Does Valley, AL Really Want the Green Giant as School Safety Officer?

Ho, ho, ho…ut-oh! It looks like it might be time to register all your canned goods as dangerous weapons!

A middle school principal in (of all the possible names) Valley, Alabama sent a letter to parents, informing them of the new safety procedures in the case of a school intruder. Priscilla Holley asked parents to provide each child with an 8-ounce canned item. As quoted by the New York Times, she said: “The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive….The canned food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters their classroom.”

 

I can see so many reasons why this is a bad idea, having worked with children of that age. Their propensity to panic suggests that a room full of shrieking children tossing cans through the air is more likely to result in significant injuries to the children, rather than the intruder. Little Suzie might not have the proper technique to achieve any great distance. What if she whacks little Bobby, the pride and joy of the Little League, on the head and takes him out of the game? If he’s the only kid with an arm that can aim that can of peas at the dangerous intruder, the class will be left unprotected.

 

Can safety is very important. I say this because I can still remember the moment, as a 16-year-old, when I first heard my late mother swear. She reached up for a can of Green Giants Niblets, lost her grip, and the can bounced off the counter, landing on her big toe. Boy, was it a shock to hear her utter that profanity!

 

Do the teachers plan to hold training classes, to instruct each child exactly how to throw the 8-ounce cans? Is the Jolly Green Giant now going to be the school safety officer? Will he be the coach and adviser for the program?

 

Canned food…empowerment….If an eight-ounce can is sufficient, what about a 12-ounce can? Should that be only allowed for the teachers? In that case, perhaps the school district will provide that old school snack-time favorite, Hawaiian Punch. Think of the sense of empowerment just from the brand name! Why, teachers will feel invincible!

 

What happens if the children become proficient in can hurling? Will there be can hurling contests among students? Will this replace the biathlon at the Winter Olympics? Skiers shush down the mountainside, cans in hand, and take aim at snowmen?

 

Should we really believe that a can of corn will ever replace sensible adults, acting to protect students in the classroom? School safety should never be taken lightly, whether the threat is from a student or an outsider. It’s far more reasonable to equip every classroom with a “panic button” and have the office alarm system hooked up with the local police, so that they can respond in a timely fashion.

 

More importantly, no child should ever be given the idea that tossing a can at a menacing intruder will be a legitimate deterrent to someone who is determined to harm the children. That’s the stuff of cartoons and Hollywood special effects. The Valley, Alabama school system would be better served by consulting with professional security experts on ways to improve safety and sending those canned goods to the cafeteria, where they can feed hungry children.

Are You a Control Freak for Practicing the Golden Rule?

What ever happened to the Golden Rule? Has it gone out of style? Is it foolish to think that what we do as human beings makes a difference?

 

I admit it. I have a penchant for moving shopping carts at the grocery store. Too many times I’ve found a perfectly good parking space taken up by a wayward cart left behind by a busy shopper, often just a few feet from the cart corral. What does this say about us as a society?

There was a time we thanked people for holding the door for us as we came upon them. We appreciated the effort made. It told us that people were aware of our existence. We were part of society and we knew it by the way our fellow citizens treated us. Those little measures of civility made us feel connected, especially because the majority of us felt compelled to return the favor in some way, passing it along to the next person we met. There was a sense of camaraderie reflected in simple gestures. We made eye contact and recognized our connection in that gaze. We smiled and saw the power of a friendly curl of the lips. We felt emboldened to look out for other people and felt good to be a productive part of society.

Ah, but society is now the devil, the root of evil conformity and repression of individual rights. Society is some mindless conglomerate of oppressive practices, where things as arbitrary as speed limits and traffic lights prevent us from driving unimpeded down life’s highway. Too many rules. Too many bosses. Too many affronts to our choices. Shouldn’t we be free to pursue our own desires without interference from those around us? Aren’t we the best judges of what we should do and how we should do it? Why should we consider what other people think or want?

 

The other day I returned my cart to the corral, where I found a tangle of carts spilling out into the path of ongoing cars. It took me less than sixty seconds to put them together, but what did that gesture say about me? That I’m a control freak and I have to have things neat and tidy? I’m sure that’s what the smug thirty-something woman who shoved her cart at the corral told herself, even as I was walking away. She had watched me put all those carts together as she loaded her groceries into her trunk. She saw them all nice and neat within the confines of the metal fencing. And yet she shoved her cart in the direction of the corral, knowing that another five steps would have allowed her to add the cart to the orderly line. That sideways glance at me made it clear that I was, in her view, some control freak, some oddball, some wacko with a compulsive disorder. (Good thing she wasn’t judgmental, right?)

 

What would I say to her if she had voiced her opinion of me? How would I answer her blind arrogance? I would say this. Every time I am in a public place, like a grocery store, I think about how many people are affected by my actions. I think about my fellow shoppers, including the mothers and fathers with young kids in tow, the elderly, and the handicapped — those people who need to pull into the best available parking space. I think about the store employees, trolling the parking lot to gather the shopping carts. Who am I to make their jobs more difficult by being sloppy and insensitive to their efforts, especially when the weather is brutally hot or cold?

 

What do I get out of my effort to make the parking lot a little better for those who come after me? I get the reminder that I am a part of a greater whole, a community. I realize that every time I push my cart into the corral. There are other people affected by my actions, and because of that, I have a responsibility to do right by them. I take that knowledge with me wherever I go. That’s why I look at people as I pass by. That’s why I offer a smile or a compliment or a friendly remark to the cashier who scans my groceries. That’s why I thank the person who bags my purchases. It’s my way of saying, “I see you and I recognize you as a person. I hope you show me the same consideration.”

 

We do not, as individuals, live in a bubble world, untouched and out of reach of our fellow human beings. A conscious decision to do right by others, the essence of the Golden Rule, is a practice of every good citizen. It transcends any organized religion. In a world of chaos and cruelty, where bad guys think they can act without consequences, it’s easy to become dismayed and disheartened. The world seems on the brink of disaster as human values seem to slip away from us. The only real remedy is to recognize the reality of human behavior. Those without a conscience are free to wreak havoc on the rest of us because they do not see us as having worth. They are set on their course and they will not allow themselves to have a change of heart. They will do what they will do regardless of consequences and in spite of the plight of their fellow citizens.

