LSS: one strange column

People spend a lot of time categorizing and teaching youngsters about the phases of life. There are books about it with colorful graphics. There are courses to take. People spend a lot of time considering the best way to explain the ways we change and grow.
But all the books stop at about 18.
No one spends much time or energy figuring out how to teach the rest of us about how we continue to grow and change once we become legal.
Well, that’s not completely true. There’s the tried and true: young adult, middle age and senior adult categories, but I think there’s more than that.
I’ve been giving some thought to the stages of adulthood and the characteristics of what goes with those stages. (Move over, Erik Erikson.)
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re probably right. If someone would have told us about the so-called stages when I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have listened. However, there may have come a point when something would have registered and we would have started paying attention. And maybe, just maybe, I would have made a few different choices (which, for me, really boils down to having bought fewer counter-top appliances — but more about that later).
And then again, maybe we would have made the same choices after all.

Early 20-somethings: You are unstoppable. The world is your oyster. Generally, you don’t focus energy on learning even though you’re often in environments rich with opportunities to learn. It’s drudgery, but you know how to have fun. You’d like to acquire things, but you don’t have much money to acquire much (except t-shirts, and you have masses of them). You know your time to get away with being unproductive is short so you make the most of it. You are at your physical peak, but you don’t realize it at the time.

Late 20-somethings: It’s time to get productive. You want a nicer apartment. You try to find cool stuff. You have lots of visions of just how cool your apartment is going to be one day—and it really matters to you. You may believe that you’re behind where you thought you would be by now. So, you get even more serious about your job. You’d like to take the vacations you dream about, but it’s hard to budget it all. The time is nigh to cement the relationship.

30-somethings: You acquire, acquire, acquire. You can finally afford things and you excel at doing so. Later you will come to question your choices, but for now you believe you’ve got to get the right furniture and the right pictures and the right dishes and the right pots and pans. And appliances. You have a vision for your life and it involves lots of counter-top appliances. You genuinely believe all this stuff matters. Your family grows too. You spend crazy amounts of time carting family members around because you believe every one of your family members has to do everything.

40-somethings: You continue in the same pattern as your 30’s until you wake up one morning and realize, “Hey, I’ve got too much stuff to take care of. What was I thinking?” You are exhausted. You realize how you previously spent so much energy on matters that matter very little — and it’s not horrible. In fact, it’s wonderful and liberating. You tell your family members they can’t do everything either. You realize you were all running yourselves silly. You realize you are not what you own. You start chilling out more than you stress out. You now know that it really doesn’t matter if the placemats and napkins complement each other.

And what happens next? I’m not sure. But if you know, I’d be interested in reading your take on things. We all have to go through the stages, and a little shared wisdom doesn’t hurt at all. Email me at Jan@JanRisher.com if you’d like to share your thoughts.

LSS: On the art of appreciating your husband’s ex-girlfriends

Somewhere out there, probably somewhere around the West Texas town of El Paso, there’s a woman I need to thank.
I’ve never met her. I don’t even know her name. I’m fairly certain she’s unaware what she did for my family and how it has positively affected our lives for decades and continues to do so today.
Apparently, she was attractive.
She had gone to a fancy private girls’ school in El Paso, Texas. My husband went to a big public school not too far away. They both graduated that May and ended up working together at W.T. Grant’s through the summer.
He liked her. He thought she was great.
“She seemed older than me,” he said. “Basically, I had a crush on her.”
He asked her out. They even went with her parents to the wedding of one of her family friends.
One day in mid-summer, the two of them were talking during a break at work. He asked her something about work later that week. She told him she wouldn’t be in that day. He asked why.
“Because I’m going to register at UTEP that day,” she said.
UTEP is the University of Texas at El Paso, a great school that literally sits right along the border of our country, with only Interstate 10 between it and the Rio Grande.
I’m unclear on exactly how the rest of the conversation went, but somewhere along the way, she said, “What about you?”
And he said, “Oh yea, I’m registering later this month.”
Here’s the thing: until that moment, going to college had not been a part of the plan for my husband.
He was the oldest child. His dad had died unexpectedly four years earlier. He was doing everything he could to live his life and help his mother and the rest of his family survive. Somehow college had not entered the equation.
Until that girl said she was headed to college.
“If she was going there, I was going there,” he told me last week.
As things turned out, he couldn’t get everything together quickly enough to get registered for the fall semester, but he was there in January.
Once at college, their paths didn’t cross as often as he anticipated. “She started dating someone and eventually got married and dropped out of school,” he said. “A semester later, I started working full-time at the newspaper and going to school part-time, but I graduated. I probably wouldn’t have gone to school—certainly, not back then—if it wouldn’t have been for her.”
And in trying to impress a girl, he changed the course of his life.
Our lives, for that matter.
From time to time, I think about the impact that almost-summer romance and quick conversation had. It’s such a great example of just never knowing the effect of our words and actions. Beyond that, it’s also an illustration of how the people you hang around can influence your life—for the good or otherwise. Realizing their sway might not be possible at the time, but it’s there whether you like it or not.
In other words, your mother was right. “Hang around people you aspire to be like—people who make you a better you.”

