Something someone said to me last week has been bothering me. At first it was just a prick at the back of my mind, but every day since then something else has occurred to deepen its impact until it has become a gash in my thoughts. I’m officially losing sleep over it.

“No, individualism is the only way. I can go it alone. And so can you. We can be at complete odds but both be right, because it’s all about what’s right for ‘me.’”


“But what about ‘you,’” I asked.

“There is no more ‘you.’ Only ‘me.’”

Now, Gentle Penguin, I may have whined about feeling lonely before, but there are no words to describe how utterly and completely destitute that conversation made me feel.

I understand the point. And I know there are lots of merits to individualism. I myself have always been a fan of individualism—we each have value and should strive to bring it to full fruition. But could it be that we’ve taken it a bit too far?

A few days passed, and among those days a commercial airplane was lost—shot down over a power and land battle. I heard the word “evil” creep back into the vernacular. Somehow, I was uncomfortable with the word.

“Are we allowed to say ‘evil’ anymore?” I asked.

“Why not? Don’t you think the murdering of hundreds of innocent lives—lives in no way connected to the pursuit of the power and land greed that caused it—is an evil act?”

I have to admit that I do.

I trace my illogical discomfort with the word “evil” to a growing suspicion that in our individualities we have lost sight of the fact that we actually aren’t alone. Yes, I said “we.”

Gentle Penguin, have you ever lived with someone else? Shared a room with a sibling or a roommate? Were you ever married or had children? Do you take care of an aging parent or grandparent? Do you have a dog?

Maybe you commute on a train or work in an office or live in a city. Maybe you’ve shopped at a store or driven on a road or voted. Maybe you’ve eaten at a restaurant or gone to the doctor or played a sport.

All these situations involve other people. They make a “we.”

Have you ever noticed that you sometimes adjust your behavior slightly around someone else? Maybe lower your speaking volume or move your oversized purse sitting on the only empty seat at the bar. Maybe you adjust your schedule, or your walking pace, or your path. Maybe you put down the toilet seat or fix several servings of food instead of just one. Maybe you spend an hour playing Fetch or helping with homework.

There are times (especially lately with both my daughters home ALL the time) when I think it would be easier to just let the mess go, to decide I don’t feel like driving my youngest to soccer practice every night, to fix sushi instead of cooking something that suits the three of us, to bypass the daily dog walk in favor of an hour of TV.

But my core is care for the collective good. And I value peace in my home more than my need for individual gratification. I realize I’m odd. But I don’t think I’m that odd.

The need for individual importance (autonomy) is only one of the five core social needs in humanity. Belonging (acceptance or affiliation) is another. Maslow ranks it just above safety. (Incidentally, the other three also have to do with societal structures: appreciation, status and role.)

But to achieve these things, there has to be a “you” in addition to your “me.”

That means there have to be rules. Scientists call them constructs. You might also know them as manners or etiquette.

Now, I know our distrust of governments, corporations, religions, rules and regulations is at an all-time high. And God knows I too find myself questioning and defying all those things from time to time. But as Thomas Jefferson taught us shortly after the birth of our nation, ignoring or defying manners will only tear us apart.

Because no one will understand. And when people don’t understand why you behave the way you do, they usually end up hurt, angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated…and another link in the chain of humanity is lost.

When you know what to expect and what’s expected of you, you will succeed. Everything else leads to…evil.

So how do we fix this? I doubt I’m going to be selected to share this insight with Putin…or those in the Palestine/Israeli dispute…or to drug lords in Central America…or militants in Iraq…or ivory poachers in Africa…or anywhere else there is great need. I doubt they’d even listen so great is their greed, their anger, and perhaps their need for more basic things (like safety and food, health and protection).

And etiquette sounds so “establishment,” so “snobby.” Not at all like a life-saving, world-changing idea.

But it is.

Thee isn’t a day that goes by in the past few months when I haven’t found evidence for the power of etiquette to bring about hope, peace and joy.

Try it. Perhaps you could hold the door open for some walking with their hands full today. Or say “thank you” when someone does so for you. Perhaps you could look your barista in the eye when you purchase your cup of coffee…and smile. Or understand that the Muslim woman who seems to be sneering at you at the bus stop is really just tired and hungry after a month of Ramadan (it ends in Monday. And if you don’t know what it is, find out from a reputable source—ps. if it sounds hateful and evil, it’s not a reputable source.).

