How Could I Be so Stupid?

There’s a pandemic, you idiot!

I heard the words loud and clear in my head before opening up my arms and giving one of the longest hugs of my life to a complete stranger.

To quote Inigo Montoya, “Let me start at the beginning. No, there’s too much. Let me sum up…” The world is swimming in a dreaded pandemic which has been ridiculously politicized in the US. People are living under unimaginable stress with death and misfortune everywhere. Add to the mix a holiday season with well publicized shortages, inflation, and people desperate to return to some sense of normalcy. Daily, the media highlight people having childish temper tantrums and taking their frustrations out on innocent bystanders. I had the misfortune to witness one first hand yesterday.

Sunday morning shopping at big box stores is anathema to me; I’d rather chew glass than be in a large crowd of people in a hurry. But Christmas be Christmas and one does what one must do. I masked up, armed with sanitizing gel in the car as I’ve done for going on two years now. I knew that any hope of getting in and getting out was useless, so I made the deliberate choice to go in with my best holiday spirit, my best sense of humor, and every bit of patience at my disposal. I entered humming Christmas carols, I was that determined.

And (maybe fortune favors the tone-deaf) I lucked out and quickly found the very last items I needed to complete my Christmas shopping. I will now pause to let you deal with the pangs of envy you must be feeling.

Ahem, to continue… I took my place in line with one couple being rung up, followed by an Old Feller whose few items were already on the conveyor. A young feller stood with a full cart appropriately distanced between OF and my half-filled cart. Every cashier line was full of heavily loaded carts and I counted myself lucky to have so few in front of me. I stood there waiting for the first couple to finish, which they promptly did paying with cash. Unfortunately, many before them also used cash and the cashier, a young woman in a hajib, did not have sufficient change to give them in her till. She put on the blinking light that summoned a manager.

I began fidgeting after two minutes, and three minutes after that the young feller took his full cart to another lane, getting in a much longer line. I moved up to six feet behind OF who began muttering darkly about the wait. We finally saw the floor manager wending her way to our lane, stopped here by one employee and there by another, answering questions thrown by harried customers quickly and efficiently but still slowed by the sheer number of requests being made of her. She apologized to the couple for their wait when she arrived and began promptly adding money to the till and recording it appropriately. OF urged her to hurry in irritated tones, threatening to leave his purchases on the belt and just take off. He looked over his shoulder to see if I appreciated his threat and I made the mistake of making eye contact. That encouraged him to get louder and more pointed in his abuse. Looking distinctly uncomfortable, the young couple took their change and fled.

It occurred to me that the manager looked rough, worn-out, as if hanging on by sheer will power. Although clean, her uniform was shabby and wrinkled. Her still thick hair, streaked with gray, fell to her shoulders with no shape. Her eyes busily darted from here to there, rarely landing on anything for long. Premature wrinkles creased forehead, eyes, chin, and firmly pressed lips. Swift hands moved fast as lightning; she finished filling the cash drawer, pocketing the paperwork while simultaneously closing the till.

The young cashier gamely stepped forward to ring up grumbling OF but her manager gestured her back and began ringing him up herself. It only took a couple of minutes to ring up his few purchases but when asked if he’d like to purchase the extended warranty for a small appliance he used profanity to bark his absolute refusal to wait one more second in line. The words ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, and ‘incompetent’ were hurled at both workers until his bag was thrust in his arms, his payment complete. Oh, did I mention OF was unmasked? Of course he was. The manager, cashier, and I were all masked. His petulant petty behavior was liberally sprayed over us all. We sighed simultaneously as he left.

The manager began responding to the clamoring for her attention once more as the young cashier looked up at me. As I lay my purchases on the conveyor belt, her eyes begged for understanding as she apologized for my wait. I looked directly at her and told her what he’d just done and said was all about him and not one bit about her. I asked if she was new, her nametag was hand-printed. She admitted it was her first week and I told her she’d handled herself admirably and wished her a much better day and happy holidays. Our eyes smiled at each other as I took my receipt and headed for the door.

