Friday, June 1, 2012

Listening to the Night

A few nights ago, I gave in and turned on the central air. You know what that means, don't you? That all too brief time of hearing the sounds of the night outside my bedroom window is over. I love that time. The time when it's warm enough to open the windows, but not hot enough to turn on the air conditioning and close them up again. In Michigan, that time lasts about two nights. Sometimes fewer.

It's hard to explain what I love about those night sounds. But, you know me, I'm going to try.

The first night that the window is open, and I can hear dogs barking, neighbors talking, motorcycles and car horns in the distance, I am six years old again and back in my grandparents' house. They lived on Detroit's west side. I can assure you, they never had central air. The windows were open all summer long. 

Their Coyle Street house was just half a block from West Chicago Road, a few streets from Greenfield. There were plenty of noises to entertain and intrigue me. Sirens, car engines, honking horns, radios. As I lay awake listening, I remember wondering why the world hadn't gone to bed. After all, I had.

When I was very small, I was under the impression that I was the only living being with thoughts and feelings. The world had been created just for me (inexplicably, though, not to my specifications...I wasn't even consulted) and that all the other people walking around were there for my benefit. I know of a couple people who would say I still see the world that way. Take my word for it, I don't. Mostly.

So, I was confused. Since it was time for me to go to sleep, why were other people still going places, doing things? The day is over folks. Time to give up the intricate charade.

Eventually, I became aware that I was not, in fact, the center of and reason for creation. Still not happy about it, but I'm learning to adjust. Despite that, the sounds of the comings and goings of humanity on a summer night still fascinate me. I drift off to sleep wondering where that person with the bad muffler is going tonight. Is he working the late shift? Meeting friends at a bar? Looking for an all night muffler shop? Just knowing that the world goes on, and each person out there has their own stuff to deal with, is a strangely comforting feeling.

The city is the best place to experience this sensation. In the country, night noises consist mostly of tree frogs and crickets. They're nice in their own way, but don't provide the entertainment and imaginative musings of urban night life. No place I've been beats New York City. If you've never spent a night in Manhattan, I'm not sure that I have the ability to describe the stupendous symphony of sound that rises from the streets to greet you. 

Of course, the noise is there during the day, too, but it's not until you've put your head on the pillow and your own life has quieted down that you can really appreciate the wonder. 

In my suburban bedroom, I hear a car coming, and then going. Maybe three minutes later, another one. Once a night, I might hear a train whistle. In an 8th floor Midtown Manhattan hotel room, the traffic noise is a living, breathing entity that never, ever stops. Never pauses. It's beautiful.

I've listened to it, waiting for a moment-a fraction of a second- when a car horn is not sounding. It never comes. I have a theory that either the same guy is hitting his horn for the entire night or, more likely, everyone in the surrounding area is taking turns honking their horns, a bucket brigade of honkers. But car horns are only the background singers. Sirens have the lead part. I'm sure they are somehow coordinated. Just as one siren fades, another takes over. You'd think they were calling to each other. A rescue vehicle antiphony.

New Yorkers must be accustomed to the noise, they'd probably miss it if it weren't there. Other visitors to the city might have difficulty sleeping. Then there's me. My mind is occupied with the vision of all those humans..and there are so many of them...going about their lives. Making their way through the night. In my sleepy state, I see well-dressed couples leaving the opera, taxi drivers picking up one more fare, delivery trucks making their rounds, and -judging by the vast amount of sirens- people going to the hospital, getting arrested, and retrieving their belongings from burning buildings. Proof positive that the world truly doesn't stop just because I'm going to sleep.

It's easy for me to be so focused on my life, my worries, my priorities, that I forget that every other person out there has their own collection of sorrows and delights. They, too, are trying to get through another day and make the best of it. I'll admit, there is still a tiny bit of me that is inclined to feel that my needs are the only ones that count. That others' struggles aren't as difficult as mine. 

Someone whose opinion I give more weight than my own (which makes him part of a very select group) told me that we all believe that our pain is the worst pain. He was right, of course, and I knew it. Still, I fought the urge to reply that in my case it's true. My pain is the worst pain. Instead, I took his words to heart and have repeated them to myself each day since. One day, they'll sink in.

It's easier to remember when I keep the windows open and listen to the sounds of the night.

