Thursday, October 20, 2016

That feeling in my stomach

Once upon a time, maybe he wasn't so orange 
but that doesn't matter now.
A psychology professor once said to us, "If you get that feeling in your stomach that you're being manipulated, you are."
Originally, I wrote a post for this space about Melania Trump's no-win interview with Anderson Cooper, in which she stood by her orange man and said everything she should have if she wanted him to be even less likeable to the masses sixty-eight stories below. 
My impression of Melania Trump was neutral going into the interview. She'd stolen some of Michele Obama's speech which lowered her grade, but her husband had just been outed as a predatory, misogynistic frat bro and maybe she was crushed, so I raised it again.
Also, how happily do they co-exist up there in the clouds, I wondered before the interview, trying, trying to give Melania the benefit of the doubt. 
How do we know Melania hasn't been facing a true crisis of "Jesus, when did this happen??" How do we know she doesn't wake up 3:00 a.m. with monkey mind like the rest of us, look over and say, "Holy crap, WTF happened to the guy I met during fashion week?" 
But really, I wrote it to get right with my own conscience. I had been prepared to loathe Melania Trump as much as I loathe Donald because she's married to him and not for any other reason. In truth, apart from the speech excerpts she stole, she lacks a history deserving of honest contempt. 
So, I reached for my generosity, a way to sympathize with a person who might be seriously, seriously, conflicted and stop judging her solely on the basis of who she married. 
Then I watched the interview. I cringed as she defended Trump's behavior with only bland words of disapproval. I said right out loud, "Don't do that," when she victim-shamed her husband's accusers, and by the time she'd offered the boys-will-be-boys explanation for his abominable remarks, my hopes that Melania Trump was a decent but (understandably!) conflicted person were leaking air like an uncapped pool toy. 
Just the same, I wrote my devil's advocate post and put it up. 
Then I took it down.  
Because I'm not sympathetic, and I don't feel she's conflicted at all. 
The post I'd written was a clearing of conscience, because I'm not accustomed to auto-disliking anyone. I'm accustomed to considering the likable side of an unlikable person and putting it on display. Normally, I'm not ruled by my assumptions, but try to chase assumptions from my thinking.

This election season has made it harder. And now, professor, I'm getting that feeling in my stomach.  
With constant exposure to the trials and missteps of others, I have started to expect the worst of everyone. Accustomed to watching people fall in the press, on the internet, and on television, I only hope it's not one of "ours." I'm judging more than I ever have, and I'm sure I'm judged just as quickly when I post my delight over Trump's biggest blunders.
It has been a tough year for good people who want to support one candidate or the other but do not wish to treat people the way they treat each other. In myself, and in others who are normally open-minded and tolerant, I see our reluctance to express political preferences openly anymore, but for all that discretion, I hear people express themselves in language that sounds angrier, closed to reason, and isolating.

If we can't look away, is it because we've become hyper-vigilant? Conditioned to expect attack? Have we transferred our fear of what lies beyond us to what lies within? 

Recently, I texted a friend after a stretch of pivotal news days for the candidates and said, "I keep refreshing the front page of the Post, but I don't know what I'm waiting for." 
That is what an opinion looks like that has been feeding on chips and dips from the news for too long and needs to go on a serious diet that consists of reason, objectivity, distance, and possibly a spa treatment of arguing the case of a supporter from the other side.  
I'll try to post my weights as they change.

Friday, October 14, 2016

To protect, to serve, to save in Laconia, NH

Here is a sign that seems intimidating
until you get to know it.
Laconia, New Hampshire is composed of neighborhoods like high schools are composed of cliques. Some fringe the lake and have a folksy, vacation feel to them. Others, are tree-lined and orderly. And many, owing to poverty and violent drug crime are more likely to be featured in the "calls for service" that the Laconia Police Department publishes each year. 
Laconia is one of the regions served by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, where I volunteer as a writing coach. This year, for the first time, I have a teen in Laconia. We meet once a week to discuss how she will tell her difficult life story as she competes for the Club's Youth of the Year title. 
Five years ago, Christopher Adams became Laconia's chief of police after seventeen years with the department. Last year, he attended a gathering of Club supporters to talk about the Club's presence as a safe place for kids who might otherwise roam loose and antsy in those risky after-school hours.
Chief Adams is not someone you forget quickly.
I would not want to
be on the wrong
side of this shoe.
First, he's a big presence, a big presence wearing dark navy blue. And while he was not loud, the equipment affixed to his belt – handcuffs, radio, baton, keys, flashlight, and of course, the gun – suggested that no day was predictable enough to leave anything at home.  
And I don't have to tell you about cop shoes. Cop shoes are some serious shoes.  
I've known self-important doctors, bosses and teachers who enjoy making a show of their authority. There are, of course, police officers who walk into the least significant interaction prepared to show just who is in charge. 

