Assessing Easter Sunday

Happy Easter friends.

If you are a churchgoer, enjoy the service. I am spiritual but stopped going to church long ago. However, on Easter Sunday, I often reflect on how it was when my siblings and I were children.

From the time I turned six years old and my sister four, she and I were required to go to Sunday school nearly every Sunday and to church almost as often. Until they grew older, my younger brothers were too little to make the block-long walk with us, so they stayed at home with mom and dad except on occasions when our entire family went to church.

I remember many things about those childhood Easter weekends like mom helping us color eggs and putting them in straw baskets lined with green cellophane grass. Nestling in the grass were chocolate bunnies, multi-colored jelly beans, and yellow marshmallow Peeps chicks. Back then, Easter was the Sunday that I looked forward to more than any other Sunday because I knew that my sister and I would be wearing brand new outfits to church. Cute frilly polyester dresses, fresh, bright white bobby socks, and black patent leather shoes. One year mother bought us pretty matching topper jackets. Mine was pink, and I think my sister’s was white or maybe hers was pink too. Some, but not many details have faded from memory.

As I matured, I realized that children were not the only ones who looked forward to showing off their Easter clothes. Many of the adult parishioners didn’t consider that Easter Sunday was about the resurrection or the message either, it was all about the fashions. People who didn’t go to church all year long showed up on Easter Sunday dressed to the nines, well many did.

Old Mr. John was an exception. The neighborhood drunk lived upstairs in the same apartment building where we lived. One Easter Sunday morning he followed his wife outside. While he hung back, she broadcasted to every neighbor they passed that they were heading to church. A rarity. Mr. John was wearing a battered, wide-brimmed Porkpie hat, probably reserved for attending funerals; a wrinkled, brown pin-striped suit that looked like he had slept in it and overturned brown shoes. An apparent reluctant churchgoer, his scrawny body was tagging a few inches behind his obese wife who was strutting proudly down the street, nearly bursting at the seams in a fitted fuchsia-colored dress. Perched on her head was a huge white hat with so many brown feathers attached to one side that it looked like a sparrow the size of an eagle was clinging there for dear life. Some sights you can’t unsee nor forget.

One day I decided that even if I went to church year round (which I didn’t, but even if I did), I would never go on Easter Sunday. I could hold a one-on-one session with God, as I usually do any day of the week; besides my absence would leave a seat for one of the Easter Sunday only worshipers who will crowd the pews.

There are some things that I miss about my church going days. Things like singing in the junior choir as a teen, watching a minister deliver a rousing sermon while using his white handkerchief to wipe the sweat running down his chocolate face like a melting fudge sickle, and the good, foot-stomping, hand clapping gospel music that seems to shake the rafters and open cracks in the wall.

These days, I need only to look out of my window at some of the churchgoers on Easter Sunday, especially the elder ones, decked out in their Easter hats and fresh outfits to know that there is truth to the proverb, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”


Tolerating Civil Servants and Other Public Service Providers

Raise your hand if you enjoy going to the DMV. Come on. Someone. Anyone. No one?

I feel you. It is no secret that most people would rather have a root canal than go to the DMV or any other government agency and have to interact with a civil servant. Although numerous services are now available online, sooner or later you may have to travel that road to aggravation and visit a public service office.

Some folks try to avoid the visit by making a phone call. I assure you that calling and engaging in the press button marathon is often just as exasperating as going there. You dial an agency’s number and the phone rings. And rings. And rings. When and if an automatic answering service responds, a recorded announcement asks you to press or say this number and that number so many times that by the time the number to the extension you need is announced you’ve forgotten why you called. And even when on rare occasions you are lucky enough to get a live person on the line right away, you may be asked, “May I put you on hold while I pull up your records?”

“Sure” you answer knowing that your choices are limited.

Whenever that happens to me, I imagine that the person who leaves me hanging under the pretense of searching the computer files is chit-chatting with the person in the next cubicle about non-job related issues like her date or his score the night before.

A bad attitude seems to be the modus operandi for many civil servants whether they communicate with you over the phone or in person. Do you ever wonder what is wrong with them the reason many display such insolence when all we want to do is take care of business?

Before you presume that I am lumping all civil servants into one barrel of incivility, I promise you that I am not. And I admit that sometimes I am caught off guard when one of the “govies” displays a pleasant disposition.

