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The weather was beautiful today here in New Jersey, and everyone on the block was outside, trying to make the most of it.

One neighbor had his convertible top down and rolled into his driveway, music blaring. The volume was so loud that I could hear the drum beat and bass line thumping in my house. The Judge Judy in my head nudged me: Kids today! How rude!

But in truth, the thing is, he’s trying to be heard, albeit in a way that may not be well-received by those around him. He likes that song. He can afford that nice car. He thinks he has good taste in general, and he wants to be known for that.

Another neighbor was outside, blow-drying her lawn. Now, I know the term should be “leaf-blowing,” but the thing is, there’s not a leaf in sight. She primped her yard all day long and that constant, high-pitched whir really got under my skin. The Judge Judy in me barked: You’ve proved your point! You’ve got a lot of time and money on your hands, so you spend it all on your fabulous yard. Congrats! But the thing is, it’s her money. It’s her yard. Her landscaping isn’t directed toward me as a slap in the face, even if I might choose to receive it that way.

On the block behind mine, kids were playing tag in the street, screaming at the top of their lungs. Normal, you say? Well, the thing is, even though they were playing, the screams were blood-curdling, as if someone was in danger. They “play-screamed” things such as, “No! Stop! Help! Get off me! You’re killing me!!!”

Once I saw their father coming outside, I thought he’d put an end to these heart-wrenching screams. Instead, he just joined in! Now he was “play-screaming,” too! The Judge Judy in me shook her head: A mother would never do that! But perhaps she would. And maybe this is just how they express themselves. The thing is, I could spin it in my mind to say, At least the kids are outside on a beautiful day, and their father is spending time with them.

The thing is, it’s a big world, and there is a wonderful way for me to share it with all my neighbors: knock off the stone-throwing and the nit-picking and focus on the bountiful blessings in my own life. And, while I’m at it, I’d better put the Judge Judy in my head on mute.

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holidays 2011 017There’s an unusual custom that, I believe, only happens in my town in New Jersey, and it may seem strange to some of you, dear readers.

Every year around Christmas, we hear the sound of police and fire truck sirens, continuously blaring for hours, several nights in a row. At first, all of the neighbors think, what the heck happened? There must be a serious fire in town, with that many sirens roaring for that long. Hope everyone’s okay!

But one by one, we realize, oh yeah! It’s Santa, sitting atop the fire truck, rolling slowly down the block and wishing us all a “Merry Christmas!” over the loudspeaker. Our dedicated firefighters and police officers accompany him, honking and waving. Just generally sending boisterous and blazing holiday wishes our way.

It strikes me that this is a particularly New Jersey way of sharing good cheer during the holidays: loud, intrusive, rolling through the neighborhood like we own the place, yet full of good cheer!

It’s the way it’s always been around here, but sometimes I wonder, how does everyone else do the holidays? I’ve always imagined that, in other, more mellow states, Christmas must be low-key and tasteful. Mistletoe hanging, fireplace burning, carols playing. Maybe some egg nog pouring. 

Of course, at the heart of it all is the peace that passes all understanding. With all the wrapping and rushing, the traffic and tinsel, it’s easy to forget that God’s love is the gift that we’re honoring at this time of year.

Well, no matter how you and yours celebrate, here’s wishing your holidays are filled with warmth, laughter, and loved ones!

Merry Christmas, All!

This headline amused me: Mr. Ugly Contest Turns Ugly. As it happens, the front-runner for the Mr. Ugly contest lost, and a fight broke out.

It’s one thing to possess an aesthetically unpleasant countenance, but it’s quite another to show the ugliness we’re seeing from some pundits lately.

As SueBE wrote in her spot-on post, many are calling for a limit on Middle East refugees, and pandering politicians are tapping into this fear.

Exhibit A: GOP Presidential Nominee Donald Trump, claiming that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the towers fell.

Well, I’ve got a bone to pick with that one. I live in New Jersey.

On that day, I was at work in East Brunswick, and driving like a bat out of hell down Route 18 to get my son out of daycare and take him home to Somerset, what I saw was quite a different story. Through the “moon roof” of my Passat, I saw fighter jets in formation, flying over me. Out the side windows, I saw other petrified drivers drifting from their lanes, racing to get somewhere safe – wherever that might be. When we got home, I saw neighbors on porches in a daze, asking if I knew what in the world was happening, and what we should all be doing now.

Celebrating? I didn’t see it on my block. I didn’t see it on the highway. I didn’t see it on the local news on television.

It’s a sickness of the soul to demonize people that don’t look like you, worship like you, or think the way you do.

Being from Jersey, I could throw a few choice words at the windbag, that is, the candidate, but I will refrain, because that would be an ugly thing to do. And I do believe, he’s got that part of the block covered.

