Friday, April 27, 2007

And the award goes to...

I recently had the privilege of accepting an award on behalf of the city, which had been named a Municipality of the Year by a regional charity organization. We were chosen for this award because we have given a lot of money to this charity. We bought the award, basically, which as KC points out, makes it just like the Oscars!

The awards banquet was held in a gymnasium at the charity's headquarters. The gym was decorated in a tropical theme, with paper palm trees, hibiscus flowers, grass skirts around the tables, a beach scene behind the front table, seashells as centerpieces. There was no explanation for this choice of theme. Most of the decorations had been taped to the cinder-block walls of the gym, so one by one throughout the evening the adornments came loose and fell off.

The invitation to the dinner said 6 p.m., but the program revealed that dinner wouldn't be served until 6:45. The preceding chunk of time was set aside for the silent auction, which featured an unusual number of hair-care products. There was also an enormous basket of motor oil.

I sat at a table with three other award winners: a representative from another Municipality of the Year and two clients of the charity who were being honored for overcoming adversity in their lives. The woman next to me had lost a child, cared for her ill parents, lost her job, got two divorces, and wound up living in her van. Now she owns her own home and runs a local Head Start program. The older couple across the table didn't look like they'd ever had adversity in their lives. Turns out they were accepting the award on behalf of their son-in-law, who had been laid off from work and went back to school to get his degree.

The food was served buffet-style, and the in-laws got in line behind me. I noticed right away that the mother-in-law seemed to want to cut in front of me. She would slide forward anytime I stepped slightly out of line. When we got to the food, she would reach ahead for items that I hadn't gotten yet, which is a clear violation of buffet etiquette. When we sat down, she announced to the table that she hadn't taken any steak because "I like it, but it doesn't like me."

The steaks were thick sirloins, barbecued in a huge smoker outside. The knives and forks were plastic. Throughout the meal, POP! POP, POP! was heard around the room as the utensils snapped. Fork tines went flying across the tables.

A local TV news anchor served as emcee. She was really just eye candy, though, because the charity's executive director did most of the talking. He talked like a less refined Ross Perot. His favorite phrase was "and stuff like 'at," which he repeated at the end of almost every sentence.

The emcee newswoman had to leave early so she could do the evening newscast, but before she left, the executive director presented her with a $50 Applebee's gift card as thanks for coming. The audience gave her three ovations. She refused the gift card but accepted the applause, holding out her arms and saying, "God bless you all." (There is something fundamentally wrong with a charity whose mission is to feed starving Kansans offering $50 worth of food to a famous and RICH television personality. Perhaps they missed the irony of that situation.)

Unlike most of the other award recipients, I did not make a speech. I had no desire to join in the ass-kissing festival. I picked up my crummy plastic trophy and sat back down. Three and half hours later, I went home.

Back in the office the next day, my co-workers giggled as I showed off the city's award. My boss suggested we use it as a doorstop. We wound up hiding it in the mayor's office, alongside other not-so-attractive accolades. Clearly my night at the awards gala was well worth it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

To give and to receive

I've been told that I really love presents. And I must say, there really isn't much I enjoy more than really thoughtful gift-giving.

To me, what makes a good gift is just that it fits the recipient. When Ben and I went to Colorado on our honeymoon, I wanted to bring something home for my mom. Driving past all the beautiful scenery, I realized I was looking at the perfect gift. We brought two big rocks home for her, including one from the summit at Pike's Peak. And she was ecstatic. She loves rocks. She's a kook, you see. And the gift fit her. That's the most important thing. Something as utilitarian as a blender, for instance, can be a beautiful gift for a friend who happens to love strawberry margaritas. (Thanks again, kc.) When I find a gift for someone that is personal and meaningful, that is a joyous moment for me.

Not everyone follows my philosophy of gift-giving. These are the people lining up to buy half-price DVD players for every member of their family on the day after Thanksgiving. These people are all caught up in the thing they are giving; being thoughtful about it isn't a concern. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with buying someone a DVD player. Probably the recipient will like it and enjoy using it. But the real joy of gift-giving isn't there.

That is not to say that I am batting 1000 in gift-giving. I once bought a DVD for my mother-in-law that I was sure she would like. Then, about an hour before I gave it to her, she launched into a long spiel about that particular movie's shortcomings and the superiority of the sequel. I sheepishly gave it to her anyway.