 

If we want the world to be a better place, we don’t have to cross the Sahara to do it. We don’t have to scale Mount Everest or sail half way around the world. Every time we practice a little kindness, every time we reach out with simple gestures, we weave the fabric of our society. We encourage those around us to take a chance and gain a little self-respect in the process.

 

No man or woman is ever an island in a world of people. We may feel alone or abandoned, but that’s because we’ve allowed our society to fracture. Every time we jettison our good sense, every time we ignore or excuse our own bad behavior by believing it’s someone else’s job to do these simple little things, we give ourselves and everyone else the permission to pretend the rest of society doesn’t matter. “We are the only people on the planet with any value.”

 

The Golden Rule was never a path to religious zealotry. It doesn’t make us idiots or fanatics when we practice it. It’s a means of recognizing that other people exist in this world and we need to get along with them. It makes us mindful of the reality that each of us has the power to influence the people around us. Every little effort we make defines us as people. We choose to empower good over evil. We choose sharing and caring over hoarding and selfishness.

 

Do I think that young woman who shoved her grocery cart at the corral understood that? No. She was busy thinking that she had so many things to do and her ten seconds was too valuable to waste. But someday…somewhere…somehow, she will be in need of an act of kindness. In that moment, when she feels her back is against the wall and there is no hope, her heart will open up and she will begin to understand that she is of this world. Her eyes will see what she has missed all these years and she will recognize her hunger for that human compassion she believed was meaningless. It will matter. And that’s when she will become a responsible member of society, aware of the people around her and willing to do her part to make this world a better place in which to live.

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Is Motherhood Really Instinctual for Women?

As an author with several mystery series under my belt, I am always curious about how readers perceive not only my stories, but also my characters. In Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy Crisis, career woman Sydney Stansfield Hartman suddenly finds herself saddled with the care and feeding of someone else’s baby, thanks to a series of unexpected events involving her husband, an FBI agent. Poor Syd, used to coming and going at all hours of the day and night, suddenly has to juggle her work as an interior decorator to keep someone else’s child safe from harm. It’s a big adjustment for her. Recently a comment in a review caught me off guard. My reader thought this was ridiculous — any woman should be able to handle an eight-month-old baby. I don’t know about you, but this assumption took me by surprise.

 

The reader questioned why Syd wouldn’t know how to take care of this tiny stranger…as if every woman somehow instinctively knows how to care for children…as if Syd is being portrayed incorrectly in the struggle to get it right as a foster mom, without any hint of realism provided by me, the author.

 

I grew up babysitting, starting when I was ten, and later became a “mother’s helper” and a nanny. Once I earned a degree in early childhood education, focusing on child development and psychology, I spent many years working with a wide range of children — some with handicaps, some with behavioral disorders, some with learning disabilities, some with catastrophic illnesses, and sometimes even just ordinary children.

 

In all those years, I saw many adults floundering as they tried to understand these wondrous little beings. They were in over their heads, at their wits’ end, baffled by the behavior of their offspring and at a loss for what to do. While parents delved into long, involved descriptions of how their normally well-behaved toddler had a complete meltdown in public, I just asked a simple question: “What time of day was it?”  An inexperienced parent might inadvertently drag a child out to an event during nap time, but not one who’s “been there and done that”. The mom who’s gone through this scene and wised up knows nap time is sacrosanct. Her child’s body expects him to rest at the same time every day and wants to shut down. If little Nathaniel’s mind is over-stimulated by unexpected activity, it’s going to lead to a major conflict. “Your child is tired and can’t think straight,” is the logical explanation for why the little guy lost it at his brother’s soccer game.

 

As an adult, you learn over time that you can’t work against a child’s internal clock and expect to succeed — that’s just foolish. We’ve all been to the grocery store and had the experience of walking down aisle after aisle, listening to the wailing and whining of a small child while the parent tries to reason, cajole, threaten, or otherwise command obedience. Good luck with that if it’s mealtime. If adults find it challenging to wander through all that food without giving into the urge to splurge, how do you think impulsive, emotional, unfiltered kids feel, when all they hear is no?If you want cooperation from little Wendy, take her shopping when she’s not hungry and surrounded by all that tempting stuff on the grocery shelves.
That’s why I laughed at the notion that any woman will automatically know how to take care of an eight-month old child. Having been in that position many times over the years with different children, I can assure you there were plenty of times I had no clue what was going through a screaming baby’s brain. Did the diaper need to be changed? Was his little tummy upset? Did his ear ache? Was he teething…coming down with a cold…hungry? Whenever I had a fussy infant on my hands, I automatically went through my checklist, trying to find the right solution to the problem. I didn’t do it by way of instinctual knowledge, but by training. I learned and observed. I gained insight and wisdom. I paid attention to the clues. Having also observed a number of confused parents as they struggled to understand their children, I know that it sometimes takes a detective to follow the clues and find the root cause of a problem.

 

But where are women supposed to get the insight into a child’s behavior if they, like Syd, aren’t exposed to children? Babysitting isn’t as popular an activity as it was during my teenage years. In this day and age of instant Internet connections, is it too tempting to turn to strangers for advice on raising their kids, shunning the wisdom of women who have real-time experience? Gone are the days when mothers helped daughters learn how to bathe their first infant. Families are now so scattered across the country, the extended family is far removed from the everyday interactions that are so precious in a child’s formative years. Instead, new mothers and fathers often struggle to figure out how babies “work” on their own, missing out on so much family wisdom.

 

Parental expertise isn’t something we can download on demand, at a moment’s notice. Children don’t come with user manuals, any more than parents come with built-in “wisdom genes”. It takes interactive learning, some good guidance from experienced mentors, and a whole lot of hands-on training to raise a child.

 

Sadly, what the reader missed about my book was that Syd has the older and wiser Hartman ladies to guide her through the parenting process. Two vivacious and often funny senior citizens, Prudence and Charity, join forces with Faith, the no-nonsense lawyer, to help Syd care for her unexpected little ward, along with the invaluable experience of  a man who’s changed many a diaper over the years and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Together, the extended Hartman family gets involved in nurturing a child in need.