LSS: Ephemera and beyond

Nothing of great consequence happened Thursday.
It was one of those days full of working, running errands, dropping the kids off here and there, followed by cooking fried rice for dinner.
Other than the fried rice, something we don’t eat often, Thursday was the kind of day that makes up the great majority of life. And, it was the kind of day we don’t remember.
However, if I had a time machine and could go back and visit a day of my youth, I’d probably pick a day like Thursday. One of those days that in its commonplaceness becomes rich.
The kind of day that makes us who we are.
Examining such a day made me realize just how fleeting these days of kids and piano lessons and play practices are. All of this train of thought reminds me of a word I learned last week.
Ephemera.
Maybe it’s a word you know and use on a regular basis. If so, you’re a step ahead of me. I had never read or heard it before. Ephemera is written and printed matter not intended to be retained or preserved.
Truth be told, I’m somewhat of an ephemera collector.
Turns out, there’s an Ephemera Society of America, a non-profit organization formed in 1980, dedicated to cultivating and encouraging interest in ephemera and furthering the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of ephemera by people of all ages.
Officially, according to the 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera, there are more than 500 categories from luggage tags to fruit labels to theater tickets to seed company ads. Who knew all that stuff could become so official?
As it turns out, my grandmother was an ephemera collector too. She kept cigar box after cigar box (another ephemera category, by the way) of empty seed packs, receipts from the county co-op and every Christmas card she ever received. The stuff she kept is from way before my time, but when I look through the small boxes, the items give me a sense of what life must have been like back then that I just don’t get from anywhere else.
Sifting through my grandmother’s unintended collections is a window into her world—just like opening an old book and finding an airline ticket from 1987 or a hall pass from middle school brings back a flood of feelings and memories from my own life. The ordinariness of the item is jarring in its preservation.
In case you’re interested, some retail outlets sell packets of ephemera. The packs include a variety of stamps, postcards, pages from old magazines, trims and toothpick flags. They can be themed upon request. Yep, you can buy 5 oz. of vintage ephemera for $25 or 6 oz. of contemporary ephemera for $18.
“Every pack is unique,” so one catalog says.
I would imagine so because it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around selling such.
The word ephemera is, of course, related to the word ephemeral, which I’ve heard but probably misinterpreted or mis-used over the years. Ephemeral means lasting for a very short time.
As Thursday passed and I simultaneously reminded my children to brush-teeth-pick-up-clothes-clean-off-the-table-because-it’s-time-for-bed, the present-tense nostalgia of how quickly today’s ordinariness will pass lingered with me for just a moment.
And I tried, as best I could, to take it in.

LSS: I believe in acorns.

