Friday, August 27, 2010

Happy and Productive

Rob isn’t a suspicious guy. He’s the most supportive husband, really. But I get the feeling lately that he’s checking up on me.

So every day I prepare a list and memorize it. It’s like “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” only it’s how I spent my Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday…) now that I’m retired.

To remain above suspicion, I am ready to recite my list at his daily prompting: “What did you do today, Honey?”

“I walked 4.3 miles,” I begin, having tracked this on my trusty pedometer. This always pleases him. I give him details of my walk to give it weight and credibility. “I went all the way to the Arsenal and up Jefferson to the Mansion.”

It pleases me too. I’m always glad to be keeping my word.

Rob’s not the only one. When I announced my retirement this spring, all manner of people began asking what I was going to do in my retirement. I think it was hard for them, and for me, to imagine how it would feel not to have the constant intense stimulation of being a high school principal. I loved the whipped up frenzy of a school day, doing important work, helping young people, making the world a better place, so I hoped.

But like most folks, I kept a list of things I’d do given the time bestowed by a big jackpot. That’s the jackpot of retirement --- time. But my dreams seemed mundane in the telling. Smiles of the well-wishers got rigid and eyes glassy when I said I wanted to learn to play the piano!

Yet when I said I would take a walk every day, people smiled. So that became my pat and only answer, unless I was talking to the kids at school. More than anyone, the kids took my retirement personally. So when they asked what I was going to do, I said, “Miss you!”

Our family developed a saying years ago. Having determined that we were happy when we were productive, we sent each other off each morning with, “Have a happy and productive day!” instead of, “Have a nice day.” It soon got shortened to simply “Happy and Productive!” This eventually morphed to the quick and cryptic, “H & P!”

It’s not a bad motto, H & P, but it does carry a burden. How to define “productive”?

When I was a principal --- never a doubt about my productivity. I helped every day. My charge and my goal was to ease pain, facilitate learning, lift up, make smile, pave the way to success for students and teachers. I was hard after it and secure in the H & P.

For Rob there’s no question. He works hard out in the world. Business attire. Commute. Office functions. Emails and flow charts. Oh yes. Capital “P,” Productive.

When he comes home, he’s a project guy. He’s not just handy; he’s skilled. He loves working on the house and the fruits of his labor are evident immediately, and at every stage. We can point to lots of things he’s done to improve our home. VP. Visibly Productive.

For me now, in my new role, if I point to a shelf of books I’ve read, am I productive too? Somehow reading gets little respect among the items of my recitation. Still I include it, resolute in its value. It feels like I’ve barely read anything for 30 years! I’m entitled.

I am learning to play the piano. Teaching myself at the moment with the help of Schaum’s Pop Piano Course and a Craig’s List digital piano. I can now play three songs with both hands well enough to perform right alongside any six-year-old. I’ll take “Instant Piano” through Benicia Parks & Recreation this fall, and real weekly lessons after that. Is that productive?

And I write. Of course, I write. A memoir. A screenplay. A blog.

You can see why I create the list, can’t you?

So I walked and I read and I practiced my chords. I wrote. I did laundry, bought groceries and more. Grew zucchini, tomatoes and spinach and dill. Tracked electric consumption and paid every bill.

There, Honey, that’s my list. That’s what I did today.

I know.

It sounds like Dr. Seuss.

I was happy.

But was I productive?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Animal Testing: A Deal with the Devil

Whenever we encounter a euphemism, it’s time to beware. From the war: “Collateral damage,” and “friendly fire.” From the airlines industry: “Near miss.”

Benicians are now presented with a euphemism of equally dubious merit: vivaria. It means animal testing laboratories, and it is part of a proposal for relaxing Benicia’s zoning codes in an effort to include clean energy, high-tech, and research and development uses in the industrial districts.

Thanks to Commissioner Donald Dean who says, “We want to know what’s going into the community. There may be a dark side to some of [this], and we want to know what [it is].”

We don’t have to accept animal testing laboratories in Benicia. We can rewrite and broaden our development plans to include lots of things to enhance our economy without selling our souls.

Remember the 1940’s movie "Picture of Dorian Gray"? Dorian, played by Tyrone Power, makes a wish ever to remain the beautiful young man he is in a portrait of himself, while the portrait takes on the effects of his hedonistic life. As in any good pact with the Devil, he gets his wish.

He gets women and wealth and an extravagant life. As he goes, he steps on the backs of others. He reneges on promises he made. He breaks hearts and disappoints those who thought they knew him, even admired his good looks and influence. Only his portrait, covered in heavy canvas on an easel in his spidery attic, shows the effects of Dorian’s short-sighted selfishness.

He goes to the attic periodically to view his own corrupt soul and assess its march downward. Once, seemingly distraught at the degeneration he sees, he goes and kills the artist, blaming him for his own ugliness and torment.

But ultimately, Dorian knows he is the ugly and degenerate one. It is his distorted soul in the painting. His outward beauty cannot disguise his corrupt and cynical self.

