Category Archives: Little things


Welcome to my occasional musings about little things in life that make a big (happy) impact.

Today’s my birthday. So I brought three dozen gourmet cupcakes in six different flavors to work with me to share with my coworkers and friends. And I called everyone in my department to a “very important announcement,” and when everyone was gathered, with strange looks of nervous anticipation on their faces, I smiled a big smile, threw open the doors to the conference room, and bellowed with glee, “it’s my birthday, and we’re having cupcakes!”

For me, a birthday’s worth celebrating. And I’m worth celebrating. And if it’s your birthday, YOU’RE worth celebrating. And if you have to be at work on a beautiful summer Monday, few things make you feel better than walking around your whole building saying, like you own it, “It’s my birthday. And I brought cupcakes. And I’d love to share them with you. So come on down!”

And few things make other people feel better than cupcakes, too.

The trouble with the biopter adjustment ring

Photo credit: Bruce Stokes
Photo credit: Bruce Stokes

I went birding with a friend and my mom recently, and excitedly twisted and turned the little dial at the top end of one of the binocular lenses to see the beautiful colors and patterns of the many orioles, pine warblers, yellow-breasted warblers, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and the one indigo bunting we saw. Giddy as I was (because you know how I am about wildlife, if you read these posts regularly), I struggled with the focus. Sometimes one eye could see everything while the other saw only a fuzzy blob. Sometimes I could see clearly but only close-up or far away. Each time we eyed the next fleeting feathered friend, I turned and twisted with all my will until the birds appeared as fine as I could make them, but the focus, I knew, was never quite as clear as it should be. Sometimes, it just seemed easier to look from a distance than try to get the more intimate viewpoint.

The next time I went birding with my friend, he happened to notice that I had been turning and twisting the biopter adjustment ring, and NOT the actual focusing ring. So yeah, no wonder I couldn’t see the beauty of the birds. My focus was all wrong.

And that’s how it often is with the people who are most important to us. No matter how crushingly in love I am and you are at this moment with our wife, husband, toddler, teenager, mother, father, dearest friend, cat, dog, or pet pig, there’s gonna be a day when it’s easier – so MUCH easier – to pay more attention to the things about them that make us crazy in the worst way than the things we once adored. And no matter how ideal we know our boss, teacher, neighbor, coworker, child’s baseball coach, parent’s care-giver, or babysitter is, there will be times when we want nothing more than to trade up. Like me with my binoculars that day, we’re not focusing on the right things.

Long ago someone taught me this: when I think I want to trade in, take some a few weeks to speak out loud the things I appreciate – not love, not adore, not even like, but the things for which I am undeniably grateful – about that person (and it had to be out loud, too, for our thoughts become our words and our words become our beliefs and our focus), and that in time I’d notice a shift in my perspective, and eventually, my heart.

Doubtful, but willing, I tried it, and I learned that the right focus has transformative powers. It might go something like this: Thank you God (or for you it might be some other higher power, or none at all) that my wife does such an amazing job taking care of the house and the yard and the kids so that I can work during the day and enjoy my evenings with her and our kids; that my husband is faithful and a man of strong character and that we share the same critical values; that my daughter has a strong sense of responsibility, is willfully independent and cannot tell a lie even if she tried; or that my boss is a person of integrity and is introspective, and compassionate; or that my neighbor really cares about the neighborhood; or that my cat is too adorable for words and enjoys my company more than any human I know. And so on. (And notice how there was never any “…even though they do this really annoying thing that I positively can’t stand for even one more second?” Nope, none of that. Don’t even give that stuff a moment’s attention).

It sounds silly, I know. Ridiculous, even. But when you actively seek to focus on the good about a person or situation, your energy and focus is diverted away from the imperfections. You spend so much time, effort, and words on what you appreciate and what you’re glad of, that what you don’t or aren’t, fades from view until it’s barely recognizable. A more intimate viewpoint replaces the easy one.

With the binoculars, once I found the proper dial, my focus improved immediately. This…. takes more time. But it is life-changing, marriage-saving, friendship-building, job-keeping, relationship-feeding, and all sorts of other awesome things along those lines. It’s amazing how much better you see when you’re focused on the right things.


The Legacy of Helen M. Plummer

Until this Monday, a lovely older lady worked at the CVS just off the University of Rhode Island campus. She worked long past any reasonably expected retirement age. Her gray-white frantic curls gave no impression, ever, of pretentiousness. Her name tag read “Nonni,” though few knew her real name until the URI student newspaper, The Good Five-Cent Cigar, wrote an article about her back in 2007. Although she was a little slow at the register, that was only to go out of her way to make sure you got your CVS Customer Care coupons. And no matter what, she ended every transaction with the same send-off –

“You have a excellent.”