But not this one, not this night.

Chief Adams didn't do a single imposing thing. He didn't crowd people when they were talking, or make too-intense eye contact. His mission this night was to bring the story of a drug-bashed community to the awareness of people who "had heard it was bad there." If his demeanor in this wine-and-cheese setting was as playful as a watchful doberman, his sincere interest in everyone he spoke too made him approachable. And then he got up to speak.  
Chief Adams talked about the growing need for a well-supported Club in Laconia, now considered among the most dangerous cities in New Hampshire. He cited crime rates, drug arrests, poverty. He described aimless kids on the border of crisis, poor parental supervision, and myriad temptations that lure young teens into early careers of crime and hopeless addictions. But his most compelling story was about a three-year-old who ran naked and hysterical from the scene of a drug bust into the arms of a police officer. 

Last week, I met my teen in Laconia and like always, we looked for a place to talk privately while very energetic kids of all ages and heights bounced around, burning off the energy of the day. 
"It's down here," she said. I followed her past an activity room where smaller kids were engaged in arts and crafts and other supervised play that allowed them to run free without doing damage to anything, or anyone.
At the end of a small table, little children clustered around an adult figure, who seemed to be sharing a story. He leaned forward as he talked, and then listened, nodding and smiling. The kids milled around, eager to tell a story I'm sure, show a drawing, share a joke, pepper him with questions about his job. 
I didn't recognize Chief Adams at first through the clutch of kids. But then he turned to look out at my teen and me. A smile broke across his face, and he raised his hand in hello. The little ones were competing for his attention and he turned away. 
Had I known that he was going to be there, I might have expected one of those Officer Friendly interactions I've observed in school districts full of stay-at-home moms and kids who want to look like badasses, but never really will. Maybe a serious-yet-kindly figure sitting on a table in the front of the room, offering suggestions for staying out of trouble, while imparting a caring but cautionary message: I can protect you now, or punish you later. 
I've seen the ones who keep that wall low enough to look over, but stay on their side just the same. 
But not this one, not this figure in navy blue with all that equipment affixed to his belt and his serious cop shoes, present and engaged at eye-level with the smallest of his at-risk citizens in a community that Chief Adams protects and serves, but mostly aims to save.
I have no doubt, this guy deals with threats to his community that are crushing. I won't forget the talk that all of us heard at that event. It was chilling. It was real.
But last week was not about talking the talk. Last week was about cop shoes walking the gentle walk into a circle of small children who may just as well thrive as fail in their struggling community, with the right eyes on them.    
I won't forget that more.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


Above, shown in squint-producing
lettering (sorry) is a very true thing that I wish I'd said, 
but which I won't forget.

Some people read something like that Maya Angelou quote and pin it where they'll remember it. Some consider such a tender truth banal, and don't take it seriously. Some applaud such truths publicly but don't really practice them in their own lives. 
I'll cover that third one in Pet Peeves #3, which is scheduled to appear as soon as I must deal with another government agency, or Comcast.
Exchanges between people, all kinds, fascinate me almost more than anything, but none more than those between an intuitive stranger and another in need.

I can't remember if I fed Gus this morning (that's not really true. I think I did), but like it was yesterday, I remember walking into a psychology stat course where my professor was talking to a student. The student, about nineteen, looked exhausted and near tears. The professor, a doctor with a very intense gaze, looked into the boy's face with an expression of caring I'd never seen before.  
"How you doing?" he asked."Okay?"
The boy nodded, "Yeah, better."
The tenderness of this simple question was perfect, and its effect was obvious. 

I never forgot it.