Perhaps you could make an effort to groom a little more carefully knowing that how you appear is a natural way for people to decide how to interact with you. Perhaps you could avoid talking with food in your mouth so that people will listen to you rather than silently ponder the grossness of seeing your mastication.

Perhaps you could let a car merge in front of you as you queue at the light or wait in traffic after work. Perhaps you could take a moment to check your timing so you don’t keep someone else waiting and wondering. Perhaps you could be more aware of how much space you and your cart are taking up in the grocery aisle when someone is trying to pass by. Or ensure you park between the lines in the parking lot so everyone can find a space.

Perhaps you could write a quick note thanking someone for something that made you feel important, and send it in the mail. Or bring a bottle of wine (or flowers) with you when someone invites you to dinner. Or answer the RSVP they sent for an upcoming event and make sure you attend. Or turn your phone on vibrate or silent when in a meeting, at a movie, out to dinner or in the bathroom.

There are a hundred other suggestions I could offer that will—when accumulated—turn the tide toward peace and save the world.

I ask you, please, could we could all try just one or two for the next week? Do it for the families of the lost. You just might find you feeling a bit more hopeful and peaceful too.

Life and death

Wednesday was my first brush with death; but today, I knocked elbows with him twice before noon. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t death that rocked me to the core, it was life.

Because my schedule is flexible, I decided I should dedicate some of my time to something meaningful, something that would give me perspective, something that served others and took my attention off myself.

I volunteer at Hospice twice a week.

It sounds so giving, but really I just spend my shifts making and delivering coffee to tired family members and patients, sitting with them, and listening to whatever they have to say.

They tell me about illnesses, disappointments, triumphs, pains, families, and memories. They tell me about nothing in particular, or we talk politics or music or coffee. Sometimes I just sit and hold their hand. Did you know that even the boniest, coldest hand can still be warm and soft?

I said something about how soft one woman’s hand was to her daughter today, and she started crying. “Did you know that since my mother has been dying, I’ve lost most of my friends?” These types of blurtations seem to happen frequently with family members of the dying. “Sheila, one of my friends, said it’s because they don’t know what to say. Honestly, saying anything would be better than facing this alone.”

I mentioned that to my volunteer boss. “Oh, it’s very common,” she told me sounding surprised that I was surprised. “Our society is very uncomfortable with death; and we’ve learned to avoid and make excuses for that which makes us uncomfortable.”

“It’s true,” said another volunteer. “I lost almost all my friends when my husband left me for another woman. They didn’t choose him, they just chose to avoid the entire situation. I was abandoned, twice.”

It honestly made me shiver. Could humans be so cold to those we care about?

I watched the families of the two people who died today on my shift. They seemed to hum with care for each other, to grow in number as time passed, to organize around the lowest member and spring into new shape when another fell into sadness. Maybe it wasn’t true.

Meanwhile, the peace of the dead was palpable. I felt enveloped in it.

Surely, we don’t all give up on what’s uncomfortable.

I’ll call him Joe, even though that’s not his real name. I was specifically asked to go see Joe. Joe is a musician who has travelled extensively playing bluegrass and country music with bands—at least until he went blind recently. Now he sits alone in his room, sleeping and sighing in silence.

“He has little or no support network and could probably just use some friendly chatter,” I was told. Well, I’m nothing if not friendly chatter. Especially if music is involved.

I knocked on his door, and he invited me in. I introduced myself and said I was excited to meet him and talk about his music and his life. He laughed sarcastically and ran his fingers through his thick curly hair. “What life?” He asked.

“Why, yours, of course! I understand you’re a musician and have travelled all over the country. What an exciting life that must be!” I meant it.

But Joe could only see his blindness. He was tired of music, he said after mentioning that he’s played since he was eight, He was useless, he said after telling me he could still play, but not as well as he did in his prime. He didn’t think there was anything exciting about life, he said after extolling the greatness of listening to something totally out of your genre (Frank Sinatra) and loving it because it wasn’t anything you’d ever even attempt.