 

We forget sometimes that, in this age of high-speed technology, people are still people. We’re born innocent, and if we’re lucky, we grow in wisdom as we experience life. We need to help each other along the way and share those important life lessons that weave the strength into our society and make us decent human beings.

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“Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy” is free at Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, Apple, and other digital retailers. Amazon charges 99 cents, unless you can get them to price match it for you.

Why I Have a Dumbphone

I admit it. I sometimes think about buying a smartphone. I watch all the folks around me who flip through emails, videos, and maps, pulling up all kinds of goodies from the Internet, even as they make calls, and I think, “I should get one of those.”

Recently, I was in Goodyear, Arizona for a business conference. Everyone there was Twittering away while I sat back, listening to the presentations. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how folks could send tweets and still actually hear what was being said. How can you effectively do both? And why isn’t it rude to be buried in your communications when someone else is communicating with you? I understand that these days media conferences are all about getting the word out. People are encouraged to tweet in real time, whether it’s all about business or the latest entertainment event. But is that really the way to go? What do we really gain from that behavior?

Me, I need to sit down and concentrate when I want to share information. I don’t just want to spit things out. I want to digest them first and only regurgitate the important facts. I’m a proponent of self-editing, even though I know I don’t do it often enough. In this age of instant communications, are we connecting enough? I worry about the social implications of the current social media trends. We’re skimming the surface. Are we creating the climate for the new disaffected masses, not really meeting human needs as we embrace our new digital culture?

As I was traveling, I found myself in the Charlotte Douglas airport to make a connecting flight. In the ladies room, I was greeted by a lovely older lady, who gave me a cheerful hello. I looked into that kind face with the warm smile. I made eye contact. And even as I did, other women flew past us. No human contact could pull them away from their smartphones. How sad, I thought to myself, that we can’t spare time to be pleasant, polite. In Phoenix, the ladies room attendant was disgruntled and disinterested. Can we really blame her, when no one seems to see her as a human being?

And then today, I found confirmation that maybe, just maybe, I’m not on the wrong track. Dr. Keith Ablow was talking about new studies of how this digital technology negatively impacts children. What’s missing? The human interaction we all need.

That reminds me of the day my mother and I sat and watched a four-year-old girl try to communicate with her mother at a Panera Bread restaurant. Every time the young child tried to ask a question, she was shushed. Every effort she made to connect with the twenty-something woman was cut off. It made us sad to watch this display of unmotherly behavior. Why? Because we always made the effort to talk. Did we always succeed? No, but we tried. I couldn’t imagine having a mother who told me to be quiet every time I reached out. That strikes me as cold and unfeeling. Oh, did I mention that the entire lunch was spent by the mother having a phone conversation with a friend? Do you know how hard it is to sit and watch a child fidget that long without wanting to approach that mother? Back then, I was too polite. Now? Now I think I would grab the bull by the horns and just invite the child to sit with us. The hell with her mama. I’d be more than happy to chat with a four-year-old child. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, isn’t it?

Ever found yourself trapped in the supermarket by the Aisle Wanderer armed with a smartphone, who drones on throughout your shopping excursion, whining about whether or not to get those crackers? How come we always seem to be headed in the same direction at the same time? How come it’s so impossible to put the smartphone down when the cashier is rining up the order? Why not use the self-serve checkout, where you won’t insult humanity by maintaining your ever-so-important conversation about that awesome vacation you just took?

Every time I am tempted to buy that smartphone, I remind myself how nice it is to have a dumbphone. A plain, ordinary flip cell phone. I even had the phone company disconnect the Internet features because I kept hitting the wrong button and hooking up online without meaning to, racking up the monthly charges.

The way I look at it, I don’t want to stumble into my communications like a drunk loading up on cheap gin and peanuts. I actually want to be effective in what I say and do. I want to be conscious of my own thoughts. Most of all, I want that “down time”, those lovely little moments when I sort out the hours of my life. What’s working? What’s not working? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? What can I improve? If I’m always hooked up to my smartphone, when will I have time to actually be smart?

Sure, I’m probably insulting a lot of people by not instantly messaging. I actually only just found I had Twitter messages in my account that I had never read in the year plus I’ve been connected. And as for Facebook, I still am not convinced it’s the way to really get together with people and have a meaningful dialogue. Call me a rebel. Call me an oddity. I think we need to put the “social” back into social media. I hereby grant each and every one of you the right to shut off your smartphones, to set up “safe zones” and “safe times”, when the world can just hold its water while you do something else. It’s okay to make your own rules about how, when, and why you connect to the Internet. The world will not fall apart if you don’t check every ping that pops up on your smartphone. People can wait. When folks know that you only check in a few times a day, that tells them the window of opportunity to communicate with you is defined. It gives them the chance to pace themselves. Better still, it means there’s no rush to get in touch with you.

Years ago, back in the days of snail mail, a letter was a communication that brought the written word to the reader in ways that could make us feel. Soldiers and sailors longed for letters from home, provided it wasn’t the dreaded “Dear John”. Lovers and sweethearts clutched envelopes to their breasts, their hearts flying at the thrill of those affectionate words. From a distance, we could hear about the lives of those we love and imagine ourselves with them, enjoying every moment. It’s time to get back to really connecting with the people in our lives, whether we do it long-distance or in person. People should always matter more than the technology, and the technology should enable us to be more human, not less. Never forget that the heart is the heart. It needs what it needs, to feel that when it speaks, someone is actually listening. Next time you find yourself rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off, stop yourself. Look folks in the eye. Listen when they speak. We’re losing a very important part of our humanity and we need to reclaim it, but we can only do that by being genuine. The younger generations are counting on us to teach them the way, even if it means we get ourselves dumbphones.

Is It High Time to Legalize Marijuana — What We’re Missing

Wow, I must have had my head under the proverbial rock, because I was shocked today to learn that a recent Pew poll, the majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana. And this is a good idea because?

Leave aside the criminal aspects of the drug. I’m not going to argue about the decades battling the cartels. Let’s just talk about the health care aspects.

If cigarettes cause lung cancer, what is the effect of marijuana on the lungs? Some research shows marijuana actually has up to 70% more carcinogens than tobacco.  If cigarettes do so much damage to blood pressure, what does marijuana do?

