Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Trust Among Strangers

It was the last day of the last ski trip I was to take in 2014, and I was skiing solo.  I’d recently been practicing the art of the pick-up, introducing myself to others in hopes that I’d find company on the slopes.  As it turns out, good skiing, like fine dining, is best shared in the company of others. 

It was about noon and I’d already been skiing the slopes of Snowbird alone for a couple of hours.  Not that I preferred that, but it was an uncrowded day on the slopes.  I stood waiting to take the next tram uphill and I let some space open up in front of me.   Two women seized the opportunity to fill that void and I couldn’t let their action go unnoticed. I spoke up; now it was my turn to seize an opportunity.  As we rode the tram skyward I started a conversation that helped secure a positive response when I suggested we ski together.

Carol and Jean are high-energy retirees, both seventy-somethings with lots of spunk.  They've stayed mentally and physically active well beyond the point at which they gave up their careers as flight attendants.  After just a few runs, Carol was ready to call it a day.  Jean, however, suggested she’d stay on for a few more runs.  What followed was a full afternoon skiing some of the most demanding slopes on the mountain.  With Jean in the lead, I left the map in my pocket.

I was enjoying Jean’s company, and I never stopped to consider that this person was a total stranger to me, as I was to her.  We got acquainted through the usual banter of where we live, what we do (or did) for a living and my picking Jean’s brain about how to best prepare for retirement.  As we concluded our last run of the day, Jean mentioned she’d lost her ride home when Carol left and she’d have to catch a bus.  Without considering how inappropriate it might sound, I offered to drive Jean home.  “Do that and you’ll earn a dirty martini as a reward”, Jean said.  Within the hour we were sitting in Carol’s kitchen as Jean mixed up what she claimed would be the best martini I ever had.  It might have been premium ingredients or a world-class recipe that made that martini taste so good, but I like to think it was the company.  I offered to take us all out to dinner but Carol said she’d rather cook and invited me to stay.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  Total strangers just hours before and now an invitation to enjoy a home cooked meal with my new friends.

It’s true, skiing and fine dining are best shared with great company. 

Submitted by Dr. Steven Blaine, PhD

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Birthday Boy

When our children were in school my wife and I got involved with an exchange student program from Mexico and Central America.  We hosted students, not for the entire school year, but for six to eight weeks over their summer vacations.  Some of the students enjoyed themselves more than others, but all in all everyone seemed comfortable living with our family.

I remember one trip to the airport and greeting our student.  It was the boy’s birthday. When we met him at the gate we were surprised.  He was from Mexico, but he had red hair, fair skin and freckles. 

As we went to collect baggage we saw other families gathering up students.  One family came over to speak to us and it came up in conversation that it was our student’s birthday.  Everyone in that family turned to my youngest son, the one who looks like me, with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, and wished him a happy birthday.  He was embarrassed but we laughed it off and started home.

Stopping at a restaurant for lunch, we explained to our waitress that we had a Mexican exchange student with us and that it was his birthday.  Again, she turned to my youngest son and wished him a happy birthday.  At this point I think both boys were pretty uncomfortable with the obvious assumption that Mexicans all have dark complexions. 

After having about six students over the years, I can tell you we never saw another student with red hair or freckles, but we did discover that wherever they come from, people have much more in common than they realize.  Most of our students had two parents who worked.  Father’s enjoyed things like hunting and fishing.  Mother’s liked to shop and cook.  Free time was spent visiting with extended family.  The children enjoyed bicycling, going for walks and joining in family chores.  One boy liked to hunt and we ate squirrel one night.  One girl was very sad that we didn’t have a mall in our town, a place of only about a hundred families.

I can tell you something else.  Stereotypes hurt.  They hurt the one who embraces them the most, because preconceived notions limit your thought process.  It’s as if you were trying to thread a needle with a baseball mitt on.  Leave yourself open to possibilities.  Five year olds can play the piano.  Eighty year olds can dance.  And red heads can come from anyplace!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Peninsulas

Many people from outside of Michigan don’t realize how large our state is, or that we have two peninsulas.  Driving from Detroit to New York City is about the same distance as driving from Detroit to Ironwood, our state’s westernmost municipality.  Both trips run about 600 miles.  On our southern border Michigan abuts three other states, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  It’s that upper peninsula that abuts Wisconsin.  Our westernmost counties lie in the Central Time Zone. And Ironwood?  Ironwood is actually west of Saint Louis. Missouri. 

Before the Mackinac Bridge was opened in 1957, people had to take a car ferry to get from the lower to upper peninsula.  Each fall, when deer season would approach, cars lined up for miles as hunters from southern towns and cities waited for their turns to get across.  So you might figure that there would be a little rivalry, maybe even some animosity, between the residents of the upper peninsula, the Yoopers, and the residents of the lower peninsula.  Ever since that bridge was built, we who reside in the lower section have been called Trolls, because we’re from “below the bridge.” 