I’ve never had a debilitating injury. Nor have I had an exciting life of travel and music and fun. So I don’t know if Joe is right. He could be. He very well could be. I don’t begrudge him his frustration or his weariness. Nor do I judge him.

However, he got me thinking about myself. I have lived my entire life with music too. I sang before I talked. I played piano before I learned to tie my shoes. And I’ve done both until the past few years when the weight of responsibilities depressed and repressed me. Then, just when I’d be about to hit the edge of the cliff, a well timed Chopin piano concerto or Rachmaninov rhapsody or Tchaikovsky overture would prick at my soul and remind me that I am made of music.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about life. It’s about people who feel they have lost so much but lose more. It’s about people who try to live the way they believe they ought to find that they are faced with suffering and obstacles. It’s about Joe, who is blind, alone, and dying.

I stew in this jumble of peaceful death and suffering life all day. I think about this surprising twist as I work, care for my daughters, and grocery shop. I’m confused as I make dinner and walk the dogs.

Finally, I find some quiet space to curl up with a glass of wine and a Woody Allen movie I love. Maybe I can forget the puzzle for awhile.

“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence,” says one of Allen’s characters.


The rain that’s been pretending to fall finally makes a valiant effort and descends with gusto. My dogs and my brother’s dog curl up on the love seat with me. And just then, a car drives down my street blaring Rob Thomas.

And maybe, someday, we’ll figure all this out.
Put an end to all our doubt.
Try to find a way to just feel better now.
And maybe, someday, we’ll live our lives out loud.
We’ll be better off somehow.

81 Day Challenge

Did you notice, Gentle Penguin, that this summer I haven’t yet tried to channel my inner Phineas and Ferb to create 81 days of summer vacation before school comes along just to end it?  It’s true.  Mainly because when I looked at the calendar, instead of seeing stretches of days with nothing on them, they were already half filled.  Soccer tournaments, commitments to family and clients, and meetings to prepare for my daughter’s freshman year in college have swallowed any chance for travel.

I can tell it’s past due, though.  My climbing rose, which normally seems like a whimsical and charming tendril-like entrance to my home seems much more like a noose ready to strangle me.  The talented starling who knows speaks so many languages to me almost every morning has begun to become annoying.  And it’s no longer a moment of wonder and awe to sit and watch the sun rise or set from my designated spots at d’Anconia Square…it feels more like a duty.

But my last post gave me an idea.  There are 170 days left between now and the end of the year, and while I doubt we can pull off 81 days of vacation moments, I bet we can do half that many!

So I’ve thrown down one of my everywhere shoes and issued the 81-Day challenge to my daughters.

Before the new year—40 days with a touch of vacation!

My youngest suggests horseback riding, my oldest suggests Disney World.  I write down the first and roll my eyes at the second.  I quickly add a dark sky excursion, fossil hunting at a new park I’ve heard about, winery tour weekend with my friends, the local beach, an outside Shakespeare performance at the community theater, fly fishing in the river, maybe an organ concert at a church downtown, or a visit to the Anti-Saloon League Museum…

A touch of vacation

Travel may be my most favorite thing in the whole wide world of things to do. But this summer, it’s just not possible. And I’m pouting about it.

I’ve been in this spot before—too many responsibilities and perhaps not enough resources…like time and money. I admit, I’m not handling the lack of change in scenery well.

When travel wasn’t an option as a child, I was perfectly content to imagine amazing adventures. While walking to the library, I’d imagine I was climbing a mountain, scaling boulders and picking rare wild flowers to cure an ailment that plagued the world. While swinging at the park, I’d sail to uncharted islands using the stars and a whisper on the wind to lead me to teas and spices for trade (and maybe a handful or two of pirate booty). While riding my bike around the neighborhood, I’d imagine myself atop a black stallion leading a camel caravan through the desert to an archeology dig.

They were the best summer travels! I still treasure the pressed flowers, rocks, and bits of twine and twig I collected along the way. They may well be from my neighborhood, but they were somehow also momentos of promises to far-away dreams.

Then, I became an adult. I travelled a little for business, but my income went to other things—like a plot of land and a bigger house, retirement and some mad consumerism I thought would save me. It didn’t.

