Long Story Short: Do your dance thing (daily)

Several months ago a reader sent me a book.
Readers have sent me lots of things – soaps and lotions for my
great-aunt, pictures of their dogs, pictures of their babies, pictures
of their houses and cookies. A few readers have sent books they wrote
or books friends wrote, but until a few months ago, no one had ever
sent a book because they thought I would enjoy it.
For various reasons, it took me a while to start reading it. Finally,
I found the time.
It’s a lovely little book. Certain passages make me smile. The fact
that a stranger sent it makes me even happier.
The book, written by Roland Merullo, is called “A Little Love Story.”
Here’s a paragraph I read earlier today:
I remember reading that in some places, in ages past, opening your
house to strangers had been considered an essential part of being
human, an acknowledgment of some kind of invisible link. I like that
kind of thing. I like warmth and uncalled-for kindness, the small
unnoticed generosities that speckle the meanness of the world.
Relating to that passage came naturally. It’s those moments of
connection – the insight that someone or some author captured a
sentiment so like our own that we feel empowered in knowing, “I am not
the only one who feels this way.”
For whatever reasons, dancing makes me feel like that too. And, I do
not think I’m the only one. I don’t believe it’s possible to dance and
not know a degree of joy. A friend (and former dancer) agreed with me,
and we both began to wonder why we don’t we dance more.
I proposed a plan. Why don’t we dance every afternoon at 3:37? Who
among us doesn’t need some extra joy?
Another friend, who learned of my 3:37 p.m. dancing plan, sent a
message: “I’m not sure how to work this into a discussion on refinery
expansion with the owners of a contracting firm. Should I show them a
permission slip or just start dancing?”
After some thought, I’ve decided that letting others in on The Dancing
Plan makes the whole experiment work more effectively. And seriously
now, don’t you agree that a little dancing would liven up a discussion
on refinery expansion? Or give a ray of sunshine to someone
researching deuterium as a tracer element in the Yucca Mountain
Nuclear Testing Site? Or to another washing a car?
Taking ourselves too seriously is highly over-rated.
How can we go wrong with dancing? If you’re in need of proof that
dancing equals happy, check out Matt Harding’s videos on the Internet.
Viral videos of Matt dancing badly around the world are easy to find.
I know no one who watched them without smiling. See for yourself.
The point is not to dance well. The point is to dance.
Starting now, I plan to dance every afternoon at 3:37 — just for a
few minutes (or as long as I want). Won’t you join me?

Long Story Short: Resiliency and the what-ifs of grief

“Children are resilient that way,” my mom said this week.

She said that not too long after we broke the news to the girls.

Not too long after we dried their tears and gently separated their tangled hair from the drops rolling down their faces.

Not too long after they stopped lamenting on our shoulders and crawled out of our laps.

Not too long after they learned that Copper didn’t make it.

Copper was my parents’ much-loved dachshund. He ruled the roost.

Before I go any further, I will acknowledge my family’s awareness of real problems in the world. People are unemployed. Wars are waging. Disease is rampant. People are dying.

But for us this week, Copper overshadowed everything else.

The loss of him and his innocence fills my family with guilt and “what ifs.”

What if he wouldn’t have been outside when my dad and husband decided to take the boat down the river? What if he wouldn’t have gotten in the truck to meet the boating party? What if, in the process of loading the boat, there hadn’t been so much commotion, including people falling and a camera in the water? What if he wouldn’t have jumped out of the truck as they loaded the boat onto the trailer at Rotary Point? What if someone had noticed he was missing sooner?

If one detail had been different, I believe Copper would be sitting on the sofa beside my mother right now. I also know how useless that kind of thinking is.

We searched for Copper for four days. We put up signs. We went to the pound. We called the veterinarians in the area.

Finally, someone called.

I was dancing with joy as I yelled to my husband, “They found Copper.”

What I didn’t know at the time was that Copper had gotten into it with two big dogs. He probably approached them to play, what he did with my parent’s big dog and our own. They tolerated him just fine. Little Copper had no idea things could go so wrong.

Kind people went out of their way to help Copper. Someone I don’t know took the very injured dog to a vet they knew would help. The veterinarian, before his office connected the dots between my phone calls and this little dog, put Copper on a drip and tended his needs.

