Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Forward

At the end of each year, it has become customary to repeat what has happened over the past twelve months. Although it seems a little unnecessary, the media has fallen into the habit of reliving events of the current year, as though hindsight might improve our memory of the details.

Once again we are confronted with a summary of what happened over recent months including who died, who divorced, who said what embarrassing thing. We are again faced with the latest hi-jinks of the Kardashians, Oprah Winfrey and nearly every political candidate. We have the cell phone cameras and inquisitive witnesses to thank for keeping us advised about many such events.

But before we spend time and energy rehashing the year that is nearly over, perhaps we need to readjust our thinking. The evening news tonight contained snippets about the ongoing problems in the Middle East, the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and other stories of which we already aware. Why not turn our attention so that we can think ahead? After all, there is an entire year just around the corner. Perhaps we can take steps to improve the future.

Let's try and make a plan for 2012. Why don't each of us should set one goal to achieve before the end of 2012. Not a "New Year's resolution" which might sound good now but will not endure past mid-January 2012. How about one goal for the entire year? One goal per year seems doable.

How about …
Reconnecting with an old friend
Being nice to a neighbor who ignores you
Trying to cook a new dish
Being a better listener to someone you care about
Taking better care of yourself
Reading up on current matters
Finding a new hobby
Making a difference in your community
Volunteering to help a cause you care about
Learning about the history in your area/state/country
Running an errand for someone who needs help
Redecorating a room in some unexpected way
Living within a budget and saving money
Helping on a political issue
Offering to lend a hand somewhere in the community
Saying "thank you" to someone who performs a kindness

Give yourself time to adjust to this new way of thinking. Adjustments of any type may take a while to sink in. But by the time warm weather arrives in late Spring, you should try to get used to the idea of making a change. See how easy it is for one small gesture or action to send out ripples. You could be the start of something very important. It's really quite easy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Good Old Days

I dislike hearing people describe how great things were in the good old days. There is nothing we can do about "progress" and change is inevitable. But the past held many benefits. Before television, people had actual conversations. The imagination was used for things like reading and other creative pursuits.

Earlier today I ventured forth to see if the department stores held any post-Christmas bargains worth scooping up. The trip was dismal and frustrating. It wasn't the selection of merchandise that caused problems. It was a complete lack of customer service.

During the heyday of the last century, stores recognized that customers might want someone to show them merchandise or make suggestions. Stores hired people to assist the shopper and handle the financial transaction. These people were usually friendly, polite, well-groomed and knew the store's inventory. Alas, customer service has gone the way of the corset and buggy whip. Today's customer must not only search for the merchandise but must also search for someone to take their money.

Several years ago, I vowed never to wait in line to purchase merchandise, apart from waiting in the obligatory grocery check-out or perhaps movie ticket line. I have stuck with my pledge and refuse to wait to give up my money. There is something obscene about doing so. It makes sense to return the merchandise to its place and simply walk away. Few items could be so fantastic as to require my waiting in line.

Today I did find a bargain or two, items that I needed and which were on sale. It took a great deal of time to find someone to wait on me who wasn't either stocking merchandise or busy telling another sales person what she got for Christmas.

Media news reported today how business had slumped during the holidays. A few retailers indicated they will be closing stores. Wake up store managers everywhere! There might be a reason why brick and mortar buildings are in trouble. Why drive to a store, search for the correct merchandise, look for a sales associate to ask a question and eventually search for a clerk to ring up the purchase. You can transact the same purchase online in seconds. You will also know immediately whether a product is available in a certain color or size and how long it will take before it arrives.

That is the method which growing numbers of us are using for shopping before and after Christmas. Why not? Shoppers don't see the need for making trips to the mall. There are other ways to get the same result.

I wish the retail world good luck. But they need to step back and take a look at the reason for their gradual demise. Like many other aspects of our society, retail needs to re-evaluate its goal and help revitalize customer service.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beyond Christmas

Unless you have had your head in the sand, you are probably aware that Christmas is nearly here. For the kiddies, this joyous season means excitement, anticipation, school vacation and fun. For the rest of us, Christmas means a lot of things, too -- including gift shopping, gift wrapping, tree trimming, cookie baking, visitor greeting, card addressing, rushing around and finally time to relax. Once the ribbon and wrap has been gathered and the tree removed, we can then face the new year, a rather daunting opportunity to start fresh.

Recently when a friend and I were discussing the new year, I expressed frustration about subjects which required action but were not in my control. I wished change was an option. One of us used the phrase "making ripples" and that phrase seized our attention. Sometimes we have to start with incremental changes in order for progress to occur. Although they begin small, eventually ripples expand until they reach many others.

