He was the best at being human.
As I watched today’s Google doodle, I cried happy tears remembering good things from childhood, sad tears that one of my heroes is no longer with us, and even sadder tears thinking how much the world of 2018 needs his voice.
I remember once—I must have been about four—when we were running late for preschool and my mom was super busy. I don’t remember why we were late, maybe one of my siblings was sick or something. But my mom, frazzled, handed me my clothes in the morning and told me I could get dressed while watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I dressed behind the couch so Mister Rogers wouldn’t see my underwear.
That’s how real he was to me. His calm, measured voice, and the way he looked at the camera, made me certain he was talking just to me. So of course, I assumed he could see me too.
Have you seen the documentary about Mister Rogers?
I sobbed my way through that one too, along with the rest of the audience. It turns out that the Mister Rogers we saw every day on television really was the same in real life. He was the best of us. He was the human we all aspire to be—kind, understanding, smart, playful, and seemingly without ego. And he could play piano too.
Along with that intense hit of nostalgia right to my heart, Won’t You Be my Neighbor made me think. What would Mister Rogers say if he was alive today? What would he say about the Nazi rally in Charlottesville? About the shootings in Orlando, in Las Vegas, in Parkland? About refugee children taken from their parents and locked in cages?
Even in the hardest of times, Mister Rogers seemed to know the right words to comfort children—and adults, too. His “look for the helpers” quote got a lot of us through 9/11 and it seems to pop up on social media whenever there’s a tragedy.
I don’t know what Mister Rogers would say about our current world. But I know he would say it with kindness and empathy. He would teach us lessons about living in harmony with other people. He would acknowledge how important our emotions are. And he would never, ever let us forget that he liked us, just the way we are.
If you need me today, I’ll be watching some old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Netflix. You’ll probably find me behind the couch.
I wish I could have one every day.
I’m the single mom of teenagers. I don’t get a lot of hugs. My oldest is away at college and my youngest is a busy high school student. They’ll both hug me, but only if I ask. And they kind of think I need a reason, otherwise it’s weird.
I guess we all think we need a reason to hug someone. Usually the reason is that you’re romantically involved. Hugs are reserved for those special few people in our lives, and to hug someone too much—especially someone of the opposite sex—sends the wrong message.
But here’s the only message I want to send: I like you. You’re my friend. You’re worthy of love. I’m here for you. Life is a good and your fellow humans care about you.
That’s the message I want to get, too.
Hugs are important. A warm embrace signals the body to release oxytocin and other chemicals, elevating our moods and contributing to a sense of safety and connection. Hugs calm us down, lower our stress, and might even prevent us from getting sick.
But I don’t want to wait until I’m sad or stressed out. I don’t want to wait until I need a hug. I want preventive maintenance hugs. I don’t need a tight squeeze or a clutch that goes on for days. Just a real, genuine hug. (Not that “London Bridge” thing where your upper arms are in it but your body is not.)
Science has shown that a three-second embrace is optimal for humans. A hug is a tiny, tiny shared moment. It has no agenda. It doesn’t ask anything of you except that you be present for three seconds.
Among my friends, I’m most often the person who initiates the hug. I usually get away with shouting, “Give me a hug!” as we say hello and goodbye. So far, no one has said no, but it’s not like I’ve given them a choice. And I’m also aware that our culture lets women do that, but not men. So I’m trying to be less greedy about the whole thing, to ask for hugs rather than demand them.
One time, in a park, I saw someone with one of those “free hugs” signs so I threw my bag on the ground to catapult myself into his arms. It was kind of weird to hug a complete stranger.
It was also the best three seconds of my day.
[photos: Brad Fults, cs.belgium. Licensed under a Creative Commons attribution generic license]
There’s a right way and a wrong way.
Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.
After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby. Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.
It never happened.
A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.
He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.
The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.
It never happened.
Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”
Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.
And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.
Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.
Now let’s hope they clue in others.
Thirty years ago, I made a promise. I’ve kept it ever since.