For four days, things improved. We thought he was going to make it. His back legs were paralyzed, but we were shopping for doggie wheelchairs.

Throughout the ordeal, the staff at Dr. Andy Plauche’s office was kind and loving — reminding me that compassionate medical care makes a difference for the patient and the family.

On Monday, just as my mom arrived from tending to my father after surgery, Copper took a significant turn for the worse.

She believes he was waiting to see her to die.

I don’t know.

But I do know that even though he was just a little dog — not even my dog, I am not quite as resilient as my children.

(Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.)

Back to Laid-off Living…times two

The last time I wrote about living the laid-off lifestyle, I wrote about the transition of my family’s lifestyle after my husband lost his long-time job in the newspaper industry.

After a couple of strange twists and turns, I too now am in the ranks of the unemployed. Call it bad timing or the universe setting me up for something altogether different, I “had” two jobs for the taking — and neither worked out.

Being home during the day while the kids are at school is filled with some anxiety, but also wonderful at the same time. I still have writing to do, with my column and a few freelance assignments. Plus, I’m seriously considering becoming a small-scale entrepreneur. I’ll keep you posted on that. All in all, I’m feeling remarkably, almost inexplicably, well. I’m fairly certain that has something to do with faith.

Long Story Short: Let me be brave in the attempt

Mary Ellen, my great-aunt, was a huge part of my growing-up years.

When she passed away a couple of years ago, many believed she was the oldest person with Down syndrome living in Mississippi. When she was born in the 1940s, the doctors advised my great-grandmother to put Mary Ellen in a special home. My great-grandmother just couldn’t do it.

By the time I came along, Mary Ellen was a part of life in the small town where we grew up. People knew her. They knew what she loved and enjoyed her laughter. For years, she folded the church bulletins every week during prayer meeting. She had purpose in her life and was loved by many.

Once when she and I were watching a television show about a boy with intellectual disabilities, she said, “That boy is like me.”

I think Mary Ellen knew much more than many realized. Even so, she didn’t have many chances to be around many people like her.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics in 1967, but it didn’t reach many rural places until years later. Mary Ellen and my great-grandmother were too set in their ways and never considered getting involved with the Special Olympics movement.

I wish they had.

I had the privilege to work with International Special Olympics for two years in the late 1980s. Special Olympians taught many of us much about living and loving.

They also taught me to dance.

I never met a Special Olympian who didn’t enjoy participating in the competitions. But, I never met a Special Olympian who didn’t love Special Olympics dances more.

I’m thinking there’s something the rest of us could learn from that.

Standing with a Greek delegation in Squaw Valley, Calif., for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1989 International Special Olympics Winter Games, I remember hearing athletes recite the oath:

Let me win,

but if I cannot win

let me be brave

in the attempt.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics because she didn’t like the way her sister (who had a mild form of intellectual disability) was left out of her athletic family’s regular competitions. She put a lot into making Special Olympics a success. She jump-started a momentum that has continued to open doors for a population without many advocates until she came along.

In 1987, at the International Summer Special Olympics Games in South Bend, Ind., Shriver addressed athletes, their families and thousands of others gathered to celebrate the moment. She said:

You are the stars and the world is watching you.

By your presence you send a message to every village, every city, every nation.

A message of hope. A message of victory.

The right to play on any playing field? You have earned it.

The right to study in any school? You have earned it.

The right to hold a job? You have earned it.

The right to be anyone’s neighbor? You have earned it.

May her good work continue and may she rest in peace.

Long Story Short: You’ll never know who you’ll meet

Every Sunday night for 30 years, Jim Haynes has hosted a dinner party.

Haynes, a Louisiana native, has made his home in Paris for the much of his adult life. The dinner parties began when a friend happened to be a good cook and started preparing Sunday evening dinners at Jim’s place. The notion caught on. The host decided not to limit the fun to old friends. He developed a method for people to reserve spots by phone and confirm on Sundays. These days, he suggests that guests write their names on recycled envelopes and make 25 Euro donations to cover the costs.