And it was me once, in need, sitting on a train after a serious writing setback had me thinking I wasn't meant to be in the writing business at all. I still remember the facial expression of a stranger who passed me while I was deep in thought over plan B which was:  I don't know what to do now. She was several years older than I, and she fixed me with a long expression of such knowing it halted my thoughts mid-spiral.  As clear as water, it just said, You're supposed to be here. It's part of it.

I still think of it. 

Last week, a cashier at our supermarket held the line up for so long helping a very elderly lady locate her ATM card in her giant bag-of-everything that everyone gave up and went elsewhere. I stayed.
"That's the one!" the cashier said to her, "That's right, just swipe it right there."
"Here?" she asked.
"That's right. You're all set, now." 
She didn't know the buttons to push and he came around to show her. She looked at me, and I smiled. Finally, after several apologies, she was on her way. 

So visibly relieved was the woman, I wondered how often she encountered the tired tone, the show of patience, the sigh of inconvenience that so many busy people use with others who don't move fast enough to please them. I'll RE-cover that in Pet Peeves #3, which is scheduled to appear as soon as I must deal with any kind of insurance issue, or hold music, or both.

When it was my turn, I thanked the cashier for his patience.

"It's easier for me to be patient than it was for her to get that done with people staring at her," he said. "Also I am a youth counselor with teenagers. You can deal with anyone after that."

He smiled at that, the thought of those kids. Those lucky kids. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Pet Peeves #2: Do not block the intersection

Here is a sign that is probably
never in a very good mood
because nobody takes it seriously.
On the way to the supermarket campus of Life School recently, while I was thinking about what kind of  post I'd write for the week, I approached a congested intersection. A giant sign overhead, and one to the side, said  "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION."  
The light changed, and everyone blocked the intersection. 
Drivers exchanged dirty looks. The sign just shook its head. 

And that's how Pet Peeves posts are born.  
But then, when I was actually at the supermarket I saw an act of kindness that made me think of other acts of kindness and I began to think about that kind of post. 
But then, I received a $90 fine from the state of Massachusetts for an E-Z pass toll violation that never happened, and I had to reschedule acts of kindness while I researched Extremely Important people to write to about this travesty. 
Herewith, a compromise: observations that are only on the Pet Peeves spectrum, because they are highly dependent on the mood of the observer. I have added a "truth" score to correct for this variability.
1. The Massachusetts D.O.T., because ask anyone what happens if they fine you for failure on their part to recognize a transponder that has been affixed to the same plate since God was an infant, which is attached to to a car that has just completed a fourteen hour drive and made it through every other plaza without a hitch. They've been in the news for this. 
Truth: a 10 on the Peeves scale no matter what kind of mood you're in. 
2.  Customer service people who say "Give me a minute," or who interrupt you because they've heard your complaint enough to finish it for you, or who put you on hold for several years so that they can "find more information," when what they really want to do is go to the bathroom and have a cigarette in the parking lot. 
Truth: 8 on the Peeves scale, it's a mood buster. 
3.  People like bank tellers or receptionists or who don't go out of their way to help the elderly when they're confused or uninformed about a process or transaction, but just shut them down, as if it will cost them to spend extra time, when it is actually free and part of being a decent human being. 
Truth: 9 on the Peeves scale because it makes me dizzy with unhappiness to see this. 
4.  Facebook posts that start with: "This will break your heart." Or, "If you don't cry when you see this, you don't have a soul." I know people click on those things, but I wonder if it's really a good way to start the day, reading something that will make you "reach for the Kleenex." You can get in your car and go to any large public setting and see something that will make you weep if you need to. Or just watch clips of the last debate and think about a President Trump in tense talks with serious world leaders saying, "I know you are but what am I?" 
Truth: A 5, right in the middle. It shows compassion to be moved by something caught on video, but my own compassion doesn't like proving itself.
5.  People who call me Sue, even after I've told them many times that I prefer Susan and always have, and always will, forever and ever, because "Sue" makes me feel like a cheerleader, or camp counselor, or field hockey coach, while Susan makes me feel like the person I've spent several years becoming.  
Truth: 5 on the Peeves scale.   
6. Servers who call me "Miss." This happened all at once, in city restaurants everywhere, a few years ago. Why did this start? What is it supposed to accomplish? Who thought this was a good idea for any reason? And worse, who is so sensitive about what they're called by strangers (unless it's "Sue")  that a whole trend is required to make us feel better? 
Truth: 2 on the Peeves scale, unless the server is also rude, and then it's higher. If the server is particularly pleasant however, it becomes a 0 on the Peeve scale and I leave a tip that will make a difference in their day. 
7. People who refuse to talk down to their kids, which is good, but then go the other way to talk way up  which is bad. You see this sort of thing when there is an excellent chance they'll be observed by others. 
Child holding an orange Nalgene bottle: "Can I get this?"
Dad in a teacher voice:  "Remember what we said about this earlier today? Many Nalgene water bottles and other hard plastic sport water bottles are made of polycarbonate which may leach Bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical."  
Child: "Then, can I get a snack at the check out?" 
Truth:  This is more of an observation than a peeve. I would be disappointed if I didn't see these exchanges as often as I do. In fact, this actually has potential to become an act of kindness in time for next week's post if I see it happen and compliment the validation-seeking parent on how well they communicate with children. 
That's it. As soon as I finish writing to the Attorney General, the Office of Consumer Affairs, the Better Business Bureau, and Governor Baker over there in Taxachusetts, I'll start on acts of kindness for next week.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

