Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tiny Stories

Several people I know dislike pithy sayings. They believe that aphorisms reduce complex situations to trite simplicities. They are right, from a certain point of view. For example, how helpful is it for someone to say "It is what it is" when he or she is faced with a situation out of his or her control?

Well, it can be pretty darn helpful, depending on how you interpret the saying, what history you have with it, how it helps you contextualize your situation so you see a way to cope. If you're not ready to accept what's going on yet, "it is what it is" isn't helpful at all and merely highlights how much you're losing the fight to control your destiny.

(For the record, that's a fight we all lose. Repeatedly. But I digress.)

Long-time readers of Questioning my Intelligence know I enjoy pithy sayings, quotations, and aphorisms, not for how they reduce life but for how they act like writing prompts for my thinking brain. A good saying or quotation can spark all sorts of interesting thoughts, and those of us with writerly, hyperactive brains can cook up entire nourishing meals from the fruits of those thoughts.

The following saying struck me particularly this morning because of events yesterday...a context that made me say omygoshYES when I saw it.

The physical universe is made of tiny particles, but the parallel universe of human experience--the universe that thinks about and processes our lives--is made up of tiny stories. Some of these stories we tell over and over, and others we keep buried, silent, in our hearts.

Our string of tiny stories--and how we interpret them--generates our self-identity, our sense of who we are in relation to the world. It's important that we read those stories well.

Some stories have many possible meanings, it just depends on how we look at them. We all know people who see themselves as victims of other people's meanness. (I used to be one of them, actually.) In many cases, the victims are absolutely right. Other people have been mean to them. The tiny stories they tell prove that.

But if getting an advanced degree in literature taught me anything, it is that the meaning of a story depends on the point of view from which you read it. There are lots of different ways to read any story, and each way produces a different interpretation of the exact same words.

Words are not nearly as concrete and specific as we pretend they are. I could write a book on that subject, but it would likely bore you as much as Jacques Derrida's book Of Grammatology bored me. (Full confession...that boredom was so intense I only read to page four and learned the rest of what I know about Derrida's literary theory from summaries. Short ones. But I digress. Again.)

Back to my main point, all the tiny stories that make up the universe have meanings we can use, if we read them right.

Yesterday, a tiny story happened to me, my family, a dog named JW, and JW's owner. It began as a comedy.

As I drove into our neighborhood after picking up Jack at school, I saw a golden retriever playing by the pond. No person was around. I stopped, got out of my car, and called the dog to me. He came bounding up like a typical friendly golden retriever. He was wet and a little muddy, and thrilled to make a new friend. He sat when told and wiggled in joy as I tried to find a tag on his collar, eventually collapsing and rolling onto his back in enthusiastic submission.

Nothing helpful on the tag.

But I remembered about a month ago, a neighbor named Steve posted on our community Facebook page that he'd found a golden and returned him to his owner. I supposed this might be the same golden escape artist and had an avenue to begin reuniting this friendly dog with his owner. I opened the back of my Mazda SUV, and he hopped right in, settling down as if he frequently rode in a car.

After securing him in our garage (he was so, so sad, howling and barking when alone!), I hit the computer to message Steve. He wrote back that the dog was probably JW, and his owner was a man named Norm who lived in the neighborhood next to ours. He gave me Norm's phone number, and I called and left a message.

Meanwhile, George, Nick, and I checked on JW frequently, feeding him treats and making sure he had fresh water. I gave him one of Daisy's nyla-bones to chew, and I thought he'd wag his tail off in appreciation. He took the bone over to a large rag George used for cleaning his bike, buried the bone in the rag, picked up the whole package, and brought it to me, wagging enthusiastically the whole time.

His backside looked scraggly and bare, so I didn't want him mingling with Daisy in case he had some sort of skin condition. This freaked Daisy out and made her sniff and lick all of us humans vigorously. She kept pawing me as if to say, "Do you hear that!?!? There's a DOG. In our GARAGE. I must sniff his BUTT! Why is this happening??? Love me. I'm insecure. There's a DOG. In our GARAGE. Do you understand? Can't you HEAR him whining?!?"

Daisy is amusing.

When Norm came to retrieve his retriever, he told us about JW and what a great hunting dog he was, especially for ducks. JW is nine years old and frequently goes to work with Norm, who is a builder. On one job, JW kept disappearing every day and then reappearing with a new tennis ball in his mouth. Norm couldn't figure out where the balls were coming from. Turns out one the neighbors left his garage open about a foot, and JW snuck in to raid a stash of balls in a basket next to a ball-throwing machine.