After exposure in The New York Times, NPR and major newspapers around the world, Haynes has a waiting list most Sundays. While we were in Paris, I couldn’t resist the chance to join one of Hayne’s legendary soirees.

The night I went, the chef was a Northern California caterer and cookbook author. First-timers rubbed shoulders with folks who have been attending on and off for years.

I met a Berkeley researcher who specializes in French Middle Ages literature. He lived in Mexico as a child while his father made movies. He has a strong dislike for crows. I met a New Zealander passing through on his sojourn across Europe. I met a human resources consultant from New Brunswick, Canada. I met a news producer from NYC who attended a wedding in Zurich the night before. I met an Austrian children’s book writer. I met a Yale undergrad studying stained glass windows.

And ever so briefly, I met Jim Haynes. His celebrity doesn’t make for leisurely conversation, but his commitment to people meeting new people and putting themselves out there was inspiring. His tactics were not subtle.

“Did you two know each other before tonight?” he yelled across the room.

When the guilty parties nodded their heads, he continued, “Nope, that’s not acceptable. Go talk to somebody new. Introduce yourselves. Get busy. No talking to the person you came with. I better not see it happen again.”

He has no idea how many business deals, friendships and marriages have come from his Sunday night gatherings. People obey Jim Haynes. The awkwardness of balancing drinks, plates, utensils and handshakes pales as the evening ages. People gain confidence.

In his NPR, “I Believe,” segment, Haynes spoke about making introductions among his dinner guests.

“If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other. I have long believed that it is unnecessary to understand others, individuals or nationalities; one must, at the very least, simply tolerate others. Tolerance can lead to respect and, finally, to love. No one can ever really understand anyone else, but you can love them or at least accept them,” he said. ?

You too are welcome to go, just call 00 33 1 43 27 17 67 to reserve your spot. If you’re not sure when you’ll get to Paris, maybe we can do the same in Acadiana. I’m game.

LSS: You know who would love this?

Time away from one’s normal day-to-day life generally leads to new perspectives. My family’s time in France has offered its share of insights.

For example, though I had heard of the time the French take to eat a meal, I didn’t understood how agreeable the process would be until I experienced it myself. From the aperitif to the entrée (appetizer) to the main course to the salad to the cheese board to desert to after-dinner drinks, I’ve enjoyed them all. Rather than putting all the food on the table at once, the hostess and family bring out each course one at a time. Much visiting takes place between and during each course. There’s no rush. We’ve eaten meals here that have taken more than four hours from start to finish.

Also, I must disagree with the whole business of the French being rude. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of people we’ve had exchanges with, one lone waiter took a bit of an attitude. Other people, including complete strangers on the streets and in shops, have gone out of their way to help us.

I’ve made other observations about my own family. For example, I’ve discovered that our daughters get along better with each other when there are fewer distractions – including television, electronic gizmos and other people. On their own, they’re nicer to each other (and their parents).

Another thing I’ve noticed has nothing to do with France whatsoever. Throughout our time here, at various places, including restaurants, shops and landmarks, one or another of our family members has said, “You know who would love this?” We would then proceed to name a certain someone.

Certain moments have struck expected chords. In Normandy, we all thought of my father. In Versailles, we thought of my mother. Our biggest surprise has been that as much as we’ve thought of a variety of family and friends, it’s been our friend Phyllis Bonhagen who we have mentioned the most. If you’ve been lucky enough to have had Ms. Bonhagen as your high school home economics teacher, you probably understand what I mean.

The woman is memorable.

She’s larger than life in almost every way. If we’ve said, “Phyllis would like this” or “Miss Phyllis would love that” once, we’ve said it 75 times. Certainly, she’s a good friend, but we’ve got many good friends. I’ve tried to reckon what it is about Phyllis that rings so true and has made us think of her so often. I think I have figured it out.

Phyllis rarely holds back. Everyone around her has a pretty good idea of where she stands on an issue. She loves and enjoys as well as anyone I’ve ever known. If she finds something pretty, she acknowledges it. If she finds something ugly, she concedes that too.

But mostly, Phyllis finds beauty – and she shares it with others.

And that, I believe, is why we’ve thought of dear Phyllis over and over again.