Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Labels and Expectations

A couple of months ago I took my car to a local shop to have some work done. The attendant asked for my phone number in order to look me up in their computer system.
“Jolly Carol?” he asked.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Jolly Carol. That’s you, right?” and he showed me the screen. It seemed that someone, many years ago, had mis-entered my late husband’s name into their system. “John” had somehow morphed into “Jolly”. Later, they added my name and just like that, I was Jolly Carol Shaw.
The attendant then sat down to regale me with jokes and stories about his grandchildren. What’s more, he expected me to laugh. I was, after all, Jolly.
Last Friday, I found myself in the hospital emergency room. My foot, propped up in front of me, looked like an overstuffed empanada. I wish I could say I injured myself doing something heroic, like saving a puppy, but no. The truth is, late Thursday night I stepped on my own shoe while packing, returning from a quick trip. My foot (still not healed from an earlier sprain) exploded in pain. In the morning, I had to ask for wheelchair assistance at the airport. And by the time my flight landed, my foot was an angry, swollen mess and my son made me go to the ER.
As we sat there chatting, my son and I, my nurse came up and introduced himself. We cracked a couple of jokes. The doctor ordered some tests and I was wheeled down the hall to rule out a DVT (a precaution after flying-while-injured). The ultrasound technician made a lighthearted comment and I laughed. She said, “I heard you were fun!”
Fun. A new label had preceded me, and she was prepared to treat me accordingly.
We shared a few chuckles. The x-ray tech came to cart me away and we laughed together. Eventually, I was deposited back in the hallway with my son. The doctor came over, handed me some papers and told me that it was a bad sprain; he had prescribed pain medication, there was no other damage, I should go home and stay off my foot for several days.
My son and I looked at each other. We both needed lunch. I was loopy from little sleep and lots of pain. And I needed the bathroom. So he wheeled me toward the door. We passed one bathroom, but my addled brain said, “No, that’s for patients,” and in my mind I was not a patient. So I asked him to take me to the waiting area where I could easily hobble into the bathroom.
When I came back out, I found my son explaining to someone from the hospital that no, we really weren’t running away. The man eyed me with suspicion. Then he gruffly ordered us back to our spot in the hall until properly released. 
Back inside the ER inner sanctum, they processed me for discharge. We joked about my slow-speed “escape”. We came up with new labels: Wheelchair Fugitive, Granny on the Lam, and Hotfoot Shaw all made the cut.  
But I couldn’t help thinking. We humans tend to treat others based on our own expectations. We often see what we expect to see. 
So, what if we all expected to see in others the image of God?
Would it change how we treat them?
And if it changed how we treat them, would it change their response? 
Would it change the world around us?
I don’t know about you, but I want to find out. Just let me grab my cane and orthopedic boot.  

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Of Cheese and Investment

Some people invest in Wall Street. I, apparently, invest in cheese.

Having recently admitted to my friend Ellen that I was in serious danger of becoming a card-carrying hermit, and recognizing my need to devote more time to my friendships, I decided this week to join a group of fellow translators and interpreters for a purely social event. Some of these women I’ve known for years. Some I’d never met. But they were coming together on Saturday morning for brunch, and I was going to join them.

I chose the safe option and offered to take a cheese tray: dash in to the store, grab a tray at the deli and check out – 10 minutes, tops. That was the plan.

But the store was out of cheese trays. I quickly weighed my options: wait in line here or race to the other store a 1/4-mile away.  The time seemed better invested staying put, so I joined the line at the deli counter.

We inched forward. The lone deli worker greeted her regulars as she filled tubs with salads and sliced ham. Finally, it was my turn.

That was when Deli Lady politely said, “Just a moment,” and disappeared.

I looked at the time again. Surely she was coming back soon… right? I re-calculated my options and the time involved and decided it was still probably better to stay.

A couple of minutes later, Deli Lady was back.

“I need a cheese tray, please,” I said, trying not to sound anxious.

“We’re out,” she answered. I refrained from pointing out that their lack of prepared trays was precisely why I was in line there, and not at the checkout. 

Could she make a tray?  She thought about it a moment, then said yes.  She asked how big I wanted it: small, medium or large. Unsure of just what those meant, I began gesturing, measuring random sizes in the air.

