Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Pause on the Rapid Tracks

                                      First printed in Design Magazine  2001

"Well in our country, " said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else - if you ran very fast for a long time."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
                                       Through the Looking Glass

It started out as an ordinary morning.  I got up early, knowing I'd have to hit the ground running.  I had plenty to do during this Cleveland family visit before meeting the 255 Nonstop at Hopkins International Airport.  I grabbed a quick shower and pulled on a jogging suit and running shoes. With hair still wet, I hurried into the kitchen to "nuke" myself a fast breakfast.  Though the directions said to microwave the Quick Quaker Oatmeal on "HIGH for 2 minutes, 30 seconds," I hit "222" on the control panel.  Everyone knows its faster.

I gulped my breakfast and grabbed the car keys offered to me. I was told I could use any of the cars parked in the driveway.  I considered the Dodge Dart and the Chevy Blazer before choosing the Pontiac Grand Prix.  I noticed with satisfaction that it was equipped with cruise control so I could drive as fast as legally allowed.  It also had a fuzz buster if that wasn't fast enough.

With a grocery list in my mouth, I accelerated past the Quik Trip, turned left at the Jiffy Lube and parked at the Shop n' Go.  I dashed in and picked up Bisquick, Minute Rice, Quick Draw garbage bags, instant pudding, Soup To Go, One-Step Stuffing, Hi-C Blast, Mennen Speed Stick, Quick Pot Pasta, and Suddenly Salad.  Because I had fewer than 12 items, I got to use the Express Lane (yippee!)

Rolling again, I passed the Insty-Prints, parked by the Sprint building, and sprinted into the Educator's Music.  They had the sheet music I wanted: Chopin's "Minute Waltz" and Pagannini's "Perpetual Motion."

Steering towards the airport, I stopped at the red light before the rapid Transit Authority tracks. I glanced (honestly, just glanced) down at my list as the light turned green.  Just as instantly, the car behind me honked with a loud, rude blast.  Honked!  I was furious.  How dare someone decide I wasn't moving fast enough? I was always hurrying.

Paused there on the Rapid tracks, I suddenly asked myself "why?"  In the cosmic sense, what was I rushing from and where was I hurrying to? Had life just become one headlong dash from the cradle to the grave?

Unaware (and unappreciative) of the epiphany I was having, the rear driver screeched his car around me and sped off, brandishing obscene gestures.  They do that in Cleveland.  I didn't care, because I was reflecting on something important; noting that from the time babies are born, we begin preparing them mentally and financially for college, and it's rush, rush, rush, throughout their childhood.  College graduates are handed their diploma along with the advice that they better get busy working towards retirement, or they won't have any.  And retirees can't let up.  After all, they need to plan for their "final expenses."

It seemed that we Americans spend our entire lives doing as much as we can as fast as we can, using any service or product that promises to be quick and easy.  Without questioning, we equate fast with good.  The truth is much like Tater Tots; it's usually one or the other.  And what ever happened to all the time we save using time-saving conveniences?  We should have more leisure, peace, and serenity.  Yet we don't.  We just find more tasks listed in our planners and feel increasingly exhausted.

In a thoughtful mood, I steered the car toward the airport exit, passing the Gold's Gym.  The treadmills were in the front window, full of people running and sweating, yet going nowhere.  At the airport curb, signs announced "No Stopping or Standing" and an annoying loud speaker voice repeated the same warning.  With so many messages telling us to "keep it moving," no wonder we've become a nation in motion.

The airport interior was abuzz with activity.  People were scurrying around, toting their wheeled luggage behind them.  The conveyors down the concourses were full of people who were being transported, yet were simultaneously striding purposefully, elbowing people to the side who weren't moving fast enough.  I felt like hollering, "This is what's wrong with America!"

Instead, I checked with an agent to see why the 255 Nonstop wasn't in.  "It's been delayed," she said, "and I think there's also a gate change.  Let me check." She typed rapidly on a computer keyboard.  It took all of three seconds for the screen to come up: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. "Sorry," she said, annoyed, "but this #^#% computer is so *^#%^#  slow." They talk like that in Cleveland.  She continued, "It's only got 700 megahertz; I can't wait until they install new ones with 1.5 gigahertz."

It only took a nanosecond to firm my resolve.  When three seconds is too long to wait, whether for a driver to recognize a green light or a computer screen to come up, it is time to slow my world down.  I knew it must begin with me and it must start in small ways. Perhaps others would gradually join me, starting a groundswell movement of people with a healthy skepticism about anything marked as "quick," "instant," or "jiffy."  Furthermore, should we manage to save time, we would keep it.  We would no longer over-schedule ourselves and no longer rush.  We would recapture serenity.