And then there's the unspeakable sweater set that I bought for my mom's birthday one year. I knew immediately that she didn't like it. My mom is not a person who can fake excitement about gifts. But she did her best. She thanked me and hung the sweater in her closet. There it hung, with the tags still attached, for at least a couple of years. She never wore it, and neither of us ever mentioned it. A year or two ago, I looked for it in her closet, and it was nowhere to be found. It had finally been relegated, no doubt, to the Salvation Army.

I don't feel bad about the sweater, really. It's just a sweater. The turquoise would have looked great with her eyes, but whatever. I just wish she had said something about it. She could have told me that it wasn't her style, that would've been OK. We could have returned it and picked out something else together.

I can't be too indignant about it, though. You see, I also have an unspeakable sweater.

My mother-in-law gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago. I don't know how successful I was in faking excitement, but even she seemed less than enthusiastic about it. She said she had ordered it from a catalog that "has some 'younger' styles." "But when you order from a catalog, you never really know what it's going to look like," she said, in what sounded vaguely like an apology.

I know that I will never wear this sweater. But I have kept it. I figure that eventually I will break down and take it to the Salvation Army, too. But it doesn't quite feel like I've waited long enough yet. I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to actually wear the thing. In short, I know exactly how my mom must have felt.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Unplugged (almost)

When I was a kid, the television was practically always on at my house. Sometimes multiple TVs were on. I would turn it on when I got home from school and didn't turn it off until I went to bed. My dad would come home from work and turn on the TV in the other room. My mom watched with me or with him, depending on what we were watching. Then she got a little TV in the kitchen, and she could watch while she made dinner or washed the dishes.

I watched TV while I did my homework, ate dinner, wrote in my diary, colored, played computer games. It was background to everything. I loved "Seinfeld" and "Northern Exposure" and "The Wonder Years" and "Murphy Brown." I loved MTV and Nick at Night and QVC.

We always had cable. With the exception of my first year of college, I've never had to deal with bad reception or a dearth of channels. Even when I was just married and flat broke, we had cable -- first because we lived on campus and KU was footing the bill, and then because I worked for the cable provider's parent company, which used to give extraordinary employee discounts. (We paid $6 a month for digital cable, all the movie channels, and free pay-per-view.) We got Dish Network when we moved back to Newton, mostly to feed my HBO addiction. With money being tight, though, we recently decided to give it up.

Almost immediately, I felt a huge relief. I would no longer lazily waste time watching TV when I should be doing other things. I would read more. I would listen to music. I would get so much done around the house. I was almost excited to lay down the burden of so much readily available, high-quality programming.

The first week went really well. I did a lot of cleaning, I read a lot. After that, I got a little sloppy. I wouldn't say I've fallen completely off the wagon -- but close. I admit, I have watched shows that I never would have watched before. I have watched reruns of "Everybody Loves Raymond." I watched an episode of "American Idol." I watched an episode of some crime drama with Jeff Goldblum as a detective who sees dead people. I didn't enjoy that crap, but I watched it.

Even with those moments of weakness, though, the end of cable TV has been a positive change. I don't spend nearly as many weeknights parked on the couch. I don't watch TV over my lunch hour. I've actually read the magazines that I paid to subscribe to. I feel good. And I find that I don't even really miss all the shows that I had considered my favorites.

My next goal is to break the habit of turning it on if I happen to be in the living room. And to get used to a silent house. Using the TV as background noise is still very tempting to me. The problem is that once it's on, it's so hard not to watch, even if there's nothing on that appeals to me.

An article in Scientific American in 2002 argued that the features of television -- cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises -- can trigger involuntary responses similar to a pre-"fight or flight" reaction. The brain focuses on gathering more information while the rest of the body quiets. Since nothing ever does happen and this reaction is stimulated over and over again, we become locked in this passive state, unable to break free. This can also explain the pull TV has even if we are engaged in other activities, such as conversation, and are not trying to watch it. Like when you're in a restaurant that has a television in the bar: You couldn't care less what is on, but you keep looking at it, right?

So I need to learn not to turn the TV on in the first place. To turn some music on if I need the noise. Or how about embracing a little quiet time?

Wish me luck!

Thursday, April 5, 2007