I’m never impressed by what the majority of people think. I’m impressed by what the majority of well-informed people think. You can poll people about what they think of just about anything:

“Do you think clowns with blue hair are funnier than clowns with orange hair?”

“Are drivers in red cars faster than truck drivers who eat too many donuts at the truck stop?”

“Should you be able to clone yourself at the office without losing vacation days or should you collect double your salary because there are two of you?”

Before we go rushing into legalizing marijuana, let’s ask ourselves how we are going to pay for the long-term health care costs. I don’t know about you, but I’m not really willing to foot the bill for Ted and Bill’s Excellent High or Harry and Kumar’s White Castle Munchies Fest.

While marijuana may not entice people to try stronger drugs, it still impairs the brain. I don’t really like driving on the same road with someone under the influence of anything, be it alcohol or marijuana. If we legalize it, won’t that create more problems?

Studies show that long-term, heavy use of marijuana can lead to impaired thinking skills and memory problems. How are we going to deal with this and who is paying for it? I’d rather contribute to a worthy college student’s education than pay for some idiot’s wackadoodle daze. I don’t want the guy behind the counter at Subway to be high when he’s putting together my sub, and I don’t want his co-worker fixating on the ingredients. “Hey, Dave, that’s a gnarly sandwich you just made, man. How’d you do that, dude?”

Studies determined that the effects of the marijuana remain in the body for up to three hours. In other words, when Harry and Kumar show up at the drive-up window an hour after smoking some weed, they are far more likely to rear end your car with your grandkids in the back seat, because driving is impaired by marijuana use. Think about that. Our greatest risk isn’t some pothead speeding on the highway. It’s the joker behind us who doesn’t have the capacity to judge time, distance, and speed. It’s the epitome of creating a new generation of space cadets.

And what about the effects of marijuana on people who have a predisposition to mental health issues like schizophrenia and paranoia? Do you imagine that being high is helpful to someone with a tenuous grasp on reality? Think again, my friend. If a person can’t tell the difference between an hallucination and a real-time event, maybe our society is at greater risk for these mass murders. Did any of the recent serial killings involve marijuana use prior to the killers lugging their automatic weapons to the scene of their diabolical slaughters? Before we legalize marijuana, let’s consider what happens to people with mental health issues when they have access to the drug. Who’s going to keep it out of the hands of those most vulnerable?

Maybe before we rush to legalize it because of popular opinion, we ought to ask ourselves what the long-term effects will be on the brain. Will we lose our creativity, our productivity, our social interactions? Will we find that we dumb down America even more by taking the path of least resistance and just going with the flow? Are we too close to the smoke wafting over our fences from our neighbors who like to light up? All I know is that I work hard because I enjoy challenging my mind. I get a thrill every time I accomplish something new, whether it’s a skill or a talent. I love to be creative, active, and intelligent. Will legalizing marijuana make people like me a dying breed? It’s not bad enough that our younger generations now mistake Facebook and Twitter for real social interaction so much that they don’t know how to have a conversation face-to-face?

These days, life as we know is changing fast, and at some point we have to stop accepting what is becoming the “new norm” as inevitable. As our parents used to say, “Just because your friends jump off the bridge, does that mean you have to do it, too?” Now we have bungee jumpers who toss themselves over the railing in search of a thrill. That’s fine, as long as that cord is tethered tightly to a support that can and will hold the jumper safely, and provided there are no obstacles in the flight path that can and will maim or kill the jumper. (We’ve heard too much lately about thrill-seekers who go to extremes and lose their lives in pursuit of that one long shot.) But should we all jump off the bridge of Common Sense and toss ourselves into the River of the Unknown Depths below without first taking a long, hard look at the consequences?

When I read the results of the Pew poll on legalizing marijuana, the inevitable images sprang to mind. This is a poll that stinks to high heaven. One whiff and we’re all up in smoke. That’s the problem with polls. It’s all about what’s popular, not what’s healthy or smart. We’ve got a lot of obese people in this country as it now stands, folks who eat and don’t exercise. Can you imagine what will happen when it’s legal to light up a joint? Fast food restaurants will have to stay open all night to accommodate the masses with the munchies. Think you have a problem now with relatives raiding the fridge? That piece of chocolate cake you’re hiding behind the brussel sprouts ain’t gonna be there for you when you finish your workout on the treadmill, my friend.

And what happens in the workplace? Will workers under the influence slow down our already stagnant work place? We’re trying to get people back to work, but do we want them high while operating heavy equipment? Do we want our financial advisers, our cops, our air traffic controllers under the influence? What about our school bus drivers? Can they be high and share their stash with students, maybe make a little cash on the side?

For those of you who advocate legalizing marijuana because you’ve always been one toke over the line, you can tell yourself I’m exaggerating the dangers. You can tell yourself I’m an old fuddy-duddy. Knock yourself out. You’re too mellow to get off your duff and get involved in real life. Isn’t that really the bottom line? Being high was always about numbing yourself, not about living life out loud. All I can say is I’m going to miss you and your buddies when you (cough, cough) slowly fade into the distant haze, you old geezer.

My Version of Comfort Food — Quick Macaroni and Cheese Feeds the Soul

What is it about macaroni and cheese that makes us so happy? It’s the ultimate comfort food that we all seem to love, but why? Is it all that flavor and soft, gooey goodness? Is it that it’s easy on the eye, the simplest of foods, or that it satisfies us in a way that no other meal does?

I’ve found that serving it at a holiday meal generates all kinds of positive comments. It’s always the first dish to get gobbled up. After years of having this one not eat ham and that one not eat lamb, it’s become the go-to dish for the whole family. It doesn’t matter what I serve any more, because all folks really care about is the macaroni and cheese.

But it’s also often a dish that fussy, fidgety eaters will indulge in even as they reject that shrimp dish I slaved over in the hot kitchen. It entices us, beckons us, seduces us. It is a sensual food, tongue-pleasing and self-indulgent. Macaroni and cheese offers no resistance to our teeth. It doesn’t fight back or leave us struggling to chew. It goes down smooth. It slides into our tummies like a big, warm, fuzzy hug.

