Proof it Sometimes Pays to Do Nothing — a very short story

Tuesday, 7:33 or so in the pm; if one tried, the barest hints of the passing day were still visible (or maybe that was just wishful thinking).

Groceries slung over my shoulders, nestled safely inside my unintentionally socially conscious canvas bag, I stare into the headlights of oncoming traffic and assess that I have at least a few minutes before the M11 approaches ready to take me to my destination.

I take out my mobile phone, lean against the glass wall of the bus stop, and search for a nearby Verizon store; reception is a foreign to my device. Perhaps, I hoped speculatively, they might suggest something that would put an end to the pirouettes and yoga poses I must perform in order to have a conversation inside my apartment.

And in a flash, my mobile device — the one I had just been admonishing for its lackluster performance of late — is lying on the asphalt a few feet in front of me. A fellow passenger, rushing to catch the slowly departing M7, knocks my balance and my phone and we both are temporarily startled. The screen on my misbehavin’ phone is shattered (and no, not metaphorically); thankfully, I fare better.

And then momentary panic: never have I had a broken phone and the idea of paying for a replacement was loathsome to me.

I enter the Verizon store today with trepidation, bracing myself for the dollar signs output in my future. Do you have insurance, the young man at the front entrance asks me. I’m not sure, I answer, fully convinced that I most definitely do not.

20 minutes, 3 customers, 1 paranoid toddler (who was convinced that his mother had brought him to the doctor’s office) later, I learn the following: I do have insurance on my phone; the deductible is minimal; my new phone will arrive tomorrow.

The moral of the story: apparently I forgot to either opt in or opt out of something, and for once it worked in my favor. Thank you Zeus or Hera or whichever Greek mythological figure is responsible for forgetfulness.

May everyone forget just enough for his or her own good today.

A Christmas story

My father’s birthday falls about a week before Christmas and for the past several years my siblings and I have had some local chocolates delivered to his place of business. There is much fanfare, his employees are also able to participate in the fun, and the delivery makes the day memorable for all involved. This year, as he was approaching a milestone birthday, I thought briefly of doing something different — that is to say, ordering a delivery from somewhere different. The town where I spent my childhood, and where my father still lives, is not entirely devoid of clever gustatory options but since taking my leave many years ago I am less familiar with what those options may be. So after approximately two hundred seconds of google-mediated soul-searching, I opted to stay with tradition. Not being tethered to a sense of tradition in most of other parts of my life, this decision was therefore more practical than sentimental. However, all that changed after a phone call.

I rang the local chocolate shop on the weekend prior to the big birthday and proceeded to explain my request. I wanted a one-pound box of sugar free chocolates (for my diabetic dad) and a box of other chocolates (for his non-diabetic staff) delivered to his office. The voice on the other end of the phone balked. Wha– Um– We don’t do deliveries…? She said in that inflected manner in which statements sound curiously like questions. I explained slowly that I had been placing the same order for at least five or six years now and each time it is a delivery order. Um…. hold on. [I can hear some conversation on the other end between my telephone interlocutor and her colleague (collective age, 35… I’m guessing…) and then returns, with a gasp, to the phone] Yeah, we don’t deliver…? Um, but you can call Sue on Monday. She can help you…? I thanked her for her assistance and then on the following Monday morning, I placed a call and had the most pleasant chat with Sue:

Me: Hi, may I speak with Sue please?

Sue: This is Sue.

Me: Hi Sue, this is [me] and I’m calling to place an order for delivery for my dad’s birthday.

Sue: Oh! I was waiting for your call! How are ya? How’s your dad?

Me: I’m doing well and so is he, thanks. And you? You must be busy this time of year.

Sue: [pause] Yeah… well, I hope it gets busier. [pause] Well, what are we putting together this time? The sugar free box, right?

Me: Yes! And also something for his staff — maybe you can help me with this.

Sue: Sure — so the one-pound assortment – Sugar Free! I always remember [i think i hear her smiling] and I’m putting a label on it, too — and then, do you wanna put together a tray of other goodies? We’ve done a few for some local law firms — we package them up nicely with cellophane and wrapping — the whole works. It’ll be great.

Me: That sounds really lovely. Thank you — I think they’ll enjoy it. [pause] Do you need the address?

Sue: Nah — I know where it is — on the second floor, right? Yeah, not a problem.

I give her my payment information, and spell out the names for the card, and thank her again for her help.

Sue: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And thank you for thinking of us.

We hang up. Her last words linger in my mind as I recall her response to my query about how busy they must be: “I hope it gets busier.” And suddenly I am overcome with a deep (albeit somewhat fleeting) sense of sadness. All of the chatter in the mediaspheres about fiscal cliffs, taxes on small businesses, the pundits and politicians waxing (non)philosophic about the pl/fight of the middle class — all came into stark relief in this small moment. Business decoupled from finance, businesses as staples of communities, businesses as dependent upon and depended on by citizens. In a world dominated by Amazon and the like, it’s easy to forget (or at least it was for me) the importance of the smallness. Local is not mere ontology or discursive opposition to global — local is quotidian, local is lived, local is in many ways global itself. (I’m resisting the urge here to pontificate further on this notion: What is globalization but a series of connected locals?… You’re welcome)

Now, I’m no purist nor extremist (nor any -ist, really) — I won’t stop using Amazon, but in the moment of my conversation with Sue, and our follow-up exchange (below), the bigness of small moments moved me deeply. And I’m reminded of the fruit and veg stand on Southampton Row near the Sainsbury’s where I bought fruit for several months last year; and the series of coffee shops around my home in Philadelphia that are not franchised, some of which are host to artwork by local artists including:

  • Chapterhouse – where there’s an exhibit by Lynette Shelley and Eleanor Grosch currently ongoing
  • Red Hook Coffee – currently hosting a photography exhibit by students from Fleischer Arts til January 20th.