I hate wearing a bike helmet. When I wheel my bike out of the garage, I always pause with the helmet in my hand, fantasizing about riding with a bare head, arriving at my destination without a sweaty neck and flat hair.
But every time I go somewhere on my bike, I plop the helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save my life. It probably won’t. Not because of peer pressure. In the college town where I live, hardly anyone wears a bike helmet. But still, I wear mine each and every time I ride my bike.
Because of this guy.
That’s my dad, holding me as a baby. I bet he’d still hold me that tenderly if he could.
When I was in college, we worked together one summer painting houses. I loved hanging out with him, working side by side, listening to the radio and chatting. One day, I mentioned that a few months earlier, while biking to class, I’d fallen off my bike and hurt my knee and elbow. Dad expressed sympathy, but didn’t say anything else about it until the next afternoon.
“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He dipped his brush into the can for more paint and expertly applied a line. “If I bought you a bike helmet, would you wear it?”
I could tell by his expression that this meant a lot to him.
“I’ll wear it every time,” I added. This was the late 80’s. Nobody on my college campus wore a bike helmet. I’d certainly never worn one growing up. I had no idea how hot and uncomfortable it would be.
I wore it anyway. And when I went back to college, I got teased for it. The girls mostly left me alone, but the guys always had something to say.
“Are you wearing that so your brains don’t fall out?”
“Do you just walk around with that on all day like a special ed kid?”
“Did you leave your motorcycle somewhere?”
My campus was ninety miles from home. My dad would never know if I rode without a helmet. I could take it off, ride bare-headed, be cool, fit in.
I didn’t. I kept it on. Every ride. Every time. I didn’t care what the other kids said. I wasn’t wearing the helmet for them.
I was wearing it for someone more important.
And I still do.
No matter what you got your mom for mother’s day, it’s not as cool as what my kids got me.
I have wanted a unicycle for years. I was always delighted to see one-wheel riders in parades and shows. Seeing a unicycle for sale made me sigh wistfully. I watched videos on YouTube and thought “someday…”
Then I came across this quote.
It made me think about what I was capable of. And then I realized why I’d never bought myself a unicycle and why I’d never tried to ride one.
For twenty-five years, I lived with a partner who didn’t think I was capable of anything. He didn’t think I could be a successful writer, or a good mother, or a skilled editor, or an inspiring teacher. Even when I clearly was all those things, he insisted I was not. He second-guessed every independent decision I made and never once told me he was proud of me. When we divorced, I told him I’d be fine. He snorted, “No, you won’t.”
But I am. I am more than fine. In the past few years, I’ve learned just how capable I am on my own. I sold my house and bought another. I dealt with evil realtors and surly bankers and the odd rules of court. My son needed surgery at a special clinic in another state, so I arranged it and financed it. I launched my oldest kid into college. I held my little family together.
Turns out my kids were watching the whole time. And they always knew what I was capable of. So when I asked for a unicycle for mother’s day, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They didn’t undermine my confidence by asking, “are you sure?” Without any hesitation or debate, they pooled their money and bought me the exact model I wanted.
They gave me more than a unicycle. They gave me a symbol. Every time I ride it, I’ll know how much my kids believe in me. No matter how many times I fall off, they expect me to get right back on again.
I’ve been practicing twenty minutes a day, wobbling up and down the driveway, clinging to the garden wall. Losing my balance, falling off, getting on again. But I’m not giving up.
I’m going to learn to ride this unicycle.
Because I can do anything.
The world has changed, and so have my reading habits.
Until recently, the books I read looked like this.
I was a heavy science fiction reader. I think what I liked most about it was the challenge. Not that the books themselves were hard to read, but that the plots and themes always challenged my worldview. After all, the best science fiction shines a spotlight on today’s world. They’re either metaphors for current events, or asking a very specific question. And that question is always: “How would life be different if this one little thing was changed?”
I absolutely required this of my science fiction books. I wouldn’t finish a book that simply reinforced my preconceived notions. How the book made me feel was less important than how it made me think.
Now? Not so much.