That's a golden for you.

Then, Norm told us that JW has a tumor. It had grown alarmingly in just a few days on the inside of his back leg. That's why his backside looked so was shaved for the biopsy and muddy from the pond.

George and I talked with Norm a while longer, and then he and JW left. George's first words to me when Norm drove away were, "I didn't need to know about the cancer."

Me, either.

This tiny story turned from a comedy into a tragedy with one sentence of dialog from Norm.

If you've read this blog for a while, you know all about our golden retriever named Hoover. JW's story brought Hoover's story back full force, all the memories and sadness. Here was a good dog named JW with the same whitening fur on his face that Hoover had, with the same terminal diagnosis.

I reunited JW with his owner...a tiny story with a happy ending. But the story goes on without us. And that story of a dog who will be put down with cancer breaks my heart.

It's part of our story now, too.

As sad as it is, though, I'm glad to be a part of it. Dogs don't live long enough, even when they die natural deaths. JW's tiny story--so like Hoover's--reminds us that we need to live in the time we have. I never would have guessed that JW is suffering. He is simply joyful, embracing life and making new friends and going for swims and burying bones and retrieving balls because he can.

He's living just like Hoover lived. His tiny story has a moral we can all use: we all have a little time and need to make that time the best we can...just because we can.

That's how I read it, anyway.

How do you read the tiny stories of your life? How do you put them together to create meaning? What morals do you find in your stories? Are they healthy ones? How could you read them differently to give you strength and joy like JW?  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Gratitude Journal #202

Today, I am grateful for the beginning of a new school year. So very grateful! I think the boys are grateful, too.

Today, I am grateful for my sweet eleven year old, whose birthday was this weekend. He took his friend Sophie to the Newport Aquarium, ate lunch at his favorite restaurant (McDonald's), and blew out candles on a cake he won't eat. Notice the extra container of icing and the fact there are only three plates for a family of four? Yeah, Jack only eats icing. On a spoon. But he loves blowing out the candles.

Today, I am grateful Jack got a twin-tail half-moon male Betta (which he named Jackson) for his birthday. Jackson is a beautiful fish, and Jack loves how he's blue and so are the rocks and plants in the tank. Blue is Jack's favorite color.

Source of photo

Today, I am grateful for the benign wildlife we have at our house. This weekend, our front porch was visited by the always cool-looking leaf bugs and a tree frog. I'm also very, very grateful we have not been visited by a skunk and pray that we never are!

What are you grateful for today? Please do share!!!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gratitude Journal #201.1

Today, I am grateful for the survival of the four crew members of the B-1 out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota that crashed yesterday in Montana. My prayers go up for the crew and their families, for the investigative team looking for the cause of the crash, and for the whole squadron and base at Ellsworth, up to and including our friend Col. Kevin Kennedy, the 28th Bomb Wing commander.

We spent over four years stationed at Ellsworth, and I can well imagine the impact this crash will have on the community.

This should be a reminder to all Americans that our service men and women take risks every single day whether they are deployed or not. What they train to do is dangerous, and training accidents happen despite the best-laid safety procedures and checklists, the best maintenance, the best people. We'll likely never know what happened (the Air Force keeps most investigations classified), but whatever the cause of this crash, we can be grateful today that no lives were lost in the air or on the ground, and four families are experiencing the most blessed relief right now.

CBS News Article on crash

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gratitude Journal #201

Today, I am grateful for a date night with my honey...a wonderful dinner that I didn't have to clean up after, an outdoor concert of great music on a beautiful evening, a moon overhead. I love you, sweetie!

Today, I am grateful for eyes that let me see the beauty in the world...and the ways I can serve.

Today, I am grateful for the mood that has come over me to clean and organize stuff. That mood has been absent for a long time...too long. Time to clean!

What are you grateful for today?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Gratitude Journal #200

Today, I am grateful for 200 weeks, each one begun with gratitude!

Today, I am grateful for my friend Barbara who offered such wonderful encouragement and support when I needed it most last week.

Today, I am grateful for five years of blogging. What a blessing this has been for me! Thank you so much for reading and keeping me going.

Today, I am grateful for five years without a single sip of Coca Cola. Just as I was starting to think that monkey was off my back, Nick bought a Coca Cola t-shirt that makes me salivate every time I see it. I'm keeping strong, though!

Today, I am grateful for the comedy and thoughtful preaching of Mark Lowry. In this clip, he says what I've long thought. He doesn't like the saying "hate the sin, love the sinner." He revises it to this: "You hate your sin, I'll hate my sin, and let's love each other." Amen!

