National Courtesy Month ends in rudeness

no toilet paperDid anyone tell you September was officially declared National Courtesy Month? No? I didn’t get the word, either. Whoever was in charge of notification was too busy charging by to notice no one got the memo. Filling us in on the details may have fallen outside of his/her job description, so the ball was unceremoniously dropped or otherwise not returned to where it had been found, which is even more discourteous.

Who decided it was National Courtesy Month? Who knows. But the Farmer’s Almanac said it was, so who am I to question my elders on the editorial staff? That would be disrespectful. However, when I was doing my research about this matter of manners, I discovered March 21 has been designated at “National Common Courtesy Day.”

What’s the difference between courtesy and common courtesy? I wanted to ask, but again, didn’t want to seem rude. So I respectfully raised my hand and patiently waited my turn for someone to call on me. No one did. So I still don’t know the difference. My hand’s remained up because by now, I am respectfully trying to alert someone I need to use the bathroom. Hopefully, I’ll get noticed soon and won’t need a rude gesture or profanity to get someone’s attention.

In the interim, I’ll do what I usually do when I don’t know the answer: I’ll make up something. I’m guessing common courtesy is treating others the way you want to be treated. We’ll assume there are no masochists reading this. Here’s a self-test: if your frame of reference wouldn’t send the bubbles in a carpenter’s level between the two defining lines of the fluid-filled tubes, you might as well stop reading. You’re hopelessly unbalanced.

For those qualified to continue, I’ll go all Webster on you. Courtesy without the word “common” in front of it is “the showing of politeness in one’s attitude and behavior toward others through good manners.” Therein lies the difference. Common courtesy is much more nebulous, “When in Rome, do as you would have the Romans do to you.” Alternatively, courtesy says, “You better not set toenail-trimmed foot in Rome unless you receive a formal invitation, RSVP by the specified date, brush up on your table manners and wear the proper attire.”

That suggests National Courtesy Month was designed to call attention to the more prescriptive, civilized behaviors the average person – who was NOT born in a barn – is expected to exhibit. Acquired during life skills class at school (back before that programming was unwisely cut from curriculums) and through social discourse (not intercourse) with others, courtesy is the set of social rules to be followed.

I’d like to think that courtesy, like charity, begins at home, amongst family members. But I would be wrong. At my house, a leprosy-ravaged, cigar-chomping, pornography-displaying, door-to-door Giraffe Chow salesman who showed up on our porch during mealtime would be treated with more dignity than would a family member. The only manners we collectively possess is all manner of rudeness.

While we’re working on better behavior, change has been glacially slow. We arrive places late, leave early, chew with our mouths open, talk while chewing, complain, name call, curse, interrupt others who are talking, and gossip.

My children refuse to take turns, borrow without permission and don’t return things. They randomly discard shoes and clothing, leave crumbs and dirty dishes around the house, and clean only at gunpoint. Horrible roommate behavior! I predict that during their first week of college, they will be invited to a late night, roommate-hosted, personal “blanket party” for which an RSVP will not be required. And frankly, I would fare far better with a heartless public than at the hands of my children.

Publicly, National Courtesy Month ended on a low note for me. I went into a stall in a women’s public restroom and realized, too late, there was no toilet paper. Seeing someone’s feet in the next stall, I politely knocked on the divider and asked, “Excuse me, I seem to be out of toilet paper over here. Could I please borrow some?”

“No,” came the reply. And so ended my National Courtesy Month: in the toilet, with my pants down.

Complaints rarely really about what’s stated

“I don’t mean to complain, but . . . ” I can still see the hand on the hip and the frown on the face, and hear the resigned sigh as my former next door neighbor leaned on the short length of wooden fence that separated our houses in the city where I used to live.

What would it be this time? That the hedge that bordered my front yard wasn’t trimmed to her exacting specifications? Was the whir of my food processor excessive, traveling out my kitchen window to her bedroom as I prepared zucchini to freeze for off-season breads? Or did my stepson curse while playing backyard basketball with a friend?

