Sunday, March 27, 2011

The death of bookstores

So many books, so little time

Now where am I going to hang out? 

Within weeks of each other, the only two full-blown, legitimate bookstores in town decided to close their doors. It’s true. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores are becoming extinct. Even in a place like the Bay Area that boasts having the highest number of college graduates in the U.S. per capita, we somehow can’t manage to merit having a real bookstore anywhere close by. Once a comfortable, interesting place to browse on a Friday night date, a rainy Saturday afternoon, or a family night out, these bookstores are being swept up into cyberspace with all the other retailers who believe they can establish a comparable virtual connection to their customers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring cleaning is here, like it or not

Cleanliness is next to godliness

On the first day of spring, our family started cleaning in earnest then purging fiercely. But our annual cleaning began unwittingly. 

For three days, we’ve been trying to find my son’s passport, but to no avail. We’ve looked everywhere! With fear, worry, and anxiety, we've attacked room after room. Every couch, closet, file, cupboard, drawer—every nook and cranny—has been ransacked and turned inside out. 

The passport is gone. Vanished. And with no good explanation, either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Silver spoons and rubber scrapers

Mom got the mileage (and more) out of her rubber scrapers
Some kids are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but I was raised on a rubber scraper (or “spatula,” as it is commonly known). I was born the twelfth of thirteen children, so my mom’s job of feeding her big brood was ever with her. No sooner would she finish cooking and serving and cleaning up after one meal than it was time to start in on another.

We were not wealthy, but Mom was a fabulous cook, homemaker, and manager, and she made sure we ate well and had enough. By the time I came along, she made the daily, gargantuan task of feeding us look pretty easy, but it was no small feat.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Time in a bottle

Mousse is time-in-a-bottle

Twenty minutes a day. That’s the average time a woman spends doing her hair
every day! That adds up to almost two and a half hours a week and more than five full days a year. So, what the heck are we doing, ladies? Instead of gettin’ pretty, we could be reading, writing, chatting, running, playing, watching T.V., working, or any number of other things—We could be doing the things men who simply shower and shave have time to do.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's not all smiles on Southwest

Happiness really is a choice

My friend Kellie Graham responded to my “Got happiness?” blog with the following true story of her experience on a Southwest flight: 

“I thought you might appreciate this experience that I had with Southwest, and I think it ties right in with your blog. 

“I flew Southwest LAX to SLC just after flying from Australia to LAX. I only had an 90 minutes between flights (not enough time). I was flying home for some sad family things. I also just so happened to be in my first trimester of pregnancy and feeling quite sick, running on virtually no sleep, and needing food. I was running the whole way to make it, and my name was being called to the gate. 

“I was the last person on the plane. I apologized profusely to the attendants and plopped down in the first seat I saw and clicked my belt. I quickly grabbed my food and water from my pack and began to frantically eat. The lady sitting next to me, who happened to be a [Mormon] Relief Society President in California quickly turned in to me and started fussing and mothering. Ironically, she was headed to Utah to take care of pregnant/sick daughter. 

“There were two flight attendants, one male and one female. Every time the female attendant went past me, she sharply told me to make some corrective action: put on your belt (it was on), tighten your belt, move your bag, move the strap on your bag, etc. I felt so bad each time. I quickly did what she asked all the while consuming my food, which is all I cared about. Every time the male attendant went past, he made some joke or did something silly. (He could have been your friend.) He even tried to steal my food, which would have been a mistake.

“My new friend sitting next to me made the comment that it was the strangest behavior. Both were singling me out but in different ways. One was probably agitated at me for various reasons and likely had all kinds of petty judgments and notions about me; the other recognized that I was obviously having a difficult time and was trying to brighten my day, even though I may have inconvenienced his. I am sure it would be super annoying to wait on a passenger, but they both made choices on how to react to a situation.”

Got happiness? It’s your choice.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Got happiness?