When I was about 19 years old, I was at a family friend's cottage in the Irish Hills. It was part of a row of cottages that were uncomfortably close to each other. I'd tried to sleep while a party was going on at the one next door. At one point, just as I was drifting off, I heard shouting. There was a lot said, but all that I really remember is one guy shouting, "Get out of here, Tom, or I'm going to kill you!" to which Tom replied, "I'm sorry, man! I didn't know she was your wife!" It must have been some party. Finally, after the cops came and left, I was able to get some sleep.

It's rare that the sounds outside at night are that intriguing. But I enjoy listening anyway. A lot of you prefer the tranquility of crickets, or even complete silence. There are times when I wish for that- I certainly would have liked it the night of that Irish Hills cottage party. But there are times when I find more serenity in the noise of humanity...and know I'm not alone in world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sorry, I Don't Speak Coffee Table

We've established that there are lots of subjects that interest me, and I love to talk about them. But there are some things that I simply don't enjoy talking about. Those things are things.

Just about any thing as a topic of discussion is, frankly, unpleasant to me. So much so that I, yes me, Beth, can be just short of rude (I know, impossible, right?) if someone talks about an object for more than, say...a minute. After that I will go pale, my eyes will glaze over, and I've been known to make gurgling noises in my throat. No need to call 911, just stop talking about the thing. You'll be amazed at how quickly I recover.

No, I don't abhor all possessions. I like things. There's my ice maker. Seriously, I wouldn't give it up. When I'm in a house without one, I wonder why these people have flush toilets and electric lights, but not an ice maker. Are they prairie folk? Once you have an ice maker, the idea of living without one is bleak. Unthinkable.

You'll notice though, that if you read that statement aloud from beginning to end, it takes no more than a minute. Even the finest man made (alright, human made...I don't want anyone going all militant on me) object requires, or deserves for that matter, no more than a minute of discussion.

Imagine my immeasurable discomfort when my mother (don't tell her I'm picking on her) talked to me for 15 straight minutes about coffee tables! You heard tables!  She was looking for furniture for her new place. She'd seen one she liked in a magazine. She described it. She went looking for one. She saw many. She described them. Each of them. Some came close to the one she liked, but she had to explain why it wouldn't work. She talked about the wood, the leg style, the weight for heaven's sake! She was sad that she hadn't found the one she really wanted, but she'd keep looking. 

She seemed slightly distracted by the glazed-eyes and gurgling sounds, but not enough to stop talking. ABOUT COFFEE TABLES! 15 MINUTES! I'll never get those 15 minutes back.

There are very few things you could say about a coffee tables that I would find interesting. If a coffee table had been used as a murder weapon, I might be intrigued enough to listen. If Ryan Gosling's feet are propped up on your coffee table, I definitely want to know. Text me. Please.

Other than those two unlikely scenarios, coffee tables are meant for coffee cups and coffee table books. That's why they call it a coffee table. No need for further discussion. Ever. Really.

Lest, you think I'm singling out my mother, I'll tell you about an incident concerning my mother-in-law. Don't tell her either.

One day, I arrived at her house, and she was terribly excited to show me something she had just bought. What followed went something like this...

"Look what I got!"
"Oh, how nice. It's a purse."
"Not just a purse. It's a <insert name of overpriced, overvalued, overrated purse manufacturer here>!"
"Great." (Any indication of enthusiasm is purely unintentional).
"I thought you'd be excited."
"'s a purse."
"I got it for $40! It was 80% off."
"Are you saying that there are people in the world that would spend $200 on 
a purse?!" (OK, I didn't actually say that. That would be impolite. And, obviously I know a lot of women that would spend that kind of money on a purse. I just don't understand it. Unless it also makes ice.)
What I really said was...
"Good for you." 
"I was so tickled! I couldn't wait to tell <insert name of female relative who not only would spend $200 on a purse, but has. Many, many times>."
"I'm sure she was delighted."
"She was! A lot more than you."
"Sorry. But it's a purse. I don't really get excited about purses."
"Well, I'm happy."
"I'm happy you're happy."

In all fairness, I have to admit that there is one thing I desperately covet. My heart flutters whenever I see one. A 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang convertible. Color choices in order of preference are: Guardsmen Blue, Rangoon Red, Poppy Red, Cascade Green, Wimbledon White. I could be talked into a '65. 

However, as much as I desire to own one, I could still say everything I need to say about it in less than a minute. "It's so pretty. I really, really want one."  

See? Way under a minute.