This time, it was something beyond my control, thank goodness. Had I noticed that airplanes from our local airport had been flying over our residential area of the city during designated quiet times? Why, she was going to obtain a copy of that ordinance, give that airport a call, contact her city commissioner to complain, and maybe even stage a protest if those things didn’t change. Would I be willing to sign a petition if she started one about the violations of the designated rules?

Designated what?! As the extremely busy working mother of three children, the only thing I was looking to sign was myself into the looney bin. I had no knowledge a quiet time ordinance existed. And I fell so exhausted into bed every night, I wouldn’t have noticed a violation of airspace unless, perhaps, a plane flew into my house. In that case, it wouldn’t matter. Heck, it really didn’t, anyway. Except to her.

These one-sided, blame-oriented conversations happened on a regular basis for the nine years I lived next door. As a retiree, my neighbor had mega-time on her hands to hatch conspiracy theories and to magnify minor things that were wrong within her immediate sphere. One had to admire her grousability. I envied her luxury of time to waste and resented that I never got to play offense, just defense – a perpetual goalie for her absence of real goals. Unless her goal was to make me miserable. She was MVP in that category.

Wish I’d known then that Lou Holtz quote, “Never tell your problems to anyone. Twenty-percent don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.” I would have tossed that verbal grenade in her direction, then left her wondering still on which side of the percentage I fell.

Instead, I installed a six-foot white vinyl fence between our houses. That came after she caught me outside getting the mail and told me it really bothered her to have to see my two dogs boxed up inside the six-by-six foot kennel all day. I had kenneled the dogs in response to her complaint they were stalking squirrels while roaming free in the backyard while my husband and I were away at work. Next we put them inside the house all day, but she complained she could hear them barking at people they could see out the front picture window. C’mon, lady! I’m feeling caged.

There was just no winning with her. You couldn’t even break even. So I erected a fence to block her view of the Kristy family sitcom she seemed so fond of watching. I hesitate to think what NOT putting up the fence might have done to me.

Passive negativity is draining. In his book Three Simple Things: A Map to Success in Business in Life, British entrepreneur Trevor Blake cites research that being exposed to even 30 minutes of daily negativity can actually peel neurons away from the brain’s hippocampus. If I recall correctly, using the few cells that escaped negative neighbor-induced brain damage, that’s problem-solving central.

Fence erected and brain semi-intact, I was left to ponder why my neighbor had continued to play her negativity all those years to my unappreciative audience. But soon after we made plans to move, spruced up our place and planted a realtor’s sign in the front yard, I got my answer when she walked over to inspect.

“Mind if I look inside?” she asked. “I’d been hoping for an invitation ever since you moved here.”

Three sheets of piano music to the wind

Christmas came early for me on September 10. It wasn’t as dramatic as a star appearing in the east, wise men bearing gifts, or Santa coming down the chimney (just bats with the latter), but a trio of piano books: Christmas music. They inebriated me with possibility.

The Murphy’s Law of piano music ordering decrees that no matter when delivery is slated to occur, my new music always shows up on my doorstep just as I am leaving the house and won’t be returning until late. I’m not kidding about this. It’s like not allowing a kid to play right away with a Christmas toy. I have had the UPS man toss a piano book parcel at my feet as I exit my home and the mailman hand me a package as I’m leaving the driveway.

This batch of piano books had been ordered from Sheet Music Plus, one of my favorite online haunts. One of these days, I am going to pay them back for their 20% off sales and economical shipping offers by actually writing reviews on some of the sheet music and piano music books I’ve purchased there over the years.

Experience would make me an ideal reviewer because I think like one as I examine and audition music. Whenever I go to a bricks and mortar music store, such as Marshall Music in Lansing, I try out new music on the pianos in the showroom and compare notes with the sales staff and other shoppers. I’ve played enough different genres and levels of music arrangements that I can quickly separate the gems from the stinkers.

Unfortunately, there are far more bad arrangements than good ones. You can avoid being duped by getting your hands on hard copy sheets and books and playing through them. But online ordering means you have to base your judgment on research and a couple of sample pages.