We'll know we've succeeded when Madison Avenue starts marketing to "a new, more serene consumer." Just imagine.  They might promote breakfast foods like Whenever Waffles, and Slo-Simmer Cereal.  Detroit might come out with the Mercury Meander, the Lexus Lallygag or the Dodge Dawdle.  People will reflect on their lives and regain patience, even in Cleveland.  It could be wonderful.  At the very least, we could determine never, ever, to honk at drivers in front of us when a stoplight turns green.  We'll just give them a minute.  They'll figure it out. I did.

Horrible Haircut

First published in Design Magazine 2006

Question: What's the difference between a bad haircut and a good haircut?
Answer: Three days.

He called for sympathy.  Instead, he heard snickers. Our oldest son, now a young father himself, wailed about is four-year old's latest stunt: "You'll never believe what Eli did.  He got a hold of the dog clippers and buzzed off a path of hair...from his forehead to his nape! It looked terrible...sort of a reverse Mohawk. There was no way we could comb the rest of his hair over an cover it up, so we had to buzz his whole head.  Now he looks even worse.  He looks like a poster-child for the Leukemia Foundation or something."

My husband and I were in a state of merriment over this news.  Somehow it's so wonderful knowing our grandchildren are aggravating their parents the way they aggravated us.  It's payback time.

Our son, interpreting our muffled sounds as sympathy, went on: "I asked Eli, 'what were you thinking?'"

"Bad idea," we whispered to each other, "You never get a good answer to that one..."

"Do you know what he said?" the outraged father asked.  "He said he 'wanted to know what it felt like.' Can you imagine?"

We not only could imagine, we could remember.  That devastated dad had once been a five-year old himself.  One who stealthily helped himself to my craft scissors and cut his own bangs, right to his forehead.  Then he cheerfully snipped off his little sister's curls in random chunks as well.  I remember rushing the children off to my hair stylist on an emergency appointment.  "This will be the challenge of your career, " I told Roxie, "Can you fix it?"

Roxie did her best, regaling me the whole time with stories of other horrible haircuts she had seen.  The other stylists and their patrons, eavesdropping on our conversation, contributed stories of their own.  Apparently, the homemade haircut is an almost universal rite of passage.  It is usually (though not always) performed by the very young.  Variations abound, although the stories fall into specific categories:

The haircut the haircutters give themselves.  Usually a one-time hack job, this may come at the worst possible time, like "The day before school pictures were taken," as one mother wryly recalled.  On the bright side, "that little girl actually grew into a responsible young adult."
The Children involved use everything from scissors to razors and beyond. "My son used pinking shears," recalled another mom, "and it created a real unusual cut.  My husband usually cut the boys' hair," she continued, "but that time we needed to see a barber."

One teenager decided she didn't like her widow's peak.  She just wanted her hairline to go straight across, so she shaved off the peak.  It didn't look too odd right away, but when it began to grow out, she had a little triangular crew-cut, "right in the middle of her forehead."

Of course, those who cut their own hair usually cannot complain too much, because they did it themselves. This does not hold true with:
The haircut the haircutter gives to someone else.  Sometimes the victim is a sibling, friend, or an unlucky cat or dog.  The only blissfully unaware victims are inanimate: "I don't know what it is," said one mother, "but we have a toy box full of bristle-headed Barbie dolls.  Little girls seem to find that plastic rooted hair absolutely irresistible.  They also find it never grows back"

Nobody would expect a little girl with hedge-clippers to give a very good trim, but sometimes the perpetrator is trained, licensed and still terrible.  "I went to this one beautician," a young mother recalled, "who was an absolute barfly.  I instructed her to trim my hair to shoulder-length.  When she was through, it looked just like a mushroom on top of my head..and yet uneven! A blind man with a butcher knife couldn't have done a worse job!"

Even if the lucky patrons get exactly the effect they want, they may find the rest of the world disapproves.  These haircuts fall under the category of:
The haircut everybody else hates.  Eric, who has curly red hair, remembers, "I wasn't particularly rebellious kid in high school, but I had this outrageous mullet.  You know, the haircut that Billy Ray Cyrus and Joey Buttafucco made famous? I loved it.  It was the perfect haircut: 'business in the front; party in the back.' I couldn't understand why my parents, teachers, and youth leaders hated it so much.  I could study with my mullet. I could play chess with my mullet.  I could pray with  my mullet.  Why couldn't people leave me alone about my mullet?"

He paused for a minute and then added, "The other day I came across a picture of myself with my mullet.  I looked like a total idiot."