The reason I love it most? I can make it in my sleep. I’ve got it down to a science of sorts. I picked up a few tricks on cooking shows. Bobby Flay taught me to heat my milk for my Béchamel sauce. Mary Ann Esposito taught me to boil my pasta water, take it off the heat, and stir in the macaroni — no need to worry about boil-overs, because the pasta cooks on its own. I don’t even bother with following a recipe anymore. I just throw everything together.

So, what do I do with the time I don’t waste fussing on dinner? I work longer. On nice days, I get outside, whether it’s a walk around the block or a hike up a mountain. This weekend, I made my mac and cheese before I took the little pocket pooch for his second official hike. Adopted last year, Dino had little experience for long walks, so I had to condition him. We started last year with twenty-minute walks in the woods, so he could work his way up to the real deal.

I’ve worked over the last few months to get him used to hopping over logs, tree roots, and the like, even as I increased the length of our walks. My last pocket pooch was a natural in the woods. She adored scrambling up the mountain. A nervous, high-strung little Yorkie, Sweetie had a tough time in the real world, but felt right at home in the middle of the woods. People used to marvel at the fact that she made it to the summit on her own power.

Will Dino be as agile and adept? It’s hard to say at this point. He’s certainly off to a good start. We hiked the base of the mountain for about an hour, and he thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. On the way home, he napped in his car seat. I was only sorry that I don’t know the doggie equivalent of mac and cheese, because I would have whipped him up a dish of it.

Here’s my recipe for 4 servings:

8 ounces of your favorite pasta (I like macaroni or ziti, to absorb all that lovely cheese sauce) cooked al dente

1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 flour
2 cups hot milk
8 ounces shredded cheddar
1/4 cup good grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
pinch of nutmeg
1 teaspoon Adobo seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder

Nuke the two cups of milk in the microwave while you cook the butter/margarine and flour over medium heat, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Pour in the hot milk and whisk to break up any clumps. When the sauce is thick and smooth, add the cheddar, Parmesan, mustard, nutmeg, Adobo, garlic powder, and onion powder, stirring until the cheeses are melted. Pour over the cooked macaroni.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you like a crumb topping, melt 1/4 cup of butter or margarine in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds, and stir in about one cup of seasoned bread crumbs. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until heated through. If you’re in a rush, you can nuke it for 5-6 minutes, and then finish baking it in the oven for 15-20 minutes. As Julia Child would say, “Bon appétit!”

Catching the “Brigadoon” Strain of Spring Fever

It’s that time of year. The songbirds are in full chorus every morning when I take the dog for his first walk of the day. I can see flashes of red move from tree to tree as the male cardinal makes his way around the neighborhood. As I listen to the Carolina wren chatter by the house, I realize how long and quiet the winter was, with all its snow and ice. This is the time of year that the world begins anew. I, too, am ready for a fresh start.

I look at the spring flowers popping out of the ground and marvel at how they have spread across the earth in the past year, multiplying as they form a colorful carpet. I look for the unexpected, the flowers I didn’t plant, and I wonder what birds dropped the seeds, perhaps as a gesture of thanks for the bird seed in the feeder. Life goes on throughout the year, but spring? Spring is the harbinger of journeys yet taken, adventures awaiting me just over the rise. Even as I shake off the cold damp that kept me inside for so many months, even as I shed the layers of fleece, wool, and water-repellent raincoat, I can feel spring seductively beckon to me.

What is it about spring that makes me want to break out in song, to skip down the trail singing “Waitin’ for My Dearie” like Fiona in “Brigadoon”? The truth is I believe every bit as much as she did.

I believe in good things, in happy times, in sunshine and pups that wag their tails. I believe that for every time I read about cyber bullying and mean people and idiots that feel the need to shoot up schools and take hostages because they’re disgruntled at the way their lives turned out, we still are human and we have the tools to overcome these problems, if we just apply ourselves to the head and the heart.

Fiona isn’t just looking for any man. She wants the right man, one who is capable of appreciating the wonders of Brigadoon and of her. She’s willing to be a spinster rather than settle. Miracles? She believes in the power of the heart, but she uses her head. Real love is all about choosing wisely, for the ages, and testing the strength of that love, to be sure it endures through eternity. This is not a contemporary girl working her way through men like they’re tissues. Fiona wants the real deal, a man who is willing to rise above ordinary, a man who is able to be inspired. Not every woman and man invites hope and promise to reside in the heart, to grow into actions and deeds. For some, it’s too much like work. They expect love to fall into the lap as they sit on the sidelines. Those of us who are true believers know better. Love that transforms takes effort. That is real alchemy.

Every year I forgo that Spring Fever vaccine, that dose of reality that the world can be a cold and lonely place. I want to feel the heat of the sun on my cheek again. I want to feel that bounce in my step. I want to feel like I can tap dance, that I can almost fly through the air, even if my knees now wobble a bit. When I am in motion, I am in the moment, living life out loud. I am free. That’s what spring fever does to me. It refreshes my memory. It reminds me that I am here right now and I should savor this magnificent beauty.

Why should I be inoculated from something that makes me feel so wonderful? Why should I close my eyes to the blossoms on the weeping cherry tree or fail to see the baby bunny scooting under a bush? Why should I prevent myself from remembering that even as we cycle through the stages of life, we should look forward to new beginnings, fresh starts? How can we hear opportunity knocking if we are so caught up inside ourselves?

Spring fever is contagious. It is that hopeful part of the soul that wants to catch fire, that wants to burn new paths in the landscape. What can I do next? What can I find? What’s out there? And with whom can I share it? Is there anything more amazing than a person who hums with that vibrant energy? Don’t you just want to bask in that warm glow of sunlight?

I don’t ever want to be too old to catch a really bad case of spring fever. I always want to look forward to life, to love, to happiness and beyond. I want to believe that we can still make a positive difference, that we can reach the spirits of those who have closed themselves off from the rest of the world through bitterness, hatred, and despair.

When hope comes pouring through the fields and meadows in April, when it flows over each of us like a Scottish mist on the Highlands, it’s up to us to embrace it, to accept its potent powers. When that little tingle begins in the heart and circulates through the body, we should use it to energize ourselves, to rise above the mundane, the ordinary, the obstacles that hold us down. The winter of the soul is over. It is time to awaken once again and nurture the human heart.