The first time you hear it, you hesitate, waiting, to give her a chance to finish her sentence, never mind the quirky grammar. Excellent… what? Day? Afternoon? Weekend? Life? But you quickly learn that’s it. Just “you have a excellent.” Whatever you need to be excellent, may it be excellent.

My colleague tried hard to get the University to bestow an honorary degree on this woman, who passed her GED about 15 years ago with a college-level score, and who touched the lives of tens of thousands of our students in her 15 years at the CVS and before that the donut shop just across the parking lot. Students created a Facebook fan page for her called, Nonnie the cashier at CVS in the URI Emporium who says, “have a excellent.”

She’s recognized on the public bus system, her mode of transportation whenever her destination’s too far for her feet to walk. She’s gotten signed posters from the URI women’s basketball team and invitations to campus events from “her” students. She told The Cigar that she once had a book filled with the names of students for whom she prayed each night. She considered her job at CVS, giving her daily interaction with URI students, a gift from God.

On Monday of this week, Nonni didn’t show up to open the store. That never happens. The shift supervisor walked to her apartment above the Kingston laundromat and knocked on her door, but Nonni didn’t answer. Before the day was out, the Twitterverse was buzzing with heartfelt stories and sentiments and sympathies by students who adored her, at the sad news that she’d died that day. Even the big city newspaper in our state wrote about her.

I don’t know if she knew the impact she had on every person who ever walked into that CVS. I suppose we rarely know our own impact on others – good or bad. But I think if we aspire to reflect human kindness in the ways of people like Nonni, we can hardly go wrong. Helen M. Plummer, you have a excellent.



Michael, Mark, Steve, and Michelle

It’s Valentine’s Day today, so I’m sharing a light little story (heretofore never shared with a soul) about the importance of spelling, or literacy, or just plain having a heart.

Back in the day, in elementary school, we decorated shoe boxes to create our very own Valentine’s Day “mailbox” for all the cards that all the kids in our class would hand out (and thus began Cupid’s relentless personal torture in my life, but that’s another story, for a therapist, probably). I don’t remember if I actually handed out Valentine’s cards to my classmates back then. But in the sixth grade, I remember specifically that I handed out three.

One to Michael. One to Mark. And one to, Steve, I think, maybe. All of the Valentine’s cards said the same thing:

“I have a crush on you. Love, your secret admirer.”

So on the big day, when everyone opened their Valentine’s boxes and read their cards, I watched the objects of my affection with great anticipation, eager to see if they would glance around the room for a clue to the identity of the mysterious admirer. I’m pretty sure none did. But a girl in my class later came running up to me, anxious, excited, beaming with joy and the biggest smile I’d ever seen on her face. You see, Michelle wasn’t a particularly well-liked girl. She was “new” for one thing, not what 6th-graders traditionally regard as “pretty,” and maybe a bit awkward as a young girl developing a little earlier than the rest of us. I always tried to be nice to the kids that others didn’t exactly welcom. My mom taught me that, and I’m grateful.

So Michelle knew she had a “friend” in me, and she was soooo eager to show me the most wonderful Valentine’s card she’d ever received. It read: “I have a crush on you. Love, your secret admirer.” And it was in my handwriting. I never knew whether I spelled Michael wrong on the envelope, or whether the person who put the cards in the boxes didn’t know the difference between Michael and Michelle. But in that moment, face to face with her beaming glory, I did not have the heart to break hers. So perhaps to this day, Michelle takes joy in knowing that someone in the sixth grade had a crush on her that Valentine’s Day. And I’m okay with that.

Greetings (in any season)

Tonight, I waited inside the airport for a friend coming back from Christmas vacation, in the chairs at the bottom of the stairs where returning travelers come down to baggage claim. I was about 20 minutes early, so I had 20 minutes of smile-making joy as I watched a whole mess of people greet their loved ones. Somebody being there, to welcome somebody home.

The young father carried his toddler son down the stairs, made beaming eye contact with the waiting mommy, who instantaneously dropped to a squat, opened her arms and waited for her baby – maybe his first time away, on an airplane, in this whole welcoming home behavior – who proudly, excitedly, screamingly, tumble-ran into her arms with the happiest smile I may have ever seen. She was so glad to see him, and she let him know it with her smile, her arms, her being there.

