Friday, August 20, 2010

Still Life With Robin

Hello Friends,

I'm keeping this blog page open, but I'm not updating it after today (August 20, 2010). That's because at the start of this week on August 15, 2010, Bill and I launched our new online magazine, All Life Is Local, the companion web site to the Cleveland Park Listserv.

Now all my columns, previously called All Life Is Local (now renamed Still Life With Robin) can be found on that site, along with all the Cleveland Park Listserv's other columns: The Tech Column, The "Is It News?" humor column, That's Entertaining!, Living Happily on a Shoestring, as well as other features and news.

Here's what I wrote to explain the switcheroo (this was my note published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on August 20, 2010):

First a note about this column's title change. Its former name, All Life Is Local, has now become the title of our new online magazine:, the companion web site to the Cleveland Park Listserv, where you can find all the listserv's columns, plus readers' comments, a Deal of the Day, additional news items, and more. The site is just 5 days old, and we're adding features all the time, so please, visit often to see what's new.

Meanwhile, my column was left in need of another name, something that suggests what you can find here. Rather than the broad "All Life" perhaps it's more like little snapshots of life, or little portraits, like still life. And since it's by me, it's unmistakably "with Robin" Which just happens to be a play on the title of a wonderful, whimsical novel by Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker. So that explains it: Still Life with Robin.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Deeper Meaning of the Mundane

Yesterday's Washington Post reported on a study showing that couples who are in agreement on the big philosophical questions like religion are happier, on the whole, than couples who disagree. (See: .) My reaction to that is a big "DUH!" Well, of course, living with someone is easier when you see the big picture through the same lens. What concerns me, though, is how couples can live together successfully when they disagree over all those little, seemingly trivial day-to-day things. Like this: What's the right way to load a dishwasher? (Is there a right way and a wrong way? The answer is at the end of this column.) Or this: Should you take the first available parking space you see or keep driving until you find the one closest to your destination? Couples may not break up over these kinds of questions but they can certainly keep up a vigorous debate about them for twenty years or more.

Perhaps the explanation is that there are really are no trivial arguments. Underneath any seemingly small, meaningless question lurks the deeper question about the purpose of our time here on earth. If the point of life is, for example, to maximize happiness, then when you're tackling the parking issue, you will naturally want to keep circling until you find the parking space that meets your ideal definition of "a good spot." If your deeper motivation is to maximize the good you accomplish in your allotted lifespan, then, quite the contrary: You will want to take the first available spot within walking distance of your destination, get out of your car, and get some exercise walking to where you want to go. That's better for the environment, too.

The number of these kinds of questions is as limitless as the number of petty chores of the day. And sometimes there isn't a this-way/that-way dichotomy of approaches but an infinite variety of ways to deal with the problem -- of, for example, what items can safely be put down the garbage disposal. On the one extreme, there are advocates of using this appliance to deal with virtually all the foods of the earth, and on the other, those who say even the softest foods like pasta or fruit salad, when dumped down in sufficient quantity, can jam up the works. Now think of the endless spectrum of issues in between: Each different type of vegetable raises a whole new set of considerations. Are parsley stems too stringy? Are orange seeds so small and hard that they will they get lodged in the blades? The overall question quickly breaks down into so many specific permutations and ramifications that it becomes readily apparent why certain argumentative types could find a bone of contention in each and every leftover at the end of every meal.

You don't think so? I can already anticipate the objections you are planning to email me in response: This isn't a philosophical question at all! It's one that an expert can answer definitively. Well, you might think so, but I say that if you call 10 different disposal repair people, you will get 10 different answers. Everything depends. What type of disposal is it? Are you running hot or cold water through it while it grinds? I talked to one repairman who said, in essence, that the whole concept of the garbage disposal is something of a sham, an illusion. Eventually, they all will break down over something. So if you want to avoid trouble with them, just get into the habit of throwing all your uneaten food in the garbage, and don't waste your time with this appliance at all. Now my friends who are environmentally sensitive agree with that advice, but not because they think disposals break down too often, but because the disposal does not break the food down in an environmentally responsible way. They say the only right way to dispose of food garbage is to compost it. You see: The more opinions I seek, the more philosophical issues arise. Now it's not just a question of how to use the appliance correctly, but whether it should exist at all.

