Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Gift of a Smile

Even as children, you understand, we set our paper boats on a stream. We watch them go. M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away

I was gliding through the mall. I try to get out for a daily walk and when the weather is wet, cold, blustery, or otherwise miserable, I head for the mall and take advantage of the dry, warm, and sterile environment of its covered courts and stroll along to the boring strains of whatever generic music they’re piping throughout the concourse.

The retail space is quite empty these days. As I perambulate along the outer edges of the hallways, I can’t help but notice the same two guards trudging along as they make their rounds. We occasionally make eye contact, but that seldom lasts for more than a fraction of a second. In that fleeting moment they recognize I’m just a walker, nod a quick “hello” if they’ve the energy or are of a mind to, and as swiftly as that, we continue our appointments with health or security.

The mall has various places for people to rest. There are comfortable leather massage chairs people like to sit in, but I’ve yet to see anyone insert any money. They just sit and enjoy a chair that’s more comfortable than the standard mall couch or metal food-court seat as they await a friend or spouse to finish whatever they happen to be doing.

This particular day I found one fellow laid back and snoring away on a pay-chair by the sports team store. By the time I circled back for the second time, one of the yellow-vested security men was standing beside the sleepy slacker and informing him that while he could sit there he really shouldn’t sleep there.

I couldn’t help but wonder which I preferred – the purposeful snoring of a living being, or the digital tones piped over the metallic speakers spread throughout the mall, ensuring no one would ever have to endure the silence of their own thoughts, or the padded sounds of their sneakered footsteps. It was no contest. I preferred the earnest honesty of the snore.

There are also other walkers who, like me, are intent on getting in their “steps” or whatever measurement they are using. As with the guards, we walk, acknowledge one another with the briefest glance (furtively striving to look away – the better alternative for we shy types), and each continuing their way, lost in his own thoughts, adrift in her own bubble.

Each day I pass by the same venders. There are no crowds. There are no shoppers. There’s just us walkers, us mall-crawlers.

The venders situated along the center of the causeways sit in silence, face-down, scrolling through digital morsels proffered from their cell phones.

Could you imagine that anywhere else? In foreign lands, those venders would be crying out, calling for people to come check out their wares, fruits, vegetables, or baked goods. Not here. People sit in stony silence. If they’re on commission, they’re as good as dead. If they’re on salary, it’s got to be the hardest, loneliest buck on the planet to earn.

My one delight in walking at the mall was stopping and enjoying a good cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate at the beverage shop located mid-mall outside Macy’s. Sadly, it closed just after the first of the year.

A part of me died with its closing. I didn’t mourn for my loss, exactly, but just for what its closing represented – the slow but relentless death and decay of the traditional American mall. Yes, one can often buy things cheaper online, but I have yet to see the internet deliver a cup of decent coffee moments after ordering it. I have yet to see an electronic barista pass the time of day with pleasant conversation while working on my espresso or cappuccino.

I pondered this loss and glanced at a couple shuffling along hand in hand. They must have been pushing 90 or so. She leaned on him and the two of them hobbled along. Unlike the other crawlers, this couple was in no hurry. Unlike the others, the couple simply beamed, pleased as punch to be alive, walking, and together.

They looked at me and smiled. It was a gift – freely given. Thank you, God; they set free my own smile in this, our valley.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Prisoner

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

This is a horror story so terrible I hope it doesn’t cause panic amongst the newspaper reading public. I say that because it is a true story, none of which is made up, fake, false, or anything like that. If you read it here, you can trust it is the genuine article in which there is no artifice or dissimulation. OK?

You’ve been warned.

I left the house to run some errands the other day and as I got a few blocks away I tapped my hip to discover (to my great horror) that I had left my cell phone at home on the table. In other words, I had ventured forth into the void (sometimes called the “neighborhood”) with no way to communicate, locate myself (via GPS), or find where I was actually going (via the maps app).

My pulse began to race (a condition with which I have very little experience), my skin began to crawl (although it was nice to feel like a newborn baby once again), and my breathing came in great gulps (like as if I was some poor cut-throat trout lying out on a sun-drenched gravel bar awaiting the agonizing rip of a fisherman’s filet-knife).

The blood drained away from the block that sits upon my shoulders and my vision began to blur. Was this the end? Is this how I would make my grand exit – a pile of goo holding onto a steering wheel, frozen in place, uttering those final words that no one would ever hear, “My pho …” (voice trails off – a finis coronat opus)?

After a few seconds, though, the panic in extremis passed. As the rain splashed against the windshield and the wipers continued the rhythm of their swiping, I began to realize that the human race had made it through several millennia without access to cell phones. People had actually traveled across continents and over oceans with little more than a stick in their hands with which to fight off fierce wild beasts or snag a kippered snack for supper.