Just when I thought all hope was lost, I read Eat, Pray, Love. I loved that book! I also hated that book! How was I, a newly divorced mother of two young daughters and primary, but broke, breadwinner supposed to go off and find myself? I could barely take an evening off, let alone a year! And forget leaving the country, I was lucky to go to Kroger!

For a couple weeks after I read the book, I pouted.

Then, one Saturday morning, I packed a picnic lunch for my daughters, buckled them into their safety seats in the car and grabbed my antique suitcase of maps. I put the windows down and pulled my shades on; turned up the Beach Boys and turned down the country road. And we drove.

A couple hours later we turned to follow the Ohio River, and a couple hours after that we turned into a park where we spent the next three hours wading and looking for fossils in the rocks underfoot. We ate our simple lunch and piled back into the car for home.

A few Saturdays later, we drove in a different direction and after several hours reached a Great Lake. Again, we waded, and this time we looked for shells and sea glass. We ate a simple meal. And we drove home.

As time went by, we filled many days with small adventures that included driving, eating sandwiches outside and collecting rocks. We also found and toured different kinds of churches in our community; discovered the tiniest, most obscure museums; dressed up for free outdoor concerts; created our own scavenger hunts, and (our favorite) determined which fast food vanilla ice cream was the best.

When we finally made it out of the country for vacation a couple years ago, guess what we did. We waded in tide pools, collected rocks and sea glass, toured obscure museums and attended free community concerts. Oh yes, we ate ice cream too.

I open the antique suitcase that still holds my map collection. It also holds a number of pebbles, shells and flowers that I study in the bright Thunder Moon’s light flooding through my window. I’m no longer able to distinguish between momentos from our tiny local vacations and our grand far-away ones. I rub my eyes and smile…and I imagine myself preparing to camp out under the stars along a pilgrimage route. Tomorrow, I’ll start again and see where the trail takes me.

Under a Spell

A wicked witch has cast a spell on me.

All week I’ve found myself mooning about. While hanging laundry on my clothesline, I have more than a few times found myself distracted by a butterfly or moth or firefly or fat bumblebee flitting by. In the midst of editing an article about infusion treatments, I looked up and sighed deliciously over a raging thunderstorm outside my window. And during my World Cup team’s match, I missed a goal for staring smilingly, chin cupped in my palm, at an elderly couple toasting each other with champagne in a corner of the loud pub.

During the mornings, while walking with the dogs, I twice picked a fluffy purple clover fashioning the one on Monday into a ring and the one on Thursday stuck straight into my hair behind my ear. Every song on my 1940s nightclub radio station seems extra romantic causing me to daydream and burn my eggs. And rather than singing weather songs in the shower (singing in the rain, here comes the sun, stormy weather, foggy day, come rain or come shine, blue skies, isn’t it a lovely day…), the melodies came out like advice (ain’t misbehavin’, pick yourself up, wish on a star, que serra serra, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive…).

This curse is seriously affecting my productivity. Instead of dozens of flooded river pictures to send to an editor, I ended up with almost 30 photos of little kids playing in the fountain downtown. Instead of an article on the increasing role of patient advocates in the hospitals, I penned an essay on white squirrels. Instead mopping my hardwood floors, I posed my new salt and pepper shakers for an impromptu photo shoot.


Normally, I wouldn’t question the curse—in fact, I probably would call it enchanted. But with no one on whom to bestow the romance, I feel as weighted down by the romance as my breath is weighted down by the 93 percent humidity around d’Anconia Square. And I wonder if Dean Martin had it right—you’re nobody till somebody loves you.

Still, there’s something so compelling about spending my Friday night curled up alone with my dogs, a Bedouin fairy tale, and a chilled Bordeaux Blanc while the fireflies and fireworks flicker in the starlit sky. And if I have another glass of the Chateau Gamage with breakfast after I’ve made a wreath of white and purple clover on my morning walk with the dogs, then perhaps I might just relax into the enchantment until a frog comes to break the spell.

It’s hard to believe I was lonely only a moment ago.


During the past two weeks, I’ve been to three events for which more than half the people who RSVPed didn’t show up.

“They paid, so I guess I shouldn’t be upset,” said the hostess at a community event as she threw away enough food to feed the city firemen.  We had tried to see if we could give it away, or donate it, but in the end we agreed that since it had been sitting out for more than five hours in hot and humid conditions, we better not take the risk.  She stood for a long time staring at the food in the trash can before she repeated herself, “I guess I shouldn’t be upset, they paid.”

