Off The Hallmark

Walking home from work yesterday, I saw a new sign on the side of a building on Third Street, just across from the Ohio Statehouse.  I greeted the sign with an audible groan and a mixture of horror and resignation — horror, because I’ll now have to endure the building equivalent of a Hallmark card every day for weeks to come, and resignation, because that’s just the way the world is these days.

What’s next — a sign saying that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” or maybe a picture of some cute kittens with a supposedly clever saying about work?

It used to be bad enough with greeting cards, where some anonymous writer labored in a back room to draft trite, generic sayings attempting to capture the sentiments evoked by important events like marriages, birthdays, and deaths, but with the internet and social media we’ve reached a whole new level.  You can’t go to Facebook or other social media sites without seeing some meme or posting that is like a bad Hallmark card writ large, and always with the “share if you agree!” command.  And now, apparently, even buildings are going to serve as platforms for vapid platitudes that presume to reduce complicated, multi-layered, quintessentially human concepts like friendship and love into a single banal saying that’s supposed to make us nod knowingly and perhaps feel a throb deep inside.

And what’s really appalling is that the tag line at the bottom of the sign is “#AMillionLittle Things.”  That’s apparently the name of a new ABC TV show that I won’t be watching.  But does that mean that, after this sign is taken down, I’ve got 999,999 more hackneyed sayings to go?

By the way, I don’t care if this is shared or not.

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Thinking About Dreamland

Last night I slept very soundly, with lots of dreaming to keep my brain occupied while my body recharged.  I don’t remember what my dreams were — I almost never do — but I do remember thinking, as I was dreaming, that these dreams were very entertaining.

1100_story_babysleep_co-sleepingWhen I awoke, I thought about what a marvelous thing dreams are.   One second you are observing and participating in a curious, often inexplicable place where anything can happen at any moment and storylines can casually shift and twist and morph without it seeming at all unusual.  Then, after you awaken, your experiences in dreamland vanish in the blink of an eye and you’re back in the actual world where the laws of physics and basic linear reality once again hold sway.  Sure, you can have terrifying nightmares that give you the creeps even after you awake, but for the most part dreams are pleasant enough — nonsensical and crazy, to be sure, but non-threatening.

I found myself wondering whether my parents ever explained the process of dreaming to me.  I don’t remember whether they ever did, and I don’t remember explaining dreams to our kids, either.  Every mammal seems to dream — anybody who’s seen dogs run in their sleep knows that — and I remember watching our newborn boys’ eye movements as they slept in their cribs, knowing that they were dreaming and wondering what in the world infants could possibly be dreaming about.   By the time they were old enough to have developed the language skills needed to have a meaningful conversation about it, they had been sleeping and dreaming for years and had long since grasped the difference between dreamland and real life.  I suppose that’s why we never had a talk about the process of dreaming, as opposed to trying to interpret individual dreams.  Perhaps dreaming is so basic and reflexive for mammals, and humans, that it is understood on an intuitive level, with no explanation required.

The Case For Making Your Bed

Every morning, just before it’s time to head off to work, I make the bed.  I pull the sheets taut, put the pillows back in their place, adjust the blanket so that it’s the same length on all sides of the bed, and make sure there are no wrinkles to be seen.  Making the bed is just part of the morning ritual that means I’m now ready to face the day — but apparently not everybody does it.

I read an interesting piece recently about the simple act of making your bed, and what it means. It’s entitled The Unmade Bed and the Fall of Civilization, which is a little over the top, but the essential point holds:  little things matter.  They’re not significant by themselves, but they can add up to big things — and it really doesn’t take much time to take care of them, when you think about it.

So why not do those little things?

Clean off your dishes and put them in the dishwasher, so they’re not left for your spouse or roommate to deal with, and then rinse down the sink.  Hang up your coat and your clothing rather than tossing them over a chair.  Put old magazines and newspapers into the recycling bin.  Pick up after yourself, and when you leave a room see that it’s tidy.  Take out the trash before the wastebaskets are full to overflowing.  And make your bed.

I was a total slob in college — who wasn’t? — but when I graduated and moved into the working phase of my life I decided I needed more order.  The best way to accomplish that was to start to do those little tasks myself.  I found that it not only made our place look better, it also made me feel better, both when I was doing those little chores and when I got home to a place that was neat and shipshape.  Doing those things made me feel like I was was pitching in, carrying my share of the household load, and actually behaving like an adult.  After college, that seemed like a worthy goal.  Now it’s all habit — but I still like the feeling I get when I do those little things.

So every morning, I make the bed.  And by the way, if you make the bed properly, when you climb back into bed at night you’ll find that the sheets are cool and inviting, even on a hot Midwestern summer evening.  It’s just one of the benefits of trying to live an orderly life.

 

Test Of Patience

In the modern world, patience is most certainly not a virtue.  We expect everything immediately, and feel incredibly put upon in the absence of instantaneousness.  Whether it is service at a store, fast food at the drive-thru window, or a split-second response when we type in a search, we demand an instant response.  And don’t even mention the possibility of the spinning circle of delay on our computer screens!

But sometimes, extreme speed is just not an option.  Consider, for example, driving on a winding two-lane country road behind a rusting panel truck.  Your GPS told you that it would take 90 minutes to get somewhere, and with supreme self-confidence you determined that you could do a little bit better than that.  But you didn’t figure on being behind a truck driver who apparently is being paid by the hour, because he sure is taking his own sweet time about getting to wherever it is he’s going.  Doesn’t he realize that your time is hugely valuable?  Doesn’t he approach his job with the same sense of urgency and need for speed that you apply to everything you do?  Doesn’t he understand that you’ve got to get somewhere, and so does everybody else who is now stacked up behind his sorry, slow-moving, rusting ass?

