Decisions, Decisions

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1-56“I’m just saying that any decision made, big or small, has an impact around the world.” This statement by Marty Byrde, the main character in the Netflix series Ozark, encapsulates the main theme of the show. Marty is an ordinary accountant whose one decision has serious repercussions for his family and for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. Like Lake Ozark, the moody locale of the series, a placid existence can experience the ripple effects of that first pebble dropped into it.

Every day we make decisions: what to eat, what to wear, which roads to take to work. Will I exercise or sit around? Should I give a dollar to the homeless man on the corner? Sometime our decisions are momentous: Should I ask the woman I love to marry me? Should I take the job in California? Sometimes we don’t even realize we are making a life-changing choice: What will it hurt if we skip using the condom this once?

Most of us, though, go about our ordinary lives without considering that each little action  can have far-reaching consequences. Every smile, every kind word we speak to another person can influence someone’s mood and possibly affect the rest of their day. The accumulation of good habits and actions has an even greater effect on our lives, our health, and our relationships.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Small lies or cutting corners in our business dealings can add up. It’s a truism that someone who can be trusted in small things can also be trusted with the big things. The way we treat our loved ones and others in our lives also can become an accumulation of small hurts, small digs at another’s self-esteem. I think people underestimate the effects of their words on others, especially cruel or denigrating words.

The fascinating aspect of a series like Ozark is the depiction of someone not all that different from ourselves who digs himself deeper and deeper into a life he had never imagined or wanted for himself. And even though Marty Byrde acts a bit cold-blooded as he explains his philosophy about decision-making, he is descending into a moral and psychological abyss as his actions threaten to destroy the very thing he seeks to protect: his family.

 

 

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Feeding the Soul

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Although I don’t really like to cook, I love to feed people. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to set out a meal and have my friends or family members enjoy it. And while I myself have a tendency to pick at my food, I love hosting a person with a hearty appetite, one who cleans his or her plate and asks for seconds.

There’s something fundamental about meeting a human being’s need for food. Mothers the world over begin the process with their infants almost from the first moment they are born. I loved the close bonding of nursing my biological children, but I also loved bottle feeding my adopted child. In fact, one of the most frustrating parts of having young children is how difficult they can be about mealtime at certain phases of their lives. They thwart their parents need to nurture them with food.

Communal meals have been a feature of every human society from time immemorial. Families and clans have always gathered around campfires and tables to share food and companionship, to bond and feel safe and nourished. Every celebration involves food, and food is the focal point of holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and even the Fourth of July. At my parish Bible Study, we always have a table full of treats. If someone forgets to bring them, we get downright cranky.

The joy of feeding people can extend outward to those in need. Most communities have thriving food pantries, and many have soup kitchens, places where the homeless, the underemployed, and the struggling of our society can go to receive sustenance. Of all the charitable acts I can think of, nothing comes close to the fundamental gift of nourishment through feeding people.

During the recent government shutdown, business owners and ordinary Americans opened their hearts, their wallets and their doors to furloughed workers in order to provide them groceries and hot meals. Say what you will about the divided state of our nation. When push comes to shove, Americans will step up and help each other fill our most basic human needs.

If you come to my house, chances are good that I will try to foist some kind of food on you. It gives me such pleasure to watch people enjoy the food I’ve made – or even just bought and unwrapped. As Elizabeth Berg writes in her wonderful novel The Story of Arthur Truluv, “It’s something to feed somebody who is so in need of eating. It’s something to feed somebody, period.”

 

College Craziness

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img_4718_42College craziness has hit my little world. I’m not talking about older adolescents doing jello shots and dancing on the roof of the fraternity house. I’m talking about the craziness that comes with trying to get into college.

When I was a teen, the process of getting into college was a lot more straightforward. The average kid I knew took the ACTs and SATS, sent the scores to their state schools, and waited to see if they got in. Some of the more elite students might apply to a private school or two, but no one I knew applied to upwards of 10 different colleges.

Today, the college application process is so fraught. My daughter is overloaded with honors and AP courses and frantically trying to prepare for the ACTs, all while participating in sports and extracurricular activities in an attempt to show colleges what a dynamic, interesting, and passionate person she is. It’s exhausting, and not just for the teens.

A case in point is the process at our high school for becoming a member of National Honor Society. NHS has been around since I was in high school. Back then, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were automatically accepted into the organization and the designation became a nice little addendum to your grades and test scores on your college application. For my daughter, applying for membership in NHS has entailed a laborious process that includes performing 20 hours of community service and completing essays on one’s character, scholarship, leadership, and service.