Feeling good at having expressed my sympathy to the cashier, I waved the busy manager over to tell her the same thing. And that’s when it happened.

“You didn’t deserve what that man said and did,” I said, making direct eye contact. She seemed startled, her eyes widened and I knew I had her full attention.

“You did nothing wrong, as a matter of fact you handled yourself well, and I really admire how you protected your new employee back there.” Her eyes began to mist. She stared at me without blinking.

I don’t know who she lost but she was hearing someone else speak through me, someone who loved her, cared how she felt, and would have said what I said. (Given my gray hair and wrinkles I’m guessing her grandmother.) She began to crumple.

“You’re a good person who deserves to be treated well.” Her tears spilled over and as they traced down her cheeks a chasm of pain yawed open between us. I knew she needed more.

There’s a pandemic, stupid. You can’t hug strangers. You’ve been so careful up to now! I heard the warning in my head. I knew I was being reckless to the point of stupidity. But sometimes you chance crazy things because you’re driven to it.

I opened up my arms and gave the universal hand gesture for ‘bring it in’. She grabbed me like a life-preserver and sobbed, long heart-rending whimpers on my shoulder, shuddering to regain control. I held her, feeling her vulnerable humanity in my arms, her heart beating against my winter coat, her tears dampening my knit scarf, and knew I wouldn’t release her until she was ready.

A few minutes later, I was on my way back home. Yes, it was incredibly stupid to hold a complete stranger close to me, to risk my health and those of my loved ones to help ease the burden of someone I’ll never see again. And if I get sick, or pass something on to my family, I may never forgive myself.

How could I be so stupid? But I’ll be that stupid again tomorrow, if need be.

Covid may have us down, but we’re not defeated.

Halloween is not Satanism

All Hallow’s Eve

The modern version we call Halloween is an amalgam of early Catholicism and autumnal festivals celebrated around the world and dating back to forever. As the harvest ends and shadows grow longer, people have historically associated the change of seasons with dying and death.

November 1st, All Hallow’s Day (Dia de Todos os Santos, All Saint’s Day, Dia de los Muertas), is the yearly remembrance of our dearly departed. People hope/expect the souls they loved so well in life to visit. Graves are cleaned and decorated, remembrances and offerings are left, memories cried over during celebrations and feasting. The night before All Hallow’s Day is, of course, All Hallow’s Eve(ning) and has been shortened to Hallow’een.

Over the centuries (and through the richness of storytelling around warming fires) the idea of lost souls with no one to mourn them also being up and about on that day took over active imaginations. What would these lost souls (ghosts) want more than anything? To take over the body of someone living.

Jack o’lanterns were carved into faces and planted on gates and around doorsteps to fool evil spirits into entering the pumpkin instead of those sleeping inside the house. That eventually grew into disguising innocent children on that night, too, so evil spirits wouldn’t recognize them and take over their souls. That’s why they dress up as the wicked and scary, so they pass among the evil ones without being recognized as the innocent souls they are. The tradition of giving treats to kids in costumes at your door was a wink/nod at tricking the ‘evil spirits’ into leaving their homes.

Satanism celebrates and worships Satan and evil. It’s a whole different vibe and intent, which has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween.

If you are still curious, I highly recommend The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury. It’s a glorious short novel that explores different autumn festivals and how they’ve become associated with Halloween. 

Weight Loss Surgery Cheating 101

I’m writing this message for people thinking about, and those who’ve had, weight loss surgery (WLS), such as a Roux en Y, or the Sleeve. You (me too, I’m five years post-op) are making life-altering and significant decisions concerning your health. It’s natural to turn to those closest to you to discuss your choices and compare options. And when you do, you’re likely to run into someone who is going to tell you WLS is a way to “cheat” at losing weight.

It might be a family member, friend, co-worker, spiritual advisor, gym instructor, teacher, or even an acquaintance. She may have been your greatest cheerleader during every diet you’ve failed. He might be the one pressuring you to get thin. They may have watched your weight gain over the years and had plenty to say about it. But it’s pretty much assured that someone is going to say to you, “Surgery is taking the easy way out. C’mon, it’s really cheating.”

