Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fifteen things I observed in 2015

This is not a picture of Gus. It
is the last sunrise of 2015.
Knowing a writer is like hugging a pickpocket, someone once said.

I grew rich in 2015.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time watching people and thinking about what they do and, of course, eavesdropping in restaurants. If you've read this blog before, you know about my field trips to the supermarket, where connections between people are always on sale.

In 2015, I walked into a bar where my husband and I go for dinner now and then. A regular, about fifty and a dead ringer for Neil Young, squinted at me for several moments before he pointed at me with his glass. "I think I know you," he said. "You a townie?" I said, "Define townie." He slid a chair up, and in a half hour, we were arguing over which was the best Rolling Stones song ever.    

In 2015, I had a conversation with a man on a plane that started when he unplugged from his iPod, folded his arms, stared out the window for several minutes, then looked at me and said, "So what takes you to Cleveland?" Before the plane landed, I knew where he'd spent childhood summers, the siblings he was closest to, and the massive struggle each were facing as the first Christmas since his mother's recent and sudden death loomed.  "We got together last night to decide who would make her favorite dishes," he said. "It was pretty rough."

In 2015, I published two of the most honest essays I'm capable of. In one case, the piece connected me to others on an emotional level that astounded me. It brought multiple comments of appreciation and expressions of deep love. In another, I hit a nerve in readers who were not inspired, but eager to be vicious. One took a swing and the rest piled on.

Gentle essayist that I try to be, I was suddenly Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

But I learned something I will never forget. People, all people, will find and cluster around those who identify with their deepest feelings, the good, bad and ugly. They may be too blinded by their relief at belonging to know or care how they affect others. But if they can belong, they will actually take part in killing Piggy.

On the surface, we want to be like some, and try hard to be as different as possible from others. But when people are honest, and when they are asked with sincerity, and when they know their deepest feelings won't be held against them, it is stunning to realize that we crave commonality enough to find it in a conversation with a stranger.

Connection is that important.

For some, happiness is elusive and for others, impossible. I believe however, that for most, happiness is within reach. But it's not free. It takes real connection with another that is void of judgement, and heavy with truth and acceptance and curiosity about what is in the heart and mind of someone else. It takes trust, something I believe people hold onto like their biggest, private secret.

With that, I give you my unscientific, but honest impressions of how we get along, how we don't, and how we should, in 2016.

1. We need to recognize when someone's reaching out to us and respond. We're more important to people than we realize.

2. People are as loving as they feel loved. Judgmental, critical people show how little love exists in their own lives, and it goes the other way; loved, happier people are more open and accepting and tend to forgive their own mistakes more easily.

3. We should think about our words and why we must say them, but we should think hard about how another will hear them, which may not be at all the way we intended.

4. Solutions to other people's problems that seem obvious to us may not be easy, or even possible for them to carry out. Rarely are we the experts on another's true life that we think we are.

5. If there's a right thing to do, and for some reason we won't, our rationale will not look the same way, years from now. Even if it takes a long time, people should do the right thing. Even if it's complicated. Even if it hurts.

6. Pessimists are generally unhappy people, but they weren't born that way. It only takes a little heartbreak for people to believe that bad things are inevitable and good things are accidental. We should feel for them. We won't catch anything.

7. When we wrong someone unintentionally, and we've said we're sorry, and tried to show that we really are, and they still wish to hold it against us, it's time to realize they can't forgive because they don't want to. Sometimes, apology only moves one of us closer to the middle. 

8. It is not loving someone to tolerate who they are. Loving someone means wanting them to be nothing less than their truest, real self and changing your ideas of them accordingly.

9. We should not share personal, private things about our kids, and we should never tell people what they make. 

10. Some people who are stupid about what to say, would die before they'd hurt you on purpose.

11. We speak in headlines too often. We should have real points of view that mean something to us and let other people think the way they must.

12. If others insist on seeing us as we were, and not as we are, give them time.  You didn't change overnight.

THIS is a picture of Gus.
13. Those moments when you are doing something and think you should be doing something else are your mind's way of telling you it needs to play.

14. Don't lie to people who know who you really are and love you.  They'll know you're doing it, and they won't say so.

15. And finally, after a year of field trips to stores and banks and restaurants and doctor's offices, after months of observing people – all people – who are most real when they don't know someone is watching, I offer two essential rules to getting along with others:

First, let people come out before you go in. And second, don't block the intersection.

In 2016, be honest, be kind and may your happiest connections grow stronger.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Love and kindness at life school

Some of the subjects offered at life school
I saw a couple the other day at the supermarket, where I attend life school. 

They were mid-late seventies, although she seemed younger. He wore a cap imprinted with USAF, and he was in a wheelchair. She was dressed simply in a long skirt and sweater. Her hair, which she clipped in the back, was mostly gray with a little blonde. While he wheeled the chair along, she kept her fingers loosely closed around a handle.

They traveled the aisles, stopping when she spotted an item that she wanted to show him. They chatted about dinner.

