Friday, September 28, 2012

The Art of Communication

Once upon a time, people referred to "the art of conversation." However, since conversation no longer exists, I've modified the phrase accordingly.

Communication refers to two or more persons interacting with one another. It could be by talking face-to-face, by letter, telephone or email. The key word would seem to be "interacting" meaning that all persons participate.

Communication has grown weak. People share information with others about their lives. They can post this information -- even including photos -- on so-called social media for the world to see. They can send the information electronically. But this endeavor is entirely one-sided.

Talking to a friend recently about the way we interact, I was reminded of the fine art of letter writing, an ancient practice. Along with the manufacture of buggy whips and corset stays, letter writing belonged to a society long ago and far away. People used to WRITE letters. This required that the writer have in his possession several items also now extinct. Among the items was stationery, fine writing paper that had a distinctive appearance, perhaps a monogram. Writers also carefully chose a writing instrument, sometimes a fountain pen which contained liquid ink. Such writing may also have necessitated a blotter. Or the writer may have selected a ball point pen, but that was about as casual as the process allowed.

The writer then had to THINK about what it was that he/she wanted to say. Sometimes great thought went into such a task, deciding the tone of the message and outlining it clearly. When my father passed away in 1975, we found among his possessions a letter written to him in 1924 by his grandmother on his 21st birthday. It was a personal message about how to live his life with pride, a straight-forward, simple message that could not have been shared in any other manner.

Letters written home during wartime were often remarkable. These were designed to reassure those at home that the soldier was doing well. The letters might have been written while he was pinned down in a trench or lingering in a military hospital. Perhaps this effort was to be his last communication. Perhaps the writer merely wanted to comfort his family. Wartime letters were often the last attempt to say what was obvious to the family and perhaps all that would remain.

There are love letters. Letters of praise. Letters of congratulations. Writing is the only method of communication that endures.

I don't mean, of course, that we should abandon our computers. Love them or hate them, these devices are here to stay, at least until evolution takes us further. But even though we utilize technology, we should employ the same skills as writers of the past. Think about what we are going to say. Put the words together in such a way that the other person can recognize that we care and that we want to hear back from them. Carefully execute the document so that, if it is rediscovered in 50 years, we would not be embarrassed by its contents.

We live in a world of sound bytes. We interrupt each other in conversation because we can't wait to say what is on our minds. We leave comments on news articles/stories published online because we feel that our words are somehow important and relevant to the issue. We send text messages to each other like "im at the store" without regard to (1) spelling (2) punctuation or (3) importance, merely because technology permits us to do so. If we telephone and are unable to reach someone, we leave some silly message in voice mail rather than call back and speak in person.

I don't see this deterioration in communication reversing any time soon.

But wouldn't it be nice if we could resume the art of written communication? I do my best to keep in touch with others, even if it's just a note enclosed in my Christmas card. Which brings to mind the scourge of modern living, the "form" Christmas letter, about which I have screamed before and will likely do again. Don't bother sending these. No one cares. If you can't write a line or two on the bottom of the card, don't send a two-page dossier about all that has happened since last Christmas. It's insulting to receive.

Try to think about scribbling a few words instead of sending an email. You might be surprised at the results.





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Getting it Right

There is one thing that would benefit everyone as the weather becomes cooler -- getting the temperature right.

Outdoors, seasonal changes have begun in earnest. The sunshine has moved to the south of the house, now streaming through windows vacated for many months. Today's temperature is in the 70s, cloudy with occasional showers. The air is very fresh and quite lovely. Clearly it's no longer summer.

When I ventured out yesterday on errands, I took along a sweater just in case.  There are several ways to keep comfortable on an in-between day in early autumn. Wear long sleeves. If outside, stand in direct sunlight. Keep the house windows closed.

But at night, it obvious that the weather has really changed. The house was actually chilly this morning, too uncomfortable for sleeping in. The heat has already been turned on. But the main thermostat was replaced a couple of years ago with one of those automatic units. You decide the temperature and set the time. The thermostat then controls the temperature without manually changing it. The idea is to prevent constant adjustments to the temperature control to reduce energy consumption.

