Monday, July 21, 2014

There is always, always time to buy lemonade

I've been going to a lot of garage sales this year (top prize so far: a Whirly-Pop popcorn popper for $2), so that means I've been drinking a lot of watery, overpriced lemonade made under highly questionable sanitation conditions. No wonder it seems like such a great summer. My most recent paper cupful, purchased and poured out surreptitiously after one tepid sip, made me think of this post from last year.

FRIDAY, JUNE 7, 2013

My Rules

A friend of mine, who clearly prides herself on running a tight ship at home, once told me that it was no wonder her son always had fun when he was hanging out with my kids. “Of course he has fun, since there are no rules at your house.” I was a bit taken aback by this declaration, but when I looked at the situation through her “sit-down-every-night-for-two-veg-and-meat-dinner” filter, I suppose I could see her point. I have rules, they’re just odd ones.

This past week, I’ve been noticing myself abiding strictly to a couple of my more eccentric guidelines for my own behavior, and I had to laugh at how precise I am about matters that most people ignore. The rules, I’ve noticed, are all about basic human kindnesses, the kind I suppose I crave most deeply. We get what we give, so I give these things, and I hope that they matter, somehow.

Find the One Kid. At every amateur performance or recital I attend (and I attend a lot), I try to pick out one kid who does a really good job … the kid who steals the show in the bit part, the class valedictorian who clearly spent several late nights trying to find just the right words to say, or the dancer in the back row who really kicked it, even if she hadn’t gotten the lead. After the show is over, when everyone in my family is standing around with crossed arms and jingling car keys, I’m still focusing my attention on the crowd, refusing to leave until I find the one kid. Then I race over and offer my hand. “I’m just a regular old mom who happened to be in the crowd,” I say, “but your performance really blew me away. You were just terrific.” Even the most unapproachable-looking kids just melt at this. Praise is one thing from your mom, but when an ordinary-looking stranger takes the time to tell you how great you were, it really packs a punch. Sometimes, the kid starts to cry. Usually, the mom does. It’s even better when they have lots of family around, and I speak Very Loudly so that that crabby-looking granny (the one who clearly thinks theater is a waste of time) can hear me loud and clear. The origins of this rule, as with many good things, start with my daughter Mary Katherine, the budding actress. I remember her giddy excitement after performing in her first real show. “A stranger came up and told me I was good!” she gushed. If that’s all it takes to make a kid happy, I thought, count me in, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Stop at the Lemonade Stand. This rule came from my mother. She and I used to love to do what she called “bumming around” together, running errands or visiting garage sales with no particular agenda. She always insisted that we stop at every lemonade stand we passed, and that we each buy one tiny paper cupful of tepid, watery lemonade, chatting up the kids as we did. She even carried a little stash of quarters with her, and would grandly tell me, “my treat,” as she handed over the cash to the beaming six-year-old in charge. My Mom died many years ago, but I still stick to her edict. Sometime I am racing home, feeling the pressure of a deadline, and I want to pretend I don’t see that stand on the corner, but I do, and I stop, and I ask the kids about business, and their special recipe, and usually find out some thrilling fact in the course of our conversation, like that they’re leaving to go visit grandma next week, or that this tooth, the one right here, might come loose soon with enough pulling. Who needs to worry about deadlines when you can hear about how much the Tooth Fairy brings at a kid's house?

Talk to the Unemployed. There’s an unspoken rule among working Americans that the unemployed have cooties, and that if you talk to them, you will become infected, too. The minute the guys with the brown boxes come around and start escorting a colleague to the door, it’s as if all those late nights and softball games and happy hours never happened, and the shunning begins. I do not believe in these cooties. Instead, I try to make phone calls or send emails to unemployed friends on Monday mornings, which I know is an emotionally charged time of day and week, checking in and letting them know that they haven’t become invisible, at least not to me. Yesterday, I was having a pretty rotten day, one in a string of many. I was just at the point of realizing I couldn’t do enough damage by jumping out of my second-floor office window when I got a LinkedIn message from a guy I worked with ten years ago, asking if I’d talk to a friend of his, who is unemployed and applying at a place where I freelance. I wrote back without hesitating: Yes, I will talk to her. I sent emails to a couple friends at the company, seeking some information that might be helpful to this complete stranger. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know her. It matters that she needs help. And that, at the bottom of everything that's piled up in my fearful, cluttered heart, is the only sort of rule I need.

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