As I watched the stairs for my friend, I saw a pretty brunette teenager coming down the stairs – maybe high school, maybe college. She looked around and then made an adorable smile and cute shoulder shrug at someone behind me. Another teenager with a long wavy ponytail ran toward the stairs, squealed and the two friends embraced and squealed, and bobbed together side-to-side-to-side long enough for each to know the other missed her and was glad to see her home again.

Even a fully-grown adult woman was greeted by her older parents with the same smiles, the same hugs, the same generosity of excitement and joy. Fact is, I got so much of my own joy out watching people greet one another with such love, excitement, honesty and unadulterated freedom, that I can only imagine how much better it was for them. That’s how I want the people I’m waiting for to feel, whether they’re coming back from a trip, visiting after a long time away, coming for Sunday dinner, or even just coming home from work every day.

It’s so easy to take for granted the people we love, their presence in our lives, assuming they’ll always be around, when nothing could be farther from the truth. And from what I observed tonight, the gift of making someone feel special, wanted, welcome, with as little as a greeting – and maybe that greeting is an in-airport welcome, or an hours-long nervous wait on a hot pier for a submarine hatch to open, or just opening the front door before they get to it – is a gift with enough for everyone.


That Crazy Character

Someone wise and dear to me has often said, “People reveal their character in big and small ways.”

Like the driver of the red Subaru I saw the other day on Market Street hit a parked car and quickly drive away, or that storeowner who started a fundraising campaign for the guy who stole money from the tip jar. A small cheat in a friendly poker game, or the big decision to cheat on a spouse. Standing up against friends for bullying someone weaker, or caring for an abusive parent at life’s end. Character – the better or the worse – has a lot of ingredients of varying measure. Grace is one of those ingredients. Another someone wise and dear to me has said:

“You show grace when you show restraint.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of graceful restraint a number of times, and I can testify to it’s impact.

When I was 22, I made an impatient left turn at a light and hit a guy nearly head on. He was driving a brand new red Honda Civic. Still had temporary tags. I got out of my car, shaking, crying, ready to get reamed out for my youthful irresponsibility and crushing his brand spanking, pricey new paperweight. “Are you okay?” is what he said. “Are you serious?” is what I thought. In three kind words, that guy turned what could have been the worst day of my young years into an incredible lesson about showing grace toward someone who deserves far less.

Some 22 years later, dancing with my mom’s class in her dance recital, I did the right step at the wrong time and wound up facing the back when everyone else was facing front. They’d worked really hard on that number, and I was the more experienced dancer just having a good time with my mom. They had every reason to be annoyed. I would have been. But they already knew how bad I felt, and didn’t say a word. Their grace right then taught me how much more important kindness is than perfection.

You show grace when you show restraint. There’s no need to beat somebody up when they’re already down.

Thing is, people we don’t know are rude or greedy or inconsiderate at times, and people we love and care about hurt us and disappoint us sometimes. And it would feel really, really good to give them all the full explosive blast of that piece of mind we feel so entitled to give. Not that helpful truth isn’t important – it is – but it can be delivered with grace. And for me (I know, because I’ve tried it a few times), what feels really good for a single moment keeps me from sleeping for more than a few nights. Because in my haste and failure to show just a little grace, I reveal a lot of poor character in myself I don’t want to know is there.

I had an opportunity recently to return some of the grace that’s been shown me in the past. I thought of red Honda Civic guy and the ladies in my mom’s dance class. I thought of those words of encouragement – “you show grace when you show restraint.” I thought of the character I wanted someone else to see in me, and that I wanted to see in myself. I hope I did Grace justice.

Getting old and staying young

This week, I flipped over big tractor tires. I don’t mean I flipped over them (’cause that’s just crazy). I mean, I flipped them over. By myself. Twenty times. I was so excited about my feat that I had to tweet about it. And put it on facebook. And tell everyone at work. And it got me thinking about another little thing that makes a big difference.

There’s a saying that “you’re only as old as you feel.” But I disagree. I believe we’re only as old as we act. And when we act like we’re old, well, we’ll get old and atrophied and tired, until, eventually, we just stop. But if we act like we’ve still got the body or brainpower or stamina (or whatever we valued most) of our 20-something self (or whatever decade we valued most), we’ll keep getting better, defy the laws of diminishing DNA, and generally enjoy the whole of our lives, rather than just the one we had until we started getting old.

