Aunt Rose’s Couch and the Meaning of Life

 

As the result of being born into a military family, I was raised in different corners of the world. This meant that I lacked the connection to my extended family that most people take for granted.   It was as a preteen that I suddenly found myself permanently rooted in my father’s hometown of Colorado Springs.  This meant that at long last I would discover my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Little did I know just what an assortment of eccentric personalities I was about to meet!

Walking into my Aunt Rose and Uncle Tom’s house for the first time; I was captivated by just how orderly their physical existence appeared to be.  Everything had a place and not so much as a throw pillow was out-of-place!  This was in stark contrast to the more casual  household kept by my parents.  Given that I was nine years old at the time, the impression made on me must have been profound.

Aunt Rose was a woman who came of age in the early 1950s.  The problem is that she somehow never left that era.  Time marched on for everybody, with the exception of Aunt Rose.  She wore a carefully hair-sprayed hair style that never changed.  I can still picture her cat eye glasses perched on the narrow bridge of her long nose.  That I know of, she never owned a pair of slacks; deferring to simple knee-length dresses and skirts.  Aunt Rose lived to be the model wife and the textbook mother; a badge of honor that she wore most proudly!

Christmas at Aunt Rose’s house was a borderline antiseptic experience.  It was as if you were trapped in a snow globe manufactured in 1957.  The Christmas tree was a white aluminum affair, replete with simple reflective glass ball ornaments.  There was no tinsel, no colored lights, and no garland.  Off to the side was a spotlight, focused on the stark white metal tree.  A wheel spun in front of the light; slowly casting alternating red, blue, yellow, and green hues onto the otherwise colorless tree.  All of the uniformly sized packages under the tree were perfectly wrapped in reflective silver paper; the color of the bow and ribbon indicating who the intended recipient was.

Aunt Rose’s time-space continuum self-imprisonment was not just reserved for the holidays.  Her obsessive sense of order and practicality extended to every nook and cranny of her well-planned life.  That even carried over to her relationship with furniture!

I was thoroughly excited when we entered the house and I saw Aunt Rose and Uncle Tom’s new couch, still neatly wrapped in plastic.  My enthusiasm was quickly curbed as my mother pulled me aside and informed me that the couch was not new and that it was always covered in clear plastic.  My father shot me a well-honed military glare from the corner of his eyes; telegraphing that the discussion was now officially over with.

On the short car ride back home, I was enlightened as to the rationale behind the Saran Wrap encased piece of furniture.  Aunt Rose was trying to keep the sofa in perfect condition.  The plastic was intended to keep the couch spotless and perfect for company.  As a naturally inquisitive child, my next words were “Why, aren’t we company?”  My parents exchanged a look of befuddlement and my question went unanswered.

As a species, we have an innate need to keep our valuable possessions in perfect condition; be it a new car, a family heirloom, or even a piece of furniture.  All too often we extend this mentality to ourselves as well.  How many of us wrap ourselves in plastic, trying to keep things perfect for company?  How many of us fear that we will become stained or worn if we lift off that sheet of self-imposed plastic?  Are you so wrapped up in making the right impression that you never allow others to see the true you?

Aunt Rose’s couch taught me a valuable life lesson.  It is all too easy to hide under what others expect us to be.  It is the safe bet and assures that our sense of perfection is preserved!  Unfortunately, we end up existing, rather than living.  If we spend enough time being what others want us to be, we lose sight of who we truly are.  The gifts that we have to share with the world end up entrapped under that clear plastic sheet.

“What about his couch?” you may be asking yourself right now.  As I finish up this blog post, I am sitting on that very couch.  There are a few worn spots, the occasional stain dots the fabric, and the cushions are getting a tad bit lumpy.  It is simply a reflection of my life; lived outside of the confines of a plastic wrapper and shared with the world!

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Burnt Sugar Cookies and Cheap Wine

Just at the start of the Christmas season, I was out stretching my legs with my canine companion, Xena.  It was nearing the end of a good forty-five minute high-speed jaunt and both of us were looking forward to an ice-cold bowl of water.  Um, make that a glass for me!  As the two of us crested the last hill before our final descent towards the house; something appeared out of the corner of my eye.