In setting the schedule, one must keep in mind when the house needs to be warmer - now reset to occur from 6:00 a.m. through approximately 11:00 p.m. That means if residents wake up in the night shivering from the cold, they are discouraged from climbing out of bed and stumbling to the thermostat because soon the timer will kick in.

Thermostats are remarkable inventions and help us control the temperature. They are rather fascinating devices once we learn to live with them.

I lived in the Arizona desert for several decades, where everyone is constantly freaked out about the status of their air conditioning, on which they rely heavily and which remains on for most of the year. If you wear shorts in the peak of summer and visit a shopping mall or movie theatre, chances are you will freeze indoors. People who easily chill or, like my aunt, have arthritis, often carry a sweater for covering their shoulders in such environments. Indoor establishments can be so cold that going outside and climbing into a car that has set for several hours at 115 degrees can actually feel GOOD, at least for a while.

Offices everywhere are plagued by fluctuations in the air conditioning and heating systems. One old building where I worked still used an antiquated old heat system using with steam, the walls lined with large, century-old cast iron radiators. The radiators were large and hissed non-stop, but the high ceilings and expansive spaces were kept warm and toasty.  Never mind the noise, the musty smell or the sweaty windows, the heat was dependable.

Any building has a problem if its doors open and close frequently as people come and go. Once any room is filled with warm, sweaty people, someone is bound to switch on the air conditioning. If that room is suddenly emptied, the temperature can drop dramatically and someone will switch the unit again to provide heat. To counteract this response, some businesses have installed plastic boxes around the thermostats -- a sort of prison cell -- to prohibit fiddling with the switch. In such instances, only the manager or shift captain has a key to allow opening the cage and changing the setting. (Another method to reach and adjust the controls include use of a letter opener or coat hanger. But you didn't hear that from me.) Where there is a will, there is a way.

If a workplace has 5 people in one room, no two of them will agree on whether the room is too hot or too cold at any given time. Many cubicle workers have provided their own small electric fan/heater to fit under their desks. These little units can provide a volume of localized air/heat.

Having the right environment is crucial to getting work accomplished. Whether it's cool enough in the summer or warm enough in chillier weather, the less one has to think about his/her own comfort, the more productive the day will be.

 Stay comfy.




Saturday, September 22, 2012


When people talk about downsizing, they probably mean moving from a large house to a smaller one. It is not unusual for people -- especially "empty nesters" -- to recognize that a 4-bedroom house is too large once the kids are grown.

Recently it dawned on me that there are several types of "downsizing."

Once the need for space is reduced, it is quite logical to look for smaller housing. The cost of a large home can be significant. This includes upkeep, heating and cooling as well as taxes. Having to keep a big house clean may not be how folks want to spend their free time. Housekeeping can become a real chore when there are more attractive options for entertainment.

There is the downsizing of material possessions. The late comedian George Carlin used to do a wonderful sketch about having too much "stuff" including his observation that "A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff." We all own too much stuff. What the heck do we need so much stuff for, anyway? In college I could move from one dorm room to the other with my stuff contained in a couple of boxes. It was pretty simple. By the next move or two, moving took a little longer. Gradually time and expectations contributed to clutter. Moving and lifestyle changes can persuade us to thin the quantity through yard sales. But eventually after settling in one place for a while, our acquisition resumes.

Kids naturally require a lot of stuff, most of which is quickly discarded and replaced with new stuff. It is always a good idea if one parent remains level-headed and encourages the removal of outgrown clothes and unnecessary toys.

Electronics are now pivotal to our lives. Nearly every year brings new designs for cell phone, televisions, computers and computer-related devices. A friend of mine has four non-working computers in her household of two people. Perhaps she is hoping the gadgets will spontaneously heal or somehow merge into one working unit. In many communities entrepreneurs have begun efforts to recycle obsolete or non-working electronics. These programs prevent the items from ending up in landfills and encourages us to relinquish items which have outlived their usefulness.

Most Americans have far too many clothes. One of the best things about retirement is realizing that we no longer have to spend money to buy things we really don't like. That should mean that our closets contain only fashions that we actually like and need. But many of us still have items in our closet that we never wear. Thin out the contents of your closet and make some local charity the lucky recipient.