Thoughts like “What a waste of ink” and “Bass notes sound like a shutter banging against the house in a wind storm” go through my head when I try out bad new stuff at Marshall Music. And I don’t buy the book. When a bad book flies under my radar into my online order, it’s my head I feel like banging against the house.

My new shipment of books included Mark Hayes’ Advent – Piano Meditations on the Coming Messiah, Phillip Keveren’s Christmas at the Movies, and Melody Bober’s Christmas Memories: (three volumes) 8 (each) Early Intermediate to Intermediate Piano Arrangements of the Season’s Most Nostalgic Carols.

Hayes is the best known quantity of the three. I know his stuff will be good because he is a master arranger who challenges me with complexity as much as he delights me with originality. I never have the urge to do musical math and add or subtract from the notes Hayes lays out. That is a good thing, as his introduction to the book instructs the pianist to resist the urge to “fill in those ‘spaces of quiet’ . . . fewer notes to achieve a quiet, meditative style.” We’ll see. Can’t make me!

After severely disappointing me two years ago with a book of Celtic arrangements I paid full price for online, Keveren is getting a second chance. But first, let me say no amount of musical math could make those messy arrangements amount to good listening. Frankly, I considered throwing the book onto the fire with the Yule log. Instead I re-gifted it to someone less seasoned who will surely and unfairly blame herself for the awful sounding outcome. Meanwhile, Keveren redeemed himself in subsequent books with solid re-workings of Elton John songs and a sublime treatment of Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” It raises the question: why is his Celtic style so lowbrow? Don’t blow this one, Phil!

That leaves Bober, whose three books set doesn’t exactly have me salivating. Bober’s arrangements are predictably adequate, the musical equivalent of Old Country Buffet. Nothing exotic, but always filling. That predictability allows me to crack open a new book at church and sightread through it, sounding like I’d been rehearsing all week. Hayes and Keveren can’t make me look that instantly good.

So let’s end on this note: there’s something to be said for musical cliff notes.

Selecting tunes that orchestrate interrogation

You may have figured out by now that I am easily amused. Not just some of the time, but all of the time. This week my fancy got tickled by a story on MSN about music the CIA has allegedly used to aid in the interrogation of suspects.

Some of what was reported was far out enough to be true, based upon my own life experiences that affirmed the truths touted. I may have on occasion used the volume button on my car radio as a behavioral modification tool with my children. Maybe I can attest that when played at a deafening level, certain old country songs have the effect of encouraging confession in matters as globally insignificant as “Who stole the gum from Mom’s purse?”

Unfortunately, waterboarding is frowned upon by the old guard parenting experts. But thanks to modern technology, my hands need not even stray from the steering wheel in telltale intention in the direction of the radio knob. I can safely leave them at 10:00 and 2:00, while discreetly using a thumb knuckle to pump up the volume. Being deaf in my right ear, I need only slip my left hand over my good ear to avert the personal consequence of my tune tune-up.

Of course, that’s if I weren’t such a hands-off, nurturing mother whose children weren’t well aware the next confessional tool closely resembled a long-handled snow scraper, followed by possible ejection from the vehicle some distance from home, in a swampy, mosquito-riddled region. After all, the experts endorse progressive discipline, don’t they?

The reason the music/volume combination proves effective is most people can withstand physical pain alone, such as that associated with a thorough snow brush beating or other bodily injury. Whether it’s the blister that forms on your right heel halfway through a day at Cedar Point (where you are Band-aidless) or the chronic Plantar Fasciitis in your left foot (about which you can do nothing), it’s possible to put up with unavoidable pain.

Not so with musical psychological torture. Fortunately, an out is available. At any time, the recipient can gain relief through simple confession. In fact, when the old country music threatening to be played involves early Dolly Parton or the late Slim Whitman, pre-emptive confessions are often forthcoming. I’ve observed my kids cop to crimes that haven’t yet been committed. Withstand a yodeling Slim Whitman? Fat chance!