Today, I am grateful for my new car, the beautiful red Mazda CX-9. I'm mostly used to it, and see it as the perfect replacement for my beloved VW Passat station wagon. I'm grateful to George for making me test drive it in the first place.

What are you grateful for today?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wisdom for Getting Along

My hair stylist gave me the nicest compliment today. She said, "I can't imagine anyone not getting along with you."

What a sweet thing to say! I do get along with most everyone, although I have been known to lose my cool with magazine-subscription telemarketers and a certain member of our community who holds elected office. There's also a high-school friend, college roommate, ex-boyfriend, and my dad, all of whom decided their lives were better off without me in them.

In the cases of my high-school friend and ex-boyfriend, they were right. But the college roommate and my dad seriously missed out on my wonderfulness.

All those break-ups were very long ago...well over two decades. These days, it takes a pretty serious difference of opinion to set me off. Recently, our Methodist Bible study class got into it over the issue of homosexuality. As you might imagine, opinions ran pretty strong. Pastor took a tolerant ground, I and another student took even more accepting positions, and one person took a very strong stand against. Not once did any of us raise our voices or get nasty, but we all spoke our opinion and listened to the others.

At the end of the class, Pastor announced that she would be on vacation for the next two weeks and asked the student who most disagreed with her to please teach for her. The student is dealing with some health issues, so she asked the guy who argued tolerance to teach the first of the two weeks. Then, during the next week's class, she asked if I would teach the second week because she wasn't sure she could.

That's what Jesus meant when he said, "Love one another as I have loved you." And sometimes, we Christians actually do what He commanded us to do. All four participants in the vigorous debate treated each other with respect and love.

How lovely!

On my way home from the hair appointment today, I was listening to Sirius Radio's 70's channel and Olivia Newton-John's song Have You Ever Been Mellow played. Oh, man. How do I remember all the words to that song? It was so much fun to sing along and annoy the 13-year-old who wanted to listen to Party Rock instead.

One line in the first verse stood out for me: "There was a day when I just had to tell my point of view." We all get like that, don't we? Sometimes we just have to tell our point of view. When we forget that other people have a point of view, too, and that they have good reasons for it (at least to their way of thinking), it's so easy to try to force others to agree with us.

Pinterest comes in handy on this point.


I suspect there are people in my life who think I completely and utterly agree with their point of view in all respects simply because I've never felt the need to argue with them. They are entirely entitled to their opinions, as I am entitled to mine. Rarely do disagreements or arguments result in changed opinions. Our debate on homosexuality at church demonstrated that.

I want to get along with people; I don't want to make them just like me. Besides, even the simplest disagreements have ways of escalating into arguments and knock-down-drag-'em-out fights so very easily. The best way to avoid a fight is not to show up for it.

Besides, it's generally not my job to defend my position. It's my job to love people. Please reference the Jesus quotation above.

With talk television and radio--not to mention the internet--opinions have become news. We've watched government become so polarized by opinion that we simply expect nastiness in all corners of Washington. As we become more and more saturated by media's nastiness, our own civility is being eroded, and our opinions increasingly entrenched. We feel the need to defend our opinions like politicians whose career hangs on them.

But how important in the grand scheme of life, the universe, and everything are all these opinions we hold so strongly?

Sometimes, when someone crosses the line to bigotry or hate or danger or downright evil, we should take a stand, defend the defenseless, speak truth for good.

But how often do we actually encounter those situations when our opinion makes a difference for good? How often are we merely protecting our own arrogant opinion, covering our own insecurity with aggression, or bullying others to agree with us, rather than honestly seeking good?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I try to pour out grace, love, and forgiveness on those who try to bully me, and (mostly) I succeed. But I also know that at times I start the bad fight myself. Thankfully grace, love, and forgiveness are more powerful than my strongest opinion.

Thank you, Jesus.

What are your secrets for getting along with others? Please share!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thanks, Pamela!

Reader Pamela found the Elder commercial, which was for a Konica Minolta biz-hub, meaning my note was incorrect. Thank you, Pamela, for taking the time to find it!

"When I Was Your Age"


Monday, August 5, 2013

Gratitude Journal #199

Today, I am grateful that Jack asked me to tell him a bedtime story last week, and I was struck with inspiration! We now have a whole series of the most ridiculous stories about the Kingdom of Raihala under the sea, where King George, Queen Susan, and princes Nick and Jack live in a coral castle and have adventures. Jack loves these stories...and so do I. Especially the one in which Jack and his friend Sophie roast a sea snake over a Greek fire and eat it after it tries to sneak up on Jack and bite him. It's funny because the snake dies.

