Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pet Peeves #4: Featuring the worst hold music EVER

On the way to a Boston restaurant recently, my husband and I sat in the kind of traffic that stalls more than it crawls and I'll tell you what, we sat through at least two cycles of lights at a complete standstill.

In Boston, people are very respectful of their signal to stop and wait if it's convenient. 
When we reached the intersection with only a few seconds left on the yellow, a man in headphones loped into the street and leisurely crossed while he studied his phone. The light turned red and well, there were some frustrated drivers, I'll tell you what. 
My husband said some bad words. 
But not me. Because I have a new monthly blog feature called Pet Peeves and this was the perfect way to kick off the ones most worth mentioning this month. 
1. People who wander into an intersection just as traffic begins to move and don't hurry up.  This kind of behavior doesn't deserve a label, because it's not as off-putting as "arrogance," or "entitlement," or, "elitism." But I'm pretty sure this person will be in line at Panera during the lunch rush where they will be one of the... 
2. ...people in long lines at Panera during the lunch rush who finally reach the counter and say, "I don't know. I'm torn between the pick-two and a whole sandwich. Or a salad. I could get a pick-two with a salad and a soup right? (pause) I can't read what it says up there. If I get a pick-two, can I substitute an apple with a smoothie? Wait, are drink refills free? I forget..."  

The only thing that makes this situation happier than an airport security line is that if you're bored, you can start a conversation with anyone around you because you're all hangry and want to complain about it.    
3. Misuse of serious labels for behaviors that are just annoying. A person who is self-centered is not a "narcissist."  A person who is moody is not "bi-polar." And a person who is super-organized is not "OCD." I've known people who have these disorders for real. Most would love to have annoying behaviors instead of debilitating anxiety or personality disorders. Except narcissists. Narcissists have no idea that there's anything wrong with them at all. 
4. Hold Music. Some people believe hold music is used to irritate a customer off the phone when the average wait time to speak to a customer service rep doesn't get rid of them. But this isn't good for anyone. Most people who do hang on, have to. Then, not only are they exponentially more agitated with every new exposure to the "St. Elmo's Fire love theme,"  they've become too flustered to remember the question they spent all morning organizing. 
5. Passwords or user names that are not "found in the database," because who can  remember all the configurations of birthdays and maiden names and high school graduation dates we use to differentiate them?  Did we use an uppercase or a lowercase letter in the cat's name? Did we use a "!" or a "?" for that symbol that is required to make the password  security-compliant? And was it the password or the user name that wasn't found? It just makes me miss "Susan1." 
6. It's me, not you, but I'm surprised to see how many of us still misuse the word "literally" to mean "really." Because, if you were literally "climbing the walls," e.g., it would mean you aren't a human, but a tree frog with little suction cup feet, like the one Gus found clinging to the wall in the living room last week and literally scared into motionless terror by staring at it from four inches away.  
7. Restaurants that not only don't offer an online reservation service, but also don't open to take your call for another few hours. Sure as my name is Susan1, I will forget to call back but also will have forgotten to choose an option B. And, is there anything worse than not knowing at 4:30 on a Friday, what your Friday evening plans are? Yes, literally, there are worse things, but not really.  
8. I love older people, but I really don't love the term, "old fart." I know everyone uses it with affection, and self-deprecating comments can be charming, but it still makes me wince, for two reasons:  I don't think of people as out of touch, or clueless or saggy or slow or bad-smelling  until they refer to themselves that way. And, it's never good to describe yourself in terms of bodily functions that you try to be private about.  Look at millennials. Do they call themselves "new farts?" No, they literally don't. 
9. Televisions in places where you'd rather not be, that are tuned to cooking or talk shows and feature very gregarious people laughing very hard at not-at-all-funny banter. It's not just that these bubbly shows usually argue with the setting (dentist, eye doctor, tire store, emergency room); it's also that they hurt your ears and eyes when your mood is becoming a hungry, tired toddler who's been refused a snack at the supermarket check-out at 4:15 in the afternoon. 

And with that, I give you the least peevey music I saw on the internet this month. That is some talent on one stage, I'll tell you what. 

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

Life School: To protect, to serve, to save in Laconia, NH

Laconia, New Hampshire, located in the Lakes Region of our state does not appear at first glance to be either a good or bad town. Neighborhoods that fringe the lake have a folksy, vacation feel to them. Others are quaint, tree-lined and orderly. Eventually, however, you see the neglected ones tucked behind the convenience store, or the gas station, At once, you realize there are many more tucked behind other things. 

Owing to  poverty and violent drug crime, Laconia now is considered one of the most dangerous cities in New Hampshire. It is also 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. This past spring, 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.

First, he's a big presence, a big presence wearing dark navy blue. And the equipment affixed to his belt – handcuffs, radio, baton, keys, flashlight, and of course, the gun – suggests that no day is predictable enough to leave anything at home.  

And the shoes. Cop shoes are some serious shoes.  
This is a very serious shoe.

I've known self-important doctors, bosses and teachers who enjoy making a show of their authority. There are, of course, police officers as well who swagger into the least significant interaction prepared to show just who is in charge. 

But not this one, not this night.

Chief Adams mixed with the crowd, breaking the ice, conversing with guests who wanted to know "just how bad is it now, up there in the Lakes?"  He didn't interrupt people when they were talking, he didn't lecture. His demeanor in this wine-and-cheese setting was like that of a polite Doberman – approachable, but capable of facing down a threat to those he protects. And then he got up to speak.

He described a community scarred by high unemployment and poverty in which nearly 25% of children live below the federal poverty levelPolicing, said Adams was light on the users, heavy on the dealers, and he talked about the resources aimed at finding and rescuing the ones not yet caught in the grip of the region's opioid epidemic.He gave us the visual: aimless kids loping along the streets, parents absent or indifferent to the easy opportunities for their kids to become addicted early. He would never forget, he said, the 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.

At the end of a small table, sat an adult figure who seemed to be sharing a story with the little kids congregating around him. He leaned forward as he talked and gestured and nodded and smiled as he listened. The kids tugged at him, eager to tell him things, show a drawing, 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. One of the kids said something 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 badass, but never will. Maybe a serious-yet-kindly figure sitting at the front of the room, offering suggestions for staying out of trouble with the caring but cautionary message:  I can protect you now, or punish you later. 

Some figures of authority do that; keep the 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 his equipment and serious cop shoes, present and engaged at eye-level with one of his smallest at-risk citizens in the community he protects and serves, but mostly aims to save.

I have no doubt, Chief Adams deals with threats to his community that are crushing. I won't forget the talk that all of us heard at that event.

But last week was not about talking the talk. Last week was about those cop shoes walking into a circle of small children who may thrive as easily as fail with the right eyes on them. 
That's the thing I won't forget more.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Life School: Stranger-angels

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.