Is it torture, though, that word government officials seem to frown upon? Let’s just call it “persuasion” of the Jane Austen novel variety. For in the end, there is a sense the characters involved may have suffered more than the cause was worth.

To paraphrase Justine Sharrock, the investigative reporter cited by MSN regarding tortuous music, government henchmen discovered the real “persuasion” that prompted political prisoner confession stemmed not from song selection, but the loud, maddening repetition of a song. However, note some songs proved more truth tellingly toxic than others

Which songs? The Meow Mix jingle (meow, meow, meow, meow); the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack; Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Britney Spears’ “Baby, One More Time,” Christina Aguilera’s “DIRRTY,” Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” and “Californication,” Tupak Shakur’s album “All Eyes on Me,” Sesame Street songs in general, and surprisingly, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.”

News of the WorldMeow mix jingle? I can see that. But Queen? I can do Queen for a day. Maybe several. Mostly, when I think about the music that could put me over the edge, it’s not specific songs, but situational stuff that makes the music worse.

My greatest interrogation hits would involve forced listening to beginning band students, drunken karaoke vocals, Americans failures at pronouncing foreign lyrics, un-tuned piano with un-tuned guitar duets, overly dramatic middle school student vocals about non-yet-reached adult life experiences, a Capella national anthem singers who start out too high and try to change keys twice to unsuccessfully hit the high notes, groups of embarrassed restaurant servers singing happy birthday to equally embarrassed patrons, and the off-key spinster soprano from childhood who sat screeching behind me in church. Real life, raw, inescapable torture at its finest.

Living life on the cutting edge of obsolescence

I debated writing this column, which was triggered by previous writing about the inability to find the 100% cotton, basic brassieres I like. But after devoting 700 words to my bra quest, my latest Holy Grail, razor blades, deserves spotlighting.

How many of you have shopped lately for razor blade shaving cartridges? It’s an overwhelming experience. There’s a wall of possibilities at every store, with packaging more colorful than a candy display. All that for something as non-thrilling as razors? Geez.

Granted, my 12-year-old daughter was dazzled by and ended up smitten with a particularly colorful Bic shaver, but she should be the exception, not the rule in the razor department. She sees razors of evidence she’s maturing, while for mature razor users, shaving is more akin to mowing the lawn.

The sky was the limit with both choices and prices. Up to five bucks for a shaving head? You’ve got to be kidding! It would be cheaper to go to a salon for a body wax. But that’s not a viable option. Instead, I just stood there, trying to pick among the choices I wished I didn’t have to make. It there’s an upside, had I been considering self-harm via razor, choice paralysis just might have prevented it.

My choice should have been easy, the way it’s been for 30 years. I should have been able to simply walk straight to the razor aisle and grab a plain, 10-count package of Atra Plus shaving heads for my ancient Gillette razor. Except that in a world where some razor heads have a half-dozen blades, my trusty, three-bladed Atra Plus razor heads have been retired. Deemed obsolete.

Had I known it, I would have stocked up on Atra Plus blades using my income tax refund and stored them in a safe deposit box. Alternatively, I could move to a European country where Bohemian style calls for leaving your armpits and legs unshaven. I wouldn’t have just unwittingly burned through my existing stash of Atra Plus blades like there was no tomorrow. But alas, it’s too late.

I did the only thing a self-respecting leg-shaver with no intention of purchasing a fancy-schmancy, neon-colored, six-bladed, grossly-overpriced razor cartridge could do: I went to the amazing granny’s attic of eBay and engaged in a bidding war with another Atra Plus hanger-on-er. I’ll spare the gory details, but soon I had wagered $30 and my first born child on a 20-pack of blades, with an additional $3.50 for shipping. Talk about living on the razor’s edge!

Fortunately, I was outbid, which furthered online exploration. I found a vendor willing to sell me two 10-count packages of Atra Plus blades for “only” 12.95 each, plus free shipping. I fell to my knees and thanked God I would be getting out of this ordeal for slightly less than the price of two Fruit of the Loom bras. My kids couldn’t figure out why this victory so excited me.