Two days later and two hours away, the wife of a political candidate threw away a similar amount of food after dozens of cocktail party guests opted to send their “something suddenly came up” text messages during the hour before the party started while the candidate and his wife were setting up final details.

“Well, it was a fundraiser, and they said they’d send checks…” said the hostess as she too stared into the trash can.

“You can save the food and eat it this week,” said one guest trying to make her feel better.  “Except, it’s all cocktail food that’s been sitting out for hours,” said another guest.  “Well, it is Father’s Day weekend,” chimed in a third guest.  I just stared at the tiny crustinis topped with olive tapenade and now-soggy grilled cheese bites and debated whether to fume silently or tell the third guest to stick it.

The following week, a couple of guests and I helped another hostess quickly reconfigure her seating so the 20+ missing people weren’t so noticeable at her party.  “My husband said I should have checked the calendar better,” she said wiping the sweat off her face when we finished. “I guess he heard that there’s a big World Cup soccer game tomorrow, so some people couldn’t come.”

Like the other two parties, we found ourselves staring at an uneasy-amount of food headed for the trash a few hours later.  Her guests, who had made reservations, had not paid to attend.

I won’t mention the amount of money each hostess threw away along with that food, even though by my estimates as a professional meeting planner it was significant in each case.

I won’t mention the improbability that Father’s Day weekend or a World Cup soccer match the next day were the true reasons people didn’t attend after promising to do so.  Nor the legitimacy of those events as reasons to alter your reservation.

Nor will I mention the emotional devastation each of these hostesses battled for the evening, weekend and week after.  “I feel like I don’t have any friends,” said a couple of them.

Instead, I would like to focus on the history of reservations.

As with most things polite, it started with the French.  Likely it started before King Louis the XIV, but let’s start there since he solidified the practice.  You see, King Louis loved to throw parties showcasing his wealth and affluence.  And he only wanted to move in the best circles—partly because he was vain and partly because a lot of people wanted to kill him.  So he sent invitations.

No invitation (and by invitation, I mean your name had better be listed explicitly on the card), no party.

Now, imagine how embarrassing it would be to invite the best people—people who didn’t want to kill you—and a not have enough food for them.  Louis did imagine things like that, so he asked his guests to confirm whether they would or would not attend.

These responses guaranteed your entrance to the feast or ball.  If you hadn’t responded, you weren’t admitted; and likely you weren’t invited again…so you better even tell him if you weren’t coming.  Of course, then (and probably now) few people ignored an invite from the king.

Imitating the king was a natural next step in the progression of the reservation, but the practicality of the invite and RSVP (which stands for repondez s’il vous plait, or please respond) spread the practice.  Knowing how many and who would be attending helped the hostess prepare food, seating, conversation topics, and even entertainment.

Imagine not knowing that Aunt Mildred, the outspoken atheist feminist was planning to attend your Thanksgiving dinner where the new (and very traditional) parish priest was to be your guest of honor.  Wouldn’t you like to know that?  Or the fact that she’s bringing seven of her closest friends along, especially since your dining room table only seats eight.

Now imagine your best friend is approaching a milestone birthday, and you want to throw a party for her and your immediate group of friends.  You check with her schedule and a few other close friends and arrive on a date about a month out, then send out the invite to 30 people.  During the next two weeks various people respond either via email, text, or in conversations as you bump into them out and about.  By their indication, 20 people are planning to attend.

For the next two weeks, you spend your evenings planning a menu, ordering a cake, figuring out how to implement cool ideas you found on Pinterest.  The week of the event, you spend a small fortune in food and beverages, and use every free moment to deep clean your house.  The day before the party, you prep the food and stay up late because you suddenly realize you forgot to bathe the dog, which also means you have to reclean your bathroom.

The day of the party, you get up early and prepare the rest of the food, set up the seating areas and tables, decorate, and decide to drop your dog at doggy daycare.  Two hours before the party, you shower and get dressed, then pour yourself a cocktail.

Where is your phone? You’d better check in case someone needs last-minute directions.  Except you find four messages that read something like this…

“Sorry, not going to make it. I have to finish this project for my boss.