Then there's the laundry. Do you believe there's truth in the words "Dry Clean Only?" Or do you think it's just another legal disclaimer, slapped on clothing indiscriminately by the manaufacturers' corporate lawyers, so that you can't sue them if the garment ends up damaged after washing or drying. Those who believe the latter may just throw everything in the wash on warm and tumble dry on high. That's one way to approach the dirty clothes in your life -- take risks and see what happens. If every so often you lose a piece of clothing that you liked, what's the big deal? Then there's the cautious approach: Things that can be machine washed, even if the label says warm, you might do on the cold/delicate cycle. You let almost everything drip dry. Even if the label says "Tumble dry low," you believe that your clothes will look better and last longer if allowed to air-dry naturally. But then, are you wasting hours of your life hanging things up (and then ironing them later, because you know that hang-drying makes them come out stiff) -- hours that you could be spending with your family, or alone with a good book, or taking a nice, long walk through the woods? Because, you see, it's never just about the laundry.

Now for my final example (of the thousands of things that I could pick): Filing papers. Here you have the old way and the new way to choose from. Old way: File your papers in clearly labeled file folders, organized systematically in some way (e.g., by subject and chronological order) and save all your old files until at least the IRS's minimum of three years -- six, if you like to be on the safe side. New way for the digital age: Why save any paper at all? Everything is stored electronically somewhere. Just be sure you've saved ONE thing on paper: the sheet with all your passwords so that you will be able to access your online accounts in perpetuity. Anytime you get a paper receipt that you feel you should save, just use your phone's camera to photograph it and send the file to an electronic filing system like Evernote that will even index it for you, so that it's always searchable. Then throw the paper receipt away. (Or better yet, recycle it.) Why wouldn't everyone go for approach number two? The underlying philosophical issue here is the permanence of the physical world. Is something that exists only in cyberspace really real? Or perhaps there really is no material reality at all? Even if that's the case, you might still want to hang on to your paperwork, because the bureaucrats who people our world (whether it truly exists or is all just in our minds) are more likely to believe in paper than in pixels. At least that's my philosophy.


[Answer to dishwasher loading question: Yes, dear reader, there is a right way, and this is it: Bowls, cups, glasses and anything made of light plastic on the top rack. Pots, pans, and large plates on the bottom. Knives, forks and spoons go point down in the utensil holder. Everything needs to be positioned so that the water spray can hit it on all sides and the water can drain away during the rinse and dry cycle. All of these precepts are in keeping with the laws of physics; therefore they are immutable.]

Friday, August 6, 2010

Don't Help Me...Please!

You know what they say about good intentions? But what are you supposed to say in response when someone with the very best of intentions has done something supposedly to your benefit that you not only didn't want but consider a big nuisance? Do you still say thank you? Are you honest about your reaction (perhaps causing that person to mutter within earshot, "Well, that's the last time I'm ever going to try to do someone a favor again!") Or do you just smile one of those awkwardly pained smiles and make the best of it?

Consider these situations:

1. Homeowners A&B go on vacation, leaving their home to the care of unpaid house-sitting grad student C, the daughter of a close friend, who is getting three weeks of rent-free accommodations in return for keeping the plants watered, taking in the mail, and making the house look lived-in. One day house-sitter C notices how dingy and gray the front hall curtains look. In an effort to do a little something extra for A&B, C decides to take the curtains down and wash them and put them back looking all clean and new. However, these are extremely delicate handmade lace curtains that A&B bought in Belgium on their honeymoon twenty years ago -- and they are definitely not machine washable! They come out completely in tatters, and upon their homecoming C tearfully tells A&B that she was only trying to do a nice thing. She offers to pay for some new curtains, but A&B know that it's well beyond her budget even to pay for standard curtains, much less replace the curtains they had custom made from lace they lovingly selected and purchased abroad. They go the
make-the-best-of-it route, suck up the loss, preserve the relationship with the daughter and her parents -- and vow never use a student house-sitter again.