PSA: don't do this

The file is now closed.
We have, with our youngest's college graduation and move to Boston, now launched four successful adults. All have careers and benefit plans, all still like to come for dinner and go shopping, and I'm feeling good about the mom in the mirror. 

I'm tempted to offer pages from the "worked for us" file, but the "don't do this" file is more interesting. First, however, some scraps of backstory: 
Remember when Rex, the insecure dinosaur in Toy Story made this comment after trying to scare Woody:
"I'm going for fearsome, but I think I'm just coming off as annoying?"  Okay, put that aside.
Remember the "Cincinnati Zoo Mother" story this summer about the woman who turned away long enough for her toddler to fall into a gorilla enclosure? And, that the gorilla was shot before he could harm the boy? 
It was a sorry and sad thing, and even before the internet blew up over this woman's "neglect" you had to feel for her once you knew the reason for why it happened, which was because that's what accidents do, they happen. 
"It's not about the decision to put down the gorilla," said commenters, which don't get me started. "It's about the fact that the kid got away from the parents."  
Once, I let go of my small child's hand in a busy store and he bolted. I dropped the things I was holding and gave chase while he scrambled up a spiral staircase like a crab, and headed straight for the propped open door. A busy two way street was feet beyond the threshold. I quite literally tackled him before an oncoming car, then dissolved into tears to think of what almost happened.  
Before that happened, I was a good mother. After it happened, I was a good mother. But in today's viral video world, had things turned out differently and had I been filmed with my full arms as my little one wandered off, I would have been shredded by people who simply hadn't made the same mistake yet.   
When I was a young parent, I said things often to suggest that accidents happen to careless people. And I was not short on opinions where less conscientious, poor example-setting parents were concerned. I was vocal about parents who smoked in the car with their kids, or left their kids alone at young ages, or left them in cars to run in to the store, or partied too loud or too late while their young kids were home and listening. 
After that near disaster, I said things like that rarely. 
I bring this up, for two  reasons. First, because I think parents who judge other parents to put their own behaviors in a good light not only don't impress their kids, but wind up modeling  intolerance for their own cohort, a big no-no among kids as soon as they don't need play dates to make friends. 
Second, because very judgmental, intolerant parents run the risk of being the last people on earth their kids will turn to when (not if)  they mess up.  At this moment, many of our young adults are three weeks or so  into the later high school or early college years. With all that yummy freedom, 'tis the season to mess up, magnificently.
I wince to remember those sanctimonious remarks I made as a young parent, when I was going for this:

but probably coming off as this:
If I made a mistake, I would
not want to tell this
 woman about it.

An inexperienced parent wants to appear competent, of course. But I think, when the chance presents itself to judge others, it's a gift we can give our children to remind them that making mistakes is as much a part of life as bad storms and potholes. You get caught in one, but you tend to see the next one coming. 

And "earned" smarts last longer and are more useful than the "lucky" kind. 