An older gentleman, slightly hunched over by the ravages of time, was trudging down the sidewalk.  As he tried to maintain his balance on the slippery sidewalks, he held a plate outstretched in his hands.  Watching him, as Xena had taken a brief reprieve to sniff out some new buried hound treasure; I could tell he was walking from his home towards a neighbor.  Reaching the doorstep and ringing the bell, the elder man stepped back from the door.

A porch light came on, the oak door was opened, and a smiling young woman appeared.  It was obvious she knew her older neighbor as she pushed the glass screen door open.  The man offered her the plate, tipped his hat, and began to turn away against the icy wind.  Momentarily, the woman was surrounded by a pair of children bouncing up and down like young kangaroos.

My thoughts were interrupted as my right arm was almost yanked out of its socket.  Xena was at the length of her leash, eagerly tugging towards the house.  Man with plate in hand, pleased woman at door, children hopping up and down, hound dog pulling me towards the house as she sniffed the air; it could only mean one thing, fresh-baked cookies!

I watched the stooped over senior meander down the sidewalk and into his house.  Turning to guide Xena back to the warmth of our hearth; a smile came across my face.  In his younger days, this would have been the man who anonymously shoveled your walk and driveway in the predawn hours.  He also would have been at your door two days before the New Year to gift you a festively wrapped bottle!

Xena was crumpled up on her dog bed in front of the fireplace.  Walked and well-fed; she was snoring like a freight train.  I laid back in the couch and stared into the fire.  The older man from earlier in the evening kept popping into my head.  It had been some time since I last saw somebody delivering Christmas cookies to a neighbor.  I could barely remember seeing anyone drop off a holiday bottle, at least in the last quarter century or so!

My mind began to drift back into the past as a I stared intently at one particular bluish-yellow flame.  In the mid-1970’s it was not unusual to find the streets of our neighborhood littered with people the week before Christmas.  Families would take high stacks of paper plates from door to door.  Inside were baked morsels and home-made chocolates and candies.  Culinary pride was on the line as mothers shared their generations-old recipes with one another in the annual Christmas cookie competition.  I remember standing by the front door, just waiting for the doorbell to ring.  Before you knew it, the entire dining room table was littered with macaroons, oatmeal and sugar cookies, and all kinds of homemade chocolates and candies.

A week later it was the neighborhood fathers that took to the streets.  Armed with bags full of champagne and wine; they made the rounds from house to house.  At each stop, well wishes for a prosperous New Year were exchanged; and a festively wrapped bottle was dropped off.  During that week, I was not allowed to answer the door and the thought of hanging around the counter filled with glass bottles of all sizes and shapes was not tolerated.

I slowly drifted out of my nostalgic journey to the sound of Xena’s deep sigh.  She was in the middle of a puppy dream; tail wagging ever so slightly and her front paws twitching rhythmically.  As an adult, I realize now that the cookies were not necessarily so great.  Some were terribly overfrosted, others tasted like cardboard, and most were burned around the edges.  The champagne was always some cheap version of Andre Cold Duck and the wine was in the Riunite class at best!

Still, there was a certain pride behind the entire ritual.  Families spent hours baking, shopping, and wrapping; all so that well wishes could be shared.  Door bells were rung, hands were shaken, and a sense of mutual caring surfaced.  It then became a family event, taking to the streets and spending a few minutes with those people who mattered in your life.  There was a certain beauty and majesty to it all.

I live in the typical suburban setting.  The neighborhood sits up on a bluff in a mountainous setting that can only be described as majestic.  I only know a handful of my neighbors, and people keep to themselves.  Sure there is the occasional wave as a car goes by; but it is little more than two strangers sharing the most superficial of greetings.

Other than the sole older gentleman several weeks ago; I saw nobody working the streets with simple gifts for their neighbors this year.  The sad part is that I am not sure any of us missed this time-honored tradition.  Tonight I will be sitting on the couch, secretly hoping the doorbell rings.  I do not know about the rest of you; but I sure could use a plate of burned sugar cookies and a bottle of cheap wine!