She didn’t blink.

Eventually I added the words “ten to fifteen people” (while still waving my hands around). This got a nod from Deli Lady and she once again disappeared. I once again began weighing my options. Did I have the time to wait for her to make a tray? She seemed to be working at I-don’t-want-to-be-here speed. Should I leave and take my chances elsewhere?


We know how valuable it is. When we invest it, we are so loathe to pull the plug.

And so I waited, and eventually Deli Lady could be seen sorting through trays in the back room. She found what she obviously believed to be the right size and wandered back. It looked a little big to me, but my investment of time seemed about to pay off so I shut my mouth.

Cheese began to fall in thick slabs from the slicer. She cubed it with an enormous knife.  A small mountain of cheese began to grow on the tray, all in slow motion.

The minutes ticked by as she found the right lid.  More, as she keyed in the prices. My investment in cheese was quantified. She secured the lid, handed me the tray and drawled, “have a nice day,” as I made a mad dash for the checkout line.

Total time: 45 minutes.

As I drove across the Metroplex, I pondered our odd relationship with time. We waste time, forget time, lose track of time and sometimes think we have all the time in the world.

But the moment we become conscious of our investment, time becomes a thing of immeasurable value for which we fight.

We finish poorly-written books in order to not invalidate the time spent finding out just how bad they really are. We back the same team or attend the same church year after year because we’ve always done so. We defend relationships, heroes and ideals (sometimes beyond their expiration dates) because of the time we have invested up to that point.

As I pulled up to our hostess’ house and parked, I thought of the group of women gathered inside. Friends, acquaintances, strangers – all of them people in whom I was about to invest a little time.

Then I hoisted my tray and marched up to the door. Today, my investment in friendship would be conscious – and it would come with cheese. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Christmas Prayer

I’ve just gotten over the flu, but only the icky contagious part of it. I still wear out with absurd ease. After a Christmas party yesterday where all I did – literally – was sit, eat and talk, I still came home and took a nap. So I wasn’t looking forward to making that one last trip to the store before Christmas.

Besides, stores with crowds are next to underwear with bad elastic on my list of things to avoid.

But shop I must and so I braced myself for tired, grumpy cashiers and tired, grumpy shoppers, and marched into the store.

The first person I ran into (almost literally) was an elderly woman who jumped out of my way, laughed, and told me to have a Mericrismas. Then I dodged a young father toting his toddler in one arm and an educational toy in the other. He smiled. I smiled. The toddler squirmed and reached for something less self-improving.

Middle-school boys pushed passed me with a polite, “Excuse me, ma’am”. A teenager moved his cart out of my way before I could ask.

A young woman with matching eyebrow and nose rings rang up my purchases with a cheerful smile. As I got back to my car, a young man came running over and told me in halting English that my front tire was low.

I started thinking about how many of those people (those generous, kind, polite people) get automatically crossed off someone’s list because they fit a predefined category. 

The elderly.
The immigrant.
Left. Right.
Muslim. Christian. None-of-the-above.
The middle-aged.
The young.

I thought about a Birth;
a Baby;
new eyes that see
the Other  
(you and me)  
not as a construct of
filters, fears and
but as we are.

Not faceless pieces in a power game or subjects of gossip and memes on social media. Not as a they, but as a you - as in I love you.

So here’s to us,
the Loved.

Here’s to
the misfits,
the conformists,
to you and to me:

May the Birth that
reknit the world
in a long-ago manger                                                  
give us new eyes,
and may we
truly see that Child
in one another.

© Carol Shaw, Christmas 2017

Monday, October 23, 2017

Oh Mamma!