Following the longest government shutdown in American history, I had a problem with my social security payment. Having no desire to visit the office, I made numerous phone calls to various offices within the department trying to resolve the matter. That futility went on for over a week. Each time I called the Administration an automated service answered, and, of course, asked me to hold on. I’ve learned to always check the clock whenever I am asked to hold. And then I imagine how nice it would be if agencies were required to pay callers a dollar a minute for hold time.

My time is as valuable as theirs, so instead of idling, I would press the speaker button, set the phone on a nearby table or place it in my pocket and go about doing housecleaning, computing, or whatever I needed to do, all the while listening to corny hold music and waiting for an agent to pick up. The longest wait-time I logged one day was 58 minutes, after which – you guessed it, I hung up. Fifty-eight dollars would have been nice compensation for my time.

On the days when a live person finally came on the line that person sometimes transferred me to someone else. I admit that I found at least a couple of the govies were courteous, professional and helpful. Eventually, I got the issue resolved without having to spend 3-4 hours downtown at the agency.

Flashback to the dreaded visit to the DMV. A few weeks ago, after my grandson misplaced his wallet, he had to go to DMV to get another ID card. Before going there, he prepared by heeding my advice. “Carry everything and anything they might ask for to prove your identity and residency so you won’t have to make a return trip.” Birth certificate, social security card, lease, utility bills, bank statement, official mail from any government agency. You might as well throw in the kitchen sink.”

I was flabbergasted as my grandson said he was when he later told me that the experience was “not bad.” No long wait time. No hassling by a disgruntled clerk. A young man who he described as “pleasant” asked for one – yes, only one – of the numerous documents he had brought with him. (Of course, we know that had he only brought one document, he would have been asked for everything that he didn’t bring.) My grandson was in and out of there within 45 minutes. Surely that must be record time for a trip to the DMV.

Unlike private sector businesses where dissatisfied customers have the option of going elsewhere for service, state and local government offices hold the monopoly for dispensing driver’s licenses, passports, and other official documents as well as administering various social services. Civil servants had a reputation for nastiness long before this country entered the “season of being mean.” The question is why are some bureaucrats so darn unpleasant?

Perhaps the answer lies within a study done by Gallup in the summer of 2009. It revealed: “The fact that public employees have stronger job protections, even in nonunion organizations than their private-sector colleagues, makes it more difficult to deal with poor performers.”  Does that give government workers license to treat patrons like crap?

Another study I discovered was done by researchers from USC, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Kellogg School. It was conducted to test how power and status determine behavior. “The results showed that when low-status individuals [i.e., customer service reps] are given greater power, they are more likely to abuse that power.” To the contrary, people who hold positions of high power and high status often behave more professionally than those in lower status position. (Of course, as has been evident in the political milieu during the last two years, there is an exception to every rule.)

My early job history included seven years of employment with the federal government before I decided I’d had enough and fled to the private sector. Because the offices where I worked did not involve direct contact with the general public, I did not see much animosity by my coworkers directed against callers. However, I did witness the arrogance that some upper-grade staff members levied against their subordinates, so I easily understand why lower lever workers might take out their frustrations on their clientele.

The next time you absolutely must interact with a civil servant who is providing customer service at a government agency (or any place of business) as soon as you perceive that she or he is about to cop an attitude, disarm the person. Instead of escalating the situation with a put-down, “If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your wig off,” show your pleasant side. I know this may be difficult to do. The urge to give as good as we get is often irresistible, but it’s worth a try. Keep in mind that the person serving you may have nothing to lose, and all you want to do is accomplish what you came for, leave, and pray to God that you never have to return.


Planting Memories

I don’t have my mother’s green thumb, but I surely inherited her love for flowers and house plants.

For years, I’ve told my daughter about how, when my siblings and I were growing up, mother kept an indoor garden of beautiful house plants. When I was still in grade school, most of those flowers flourished year round on the windowsill in our living room.

The one plant that was too large to sit in the window occupied a place on the floor beside the roll-arm upholstered chair. Its sturdy, bright green leaves must have been at least three feet tall. It was a Sansevieria trifasciata. (“What the…,” you say. My thought exactly, that’s why I prefer to call it by it’s familiar nickname “mother-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant.”)

The snake plant is native to the tropics of West Africa, and while its average lifespan is 5-10 years, some have been known to live as long as 25 years.

