Pleasantries

When you work with the public, you must be pleasant all the time.

I know it’s hard. I spent one summer handling phones for Sears Service Center in West Haven, CT. Part of my job was calling customers at the end of the day, and telling them that the repairman would not be showing up. You want to talk about a tough phone call?

One woman was so mad that she threatened to dump her broken air conditioner on my front lawn. I get it. Waiting around for a repairman who doesn’t show up is maddening. But most people were pretty understanding after their initial outrage, realizing that it wasn’t my fault. And most people were assuaged with the guarantee that the repairman would be at their house first thing in the morning.

What I found even at the tender age of 18 is it’s all in the delivery. People appreciate you understanding their predicament, that they took the entire day off from work to sit home with a broken appliance. They appreciate what has come to be known as “emotional intelligence,” or the capacity to understand how another person is feeling.

We knew that my son was emotionally intelligent when he was about 2. One of his older cousins was frustrated playing a game, and he went up to him and put his arm around him to console him. We looked it up in our toddler book and realized that this was emotional intelligence, or what used to be called compassion.

I’m not sure you can teach compassion, but you can certainly encourage your children to consider other people’s feelings. As a mom, it’s up to you to make sure that everyone is invited to birthday parties, at least until about age 10, so that no one’s feelings are hurt. After that, it’s kids’ stuff and they need to work it out.

Of course, you could get lucky and get a kid like my daughter. When I’d get offended that one of her friends didn’t invite her somewhere, she’d say: “Mom, they probably could only invite a certain number of people.” As moms, we know it’s stupid to get offended for our kids, but we can’t help it. Or maybe it’s just dealing with our own childhood baggage.

Being pleasant and cordial is particularly important in jobs that require dealing with the public. No one expects to be treated brusquely just because you’re tired, in a crappy mood or are dealing with a new computer system. We’ve all gone to work when we don’t feel like it, or would rather be doing other things. The trick is to get through the day in spite of it, faking it if necessary.

What I’m getting at – drumroll, please! – is that there is never an excuse for being rude, and if I was a braver sort of person, I’d call people out a lot more often than I do. I cannot stand confrontation of any kind, so I often bite my tongue. But if I was a little more bold, I’d:

  • Tell the woman in the bank to stop yelling at the tellers because Bank of America got rid of the drive-thru window. No one cares that she’s closing her account because she has to get out of her car to conduct her bank business. Personally, I’m glad they closed the window, because I used to have to wait in line while the drive-thru window customers got instant service. And if the old woman with the cane isn’t complaining about having to come in, neither should she.
  • Tell the young father shopping with his two kids at Stop & Shop to take a chill pill, or arrange for someone to watch the kids while he shops. Seriously, people shop with little kids all of the time, and it’s not a big deal. There’s no need to pull your cap down over your face in frustration because you’re behind an elderly couple who is walking slowly. Your overt exasperation and impatience with everyone makes me wonder how much time you actually spend with your children.
  • Tell the older woman at the optician’s office that there is no need to scream and swear at another driver as she tries to park her car. Her ultimate embarrassment must have come when she realized that she was going to the same place as the other driver.
  • Tell the woman at the bagel shop to use the wax paper to choose bagels instead of her bare hands and to wait her turn before digging in. What in the world is the rush?
  • Tell the woman at a place in town that loans out hospital equipment that she needs to go into another line of work or needs a radical attitude adjustment. This place, let’s call it Chad’s Corner, is not the kind of place anyone is eager to visit. If you are going there, someone in your life is laid up, and in need of equipment you never dreamed you’d need.

People who go to Chad’s Corner need to be treated kindly, or at least with a modicum of understanding. They do not need to be treated like crap, or else they will likely get their feelings hurt and want to run for their car.

I went to Chad’s Corner looking for, well I wasn’t sure. I wanted to see what they have, if that makes any sense. I was thinking about maybe a lightweight wheelchair, something I could put the Curmudgeon in and wheel him down our street until he regains his strength from his surgery last week. I was thinking something I could borrow for a week, and then gleefully return.