Stress. It’s been my middle name of late. 
A heavy work season. Not enough sleep. Car making suspicious sounds.  
And now a trip with back-to-back events. First, to Indiana to see family, friends and participate in my friend Lynn’s women’s retreat. Then on to Washington DC for the annual American Translators Association conference. Somewhere in there, a large project has to be completed.
So when my alarm went off early Friday morning, my frazzled brain begged me to throw in the towel and stay under the covers for a week. Instead I dragged my body out of bed after only two hours of sleep, put my luggage in the trunk of the car, and took off for the airport.
There was a wreck on the freeway. Three out of four lanes were closed. I made it to the airport 7 minutes after my flight left.
At the airline desk, a sleepy clerk put me on standby for the next flight, nearly 5 hours later.
Realizing I’d forgotten something important, I decided to count the delay as a blessing and dash home. When I got to my car, I found that a large van had squeezed into the spot beside me, leaving about 7 inches of space between us. I am not 7 inches in diameter.
With a prayer that no one with a cell phone would notice me, I crawled through the passenger side, scooted the driver’s seat back, launched myself over the middle console, wrestled my uncooperative knee over the gear stick and settled into place.
At home, I took a nap and repacked, Tetris-style. My son had delivered his daughter to daycare and said he would drive me to DFW airport instead.
He dropped me off at the entrance near Gate C37. It was the closest security checkpoint to my departure gate.
A sign at security advised that the TSA Precheck line was at Gate C20.
I decided that walking to C20 just for Precheck convenience was not worth it; I was leaving from C39.
It took several minutes of standing in the slow-moving lane for me to realize that only one of the security lanes was operational. There were at least 15 people before me in line.
I finally reached the conveyor belt, walked through the scanner -- and my carry-on bag promptly got pulled for inspection. The only inspector was busy with someone else. 
When he got to my bag, he dug almost everything out until he found the object of suspicion: wooden candlesticks, handmade by one of my brothers.
After making sure they were only candlesticks, the inspector meticulously examined everything else in my bag. Some mental math was required to convert grams into ounces, after which he decided that the little container of mora jam I was taking to my other brother was more than 3 ounces and qualified as a liquid or gel.
“What time does your flight leave?” he asked. I looked at the clock. “Three minutes.” We both looked at the contents of my suitcase, now spilling all over, and he said, “Then I guess maybe you should repack…”
A few minutes later, I was put on standby for the next flight to Indianapolis and sent to Gate C19.
A firm believer in accepting the ebb and flow of life, I still couldn’t help feeling a little beat up. The things I’d been stressing over – the job, the women’s retreat, the conference – were now things to fight for. Forget pulling the covers over my head. A sense of urgency started to build. Every flight to Indianapolis was fully booked. My chances of getting on a plane seemed to shrink as the day went by. And even if I did get a flight, I still had a two-hour drive to make after landing.
I sat down to text the people who would be waiting on me. First, my brother, who was duly sympathetic and said he’d have a bed ready for me when I made it. I didn’t tell him about the confiscated jam.
Then, Lynn, whose retreat I was supposed to be at. I poured out all my pent-up stress and frustration into my text.
And then…
Music over the airport sound system, and not just any music.
Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were belting out ABBA. “I was sick and tired of everything…”
My foot started tapping.
“All I do is eat and sleep and sing…”
The Mamma Mia! soundtrack continued, and all of a sudden I was a “Super Trouper shining in the sun”.
I realized that the only thing I could do was the only thing I had to do: keep showing up until something happened.
A few minutes later, my earworm (“smiling, having fun…”) and I made our way to A17 in order to not get on that flight. From there, we were sent to not get on the plane at D42. Somewhere along the line I picked up a little lost lady from Cameroon who was trying to get to Indianapolis to see her daughter.
Finally, thirteen hours after my originally-scheduled flight, my Cameroonian friend, the seven other people also on perpetual standby, and I found ourselves once again at C19, where we boarded the very last flight to Indianapolis.
I don't know about them, but for me all it took was little Mamma Mia! - and a whole lot of showing up. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Beyond the hashtag

I’ve been thinking about the #MeToo movement.

I’ve hesitated, because – while yes, me, too – it’s not where I live. It’s one of a multitude of things that make up the fabric of my life (along with somewhat lesser events, like the time I was robbed on a bus, or the time my appendix nearly burst, or the time I tried smoking pot and learned why I really, really shouldn't.)

No single event defines who I am.

I’ve hesitated because while the occasions of violence in my past occurred many years ago, the moment I open my mouth or put fingers to keyboard it becomes news to someone else, now. 

Someone who loves me may find themselves thinking When? What? How?