I’ve been dancing since I was three. And since it’s pretty tough to find adult dance classes that aren’t for beginners, this means that from my mid-20s on I’m often in classes with girls half my age. Usually, they’re better than me. An “old” person might be embarrassed, take the attitude that dancing is a young girl’s game, that it’s time to put away the ballet slippers and do whatever it is old people do. But I choose to think I’m setting a great example for those cute young thangs that we are never to too old to keep working hard at what we do, getting better at what we do, or even just to do what we love to do.

My mom started dancing four years ago. At age 65. She’s taking tap, ballet, jazz, and Irish. And she’s really, really good! It turns out, she’s where I get the perfectionism, frustration when I can’t do something, and high expectations of others. She practices at home every night. She asks questions and makes the teachers go over the steps until she gets the footwork. And this woman, who I’d only known to do her very best raising me and my brother and to shun any even remote chance occurrence that she’d have to speak or appear in front of even a single person, is doing dance recitals. On a stage. In costumes. She inspires me. She started something completely new in her 60s – something neither she, nor I, ever dreamed she was capable of. I’m so proud of her. And the way I see her now, she’s enjoying her life in a way she never did before.

In a way, (and believe me, I know just how wrong this sounds) my mom is the reason I started taking pole fitness classes a year ago. Not because I want to be a stripper (I don’t, and believe me, no one else wants me to be either), but because, at 43, I wanted to challenge myself and achieve something I never imagined possible. As a kid, when all the little girls were just congenitally able to pull themselves under, around, and up over a bar like a gymnast, I couldn’t. In gym class, when we had to hold hang from the bar at chin level, I dropped like a boulder the minute Mr. Dudley let go of me. When we had to climb the dumb rope with the knots in it, I pretended to be sick. Now, I can invert on a pole and hang upside down with no hands. And what’s equally awesome, is that I’m also not the oldest person in some of the classes. There are other 40-somethings like me who choose to continue to challenge themselves, to learn new things, to not get comfortable in an old life.

When I lived in Guam, I got certified to teach swim lessons. That by itself was something. But I had a couple of adult men students who, at 30-something, had decided it was time to learn to swim. It was my honor to teach them, and they inspired me. I became a scuba diver. And I started a dance program with 64 students. Last year, I learned to identify and hunt for wild, edible mushrooms, and to cook with them. Did I ever imagine these things were possible? Heck no. And yesterday, I flipped tires. I finished our four sets of 400m run, 5 toes-to-bar (while hanging from a bar), and tire flips dead last. But I finished. And I flipped tires.

So, whether it’s those horseback riding lessons you never took, or learning to swim, or sew, or do brainteasers, or going back to school, or whatever you think is impossible… do it. It’ll make you younger. Or at least, it’ll make you feel younger. And as they say “you’re only as old as you feel.”

Flight of the tiny humans

My friend Sandie calls them tiny humans.

Little kids with their delicate little voices that sound like a feather tickling my cheek. Voices that rise and fill with delight and awe at the things I’ve long forgotten to notice. “Look Daddy, look what I can do!” squealed the little girl with the downy-fine light brown hair standing on the airplane seat upon discovering that she has the power to move the window shade up and down and up and down.

“Daddy look! There’s aNOTHer airplane! and ANOTHER one!” sang the little blonde boy looking out through the little round window and spotting the seemingly endless row of aircraft docked at gate after gate after gate. For he was sitting inside a thing of mythical legend and fantasy books and fairytales. To him.

“I’m coming for you Emma!” shouted the little big brother to his crying sister who’s become “lost” on the other side of the empty gate seating area. He’s proud and strong and runs to save his sister from sure disaster.

Oh my, how much there is to re-learn from watching these tiny humans.  They still delight at new discoveries without fear or skepticism or jaded cynicism.  They notice colors and shapes and objects as if they’re gold in a riverbed. They feel excitement at phenomenon like birds flying inside an airport. They feel joy at the discovery of moving sidewalks. They feel glee that there’s a little panel on the seat in front of them that turns into a coloring table at the turn of a little knob. They…feel.

On my recent trip, which obviously involved some time in airports, I found myself putting away my book and turning off my cell phone just to listen for those delighted little voices and then watch and notice the things all the precious tiny humans found wonderful. Tried to imagine what it’s like to discover something new for the first time, again, and to delight in something, again, and to laugh at something not because it’s funny, but because it’s amazing (or at least, it once was). I tried to imagine what it’s like to find everyday things  – things I take for granted – exciting and new and awesome and unimaginable instead of mundane or expected or dirty or inconvenient or in my way. It was pretty cool. Colorful. Musical. Magical.

And if doing that could make time in an airport delightful, imagine (if you still can) how much better it could make life.