That leadership requirement is the one that really gets me. Don’t even try applying to college unless you can demonstrate what a leader you have been in your school and community. These are teenagers, for crying out loud. And how can they all be leaders? Don’t leaders need followers?

The entire college application process has become hopelessly complicated. Most students apply to numerous schools, each with their own application requirements (not to mention fees). And don’t be fooled by their acceptance of “the common app.” Most schools will have additional essay requirements above and beyond the one required in the common app.

Why has applying to college become so complex? The answer is competition. So many more students are applying to college today, and the Baby Boomers have left a legacy of overpopulation when it comes to the pool of applicants out there. So colleges can demand anything they want. High school students are left feeling that they have to design a unique computer app or find the cure for cancer in order to be attractive to some of the more selective institutions.

Then these very same institutions turn around and chastise parents and schools for stressing out their kids. In the documentary Race to Nowhere, which was required viewing at many schools, a UC Berkeley administrator bemoans the fact that kids are burning the midnight oil and becoming suicidal over academic expectations at their schools. This from a university whose acceptance rate was 16.9% in 2015.

Of course, we do have a choice to opt out of the craziness. I have no doubt there are many good colleges that do not have such insane expectations for their incoming students. But like many parents, I want my daughter to be able to dream big. I want to encourage her aspirations, not curtail them. What this means for my family is a participation in the craziness for the next several months.

I don’t even want to think about what she’ll be doing when she actually get there!

Minivan Mom

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Of all the cars I’ve ever had, the minivan was my favorite. Back at the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that), we owned a “denim blue” Toyota Sienna XLE, the Rolls Royce of minivans. I’d roll up in the school drop-off line, slide open that side door with the push of a button, and deposit my precious cargo onto the sidewalk. Oh, yeah: Minivan Mom.

I loved everything about that minivan. Its color was so distinctive, and it was so decidedly NOT an SUV, that it was easy to find in a parking lot. The inside was spacious, even for three or four children, and the space between seats made it easy to separate squabbling siblings. At the time, Toyota refused to put DVD players in their minivans, reasoning that they’d prove a distraction to drivers. So my kids were left to the radio, their little books on tape, or – perish the thought – talking to me and each other. One of our favorite things to listen to in the minivan at Christmastime was my brother-in-law Dave Rudolf‘s album Completely Cracked Christmas. The album features parodies of well-known carols, and you could hear us warbling for miles: “What’s that smell? I can tell/We’re getting fruitcakes for Christmas.”

The much-maligned minivan has been the subject of mockery and condescension for years. Owners of the much chic-er Ford Explorer, one of the most popular SUVs at the time, would look down their noses at the Dodge Caravans of the world, as if to say, “We know you’re a harried mother of 6 with your hair in pin curls and your bunny slippers still on at 4 in the afternoon.” But I never cared about the image of Minivan Mom. I drove that baby for over 100,000 miles until its untimely demise.

It happened one warm summer day in June. My teenaged son had left the house in the Sienna, headed to the gym for an early morning workout. Literally on the next block, he ran into an old electric pole, which cracked and thudded onto the roof of the van. Luckily, my son did not get hurt, and we never did get the straight story as to what precipitated the accident. But due to its age, the insurance company declared the minivan totaled, and we had to say goodbye.

We’ve never owned another minivan, but I still miss having one. It was so nice to be able to drive the whole family to Grandma’s house or out to dinner. Now we have to take two cars. Our kids are more likely to argue about who gets to ride shotgun because the back seats in our other cars have never been as spacious.

I’ve heard that affluent families have started gravitating toward old-fashioned station wagons, a relic from my youth that I do not miss at all. Who wants to spend life facing backwards in the way, way back? Maybe the minivan will make a comeback in time for me to drive my grandkids around and teach them twisted Christmas carols.

 

Birthday Blues

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The birthday year following a milestone birthday can be a bit of a letdown. Last year I celebrated six decades of life with a wonderful family trip to Hawaii and a surprise luncheon on a snowy day. But this year 61 is just – blah.

I remember how depressed I was the year I turned 31. Turning 30 hadn’t fazed me. I was young and in love and would ultimately get engaged and married that year. But the following January, it hit me: I was OVER 30! I just couldn’t get over that fact, remembering the famous Sixties mantra, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Now I was in that square, uncool demographic for good.

As much as I love birthdays, sometimes life just gets in the way. One year my entire family got stomach flu the week before my birthday. I myself came down with a cold and raging sinus infection, no doubt run down by all the ministering to sick kids and washing vomit-laced sheets and clothing. On other birthdays my husband was out of town and my  kids too little to put on much of a celebration on their own. This year, I’m just not feeling it.