          Or, “Well, THAT explains things!” (It doesn't)

          Or even, “Could I have stopped it?"

And there! Right there! – that’s why I decided to join in and add my voice to the chorus of “me too”.

Because while you couldn’t have stopped what happened to me many years ago, maybe you can stop something from happening now, to some other girl or boy, woman or man.

Sexual violence isn’t about sex. It’s about dehumanization, subtle or overt. Maybe you can be one more person who consciously chooses to reject dehumanization. 

Maybe you can look at people who cross your path and really see them: not categories, ideologies, experiences or genders, but them.

Maybe you can be part of the evolving change.

And maybe together we can take it beyond a hashtag.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Of Life and Adventures

On May 6, 2000, I married M’s grandfather.

As I watched that cute little redhead wander down the church aisle, stop to dump out her entire basket of flowers, then take off her shoes, I vaguely wondered how I could learn to be a grandmother when I was still trying to figure out how to raise 12- and 14-year-old boys.

I had no idea how to “do” a little girl’s hair. I’d have to buy a rocking chair. I barely needed the sporadic Miss Clairol moment.  But there she was, my new little granddaughter, acquired as part of the package deal to which I said “I do”. 

It turned out to be quite a bargain, that package deal. 

I bought a rocking chair. M rather liked having her hair flow free when she stayed the weekend. And somewhere in there I must have done something right, because at age 3 she stuffed every Barbie doll she owned into her little backpack and announced that she was running away – to me.

Eventually, her little sister S came along and joined us for those weekends: with two teenaged boys, two little girls and two dogs, we were our own weird version of Noah’s Ark. At night, I would wrap first one granddaughter and then the other in her favorite blanket and rock them to sleep, cocooned together in soft lullabies and sweet little girl dreams.

When their grandfather died, the girls and their parents became his legacy to me. It was always a forever kind of deal.

If the visits slowed over the years it was only because growing girls develop lives of their own and I live an hour away. Still, I go up for plays and awards when I can. The girls come spend a few days with me a couple of times a year.  And as a buffer against the day they grew up, I made a promise: when each girl graduated, she could pick a city anywhere in the contiguous 48 states and I would take her there. It would be our last big adventure before they went off to adventures of their own.

17 years after she became my granddaughter, M graduated.  A few weeks later, my son drove us to DFW airport and we were off, on our way to New York.

After rushing through security, we had barely enough time to grab a bite before they called our flight.  That’s when I realized I’d lost my license. Leaving M with our bags and my breakfast, I raced (figuratively) back to the security checkpoint. It was the last place I remembered having my license. I remembered putting it in the tray along with my purse. I remembered the tray flipping over on its way down the conveyer. My license had to be there. Red-faced and panting, I reached the checkpoint and started my search, always aware that our flight might be called at any moment. It wasn’t there.

Maybe someone had found it. I turned around and saw a guard smirking at me, license in hand. “Name?” he asked, although who else looked like that woman on the license, I don’t know.

I rushed back and managed to swallow my breakfast and a few gulps of coffee before the flight was called.  As we settled into our seats, I remember thinking, “Well, if that’s the only bit of excitement…” 

I should never, ever think those things. Murphy always reads my mind.

I had decided on a shuttle bus to get us to our hotel, so we could see a bit of the city as we drove in.  As it turned out, the bus had advertising on the windows, blurring everything around us.

About 20 minutes from our hotel, M’s mother called. She’d gotten a call from the man who had M’s suitcase.  

We hadn’t known it was missing.

We remembered grabbing her zebra-striped bag. It was the one with the pink yarn bow and Mickey Mouse tag, wasn’t it? We weren’t sure. M’s mother had the man’s number. M called him from the shuttle. He was desperate to retrieve his bag. You know, the little red one...

Oh. Not the checked bag. The man had accidentally grabbed M’s carry-on. We agreed to a rendezvous point and set out to meet a stranger in a strange city to recover my granddaughter’s footwear, and somehow that set the perfect tone for adventure.

We spent a day on tour buses (the ones where you sit up top), and dodged low-hanging branches and got a little sunburned. 

We shared our pretzels with the pedicab driver in Central Park and posed for a million pictures.

