The Good Life

37623-Cute-DogTo escape the bickering, and whining, and needs and desires and everyone’s demands, I took our dog for a walk on a quiet fire trail near our house. Bright and beautiful out, a sweet sea breeze came over the Oakland Hills with the afternoon sun. The mile and a half dirt path cut along the base of the foothills was mostly vacant, rarely used by even residents of the neighborhood, so I did not leash my dog for the walk.
 
I saw someone from the ridge while I waited for the dog to finish marking her territory in the open field atop the hill. A woman was coming towards us on the trail below, and I tensed as I scanned for the dog she was most likely walking, but saw none. Still, I called my 70 pound Shepherd-mix to me. My beautiful pound hound was passionately in love with people, but most didn’t appreciate her bounding up to greet them.
 
My dog came to me and I held her collar as we stood on the ridge and watched the woman trudge up the hill; her white hair looked almost like a silver helmet in the sunlight. She walked slowly, and carefully, and hunched. I made her out to be in her mid-70s. The dog started whining the moment she noticed the woman approaching, pulled to get away from me and go meet her potential new friend.
 
The woman was 30 feet away when she noticed us, looked up and stopped. I loudly assured her my dog was VERY friendly and loved everybody, that I held her securely, asserting there was no need to worry. The old woman looked at my dog wagging her tail wildly and whining incessantly, and she smiled. She confidently told me she loved dogs and then called mine to her. I let go of my dog’s collar and joined the woman on the path where she stood stroking my hound.
 
She gently ran her hand along the length of my dog’s back again and again while extolling the animal’s Sphinx-like appearance and friendly nature. Dog was mesmerized with her touch, as she was with just about anybody’s, but the old woman seemed to really enjoy the contact as well, her expression set in a soft, contented smile. She explained she’d had several dogs during the years she and her husband raised their three kids. The dogs had passed on, the kids had moved on, now with families of their own. Her husband died two years back and for the first time in all her life she was alone.
 
Her kids, even her grandkids kept telling her to get a dog. I chimed in with words of encouragement, told her about getting my dog at eight weeks old from a kill shelter in Manteca, and ranted about some great local shelters where she could rescue a dog.
 
My graceful hound took off after a squirrel, startling us both. The woman began brushing the dog hair off her pants, but a lot of short hairs were woven into the navy polyester and clung to her pant legs where the dog had leaned against her. “I’ve spent the last 50 years of my life attending to others needs—cooking, cleaning, and more cleaning, and taking care of everyone else. I told myself I deserved a break after my husband lost his three year battle with brain cancer. I would travel, get out to the movies and play canasta, live the good life.”
 
Dog came bouncing back, long tongue dangling from panting (grinning?) mouth. She came up to me first to get my pat then went back to the old woman for more strokes, which the woman gave willingly. “I’ve been on three cruises in the last two years. I play canasta twice a month, and see all the new movies I want.” Again she seemed…pacified, by patting the dog. “Turns out, the good life was when I was needed. Being counted on made me feel vital, and valued. Now, no matter what I do, I mostly just feel lonely.” She straightened and brushed her pant legs off again as my dog swaggered over to the tall grass and lay in it. “I think you all may be right and it’s time I got a dog.” She gave me a pleasant smile. “It’s been a pleasure chatting. Good day to you.” And she went on her way.
 
My dog trotted after her a few steps then came after me as I started home in the opposite direction. I stroked her as she walked by my side, glad to have her with me, counting on me, as my kids and my husband did, and probably would for many years to come. I imagined the old woman’s empty house and anticipated the tumult in mine.
 
And suddenly I felt very lucky indeed to be living the good life.

Making a Difference

Typically on Sunday mornings my husband and I share articles from the New York Times. He’ll often read me pieces while I prepare breakfast or visa versa, and we’ll discuss the ones that pique our interest. The year end edition of the Sunday Magazine runs detailed obituaries on a handful of famous and infamous people who died that year. Though many are well known—actors, x-presidents and the like, some are more obscure, but they all share one thing in common. They all had [at least] 15 minutes of fame.

As my husband read on from person to person I began to feel more and more irritated. Where was the balance with the everyday hero—the dad who worked his life to support his family, or the career woman who slated her ambitions to be a mom? Their stories are equally interesting as some one hit wonder, or marginal actor. Even the most common among us had lives that mattered, that touched many, and deserve to be told.

On my mother’s death bed she asked me “Did I make a difference?” She stared at me with sunken eyes, her skeletal face practically begging me for an affirmative answer. And I gave her one. And, of course, it was true. She was my mom. She made a difference to me.

