Posted in Life

Engage

As I sat enjoying my coffee, I noticed a man just a few feet away busily tapping on a phone screen. He was seated at a larger table, one with four chairs. In each of the chairs was a bulging backpack. A pile of books was stacked on the table in front of him, along with a tote bag overflowing with plastic bags.

At first, I thought the backpacks belonged to friends of his who had stepped away from the table to use the restroom or pick up coffee. But no one ever came to the table. When the gentleman stepped away, once to buy a coffee, and again to buy a bag of chips, he took the tote bag with him.

Suddenly, he stood up and methodically moved each backpack, his books and his tote bag to a smaller table, one with room for just too chairs.

I never got a chance to see what the books were or what he was looking at on his phone. I didn’t want him to think I was being nosy, although that’s exactly what I was.

Homeless? Perhaps, but I’m not certain. Nowhere to go that afternoon? I guess.

So now I’m wondering, why didn’t I just get up and get a look at what he was working on? Why didn’t I ask him about one of his books? Why did I hesitate to engage him in conversation? He clearly wasn’t a threat. The worst that could happen? He could give me a dirty look. Or tell me to mind my own business.

So maybe that will be my resolution for this year. Engage the people I notice or walk by.

Like the gentleman with a prosthetic leg sitting in the parking lot in a lawn chair with a sign “Had hard times, living in a truck.” He was just sitting there (not near a truck) with his wife. I look with curiosity. I wonder what the story is. But I didn’t engage that day.

But next time I will.

Posted in Moments of grace

A box of rocks

So this post is both a product review and a story of unexpected grace.

On our way to fast food for lunch and the community center playground to burn off some energy, my wife and I took our grandson to Hobby Lobby for craft supplies. We had spent the morning creating art with uncooked rice and penne pasta glued to cardstock. We wandered down a craft kit aisle hoping to level up for the afternoon.

He decided on Sea Life Rock Art distributed by the Horizon Group USA out of Warren, NJ. The painted rock on the box with a dolphin caught his eye and that’s what he wanted to make. The box promises everything you need, including two pounds of premium stones, paint (even some that glows in the dark!), a paint brush, and easy-to-follow instructions. We couldn’t wait to get started.

We did get a nice bag of rocks, but they looked pretty average to me. No matter, we were going to paint them anyway.

When I pulled out the paint pots, I realized we weren’t going to be able to paint a dolphin. We didn’t have any black to mix with the white to make gray or paint an outline. But we could paint the rock in a background color first. I scooped out some blue onto a mixing tray and tried to add some red to make purple, but it had already dried up in its little pot. No problem, we’ll just paint the rock blue. It took a while using the world’s smallest brush, but we got it done. But we used all the blue we had to barely cover one medium-sized premium rock.

While the first rock dried, we tried to paint another rock glow-in-the-dark green. 4.4 ml is not a lot of paint. And it didn’t really cover the rock. We did what we could and set it aside to dry.

Okay, maybe it’s me. Maybe I should read the instructions. I looked in the box and found a small piece of paper. No pictures, no patterns, no diagrams. Just these instructions:

  • Work on a flat surface.
  • Paint the rocks with the brush.
  • Let the paint dry overnight.
  • Show your creation to your friends and family.

By this time, I realized we weren’t really going to make any sea life rock art today.

But here’s the moment of unexpected grace. My grandson was enamored by the rocks. He picked out his favorites and set them aside. He sorted them by size, by color, and by shape. He gathered up his favs and took them outside to play with in the yard. Then he brought them inside to play with alongside Pokemon characters. Just a few premium rocks kept him busy all afternoon. Now that’s a win!

I’m going to get some actual acrylic craft paint and some sealer and we will make sea life rock art next week, including a dolphin, sea turtle, and starfish.

Every hear someone say, “Dumber than a box of rocks?” Don’t believe it. A box of rocks turned out to be pretty clever way to spend the afternoon.

By the way, the box had this tiny invitation. I’m going to contact them and give them some feedback. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted in Life

Real conversation, real relationships

In Lisa Unger’s mystery novel Under My Skin, the protagonist Poppy glances at her phone and reflects on what has happened to her relationships because of texting. “Relationships scrolling out in bubbles, text disembodied from voice and body, language pared down to barest meaning” is “far less meaningful than actual conversation.”