Today, I am grateful for communion in the Methodist open table where all who want to partake are welcome. Except snakes, of course.

Today, I am grateful for beautiful, moderate weather in August. We took Daisy for a walk at 4:00 PM on Sunday and didn't die of heat stroke. Last summer, we couldn't walk Daisy at 7:00 AM without taking bottled water along.

Today, I am grateful for friends who give great hugs.

What are you grateful for today?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nostalgia and Random Integers

This past week, despite my best intentions, has passed without an essay. It's been one truly weird and wacky week in which I have accomplished a lot, but most of it felt pretty insane, like spending nearly 3 hours at Target trying to buy back-to-school supplies.

Now, there's a topic to write about, but sadly, the resulting essay would be a whine-fest about the good-ol'-days when our moms bought a Trapper Keeper (if we were lucky), a few packs of notebook paper, and pencils. Today, supply lists are top-secret protected files online, not accessible by the parents who need them even when the parents have smart phones. Seriously, here's the  message I get when I click on the link:

403 - Forbidden: Access is denied.

You do not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials that you supplied.

I need credentials to access a school supply list? Seriously?

And don't tell me that Target has lists for area school districts because the schools told me that they would have such lists and. Target. didn't. At least not for my school district.

Whine and complain, whine and complain. In the end, the mom of one of Nick's friends typed the 8th grade list on Facebook for me. What an unexpected kindness.

Let's just reflect on that wonderful kindness and move on, shall we?

I also sorted through my office papers. These things breed, and culling the herd mercilessly took all of yesterday morning. In the process, I found bits of paper with the following notes on them.

1. If something such as wallpaper requires lessons in a magazine to "demystify," should we be doing it?

8. Why does a photo of hair on Pinterest have the caption "good color for fall"? Seasonal hair color? How do people pay for these things?

42. "There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge." Bertrand Russell 

61. From Biz Dock ad: "The Elder...he who speaks of floppy disks." Oh, how I wish I could find this ad on YouTube! Remember how much an improvement the 3.5" disks were over the 5.25", or are you not an Elder?

62. Which reminds me of THIS, which is proof that humans are good and wonderful.

3. "When we're up against a struggle and we think we can't keep going, we can change that by praising God. Our chains will fall from us." Don Piper

1567. "So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and in his good time he will honor you. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about what happens to you." 1 Peter 5:6-7

32. "If cellulite looks so cute on a baby's butt, why doesn't it look cute on mine?" Susan Raihala

7. A wish list of stamp sets and inks I wanted to buy six months ago, some of which I surely still want.

Now I can throw all these pieces of paper away. Yay!

My elder son has taken a fancy to physics, largely under the influence of Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter. With typical 13-year-old confidence, he believed that he could master the subject quickly and began to get frustrated when he encountered equations like this:

He asked me to explain some similar equations, and--proud moment in parenting!--I didn't laugh at him. Instead, I explained that before one can run, one must crawl and then walk, and then build endurance. Only I didn't use a clunky and clich├ęd metaphor, I really said, "You need to know a lot more algebra before you can follow physics equations." So he asked me to teach him algebra.

We went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book on Algebra 1, which he is beginning with enthusiasm. My son's desire to be a geek is going to make my brain hurt, but perhaps that's a good thing. I used to know all this math (up to and including calculus, actually), back in the Floppy Disk Era, but that disk doesn't run into today's drive, if you know what I mean.

When Nick starts asking me about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or the death of feudalism, I'm going to score some wins, though. A medievalist mom can dream, can't she?

On an unrelated subject, it's 36 days until Ironman Wisconsin. George and I will drive to Madison, Wisconsin, where we will stay in a lovely hotel just one short block from Starbucks and two blocks from the finish line. I will support my demented husband as he tries, once again, to complete this 140.6-mile race. His current record is 3 Finishes, 3 DNFs. Yes, he's attempted Ironman races 6 times before. De. Ment. Ed.

This year, we are joined by my sister-in-law, Angela, and her husband, Mike. Mike's the demented one in that pair. Angela and I will happily carry their bike pumps and cheer them on as they swim, bike, and run their way to utter exhaustion.

Also, it's just 23 days until school starts. The most wonderful time of the year.

Good times, people. Good times.

And then there's this clip from Ellen I watched last night. Because we all need to cry about sloths, don't we?

Have a lovely weekend.