Happiness can be serious business

Recently, I flew on Southwest Airlines, the happy company that knows how to make a profit while having fun. Their latest in-flight magazine Spirit featured, fittingly, the topic of “Happiness.”

“What’s there to know about happiness?” you ask. First of all, having it isn’t “a simple matter of yes or no,” according to the article’s author Taffy (now, there’s a happy name) Brodesser-Akner. Instead, we’re supposed to find, choose, and create happiness. 

It turns out stuffy institutions like Harvard University are taking this happiness thing quite seriously. In fact, the most popular class offered at the Harvard Business School is a semester-long study in happiness. Course instructor Professor Tal Ben-Shahar speaks of universally human experiences, saying, “There are two kinds of people who don’t experience painful emotions . . . psychopaths and the dead.” OK, then. Is this supposed to comfort us? I guess his "insight" means that, when we don’t feel happiness but are still living and breathing, we should at least be glad we're still standing on two feet.

Anyone who has flown on Southwest knows that each flight is meant to be just a little bit fun or at least a little bit funny. The company itself is serious about not take itself too seriously, hiring people willing to promote its happiness brand. Many years ago, when the airlines first got off the ground (haha), an acquaintance of mine worked as one of its flight attendants. His eccentric, out-of-bounds sort of personality fit right in with this culture of happiness. For him, every flight became a personal challenge to make people smile, and he went to great lengths to do so. Although I never saw him perform live, I was told he could put on quite a show. For example, instead of describing emergency procedures, he would dramatize in-flight accidents, turning the dull and routine into something hilariously entertaining. Passengers guffawed through the usually boring safety protocol spiel as they watched him frantically blow air into the red tube of the yellow safety vest, plop himself down on the floor of the aisle, and pretend to madly row himself to safety. Southwest hasn’t earned those smiles for nothing.

A different article in the same company magazine suggests a few “Pleasure Principles” to live by. Most people have figured these out: show children you’re happy, get along with your co-parent, act kindly, and eat your meals with other people. The best tips, though, are the last two, both based on research:

  1. The quickest happiness booster is exercise, and when we can make that happiness last longer if we are part of a team.
  2. The best predictor of happiness is the quantity and quality of a person’s social ties.
Both tips made me think of my mother who is 90 years old. She exercises every day, and, when it comes to friends, she definitely has the quantity thing down. With just her huge posterity alone (about 250 of us), she stays socially active and involved in many people’s lives. And, even though many of her peers have died, she still manages to connect with friends from years past. Just the other day she had lunch with a friend from high school, and they talked for hours. More recently, she went to a funeral of a long-time church friend and reconnected with all kinds of people who remembered her fondly. (Funerals, it turns out, are big social events for Mom.)

The last part of the article talked about possessions people felt brought them joy. Allowed to only select one object, they chose things as simple as a garden vegetable or a cowboy hat; others decided on less unusual treasures such as a family memory album or a pet. Personally, probably because I grew up poor but happy, I'm inclined to agree with the oft-repeated platitude, “Money can’t buy you happiness.” But I couldn't help but think of how much I love my tech gadgets. For me, it would be a toss-up between my MacBook and my iPod. 

What’s makes you happy? 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Paint, pie crust, and parentage

The pie-crust gene skipped me

I’m dreading it, again. Another paint job looms in our near future. We’re remodeling our bathroom, which is awesome, but now we have to repaint. Unfortunately, after being a homeowner for almost 25 years, my painting skills are still dreadful. Oh, I’ve learned a few tricks (only get the bottom half of the brush wet, tape the edges first, and always use a dropcloth—no matter what). But I’m still messy. Very messy.

I think it’s genetic. My husband lovingly attributes my speedy way of doing things to my "Tanner zest.” No matter how hard I try to be neat when I paint, I still splash and splatter, drip and drop. Every paint job is an exercise in being patient with myself and forgiving my mistakes. 