I’m not sure if that particular plant was my mother’s favorite, but it sure was mine. The beautiful flower thrived for years, even surviving the move our family made from the cramped apartment in LeDroit Park to our more spacious house in Petworth; but like all living things, it eventually died.

Some weeks ago, my daughter surprised me when she presented me with the snake plant pictured above. “Had she grown tired of hearing me share memories about her grandmother’s snake plant?” I wondered. No, she’s just that kind of thoughtful person. I almost cried because the plant resurrected old memories. I purchased a snake plant early last year, but it came to an early demise shortly after I brought it home, probably due to my overwatering it. I didn’t know then, but I do now; water is not the snake plant’s best friend. (I did say that I didn’t inherit mother’s green thumb, remember?)

I am not one of those eccentric people who name their plants. However, I made an exception and named this one Millie, after my mother, Mildred, because my childhood recollection of my mother’s beautiful snake plant is as vivid as if I were standing in front of it today. Isn’t it strange how things that some people would consider insignificant are, for others, a lasting memory?

Lately, whenever I walk past and look at that plant gifted by my daughter, I think of my mother nurturing her plants with the same tenderness that she bestowed on her children, all those years ago.

Next month, May 12, is Mother’s Day. When that day comes, mother won’t get flowers from me as she did for many years, because (as some of my readers know) she deceased four years, nine months and 20 days ago. But this year, I’ll look with gratitude at my daughter’s (early Mother’s Day) gift, and smile as I always do, because it rekindles pleasant memories of my mother and her fondness for plants.

Plant-lovers will tell you that plant tending takes root in our mind, and just like every pleasant moment in our life plants sow something sweet in our soul.


Why I Watch Documentary Films

Every cognizant person will agree that we are never too old to learn. Learning is even better when you enjoy it, and I do. I take pride in acquiring knowledge about new things. There are various ways to learn. Firsthand experience is often an excellent teacher. On the other hand, there is knowledge to be gained from articles, books, and films. Documentary films are high on my list of educational tools.

Some of the numerous documentaries I’ve watched over the years and recently include Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, I Am Not Your Negro, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, Surviving R. Kelly, and The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.

While I prefer films about the Black experience, I don’t limit my viewing to presentations about a particular racial group or subject. Open-mindedness not only helps me to maintain a well-rounded base of knowledge; it expands my critical thinking and prevents me from stating baseless opinions and making irrational judgments.

Most recently I watched the documentary Period. End of Sentence. My first thought as I began viewing the film was that we take so much for granted in this country. You’ll learn why I thought that as you continue reading.

Period. End of Sentence is a 26-minute film that won an Oscar last month for Best Documentary Short Subject. It is about the stigma surrounding menstruation in a rural village called Kathikhera, outside Delhi, India.

I was surprised to learn of the level of naivety of the Indian women (and men) concerning a subject that rarely raises eyebrows in America. In the Delhi town (and some other resource-poor countries including parts of Africa and Southeast Asia) the subject of menstruation is rarely discussed among women and certainly not with men.

As one man in the film is heard saying, “Menstruation is the biggest taboo in my country.” Women on their period are believed to be unclean. Less than 10 percent of women use sanitary pads and lack knowledge about menstrual hygiene.

Few schools have adequate facilities to allow girls to perform proper hygiene during that time month, so there is an increase in school absenteeism and a high dropout rate among young girls. Like other menstruating females, school girls use old cotton clothing or whatever cloth they have on hand when they are on their period.

In one scene in the film, a man operating a crude machine developed to produce sanitary pads instructs his female employees on how to use the machine. When finished, the pads are boxed and then sold to shops in the village where merchants are willing to buy them (not all merchants do, because of the societal taboo). Women from the shop that manufacturers the pads also go door-to-door trying to sell boxes of pads, but some women upon learning what they are for refuse them. Some also questioned the safety of using the pads that are self-sticking to underwear.

The attempts to educate women about menstruation and the use of pads, instead of pieces of cloth that are washed and reused or discarded, are often rejected by women who are embarrassed to buy the pads or discuss the issue when men are around. Even more mindboggling is one apparently middle-aged man who, when told what the pads were for, said that he thought the women in the shop were making diapers for infants.

Perhaps you see now why I say that documentaries are high on my list of educational tools. The next time you decide to watch a documentary check out Period. End of Sentence.

The taboo surrounding menstruation which is still prevalent in some countries prompted the World Bank to create the following video on the subject.