“Well,” I said. “I was spared buying an even more over-priced, multi-tiered razor that cuts through budgets in a single pass – an expensive accident waiting to happen!” Additionally, some of the new razors looked capable of causing carpal tunnel syndrome and had so many bells and whistles they would require their own suitcase in order to be my traveling companions on business trips.

Three days later, my new Atra Plus razor heads arrived. I openly admired the understated-looking, yet highly-effective weapons against unwanted body hair that use technology only slightly ahead of the Cro-Magnon curve. They’re workhorses that get the job done without too much blood-letting. You really have to work if you want to cut yourself.

There’s nothing cool about my shave, the manufacturers told me by removing my razor refills from the market. And we all know how cool shaving should be. Spectator sport, right? I happen to think living within my means feels rather spectacular.

This begs the question: just how much should a shaving cartridge cost? A good shave shouldn’t run you more than a good meal. Maybe I should get a Gillette “Good News” razor to slash some of the cynicism from my attitude. Now there’s a nick-proof notion.

Ship turned mean mom into ferry-godmother

I never really think about taking a summer vacation. With kids’ ball games, summer camps, Young Marines drills, county fairs, family reunions, agricultural opportunities, church responsibilities, pets, lawn mowing, custody agreement limitations and little disposable income, the odds of the cosmic tumblers aligning sufficiently to allow it are remote.
So when earlier this year I learned my employer needed me to travel to the Upper Peninsula, I decided to incorporate my children into the outing. They’re old enough now to be decent traveling companions, at least theoretically. And they liked the idea they would be going to the UP State Fair, as their father’s vacation plans with them had them away from home during the week of the Branch County 4-H Fair. It’s just too bad he opted to steal my thunder by taking them to the UP the week before I was slated to go there.
“Hi kids, please unpack your bags so we can wash all your stuff, repack it and hit the road again in the same direction,” is what the situation required. Most parents would have difficulty delivering that line with contagious enthusiasm. However, having spent six years of my career arranging for multiple adults to go to either jail or prison, telling my children they’re going on back-to-back, same destination trips, wasn’t that difficult. It’s all in the spin.
“I’ll bet you’ll be tired of sleeping on the hard ground, catching and cooking your own food, and swimming in lakes and rivers by the time you get done camping with your dad,” I said in my well-rehearsed pitch to them. Connor cocked an eyebrow, immediately suspicious.
“Where are you going with this, Mom?” he wanted to know.
“Well, I have the opportunity to go to the UP for my workplace during the second week in August and thought we could turn it into a real vacation,” I said.
“Mom’s boss is making her go to the UP and she wants to drag us back up there,” he interpreted for Kate, who happened in on our conversation. I ignored Connor and launched into a description of the hotel where we’d be staying, with its large indoor pool and a hot breakfast area where you make your own waffles.
“It must be a pretty bad assignment or she wouldn’t be trying to sell us on the hotel amenities,” Connor again addressed Kate, shaking his head. This forced me to play the trump card I had been holding off on revealing: ferry transportation on the return trip.
“And we’ll drive from Escanaba down to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and take the S.S. Badger car ferry across Lake Michigan to Ludington to shorten the drive,” I baited, then waited. I knew they enjoy the Mackinac Island passenger ferry. I slowly reeled them in with this ferry’s on-ship movies, concessions and places to plug in electronic device chargers. They bit.
Overall, our UP “vacation” went well – if you are good at ignoring or mitigating arguments over who gets to ride shotgun, use my cell phones, charge his/her iPod, or lie down in the backseat. I am skilled at tuning out their bickering – until it escalates to someone kicking the passenger seat from the back or beaning a fellow passenger with an empty soda bottle to settle a radio station argument. Listening to an entertaining book on CD biography of comedian George Carlin was about our only mutual interest, although at times I was forced to turn it wayyyy up to drown out complaining and name calling.
The S.S. Badger was the highlight of our vacation. We boarded, re-bonding over stories of a guy we know who has an obsession with badgers. My kids got their fix of junk at the snack bar and watching “Delivery Man” and “Smurfs 2” (although Connor wants it noted he bailed on the latter).
I stayed on deck, reading, sunning and writing this column, venturing downstairs only to use the bathroom and long enough to overhear a BINGO game that got me high-tailing it back to the upper deck and the peaceful sanity of a well-worn plastic recliner.
Thank you, S.S. Badger, for transforming me from a mean car mom into a ferry godmother.