Even though these words are fictional, they ring true. They resonate. We have replaced real conversation and real relationships with a poor digital imitation. They are like products with artificial flavoring or colorized movies or cheap laminated furniture materials.

In the Star Trek series and movies, the replicator made it possible to enjoy any food or drink you wanted from any planet or culture or era. But space travelers treasured real ale from some alien race or a real apple from planet earth. There was nothing like the real thing.

No one says, “I wanted to see your words.” We say, “I just wanted to hear your voice.” We save and replay voice messages again and again.

Bubble relationships are convenient, but two-dimensional. The words have no actual feelings though we try to extract emotion from them. Text messages may be adorned with emoji, but they lack the hint of a smile, shifting of an eye, the furrow of a brow, or a subtle chuckle. Most texting is quick and efficient, with little thought to grammar, vocabulary, or spelling. (Unless it is a lengthy text, and who reads all the way through those?)

In an actual conversation, eyes tear up. Legs nervously bounce. Fingernails have been chewed. Breath smells like alcohol. Some words come quickly. Other sentences are punctuated with long pauses. Lips purse. Fingers drum on the table. Hands fold.

What has happened to our relationships?

Posted in Life

Three and counting

“So, are you down to one vehicle now?”

“Three.”

Okay, that caught me completely off guard. My wife and I had been talking about when we might downsize from two cars in the driveway to one. How often did we go two different places at the same time? Not as often as we did when we were both working. Wouldn’t it be sweet to only have to fuel up, insure, and maintain a single car?

He had retired a few years before and his wife was newly retired. Now they traveled together to visit family, run errands, and meet friends (like us) for lunch. They told inspiring stories of how they frugally learned to live simply yet richly in this new chapter of their life.

The fall colors were peaking on a warmish fall day as we walked around a lake. I should have remembered I was venturing onto dangerously thin ice when I assumed, “You must be down to one vehicle.”

“Three. And I think I’m going to buy a tractor.”

We’ve owned three cars in the past. We live in a town with no public transportation, so we had no choice but to drive everywhere. My wife and I would both head out in our cars for work, after saying, “Goodbye” to our children as one of them drove off to high school.

Three cars? One was a small pickup truck he had owned for nearly twenty years. That wasn’t going anywhere. Another smaller sedan was fine for running around town, but certainly wasn’t reliable enough for longer trips. So they needed a newer car as well.

A tractor? They lived on an acreage in western North Carolina. They had to maintain their own half-mile gravel driveway. They were also tearing down some old dog kennels, moving firewood closer to the house as winter approached, and dragging a gazebo to a different spot in the yard. Besides, he might have to dig a hole one day. Of course he needed a tractor.

My next-door neighbor and his wife have two Corvettes in their garage and two smaller cars parked in the driveway. Another neighbor has two vans and an SUV for the two of them. Two houses up from us, four SUVs are parked in the driveway.

I’m pretty sure my family only owned one car for years. My dad traveled to work in Philadelphia on the train, so we only needed one station wagon to haul everyone around. When my dad got a new job, he bought a second car for his commute. It was a yellow Ford Maverick with distinctive rusty trim. Once we three kids were grown and gone, they downsized to one Ford (my dad was a Ford fan) Tempo station wagon. They drove so few miles they changed the oil based on the calendar rather than the odometer.

One day we’ll decide one car or SUV or truck is enough. We’ll just have to decide what to own. Maybe we need something big enough to cart a lot of grandkids around in. Or maybe a sporty-two seater to zip around in. An electric vehicle? Something autonomous? We’ll see.

Posted in Life

“Welcome in!”

I guess I noticed it at Starbucks the other day. One of the barista’s greeted me and then every other customer who walked through the door with a bright, “Welcome in!”

“Welcome to Moe’s!” began in 2000. I’ve only been in that restaurant a few times, but I’ve seen it on TV commercials, too.

It’s trending everywhere. A person at the register of the pet supply store I frequent never fails to greet me. They used to say, “Welcome to Pet Supermarket.” But now it’s, “Welcome in!” I might not see the person who is working behind some boxes or shelves, but they always see me.

I hear it at Ace Hardware, Dollar General, ABC Wine and Liquors, the UPS Store, Racetrack and Circle K convenience stores, Subway, the dry cleaners, and the Chinese takeout restaurant.