Small gestures can make a significant improvement. Take eating habits, for instance. People tend to think of diet as a penalty, something imposed against their will and which must be followed indefinitely. They don't realize that small changes in eating habits can add up over time. The final results are often surprising.

We should face the new calendar eagerly and resolve to make improvements. Here are some suggestions that we could follow to get started:

1. Get healthy. Lose a little weight. Become more active and fit. Park farther away from the shopping mall. Skip dessert occasionally. Walk after dinner instead of collapsing in a chair. Take your dog for a walk. Find an exercise partner/buddy.

2. Watch the budget. Most of us waste money on frivolous items. Avoid adding to credit card balances. Before you buy something, think about it at length to prevent impulse shopping. Watch prices for necessities and shop during sales.

3. Decide what to do each day. Make a list of things that you want to accomplish. Prioritize the chores. Then try and do as many of them as possible. At the end of the day, carry those items over to the following day so you will work on the unfinished list first. You will be surprised at how quickly this resolves procrastination.

4. Find something to do with spare time. Have you always thought about pursuing a hobby? Do you enjoy cooking? Crafts? Reading? History? Watching old movies? Photography? Nature walks? Sports? Working with animals? Chances are there is a group in your community with similar interests where you could work with others toward a goal. Ask around. Network with other crafts, photogs, cooks, etc.

5. Consider volunteering. Groups are created in nearly every town and borough to work on community projects - park beautification, helping the less fortunate, tutoring students. Ask around and get involved.

Keep in mind that when you make ripples, the result is far reaching.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Good to be Cynical

During childhood we learn many things, including what behavior is acceptable and how to tell what facts are "true."

We accept without question information from authority figures which are reliable -- parents, teachers and youth leaders. These folks are dependable. They tell us to wear a coat on cold days, to sit up straight and to tell the truth. They also help instill the basics of fear: don't run with scissors, don't ride with strangers, don't consume cleansers kept under the sink or pick a playground fight with someone bigger than you.

We soon begin to accept what we are told. Few six-year-olds challenge instruction when told to look both ways before crossing the street. Challenges which occur are usually short-lived. We may feel that adults are unfairly restricting our individual freedom. But there are certain people we should believe.

Unfortunately, a pattern of acceptance becomes second nature and many of us forget how to question what we hear. We become so used to accepting data at face value that we do not question news stories, gossip or blatant misrepresentations that occur. We lose our selective "gut" instinct and accept falsehoods along with truths.

Perhaps you have come to believe that imported knives shown in an infomercial are really guaranteed for life. You want to believe that friends who share remarks made behind your back are sharing that information for your best interest. You might even believe everything your doctor or your government says. If this sounds familiar, you need to dust off your cynicism.

Once upon a time being called a cynic was a sign of weakness. Reasonable people thought as one. That behavior got us through tough times, wars and the Depression. We were supposed to pull together.

Then our world changed. National and world leaders were assassinated. A U.S. president resigned office during his second term. Our social structure began to weaken. It was the dawn of widespread cynicism. Even today some people question every facet of modern life.

Cynicism in moderation is healthy. Parents should encourage their children to question things. They should be willing to help children think on their own. It's a practice that will serve them well as they become independent citizens.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Over the River…

At one time not too long ago, visiting family or friends for any special occasion -- including Christmas -- meant literally traveling over the river and through the woods. Gathering for events such as a wedding, funeral or house raising was a chore and involved the bad combination of primitive transportation and extremely poor roads.

Most of us were raised with idyllic images of children singing carols from a sleigh as riders were whisked through the cold toward their festive destination. Such images were extremely misleading. Travel was brutal, particularly in climates which experienced cold weather, ice and snow. One-horse open sleighs were slow going and unpleasant.

Even today travel can be difficult. The least challenging trip to grandmother's house is by car over decent roads. Gasoline prices fluctuate daily but are usually subject to increases just prior to major holidays. If gas remains at $3.30 (plus or minus), it can be costly to fill up the ol' SUV and head out for a visit. Roads are problematical as well, especially freeways and interstate highways which are often choked with vehicles on a similar pursuit. Hopefully drivers have called ahead to confirm there is no major road construction or inclement weather forecast.

Way back in the middle of the last century, flying was actually enjoyable. Until the late 1980s, taking a trip by plane was something of a luxury. Passengers were treated to a certain amount of respect. This is hard to believe today. It was as though the airline employees and crew were grateful to travelers who chose their airline. The flight attendants served a meal, offered reading material or headsets, and generally were polite. Today's air travelers are lucky to get from Point A to Point B without sitting on the tarmac for hours or having the flight delayed or canceled altogether. Conditions have deteriorated dramatically. Anyone who has flown in recent years will appreciate two basic results of their trip: arrival at their destination and eventual receipt of their luggage. It has come down to that.