Nobody knows what mistakes they haven't made yet, we only know that when they happen, we'll want to reminded by people we love that we're still the people we were before we messed up. 

That is a very good thing for our kids to see in the Mom and Dad mirror. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Life School: Tire Store campus

No tires were harmed in the stalking or
posting of this sign on Facebook.
I'm pretty sure that at some point, a science teacher stood in front of a classroom, miles from the back row where I sat, and informed all of us that  a molecule is the smallest particle in a chemical element or compound that has the chemical properties of that element or compound.
In response to this news, I'm pretty sure I constructed a cootie catcher and asked "my neighbor" to pick a color and receive a fortune in return. 
I think of this when I have to talk to Harry, a specialist at our local tire store, because no place makes me feel, and therefore act, as stupid as this place with its garage smell of tread and wall hangings of actual tires. 
If it's a simple deal – changing out of snows for example – we do okay. But if there's an "issue" – a  shimmy, a pull in some direction – Harry and I know we'll have to put on our patient hats because my comfort level with his language ends with "I'm fine, how are you?" 
A month ago, my husband noticed a serious scrape in my tire and asked me if I'd been driving anywhere lately where sharp metal might have been come in contact with the tire, like a construction site. 
Here is a helpful sign 
that explains itself.
I told him that no, I'd not driven through any construction sites and that my driving route is the same as it's been for months: I drive to Granite to see friends for wine every now and then, I drive to the supermarket, I drive to Concord to run errands, and sometimes I stalk signs to post on Facebook. 
"You should call Harry. It's kind of deep, it might be dangerous to be driving on it."
"Can it blow up?"
"Let Harry tell you that." 
Had that blowing up question brought an "Oh, I doubt it!" there would be no call with Harry until much later in the future. But I had to go to Boston soon, so I dialed him up. 
"Hi Harry, it's Susan Bonifant."
"Oh, hey Susan!"
"I have a problem."
"Oh no," he said, "what's happening?" 
Here is where my brain wants to lie down.

"I've done something to my tire."
"It has a gash."
"How did that happen?"
"I don't know."
"Can you describe it for me?"
"It looks like a check-mark."

"Is it in the sidewall?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well," begins Harry, "the sidewall  sjdyfhfhy uuiir. Alskjdhfughhh and vbvhg can mean rsddwq. And cqpmkk, and also jg dfreeaa."
"So," asks Harry, "is it like that?" 
Here is where Harry adjusts the pace of his speech and length of his words. 

"Do you want to come in and let me take a look?" he asks.
"That would be great," I say. "When is it quiet over there?"
"Usually 3 or so. We're pretty busy at lunchtime."

"Okay. It's noon. If I come over in twenty minutes, will that work?"
"Sure," says Harry. 
It is, as Harry predicted, packed because it's lunchtime, and so I signal, I'll come back, and Harry nods in agreement from the counter. 

At three o'clock, Harry follows me to the car and squats to get a close look at the tire. 
"Yeah, that's what I thought," he says in a sad voice. "And how did this happen?"

"I have no idea. Can it be fixed?" I ask. "Patched, maybe?" 
"Nope." He looks at me. "It's in the sidewall." He points to what is the sidewall before I can ask, and says, "See, the thing is, ynfhy uuiir. Alskjdhfughhh and vbvhg can mean rsddwq. And cqpmkk, and alos dfreeaad. Vb." 
I want out of the deep end of this tire talk pool, now. I want to take my napping brain and go where I will not be this way, but I need to know. 
"Am I in any danger if I drive to Boston this week?" 
Harry is uncomfortable with this question. He sighs, makes a  tsk tsk tsk tsk sound, tilts his head left and right and says, "It's really not a good idea." 
"Will it blow up?" I ask. 
"Oh, Heavens! No. I'm sure your car has a pressure warning." 
"What will it do if it does?" 
"A light will come on and tell you if there's a leak."
Back inside, Harry processes an order for the new tire and asks, "What is the best way to reach you?" 
"Home or cell?" I ask.
He looks at me. 

"Either one. You tell me. Whichever is easier."
Every single question he asks brings a response like that from me as my brain slumbers.