My husband has been asking me what I want to do for my birthday, what presents I want, and when I think we should have cake and blow out candles. I’m kind of inclined to let the whole thing slide. But after 30 years of marriage, that man knows me better than I know myself. He won’t let the day go by without some form of celebration wedged in between school, soccer schedules, and dental appointments.

I did decide to treat myself to a morning at the salon today where I got my hair and nails done for no good reason other than it was my birthday and my roots were showing. I had a delicious latte at my home away from home, Barnes & Noble, and when I returned, there was a lovely flower arrangement from my kids gracing the kitchen table. Every so often I’ve been checking my Facebook page and enjoying the many birthday greetings from family and friends.

So although it’s a cold, gloomy, and blustery January day, I do feel a little bit special on this, my 61st birthday.

Thankful for a Break from Politics

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Thanksgiving dawned in Michigan in the usual way: cloudy, barren skies and chilly temps. Michigan is the home of my husband’s family and the destination of my family’s Thanksgiving travels every year. Besides looking forward to the delicious turkey and fixings my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law were up early to prepare, we were anticipating the happy chaos that is always a part of our visits to the Motor City.

True to form, the buffet table groaned with an assortment of dishes and later, far too many desserts even for us and for my husband’s six siblings and their families to consume. And while there were a few minor dramas, for the most part Thanksgiving held a convivial air.

What I appreciated most about the many conversations in which I took part was the complete absence of political dialogue. At least to my hearing, there was no talk about Trump, immigration, foreign policy, or the recent November elections. Instead, Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions football dominated the scene in the family room where the cousins congregated in front of the giant TV and good-naturedly trash-talked each other’s teams.

Other than a comment made about a movement to eliminate the Thanksgiving holiday because of white settlers’ mistreatment of Native Americans, there was nothing to ruffle any feathers, and no one “talked turkey” about their political beliefs. This fact, coupled with my avoidance of Facebook all day, made for a blissfully nonpolitical and mostly unstressful holiday.

Instead, we took turns holding our nephew’s adorable baby and playing “store” with her older sister. We helped ourselves to another slice of apple pie and enjoyed the camaraderie of family members. We drew names for the annual Christmas grab bag we hold each year. By the time we were ready to bundle up and head home, we were all ensconced in the happy glow of full bellies and family togetherness.

This morning the sun is out. The brief reprieve from November gloom is a welcome sight, and it is prolonging my feeling of happiness and peace. Now the Christmas holiday season is upon us. All the shopping, baking, decorating and bustle begin. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend a day in thankfulness for the bounty in my life: family, friends, and food.

Maybe I’ll keep up my fast from politics for the entire holiday season.

Snow Shower

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IMG_3163This past Saturday I hosted a baby shower for my godson and his wife, who are expecting their first child in February. About 30 well wishers were to descend on my home, all of them bearing gifts for the lucky couple and some of them bearing food and decorations for the party.

The forecast the day before had called for snow in the wee hours of the morning. Although I was annoyed at the early season snow, which didn’t have the good grace to wait until after Thanksgiving, I figured an inch or two falling overnight would be an easy obstacle to take care of before the festivities began.

The snow front, however, meandered a bit more slowly than meteorologists had predicted. When I awoke around 8 am Saturday morning, snow was gently falling. There wasn’t much on the ground yet, but I was worried. My main worry was for travelers coming from significant distances to make it to the shower. I had hoped they would have smooth sailing on their way. I also wondered how I would manage 30 people tramping into the house in their snowy boots. I put down some floor mats and hoped for the best.

My nephew’s aunt and cousins from their other side were the first to arrive. They seemed unfazed as they bustled around the kitchen setting up pots of delicious food. Then my nephew (brother of the dad-to-be) showed up with his girlfriend, who set about adorning the house with “baby chic” decorations. Before long, guests began to arrive and the house took on that delightful chaos only a happy occasion can bring.

Throughout the party, numerous guests commented on how lovely the snow looked from my kitchen and family room windows. I had to admit it was a pretty backdrop, much more lovely than the bare trees and brittle grass that had been in evidence the day before.

The shower was a big success. Everyone was well fed, and the “Baby Bellinis” flowed. Guests got to write words of advice for the happy parents-to-be and to print messages on paper diapers. My favorites were: “This too shall pass” and “Fill it up!” We all enjoyed coffee and buttercream cake while oohing and aahing over the adorable onesies and other tiny baby clothes. And not one person was prevented from coming by the unseasonal weather.

The vicissitudes of life will sometimes throw us for a loop. They can also shower us with unexpected blessings. That’s a great lesson for that baby on the way – and for all of us.