Tommy allowed himself to be swayed by the “should do”, the “have to do”, the “must do” of the ordinary crowd. He abandoned the joy and promise of Brigadoon for the version of an ordinary life. After Jeff managed to convince his buddy that Brigadoon was just an illusion, a fantasy, Tommy got all the way back to New York before he realized that his love for Fiona was true. Returned to the mundane, he had no choice but to reject it. Once you feel that enveloping energy in your soul of what may be, what can be with a little effort on your part, once you taste its honey sweetness on your tongue and you sniff that lovely fragrance, how can you ever settle for anything less? How can you not wait for your dearie? How can you not seek your Brigadoon?

Yes, there is magic in the April air, but it is up to us to make the miracles manifest. What good is spring fever if we fend it off, if we steel ourselves to remain unchanged by it? Brigadoon was tucked away from the ordinary world in order to preserve it, but those doors opened up from time to time, in search of believers who could appreciate its bewitching qualities. Heaven knows we all need to visit a mythical Shangri La — a place where life is good and people sing and dance their way through the day. All that music, all that movement — it makes us feel vibrantly alive. It reminds us in every cell of our bodies that we need more, we should be more, we can have more. Fiona was not willing to settle for just an ordinary man. She wanted a man who knew his own heart and was committed to it, who was willing to return to an extraordinary place in search of his dearie or be destined to wander ever more.

Life is only as much as you allow it to be. You can live it safely, tucked away and disconnected, or you can embrace it, believe in it, and use it to achieve those miracles we all desperately need. They allow us to remember who we are as human beings and what matters most to us.

When I was a twenty-something, my motto was live life, love life, and love. Now as I head into sixty, the only change I would make to that is this. Do it bodaciously!

Why the Attack on Boston Was So Senseless and Cruel

The news today was so stunning, so mind-numbingly wasteful. I’ve watched the footage of the two explosions and I still don’t understand how and why anyone decided this was a good thing to do.

Let me just say that I have the misfortune of having a birthday that has been used several times by disgruntled terrorists and murderers to launch their version of mayhem on the American public. I can still remember where I was when the fire broke out at Waco during that debacle. In an ice cream shop, celebrating my birthday with an ice cream cone. Oklahoma City? Happy birthday to me. All those poor people were destroyed in the blink of an eye. For what? Columbine came just after my birthday. Close enough. The image of those students, hands in the air as the SWAT teams moved in, guns drawn, haunted me for years, I just didn’t want to think about what some idiot might do in the name of whatever twisted ideals he grasped on a day when the world should be right long enough for me to celebrate. It’s been so long since the last horror show (Virginia Tech), I had almost come to expect a pleasant week. And now? Boston is forever changed.

You’re probably thinking that my biggest complaint is that my birthday has been forever tainted with the blood of innocents. But it’s so much more than anything as trivial as a birthday celebration. It’s more that we have lost something so precious and it happens to coincide with a time of hope and joy for me. I love spring. I love all the promise of the Easter season and what it represents.

But Boston? Maybe it’s that New York City has borne the brunt of terror attacks for so many years. I have a relative who had the good fortune of arriving in the city late on that fateful day, who still can remember, even though he probably would prefer to forget, the taste, the smell, the sights and sounds of the city on 9/11. I remember someone mentioned about a year ago how imporant it was to see the memorial park. Maybe if you didn’t have that personal, up close, first-hand view. We almost expect terrorists to attack New York or Washington, DC. But Boston?

I’ve walked those streets. I spent my hours at the Boston Public Library doing research. I shopped in Copley Place, where Au Bon Pain was a handy place to grab a bite. I bought soda at the little convenience store around the corner from Boylston. I crossed Boston Public Garden in snow, when the trees were bare, and in summer, when the lush green canopy provided shade from the hot sun. I used to watch the kids skateboard on that wide open plaza that is Copley Square, listening to the rattle of their wheels on the stone surface. When I saw that flash of molten fire against the building, when I watched that runner fall to the pavement just seconds after some powerful wave seemed to strike him down, I wondered if it was near that store that used to have this wonderful hologram design that illuminated the sidewalk in front of the door. I’ve walked to the Esplanade for concerts, stood by the shell and let the sweet sounds of the string section float over me as I drank in every note. I could have imagined a terror attack in so many other cities, but Boston? That’s too familiar. That’s too close for comfort. It’s just so ordinary a place to imagine that some group would choose it as the scene of a terror attack.

And when I think about the victims of today’s bombings, I admit I am baffled. It wasn’t aimed at the rich and famous or the powerful. It didn’t go off as the most elite runners came into the finish line. It was the mothers and fathers, whose children watched in the stands as their parents struggled to make those exhausted legs keep moving to the end. It was the ordinary people who weren’t there for any political rally or cause. They were there for the challenge of running all those miles.

What kind of terrorist group selects such a target population? What kinds of minds prefer those ordinary people as their victims? Maybe that’s what makes the least amount of sense to me. As a terror attack, it feels so unreal. If it were tied to the symbolism of Boston’s heritage in the American Revolution, surely it would not have been so violent. After all, the Boston Tea Party was all about dumping tea in Boston Harbor, not blowing people up. The violence of the Patriots’ war came later, when the protests failed.

As heinous as the Oklahoma City bombing was, at least Timothy McVeigh chose a federal building as representative of his wrath for the government. He was sending a message, one that was abundantly clear given the devastation.

So why did the terrorists choose those victims? Because they were so ordinary? Because they were not the elite? That’s really a big “why” for me. What made them so attractive? Why detonate the bombs at that time, rather than when all the VIPs and the mucky-mucks were ready to greet the world champion runners at the finish line?

Any time I look at a terrorist event, I try to understand why those particular targets were chosen, why those people ended up as victims. Whether it’s a school site and a bunch of twisted young minds who have lost touch with reality, or a group of angry people with a political agenda and a purposeful plan of action, the victims are the ones who often represent something to the perpetrators. In the case of the Boston bombing, that isn’t clear. These weren’t capitalists working in the financial district. They weren’t law enforcement or politically-connected leaders. They were ordinary people there to watch ordinary people cross the finish line. Waiting for a marathon’s stragglers to show up is like watching paint dry. You have to have a personal reason for standing there so long. You’re there for someone else, someone who’s trying to finish a race that would exhaust the average citizen.