A giant live oak tree stretches over an expanse of my family’s backyard and home. Until the fall, we had three other oaks (not live oaks) that the city/parish cut in our front yard.
Our house looks completely different now without those three tall trees standing guard.
While I’m certain the power lines, not to mention our home, are safer without those three trees, I miss them—one of them in particular.
It was the closest tree to our front door.
My daughters and I stood and watched them make the deathblow cut to the trunk of the tree.
We cried.
So did the tree.
Literally.
As the chainsaw tore through the giant expanse of the trunk, buckets and buckets of water poured out all around. The workers said it happens sometimes because the tree has stored up water. I must say that the workers who cut down our trees were as nice and professional as they could be. I didn’t want to like them, but they made that impossible.
But this is not a column about those trees.
Or those workers.
This is a column about hope and regeneration—and nature’s examples of both.
Judging by simple observation, I have to believe our home is not the only spot in Acadiana that has been attacked by acorns in recent months.
Falling like pennies from heaven on an almost constant basis, the squirrels in our yard are downright plump and lazy at this point. I’m serious. The squirrels are ridiculously fat, and, even still, acorns are everywhere. We can’t take a step in our yard without stepping on at least 20 acorns. No one I know has ever seen anything like it.
When this bumper crop of acorns started in the fall, they tiny missiles would hit our roof, and we would duck for cover. Now they fall so often and so loud, we barely notice.
After a bit of research, I’ve learned that arborists have a technical term for an acorn year like this. It’s called a mast year. It’s a phenomenon when the fruit produced by trees in a given year is exponentially higher than the average.
Indeed, this is a mast year. There are so many acorns that there is no way the squirrels or anything else can eat them all.
And what will that produce?
Well, more oak trees, of course. Nature surely will take care of itself. The oak trees are doing what they need to do to beat the predators — regardless of who the predators are.
It’s like the old oaks, which have survived thousands, even millions of years, are saying, “You think you can beat us? Just watch this.”
To borrow the lyrics from one of my daughter’s favorite songs, “From little things, big things grow.”
With each acorn that falls, the oaks are reminding us of that all over again and again.
Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

LSS: May your 2012 calendars be full of good things!

Just as my family loaded up our car with all our recently received gifts and a week’s worth of luggage last week, my mother hurried out the door with something in her hands. We were about to drive away from my parents’ home after a Christmas visit, when in the middle of the driveway, she said, “Here, we’ve got more calendars than we know what to do with. Take these, if y’all can use them.”

She handed me not two calendars, not three, but four 2012 calendars.

Though I expect I’ll primarily be using the electronic calendar on my phone that syncs with my computer, I appreciated the variety and beauty of the calendars my mom shared with my family.

One from the Easter Seals with a bright sunshine made of handprints on the cover.

A 16-month Special Olympics calendar.

A Garden Walk calendar from the bank my parents have used my entire life.

And a pretty, brown leather bound calendar from a poultry vaccination company.

Quite an assembly of ways to plan for and look toward the coming year.

There’s comfort in these calendars for some reason. For one thing, there’s a sense of present-tense nostalgia these days with a printed calendar. For another, there’s that little thrill that goes with a full calendar with a year in print out in front of you.

So fresh.

So clean.

Today represents the metaphor of a blank slate—a whole year wide open in front of us, full of possibilities.

It is why we start exercising at this time.

It is why we make decisions to improve our lives in a variety of ways on this day full of promise and prospects. On this day, no matter how many new years we’ve welcomed, the world is our oyster.

And yet we know next year at this same time, if the good Lord is willing and the creek doesn’t rise, we’ll be having the same thoughts and saying the same things at this same time. We’ll do it all over again like the Roman god Janus who had the ability to look toward the past and the future simultaneously. Janus, as the god of gates and doorways, represents exactly where we find ourselves today.

Maybe part of why this time of year is especially poignant is because it’s more alike from year to year, than the months in between. The rest of the year is so full of so much and that fullness morphs in activities and people from year to year, but often this day and the week that proceeds it have an air of sameness to them that the rest of the year misses. We know and reflect on exactly who and what have been added to the mix or is missing from one year to the next.

From this vantage point, we can look behind us at where we’ve just been and ahead to where we’re going. We don’t know what’s there, but we recognize that this is the place that begins a new chapter—and that offers a fresh sense of control.

This is a time to reflect on the lessons life is offering us and make deliberate choices about which paths to choose and which steps to take. We can reflect on how to change our lives for the better.

If we’re resisting what is, today is the perfect day to take a look at the situation and figure out how to either make it work or make a change to create something that works better. Part of the secret is realizing that making it work is up to each of us an individuals. Even if fault lies with another, blaming the situation or circumstances on anyone or anything else is pointless.

Today is a day to relish the wonder of possibility the blank pages of the calendar holds.