Please keep in mind that the idea behind Chad’s Corner is wonderful, and that most volunteers are probably outstanding. Equipment like walkers, commodes, wheelchairs and hospital beds is donated and loaned out to people who need it. It’s a beautiful concept and a wonderful community service.

But the place sometimes needs a little TLC, particularly on a Monday morning with walkers and commodes strewn about, making it look a little like Lourdes with its cast off crutches. It doesn’t help that a sign states that equipment on the porch has not be cleaned.

“What do you need?” a woman said.

“Not sure,” I said. “My husband just had surgery on his foot. Maybe a knee scooter?”

I don’t know why I said a scooter when I was really eying a wheelchair, but she went into the back room to poke around. “How much does he weigh? I’ve got something here, but the wheels don’t really turn.”

I took two steps into the back room to get a look at the scooter and she barked, “Stay outside please!” It wasn’t what she said, but how she said it. She was gruff and scolding, when I needed coddling and understanding. She hurt my feelings when I was feeling very vulnerable. I had no idea that I was feeling so sensitive, but I was.

“You know what?” I said. “I don’t need anything.”

“OK,” she said.

I walked away and got into my car. I sat there for several minutes contemplating whether I should tell her that I thought she was rude. I am a volunteer and would never treat someone like that. As an adult, I don’t think any of us likes to feel that we’re being scolded, even if it’s for our own good. We certainly don’t need to be upbraided when trying to borrow hospital equipment. We are looking for direction and guidance, maybe even a little understanding.

After discussing it with a friend, I decided to sleep on it. I decided to write about it instead. I’ve shared it with you, and I feel better now.

download (1).jpg                                Photo courtesy of the puzzledgiraffe.com.

When my son was little, I often brought him to the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, CT.

The zoo is a mom’s dream: not too big, but enough animals to keep your child occupied for an afternoon. Best of all, it features an old-fashioned carousel where you can rest your weary bones and reach for the brass ring.

As we began circling the zoo one hot summer day, we heard a horrendous howl echoing through the park. It was loud, guttural and relentless, originating from the enclosures where the large cats live. As we got closer, it became louder and more persistent. We’d never heard such a horrible sound before.

“What’s going on?” I asked a zoo worker. “What is that noise?” “It’s a male Siberian tiger,” she said. “His mate is sick, so she’s gone for a few days getting treatment. He’s letting us all know how much he misses her.”

That tiger underscored – quite loudly – the importance and comfort of having your mate by your side. Those of us who’ve been married a long time often joke and gripe about our spouses, overlooking our good fortune in being part of a longterm union.

When my in-laws celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, we presented them with a teak bench with a plaque stating, “Celebrating 50 years of being side by side.” It was fitting because they were always together. When my mother-in-law died in 2004, my father-in-law was like the tiger, but internalized his roar. He never quite recovered from her death.

A lot of people don’t get to grow old together, losing their mates to accidents or disease – never enjoying the fruits of a long marriage. It often takes a health emergency, no matter how minor, to emphasize how lucky we are to have our mates healthy, strong and operating on all cylinders.

I felt a tiny bit like the tiger last weekend when my son pulled into the driveway, handed me his cellphone and said, “Get in the car. We’ve got to go get him. And why didn’t you answer your phone? We’ve been trying to call you for 20 minutes.”

I’d been gardening, or my version of it, finally putting plants into a front bed. Everyone was out, and truth be told, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I treated myself and bought one of those fancy wands for the hose, but it leaks terribly so my socks and sneakers were soaked. The last thing I needed was a wet phone, so I left it in the house.

My son handed me his phone and the Curmudgeon was on the other end. Four games into a doubles tennis match at a nearby club, he ruptured his Achille’s tendon. He was surprisingly calm about it, but something in me felt like crying. I felt terrible that my mate was wounded.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s inconvenient and a nuisance, requiring surgery and his left leg to be in a cast for about three months. He will heal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor glitch. But something has been off since the phone call. My mate is injured, so I’m off my game too.

