I Love Other People’s Kids

Sam is eight years old. He loves maps. Instead of showing up with the usual third grade story books, he brought an atlas. When I asked him where he’d most like to visit, without hesitation, he said Madagascar, then quickly flipped the pages to show me where that was. I could see right away this was a very unique child.

He picked out several of his favorite countries and excitedly talked about them. Each page included a detailed map and then short readings about the country along with interesting sidebars that pointed out their unique features. An atlas designed perfectly for someone his age.

He was puzzled that Scotland wasn’t in the atlas. Ah, a teaching moment, I thought. I asked if the United Kingdom was on the list of maps at the front of the book. He knew right where it was and pointed.

I then said that Scotland was part of the United Kingdom. In fact, England, Scotland and Wales made up the United Kingdom and Scotland wasn’t an independent country. Just as this important piece of news was registering in his alert little mind, we were told the session was ending and he had to leave.

He’s a third grader from a nearby school and arrived with his class for the reading/tutoring program in the building where I live.   On an alternating week, I’m also assigned to a student from another nearby school.

Samantha was most excited because she’d heard that on the last day of the semester we’d have a party. I recalled how last year, the kids made a very big deal about waiting on us. I had too many cookies and glasses of punch that day; I didn’t have the heart to say no to their diligent efforts to please me.

First time, each child writes and brings a personalized letter to introduce themselves and help us get acquainted. Sam’s letter told me he liked to play twenty questions and assured me were going to have “a really good time.” Samantha’s letter focused on reading and asked what my favorite genre was when I was her age. The fact that “genre” was even in an eight year old’s vocabulary was surprising. She had no idea what Nancy Drew Mysteries were.

We grandparent types who live in the building are assigned children for the semester. There are about fifteen children in each class and once we get started the room is abuzz as each pair of reader/listeners works hard for a half hour. This gives them an opportunity to read out loud and us a chance for some quality time with someone from outside our usual social milieu.

My job, other than being an alert and supportive listener, is to help with word pronunciation and meaning. Then off they go back to school. This is short and sweet; just enough and I love it. Sam and Samantha are a delight. Last year, Jada and Julia were equally charming.

I have no children. I decided quite young that being a mother was not very interesting. Probably because being the oldest of six, I’d helped my mother raise my younger siblings. I’ve gone through all my life never regretting this decision. I’ve said many times in many circumstances that I love kids, as long as they belong to someone else.

Whether its children of my friends and family or it’s that sad and lonely foster child I worked with when I was a social worker, I find children of all ages to be fun and interesting. I don’t mind being a parent figure. Just not a parent.

In my family I’m “Auntie Karin the Nice Lady” who spoils my nieces and nephews but is happy to send them home. I totally enjoy a short conversation with my girlfriend’s young daughters, catching up about school and life. But then let’s get back to the real reason for my visit, adult social time with their mother.

Raising kids is hard. I respect and feel empathy for everyone brave enough to do it. I’ve said it often, that I love other people’s kids. Maybe that’s why this tutoring experience is so right for me. Just enough of the pleasures of children and then back to my book. Back to my writing. Or my phone call to a friend. Or whatever.

 

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Downsizing Rightsizing

Downsizing, a term that has several meanings and connotations, became part of my daily language when I worked at a hospital that was merging with another. Management cheerfully told us that it was time, probably long overdue, for this top heavy organization to get by with less. Less staff. Less time. But not less productivity, of course.

We hard working employees lived for three years under the specter of downsizing. For starters, we all had to re-apply for our jobs. Then worry if our job was no longer necessary; then worry if we were no longer necessary. In the end everyone kept their jobs but the hell we went through gave me a new perspective.

Maybe this experience better prepared me for the consequences of a time when downsizing became a part of my private life as well. It began when my husband and I moved from our Cedarburg home to an apartment in Eagle River. Then, to a house outside Eagle River. When we got divorced five years later, I moved into a two bedroom duplex. Then three years later, when I moved back down state, I further downsized to where I am now, into a one bedroom apartment.

The building I moved into in 2013 is filled with downsizers, people who’d lived in one or two houses throughout their marriage and child rearing years. Then as widows and widowers, they’d sold their long time homes and moved to this intergenerational apartment complex.  Though my story has many more moves than theirs, I’m locked in to the same downsizing adventure.

So, I’ve watched carefully and tried to take some cues on how to make the adjustment. Some were happy. Others took a few months before they found their footing and adjusted pretty well. Others, not so well.  Most of the men looked like lost souls.  I guess we all travel at our own speed.