Now I notice it when I don’t hear that greeting. The always straight-faced guy at the Pack and Ship simply points to the place you’re to put your package. At the post office, you get a straightforward, “I can help you.” At the barbershop, it’s a familiar, “Hey, how’s it going?” At the Honda dealership where I’ve been taking cars for service for many years, I hear, “Good morning, Mr. Douthwaite.” Employees at big box stores are few and far between, so don’t expect to be greeted there. And I rarely am.

Since it seems like no one has enough help, you may not find someone at the front of the store when you walk in. They may be stocking shelves or helping other customers. It’s a way of letting you know someone’s here in the store.

Maybe they’re just being friendly. Maybe they want you to know someone sees you. Maybe it’s just a phrase that has worked its way into everyday conversation, offered up without much thought.

Posted in Life

“I’ll watch it for you.”

At the top step of the old hospital entrance, a woman asked me, “Do you think it will be safe to leave this here while I go get the car?” Next to her on the curb of pick up entrance was a wagon full of clothes, a child car seat, and take-out food.

This city boy thought to himself, ” I wouldn’t leave anything out of my sight around here.” We weren’t too far away from the emergency room entrance, a gathering place for people without homes. I said, “I’ll stay here and watch it for you.”

“Oh, thank you! I’ll be back in a minute.” She ran off towards the parking lot as I stood guard for a moment. It was indeed just a minute and she pulled into the circular driveway. As she did, a young woman walked out of the hospital carrying a newborn. The family packed up all their stuff as I headed to the information desk to get my visitor ID. Even though no one eyed the contents of the wagon, I’m glad I waited there.

On the way home, I sat in a coffee shop, I saw an open laptop computer, textbooks, and a cell phone  on an unoccupied table. Again I thought, “I wouldn’t take my eyes off of anything around here.” Anyone could walk out the door with those things in just a few seconds.

But no one touched or looked at anything on the table. Everyone just went about their business. The owner stepped out of the restroom, sat down, and got back to work.

I would never do that. I would take all my stuff with me. Every time. Am I overly cautious? Are others naive? Should I be more trusting? Or does unattended stuff usually disappear?

I’ve seen purses sitting atop unattended shopping carts, cell phones hanging from back pockets, and unoccupied running cars (yes, people still do that).

Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on your stuff. But someone else is probably eyeing it, too.

Posted in Life

The highlight of my day

“Any chance someone will be home earlier than our appointment?”

“Sure. Come any time.”

The insurance inspector was way ahead of schedule to take photos of our home. A new policy required a quick check of the roof, water valves, breaker box, and hot water heater. I was just hanging out waiting for her, so my schedule was flexible.

“Great. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

When she arrived, I asked, “How do you feel about dogs?” I didn’t want Samson to ruin her day if she wasn’t a large dog lover.

“They are the highlight of my day!”

Now that’s my kind of person. If I see a neighbor walking a dog by our house, I go out to greet them. When I’m walking dogs in our neighborhood, I stop to talk to the faithful canines guarding their front yard or barking at me through a window or fence. They are the highlights of my days, too.

My dog Samson met the inspector at the front door, leaving the usual light-brown hairy reminder of the encounter on her black pants. “My baby will know I met some new friends today.”

Samson can tell whether or not to greet someone or hold them at bay by my reaction as I open the door. Somehow he knows whether or not to trust a person or keep an eye on them. Someone once said, “If my dog doesn’t trust you, I probably won’t either!” I like having a second opinion around.

Posted in Life

No solar for you

“I can’t sell you solar panels.”

Just by chance I responded to a random email from Enlight, a Gainesville-based company that sells solar roof panels. I answered a few basic questions and they texted me to set up an appointment.

I figured we were the perfect candidates for solar panels. Our house faces directly north, so we’ve got a ton of southern roof exposure on the backyard side. Feeling very green lately, I was confident we’d not only be able to power our house, but even sell energy back to Florida Power and Light. Our monthly electric bill might be zero or less.