2. D flies to Boston several times a year. Each time she goes, she rents a car, filling out a web form to reserve the smallest, cheapest model she can get. The last several times she's done this, she has arrived at the rental counter to find the perky attendant happily informing her that she's been "upgraded to an SUV at no additional charge." But D doesn't want an SUV: Not only is it harder to navigate Boston's narrow streets, but it's almost impossible to park in the tight spaces of the neighborhood where D will be staying, and the cost of the fill-up is substantially higher. But when D politely turns down the "better" car, the counter clerk gives her a look that says, "What, are you crazy that you don't want this beautiful big SUV that normally costs three times the rental price for that junky little tin box you were going to get?" (Yes, that's a lot of words packed into one look, but if you've ever seen it, you can read it very clearly.) On top of that, the formerly perky clerk now has to redo all the paperwork, and that takes extra time. On two of these occasions the small car has not been available right away, and D has had to wait a half an hour to forty-five minutes for the smaller car to be cleaned up and made ready. D has tried to explain that this "favor" is not a favor in her eyes, but she can see that her best attempt to make that clear has simply marked her in the clerk's eyes as a difficult customer. D has tried being polite but persistent, and she's tried being blunt. She has even tried switching rental car companies, but still she's been "selected" to be "awarded" an upgrade, with all the usual hassle that follows. She is still looking for an effective way to deal with this problem.

3. E needs to get a package to a client overnight and calls FedEx for a pickup. Dinner guest F arrives, sees the package on the front porch, and figures it's a FedEx delivery, and brings it into the house. F mentions to wife of E that he's brought in a package, but Mrs. E is focused on making dinner and does not realize that it's the same package that her husband has just set out and is anxious to have picked up by 7pm. Fortunately for everyone, E thinks to check to see whether FedEx has made the pickup. There's no package on the porch, which might indicate that it's already been picked up, but then E happens to see the box on the front hall bench, and even more fortunately, learns that it's not too late for FedEx to come back to make the pickup (although it does cost extra for the return visit). Is this a let-the-guest-know situation? Or is it really Mrs. E's fault for not paying attention when Guest F said, "I've brought in the package that was on your porch"?

4. A couple, G&H, called a tree removal company to cut down a huge, dead tree in their tiny back yard. In order for the massive tree to come down, the swingset behind the tree had to be removed first. G&H's children had outgrown it, and so they had no problem giving it away. After the tree was down, the tree cutter showed G how well he had cleaned up all the debris and sawdust after the tree removal. Then he added, gesturing at the mulched area where the swingset once had been, "And we did a little something extra for you, too -- no charge. We seeded this area with grass. In a few weeks' time you'll have a nice little lawn here." A lawn that would need to be mowed and tended was actually the last thing G&H wanted. But it seemed ungrateful to complain when the tree contractor thought he had done a good deed. However, months later, when G&H were really, really sick of having to mow the grass that now grows copiously, they wish they'd said, "No, no, we never wanted grass, so please do something to keep it from growing." Someday soon, when G&H are ready to do a re-landscaping of their back yard, the first thing they'll have to do is pay for someone to tear up this new, unwanted lawn.

5. (I've been saving the worst case for last): J is a teenage girl who walks home from school every day. One afternoon she's standing patiently at a marked crosswalk, waiting for the traffic to clear in both directions. There are four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, and no traffic light. A lady driving a large car in the lane closest to J stops for her and waves to let her know that it's safe to cross. J starts walking across the intersection. Unfortunately, neither J nor the lady in the stopped car can see that there's a car in the next lane over, coming up fast toward the intersection. The driver of that car cannot see J in the crosswalk at the point because she's obscured from view by the height and bulk of the first car that has stopped for her. The lady in that stopped car continues to wave J on, and so J steps right out in front of the speeding car in the next lane. This story doesn't end quite as horribly as it might have done. J is hit and suffers a broken leg, but it's an injury that will eventually heal completely. J is now fine, having learned the hard way that sometimes you can't just go along with a friendly gesture and trust that the other person is able to look out for you. You still need to stop and ask yourself, "Is this okay?"

And if it isn't, you might have to say something. Or at very least, not take that next step!

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on August 6, 2010.