Two days later the tire is in, and I arrive for my appointment. Harry writes up a ticket,  takes my keys and says "Okay, you're all set." 
"Oh, did I already pay?" 
"No. I mean you can have a seat while they care of the tire." 
"Oh, okay." 
Later, I will google "stupid behavior of smart people." 

Three weeks later, it's as if it never happened at all.  My tire is replaced, and I am happy as I drive past the tire store en route to meeting my father for lunch at our usual spot.  
I'm a little late. The parking lot is crowded and I don't want him to think I forgot about him and so, I pull into a space between the curb and a dumpster next to an area that is under construction. I feel a little bump, and then hear what sounds like someone dragging the edge of a metal shovel along the pavement.
 Please. I hear myself say. No.
I can't stand to get out of the car but I do, and rest my eyes on this new checkmark. It's a deep one. A piece of rubber is lying on the ground  and I pick it up. 

That's how.
It's three o'clock, the best time to drop by. I pull into the parking lot and carry the small rubber strip from the sidewall in with me. Harry is on the computer and looks over. 
 I hold out the piece.
"Oh, no."
"I was hoping you could just put this back on."
"Nope. Anytime you damage the sidewall..," he doesn't finish. 
We go out to the car together.
"Wow," says Harry. "You got the rim, this time.  That's interesting, because these tires protrude beyond the surface of the rim to protect it."
It is a week later and I arrive for my appointment. 
"Just the one tire this week?" asks Harry. He snickers.
"Harry, that's really funny," I say. But. I like him more for having a sense of humor, because I do speak that language.
The job is finished. I pay and am signing off on my service when Harry says, "Now remember," and makes a wide sweeping motion with his arm, "wiiiiiiiiiiiiide turns." He cracks up. 
"Ha ha ha. You know what, Harry? If you'd suggested that the first time, I wouldn't be here, now. Would I?"

But now we have a joke in common, and he laughs, "Just trying to save you a few bucks, that's all. Just trying to save you a few bucks." 
I leave the tire store and I'm happy.  My brain is up from its nap now, and lighter for already having dumped the tire details.  It asks me, what should we do now, that we are really, really good at? 
I tell my brain we should go stalk strange signs that are not located anywhere near a construction site and post them on Facebook. Off we go.

Here is a resourceful sign that uses backwards 2's for S's,
inverted P's for d's, and doesn't fuss with decimals
because who would ever think kids eat for $199.00?

Friday, September 16, 2016

In the mitten

Goodbye summer, and thanks for coming.

My mother compares fall and winter in New England to living in a mitten. Set that aside for a second.

Over the weekend, I saw a woman and her two sons, around six and seven in the supermarket. The woman kept losing track of the boys as they ran up and down the aisles, darting between displays, and yelling over their shoulders to each other as if they were on a soccer field and not the coffee and cereal aisle. 

The woman looked at a label and said, "Boys, don't get in people's way." 

The trio was very tan and dressed like it was mid-July. Next to the pumpkin muffin display, corn stalks and bins of pumpkins, they were white pants after labor day.

That's it. It's time for summer to leave the fair. Somewhere around the Wednesday before Labor Day, even if it's still warm, the feel of summer is gone, like the mood of a party host who needs to go to bed, or a foil covered dish too far back in the refrigerator to probably still be "okay."

Considering the heady feel to summer at the outset, I'm always surprised at how the spirit of this "outside" season doesn't disappear gently, but vanishes, as if the fall will kick its ass if it's still here when fall arrives. 

I say, bring it.  Bring the pumpkins, bring the Halloween displays, bring the sweaters out and put the flip-flops away. 

Because, finally, it's September, and oh September, I couldn't love you more. 
I love that the sun rises a tiny bit later and that early morning traffic picks up on back roads.

I love that kids of all ages have started back to school, backpacks already full of crumpled papers that parents won't see until next year. 

I love that parents can linger over coffee and think full morning thoughts again. 
I love that we'll need jackets soon and will consider turning the heat up. 

I love that we'll have fires and take out stew recipes while the sun sets.

It's early enough to shrug at the thought of snow, presents and budgets, but the spirit of holiday love is already in the air, like distant rain.  
It's colder at night, but it's fall, and warm as summer inside the mitten. 

I say welcome back, and have a seat. I've missed you.