Timing is everything, isn’t it? Even during a terror act. I can speculate that the motive for selecting those locations for the explosive devices were the many flags flying as the shrapnel spread its deadly power through the human flesh and the handy news photographers on the scene. But surely they were also present earlier, when the “important” people were around. What was it about these particular victims?

I don’t have an answer, but I have a suspicion. I don’t think it was an accident that these people were targeted. Somehow, some way, somewhere, it all makes sense to the person or persons who planned this horrible act. Maybe we will find that at least one life was forever changed by some senseless bombing elsewhere. Was it an IED in some Middle Eastern country? Did a bomb take out targets in a cafe on a Baghdad street or an explosion rip apart people gathered for a festival in Afghanistan or a drone take out a family in Pakistan? Ordinary people doing ordinary things. One moment life is good and the next, it is forever changed. An eye for an eye. Someone involved in the planning of this incident, this life-changing incident, had a specific reason for picking these people as victims. It would have been just as easy to strike earlier, but the terrorists chose not to do that. They were sending us a message, that no one is ever really safe. It could happen anywhere, to anyone. That’s pretty personal. It’s like when a killer shoots his victim in the face, at point blank range. Lots of rage. Not a lot of emotional detachment. It’s all about the satisfaction of striking where it will hurt the most.

For a brief moment, I even wondered if it was some out-of-control kid wanting to make a name for himself as the new replacement for the wacky school shooters, but I don’t think so. School shooters still have a personal connection to their targets. There’s something that irks them about the victims and something that satisfies them when the killing’s done. And so often, those incidents seem to end in a blaze of self-martyrdom suicide, over the top and blatant, like some Hollywood finale. But this terror attack didn’t seem to have such a side show. In this attack, it seems that the killers got away. Does that mean they plan to fight another day?

But what I don’t understand, given the success at harming so many innocent people, was that the bombers didn’t seem to target the first responders. As I watched all those brave souls rush to help the injured, I thought they were so vulnerable. Surely it was a fear vibrating hard and loud in the back of every mind as the men and women pulled away those barriers in search of survivors. That’s what made it a less sophisticated terror attack than what we’ve seen in other cases.

And again, makes it feel all the more personal. Innocent lives were what the terrorists sought to take. That was all that would satisfy their hunger. They didn’t want to do battle with law enforcement. They wanted to do battle with little children, who had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They wanted to take out husbands and fathers and uncles and brothers. They wanted to destroy wives and mothers and aunts and sisters. They wanted to rip apart lovers, girlfriends and boyfriends, those whose star-crossed lives would be forever changed by this nightmare. Somehow I expect that when the ash settles, when the shrapnel is collected and examined, we will find that the killers were not some well-trained jihadists with impressive credentials, but some motley crew of people drawn together by their personal anger over some event that profoundly touched their lives, who pulled the cloak of terrorists around their warped shoulders and made their excuses as they packed those bombs with the twisted pieces of metal that would destroy beautiful lives. Such a senseless loss of humanity. How could it possibly serve any purpose? How could it be justified by any measure or semblance of sanity? This was about a group of people with a grudge, who decided that they were going to make sure everyone felt their power by taking out ordinary people, who will never again be ordinary. Senseless violence from the dark side.

Why the Demise of Sharing the Family TV Has Led to Disharmony in Washington, DC

We’ve lost the art of real negotiation. There was a time, growing up in America, when you actually had to have some skill to get what you wanted, what you believed you needed. Remember the days when you didn’t dare leave the sofa, in case a sibling took over your “spot”? Recall the times when you had to beg, plead, cajole, and insist that your show was the one to watch? We’ve lost that forced “have to get along” thing. Nowadays, it’s a crap shoot as to whether anyone will get anything. The bullies have taken over. The weak sit on the sidelines and go without. All because we are no longer in a position where we actually have to make successful deals on significant issues.

Think about it, baby boomer. Back when we were kids, we actually had to share. We didn’t have a choice. We had to get along or we couldn’t play. If the other kids got on your nerves, you took your ball and went home, until they were ready to play nicely. You had some leverage to get yourself into the game, and once there, you had a chance to influence how things went. Now? Nobody’s interested in playing nicely. We’d rather go our separate ways.

That’s what struck me yesterday when the group of gathered politicians and family members of victims lost to mass shootings gathered for a photo op. Accompanying the image of some very disappointed people was an article about how furious the politicians were, how sad the relatives were. That’s when I realized how far off track we are as a nation.

We’re not going about our negotiations as a shared process. That’s why it’s not working. You want gun control. The other guy wants mental health issues addressed. Your conclusion when you don’t get what you want is that the other guy is a creep for not conceding. The other guy’s conclusion? You’re a bully for insisting that there will be no negotiation on the issue. Back when we were kids, this was considered a stalemate. Nobody won. Nobody got to play “Capture the Flag”. Nobody got to play anything because the two teams couldn’t even agree to play.

What could have happened in Washington, if real negotiations, if real dialogue took place? Maybe we could have agreed to really take a hard look at what’s going on with these mass killings. You have disgruntled killers bent on massive destruction and loss of life, who want to bring attention to themselves for no other reason than they cannot connect to their fellow human beings. “I am the King of the Universe, and you minions are all under my power!” That kind of twisted acting out isn’t stopped by a gun permit. Neither are our children protected in school by armed guards. We’re going to waste time, energy, and resources playing “ketchup”, when we really should be stopping this behavior in its earliest stages — in childhood. We need to teach children that they are a part of life, not the giver and taker of life. They do not have super powers. They are not entitled to do whatever the hell they want to do. They need to work with people, not against them. But how do you teach that when you have so many adults who feel entitled to do whatever they want, regardless of the greater good and actual need? As long as Washington’s politicians see the need to chastise, instead of conducting real negotiations, it’s all a sham.

Washington has so fractured the structure of democracy, there is no equivalent of the family TV and family sofa. We have no reason to get along because we’re not all in the same room at the same time. Fairness, shmairness.