There is also mental downsizing. Most of us carry around far too much mental baggage. We worry about things of absolutely no significance. Learn to decide if you really care about something before you allow that thing to be added to your list of concerns. Now that retirement has given you the ability to pick and choose what occupies your time, USE that power.

There is also downsizing of one's weight, an effort that could benefit most people to some extent. Begin watching what you eat and try to stay on the path to improvement. Obesity is one of the greatest health challenges that our country needs to address.

We can also downsize our living expenses. Excess spending is a habit into which we can all slip. Try tracking how much you spend on the basics like food and gas. A friend of mine noted that her days of free-fall shopping had ended when her family began to include children and she no longer worked. "How did you survive?" I asked. "Very carefully," she smiled. "You can live on less when you make less. You'll see."

Downsizing can come in any number of ways. Go for it. Downsize your stuff and reduce your worries.

You are entitled to relax. Enjoy it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The quality that creates excitement and makes us eager about an event is the anticipation of what might occur. Even more than the event itself, the expectation of what lies ahead can be exhilarating.

Anticipation begins in childhood. We discover that when we have a birthday, something magical will happen. We get a lot of undivided attention. A cake may be baked with candles to show our age, perhaps even with our name on it. There may be a party and friends will bring us gifts. A birthday sets us apart from the rest of the family, even for one day a year, and nothing is expected of us in return.

Christmas is a special holiday. Christmas! Things occur then that do not happen at other times. We have tree inside our house decorated with lights and glass ornaments. The outside of the house may be aglow with lights. Family members gather to visit and celebrate. Santa appears while we are asleep and leaves wrapped packages. He even remembered what I asked for!

Each new school year brings anticipation. When my big sister was in Mrs. Jones' class, she was a nice teacher.   I'm going to be in Mrs. Jones' class this year. Will she still be nice? Will she remember my sister? Will math be too hard? Will I sit near Jean? We are excited by what we will learn in the coming school year.

In each case of prolonged anticipation, as soon as the event occurs, our mood returns to normal in a few hours or days. The daily routine resumes until the next out-of-the-ordinary occurrence.

The pivotal event in the lives of many people is finding a spouse and preparing to get married. Some people will never experience any event more important than their wedding. Many couples devote hours agonizing over plans for the big event which, incidentally, will cost them thousands of dollars. Only later do they realize that the big wedding has been a waste of money and effort, far more consuming than it is worth. And since 50% of all marriages end in divorce, perhaps they will re-think the marriage prep for the second (or third) marriage. It may be the biggest event they have yet anticipated and perhaps the first time they will be seriously disappointed with the result.

As we grow older, anticipation is a lot less exciting. Events begin to happen routinely that we don't like and, knowing from experience that we don't like them, we can dread them. (I forgot to mention that anticipation has an ugly relative named dread.) These include matters like job interviews and evaluations, spousal confrontations, preparing taxes, financial setbacks and dental check-ups. The dread list is, unfortunately, longer than the anticipation list.

We may occasionally schedule an exotic vacation that we can't afford to spice up our lives. Perhaps we are longing to experience the thrill of "anticipation" once again. For that brief escape, we spend too much, eat too much and fear that it will end too soon. When the vacation is over, we return only to feel depleted and miserable as a result.

What most of us need to counteract the vanishing enthusiasm in our lives is -- more anticipation. Perhaps that is why people divorce after decades of marriage and immediately seek a new spouse. This condition is sometimes referred to as the "middle-aged crazies." Look at nearly any classic auto or sports car on the road today and you will usually see a gray-haired man proudly indulging his fantasies and enjoying the trip.

Everyone should try to bring back the delight of anticipation. If you haven't experienced it lately, you need to ignite the fuse again. Enroll in a class. Join a gym. Take up a hobby. Get off the sofa and see what is going on around you.

Retirement is not a scary thing to be dreaded. It is an event to be anticipated and embraced. Many folks say proudly that they will never retire because they love their jobs. That's all well and good, but eventually everyone wants to be free of having someone else control most of their waking hours. You will be free to do as you please.