*****
Later the same afternoon–

Me: Hi Sue, I saw you called.

Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot how to spell your dad’s last name but then I remembered right after I called you.

Me: Ok, great. Did you need anything else?

Sue: No, it worked out fine. Your dad is so cute — as soon as I walked in, he looked up and said “She never forgets.” And he looked so happy. And we put the cookie tray in the main room for everyone to enjoy.

Me: Thank you so much. Really.

Sue: Well, thank you for thinking of us and using us. Have a good holiday.

Me: You, too.

It turns out that they do not, in fact, deliver. Except for this delivery each December. For the past few years, and, if I can help it, for the next several to come.

****

May 2013 bring continued glimpses of humanity, joy, and small moments that make up lives…

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Seen on a wall, on a small street in Philadelphia

Shock and awe

The truth is, while I personally hate to lecture, I thoroughly enjoy attending them — even when the lecturing occurs in the backdrop of my increasingly confused state of mind. This was the case when the professor who taught a biomechanics course that I took during my early undergraduate years delivered weekly lectures on tensile strength of bones, on torque and tension, and many other related topics, nearly none of which took root in my memory.

One of the only lectures that I recall with significant clarity had to do with the differences between the bones of adults and children. In brief: children’s bones are more flexible.

Physiologically speaking: over time, cartilage becomes calcified bone and levels of collagen decreases. Some bones become fused as time passes, which is another reason that a child’s body contains more bones than a typical adult skeleton — 300 compared with 206.

But these facts are the ones I just googled. What I remember — the story I recall with precision and that I have often produced as a narrative party trick is the following scene:

In the large, newly renovated lecture hall, Prof. X began drawing on the white board with a black, dry erase marker. He reached up high above him and drew a line about two feet wide and then ran the marker straight down, his lines produced a rectangle.

He pointed to the board with the tip of the marker, leaving a floating black mark near the rectangle and resumed talking, gesticulating with all of his appendages to convey a simple and yet remarkably intricate point about the human body: “If you or I were to take a fall, we would probably be badly injured or die. If a baby took the same fall, he would most likely bounce!”

This enthusiastic declaration had a graphic chaser — Prof. X indicated a “bouncing” motion with an exaggerated check mark that resembled the path said baby might take were it to engage in the aforementioned fall. The very notion of bouncing babies seemed to fill him with a peculiar delight that hardly ever surfaced again.

Babies bounce. This was the major takeaway from my three semesters as an engineering student. So while kids fracture their bones more easily, they also heal more quickly. Youth truly is nature’s balm.

And thus perhaps the cautionary notes I received from well-meaning loved ones about aging and bone fragility were not entirely off base.

But bones repair themselves, cuts heal (faster with the aid of some ointment), and we regenerate in many ways, including the fingernails I routinely slice, chop, or otherwise injure when getting lost in a rapid julienne or a distracted dice. (I’ve spent the past two weeks in full amazement while watching nail enamel form where just days ago flesh was peeking through; the shock of hurt, in awe of the heal.)

***

I suspect that if I had stories of bouncing babies or, as my high school physics teacher used to do, if I had concocted grand narrative metaphors for deceptively simple principles of physics that involved (no joke) action figures, wind-up motorcycles, and homemade ramps… then I might like to spin a yarn or two, as well, during class. For now, I’m comfortable sticking my pedagogical public with questions to ponder and invitations to engage with readings and texts through art and media…

The shock of falling, thankfully, is soothed with the awe of healing.

 

image

In the aftermath

A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.

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And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city

Speed bumps remind us to slow down

My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.

I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.

Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.

What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;

Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.

And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.

In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:

“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“

Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.

And now, back to the big dig.

happy

Sydney Pollack’s documentary about architect Frank Gehry — the one who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the crazy mind behind LA’s Disney Concert Hall, and other distinct structures that demand passers-by pay attention — includes extensive looks at the design process, one that for Gehry now involves assistants who translate his verbal mutterings or napkin scribbles into models. During one scene, as Pollack sits alongside and observes while also videotaping, Gehry and his assistant are cutting and taping pieces of metallic silver cardboard to create a physical facsimile of a building design in progress. Gehry is unhappy with one side and suggests that it needs to become crankier. The solution: corrugation. The clip below is just over three minutes long, and right at the 3:00 mark, as Gehry sees the problem wall come alive anew, he exclaims: “That is so stupid looking, it’s great!” and a few seconds after that, he throws his arms in the air and exclaims “wheee!”



A recent addition to my personal ever-expanding hopper of examples of “adults embracing glee” comes from the Monty Python crew. The sketch is titled “Ministry of SIlly Walks” — it is absurd, some may say overly childish, and yet, with precision commentary about, among other things, the peculiarities of bureaucracy. (I originally wrote that: bureaucrazy…)



Perhaps to be happy can require, at times, a bit of silly — or, as these researchers suggest, a forced smile.

The focus of the post was inspired by a recent one on Kate’s blog about the happiness of nothing (in which she, too, draws from the wisdom of the mighty Python), who was responding to a prompt on Side View’s Weekend Theme: Things that make me happy.