And after you’ve lost a significant amount of weight the same people will say, “My, you’ve changed. Where’s that sweet person I used to know?”

Okay, let’s take this step by step. In the first place, it’s not easy to realize that repeated failure is inevitable through traditional means. Oh sure, diets work until we reach our desired weight and begin to eat normally again, and compulsive exercise programs may shape and tone…until we get thinner and decide to skip a session or ten. You have stepped out of the box and recognized that it’s foolish to keep doing the same things time and again with predictably disappointing results – every pound you lost traditionally has come back and brought twenty more for good measure.

Secondly, who exactly are you cheating? And precisely how?

Are you cheating the person accusing you by taking their money under false pretenses? Perhaps they’re paying for your weight loss program, diet, and gym costs and think you’re dodging your responsibilities?

Maybe you’re swindling society at large because everyone’s physiology is obviously identical and those who no longer conform must struggle? Is dieting a competition you are fated to lose? Is it really depriving your community of anything if you choose to step out of a race you can’t win, place in, or even finish? Is dieting plus extreme exercise equals weight loss the only honest solution to a compulsory problem?

Or more insidiously, are you being accused of cheating yourself? Out of what; depression, health problems, discrimination, dismissiveness, rude behavior, cruel bullying, or early death?

Nonsense. Cheating, even short-cutting, permanent weight loss is impossible. It is not a game to be won, no score is being kept, no investor is paying for your weight loss and expecting a dividend. And duh, it’s impossible to cheat on yourself. As Yoda explained, you do or do not.

During the miraculous year following WLS when so many pounds melt away, you’ll get reactions ranging from praise and admiration, to curiosity, to shock and jealousy, the whole gamut. As strangers start being nice to you (another topic for another time), the bullies up their bullying.

It could be they’re resentful because you succeeded when they secretly bet against you, counting on you to fail this time as you always have before. Some, like alcoholics, might have thought of you as their eating buddy, the one they could always count on for a pig-out to make them feel better when they lost control because you did too. They may have always measured themselves as ‘better’ than you because thinner is the winner and you always outweighed them. Now they are bigger than you and they don’t like it for all the reasons I’ve mentioned and many more I haven’t. The happier you feel the more miserable they become.

They start saying snarky things to undermine you. The first is usually, “I don’t know you anymore. You’ve changed.”

Uh huh, duh. That was the plan, Fran.

You have changed, a lot. You’ve taken control of your own body and now manage its health in ways you never have before. They don’t know who you are anymore because you’ve made decisions far different than their own and much more difficult than they’ve ever managed.

You’ve learned a lot about your body, self-esteem, and the space you take up and it’s changed you. You’re not the same sad, lonely, self-deprecating, shrinking violet they knew before WLS. The days of pretending to be wallpaper so no one will look at you are over. You no longer hunger for acceptance or feel desperate for approval. You don’t need anyone to know your worth because you know it.

When asked where that sweet person they used to know has gone, I’ve answered, “I’m right here, stronger, healthier, and happier. Where’s that supportive sibling/friend/co-worker I used to know?”

If you’ve chosen WLS and someone accuses you of cheating or tries to belittle your accomplishments tell them, “Listen, you can either hop on board my Success Train or get out of my way. Either way, I’m moving on.”

a day for answers

Tomorrow is a long-awaited birthday, the one I’ve hoped to attain my entire life, my sixty-fourth. I have literally waited for this day for the last fifty-four years. I know I’m getting old (my grandkids think I’m already there, phht) but it’s a day that will make me feel delightfully young again. I plan to dance and sing loud enough to shake the rafters. Even if it’s snowing and the temperature stays below zero all day, the sun will be shining in my heart and eyes as I revel on this special day.

I understand if you are searching for some relevance for that particular number. It’s not one of the Big 0’s, it’s not three-quarters of a century, or four-score and seven, not even the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. So why, you’re wondering, has my sixty-fourth been such a big deal for so long?

It’s my Beatle Birthday. Allow me to explain.