I wish genes would work in my favor. Evidently, some of the good ones skipped a generation. At least they skipped over me. Making pie crusts, for example, is an art my mother perfected early in life. She could whip out a pie crust in nothing flat. In fact, because she was so speedy, making the filling for her signature lemon cream pies slightly annoyed her. Standing still at the stove was torture to her, so she usually roped one of us kids into stir-stir-stirring until the filling got thick. 

Mom pie-crust tricks were no secret. "Use very cold water," she'd say, "then add it slowly, stir with a fork. Most importantly, don’t handle the dough too much!" 

I’ve tried and tried to follow her instructions and replicate Mom’s flaky crusts. You would think all those years of my hanging around her kitchen would count for something! But even private tutoring from my expert baker friend using her failproof crust recipe hasn't helped me overcome my bad genes. 

Alas, my pie crusts are still tough. I can’t make them look deceptively delicious either because I’ve never been able to master that pinching-and-crimping thing around the crust’s edges that seasoned cooks seem to do with ease.

So, I’m resigned to eating store-bought pies. I mean, who needs delicious homemade pies anyway? And painting? Well, there’s always someone willing to put on a second coat, right? 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No excuse for ignorance

My children face virtually no roadblocks to being educated

Pop, my husband’s now-deceased grandfather, did not even finish second grade. Instead, at age nine, he was given his own team of horses and expected to plow the fields, literally becoming one of the family’s breadwinners before he had lived even one decade.

In the end, Pop lived almost eight decades, and during that time the world changed dramatically. 

Always thirsty for knowledge, he read everything he could get his hands on. But, a century ago, access to print materials was very expensive and extremely limited in Eastern Oklahoma, and iPods and online courses had not yet been imagined. Such was the fate of many hard-working Americans just a couple of generations ago. Fortunately for Pop, however, he came across a magazine advertisement for a “correspondence course” in radio technology. Enrolling in that class marked the official beginning of his adult education, providing him with know-how and skills to become a much-sought-offer radio and television repairman.

My own grandfather, also an intelligent, self-educated man, touted the virtue of education incessantly: “Get an education and be your own boss” was his oft-repeated paternal advice to his two sons. Both went on to become doctors of sorts.

Today my children stand on the shoulders of their great grandfathers and grandfathers who, through determination and sacrifice, scraped together an education for themselves. To those men, the chance to learn was important enough to give up time, money, and convenience. 

With three children already enrolled in college (and the last two making plans to attend), I am relieved and pleased that all of them consider learning opportunities vital to a bright future. In contrast to their grandfathers, however, they face virtually no roadblocks to getting an education. In fact, they would be hard-pressed to not be learning something all the time.

We live in a time when information is everywhere, and we can usually get it when, where, and how we want it. Case in point: almost everyone in the U.S. owns a cell phone (90% of Americans) and has access to the Internet (100% of schools were connected by 2005). This phenomenon is due largely to Moore’s law, which states transistor density doubles every couple of years. Consequently, information and its delivery mechanisms are available exponentially—and at decreasing costs. It turns out Moore was right, and his calculation has proven itself over and over again—not just during the one decade he predicted it would but over almost five decades—and is expected to continue for yet another decade.

Without question, we are all swimming in a sea of knowledge and could easily feel overwhelmed by this data deluge. Fortunately, however, working in tandem with this information explosion are multiple outlets for collaborating. Think about Facebook, Twitter, and Digg; consider StumbleUpon and LinkedIn. Many still regard these social media platforms as extraneous and peripheral, but they are becoming increasingly mainstream and even essential to those trying to stay abreast of trends and working to make contributions to all disciplines. Young people understand this. Just ask a teenager what his first step is when doing a school project. I guarantee it won’t be “I go to the library.” Instead, he'll first connect with others, usually online. 

Today, rather than gathering and carrying knowledge alone, we can quickly find others who know what we need to know, giving new meaning to the phrase, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Nowadays, we all stand on each others’ shoulders to learn. Meanwhile, we should be shouldering our own portion of the responsibility by being informed. We have no excuse for ignorance.