“You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.

Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else’s path.

You are not on your own path.

If you follow someone else’s way,
you are not going to realize
your potential.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life & Work

As I read an article entitled, Inmates at California Prison ask Guards to Keep Quiet,  I thought, they did the crime, they should do the time, but it may be that the guards were being loud all night on purpose so that the inmates could never get to sleep. What is the truth? A spokeswoman representing correctional officers declined to comment. (Um…isn’t that an oxymoron?) Both sides see the situation through their own lens and they tell the tale in their own way.

Sometimes we tell a story in our own idiom, and it might not compute for everyone. On the BBC show,  Cybercrimes with Ben Hammersley, the host recounted a crime in which a Brooklyn gang systematically robbed $300,000 from New York City ATM machines on one day in 2013. Hammersley spoke of the moment they were captured, referring to it as a “kerfuffle in a carpark,” and I had to pause the show for a minute. I needed to break that down in my mind.

We’re talking Brooklyn, Ben. They’re called “parking lots” here in the states, and I seriously doubt locals would ever use the word “kerfuffle.”  I know I never have! What is that, anyway? It sounds like something fluffy that you wear, or perhaps dust with!

Somebody is going to tell your story one day, and it might not be the truth as you lived it. If someone made a map of your life, they still might not end up where you are.

Tell your own story now. Walk your own path. Write it down while it’s still true. Over time, details are forgotten and eventually, somebody else is going to presume to speak for you in your silence or absence. Why not be the one to tell the world who you are?

Let’s let the late, great writer, Maya Angelou have the last word on the subject. Speak for yourself and tell it like it is, she said, or you’ll live to regret it.

“I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.  There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

As you may know, I’m from Jersey. I’ve told a few choice “Joizey” jokes in my day, and they always get a laugh.

But if you try to knock New Jersey in my house? Oh, heck no.

I’d tell you to make like a banana. And split.

Make like a tree. And leave.

Make like a shepherd. And get the flock out of here!

It’s like this. You know how dysfunctional your own family can be. But they’re still your family. You might give your sister a hard time, sure. Goffa Bids (Jerzese = God Forbid) anybody else does it.

Likewise, I feel defensive when I hear anyone knocking religion. Even though I don’t belong to a particular church myself, my faith is the hinge of my life, and prayer is the door.

But lately, I’ve seen things in the news that make me wonder if certain churches didn’t get the memo – you know, the one about doing unto others. They may have missed the class on compassion, and they’re giving all of us who are spiritually inclined a black eye. The litmus test for a person of faith is simple: if you don’t treat people well, you don’t know God.

Take this church (please!) in Knoxville, Tennessee, with its billboard designed to offend those who believe everyone is entitled to equal rights.

Or this one in San Francisco, California, with shower sprays that aim out toward the front of its church building. Not to put out fires, mind you; no, they’re used for the sole purpose of discouraging homeless people from sleeping there by drenching them with water.

The great Thomas Merton said, “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” And these churches may really believe they are following God’s leading by driving away those souls already feeling disenfranchised.

Even though it isn’t always clear what to do in a difficult situation, one thing is certain. Nobody claiming to hold faith has any right to diminish another. I’m no theologian, but I know one thing, as sure as I’m sitting here. God has an open door policy. Everyone is welcome to walk through.

The other night in a dream, someone told me, “You can either have a project …or be the project.”

In other words, always be doing something constructive with your life or somebody will come along, make you their project and try to “fix” you.

In the news today, a New Jersey public school principal was transferred after a misspelled sign in front of the school went viral. A custodian had changed the sign at an entrance not used by staff, so no one noticed it for a week.

It was startling to see such a sign in front of a school, but the venomous reaction to it really surprised me. Ironically, people making comments on the article seemed unaware of their own spelling errors. One man wrote that he was “dumfounded” by the mistake.

Another pointed out that she had seen such errors as well on the “bulleting board” at her son’s school. She said this was “indicitive” of the crisis in the educational system in general. More than one commenter said it really wasn’t the “principle’s” fault, but the “parens.”

Seems like we always want to make the other person our project.

Instead of throwing stones, maybe someone could offer to help the custodian with reading comprehension. Everyone wants to assign blame but nobody has anything helpful to say. Isn’t it possible to reach out with compassion instead? That would be a great project for the commenters to take on.

My goal for the new year is to always have a productive, constructive project. That way, nobody will take it upon themselves to make me their project. Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy, joyful new year with positive projects and prayers aplenty!

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” the police officer said, hiking up his pants and pacing slowly. “I just want to make sure I understand the situation.” It seemed as if he was talking to a jury, not a family that had just lost a loved one, minutes ago.