My antipathy toward talking about stuff ends at art, music and literature. Those things aren't really stuff by my definition. But I'm sure there's at least one difficult person out there who would argue, "What about a Van Gogh painting? A Thomas Hardy novel? What about an album by The Replacements? A poem by Byron? Those are all things, aren't they?"

Wrong. They are ideas. Dreams. Parts of someone's soul.

When someone sees beauty in the world, or pain, joy or sadness, and is able to put it on paper, or canvas, or in song so that you can feel what they felt-
if what that person created lets you remember how it felt to fall in love, or lose a love, or find your love again- if by listening, or looking, or reading, you find out that somehow, someone else knows who you really are deep inside, even though they may have lived in another time, another place...then that is worth talking about.

Or not.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

So Far, So-So

My anti-story-stomping endeavor is now six days old. I really should come up with a better name. Something pithy. I like pithy. Now accepting suggestions.

For those of you who are reading only this, my third post, and don't want to bother scrolling down to read the first two (it would only take a couple minutes. But, I understand if you're busy), I'll recap my experiment. For the next year (less 6 days), I will not reply to anyone's story with a story of my own. Unless someone finishes a story, and then asks, "Beth, has anything like that ever happened to you?", the most I will do is nod and ask for more details about their story. That's only if I find it somewhat interesting. If not, I'll say, "Isn't that nice?" (assuming nice is what it is...I might have to use another word in its place. Fortunately, I know lots of them) and then pretend I hear someone calling me.

If you're asking yourself what led me to this point, go ahead and scroll down. Read my first post. It won't kill you. Then read the second. Then tell your friends to read them. If you know anyone in publishing, ask them nicely (but firmly) to read them, and mention that I'm also writing a book. It's not about this. Why would I blog about the same material that's in my, as yet, unpublished book? That'd be stupid.

I'm sure you're all chomping at the bit to know if my efforts have achieved anything. Well, no one has turned to me and said, "You are such a good listener! I feel so validated talking to you!" if that's what you're wondering. Though, I am sure I'll have experienced a lot of that by this time next year. Like pebbles dropped in a pond, the ripples are making their way out into the world.

But for me, it's an enormous exercise in self-control. I have stopped myself from uttering any sentence that begins with, "Once, I..." an average of 72 times a day since last Thursday. Nobody seems to have noticed. I'm that good.

Those who know me well know that self-control isn't a phrase often combined with my name in a sentence- unless that sentence is, "Beth, for the love of God, show some self-control, please!" I've actually heard that quite a few times.

And yet, this year not only have I stopped eating meat, I've stopped hurling my stories at unsuspecting victims. All things considered, the meat thing is much, much easier than the story thing. Yes, I've had several more months of practice as a non-meat eater. But, so far, I haven't held a piece of filet mignon all the way up to my lips before I remembered that I couldn't let it pass them. It's quite a bit more difficult to remember that certain words shouldn't pass my lips. Evidently, it's less of an effort to control what goes in my mouth than what comes out.
Who knew?

I know what you're thinking. Going meatless and storyless in the same year? This is epic! Why these two life-changing commitments at the same time? Ok, "life-changing" is a bit of a stretch for the anti-story-stomping undertaking (I really do have to come up with a catchier name). And, to tell the truth, considering what a hard-core carnivore I used to be, the meat-free lifestyle is surprisingly easy to stick to. Anytime I'm tempted to eat meat, I picture Babe or Wilbur, or some sweet brown-eyed cow or pretty little lamb. No meat, no problem. The repercussions of trumping someone else's story with my own are somewhat harder to picture in my head.

So, I try to focus on my objective in doing this. That is to be a good listener. To stop competing to get myself heard when someone else is talking. While, I hope to never go back to eating meat, I will- as of May 10, 2013- go back to telling my stories. But, by then I think that, perhaps, I will know how to choose stories that enrich and contribute to the conversation. I will be hearing what you say rather than just looking for a break in your story in which to insert mine.

As my cousin Lisa pointed out, everyone has a story. I can't hear yours if I'm busy telling you mine.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Grandmother and the Rat

In an effort to understand why my children don't enjoy my Chicken Pot Pie Story (my eldest assures me she does. In fact, she says she loves all my stories. Have I mentioned what a brilliant daughter I have?), I recalled my favorite story from and about my grandmother. Why did it mesmerize me so? Why did I beg to hear it whenever I saw her? It wasn't O. Henry. It was better.
It was my grandmother's.