The equation "tragedy, plus time, equals comedy" certainly applies to hideous haircuts.  Whether they are the result of a personal attempt, and outsider's assault, or a professional's ineptitude, the tragedy eventually resolves itself and only the story remains.  The stories are the best part.  Most of them get funnier and longer with time.  Perhaps that explains the consolation offered for every horrible haircut: "Don't worry.  It will grow out."

Anatomy of a Messer

First printed in Design Magazine 2002

In our Politically Correct times, just about everyone can be, somehow, correct.  Short people are just "vertically challenged" and the bald are just "follically-impaired."  Though it wasn't always so, there are many voices stating that its perfectly okay to be left-handed, or gay, or even hugely fat.  Nobody, they assert, need hide in a closet because of the way they were born.

Still, there is one remaining closet group that has yet to come out.  No voice defends their alternate life-style and there are no statistics to prove that they were "born that way."  These oppressed people are represented in every culture, gender, and society.  Though found in every large city and each tiny hamlet, society forces them to contradict their basic natures and conform to imposed standards.  These are people who tend to be messy.

That they have a genetic predisposition is the only explanation for why two children from the same family could be so wildly different.  One, Heidi Tidy, is careful to keep her shoes lined up like piano keys on the floor of her closet.  As she grows, she writes schedules and sticks to them; she organizes, alphabetizes, and compartmentalizes her whole life through.  Her brother, Messy Jesse, simply ignores the disorder he creates. He happily careens through life, littering, rumpling, smearing, and spilling as he goes.  A creative soul, he might be happy if it were not for the disparaging comments that he constantly hears about his orientation... or rather, disorientation.  His parents wail in bewilderment, "Why are the kids so different? Where did we go wrong?"  The answers, respectively, are; "just because" and "you didn't."

Perhaps the true problem is that the neatniks of the world have had a stranglehold on society for generations.  They relentlessly impose their life-style on everyone, whether the fit makes sense or not.  It is as illogical as hammering horseshoes on a ballerina.  There is no freedom of choice, no quarter for individuality, and no allowance of an alternate life-style.  The tidies and trashers of the world simply operate on different wavelengths.

Imagine a beautiful fall day with a nip in the air.  The leaves are turning colors and and falling from the trees.  The messer, who is often free-spirited and zestful will exclaim, "What a perfect day for a drive in the country!  We could look at the fall colors an maybe even jump into a pile of leaves!"

The neatnik, on the other hand, will consult the calendar and state, "This is the day we winterize the garage, put up the storm windows, and replace the furnace filters."

Such people are always well organized and orderly, but they are no darn fun to be around if you are not of like mind.  It is hard to know exactly what your mind is, in view of centuries of "tidy propaganda" which prescribes neat, clean and organized as the only approach to life.  This simply is not so.  Some of the homilies we have heard all of our lives could simply be rewritten:
  1. Plan your work and work your plan.  This little formula created the Personal Daily Planner mentality.  But messers, or PDP-ophobes, hate being tethered to a schedule, be it paper or electronic.  For them, the only reason to write a work plan is to put off actually working.  A better slogan might be, Live in the meantime.
  2. You can't beat old-fashioned elbow grease.  Not true. Messers firmly believe they will get the gummy patch off the corner of their desk only when they pick up that solvent advertised on TV.  They believe in products that promise to get "everything sparkling clean in a jiffy, with no rubbing, no scrubbing" because they desperately want to believe. Messers buy jigs, gizmos, and gadgets... anything that looks like a amazing rates.  They are not to be censured, but admired for keeping the economy going.  Their credo: Hold out for the miracle in the jar.
  3. An ounce of morning is worth a pound of afternoon. Meant to encourage people to attack their disagreeable tasks early in the morning; this homily promises, "you will then have the rest of the day to do things you enjoy doing!" The hitch is that there is no rest of the day, which the messers learned long ago.  They find it more reasonable to do the things they enjoy in the morning and do chores later (if later unfortunately occurs). Their motto: "I really must do that later."
  4. Cleanliness is next to godliness.  The Bible doesn't actually say this.  Anywhere.  Not in Exodus, Jeremiah, Matthew, or Luke.  Pious types who haven't read the Bible have been clobbering others with it for a long time.  They would be well-advised to read the Bible, don't just dust it.
 After the world's messers rewrite damaging homilies and expose the false scriptures, they may yet find a voice of their own.  Sadly, even then, they may never truly come out of the closet.  Old tennis rackets and discarded clothes would make their door impossible to open.

Midge Nielsen

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    Patti Perfect

    Many LDS women unconsciously compete with an idealized image of the already-perfect wife and mother who successfully incorporates all the demands of family, church, and society into her life. Although we have never met such a woman, we persist in believing she's out there somewhere.  We can just imagine what she must accomplish in a day...