In the last few months, we’ve all been bombarded with bad news upon bad news, and it’s getting worse. I’m worried about the future all the time. Books that once seemed like harmless thought experiments now read more like predictors of doom. Even light, funny science fiction has an edge I can’t deal with right now.
What I’m looking for in books these days is an intensity of feelings and a guaranteed happy ending. I think my mind wants to experience emotions in a safe way. I want to feel deeply without getting my heart broken.
So I wandered the library shelves, flipping through memoirs, reading the jackets of mysteries, looking at the covers of literary fiction, and avoiding the horror shelf completely, until I finally found what I was looking for.
A romance novel.
It isn’t just that I crave escape, because all novels offer that. Even my big idea science fiction novels are full of heroes and adventure and other worlds. But romance offers the specific kind of escape my heart needs right now. Romance novels are full of love and sacrifice and doing the right thing for the sake of another person. Every hero and heroine ends up a better person than when they started, and love really does trump hate. Every. Single. Time.
So now the books I read look like this.
The world is still crappy. I’m still fighting against the bad. But I’ve found a safe place for my emotions to go. Thanks to some wonderful authors who write about love, books have once again become my happy place.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. Her TBR pile is overflowing with love.
I don’t trust our country to do the right thing. I’m not buying it. Literally.
Things I’d planned on buying in the next six months:
A dining table
Gutters for my house
Service people I’d planned on employing:
A gutter installer
A landscape company
Things and services I’m actually going to buy in the next six months:
In fact, I might not buy any of that stuff for a year or more. I’m joining the protest economy.
People who look like me, people with the same privileges I have, elected a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rapist as our President. And gave him lots of friends in congress to play with. They will hurt people who don’t look like me.
My peers claim they aren’t racist or sexist. They say this election was about “smaller government.” They say it was about “the economy.” That is a lie. They voted out of hate. And that hate has put me and my family in jeopardy in countless ways. I will probably lose my health insurance. My brown, queer children fear for their very lives.
My peers claim this election was about “bringing jobs back.” If jobs come back, it won’t be on my dime.
I’m not hiring anyone to fix my gutters or to deliver a new table or sell me a computer. I’m opting out of this economy as much as possible in the coming year. I won’t buy anything I don’t have to. This includes movies, restaurant meals, and even books. If my rake breaks, I’ll duct tape it together. If I lose my umbrella, I’ll get wet. I hope my family likes donations to charity for Christmas because that’s the only gift they’ll get from me.
This capitalist country is racist as hell, and I’m going to leave it the only way I can, by removing myself from it economically.
And the money I’m not putting into our broken system? That’s going to three places: Planned Parenthood , EMILY’s list , and the Sierra Club. They are doing the work I want to see done, and the only work I’m willing to pay for right now.
[Photo credit: © Ridiculousbroomstick | Dreamstime Stock Photos]
If you don’t vote, you’re giving away your power.
Vote for your favorite or vote against your least favorite.
Go in educated about the issues or go with your gut.
Carefully consider what you’re doing or decide at the last minute.
Do it as cheerful exercise of your citizenship or do it as an unhappy obligation.
But whatever you do,
Saying goodbye to my old computer…and the old me.
My computer died last week. I used to think “died” was a silly word for computers that had stopped working. It’s not like computers are alive. It’s not like they’re our friends.
Then I got Pinky, a fully functional Asus EEE pc. She had a ten inch screen, weighed less than three pounds, and had a white keyboard surrounded by a shell the color of bubblegum. Pink is my favorite color and cute is my favorite size, so it’s no wonder I chose this computer. But looks and function weren’t the most important things about Pinky. The most important thing is how I got her.
In 2009, I won the Ann Arbor Book Festival writing contest. The prize was $250. It was the first real money I’d made writing fiction, and I bought Pinky as soon as the check cleared. This was mostly symbolic. Our household budget could have covered the cost of a new computer, but so what? Writers deal in symbols every day. And this was huge. After years of striving, I’d finally earned money with my fiction and I spent it on something that would help me write even more. This computer symbolized my transformation from new writer to working writer.