We dressed up one night and went to see The Lion King. We were mesmerized.

On our way out of the theater, a couple of shirtless young men in construction gear were bantering with passers-by and the tall one figured I was old enough to safely tease so he called me "white chocolate”, among other things, and I blurted out, “You’re old enough to be my son!” which confused him and made M laugh.

We explored the 9/11 memorial, went to the Met and took the ferry out to Liberty Island.

M navigated our walk from the hotel to the Empire State Building and became an expert at hailing cabs.

We ate at a deli, had a slice of New York pizza, found a diner near the hotel that served eggs with plantains, and got hotdogs from a street vendor.

We saw the homeless pregnant woman on the sidewalk. And the man terrified of a monster that only he could see.

We saw street artists and amazing dancers in parks. We stopped to listen to the saxophonist on a bridge.

And we asked for stories from every cabbie, every Lyft driver, every waitperson we could. Usually, we got more story than we expected.

I sat on a bench in the Museum of Natural History to rest, while M explored the vast building. Pretty soon another grandmother came over and sat down next to me. Her granddaughters promised her (in Spanish) that they’d be right back and they wouldn't get lost. I must have smiled or something, because my bench mate greeted me in Spanish and we had a nice chat. When her girls came back, the little one threw her arms around me and neither of us grandmas chose to explain that I was actually a stranger, not an old friend of her abuela’s.

M wasn’t ready to leave when our five days were up. Nor was I. 

But then, I wasn’t ready for her to grow up so fast, either.

She turns 19 today. Happy birthday, dear girl. May all of your adventures be good.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Friends and Fences

Robert Frost had his Mending Wall. I have my Friendship Fence.
It was a simple proposition, to start with. My neighbors needed a new fence. They knew I knew a good fence guy. They also knew that my fence guy’s English is not so much, and their Spanish is not much more. Could I please facilitate?
As a professional translator, I could hardly say no. I didn’t want to say no, anyway. I liked my neighbors (Dan and Dana) and my fence guy (Carlos), and if a little fence post interpreting would help them both, why not? When I called Carlos to ask him for a quote, we took the opportunity to discuss the new fence I was budgeting for later this summer. Dan and Dana accepted his quote. A start date was set and all was well.
Or so it seemed.
The day after the fence posts were committed to cement, Dan learned of a new city ordinance about fences on corner lots. Theirs was a corner lot.
Dan called me. He was on his way to work but wasn’t sure Carlos would see the revised drawing taped to the patio door. Could I please go over and make sure? Of course I would.
Carlos had indeed seen the drawing but thought it was incorrect. Would I please call Dan? No problem.
Dana's mother called. While I was figuring out the drawing, could I also ask Carlos if he was using treated wood? Sure.
Dan called back. The drawing had been done using the city’s guidelines.
Carlos called. If the drawing was right, he would have to move a couple of the posts he’d sunk into cement the day before. And the wood didn’t need to be treated yet.
I left a message for Dan about the posts.
Dana's mother called again; please ignore the question about treated wood. I gave her the answer anyway.
Dan called back. Please have Carlos stop everything until they could figure this out.
I walked next door for the umpteenth time and awkwardly gave Carlos the news. While I felt bad that he and his crew would lose a day's work, the sudden respite was welcome. Jobs were piling up on my desk and I desperately needed peace and quiet in which to catch up.
Twenty minutes later, I was deep in translation when a loud clattering echoed through my back yard.
Then I heard yelling – the kind of yelling people do when they’re trying to be heard over the sound of power tools.
When the hammering started, I got up to see what was going on. Stepping outside, I was greeted with a new fence in the making.
A new fence around my yard.
Carlos came over, grinning. “I promised my crew work for today,” he said. “You can pay me later.”
Dan and Dana and Carlos got things figured out the next day and by the end of the week we both had new fences. As we stood between our houses, laughing over the back-and-forth, I realized it was the most time we’d spent together since they moved in. After living next door to each other for 15 months, it took a pair of fences, a language barrier and a city ordinance to make us really neighbors.
Dan and Dana have moved away. It turns out the new fence was the last thing on their list before putting the house on the market.
I just wish it hadn’t been the first thing that made us connect.