In the animal kingdom, an injury means vulnerability and it’s not all that different in our world. Besides the pain and inconvenience, losing the use of one leg makes you have to depend on others for simple things like getting a glass of milk or carrying your briefcase. This isn’t easy for anyone, least of all someone as independent as the Curmudgeon.

I can’t joke about him or his curmudgeonly ways because he’s injured and has every right to be grumpy and demanding. I won’t kick a guy when he’s down, even if he’s the star of my show. I will have to search for new material, however difficult this may be, during his convalescence.

Well, most of the time. As he hobbled into the bedroom on his metal crutches this morning, I asked if he was trying to look pathetic. “Yes,” he said. He is also using his condition as a platform to show how much he usually does around here, implying the rest of us are slugs.

I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest measures of a marriage is how people behave when their spouse is sick or injured. The “sickness and health” line is part of most people’s wedding vows, yet many people fail miserably in this department, viewing their spouse’s illness as an inconvenience or burden.

You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they treat their spouse (as well as relatives and friends) when they’re ill or on the injured reserved list. My mother set an extremely high example, caring for my father with love and grace during his battle with heart failure. When I pointed out that Dad was extremely demanding with his calls of “Gerry!,” my mom noted “all men are.”

It wasn’t until my Dad was ill that I realized how much he depended on and needed my mom. I always viewed him as the strong, independent type, but his illness showed me a side of their marriage that they kept largely hidden from view. Dad really needed my mom, and she stepped up. After he died, she confided that he was quite compromised physically for years, but didn’t want any of us to know how seriously ill he was.

Mom said she’s not surprised the Curmudgeon is barking orders because most men are demanding when they’re sick or hurt. And I can’t argue. The Curmudgeon is having no trouble ordering us around, but it’s OK. It’s the least we can do for him. He takes very good care of us, so it’s our turn to indulge him acting like a dictator. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m giving him a free pass to complain as much as he wants because of the sickness and health clause in the marriage contract. And while I initially vowed not to write about him during his recovery, I’m rethinking it. Some things are just too good to keep to myself.

 

London Calling

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The happy couple.

My sister-in-law Sarah has lived in London for 31 years.

She intended to stay for a year working as a corporate attorney for a New York law firm, but never moved back. After having one child – and then three more – she and her husband decided to raise their family in England.

We’ve had an open invitation to visit and have never gone, mainly because I hate to fly. I broke my no-fly rule in 2011 when my tennis team went to USTA Nationals in Tucson and my good friend Christi served as my human security blanket. I sucked it up and flew, but kicked myself when I saw that one player drove cross country because she was afraid to fly. Damn, I could have rode shotgun.

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Outside Windsor Castle, the world’s oldest occupied castle and where the Queen likes to spend weekends.

People who hate to fly know we’re crazy, but we can’t help it. We hear about exotic trips and are jealous, but we’re penned in by our irrational fear. A friend of mine is skipping a trip to Portugal with his wife in September because he won’t fly. I can tell he’s sad about it, but he’s made up his mind.

I’m a bit more of a waffler, someone who’s always said – and believed – that I would fly if something came up that required air travel. That something came up: my oldest nephew in London married his beautiful girlfriend Lucy last weekend.

His parents did not press us about our RSVP – I know they probably assumed that we wouldn’t come because of my little problem – but this was a no-brainer. It’s a family wedding, which in my family means you go unless you’re incapacitated. A chance to finally see London with our kids. But most importantly, a chance to show my kids that you can have fears and concerns, but should not be crippled by them.

I’ve missed out on a lot of travel and adventure because of my refusal to fly, and as I get older, I’m really starting to regret it. We can live big, or we can live small, seizing opportunities or being penned in by fear.

 

I won’t lie – I was nervous during the flights, particularly the final leg from Nova Scotia to Boston when I noticed our plane had propellors where I had hoped to see jet engines. But it was nothing a little prayer and white wine couldn’t handle. Bonus: the credit card machine was broken, so the wine was free.