As much as this is advertised and as nice as it sounds, it’s not so simple. When I met the sales rep at the door, he immediately said, “I can’t sell you solar panels.” First of all, we’ve got too many trees on the corners of the backyard. A few of the trees are in our yard and we could have had them removed. But the two lots on either side of our house are still filled with thirty to forty foot tall scrub pine trees. They cast enough morning and afternoon shadows on the roof that we wouldn’t generate enough power to reach zero outside power usage.

Did we think our neighbors might be willing to cut down a few trees? Doubtful. The neighbor to our west bought the vacant lot specifically so no one would build on it. I don’t know the neighbor to the east. Plus we’re talking about a lot of trees. At least a dozen or so, and that wouldn’t be cheap. When Hurricane Ian blew through I thought, “Some of those trees might come down after all.” I came to my senses and realized I didn’t want these trees coming down on our houses.

Plus, the salesman told us that local electric company has a minimum monthly charge. No matter now little power you use, you’re gonna pay at least thirty dollars a month. Our monthly electric is only a hundred dollars, so even if we used little or nothing, it would take a long time to break even after investing in solar panels.

I appreciate his honesty. He had driven an hour and a half from his home office to visit us. He had checked satellite views of the property and didn’t see a problem until he pulled up in front of our home. As he left he added, “Don’t let anyone come in and sell you solar. It won’t work till those trees are gone.”

When we walk the neighborhood, I scan for solar panels. In our area they are few and far between. The ones I do see are to heat up the water for a swimming pool. There are a few single panels which I assume are to power a hot water heater. The homes I’ve seen with a roof full of solar panels are on corner lots away from any wooded lots.

The radio is full of solar panel advertisements from a variety of companies. I think Solar Bear has the most creative name at the moment. Online reports are all over the place, but there’s not that much solar power in Florida. Yet. Prices are coming down dramatically. Lots are being cleared quickly to make space for more homes. In a year or so, we’ll have a ton of options. We may be able to install batteries to store power for cloudy days. We might replace part of our roof with solar shingles. Solar hot water is probably a viable option right now. Our camper trailer was prewired for roof solar panels. By the time we have an electric car, it will probably have solar panels on the roof.

When we built our house, most of the lots around us were undeveloped. We didn’t even clear the back fifteen yards of our property. We liked being surrounded by the woods, our little home built in the middle of nature. The trees provided lots of shade and were our friends on hot days, cutting the power needed for air conditioning. The builder deliberately designed our house to let in the light while keeping out the heat. One by one, the lots were cleared, the shade trees were chopped down, and our shade friends were replaced by new neighbors and families. It won’t be long before the woods next to us disappear and I’ll be revisiting our solar options. For years we tried to keep the sun out. Now we’re waiting to let it in.

Posted in Life

Pump your gas!

I saw this sticker attached to a gas pump at Keith’s Superstore in Semmes, Alabama.

My imagination shifted into high gear as I pictured the scenarios that prompted a convenience store manager to make and affix this sticker. Does this happen a lot in rural Alabama?

When Cletus pulled up to the pump in his big old F250, he told his wife, “We’re almost empty, so put eighty bucks on pump two.” When they both got back into the truck with surprisingly good coffee and a bag of snacks, they buckled up and pulled back out onto the road. Glancing down, he saw the gas gauge pointing to the E.” “Crap.” After a quick u-turn, they pulled back in, only to find an old Cadillac pulling away from pump two with a full tank. After a long, angry, red-faced conversation with the cashier and store manager, Otis walked out with $20 in change.

Or it could have been that time when Lilly answered her phone as she swiped her card at the pump. She punched in her zip code, unscrewed the gas cap, and was just about to press economy when she exclaimed, “Are you kidding me? OK, I’ll be right there.” As she pulled away Emmet pulled up in his old Crown Victoria, saw the pump ready to go. All he said was, “Sweet,” as he filled up his tank.

Jake usually tried once a week, when he saw a new cashier at the register. “Hey doll, this is embarrassing, but I gave the other guy fifty dollars this morning and never pumped my gas. I had this killer migraine and had to go home. I’m feeling better now, so can you set up pump five for me?” His story rarely worked, but he kept on trying.

I’ve heard a few stories of people who forgot to disconnect the nozzle from their car and drove off, tearing the hose off the pump. Others, thinking they could squeeze a few more ounces into the tank ended up with a puddle of gas on the ground around their car.

I want to meet the guy or gal who prepaid and forgot to pump.