Wait, it’s Saturday around 5pm…

“Oh no! Forgot the party was today and am filthy from working in the garden. Sorry. Coffee next week?”

Um, the party doesn’t start for an hour still. How long does it take you to shower?

“Jane just told me the party was today. I don’t think my invitation said that.  I thought it was next week. Sorry.”

Frantically check email…yup, sent to you and said today…

“Sudden headache. Hope you understand; have fun!”

The feeling of dread begins.

Quack quack quack.  Another text.

“Jim and I are still on the green. We’ll have to take a rain check, it could be awhile.”

You check your planning notes.  Okay, that makes 14 instead of 20.  You adjust the table settings and seating.  And pour yourself another drink.

The guest of honor arrives and you put on your celebration face.  Let the party begin.  During the next hour, nine friends show up.  You deflect questions about the missing attendees with silly excuses. “Oh, you know how busy everyone is anymore…”  You smile and laugh and keep offering more food and drink.  Still, you end up with gobs of food at the end of the evening—afterall, you were planning for double the attendance.

How do you feel at the end of that evening?

Society may say this is becoming acceptable behavior, but it isn’t.  And it should never be.  Reservations are part of a deeper history known as etiquette—whose primary function is to set and ensure expectations are met.  When expectations are not set or met, people are slighted.  Slighted people become angry or hurt.  Angry or hurt people tend to strike out at others.  And so civilization collapses.

Will civilization collapse if you don’t follow through with your reservation?  Yes.  I believe it will.  Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in 10 years, it will add up and our world will NOT be better for it.

So my advice to you—keep all the alcohol you purchased and didn’t consume; don’t check Facebook for at least a week; and remember, your reservation is your promise to attend—because the hostess is counting on you…literally.


Suspended Support

Gentle Penguin, have you listened to any of the recent stories on poverty?  I have, and it strikes me odd that much of today’s poverty seems to have a hidden connection to lack of support.

Now, I’m not talking about government programs that provide free stuff (food, healthcare, childcare, etc.).  I’m talking about neighbors, friends, family, communities.

I look back at a long moment in my past when I was recently divorced, swimming in the debt of it, trying to balance work and health and single-parenting two daughters under the age of 5 while teetering on the edge of poverty.  I wonder, is personal support the reason I didn’t end up in poverty?

In the early evenings while my daughters played in the yard, my elderly neighbor would tell me stories of growing up in a family of holocaust survivors.  Any day I felt my troubles overwhelming me, her remembrances and perspective on life made me grateful for the safety of my country, my health and my daughters.   A mentor invited me for coffee and introduced me around her coffee-shop community—a community that welcomed me willingly and invited me back to join in conversations with people who had already overcome challenges.  Once a week, my parents would invite me to dinner and compliment me on how well behaved my daughters were—it nourished a seed of confidence and gave me a reprieve from my worries.

To be clear, I’m not an expert on poverty.  Nor do I believe these small things—encouraging, inspiring, mentoring from a personal connection instead of through government service—are enough to relieve poverty. However, I truly believe they may be what saved me.

It’s one of the reasons I take great care to observe and study in-person connections around me and others.   Especially when I travel.

In Albania, entire communities gather for a ritual stroll along the main road every evening—mothers, children, nuns, teenagers, businessmen, tourists.  In Germany, families prioritize time spent in nature, with community-sized gatherings in the Biergarten afterwards.  In Ireland, villagers and visitors alike gather at the pub to catch up on the news and make music.  In Italy (and some parts of the Canadian Maritimes), eating alone is unheard of…

Perhaps we have those moments here in America too, but truthfully, I often feel more alone than connected.  Maybe it’s because I’m still a single mom trying to balance schedules and work and commitments, but I don’t think so.  And I wonder, would I have the support I believe saved me if I were again teetering on the edge of poverty now?  Or would I merely find myself counting the number of “likes” I received on posts intended to remind me and the rest of the world that I exist.

Maybe instead of suspended coffee, we should have supportive coffee or suspended support—a coffee hour in which people who wish to give support and people needing support come together to find encouragement, forge friendships, gain perspectives, nourish seeds of confidence, inspire changes and lift each other up.  I’ll buy the first round…


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