As I was settling into my new home, I recalled another term I’d become all too familiar with in my downsizing days. Rightsizing. It was just another management rationalization of why staff cuts had to happen.  This seemed a clue to what I was confronting now. How do we know what is the right size?

My new apartment was comfortable. I live in every square inch but don’t feel cramped. It’s quite perfect. But I’d brought along furniture from the past and some of it just didn’t fit. The queen size bed took up too much space. The couch was too long and engulfed the living room. A loveseat/sleeper would be perfect and also provide accommodations for an occasional overnight guest. And finally, that leather chair I’d always wanted. But I have to laugh when recalling the rigmarole I went through to begin this rightsizing process.

I started by donating the bed to Salvation Army who posts the schedule on their website; they pick-up by zip code, one date per month. So, I had to carefully plan the pick-up of the old and the delivery of the new. I did my best to have these things coincide. Turned out, I had to sleep for two weeks on my couch.

Same for the living room furniture. Once again, I was held captive by the Salvation Army pick-up schedule. After the couch was removed, my living area sported only one chair, an antique, wooden one. This time I endured three weeks of discomfort when watching TV or reading.

After the deliveries were behind me, I spent several days stretched out in my new leather chair with an elevated foot rest, gazing happily over at the just right loveseat/sleeper. I was in heaven. But it’s what I’ve felt since that’s been most wonderful. Every time I enter my apartment. I get a rush of satisfaction and instantly feel so at home. Everything fits perfectly and was picked out by me and only me.

But then I realized, it’s not over. Far from it. Each fall, I took my winter clothes out of a steamer trunk I used for storage. Same thing in the spring. This seemed such a waste as I looked over my closet and realized that I’ve not once worn most of the clothes hanging there in benign neglect. I counted five pairs of shoes I’ve never worn, not once, since I moved here three years ago. Enough of this! I needed to downsize. Maybe rightsize.

I have a very nice, large walk-in closet. So, my newest goal was to rightsize my wardrobe so the clothes of all the seasons fit into the closet at the same time. No more shifting from trunk to closet. This was truly doable since no longer going to work, I found myself wearing the same things over and over. The phrase that we wear 20 per cent of our clothing 80 per cent of the time really applied now. And why not. No one was judging me because we’re all doing the same thing.

I recently encouraged a friend who is beginning the very first steps in downsizing. The sale of their boat and vacation cottage was approaching. Her nervousness was palpable. I told her that it’s painful while you’re going through it but fine once it’s over.

So much value is put on having things, owning things. Often, that defines who we are. And the eternal question is, what do we really need anyway? These thoughts are haunting. For me, what’s really important is being happy where you are, no matter what you have.

So, is there another challenge in the rightsizing theme awaiting me down the road? Only the shadow knows. It’s taken three years but I’m finally content having survived downsizing and rightsizing my life up to this point.  If I can do it, anyone can.

 

Living Among the Entitled

I don’t’ fit. I don’t need to or particularly want to fit. I come from a working class, middle class background, have worked hard all my life; nothing was given to me and I’ve never been taken care of. I’m not entitled. And now I’m surrounded by the entitled.

One definition of entitlement is an attitude, demeanor, or air of ingraciousness, especially when making excessive demands for service. They are the junior league types who’ve seldom worked so have generally been sheltered; they’ve hardly learned the life lessons that come from the dynamics of the competitive world.

And now they’ve retired to this intergenerational apartment building where I’ve lived for the last three years.  I really like the building. I have the privacy I want but also a sense of community; when I walk down for my mail several people say hello as they pass. And call me by my name. But as in any communal living situation, it’s a clash of cultures that shines through in my dealings with the entitled.

Like when Ms. A, a woman I barely knew, called and asked me out to lunch. She’d like to get to know me better, she said. I was taken aback, didn’t know what to say so said yes. She wanted to show me her favorite place, a tea shop she’d visited for many years. It turned out to be a place that time had forgotten, complete with outdated furniture and decor. Customers had forgotten it too since we sat in the dining room alone.

Ms A. had said on the phone that she wanted to get to know me. But when our lunch was finished and we headed home, I knew everything about her, her two daughters, their divorces and children. Everything about Ms. A. travels around the world with her husband due to his work. And she knew nothing about me. She hadn’t asked me one question. In fact, I’d said five words. I’m not judging her only I say that it’s very difficult to become friends with this type of person. Of course, she insisted on paying the bill.

