Thursday, May 23, 2013

Through The Kitchen Window

A young couple moves into a neighborhood.  The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the wife sees her neighbor outside hanging the wash on a clothesline.  "That laundry sure doesn't look very clean," she says to her husband over the breakfast table. "That woman must not know how to wash clothes correctly, or maybe she needs to use better laundry detergent."  The husband listens but doesn't comment.

The same thing happens again a couple of days later and then again a few days after that, and the pattern continues for several weeks.  Every time the wife sees the neighbor hanging her wash to dry, she makes the same comment, and the husband stays quiet.  

One day, though, the wife looks up from the breakfast table and says in a surprised voice, "Look! The clothes look clean!  I guess she's finally learned how to wash clothes correctly,  I wonder who taught her!"  The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows."

And so it is with life ... what we see while watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Summer of the Exchange Student

Here's something that most people I know don't know about me or my family ...

During the summer of 1984, in between my freshman and my sophomore years in high school, my family served as a host family for an exchange student.

Lots of people who have hosted an exchange student have probably had a great experience, one from which they greatly benefitted and something that they would recommend that someone else do as well.  Not so much in our case.

Corinne, with Mom and Nancy, in more clothes than I ever remember seeing her wear that summer

Our exchange student's name was Corinne.  She was from Nice, France; her father was a surgeon, and her family lived in a house on the French Riviera.

I have no idea how the match between her and my family was made by the exchange program agency.  It's possible they were desperate for placement families, or maybe they just used the exchange student's age and gender to pair the person with the family.  Suffice to say, though, that from Day One it was pretty obvious that the match wasn't a great one.

Corinne was between my sister Jennifer and me in age; one of the rules of the program was that the exchange student be given her own bedroom, and so Jennifer and I agreed to bunk together in my room during the summer and let Corinne have Jennifer's bedroom.  When Corinne got to our house, we excitedly showed her around, and she was silent.  No expression, no comments.  I thought it was a language barrier issue until later that day when she started saying things like, "OK, that's your room?" and "OK, you eat in your kitchen?" with a French accent and a condescending tone.  (Apparently someone had told her that Americans say "OK" a lot, and so she started off many of her sentences with that as a kick-off.) She went to bed really early that first night, which we thought might be because she was jet-lagged from the trip.  A week or so later, though, when she was still retreating to the bedroom pretty early on a nightly basis, we asked her if she was tired, and she said, "No, I'm just boring."  We laughed for a minute, until she clarified that she actually meant "bored."  Well ok, then.

The summertime weather in Corinne's hometown peaked out at about 80 degrees; the inside of our house was that same temperature because Dad was strict about the thermostat setting, and as usual the outside temperature in the entire state of Mississippi that summer was a hot, humid 99 degrees in the shade.  She came from a land of famous painters, sightseeing, and yachting; we had fun making pottery out of mud from our backyard, chopping the heads off water moccasins with a garden hoe, and canoeing in the lake behind our house.  She was used to fancy food and fine wine; in our neck of the woods, the menu consisted of Miller Lite for the adults and sweet tea for the kids to drink and something like beanie-weenies, grilled cheese sandwiches, or spaghetti to eat.

Some of the blaring differences in our lifestyles were actually kind of funny, although probably much more so to us than to her.  Our two dogs, who lived outside, often got ticks on them, especially during the summer months.  We thought nothing of pulling off a big, juicy tick we'd found on one of the dogs; the first time I did that in front of her, she was oddly fascinated - apparently she had never even seen a picture of a tick before.  Here's the really funny kicker to that: a week or so later, we went out to eat at a restaurant with a salad bar, and my dad put sunflower seeds on top of his salad.  When Corinne saw the sunflower seeds, her eyes got really big, and she asked in half amazement/half horror, "You put ticks on your salad?"

"You put ticks on your salad??"

One responsibility that came as part of having Corinne there that fell mostly on my mother's shoulders was policing the practices of grooming and decency of dress, both of which were obviously different in our house than what Corinne was used to.  Mom figured out that the best way to address the problem was to make a blanket announcement to my sisters, Corinne, and me.  My sisters and I had to bite the insides of our cheeks to keep from smiling or laughing whenever Mom said things like, "All girls in the house must shower tonight ... be sure to shave your legs and use soap in the shower and put on deodorant afterwards."  The first time Mom told us to get our swimsuits on to go to the pool at the Tennis Club, Corinne emerged from the bedroom wearing a string bikini that consisted of about one square inch of material in total.  "Girls, let's all wear t-shirts over our swim suits so we don't get sunburned," Mom called out, quick with the reaction.  "OK, I'm used to sun all over," Corinne informed her.  "It's a strict rule at the club," Mom told her and handed her a t-shirt.

My family went to Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad attended a business convention during the first week in August every year when I was growing up, and we did that year too, with Corinne in tow.  I remember the expression on Corinne's face when she first saw the beach there; I guess the Redneck Riviera didn't quite compare to the French one.  We had a blast, though, like we always did; we swam for probably at least ten hours a day there.  We were thrilled that the hotel where we stayed had a bar in the swimming pool, and Dad let us charge two Shirley Temples each per day to the hotel room.  By that time in the summer, Corinne had for some reason gravitated towards Nancy, who was about five years younger than she was, rather than towards Jennifer or me; Nancy entertained herself during that entire trip by pretending she could speak French and then telling Corinne to answer her back in "real French."  Quite entertaining, for us at least.