    Patti gets up very early and says her personal prayers.  She zips her slim, vigorous body into her warm-up suit and tiptoes outside to run her usual five miles (on Saturday she does ten). Returning home all aglow, she showers and dresses for the day in a tailored skirt and freshly starched and ironed blouse.  She settles down for quiet meditation and scripture reading before preparing the family breakfast.  The morning's menu calls for whole wheat pancakes, homemade syrup, freshly squeezed orange juice, and powdered mile (the whole family loves it).

    With classical music wafting through the air, Patti awakens her husband and ten children.  She spends a quiet moment with each and helps them plan a happy day.  The children quickly dress in clothes that were laid out the night before.  They cheerfully make their beds, clean their rooms, and do the individual chores assigned to them on the Family Work Wheel Chart.  They assemble for breakfast the minute mother calls.

    After family prayer and scripture study, the children all practice their different musical instruments.  Father leaves for work on a happy note.  All too soon it is time for the children to leave for school.  Having brushed (and flossed) their teeth, the children pick up coats, book bags, and lunches which were prepared the night before and arrive at school five minutes early.

    With things more quiet, Patti has story time with her pre-schoolers and teaches them a cognitive reading skill.  She feeds, bathes, and rocks the baby before putting him down for his morning nap.  With baby sleeping peacefully and the three-year-old twins absorbed in creative play, Patti tackles the laundry and housework.  In less than an hour, everything is in order.  Thanks to wise scheduling and children who are trained to work, her house never really gets dirty.

    Proceeding to the kitchen, Patti sets out tonight's dinner: frozen veal parmigiana that she made in quantity from her home-grown tomatoes and peppers.  She then mixes and kneads 12 loaves of bread.  While the bread rises, Patti dips a batch of candles to supplement her food storage.  As the bread bakes, she writes in her personal journal and dashes off a few quick letters: one to her Congressman and a couple of genealogy inquiries to distant cousins. Patti then prepares her mini-class lesson on organic gardening.  She also inserts two pictures and a certificate in little Paul's scrapbook, noting with satisfaction that all family albums are attractive and up-to-date.  Checking the mail, Patti sees that their income tax refund has arrived - a result of having filed in January.  It is earmarked for mission and college saving accounts.  Although Patti's hardworking husbands earns only a modest salary, her careful budgeting has kept the family debt-free.

    After lunch, Patti drops the children off at Grandma's for their weekly visit.  Grandma enjoys babysitting and appreciates the warm loaf of bread. Making an extra call, Patti takes a second loaf to one of the sisters she is assigned to visit teach.  A third loaf goes to the non-member neighbor on the corner.

    Patti arrives at the elementary school where she directs a special education program. A clinical psychologist, Patti finds this an excellent way to stay abreast of her field while raising her family.  Before picking up her little ones, Patti finishes collecting for the charity fund drive.

    Home again, Patti settles the children down for their afternoon naps. She spends some quiet time catching up on her reading and filing.  As she mists her luxuriant house plants, the school children come through the door.  Patti listens attentively to each one as they tell her about their day. The children start right in on their homework, with mother supervising and encouraging them.  When all the school work is done, Patti and the children enjoy working on one of their projects. Today they work on the quilt stretched on frames in a corner of the family room.

    Dinnertime and father arrive, and it is a special hour for the whole family.  They enjoy Patti's well-balanced, tasty meal, along with stimulating conversation. After dinner, father and the children pitch in to clean up so that mom can relax.  She enjoys listening to the sounds of laughter and affection that come from the kitchen.

    With the teen aged children in charge at home, mother and father attend an evening session at the Temple.  During the return trip, they sit close together as in courting days, "Well dear, " says Paul Perfect," did you have a good day?" Pat reflectively answers, "Yes I really did.  But I feel I need more challenges in my life.  I think I'll contact our Family Organization and volunteer to head up a reunion for August."

    Midge Worthen Nielsen
    Margaret Brown Black
    Orem, Utah

    Note bene: Margaret and I collaborated on this when we were both young mothers in our 30's.  There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and we had a blast incorporating all of our frustrations into this piece.  It was first printed by "Exponent II," then reprinted in the Winter 1984, "The Best of Exponent II." The editors wrote: "To celebrate our tenth anniversary... we are going to reprint some of the best-loved articles that have appeared in the paper.  To begin, we again present 'Patti Perfect, ' as one of our most-requested pieces."

    Margaret had five children, Midge had six, yet we have to agree that of all our children, "Patti" has become the most famous.