We both went on with our lives. My minor frustration of that day faded until recent issues with the in-house book group and in the in-house library revived my concerns about dealing with the entitled. So, why is it these problems revolve around books and reading, my favorite things?

Since most members of the in-house book group no longer drive, we use a public library program that provides a bag with ten books sent to the library of your choice for pick-up.  Ms. B, a resident who does drive, calls to order the books, goes and gets them and also returns them. I facilitate the group discussion each month. The only thing members have to do is show up.

Recently Ms. B. approached me in a tizzy saying several people were complaining about the book. Seems it wasn’t the historical fiction we’d thought but a lesbian romance novel. There is such a genre, by the way. It was complete with several graphic love scenes. Since the book group is made up of devout Catholics, you can imagine the stir that caused.

“Should I get another book?” Ms. B nervously rung her hands and paced.
“No way,” I countered. “You’re already doing a lot. In fact, if you weren’t doing all this, I’m not sure we’d be able to have a book group. By the way, has anyone ever thanked you for all you do?”  Her pensive, downward look and slight shake of the head told it all. My inner voice warned me to calm down since my patience had been challenged even more in the in-house library.

When I moved into the building, I offered to help Ms. C, who’s been taking care of the in-house library for many years. I love to read and this seemed an easy way to be useful. But soon after I started, Ms. C and I went round and around about culling books from this very crowded and cluttered library. We only have so much space, I reasoned.

It took some convincing for Ms. C. to let go of a book that had been published in 1958, that was now tattered with discolored pages, written by an author no one had ever heard of. I succeeded only after her pained disclosure; she feared residents who had donated to the library might be insulted to discover their books were no longer on our shelves.

Resident book donations were a boon since we often acquired nearly new, hardcover best sellers. But then there was the junk we acquired, when over time, our return bin became a convenient dumping ground when residents moved or died. Instead of utilizing a community program happy to take any book, Ms. C’s solution was to keep adding more shelves. Higher the shelves went even though the elderly residents might be risking life and limb reaching for the latest Nora Roberts.

Then Ms. C began putting books in nearby public rooms on pianos, tables and any piece of furniture with a flat surface. How will people even find these books, I asked. After our sometimes heated exchanges, I reminded myself that this was her library and stayed out of her way; I made myself conveniently busy when Ms. C suggested culling. I only sorted magazines and shelved the books from the return bin. This worked fine until the day she fired me.

It was what I thought a minor infraction that sent her over the edge. Many, many tattered and used paperbacks were packed tightly in three narrow shelves along one wall. I stuck these paperbacks in whatever space was available until one day she told me she wanted them in alphabetical order by author. I gasped, thinking how I’d have to move mountains of books down to put that one book in just the right place.

But, before I could fully state my case, Ms. C said quite simply that she didn’t want me helping anymore. I’d never been fired before. I felt no shame, only relief and simply shrugged and walked away. Months later, I commented to Ms. D that the library was a mess and how I’d been relieved of my duties. I was comforted when she rolled her eyes and proceeded with a litany of quite similar frustrations of past volunteers who’d tried to please this librarian.

And that’s the thing about entitlement. Those who feel entitled make others feel guilty who fail to meet their needs. Ms. C loses sleep over not doing a good enough job in a volunteer library while also judging me harshly. Ms. B feels a failure when no one likes the book. Give me a break.

And that’s another thing; I actually feel empathy for the entitled. They seem trapped in the societal expectations of others. And while they are very kind and cordial people, becoming friends, real friends with the entitled is hard. There’s simply no comparison between them and the many really close and intimate friendships I’m fortunate enough to have in my life.

So I’m happy to have found Ms. E, Ms. F, Ms. G and Ms. H in the building who are as equally unentitled as I am. Four real friends from the inhabitants of one hundred apartments. Not bad. I’ve also resolved my dilemma of how to manage the entitled.

If and when Ms. A calls for another lunch, I’ll just be too busy or tired or another convenient excuse so commonly used in polite company. At book group, I nicely forced them to say thank you to Ms. B by reminding them what she was doing for us.

Regarding the library, I felt bad when I saw the disarray and heard about Ms. C’s recent health issues. In a chance conversation, we laughed together when she joked that she was getting better at culling books. We didn’t talk about the elephant in the room but I offered to sort the magazines once again. How can I fail at this simple job? We’ll see.

 

 

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