He was training a new officer, and it became clear that he was trying to impress the rookie with his “command” of the scene.

As he spoke, I realized that I knew this man.

“I don’t know if you remember me,” I said, and told him my name. “We went to high school together.”

He shrugged slightly, smirked and widened his eyes dramatically. “Geez. You got so big!” he said to me. He laughed as if to say, I’m so bad to say that, but it’s true!

Silently seething, I almost reflexively responded that I’d just had a child, but I realized you should never justify yourself. Bad behavior is just that. It’s unacceptable.

Outwardly calm, I did the math in my head. He could make this process even more painful if I got up in his grill, as we say in Jersey. Which I so wanted to do.

“You’re not one to talk, bud,” I said, pointing to the burgeoning buttons on his uniform, which might have fit a few years ago. But at this point, he looked like a sausage in a casing.

We semi-smiled and chuckled mirthlessly, knowing we’d both just insulted the heck out of each other, but tacitly agreeing to call it a draw.

Society had decided this guy was in charge right now. There in my parents’ home, with my dad lying cold in the other room. There in the house where I grew up. How can someone “pull rank” on you in your own home?

He went back to interrogating my mother about how my father – all of 90 pounds after being ravaged by cancer – had died. I guess the hospital bed, commode, wheelchair and medications would have been puzzling to anyone but Columbo, perhaps. This truly seemed to be a great mystery.

The thing that struck me the most about this ordeal was the fact that he was not a stunod (more colorful Jerseyisms) in high school. He wasn’t a friend of mine; we had a few classes in common, but from what I could surmise, he was an okay sort.

What happened?

Does the badge always change you? Does power corrupt people?

This may be oversimplifying the recent spate of police-civilian incidents, but I don’t see it as black vs. white. It’s not even the authority establishment against everyone else. It’s light and darkness. Compassion vs. callousness. Both are inside each of us, and it’s what we choose to tap into at any given time. I’m praying that somehow, some way…we could all turn the light on at the same time. And keep it on. Now that would be a shining sight to see.

Ah, adolescence. My son and I go round and round – with me constantly saying, “What did you say?  Would you please speak up?”

I think, he’s a teen-ager, and teen-agers notoriously do not enunciate!

He’s thinking, Mom’s gettin’ on in years, and old folks just don’t hear well!

I don’t know. Maybe we’re both right.

But really. Are we even speaking the same language?

This clip on YouTube, “Shoot Christians Say” made me laugh. It pokes fun at how we tend to over-use specific language for Christian concepts. We try to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world by using phrases such as “secular” for those who don’t believe as we do. But then again, even when you know the language, there are nuances and colloquialisms that elude us.

This clip of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman on the Mike Douglas Show from the 1970s is a great example of the disconnect between what the stars of “the Odd Couple” are saying and what the closed captioning transcriber is hearing. At one point, at about 2:13 on the clip, Jack Klugman was talking about “my barber” only to have it captioned as “Obama.”

Years ago, I dated a guy I’ll call “Guy.” 🙂 At a gathering one night, his brother told me he “used to beat people for money.” I was shocked by this and confronted Guy.  “Your brother told me you used to beat people? For money?” He laughed and shook his head.  “It’s a saying. It means I didn’t pay people back when I borrowed money from them!”  Just another colorful New Jersey phrase, causing confusion.

Luckily, when we talk to God, we don’t need to worry about being misunderstood. It’s what’s in your heart that really matters.  So if you’re a manicurist and you forget to specify when you say, “please help me to find a job,” He knows you don’t want a position as a forklift operator.  I’m so grateful that God speaks all languages and sees right through to the soul.

I’ve come to believe that tailgaters are lost souls in search of a leader, and this approach has served me well in New Jersey, the most densely-populated state in the country. The minute you leave your own driveway, you have to be prepared for the eventuality that someone in a car behind you will let you know – through, shall we say “auto-body language” – that he or she is in a hurry. Come on, come on!  Haul it, pal!  Get out of the way!

Mobile prayer has helped me with this issue, as has listening to relaxing, classical music. But most of all, I remember that I know the truth. Everybody is going somewhere.  Your destination really is no more important than mine.

I also know a much deeper truth: Everybody has light and dark within them.  It’s just a matter of what you choose to tap into at any given moment.  What you put out into the world is a reflection of what’s inside of you.

In the documentary, “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage,” a fan wanted to get lead singer, Geddy Lee’s, autograph, so she all but climbed over the band’s guitarist, Alex Lifeson, to reach him. Lifeson was not bothered by this interaction – he said, “happens all the time,” and shrugged, but I couldn’t believe the rudeness of that person.