I take a few people to a nearby nursing home to visit friends a couple of times a month, and walking through the corridors is a sobering experience. Riddled by health problems that come with old age, most residents are confined to their rooms, spending their days staring at the TV or sleeping in the recreation room.

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Climbing roses on the gate leading to my sister-in-law’s London home.

I go during the week, and rarely see other visitors my age while I’m there. And though I’m sure adult children and other relatives come on the weekends, I’m just as certain after talking with staffers that there are some people who never get visitors.

What strikes me is that these folks were once young, vibrant people who are now prisoners of their longevity. I hope they lived their lives to the fullest,  taking risks and seizing opportunities. I will be honest: I deplore going to the nursing home because, well, I just do. We all want to live to a ripe old age, yet seeing the effects of age and disease – and the isolation and loneliness they reap – is extremely depressing.

 

The overall feeling upon leaving is one of relief. As I scurry down the corridors to leave, I feel a bit like a dog that has gotten a reprieve from the vet: run for your life! Get out of here as fast as you can. You’re relatively young and healthy – get out there and do things while you can.

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Flowers, flowers everywhere.

Years ago, one of my jobs at the newspaper was to proofread the obit page. I know, exciting stuff, something I always managed to be doing while eating my dinner. One night, I was reading an obituary of a woman who was in her 80s, married and died childless. At the time, I was in the midst of the fertility process, wondering whether I should stay on the path I was on, or proceed with adoption as friends and relatives were urging.

For some reason, reading the woman’s obit that night was very powerful. I wondered if she had considered adoption, but never got around to it. I wondered if she had regrets about never adopting if she wanted children. I wondered why the hell I was wondering about her so much.

But I decided that night that I didn’t want to be the woman who died childless because I was too lazy, stubborn or indifferent to take a different path. I decided that night that in the end, I wanted to be a mother, by whatever means necessary. I knew at that moment that I would adopt children, that doing nothing was not an option for me.

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The gardens outside Buckingham Palace.

I never considered that this may have been her choice – some women don’t want to be moms, and maybe she was one of them. But I suspected she did. The desire to nurture and the proverbial biological clock is hardwired into most women. From the time we reach puberty, we’re keenly aware every month that our bodies are built to reproduce.

It was 10 years between the time of my first miscarriage until I brought my son home. I’m so glad that I took a different path because had I stayed on the one I was on, I wouldn’t be a mom and that would make me very sad. Life has a way of working things out, but you must always be open to new paths and opportunities.

And so the no-fly rule has been snapped, for a young couple taking a new path together. I have no idea when I’ll fly again, what will come up to entice another flight. But I can tell you one thing: I hope it won’t be seven years, because that was really fun.

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Holding court at Windsor Castle.

 

Dirty Laundry

Scenes from London: Waiting for the Big Bus to arrive; hanging out near Buckingham Palace; Bobo’s Bubbles; the laundry mistress, and my kids in my sister-in-law’s front garden.

There are times when you just want to be alone, and the need for solitude outweighs everything else.

That time struck as we prepared to check out of our hotel in the Kensington section of London and move to Dulwich Village for our nephew’s wedding last Saturday.

Faced with a pile of dirty laundry, the Curmudgeon announced that he planned to arrive at his sister’s doorstep and ask to use her washer and dryer. I suggested that that probably was not the best idea because she’s mother of the groom and might have more pressing things on her mind.

Mature adults don’t show up at people’s homes with dirty laundry, particularly on the eve of a wedding. A clear sign of adulthood is figuring out the location of the closest laundromat, or hiring someone for the task. Mature adults don’t travel with bags of dirty laundry hoping to find a free washer. You outgrow that stage of life when you collect your college diploma and enter the real world, or at least that’s how I was raised.

People traveling with dirty laundry are at best tolerated, at worst scorned. I can’t stand when my son brings home piles of laundry during vacation breaks from college. It’s the only thing I really don’t like about him being home.

My family is a little laundry challenged. We get it into the washer and dryer, but folding it and getting it out of laundry baskets and into proper drawers and closets is a bit of a miracle. I’m not sure how other people handle this, but I’ve reached a point where I’ve threatened to throw out laundry that isn’t put away within 24 hours.