Don't get me wrong; we had fun that summer with Corinne there.  It's just that there's wasn't much, if any, of an exchange going on between her and us; pretty much all we learned about her country or her was that we were very different.  I wonder what she said about her experience as an exchange student when she went home; people probably thought she was exaggerating or fabricating when she told them about how we tanned on the roof of our house, drank water straight out of the hose, and ran around barefooted in the backyard all summer.  All in all, I guess it was an educational experience for her, although almost certainly nothing like the way she or her parents had intended for it to be, and for us, at least, it has provided many laughs over the years when we've thought back to the Summer of the Exchange Student.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How to Help

One of my nieces is known in our family for her love of candy.  We laugh when we think back to the year when she was two and whenever anyone asked her what she wanted for Christmas she simply said, "Candy."  No amount of prompting or urging could convince her to expand her Wish List that year; over and over, she insisted in her well-articulated, tiny voice that all she wanted was candy.  She was as clear as I'd ever seen a person be about what she thought would make her happy that holiday season, and she savored every bit of candy that she got as a gift.

I saw a little girl eating a big sucker today and thought about my niece and her quest for candy, which, thankfully for her parents' dental bills, has tapered off over the past decade or so.  I thought about just how incredibly happy a kid can be with something as simple as a single piece of candy.  Hell, I thought, sometimes a piece of candy makes me happy, too, especially if it comes in the form of a gift from someone.  

I like to give gifts to people, and I put a good bit of effort into trying to think of a gift that is special for each recipient.  One of the things that I think is the most fun to give is a gift for a new baby.  A thought that strikes me, though, every time I am giving a baby gift is that it's kind of ironic that giving such a gift to the new parents generates work for them, based on social obligations: after they receive the gift, they expect and/or are generally expected to write a thank-you note, which, as anyone who has ever been a new parent knows, is one of the many things for which they really don't have time at that stage of their lives.

Many times when I've been wrapping the baby gift I've considered including a note with the gift to tell the new parents that they are off the hook for writing a follow-up thank-you note, which perhaps they would appreciate as kind of a "cherry on top" type of bonus to the actual gift.  That way, receiving the gift does not create an additional duty for the probably already overworked parents.  

When someone has cancer or another serious illness, people are often eager to do something to help out.  Having been on both the receiving end of that equation as well as the "What can I do to help?" end, there are a few things that I have learned about supporting individuals in need, the most important of which is probably this:  Don't just ask the person or the family if they need anything; ask them what they need.  

Admitting that help is needed can be really hard, and so it's best not to wait for them to ask for assistance.  Assume that they need help - and ask what kind they need.  In some cases, it may even be a good idea to think of specific things to offer, like doing their laundry or their grocery shopping, providing meals, babysitting, pet sitting, etc.  One friend of mine paid for a house cleaning service to go to the home of someone she knew while that person was in the hospital; another one sent her husband over to that house to cut the grass - one less thing for that family to worry about.  There are lots of things that can be done to take stress off the family and to allow them more time to do whatever needs to be done to care for the person who is ill - or just to spend time together instead of running errands or cooking.  If the person who is sick and/or the family say they don't need anything, I recommend respecting their wishes but checking back often to see if that changes.  Sometimes people are too proud to ask or they can't think of anything at that time - but situations can change in an instant and the need for help can arise overnight.  Sometimes it's good to establish contact with a member of the extended family - or a close friend or neighbor - and let them know you are willing to help.  One of my parents' neighbors saw me pulling out of the driveway of their house early one morning when my dad was sick and flagged me down to exchange cell phone numbers with me.  Later, after Dad had been taken to the hospital by ambulance in the early hours one morning, that neighbor texted me to say she had heard the sirens and would be happy to walk my mom's dogs or whatever else we needed.  

Another thing that can be good to do is just to let the person or the family know that they are being thought of, especially if whatever you do to convey that message comes with no strings attached, like the "No Thank-you Note Policy" for the baby gift.  There are many different ways to go about doing this, ranging from texting or mailing a note to that effect (adding "no response required" if appropriate) to sending an anonymous gift or card.  

Or here's another idea (and this brings the topic back around to ... CANDY!):  Sugarwish!

As their banner says, the webiste offers an easy way to send a "sweet" thought by allowing the customer to purchase a gift card (actually an e-card) that will be sent to a recipient who then uses that to select their favorite candies from the choices on the website.  Once they've made their selection, the candy is shipped to their house.  And here's the potential bonus: it can be done anonymously, which will eliminate the thank-you note obligation on the part of the recipient.


When my dad was sick, I came across a website with a program similar to the concept behind Sugarwish; the idea, shared by cancer patient Jerry Kline in his blog, was that a pager (also known as a beeper) could be purchased and given to the person who is sick, with the phone number given out to any interested parties so that anytime someone prays for or thinks about the sick person they can call the number of the pager and enter "777" or their zip code followed by the "#" key to indicate their intent to that person, without requiring any response on his/her part.  I found the concept of the Prayer Pager to be brilliant; it allows people to send a message to let the person who is sick know they are being thought of, at any time of the day or night.  The pager can be turned off if the person wishes not to be disturbed during a certain time, and a page does not obligate the person to do anything in return.    

After reading what Jerry had to say about the program, I contacted the program administrator and asked if I could sign up for my dad.  Unfortunately, though, the program had run out of funding and was no longer being offered.

Since then, though, I have come across a website that offers something similar to the program Jerry used; it's called Pager Prayer.

I guess the point of all this is that there are things that can be done to help an individual who is sick and/or his or her family and that sometimes even the little things can be helpful and meaningful in such a situation.