In 1967 I loved the Beatles, I and every other girl in the Western world and most of the Eastern as well. I mean, LOVED them, and would have happily swooned at any one of their live performances. Their songs spoke for, to, and of a generation, my generation. However, having been born at the tail end of the baby boomers I missed the ‘Revolution’ by eight long years.

As a ten-year-old (don’t torture your brain, I was born in 1957), I wasn’t old enough to be a hippie or Love Child, but I longed to be. British fashion invaded America with the Beatles. Art exploded with color. Songs told stories of righting wrongs, ending oppression, gaining understanding and brotherhood. Television pitted young activists against hawkish conservatives, entertaining both on different days and during varying hours.

Happenings were happening all around me and I longed to participate. I wanted to march against the Vietnam War, sit-in for civil rights, sing folk songs with students planning a social revolution. But instead, I was babysat by them or dismissed as their younger sister’s friend, not accepted as one of their own. Sigh. So it is in every young activist’s life.

1967 was also the year the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. I’d always enjoyed their music but was more fascinated with their personalities, especially John. However, that album changed the way I listened to music forever. It took root in my brain and became the first, but certainly not last, to be played repeatedly wherever I was, over and over, for days to weeks to months. I knew every line of every song, finding depth and human wisdom in their stories of everyday people.

Each of the songs have been special to me at various times of my life, She’s Leaving Home and For the Benefit of Mr. Kite pretty much defined my early teens. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the song), Lovely Rita, and With A Little Help from My Friends explain a lot of my young adulthood, and then there’s the one I’ve loved most (yes, even more than Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) over the years.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a Valentine?
Birthday greetings? Bottle of wine?

If I stay out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door
Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?
When I’m sixty-four?

Link to entire song

The rest of the song is entertaining, but it’s the first two stanzas that have tickled me for a rather long lifetime, teasing me with questions for my future.

Finally I know the answers. My sweetie still sends me a Valentine, birthday greetings, and if not a bottle of wine then a pricy, fancy, box of chocolates. I never see a quarter of three without her lying by my side. She still needs me. She still feeds me.

And now, I’m Sixty-Four!

who pumps?

In your relationship, who is in charge of getting gas for the car?

Between ourselves, my wife and I joke about being in a Butch/Femme marriage but when anyone asks about stereotypical heterosexual roles we explain, “Whoever gets up first makes the coffee, last one up makes the bed. We take care of each other.”

There are many chores we do together. We take turns cooking, filling and emptying the dishwasher, helping each other when we can, and we always make financial decisions together. However, that said, after twenty years together some ‘household chores’ have become habitual to the point of expectation. I do the indoor stuff while she takes care of the outdoors.

I am not fulfilling some gender destiny, or cultural compulsion to exemplify femininity. Over the years we’ve discovered that I hate gardening. There’s something about bees, dirt under my fingernails, mosquitos, the smell of moldering leaves and weeds, the getting down, getting up again, down, up, and the wasps…well, it’s just not my thing. I found myself avoiding those chores when they needed doing, leaving them to Traf.

But I can’t sit around while she works so I took over the inside cleaning. I love the people who use our bathroom, so I clean it thoroughly to keep them protected. I’m careful when dusting all the treasures accumulated over decades. I move furniture when vacuuming, to get at the cat fur and dust that accumulate in hidden places. And I sort, wash, and dry the laundry keeping everyone in clean clothes, linens, and towels. Turns out, I feel much happier and fulfilled as things around me get straightened, sorted, put away. I love watching my labors produce cleanliness.

All of which makes me grateful my wife loves to get down and dirty, because I surely do not. It pleases Traf to grow a dazzling garden filled with fresh, healthy veggies every summer, delighting both taste buds and our wallets. Her careful lawn care and border of tiger and day lilies delight the neighborhood for weeks, even prompting strangers to stop and take photos. She also keeps the outdoor machines; cars, lawnmower, snow-blower, garage door, and all lamps/lights in good working order.

In relationships there’s a tit for tat, I give you this and expect that from you. If she starts to irritate me or I’m feeling underappreciated, I remind myself of what she does for me, or for us as a couple, that I have taken for granted before. I own it, after all these years we’ve both forgotten to be grateful and hurt each other, and we’ve learned from experience.