It doesn't require a lot of practice to return to anticipation mode. Anticipation is where you find it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Good News and the Bad News

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about growing up in the 1950s.

Despite the vast differences in our childhood experiences -- large city/big family versus small town/small family -- we were startled by many similarities.

For anyone with memories of growing up during the post-war years, we realize that life was much different then. Families weren't yet glued to the television. There were no computers, no internet, no game systems, no easy way to fritter away hours at a time. People talked, read and visited with neighbors and friends. We went to other people's houses during the evening hours and spent time talking, playing cards or enjoying a good meal. We made our own entertainment.

Hard to imagine.

Today, of course, life is frenetic. Kids are involved in countless "activities" outside of home and school. Most communities either have or provide access to gymnastics, martial arts, soccer and other trendy pursuits. Mom and dad are fortunate if they only have one job each, which likely leaves them exhausted at the end of the day. There are numerous events tugging at their time and money, leaving little inclination to visit with others.

One thing that my friend and I noticed in recounting our childhoods was how completely isolated the public was from events of the time. The lack of television was partially to blame. TV sets were still rather new and in many locations viewing hours were limited to the evening hours. So-called "housewives" were unable to watch hours of talk shows exploring such topics as spousal abuse, excessive tattoos, mysteriously fathered children and dysfunctional families.

We recalled how momentous events were occurring during the 1950s: the Korean Conflict, the McCarthy hearings, the end of segregation, the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial and executions, Dr. Salk's polio vaccine. Yet many of the details of these rather significant events were brushed over by the media. There may have been a blurb in the newspaper or a mention during the evening news, perhaps a clip during the newsreel at the local theatre. But if the public wanted to really know what was going on, they had to seek out the information.

My friend said her mother stayed at home in the 1950s, raising eight children and didn't have time to digest the newspaper each day. No doubt that was the case in many homes of the time. There were other factors at play, as well. The media was "controlled" by barons of the media who picked and chose what information was covered.   Possibly Americans had yet to fully develop their thirst for details and curiosity about the world beyond our borders.

Today's readers/watchers are more acutely aware of life outside the U.S. Due to the globalization of trade and the impact of various parts of the world on one another, we recognize that financial problems in Greece and Ireland can threaten our strength as much as an uprising in Syria.

So, how has the media fed the inquiring minds of today's world? By covering Kris Jenner's latest plastic surgery or alleged topless photos of Kate Middleton. This is what instant media coverage has forced upon us. These are the types of stories that saturate our news sources for all to share.

What the heck happened? How did the media's priorities get so out of line? Naturally, plenty of "junk" news is required to feed the media's 24/7 hunger. There are countless stories about rather insignificant events that occur at insignificant locations to rather insignificant individuals. These features are included to fill the constant need -- we all understand that.

But what about keeping the public informed? Isn't that the main purpose of the media?

Perhaps the problem lies in the bottom line -- $$$. If television doesn't garner the right ratings, even well-structured entertainment is axed. If magazines can't pull enough subscriptions or advertisers, even informative magazines go "digital" or end entirely.

As long as making money is the driving force to the media moguls, we can expect to hear more about the latest scandal than the most recent medical marvel.

Something is wrong with this picture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Making an Effort

In the 1950s, there were kids in grade school with me who didn't have easy lives. One boy in my class lived with his family in a wooden railroad box car stored near the city's train yards. This boy was an excellent student, extremely bright and friendly to all. Hopefully he found life to get easier as he grew older. But despite his difficult home situation, this boy always came to school in clean clothes with his hair combed and was eager to learn.

Appearance is not everything, but it speaks volumes about the effort put forth by the individual. It shows sincerity, positive outlook and, yes, keeping up appearances requires effort. Obviously someone in that boy's family helped him make that effort.

Effort may be one of the most under rated traits around. And, unfortunately, it seems to be seriously lacking in our population today. Unless the tide changes, effort may become a thing of the past, along with buggy whips and button-top shoes.

