time to hear from the “other” side.  I know these workers; so they’re usually up front with me.  One lamented the fact that he had to deal with such heckling and pressure daily.  “The fellow who just left asks me every time to explain the difference between UPS and the USPS (United States Postal Service).  You’d think he would get it by now”.  To which his associate added, “And he always asks if it will get there.”  “I hear that all the time”, the other added.

So what I encountered in my local post office that day was not the genial neighborliness we’d been told to expect, but impatience, frustration and anger.  Maybe next time it will be different.

GREETINGS

15
May

Upon meeting someone, how often do people begin with, “What’s new?” (a phrase unapologetically American given our pre-occupation with what is current, fashionable or “the next big thing”.)  Not intended is an in-depth inquiry, it represents standard verbal boilerplate that precedes more substantive conversation.  In fact, few people actually address this question and instead simply respond with “same old same old.”

My problem is that in such instances I’m often too literal minded.  In response to “What’s new? “, I somehow feel obligated to reply as if it were a serious query.  And I have but a split second in which to react.  How many of you could meet such a challenge?  But I usually try, summoning whatever I can from my memory bank – family matters, friends, vacation, travel, illness, movies.  Somewhere  there must be something worth mentioning.  If one of my daughters has just given birth, that’s fine.  If I’ve recently returned from a trip – easy enough.  Even a pronouncement such as “the world’s coming to an end” can suffice.

People often seem surprised that I actually attempt to answer what they regard as nothing more than a throwaway line.  And having expected the conversation to move on they may not have even paid attention.

So I’m seriously considering a change of strategy, opting for the easy way out.  “How you feeling?” – “Fine.”  “What’s up?” – “Not much.”

MAIL DELIVERY

8
April

The U.S. Postal System is struggling to stay alive and remain relevant these days with FedEx and UPS keenly competitive, with cell phones everywhere and with email and social media at the center of personal relationships.  The post-office, in comparison, appears slow, stodgy and decidedly old-fashioned.  (It arrives but once a day; the others operate continuously.)  What’s keeping it afloat is 1st Class Mail, though as postal rates continue to climb, that service, too, may be in jeopardy.

Still, with all the competition and the grousing about flyers and “junk” mail, the experience of receiving mail six days a week remains enormously appealing, especially among older people and retirees whose connections to the “outside world” tend to shrink with each passing year.  That was confirmed for me recently while strolling the hallways of a local residential building.  One woman, somehow sensing my presence, opened her front door to ask whether the mail had come.  “I just saw the postman,” I replied, and assured her he was heading toward her section of the building.  She was pleased; she’d receive her mail shortly.

Next I observed another woman approach her mailbox, open it, then walk away, clearly disappointed.  “Nothing today”, she declared forlornly.  I felt sad for her.  On other occasions I have noticed how anxious and visibly upset people can become when the mail is “late” and how often they’ll venture out to the mailbox before the postman finally arrives.  That’s because “getting the mail” for so many is deeply woven into the orderly fabric of daily life.  For that reason, delays and disruptions can be unsettling.

People can’t be sure of what the mail will bring.  Part of its allure is this mystery along with heightened expectations.  We await checks that “are in the mail”.  Also packages with items we’ve ordered along with our favorite magazines.  We still look forward to birthday wishes and cards celebrating other happy events.  We’re pleased to receive invitations to parties, weddings and reunions.  Also, postcards from people on vacation and, more rarely now, personal, handwritten letters.  (Once upon a time much awaited love letters flowed back and forth.)  Many of us remember the delight when receiving letters from our kids at summer camp, and also how anxious we were day after day while awaiting word from colleges to which we had applied.

Of course, the mail does bring bad tidings as well.  Just listen as people, upon emptying their mailboxes, complain that it’s “all bills”.  Though expected, they are not welcome.  But there are also the “shockers” – including bills much higher than usual, as well as the surprise exactions, say, from the IRS or local property assessments and tax bills, or additional “late penalties”, or exorbitant medical charges.

The United States Postal System may not, in its present form, survive.  More rapid and less expensive modes of communication could replace it.  But that surely would upset tens of millions of Americans for whom daily mail delivery has long been a reliable, a reassuring and stable feature of their lives.

HAVE A NICE DAY

3
April

It’s practically mandatory these days that when parting company someone offers a cheerfully upbeat send-off that is some variation of “have a good day”, have a great day”, have a nice day”, even a “splendid” one.  Whether it’s acquaintances taking leave of each other or at the conclusion of a commercial transaction, there is no escaping the well-intentioned phrase.  Still, because it’s become standard fare delivered usually by strangers, it rarely provides much of a boost.  Granted, it’s an improvement upon the smiling face, that once ubiquitous, but voiceless symbol of emotional uplift, but because the words are usually uttered with mechanical regularity, “have a nice day” does little for morale.

The supply of “great days” surely is limited.  And because not everyone is having one at that particular occasion, it may serve only to accentuate that distressing reality.  How many of your days turn out to be “nice” or “great”?  Often the best one hopes for is that the day passes quietly and that disappointments are few – and that the following day simply be OK.

Name Dropper

11
March

It’s a conversation stopper most every time.  Arriving without warning it instantly draws everyone in whether they choose to or not.  Once involved it’s hard to withdraw, let alone surrender.  It all begins when whoever is speaking arrives at a “what’s-its-name” moment when he can’t recall the name, say, of a person, place, event, etc.; one presumably essential to his story.  Until he can summon up that name, he will not continue, nor allow anyone to change the subject.  He alone, at first, assumes responsibility for the answer which sets him rummaging through all manner of mental associations and memory traces.  But his efforts lead nowhere amidst mounting discomfort.  That’s when others realize they’d better get involved if the conversation is to continue.

Now, with suggestions flowing in, everyone looks to him to see if they’ve solved the puzzle.  He offers clues and possible linkages, but still the much sought-after name eludes them.  Some, clearly frustrated by this guessing game, withdraw from the hunt.  Others keep at it, unwilling to throw in the towel, viewing it now as a contest they’ve determined to win.

So, how do such conversational dead ends end?  The best outcome is, when to everyone’s great relief, someone stumbles upon the correct name.  This concludes the quest and confirms the advantages of collective effort.  If all efforts fail, however, the individual who originally hijacked the conversation is visibly deflated.  His story will go unfinished.

So the lesson here is:  Beware of starting a story until you have your names in place.

SNOW BOUND

4
March

Snowshoeing has much to recommend it.  No elaborate preparation or bothersome delays:  Out the front door and you’re under way.  The pleasures are many:  the immaculate unbroken glistening carpet of white and the exquisite silence save only for the crackling of tree trunks shrugging off a breeze at their upper reaches.  The deep snow envelopes everything at ground level, covering up all debris – downed trees and jagged branches, stone boundaries as well – occupying most every depression, creating natural paths, opening routes un-navigable during the warmer seasons.  There is also the thrill of “conquering” with relative ease, steep gradients thanks to metal fixtures beneath the snowshoes; also, the exhilaration that comes from observing the busy tracks of all manner of creatures traveling every which way in their anxious quest for sustenance.

So, it was the other day when I ventured out, delighted at the depths deposited by recent storms.  Now, what I am about to relate ought not to be uttered in the same breath as those well-documented dramas of cave confinement, or mountaintop marooning or Pacific atoll abandonment, but it did produce uncomfortable moments which at least hint at the trials involved in those other often tragic predicaments.  The snow on my acreage was uncommonly abundant, and as I trudged along I couldn’t help but notice how far down my snowshoes descended into the icy depths.  But that was fine; to make headway required additional effort and this greater output translated into more intense exercise.

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