The Curmudgeon brought plenty of clothes to London, but managed to produce an impressive pile of dirty laundry after about four days. As we prepared to switch hotels, he announced that he’d ask his sister Sarah to use her laundry as we all gathered for a pre-wedding dinner at her house.

Seriously? Um, no. Faced with the prospect of traveling with a Hefty bag of dirty clothes across London or finding a laundromat, I chose the latter: Bobo’s Bubbles, just steps from our hotel.

I arrived at Bobo’s with my son, who helped me figure out how to use the washers and track down English coins for the machines. But I was happy when he left me alone with the dirty clothes, the spinning machines and the laundromat mistress, who made change and dispensed advice with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance.

We’re all so dense when it comes to industrial washing machines, aren’t we? I couldn’t even open a commercial washer without her expert guidance. A fellow customer was admonished for failing to press the black button to start the dryer. “It’s not going to work if you don’t turn it on,” she said. Duh.

I almost never go to laundromats because I’m blessed to have a fairly new high capacity washer and dryer, and can do laundry any time I want. But there’s a beauty in an old-time laundromat that’s almost lost in today’s world: a place to process your laundry from beginning to end, without squishing it between a million other tasks.

A laundromat means one thing: washing, drying and folding clothes. And though I-Phones and tablets have made it possible to make the most out of your waiting time, I chose to do it the old-fashioned way: sipping a cup of coffee, plopping myself in a plastic chair and staring at clothes spinning in the dryer.

The dryers become like huge kaleidoscopes if you stare long enough, a smattering of colors that change with every spin. Some people’s clothes spin more systematically than others. Ours were a jumble of socks, sports bras and bright gym clothes that seemed a lot more chaotic than neighboring dryers. Perhaps our clothes say something about the people who wear them. Or maybe I was just staring at the dryers for too long.

The laundry mistress ran a tight ship, taking pains to ask if I had a big load or small, and whether I wanted detergent with conditioner or without. She emerged with two huge Tide pods, advising me to toss them into the drum and warning that my cold wash would be finished in 30 minutes, 15 minutes sooner than a warm or hot load.

“Enough time to go out and get coffee,” she said. “Put your suitcase on top of the washer and come back in half an hour,” she said.

As she folded, she lamented her workload, saying she had not stopped since she arrived at work at 8 a.m. It was 10:45 and she had not yet had time for even a sip of water. I guess no one wants to wash their own clothes these days. At least when she’s only charging 2 pounds for a small load, 3 for a big one.

I felt for her. I processed six loads of laundry on one day before our trip and was exhausted. I couldn’t imagine doing laundry day in, day out. It’s non-stop, tiring, back-breaking work. But she noted it pays the bills.

“Things could be worse,” she said. “At least I have a job. And it’s been a good day. A man with a dog came in today and wants me to paint his dog’s portrait. I get to do my artwork.”

She emerged from a cramped back room marked “private” with two paintings on rough canvases: a portrait of a fluffy cat and a handsome dog. She was trained as an artist, specifically a sculptress, in her homeland of Spain, but said she thinks her real talent is in painting portraits.

I can’t argue with her. Her paintings are quite lovely. I can’t paint – it gives me a tension headache – and am always impressed when people can. You never know what hidden talents the laundry mistress has up her sleeve. Beyond those fingers and hands folding clothes is a gifted artist.

I returned to the hotel with the clean laundry neatly folded in a suitcase, expecting to be the hero, the one who saved everyone from the curse of dirty laundry. But everyone was agitated and angry, complaining that my insistence on doing laundry had screwed up the packing process, and some clothes were still a little damp.

Truth be told, I didn’t care all that much about the laundry. I would have done practically anything at that point to get away from my family for just a few minutes. Traveling is a luxury and a privilege, but sometimes it can feel smothering, even stifling. Sometimes being alone in a stuffy laundromat and staring at tumbling clothes is what you need to regroup and get your head right. Sometimes talking to a laundry mistress is all the therapy you need.