Having been raised in a family of railroaders, I still have fond memories of train travel and take the train whenever it is convenient. During the 20th century train travel lost public support in favor of car travel. Inevitable, perhaps, but millions of miles of train track was ripped up and disposed of during the 1970s, performed much too haphazardly. The increasing use of trains for moving commodities and passengers continues to surprise the public. Train travel is up in recent years as an excellent alternative in certain parts of the country.

So if you are about to embark on holiday travel, plan ahead. First ask yourself: Is this trip really necessary?

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason: the age at which -- if you continue doing something -- you'd better have a good reason.

One of the best parts of becoming older is that you can stop doing things you dislike. Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize this fact. But then most people are often afraid of change.

I have always enjoyed being around older people who speak their minds, whether it occurs in real life, through interviews or movie roles. It is refreshing to hear people saying things that most of the audience is already thinking. Over the years a few older celebrities have endeared themselves to the public, speaking frankly and calling a spade a spade. Megastars like Groucho Marx, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn weren't afraid to let down their guard and reveal the charisma that kept them favorites of the public for decades. Other stars of the past were gracious in their later years -- people like Cary Grant and John Wayne -- but they remained guarded and "in character," which is probably how they wanted to be remembered. It takes a certain confidence and sense of self to drop the fa├žade and invite in the public.

With the approach of a new year, plenty of people focus on things they want to change once January arrives. They might want to lose weight, cut spending, eat better, finish a project or perhaps find a new partner or new job. The best advice for any of us wanting to do something is…just do it. Make an effort to pursue a goal and follow through. Start that diet and stick to it. Save money. Find a job. Thinking is good but action is better in most things.

In addition to taking action toward an end, try ending something which no longer has purpose or give you pleasure. If you dislike your job, try finding another position. Sure, the economy is not conducive to new opportunities right now. So make a plan to either further your skills or at least begin networking with others who might be able to assist you. It might take a while, but baby steps will start you down the path.

Quit doing tasks for which you have no reason. Do you always have the same thing to eat every Wednesday? Do you always have to sit near the window on the bus? Do you constantly get caught up in workplace gossip and chatter? Break that cycle. Why are you still doing anything that you don't enjoy? Out of habit? Due to lack of imagination? Then it is time to change your direction. Start thinking about how to spend your time doing something reasonable.

Like the celebrities mentioned earlier, try being yourself. Don't worry about how others perceive you. If you are confident about yourself, it will become obvious to others. Life is too short to waste time doing something you don't like just because you are afraid to change.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Careful Gifting

As we wade through the holiday morass, we should stop and reflect about why we give gifts. It is a gesture that should be based on good intentions - kindness, thoughtfulness or appreciation. We remember a neighbor, a teacher, someone who means a lot. Giving a gift should mean something, not merely that you drew a name or want to keep your job.

Every year advertisers bombard us with what has deemed as the "must have" item of the holiday season. It varies, of course, dependent on what item is either left over from the previous Christmas season or was overproduced in China due to some language translation error. "50 crates of widgets? I thought you said 500."

Just because every department store or electronic warehouse features an item in its holiday catalog does not mean the recipient will be overjoyed. Consider: Does the item serve an actual purpose? Will it last? Does it require some refill item/maintenance that will prove more inconvenient than practical? Does it provide a service that will be appreciated?

Based on television and print advertising and judging from prominent placement in stores, it appears that everyone should have a coffeemaker that brews one cup at a time. I saw these gizmos last year and thought nothing more about them. Then a few weeks ago my 12-cup coffeemaker died suddenly and I found myself at the local discount store knee-deep in coffeemakers. There were dozens of models with varying features and in several colors. The trick is to find one that suits the consumer's needs.

It was then that I explored the features of the one-cup brewer and decided that they didn't make sense for me. I like coffee and have been drinking it for most of my adult life. But as a coffee fan, I often drink the brew slowly, like on Sunday morning while consuming multiple newspapers. That often results in the coffee in my cup cooling off before I finish it. Consequently, I refill my cup of coffee before it is completely empty. According to what I have read, that trick is not possible with a single brewer. If that feature is possible, my error. But it seems to me that having a coffeemaker which makes one cup at a time has a limited audience, even if the product is kitschy and cute.

Technology has allowed the production of many new items including key chains that store photographs, auto-changing photo frames, animated and/or singing Christmas figures, etc. These are likely wonderful items for the right person. But giving someone an item without thinking it through does an injustice to the recipient and to the gift.