Zipper issues sabotage Upper Peninsula trip

I spent last week at the Upper Peninsula State Fair. My kids and I noticed the extraordinary friendliness of most everyone we met. And it suddenly hit me: we were the odd ones out, and as a minority, might be viewed as representatives of the lower part of the state. That meant acting more ambassador-like.

No fighting, kids. No low-cut shirts or tight jeans, Kate. No using your laptop in public, Connor. No cursing or colorful commentary, me. Unfortunately, no one warned my increasingly frequent hot flashes I was supposed to be on my best behavior.

I learned the hot flash routine back in 2008 following surgery and temporary placement on a high-priced drug that catapulted me directly into instant menopausal Hell for four months, but that hazing did not prepare me for the intermittent ambushing by the real thing.

“Why are you sweating?” my son questioned as we crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the UP. “Are you afraid of heights or water?”

“No, I’m afraid of instantaneous hormonal fluctuations. News flash: it’s a hot flash,” I advised. Then quicker than I could crank down the vehicle windows while simultaneously cranking up the air-conditioning and mopping my brow with a crumpled fast food napkin from the car console, the urge to submerge myself in arctic waters passed.

“Why are you turning up the heat, Mom?” my daughter demanded as the effects of the extreme cool caught up with me. How do you explain to kids just ramping up hormonally what it means to be on the rocky decline? I didn’t feel inclined to comment, plus I was too busy hurriedly rolling the windows back down.

One of the worst parts (as opposed to the better parts?!) of hot flashes is trying to dress around them. Fortunately, I heat with wood, so I know all about layering with various weights of clothing to accommodate temperature fluctuations.

In packing for my UP trip, I deviated from professional dress somewhat and selected a neutral pink, zippered hoodie as my jacket of choice. It coordinated with all of what I packed, except three of the four outfits. It also had deep pockets for carrying lots of cumbersome crap and possessed the all-important zipper for quick evacuation when the menopause meter flew off the charts.

On second day of my trip, the longish hoodie gained in stature, as the lock on the zipper of my capri pants experienced irreparable failure. I was on my way to the Miracle of Life barn when I realized my own barn door was permanently open. It had just rained and the 80-degree humidity steaming; my flagging hormones were in rebellion, and my sewing kit was eight hours away. The zippered pink hoodie was all that was standing between me and full frontal exposure. Some downstate ambassador I made.

When the hot flashes flared, I’d unzip the hoodie about 75% of the way, with the swiftness of Superman ripping open his shirt to unveil his superhero identity. But alas, repeated unzipping took its terrible toll. By 2 PM, the pull tab fell off my zipper onto the ground, into some animal droppings. During attempted reattachment, the fastening clasp broke in half, but I could still operate it by pinching the remaining mechanism between my fingers.

Around 3:30 PM, while I was talking with another female exhibitor, a major molten hot flash swept over me like lava through the ancient city of Pompeii. My hand flew to my zipper. It wouldn’t lower. I struggled, mid-sentence, but it wouldn’t give. So I yanked my hoodie off over my head, gasping for cool air. This startled the 60-something woman until I mouthed, “hot flash.” She cracked up.

The next hot flash had me tearing at the defective hoodie like it was Biblical era sackcloth. This time the entire zipper split out, taking several mid-range teeth with it. $@*&%! My colorful thoughts betrayed me, too.

It was nearly freezing the next morning, so I stapled shut the front of my ailing hoodie. “You’ve got a weird accent,” said an early fairgoer, eyeing my makeshift solution hoodie eyesore “Where you from, eh? Downstate?” I nodded. He rolled his eyes. “Tourists never come prepared.”

 

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