And the Trophy for 27th Place Goes to

We need to face the fact that our country has gone pathetically soft!  We have managed to transform ourselves into a nation of underachievers.  It has become categorically unacceptable for us to compete with one another.  Instead, we have adopted a feel-good mentality that postulates everyone must be validated through recognition merely for showing up!  Here is a hard and simple fact! Lack of competition breeds mediocrity; whereas competition fosters achievement.

What was once the most prominent educational system in the world has withered into obscurity.  Our fifteen year-olds can proudly boast that the United States globally ranks 30th in mathematics, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading.  We are importing scientists, doctors, and engineers on a daily basis.  Our corporations are consistently pummeled by what were third world countries a generation ago.  To top it all off; we have created a culture wherein everyone can claim to be a victim!

Somewhere along the line, it was decided that people no longer had the capacity to feel good about themselves.  As a result, society stepped into that role.  We now award “participation trophies” to members of youth sports teams.  In the classroom, teachers do not instruct to a recognized standard; instead they cater to the slowest learner in the room, holding other students back!  In short, we anesthetize the masses so that nobody feels badly about themselves.

I can only imagine where this trend will take us next.  The memo was addressed from the CEO to the entire company.  It stated that from that point forward; everybody in the company had been promoted to a VP level.  This action was taking place not because everyone had earned it; but rather it was because everybody had shown up for work!  So let the feel good about ourselves games commence!

My beloved Denver Broncos are on TV.  I am comfortably nestled on the couch, Fritos and bean dip in hand.  Suddenly there is a stoppage in play; one of the officials has thrown the “reward flag.”  The camera zooms in on the Referee midfield.  He reaches to the side and turns on his microphone.  “We have a reward on the field,” his deep voice echoes.  “Number 93 on the defense is rewarded for allowing the runner to get into the end zone untouched.  The reward will be enforced on the kickoff!”

No matter our level of diligence and commitment; not all of us will become professional athletes or physicists employed by NASA.  Every five year-old girl out there is not destined to be a premier ballerina simply because she donned a tutu.  A high school hockey player will not be named captain of the team merely because he looks sad, dejected, and unfulfilled!  No matter how many medals I hang around your neck; if you cannot balance your checkbook, I seriously doubt you will become a world-renowned economist!

As I was growing up, nobody put a bib around my neck and spoon-fed me validation!  I learned that it was pleasant to feel good about myself.  I synthesized that into the observation that positive accomplishments made me feel good.  That then was generalized into competing with myself, or others, to attain my goals and chalk up accomplishments.  In other words, I took responsibility for my actions, feelings, and the subsequent outcomes!

If we submerge into the deepest levels of pathos; all of us can find a reason to label ourselves as a victim.  Once we have that mindset, we have sabotaged our ability to feel good about ourselves.  Instead, we become addicts; looking for that next hit of “I am valued” from everyone around us.  We can no longer self-validate our own self-worth.  The cycle then just perpetuates itself; leading us to reward others merely for showing up!  This heritage then becomes our legacy, cursing our future generations.

It is time to wake up!  Coming in second place simply means that you were the top loser!  We must all relearn how to compete, especially with ourselves.  There is nothing wrong with achievement and the pride that comes with it.  In victory, you will learn grace.  In defeat, you will learn ways in which to better yourself.  Each time you better yourself, you will also better the world around you.

It is not too late for us to abandon this culture of entitlement.  We can teach future generations that it is permissible, nay commendable, to compete for those things that are near and dear to us.  We can reclaim our place in the global community as leaders of progress.  But it all has to begin with you!  Are you ready to take responsibility for yourself and your thoughts?  Are you willing to pay the price that comes with accomplishment and recognition?  Are you committed to validating yourself?

Today I felt the thrill of competition; I had to get the attention of a community of millions of people who are inundated with more information than the human brain can possibly juggle.  I felt the comfort of accomplishment in completing this essay and sharing my thoughts with the world.  My sense of self-worth will come from knowing that I may have positively touched the life of a single unknown individual through my humble words!

I frequently travel internationally.  It is always with great anticipation that I enter the airport immigration and customs hall at major US ports of entry.  I feel like I am receiving my own personal homecoming.  I only hope that on my next return flight I do not see a sign high overhead; proclaiming “Welcome to the United States of Complacency!”