You may not be aware of it, but my grandmother was the most wonderful person ever in the history of the world. Others may disagree, but they'd be wrong.

My grandmother was Irish. Her father was born in Ireland. Her mother's parents were born in Ireland. There wasn't a drop of non-Irish blood in her veins, and it showed.

I was born just days before my grandmother's 60th birthday. By the time I knew her, her hair was mostly silver. If you asked her what color hair she'd had when she was younger, she'd tell you she had "ugly red hair." If you asked anyone else who knew her when she was younger, they would tell you that she had beautiful, wavy, auburn hair. My grandmother wasn't exactly full of herself. But, by all accounts, she was exceptionally pretty in her youth.

Since Grandmother was only a year younger than flight, there are no color photos of her taken when she was young. I've seen black and white pictures. From them, I could tell that she was lovely. Sadly though, while they showed that her hair had been long, dark, and beautiful, I couldn't get a clear idea of the gorgeous shade of auburn it had been. 

Not that it mattered much. I didn't love Grandmother for her hair. I loved her for her laugh. The twinkle in her eyes. Her sweet voice. Her kindness. I loved her for how soft and warm her hugs were. I can still feel those hugs, and remember the scent of her perfume when I was wrapped in her arms.

Most of all, I loved (love) Grandmother for how much she loved me.

So, where does the rat come in? I'm getting to that. Show a little patience.

I have no clear memory of the first time she told me the story. What I do remember is me at her feet while she sat on her forest green couch, my arms crossed on her lap. I would say, "Please, Grandmother, please tell me the rat story." Try to imagine an angelic, child-like, English-accented voice a la Oliver Twist (that's not at all what I sounded like, but humor me). Grandmother would say, "That old story, again?!" Then she would laugh, her eyes would twinkle, and she'd tell me my favorite story in the whole wide world.

"When I was young, after I had moved to Detroit (Grandmother was from Terre Haute, Indiana), I worked at the switchboard in a big department store.
The switchboard was in a back room. There was an employee stairway behind me, and a door that opened on to the alley. We'd keep it open in the summer, for the breeze. There was a Chinese restaurant across the alley and I smelled Chinese food all day. I hate Chinese food. 
I had long, red hair back then, and I guess the men kind of liked it. I don't know why. When they went up the stairs behind me, some of the men would tug on my hair. I'd bat their hands away and tell them to stop it, but they just kept doing it. Men are like that, you know.
One day, I had the big boss on the line, he was asking me something when I felt a tug on my belt. I covered the mouthpiece and said, 'Stop it, will you?! This is important!' I tried to listen to what the boss was saying, but this guy just kept tugging at my belt. I tried to bat him away, but he wouldn't stop. I twisted around to pull his hand off of me, but it was a RAT! (The reader is expected to infer that the rat had come from the Chinese restaurant. My grandmother would have told you that plainly, but I try my best not to cast aspersions on ethnic eateries. I am confident that the proprietors of the restaurant did their best to keep the premises rodent-free.)
I let out a blood-curdling scream right into my boss's ear. All the salesmen came running. I had managed to knock the rat off, and it went scurrying out the door. In the meantime, I had forgotten about the call, but we could hear my boss yelling, 'WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON THERE?!!'. So one of the salesmen got on the line and told him what had happened. He calmed down, I wasn't fired. But I was sure shaken up. After that, I jumped out of my skin whenever someone tugged on my hair." 

Grandmother would always shiver a little at the completion of this tale.

As previously stated, it wasn't O. Henry. Grandmother couldn't understand why I loved that story so much. Why did I?

I think I loved it because it depicted my grandmother in her youth. I enjoyed the mental image of her as a young woman in the 1920s. Professional. Pretty.
With hair so lovely that the men she worked with couldn't resist touching it. 
Then, there was the showdown with the rat. She was terrified, but triumphed, and, thank goodness, wasn't fired for screaming in the boss's ear. 

I am glad I listened to her story the first time. I'm glad I asked her to tell it again and again.

My grandparents never had much money or valuable possessions. Very few material goods were passed down. But I have my grandmother's rat story. I've told it to my children, and I will tell it to my grandchildren.

I can picture the little darlings, arms crossed on my lap, begging, "Please Grandmother, tell us your grandmother's rat story. And, please, when you're done, tell us the Chicken Pot Pie story again."

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Sad Demise of the Chicken Pot Pie Story

I have a gift. 