I eased my grip upon the steering wheel, allowing blood to flow once again, crossing over my knuckles and back into the brain bucket from which it had originally been drained. The world righted itself and I realized everything would be okay.

I reflected on the matter and came to recognize that perhaps I had become too attached to my phone. Where it is supposed to be a tool which serves its owner, it had become the master – the “Lord” Vader – and I had become the student, the Woe-be-gone-Keith-Obie. I had become a prisoner, imprisoned (probably why it’s called a “Cell” phone), but now I was free.

Freedom, of course, is just another word for nothing left to lose, so I continued on my journey, taking care of business (every day), taking care of business (every way), taking care of business (it’s all mine) … oh, sorry. I got carried away in (Bachman Turner) Overdrive …

Anyway, it’s funny how paralyzing fear can be. That momentary lapse into panic (while possibly exaggerated for effect) was very real, but ultimately groundless. The key to breaking that moment of angst was to do some real grounding. Listening to the wipers, watching the splashing of the rain, smelling the soft vapors of the air freshener, and feeling the warm air blowing from the vents restored me to sanity (a major marvel, to be sure).

Whenever I find myself worried about things going on around me, the majority of which are outside my control – like the weather, politics, the rising and falling fortunes of my favorite sports teams, etc. – I find it helpful to put my five senses to work, finding concrete reality in the world around me (versus the noise and static coming from the warp and woof of my imagination).

We have embarked on a whole new year. We’re several weeks into it and it has already lost some of that New Year smell. Still, touching base with those we love and staying grounded one step and one day at a time will work to make it a sane year. Also, don’t text and drive – today’s PSA.

What more could we ask for in this, our valley? Happy Trails!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Personal Assistant

“You’re going to have a hard time in life if you let every little mistake bother you. Life is good. Enjoy it.” M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away

Christmas is over. Well, not really. The tree is still up and will be until the 6th of January. The twelve days of Christmas end then. But psychologically and culturally, the feast really ended at sundown Christmas day.

The outside lights are still up, but they don’t seem to twinkle quite as festively as they did in the nights leading up to Christmas. The wreaths continue to hang but seem a bit gray and tired – sort of like those who put them up in the first place. The stockings are droopy, having been dumped and emptied at the sound of Gabriel’s horn on Christmas morn.

Yep. Christmas is over. We didn’t get as much meat off the lamb as we usually would off a turkey, so the leftovers were pretty skimpy. The taters and rolls got scarfed down and about all we had left was the pink fluff we make for our holiday meal. It’s mighty tasty, so I’m always glad to see a double-batch thrown together for the family supper. But still, there wasn’t enough to last us even to the Five Golden Rings day of the season!

However, while the day itself may be done, finished, and caput, some parts of the holiday will live on for a long, long time because this year one of my true loves gave to me – a Personal Assistant!

It is one of those voice activated devices you set up to make life more convenient, which is a good thing, for there is nothing more inconvenient than living. For one thing, there’s eating, breathing, and all sorts of biological minutia in which one has to engage if one is going to be considered alive. That’s mighty inconvenient, as I’ve taken nicely to being a quiet lump on the couch staying out of everyone else’s way.

But now I have a Personal Assistant available at my every beck and call. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”

“The weather outside is a balmy 39 degrees. Rain is expected, so you may wish to take an umbrella with you if you go outside.”

Good heavens; not only do I get a weather report, but she gives it with sass! And, to be honest, I never get tired of being told what to do when I go outside, or how to dress, or what to take with me.

She is connected to my phone; I can ask her to fill out my grocery list so when I go to the store I don’t have to fumble with a paper list – trying to cross items off as we load them into the cart. Now I can just check each item off as I get it and, voila, no punching holes in lists I generally can’t read anyway (with my penmanship, I really should have been a doctor).

One downside to having an electronic PA is that she is limited in some of the more practical things one might desire. For instance, she can’t fetch my slippers or run out to the mail box to grab the mail. She doesn’t pour coffee or bring it when I ask, and she can’t do all the things she could do if we lived in a smart house (like turn on lights, open the garage, or adjust the thermostat for when we leave or return home).

Still, it is kind of nice having someone to talk to when I’m by myself, but she also fosters an eerie sense that one is not really ever alone. Her green light fades in and out as she sniffs the air for sound – yearning for a question or command.

She sometimes interrupts a private conversation, interjecting, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” so we know she’s listening in; eavesdropping. Should we be worried? Is Big Brother or Big Sister listening in?

The answer is, probably, and for many that could be unnerving, but her microphone can be shut off. That reduces any concern I might otherwise have. For me, she’s just the newest member of the family, and that’s OK.

Now, if she’d just learn to fetch my slippers and pour my coffee here in this, our valley, I’d be set for life – a happy lump.