I wrote three novels and a dozen short stories on little Pinky. And book reviews, and blog posts, and Twitter updates. My fingers touched her keys every single day. I loved having her at home, and I loved taking her to coffee shops. She not only fit in my backpack, she fit in my purse. People always asked what kind of computer I was using as they smirked at what looked like a toy. If they asked what I was working on, I’d tell them I was writing high-tech science fiction. Then I’d silently sip my coffee as they did a double take at me and my Barbie computer.
Even when she got slower and the battery was all but useless, I was never tempted by newer, shiner machines. I loved Pinky too much. But eventually her battery wore out and so did her processor. First, Pinky wouldn’t boot up if she wasn’t plugged in. Then, she wouldn’t boot up at all. The techs at Computer Medic couldn’t revive her. Pinky was dead.
I’m writing this post on a perfectly usable gray Dell, also bought with money I earned by writing, but it’s not the same. My new computer isn’t colorful. It’s not cute. It doesn’t even have a name.
And as for Pinky…well, she still sits on my desk. A couple of times, I absentmindedly put her in my backpack before I remembered that she doesn’t work. Eventually I will have to take her to the recycling center. She’ll be sent to China to be stripped for her metals.
As I finally say goodbye to the best writing buddy I’ve ever had, I will probably shed a few tears, because I will also be saying goodbye to the newbie writer I once was.
Rest in peace, Pinky.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories on a boring, gray computer that desperately needs a nickname.
Words to remember. Words to live by.
My dearest friend Chris bought me this bracelet. I love it (and her) so much that it finds its way onto my wrist nearly every day.
It’s a simple aluminum cuff stamped with the words “We Are Not Things,” which is one of the taglines from my favorite movie: Mad Max Fury Road.
“We Are Not Things” is a cry of liberation from desperate women fleeing across the wasteland in search of a better life. But truly, it applies to every character in the film, including Mad Max himself.
And it applies to me. And to you. And to everyone I meet.
We are not things.
I always wear it on my right wrist, with the words facing me.
I catch glimpses of it at odd times during the day. When I’m cooking. When I’m putting on chaptstick, and especially when I’m at the computer. I spend most of my time alone so usually I’m the only one who sees it.
But I’m the one who needs to see it. Because in this internet age, where wit is social currency, I sometimes forget that there’s another human being on the other end of the computer.
As a writer, I put a lot of stock in words. I know what words mean. I know how to use them. I know how to combine them to achieve exactly the effect I’m hoping for. The problem comes when I’m on social media, having fun with my snarky friends, trying to top one joke with another. On social media—especially Twitter—many times the effect I’m hoping for is “making myself look good at the expense of others.”
Most of the time this is okay. Even hilarious. Nobody is hurt when I mock Comcast for their poor service or make a joke about the latest political debate. But there have been times when I’ve let it get more personal, and more nasty, than that. Once, I trusted my words far too much.
I made some observations about a friend I’ll call Stephanie (not her real name). Then, I used those observations to talk about my own shortcomings. I thought it was okay to use Stephanie as a platform because ultimately, I was the butt of my own joke.
Just typing those words make me cringe. I thought it was okay to use my friend as a platform. I thought it would be funny.
It wasn’t funny. Stephanie didn’t care that the joke was on me. She cared that I’d used her to get a laugh. I’d treated her like a thing. She took me to task for it and has not yet forgiven me. Nor have I forgiven myself.
I never want that to happen again. So I wear my bracelet, and I remind myself that we are not things. And I stop and think before I tweet.
Chris has never met Stephanie. She didn’t know any of this when she gave me the bracelet. She simply wanted to give me a momento of a movie I love, a reminder of my own liberation, a token of our friendship, and a pretty piece of jewelry to wear.
But she also gave me a beautiful reminder to take care with my words, because I am not, you are not, and we are not things.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes near-future thrillers under the pen name M.H. Mead. Nowadays, she channels her snark into her characters instead of onto the internet.