She turned me on to love, light, color, beauty, nature, music, art. She would often point out a vibrant flower, stop everything to view a sunset and be truly awestruck by its magnificence. She genuinely liked people. She was open to most all ideas as long as they weren’t filled with hate, or born of ignorance.

My mother was a humanitarian, and without prejudice, and she taught me to respect all things equally.

She was a wife for nearly 50 years. My father used to call her his ‘sunshine.’ Laughter and joy came easily to her. She exposed him to simple things—good talks during long walks, exploring new places, trying different foods. She sang all the time, had a beautiful voice that blended perfectly with my father’s melody.

My mom was a passionate and devoted teacher. She created a magnet ocean science program she taught to underprivileged and gifted kids that is still active today. I’d met several of her students, decades later while with my mom in the market or mall, who claimed they became oceanographers and biologists because of her influence. She loved kids. They were uncomplicated—what she pretended to be, even wanted to be, but wasn’t. She was childlike in many ways, always curious and loved learning.

As I sat on her bed and ran through her list of accomplishments, her expression became sadder and sadder, and my “turn that frown upside down” mother started to cry. She wanted to give so much more. She had so much more to give, but she realized, laying helpless in bed and gasping for every breath, her time had run out.

Two weeks later I stood over her grave and refused the dirt filled shovel the Rabbi handed to me. I knelt down and scooped a handful of moist, sweet earth from the freshly dug ground, smelled its musty richness, then let it fall off my hand and run through my fingers as I released it onto her casket. And then I silently thanked her for teaching me to recognize natural beauty and engage with it at every opportunity.

My mom died of cancer at 73. Over 100 people attended her funeral. Another hundred or more have contacted our family since her death to give their condolences—lives she touched, who will touch the lives of other, and so on.

Andy Warhol was wrong. Most of us live and die in obscurity.

But we make a difference.

We ARE What We DO

catLion21In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.

I laughed. Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?

I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.

Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.

Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.

My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning. She paused. And she did, mom.

Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?

Not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.

Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?

Well, yeah. When I listened. I guess I’m not such a good singer.

Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual off-key humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano. I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything? (One of my many canonical refrains.)

Practice, mom. She sighed.

I sighed. My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but it isn’t real. We are what we do, my dear (another of my refrains). If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.

So you don’t think I’m a good singer, she asked woefully.

Were talking about ego, right?

Yeah. And my ego says I am one. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside my head?

You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we are, who we are, in the real world?

Probably not. She sighed again, deflated. Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous.

Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. It’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?

My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.

So then, ego is never an accurate depiction of self?

I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom. She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.

My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or love, potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.

It is not how we think, or what we believe, it’s ONLY what we DO that defines us.

We are what we do.

My TEEN is ADDICTED to VIDEO GAMES. HELP!!

I so rarely get personal online, but I’m at a loss and would love some advice from my friends here, cuz someone among you all must have some direction for me, hopefully…
My teen is addicted to video games. And while parents are nodding here, and kids are shaking their heads in disgust of my dramatic prose, I don’t mean he likes playing them. I mean he’s playing them whenever he can, on whatever device he can, for as long as he can without getting caught, even though finals start in 5 days, he has 3 Cs, and he should be studying.
Take away his devices, parents say. OK. We did. Many months ago, when his grades started slipping, for the first time, since until mid-October last year he was a straight A student since grade school.
We took away his phone priviledges–he has to have it on the kitchen counter from when he gets home from school until he leaves for school in the morning. Same for his Kindle, and his laptop. Saturday from 6:00-10:00pm is his only time for electronics, in any form, gaming, movies…whatever. He’s allowed FB time during the week, but only at night, after finishing studying, and only for half hour a day. Collectively.
The only device left to him is his PC. And we can’t take that away, because the public school he goes to works almost exclusively through the computer. Homework, worksheets, research–the school ask for specific links to be read to complete assignments and study for tests. All grades go through School Loop. The school feeds his addiction with every grade they post, that minute thrill of anticipation as the kids obsessively check if the teacher has posted grades yet. So, no computer at all is out. Clearly.
He has to keep his door open all the time now, but we can’t stand in the threshold watching him all day and night! And we go over his history, but he’s already figured out how to open too many tabs for the stupid interface to record all online interactions.
I wanta help my kid make better choices and to stop gaming. And yes, we’ve seen pros, with a lot of theory, but really without a clue.
What to do?…Practical solutions are welcome!!

j cafesin

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