People seem to have forgotten how to make an effort regarding a lot of subjects. They seem to have lost the effort to:

Find something of interest to occupy their time. Everyone should have something that they look forward to doing: reading a book, pursuing a hobby, volunteering to help others. Focus is important to making each day worthwhile. We need to keep active and interested in order to remain active and interesting.

Get some exercise. This can require only minutes for a brisk walk a few times each week. We can find many reasons to avoid getting exercise, which physicians agree can help improve our health as we age. We find time to do any number of other meaningless tasks -- some of which require a great deal of work -- but getting exercise gets little attention.

Communicate with others. Communication requires more than sending a social network message to people you seldom see. An occasional email demonstrating some thought and showing some personal interest is a great way to keep in touch. Isn't it nice to receive an occasional spontaneous email?

Dress appropriately. Let's be honest. People are quickly becoming slobs. Clothed in sweat pants, T-shirts and shod in plastic flip flops, people dine in nice restaurants, shop in stores and even travel by air. A short time ago these clothes were worn to wash the car or work in the garden. Next time you are headed out hurriedly, stop in front of the mirror. If people might think you were just changing the car's oil, you might want to change your clothes.

Practice basic hygiene. Soap is cheap and deodorant readily available. These are not costly items. Most houses now have running water. There are few reasons to avoid hygiene and it takes only a few minutes to prevent odor from radiating to those standing nearby. I know that when I spend time among the "great unwashed" I wonder why these folks are torturing me. I also wonder what their friends/spouse/partner must think and why they don't gently encourage the odor spreader to occasionally wash.

Remain positive. The current economy presents a challenge for us all. It is hard to remain positive about the future when friends and family may be jobless, losing their home, perhaps struggling with health problems or domestic challenge. But we must keep in mind that circumstances will change -- they always have changed. Just because the present looks grim is no reason to lose confidence.

Without making an effort, there is no change. Without making an effort, there is no improvement. Without making an effort, tasks do not get completed.

We all need to make an effort in order to move our communities forward.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dreadful Tasks

Recently I had to make my annual trek to the dentist after dreading the visit for weeks. I understand the virtues of dental hygiene and had to wonder why I have come to dislike the dentist so much. It began a few years ago when I had a small pain in a molar shortly after visiting a different dentist. The first dentist said everything was fine but the pain continued. A friend recommended another dentist. The new dentist indicated that I needed to undergo a root canal. The shock of an undiscovered problem was followed by several consecutive visits for work and a large bill as a result. Since then, dental visits were taken much more seriously.

My dental dread spurred me to think about tasks that many people face which are unpleasant. Despite being grown ups, we can fret over rather mundane matters when we know they might be quite disagreeable or complicated.

Some things which I have come to dread include (besides going to the dentist):

Having my taxes done: I stopped preparing my own taxes many years ago. It wasn't because the forms were too complicated. It was because the silly IRS regulations are changed so often. I would no sooner do my own taxes than take out my own appendix. It's better to have someone else do the numbers. But the preparation of figures, gathering of receipts and such is still extremely distasteful. I can spend a large amount of time for a meeting which requires about an hour's work. Somehow I feel like I'm being scolded by the teacher for not doing my homework.

Taking pets to the vet: Being a good pet parent requires putting the kitties (or doggies, as the case may be) into a pet carrier and taking them to the vet. It's good for the pets, though they may not see the merit and in fact resist the trip. Its heartbreaking to see the fear they display, even for something as simple as their annual vaccinations and exam. I know people who say they will risk the pet's well being and avoid taking them to the vet because they dislike it so intensely. That's is a bad decision for the pet, but I can almost understand that reasoning. We want out pets to like us and a visit to the vet is not how they want to spend their time. Of course, once they leave the vet's office, they are quiet and content knowing that they are soon to be spoiled once again and can milk the experience for days.

Having computer problems: When I was younger and living like a college student/newlywed, I did not always drive reliable cars. Breaking down at the side of the road or having a flat tire was part of not having to make car payments. These inconveniences were frustrating. I never understood (nor cared to understand) the details of how cars worked.