Bring up any subject, for example, Canadian border crossings, and I can tell you a personal (well, no more than one degree removed) story that relates to it.
Mention the Ford Pinto; I have a story. Mention park rangers; I have a story. Mention "Sweet Home Alabama"; I have a story. Mention scurvy; I have a story.
That's right. I have a scurvy story.
Tortoises. Cotton Candy. Al Roker. Nuns. Priests. Tilt o Whirls. Cross dressers. Demi Moore. Tarantulas. Fitting Room Sex (witness, not participant). Shipwrecks. Hitchhikers. Bushels of dirt. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story. Story.

For a person who has lived a full, rich life, who has traveled far and wide, who has moved in circles with the rich and famous, this ability would hardly be a surprise. 

I am not that person. 

Sure, I've done some exciting things, been to interesting places, met some cool people. But, mostly I've lead a pretty ordinary,even mundane, life. 
My talent lies in being able to take those few experiences and match them to your story, whatever it may be. 

Recently, I've had the inkling that some of the beneficiaries of my gift might not see it as a good thing. It's entirely likely that some of my friends play a drinking game, one in which they take a shot whenever I start a story with "I once dated this guy who..."

To my dismay, not only do my children not appreciate but, for some time, have openly mocked it. I can not tell you the pain it caused me the first time they rolled their eyes, and groaned, "Not the Chicken Pot Pie Story again!"

Now, I view the Chicken Pot Pie Story as not only a humorous, winsome illustration of innocence, as well as a cautionary tale of the importance of careful word choice when speaking to children, but an important clue to the mystery of why their mother is, she is. You'd think the relief of knowing that the cause is more nurture than nature, therefore making it unlikely that they will  pass it on to their children, would alone be enough to make them want to hear it again and again. 

So, why the blog? 
I'll tell you.

The new Reader's Digest arrived recently. I was reading "Quotable Quotes" because I like the highbrow stuff. 

The first quote was something Bono said. I don't remember it. But, Bono said it so, it was most certainly wise and very, very important (I have U2 stories, too- suitable for any occasion). However,the quote that grabbed me by the wrist, and dragged me to my computer was one by Steven J. Covey. I've never read any of Dr. Covey's books, but I have stocked them on shelves (did I mention I once worked in a bookstore), so I know who he is.

What Steven J. Covey said (or, at least what Reader's Digest said he said...I have not taken the time to authenticate the attribution of this quote. Nor am I sure that I used attribution correctly in that sentence) was, wait for it...
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply." My reaction was, Yeah! Those rotten people. I hate them!

After all, is there anything more aggravating than telling someone your wonderful (or poignant, or upsetting, or hilarious) story, only to have them respond, "You think that's something, listen to this..." 

You smile, nod, pretend to listen but, the whole time they're talking, you're thinking, You jerk! You butt wipe! You uncouth person! You stomped on my story. It was MY story! I was waiting to tell it, I planned to elaborate and regale you for hours, but you just knocked it out of my hands, threw it to the ground, and hopped up and down on it. All so you could shove your stupid story in my face! I hate you!"

I asked myself if I am guilty of this transgression. The answer, no. Of course not. I am decent, thoughtful person with very few character flaws (that the average reader would know about or be able to prove in court). 

But, what I could possibly be guilty of is boring hapless listeners with my seemingly endless, often repetitious, and sometimes (not often) not terribly scintillating stories.

I had an idea. So, I flushed, washed my hands, and updated my Facebook status. I told my friends that, for the next year (beginning May 10, 2012), I will listen to the stories of others without (that's right) replying with a story of my own. Instead, I will comment on their story. I will ask questions about their story. I will laugh, cry, or become indignant about their story. 

To the casual observer, this endeavor might appear extreme. But, I'm an all or nothing kind of girl. And my attempt at changing my ways is less a reaction than an experiment. 

What will happen if I listen to people without the intention of getting my own story told? Will I hear what they are saying? Will I learn to be more sensitive and understanding? Will the speaker feel validated? Will I appear to be an addle-brained dolt who doesn't know how to contribute to a conversation? We're going to find out.

It began yesterday. I work with seven other women. It wasn't easy. As a mother, listening to other mothers talking about their children, and not responding with a delightful anecdote that demonstrates how my children are so much more wonderful than theirs is an enormous challenge. But, I got through it. I'm not entirely sure anyone noticed, which is kind of the point. I want to find out how people feel when I listen- not lob the ball back at them with my own story, just listen.

I'll let you know what happens.