But, um, yep, I expect my wife to keep my car filled with gas.

If she starts feeling miffed about it, I hope she thinks of me cleaning the toilet following an episode of unfortunate digestive issues. In the same way, whenever I get pissy about sneezing from dust motes atop bookcases and fur-mice under couches, I think gratefully of Traf mowing the lawn on a hot summer day and up to her knees shoveling snow in winter.

I remind myself who I’m doing it FOR, my wife and family.

It is a privilege to take care of the woman I love.

Merry New Year, everyone!

To Be Read on Very Bad Days

To Be Read on Very Bad Days

Things are tough, everyone knows it. Some of us are back at work, or whatever work looks like these days. Some still shelter at home, some are becoming new techno-wizards-by-necessity. Some people are out of work and hanging on by a thread. Other folks are nervously still working at businesses that are themselves on the verge of bankruptcy.

Politics are heating up and people who have made their choices are busily trying to convince those few stubborn folks who refuse to pay attention to either party (and blindly insist that both parties are the same) that their candidates are superior in every way. Everywhere you look are political ads pointing fingers, yelling out warnings, using the sounds of war, snapping fingers, ringing phones, and even rattlesnakes in the back ground to make you even more on edge and willing to seek safety.

And then there’s the weather. And fires. And social unrest, peaceful protests, rioting, police brutality, white privilege, systemic racism…

…oh, and a little thing we call a pandemic that is killing our fellow human beings at shocking rates all around the world. We try to go about our business while getting used to wearing masks (fogging glasses, smoker’s breath) and no longer getting facial cues to help us understand others.

People are totally stressed out. And as they have always done, they lash out at strangers because that’s so much safer than risking relationships of value by venting at home. People are rude when told something they were used to is different now, they’re vindictive online when their whims cry out for revenge, safe behind screens to write things they’d never say with mouths that kiss their mothers. Stress turns normal people into fretful freaks, or angry avengers, or snarky narcs, and every
one
of
them
shows
up
in
your
line.
Metaphorical line, it could be they’re on your phone, visiting your office, trashing your book reviews (Charles), or staring at you through two car windows and a foot of space between them during rush hour.

They stomp on your day, digging sharp elbows into soft bellies, setting your teeth on edge, challenging you to admit you don’t know what you’re doing and have completely, utterly, failed. Judith Viorst knew exactly what I’m talking about and brilliantly named a picture book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which I used to read aloud to my students, even the sixth graders. Because everyone has them.

Terrible days. Horrible weeks. No good months. And very, very bad years (Yeah, we’re looking at you 2020). You need a way to counter their effects, save your day, remind yourself of your skills and talents, and give yourself a mental hug. So I’m sharing a life hack that has served me well over the decades, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone.

As an elementary school teacher, I began keeping a file in my desk at work. I titled it: To Be Read on Very Bad Days and in it I kept every little thank you, recognition of my skills, and love note from a student I was given. Any praise from administrators, awards and recognition, photos with kids, were carefully stored. On days that left me ready to weep with exhaustion, low self-esteem, and frustration I would give myself 10 minutes to pull out my file and remember. Re-reading about my successes, seeing the appreciation of those whose lives I’d touched for the better, remembering the strength of my conviction to be my best self, would help. I’d straighten my shoulders, stiffen my spine, wipe my eyes, and carry on.

Over the years that folder grew thicker and just the sight of it would sometimes be enough to help me shoulder through the days when I felt like the worst teacher ever. Even though I’ve been retired a long time now, that folder stays in my desk in the basement. I still read it from time to time.

Start one. Today. Take a half-hour and gather whatever you’ve got lying around in the way of compliments, no matter how small. Birthday cards signed by co-workers, a note, glowing reviews… We need to SEE, visibly SEE our successes to remember why it’s worth going through the messiness of life, especially these days.

Keep adding to your file and over the years it will become just the thing you need on those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days when you need a little self-support. And if you can’t count on yourself, who can?

Words and Works of Award Winning Author Genta Sebastian

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