Ever know single people who live their lives without having to concede anything? They’re often the people bitching the loudest about how they can’t find a decent relationship. No romance seems to work out for them. It’s that elusive desire that always slips away. I can tell you why. You live with other people, you damn well better be able to negotiate and concede ground if you plan on getting half of what you need. How many single people never have to bother sharing a meal? Eat whatever you want whenever you want. But if there are two or more people? At some point in time, you’re going to have to eat something that’s not your favorite, and you’re also going to have to speak up when you want to have the chance to engage in your own preferences. That’s what happens when two or more people occupy the same space, by choice or by necessity.

Remember sharing a room with a sibling? Those days are now gone, as parents opt for the big houses with separate bedrooms and bathrooms. No more pounding on the door when a brother or sister takes too long in front of the mirror.

It’s sad really, that we have lost sight of the fact that other people have needs that differ from our own. We have become so enamoured of our own selves that we ignore the reality that our way is not always the only way, the best way, or the necessary way. We’re too far apart to spend real time together and to get what needs doing done, because we’re not interested in playing together and sharing our toys.

Is it a mistake not to engage with “the other team”? Are we missing valuable opportunities to work together, to play together, to develop real respect through dialogue and negotiation? Of course we are. As individuals, we are a bunch of folks with divergent ideas, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. We’re going our separate ways constantly, disconnected from the greater spirit of this nation. This is supposed to be a democracy, a country of people who can agree on the Constitution’s principles as a means of focusing on what the greater good can and should be, while at the same time respecting the rights of the individual. We have bent over backwards so many times in the effort to appease the disgruntled. Maybe now it’s time to accept the fact that we aren’t going to agree to everything our fellow citizens want and let that be okay, just as we aren’t going to get everything we want. We should still be trying to work that out, rather than sulking because we failed to gain our ground.

When we were kids, it was normal to accept defeat on a routine basis because there were other victories. The losses balanced out, especially when you were motivated to find common ground. And when you found common ground, they turned into wins, because you and “the other guys” could agree on something, anything.

Every time a politician grabs a group of people to stand behind him, every time he or she hammers home a political agenda, we lose what matters most to us as human beings — the chance to genuinely come together as a nation. We get caught up in liberal and conservative causes. We cling to agendas, concepts, and ideas without ever having any intention of ceding turf. How can we ever find common ground if we are too sequestered on our mountain tops, looking down on the little people with disappointment because they have not followed our game plan?

Want an example of real common ground? It’s the sight of those brave people at the Boston Marathon who ran to give assistance and comfort to the victims, who didn’t stop to ask “Why me, Lord?”, but who sought to soothe, to stem the flow of blood, to save lives, regardless of political beliefs, religious beliefs, ethnicity, skin color, or anything else. In that horrible aftermath, it didn’t matter to them. They only cared about what was right in front of them. Human beings in need.

I don’t know about you, but I am humbled by that courage, that desire of ordinary people to be extraordinary. That’s real common ground. No squabbling. No turning away from people. No shunning this one or that one. Everyone shared the risk, the heartbreak, the sorrow. They were focused on the crisis. They came together to make a difference.

The next time a politician claims that the other side is the bad guy for not conceding he’s the “correct thinker”, I want you to remember what real negotiations are. It’s putting the people’s needs ahead of the politics. It’s sucking it up so we can all be in the same room at the same time, sharing that sofa as we watch TV. All those divisive voices from the left and the right have one thing in common. They still don’t understand that we need to meet in the middle if we’re going to work this all out and coexist in peace.

Guinea Pig Report: Dioptics Solar Shield Sunglasses

When I was offered the chance to participate in some product testing, through Vibrant Nation, I was at once skeptical and curious. What would I find? As a guinea pig, would this be a positive experience?

Dioptics is a company that has made sunglasses for medical patients for over thirty years. Their line of “fits over” and “clip-on” sunglasses for those of us who wear prescription glasses are available at many retailers across the country — Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, and many retailers, in addition to being available online at www.solarshield.com

I have three pairs of prescription glasses — reading, mid-distance, and trifocals. I spend my days switching between them. I use the trifocals for driving, so they stay in my purse. I haven’t really ever completely adjusted to using them all the time. I’m an author and an artist, so I do a lot of close-up work, which requires a wider lens range. That means wearing reading glasses when I work. And when I watch TV or paint on a large canvas, I use my mid-range glasses. All three pairs of glasses are different sizes and shapes. The chance to try “fits over” sunglasses seemed the logical choice for me, because I didn’t have to worry about the shape of the lenses on each pair.

To be honest, I’ve needed sunglasses for quite a while. I tried using off-the-rack choices, but I couldn’t stand the distortion of the lens. Does that sound strange? When you have astigmatism in one eye, any little imperfection is enough to drive you batty, because that curved lens will just exacerbate it.

The box from Dioptics arrived in the mail. It was small and weighed about as much as ten butterflies. I opened the package and found myself somewhat disappointed. Why? The sunglasses looked very ordinary. What was I expecting? Maybe a shiny finish. But looks and first impressions can be wrong. These glasses are really awesome.

For the first time in a couple of years, I can walk around outside and see clearly. No more frowning. No more sun in my eyes.

As for that matte finish, it turns out to be enormously helpful in keeping the prescription glasses in place. In fact, the fit is fantastic, because once the sunglasses are on your nose, they stay put. I didn’t worry about scratching the prescription glasses.

And that lightweight feature I wasn’t sure about? It turns out that when I wear both prescription and sunglasses together, I’m still very much comfortable.

Is there a difference between just grabbing a pair of conventional sunglasses and the Dioptics version? Yes, yes, and yes. The Dioptics version accommodates the prescription glasses, and the edging not only keeps the sun out between both pairs, it holds the prescription glasses in place — it’s the fit that really makes a difference. I tested the classic choice, with tiny side windows that still allow light in and peripheral vision is not cut off.

Would I recommend them to you readers? Absolutely. My experience was definitely a positive, and a pleasant surprise to boot. My only caution? You will need a roomy case to store them in — despite their lack of weight, they are still larger than most glasses when folded.

Please Note: I received a free sample of Dioptics Solar Shield sunglasses via Vibrant Nation’s Vibrant Influencer Network