So you fret, and rage, but there’s not much you can do about it, is there?  Sure, you could take a chance, blindly pass him against that solid yellow line, and hope that no car or truck is approaching on the other side at that same moment in time, but you’re not that hot-headed and reckless, and anyway there’s a pretty steady flow of traffic on that other side.  There are no passing lanes on this road, and you’re not getting the intermittent yellow line when there seems to be a lull in traffic, either.  So . . . there’s really nothing to do but accept the fact that you’re going to be moving at a ponderous pace for the foreseeable future.

You think that maybe there’s something on the radio,so you fiddle with the channel changer and find a song that you like and haven’t heard in a while.  Because you’re passing the scenery at a veritable snail’s pace you can take a good look at the houses and trees, and some of them are really very pretty. now that you mention it.  And there’s something simple and kind of enjoyable about driving at something other than breakneck speed, and just letting the car drip into the swales of the roadway and feeling it gripped by gravity as it banks into a gentle turn on the black asphalt.  It’s really not that bad.  And soon enough, the truck driver is turning off the road, and you realize you’re still right on time, and losing a few seconds or even a few minutes because of that slow-moving truck really wasn’t a big deal at all.

It’s not a bad lesson to learn anew, every once in a while.

 

A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

Selfie Soullessness

In northern Italy, a tragedy happened at a train station.  A Canadian woman was struck and badly hurt by a train. Rescuers and station personnel went to help her, and ultimately the injured woman was taken to a hospital, where her leg was amputated.

selfie1-870x418But while the helpless, injured woman lay prostrate on the track bed and rescue workers assisted her, a guy in white shorts and a white shirt positioned himself on the adjacent platform so that the woman and the workers appeared in the background behind him, flashed a hand gesture and no doubt a facial expression . . . and then used his cell phone to take a “selfie” of himself and the tragic scene.  The man’s act of cold-hearted callousness was captured by a news photographer in the photograph published above.  Police noticed the man in white shorts, too, and briefly detained him.  Although he was found to have committed no crime, they required him to delete the selfie — so we’ll never see the photo that he thought was so important to take.

The above photograph of the heartless selfie-taker has caused shock and outrage in Italy.  The photographer said the scene caused him to think that “we have completely lost a sense of ethics.”  A commentary in a popular newspaper spoke of a “cancer that corrodes the internet” and said that the man in white shorts had lost his soul and his personality; a popular radio said the scene showed that the human race is “galloping towards extinction.”

But should anyone really be surprised by the man in white shorts who thought a scene of personal tragedy would be an interesting and fitting backdrop for yet another photo of his face?  We’ve seen stories of people risking life and limb — and sometimes losing the bet — to take selfies, and we all know people whose first thought, wherever they may be, apparently is to take a selfie and publish it to their friends.  The selfie zealots have allowed their narcissism to overwhelm their common sense, and the guy in white shorts has allowed his basic sense of decency to be overwhelmed, too.

For the selfistas, the real world is just an abstraction, and nothing more than background for their self-absorbed grins and gestures.  For the sake of the guy in white shorts, let’s hope that if he ever is injured or needs help, there are people nearby whose first reaction will be to help him — rather than step back and take a selfie.

Presumed Names

On my walk to work in the morning, I regularly see the same older man walking in the opposite direction on the same stretch of sidewalk.  He’s jovial, wears glasses, has white hair and a white beard, and clearly likes Ohio State sports from his choice of jackets, scarfs, and hats.  We’ll wave, give each other a cheerful “good morning” greeting as Midwesterners often do, and occasionally say “Go Bucks!” as we pass by.

people-on-streetI haven’t introduced myself to this gentleman and have no idea of his real name, but I think of him as “Frank.”  To me, he just looks and acts like a Frank.  It’s an older name, and he’s an older guy.  When I’m walking and I see him approaching, I think “here comes Frank.”

It’s hard for me not to assign names to the people that I see regularly, whether it’s on the morning walk around Schiller Park, or the jaunt to work, or the evening stroll home.  Those people aren’t strangers, not really — they’re people I’ve seen multiple times in their same, specific setting, often enough that we recognize and acknowledge each other with a smile or small wave.  There’s Candace, the square-shouldered, inexhaustible jogger who circles the park at least twice first thing in the morning, and Tom and Dave, who are usually out walking their dog, and Terry, who runs full tilt with his obedient two border collies right at his heels.  And some other people get nicknames rather than real names — like Cell Boy, the skinny young guy who’s always sitting in the same chair by the front window of Snap Fitness, thumbing away on his smartphone, when I walk by.  Hey, I inevitably think, does Cell Boy ever actually work out, or does he just belong to a gym to have a place to check his messages?

I’m not exactly sure how I come up with the names — after I see the same person in the same setting often enough, a name usually pops into my head — but I’m fairly confident that I know why it happens.  Human beings have a well known tendency to organize experiences or perceptions into patterns, whether a pattern truly exists or not, and I think giving presumed names to people is part of that same impulse.  It makes me feel better to think of these people who play a tiny but repeating role in my daily life as people with actual names, and not just faceless intruders into my corner of the world.