He stands in anguish facing his portrait and a sliver of conscience goes to work. He pulls out a knife; at first we think to tear at the painting. Then his servants, hearing noises above their heads, rush to the attic to find him dead on the floor, shriveled and grotesque. The portrait now restored to its youthful beauty.

Guilt never did do a person much good. Regret and apologies are most limited in their value.

So how shall we have it?

We can stick to the euphemism. We can allow vivaria without looking at the animals. After all, we won’t actually witness the tests. We won’t be present to document the effects on animals’ eyes, or skin, or breathing, or nerves.

We can keep vivaria in the attic of our industrial park and go along our way, pretending not to know what we’re sanctioning there. After all, there is much to be gained by the inclusion of businesses that harm animals for profit: greater city revenues and new job creation are dangled before us.

It won’t show will it? No one has to know.

Or, we could steer away from the ugly and degenerate. We could go to the trouble of writing our zoning codes specifically and precisely to include those businesses and industries we truly can be proud of as we profit from them. I object to the notion that there is no threshold that would allow the city to prevent laboratories from testing on specific animals. It’s our city, our zoning code. It will read as we say, set the limits we determine in good conscience.

We can add such categories as information technology, computer server farms, nanotechnology, semiconductor manufacturing and robotics so the city can “put out the welcome mat” for new businesses without leaving the door standing open for the unsavory business of conducting traumatic, painful, deadly, and crude tests on animals in Benicia.

We’re told that Benicia has an opportunity to be a leader by relaxing our zoning now so we will be ready when ‘the next Google’ walks through the door. Perfect! Google is funding research and development projects that provide alternatives to animal testing!

Why go there?

We can flourish without this unwholesome pact. We don’t need to step on the backs of animals dependent on us. We must not renege on our promises to be moral and ethical in our pursuits. We can expand our economic base while retaining our good looks and influence.

Vivaria be damned.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Most Likely to Shoot His Lawnmower

Once my colleagues voted me “most likely to shoot my lawnmower.” I guess I was showing some on-the-job stress.

I think I growled a little and raised my 10-key calculator above my head. It caught their attention.

Frustrated that the accounts wouldn’t balance in my humdrum job tracking barrels of oil for a private producer, I had a pronounced urge to heave that calculator through the floor to ceiling window in front of my desk onto the green, green lawn fringed with impatiens and agapanthus.

Then I put it back down.

Soon I got a more meaningful job in public service, and left all those numbers behind me.

My honorary title came from a note weeks earlier in the Police Blotter section of the Tulsa Tribune indicating that a local man had been cited for firing a handgun within city limits. He had dispatched his lawnmower with his daddy’s .44. The brief notice did not share what the final straw had been.

We can only assume that whatever fine he had to pay, he paid with satisfaction.

Which brings us to Steven Slater. He said he dreamed of slipping down that airlines escape chute for years, taking his leave with a Heineken in one hand and middle finger extended on the other.

Too much face time with the public put him off his good humor.

So Mr. Slater lost his cool (and his job and his rainy day funds --- forthcoming legal fees, you know).

I almost feel bad for the guy.

Then I remember the social contract: that agreement we made so long ago, consciously or unconsciously, to be nice to each other since we live so close together. We gotta bend a little here and there or nothing’s going to go smoothly.

Could be both Steven and that ugly woman at the overhead bin each needed the other to bend that day, at that moment.

But Steven loses the argument, because he took the job of serving the tired, the rude, the unreasonable exception, along with all the rest of us who are courteous, tolerant, self-contained and bending whenever we’re part of the public.

That’s right: Almost of all of us are pretty nice. We set aside our desires for personal space, the aisle seat, an armrest for our elbows, and easy access to the bathroom. We bend. We accommodate. We even smile our brief smiles letting those around us know that even though the cramped conditions suck, we’re going to mind our manners and get through it.

When Steven took the job, he knew there would be a few, a small percentage, who would be jerky, demanding, and inconsiderate. But even now, even he would say, I’ll bet money on it: The vast majority of the public are really nice.

All those flight attendants, cashiers, postal workers and waitresses across the country who hold him up with banners declaring him a hero for reaching his threshold, crossing it, and succumbing to the instinct to run screaming, if not the impulse to smack some other stressed person who didn’t make nice on the airplane---even they will say, even now, most of the people they serve every day are NICE.

The thing is, it’s hard to shake off the not-nice people of the world. It is a skill flight attendants and all other public servants learn early and practice often, or they pull a Steven Slater, or worse.

By his own declaration, Slater was a baggage “Nazi,” on a mission to ensure carry-on rule breakers didn’t enjoy the benefits reserved for carry-on rule followers. A lousy way to go through the workday, with a personal vendetta guaranteed to focus on the negative and take self-righteous pleasure in catching, embarrassing, and angering the offenders.

When he found himself lapsing into sarcasm and fantasies of escape, he could have and should have helped himself to stress management, anger management, a job in accounting, a vacation, a margarita, a massage, a funny movie, or maybe a lawn mower and a sledge hammer. No firearms, please.

Then if he disturbs the peace with his loud banging and cursing, he should pay the fine with a smile.