One winter I was traveling across the upper peninsula for business.  From where the bridge empties into Saint Ignace, I took state route 2 west.  There are towns every so often for the first part of this trip, until you pass the town of Iron Mountain.  After that point you can drive hours without seeing anything man made other than the highway itself.  It was in this stretch, with dark approaching, that I noticed a car parked on the side of the road.  I hadn’t seen anyone else for a long, long time and wondered where the driver was on this freezing evening.  Eventually I came to a cross road with a little store, a combination grocery and gas station.  I stopped to use the rest room and buy a snack.  The owner was an older man who worked alone.  I casually mentioned that there was a car abandoned by the side of the road a ways back east.  “Yeah” the owner acknowledged.  “He was here.  Outta gas.  Wanted me to close and drive him back.”
Well, I suggested, if he’d of stood out front with a gas can in his hand, the first person driving east would have picked him up.  “Yeah,” he admitted, “But I wasn’t going to tell him that.  He was from below the bridge.  He called the State Police and they came and drove him back.”  A State Trooper heading east had passed me, so I felt relieved that the stranded driver was safe.  I paid for my stuff without indicating my own appellation and drove off into the darkness, still a long way to travel before I slept in Ironwood that night.

Years later I received some advice I’ll share with you here.  If you ever travel to Michigan’s upper peninsula and a resident asks you where you’re from, just tell him you live in a little town south of the Soo.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

That's the Way We've Always Done It

I was visiting with a friend over tea and a piece of pie this morning.  We were venting about pet peeves. This friend was saying that the stupidest reason a person can giving for doing anything is, "That's the way we've always done it."

Well I had to share this story.  It was Easter, a long time ago, and the wife and I were guests at my sister-in-law's home for supper, along with the rest of their family. When sis got ready to put a boneless ham in the over she cut off each end and placed it in a roaster.

Upon seeing that move, I asked why she did it, why she cut the ends off.  She said she didn't know, that was just the way her mom had always done it.  My wife said that she also did it, and for the same reason.  But now I had piqued their interest.

The girls went into the living room and asked their mother, "Why did you always cut the two ends off the ham before you baked it?"  Mom replied, "Well, my pan was smaller than the one you have, and that was the only way I could get it to fit."

Monday, March 3, 2014

If I Should Die

When Laura was a young girl she spent several years in fear of her life.  It was her mother's fault; she'd told Laura that if she didn't go to the bathroom, she was going to die.

Laura tells me that she suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, and children of Aspergers often miss the subtlties of language.  Her mother had noticed Laura making that "have to go" face while she was playing, but not taking time to make a trip to the bathroom.  So mom told daughter, "If you don't go to the bathroom, you can die."

Without any further explanations Laura became quite anxious about dying any time she became constipated, which can also be a symptom of her condition.

Eventually Laura studied life science in school, and when she better understood the digestive process, both her misunderstanding and her fear were aleviated.

But for about five years she says the worst part of her daily acitivities was going to bed where she was compelled to recite, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray The Lord, my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake..."

Shared by Laura Cushing

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Old Fashioned Courtesy

My wife and I like to visit different places and experience other cultures.  On one trip we had a double treat, because after our tour of that new place, we got to spend a few extra days with some people we knew there.  Vic and Melinda had retired back to Vic's homeland.  They lived in the capitol city with about a million other residents, but in an outlying neighborhood.

On our first day the four of us took a walking tour of the nearby market and shops.  Everywhere we went our hosts called the people we met by name, and were also greeted by name themselves.   We stopped at a coffee shop and met the owner, who was the only person working. She brought us menus.  I picked mine up but Vic quietly suggested we would get the best treats if we asked the woman what she recommended.  I later found that this was because every food stuff was brought in fresh daily.

When we walked down by the supermarket Vic greeted a disheveled man by name and received a personal reply.  He introduced us to John, and explained that when you went into the market, John would make sure nothing happened to your car.  People were tipping John small coins.  I smiled and said that in the larger cities in the U.S. this took place too, it was a racket.  If you didn't pay, your car would be scratched.  Vic looked mortified.  Oh, no, he explained, as he tipped John.  It's not like that.  Melinda asked what happened to Steve, the man who used to have this job. Vic told her that Steve had been offered a better job helping a carpenter.  Since Vic had tipped John, even though we'd arrived on foot, I surmised that there was no actual job, only kind hearted  assistance from people who wished to help John while preserving his dignity through the appearance of work.

The next day I struck out to take a walk on my own.  To my surprise, even though they had no idea what my name was, I could not pass anyone on the sidewalk without being greeted, or at least acknowledged by a nod of the head.  One man who passed me from the rear even paused as he overtook me to smile and wish me a good day.

There was one person I saw who was not being greeted.  He was standing in his front lawn shirtless, watering the grass with a garden hose.  As men and women walked past his home they acted as if they saw nothing.  I had read that it was considered impolite here to appear in public shirtless, unless you were at the beach.  But rather than anyone clucking their tongue or giving him nasty looks for violating their social custom, they politely refused to notice at all, and simply went about their  business.