"Oh, that would be good with..."
"You know, later this week we could have it with..."
"Maybe you could make  that recipe where..."

And so on. 

I'm assuming they were long-married and that this routine was a regular one, spending time at the store, engaged in planning a dinner they would go home and make together.

They were unaware of others unless she needed to wheel him out of someone's way.  
They talked about company they were expecting.  
They shared a story about someone they'd seen last week. 
They commented on the crowd today.

She laughed when he made jokes. He nodded when she spoke, "Uh-huh, that's true." She asked his opinion, "How about," or, "what do you think of..."

I imagined them in their youth. Maybe he was the more outgoing, while she was possibly the quiet one. Maybe he hung around the kitchen while she made dinner, telling stories of his day, and maybe she shared funny moments with their kids. Maybe they engaged in the self-congratulatory boasting that we all do in our own intimate company, when we agree that we are probably the most blessed people on the planet for all we have, all we've done together, and maybe, all we've survived.

I know that life, age, struggle, can weigh people down until it becomes something to deal with, like the days themselves. Conversations, expressions of our minds and hearts, can stall for the effort of launching them. Smiles can creep away, and faces can freeze in a state of half-interest and half-disappointment.  I see it all the time, and so do you.

But if the USAF man struggled to live in and out of that wheelchair, he wasn't bitter in his companion's company.  If his companion was tired, she was gentle, still, in his. One could see, that each looked forward to whatever ritual was in the plans for later, if only the preparation and sharing of dinner. 

It's what we all need, a later.

In line, checking out, she looked around at the day's crowd. The tender expression changed to a watchful one, a bit guarded, slightly puzzled.  But when her companion spoke to her, back it came, the other face, lines relaxed, eyes soft, her smile like a pretty day.  

Love and kindness.

It's what's for dinner, at life school.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A chat with IRS Agent Raselle. (Not his real name. Not his real job.)

I'm pretty sure Agent Raselle does not work here,
where they have 800 numbers.
Last night, I came home to a missed call and this message on my phone:

“This is the Internal Revenue Service calling with a final notification that a lawsuit has been filed against you. Call this number to confirm that you have received this message.”

My problem isn't that I sometimes answer the phone to a number that's suspicious. Everyone does that.  My problem is that if I'm unprepared, I can't play with them, and that is disappointing.   

But this message came with a number. So, I called back and sure enough, the person answered, "Internal Revenue Service."

"Is this really the IRS?" I asked.
"Yes, that's correct."
"I understand I'm being sued by you."
"What is your name?"
"What is your name?"
"Raselle," he said, (I'm guessing at the spelling).
"What is your name?"
"Hold on. You're really with the IRS, right?"
"That is correct. What is your name?"
"Wait, why are you calling me from a cell phone, Raselle? I think the IRS has an 800 number."
"You were called to settle a lawsuit."
"I don't recall being notified about a lawsuit. And yet it said final notification. Have you already called me from your cell phone?"
"I need to verify information, before I can give you details about the lawsuit."
"And you're the IRS person to talk to, right? You're not going to just put me on hold?"
"That is correct."
"Okay, go ahead."
"Is this (address) correct for you?"
"No, that's not correct."
"What is your address and zip code?"
"I can't give you that, Raselle."
"This is a serious matter and you have been contacted already."
"No I haven't."
"Yes you were."
"No I haven't."
"Yes you were. You received two letters."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did."
"No I didn't."
"Well, that's your problem."
"Okay,Raselle. I don't think the IRS speaks to people that way."
 A call beeped in and I held the phone out. It was my son.
"Raselle, I have to go."
"You will not be notified again."
"Well, that's also my problem."
I hung up on him, and talked to my son about his ugly-sweater party.

I know I shouldn't have even returned the call. My number was obviously a tick on the scammer wheel of fortune and calling back is how victims set themselves up for continued harassment.

So, nobody try that at home.  

But I couldn't help myself. Scammers (not to be confused with telemarketers who don't prey on the elderly), are like mosquitoes and black flies. They are aggressive, they are rude, they are relentless. They'll come at you even if you've been told how to protect yourself and eventually, you'll answer the phone without checking the number and they'll scare you into listening to them. 

Or, if agent Raselle has his way, you'll see the unfamiliar number and return the call anyway because it could be a child or friend or an emergency. And then, agent Raselle will offer you a way out of the lawsuit being filed against you in exchange for your debit card number, which agent Raselle knows, some people will offer to avoid so much as a dirty look from the Internal Revenue Service. 

If that call does come, hang up and do what they suggest you do over at the real IRS, where they have 800 numbers:

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and asking for money, here’s what you should do:

If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to believe that you do, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1.800.366.4484 or at

You can file a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant; choose "Other” and then “Imposter Scams.” If the complaint involves someone impersonating the IRS, include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

June, 2015

Or, if you get that call, and you're in need of amusement, you can let your fake agent know that before you answer any of their questions, you'd like them to answer a few of yours.

I think that's only fair.