It’s My Birthday, Shh

If I live, I’ll have another birthday in two weeks. I’ve been trying to downplay it, but I might as well broadcast it because no matter how I try (every year) to ignore the approaching event, someone always reminds me. Just the other day a good friend asked, “Don’t you have a birthday coming up next month?” I know her well enough to know that immediately after I mumbled, “Uh-huh,” and tried to change the subject, and she asked, “What day?” she made a mental note to buy me a card. Oh, snap!

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the greetings and well-wishes, because I do. It’s just that my birthdays are no big deal to me anymore. Unlike milestone birthdays – turning Sweet 16 or reaching legal adulthood, the other B-days are, well, just birthdays. I suppose that nonchalance comes with age. Don’t get me wrong; I know that accumulating years is, as the saying goes – better than the alternative.

Although growing older doesn’t bother me, I am concerned about the undesirable things that most seniors resent like age-related challenges. The body changes:  physical and mental. The frequent aches and pains, and the multiple medications some must take daily. According to WebMD, “Adults over age 65 buy 30 percent of all prescription drugs and 40 percent of all over-the-counter drugs.” I was not surprised to learn that many seniors take five or more medications a day. No wonder on the few occasions when I go to a doctor one of the first questions the nurse asks is “What medications are you on?” It is not my imagination that when I say, “None,” I sometimes see her arch an eyebrow before she scribbles her notes on a page attached to a clipboard or keys them into the computer.

My philosophy is, if you are a senior and free of medical challenges or even if you are dealing with them, there are two essentials for aging with strength and grace:  (1) maintain a positive attitude and (2) keep a sense of humor.

So many people my age (and many who are younger) are taking age-related medications for high blood pressure, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis. You name it.

Let me knock on wood, my head will do, as I say that I am (currently) not dealing with any of those ailments. I know that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Life is a day-to-day adventure. One day you could be perfectly healthy. You jump out of bed, cartwheel to the bathroom, hop into your workout clothes and hit the ground running. The next day you could be flat on your back KO’d by the flu or some other sudden illness, a heart attack, a stroke, or a terminal disease.

Life is like that. We may think that we are in total control, but none of us are. Control is quixotic as life is transitional. The only guarantee we have is that eventually, we all die. Better to enjoy each moment while we can. If life is blissful or relatively comfortable, then take it for what it is. If we perceive it to be miserable, then pray that it gets better. Succumbing to negativity only makes a bad situation worse.

As an aside let me share that in June 2014, I spent the last week, day, and final seconds with my mother at her home before she died of cancer. There are numerous things about that week and our time together that are resolute in my mind. Braiding her hair while she was propped up on the borrowed hospital bed provided by the hospice organization. The hissing noise made by the oxygen concentrator feeding her breath. Her smile and slight nods as I read Maya Angelo’s poems to her. But what stands out prominently is that during those weeks and days before she died, on the day before my sister’s birthday and four months before her 87th, mom seemed unafraid and at peace.

Before I digress further, let me get back on track about birthdays and aging and offer some tips to my cohorts.

Some age-related annoyances like occasional memory lapses or waning eyesight can be a pain. It is useful to stick post-it-notes wherever needed around the home as memory joggers. Store your eyeglasses in the same place so you can readily find them to read the notes. And don’t pitch a hissy fit if you can’t open a child-proof product, call a neighbor’s child and ask him or her to come over and open it.

Although, unlike numerous people my age (and many who are younger than I), I am not on any medications; don’t take that to mean that I don’t get occasional age-related discomfort. I do. Some mornings, especially after I have over-exerted myself while working out the day before, I wake up feeling like I rolled out of bed during the night, body slammed myself to the floor and then sleep-climbed back into the sack.

Ask me to what do I attribute my fair-to-middling health, and I’ll say “God and good genes” in that order. A scientist might say that it is the half-dozen vitamins and supplements that I take daily combined with regular exercise. And eating habits. Most days, I eat healthily. I rarely eat red meat. But I admit I am a magnet for sugary snacks. I easily avoid salt. Over the years I’ve developed a low tolerance for it. And I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Can I get a witness? (Who said caffeinated coffee is a drug?)

I won’t tell you and all the world how old I will be next month. If you already know, then you know. But if you don’t know, let’s play a guessing game. I will give you some clues. In the year I was born, Harry S. Truman was reelected U.S. President; Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in India, and if I were a canine, I would be 335 dog years old. Now, go figure. But shh, keep it quiet.