Now those same horrible feelings of frustration and confusion resurface when I confront computer problems. My computer is still new but that does not prevent experiencing down time from crashed websites or problems from other external sources. These outages make me want to scream and throw something, though that reaction rarely solves the issue. I must slay the dragon -- but what kind of dragon is it, where is it living and what type of weapon should I use? The unknown tragedies of technology.

Getting through to customer service: Trying to reach someone for customer service can be extremely challenging. Many large companies use lengthy option answering queues: "If you are calling about X or Y, please press 1." Of course, you are calling about neither X nor Y, so you have to hold on for more options from the answering system. These programs save money because no human being is needed, but such a procedure is extremely annoying. You even get these recorded options when doing something as routine as calling information for a phone number. I hate trying to leave a message to be interpreted by a machine. Few things are as irritating as speaking the name "Joe Smith" when asked and having the "operator" repeat, "I heard Toe Twist. Is that correct?"

In the big picture of life, such small annoyances are merely that -- annoying. But when we are trying to make it through the day and take satisfaction in doing so, these little burrs under our saddles can wear big blisters.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Class Reunions

Recently a friend of mine attended the 50th reunion of his high school graduating class. He knew full well that it might be a shock to see these folks after they had scattered to the winds a half century ago.

My 50th high school class reunion has not yet taken place and my own thoughts about attending remain mixed. So I was anxious to hear my friend's report.

Time does not treat everyone the same. Not everyone ages well and not all stories have happy story lines. With that said, my friend's response to his reunion caught my interest.

Fifty years is a very long time. What resemblance does today's senior citizen have to the high school senior he/she was in 1962?

The answer seems to be: not very much.

The 1960s was a different time, to be sure. Whether students lived in small towns or large cities, the 60s were tumultuous. Life was transitioning from the post-war conservative atmosphere depicted by James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" to the bikini-clad frenzy of the so-called "beach" movies. We were leaving a period ruled by the Cold War, McCarthyism and repression to one of blonde surfers and loosening restraints. It was a period of change and teenagers -- particularly those graduating from high school and entering the real world -- were caught in the middle.

Many students during the 1960s went into the jungles of Southeast Asia and a large number of them never returned. The entire draft/avoid argument touched many of our lives, even those of two former U.S. presidents who did not serve. Those scars linger even today.

In the 1960s, many girls got married young and secretly hoped to stay home and raise the kiddies. After all, that's the role that women had filled for decades. Depending upon what happened down the road, many of those Betty Crocker wannabes found themselves entering the workplace, holding jobs and contributing paychecks. Life isn't always what we expect it to be. Today's young graduates -- men and women -- most probably expect to get a job, perhaps secure a career, regardless of the latest unemployment report.

For those who are lucky enough to find work in today's economy, a large number realize that the economy is far less secure than in the past. Fifty years ago, we could usually find work, even if the job paid less and was more entry-level than we hoped. We realized that circumstances would allow us to move up eventually to more pay and responsibility. If we were unhappy with a job, we could always move on. There was another opportunity just around the corner.

Many people who attend reunions bring with them varying degrees of health disorders, obesity and misery. Hearing their stories of loss and disappointment may not be for everyone. Some folks prefer not to share their stories; others relish revealing the wounds that life has brought. Just sharing with near strangers the intimate details of our lives might not be such a good idea. However, in the present obsession with social networking, not much personal information is withheld. Everyone prefers to think that their own tale of woe will garner some prize in the misery-loves-company lottery.

Many years ago, my mother attended her own 50th high school reunion. This was in the mid-1970s, long before the existence of the internet and email. Our family had moved 2,000 miles away from her hometown and yet somehow she received details about the reunion. My mother made the trek to attend and had a great time. I don't recall her relating the sad stories shared by her former classmates. In "those days" before instant communication, people were a little less inclined to share thorough and complete details about misfortune. Now, of course, anything goes and no details are omitted from normal conversation. Perhaps a little more decorum should be exercised.

Following his recent reunion, my friend shook his head. "I had so little in common with everyone," he said sadly. "I tried to carry on a conversation, I really did."

"Well, everyone has changed. After all, it's been 50 years! Everyone has moved on with their life, away from high school, not toward it," I reasoned.

"Then why even bother having reunions?" he asked.