On the flip-side, this clip of Mister Rogers testifying before Congress decades ago to convince them to continue funding public broadcasting is a great example of this truth. He doesn’t let the tough-guy posturing of the senator he’s speaking to change his kind, slow-paced manner at all. Eventually, he wins the man over with his warmth.

I remember once, a woman in a small car on the road behind me was in a big rush. She stuck so close to my bumper that you couldn’t even see the front end of her car.  It was as if she was in the car with me! Oh joy!

We both arrived at the UPS store.  She seemed not to recognize me as the person whose car she was tailgating down that long, winding road, and we entered the store. I got on line and waited to buy stamps. Great.  Now she’s on line behind me.  Gonna tailgate me here in person too, lady?!?

Out of the corner of my eye, I scoped her out.  She seemed fine, if a bit distant – but that’s how we all look when we’re around strangers at the store, isn’t it?

I happened to glance at her shoes and realized that she had found a way to match the unusual turquoise of her outfit and earrings to her shoes.  I thought that was quite an accomplishment, so I threw caution to the wind.

“Your shoes match your outfit exactly,” I said, with a guarded smile. “How did you do that?”

She smiled broadly and said, “Oh! Thank you for noticing! It took a lot of effort, but I like all my things to match.”

We chatted about inane things for a few minutes as we waited on line and I realized again what God has shown me through the years. In the right circumstances, everyone will show up as their best self. But in the anonymity of a car, or online in chat forums, negativity seeps out.

Isn’t it amazing how we don’t give a second thought to the feelings – or safety, for that matter – of the person whose car we are tailgating, but we go to great lengths to look good for strangers?

Maybe with all the clothing-makeover shows on t.v., we could crowdfund a Make-under Show.  Get past the surface, under the skin and into the soul to see how we’re really treating each other. All that matters at the end of the day is the Golden Rule. And – confidentially, I got this from a Very Reliable Source – everything goes with that color.

As I may have mentioned a thousand times before on this bloggie, I’m from Jersey.  Do youse gotta prollem widat? As you can see, we have our own language.  I’m from a place that has a bit of a, shall we say, reputation.  We’re not exactly known as a warm and fuzzy place, and we may be perceived as a bit, well, brash, perhaps even veering into… obnoxious.

It doesn’t help that our governor is larger than life (although shrinking, post-bariatric surgery) and has attitude to spare.

Are we in a hurry?  Probably.  Do we have a bit of swagger in our step? I think so. But people from Jersey – in fact, people from Anywhere, USA – all want the same things out of life and, I may go out on a limb here, but hear me out: I think most people have a good heart and want to help others when they can.

A couple of weeks ago, I was receiving my monthly infusion of medication, and my nurse, Rosanne, was taking care of me.  She and all the nurses and staff at the Regional Cancer Care Center in East Brunswick* have been angels to me, making me feel like part of their family.  After my infusion was started, the husband of another patient stopped by to hand me a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin. “Oh, thank you,” I said, smiling, and he nodded pleasantly.  A few minutes later, he returned with the box.  “Go ahead,” he offered.  “Take as many as you want.”  I declined, but he persisted.  “Go on.  The nurses said we could share.”  I shook my head and he stood there, really wanting me to take another donut.  Finally I said, “I’m the one who brought them in!”

I think most people really want everyone to be happy.

There.  I said it!

I know that “Schadenfreude” is a thing now.  And that there are some people who do enjoy watching other peoples’ “fails” on YouTube.

But if given the chance, I think almost everyone will try to make a stranger’s day brighter.

Sure, if you just go by the headlines and the nightly news, you’d think most people are miscreants.  But that’s just not the case.  Even though the people doing the wrong thing are getting a lot of airtime, the ones Mister Rogers called “the Helpers” are out there too.  They’re at the Infusion Center in the hearts and hands of the nurses, the pleasant banter of the staff, the patients encouraging each other.

I may be the only person in the world who didn’t watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a child.  But recently I saw a documentary about Fred Rogers’ life, and he believed that there is always a way to find people willing to do the right thing, even during a crisis.

It doesn’t take much to be kind to someone else.  Even a donut hole that you bought yourself can taste like manna when a stranger gives it back to you. And if we all agree to try it at least once a day – hold a door for a young mother at the mall, let someone onto the elevator first – maybe there will be a cumulative effect and a whole wave of kindness will overtake the world!  Or, at the very least, your day will be better.  It’s the opposite of “Schadenfreude.”  Maybe we’ll call it “Lightenupfreude.” Could that become a thing?  It’s up to you!

*This is where I receive my Tysabri for Multiple Sclerosis.  Just so my friends don’t worry, I don’t have cancer, dear ones.  It’s just the name of the place where I receive my infusion every month.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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