Ginger Ale Toothpaste

21 12 2009
ginger ale
In honor of Solstice, I present the 2009 Revised Edition of an original story. We embrace the darkness, we welcome the light, and we celebrate the cycle and the turning of the seasons. May the return of the light be a herald of peace, joy and prosperity for you all.

The multi-colored Christmas lights he’d strung around the window cast a buoyant light around the room. Generally, they didn’t shed much light, but because of their large number they were sufficient to write by. Besides, they made the otherwise small, base apartment look better. Everything looked better under Christmas lights.

To most, the task of writing Christmas cards was normalized; one viewed as more of a necessity, a price to be paid for holiday mirth, than a pleasure. But for some, like him, who were doing it for the first time, it was every bit as much a pleasure as anything else. He liked the feeling of writing Christmas cards. It made him feel somehow closer to the rest of the world, as though he finally belonged. To need to write Christmas cards was an achievement.

He put down his pen and looked at it fondly. He had bought it on his second trip to the city. It was of the finest quality and had served him well over the years. The pen was one of the old, familiar things that he counted on to always be there. Shifting his gaze from the pen to the stack of cards before him, he began to place them in envelopes and label them. When he was finished, he rifled through the stack, mentally noting each to be sure he hadn’t forgotten anyone. He sighed as he came to the last in the stack. The envelope had a name, but the card inside was blank. He’d saved this one for last on purpose. This one would require a special touch. This one was for her.

He picked up the Waterman fountain pen and uncapped it. Its shiny gold nib was lightly spotted with indigo ink and reflected the twinkling lights. The reds and greens, blues and ambers of the lights seemed perfectly at home against the glow of the gold. He paused. The pen hung, poised above the blank surface of the card for several minutes. This particular print of Christmas card had been chosen very carefully. Cheerful, warm, but with a touch of humor, and of course printed on 100 percent recycled stock. This card reflected him, in a way, and the wishes he sent with it.

The nib hung in space, expectantly. A quiet ache in his back brought him out of the warm daze he’d been in. Relaxing his stiff posture brought an admonishing creek from the desk chair and he recapped the pen and returned it to the desk’s surface. Rising, he stepped to the window, still half musing on partially digested thoughts. The window pane was cold despite the comforting warmth of the apartment. Seizing the moment of inactivity, a thought escaped from his brain. “It would feel warm to someone out there in the cold,” he said in a murmuring voice even though he was alone.

“What a bizarre world this is,” came another muffled declarative.

Outside, the turbulent winds sent snowflakes swirling around in a chaotic, wintery dance, always on a steady descent to the ground below. “Funny,” he said to the glass, clearly this time, “that snowflakes melt on a cold sidewalk, even though they thrive in the cold.”

A man stood on the curb below. He wore a long, black overcoat that flared in the cold wind that lashed through the dark city streets. No matter how many lights came on, the city always seemed dark. The man’s collar slapped against one side of his face, instigated by the wind, though he didn’t seem to notice. He looked lonely and concerned—or maybe a little anxious. He stood with the city’s darkness around him, seemingly oblivious to the wind and bitter cold. Finally, after several minutes the cruelty seemed to reach him, and the man pulled his coat around his chest and shoulders, and tried to hide from the wind in it.

He turned from the window and surveyed the apartment. It radiated warmth and welcome. It had taken a long time for this place to feel like home, but now it finally did, it was all worth it. He thought back, before he’d moved into the apartment, before he’d moved into the city. He thought back to college and then before college. He thought back to his friends. Where were they? What were they doing now? He missed them. He’d spent the best years of his life with them. But they’d made their decisions, and done what they had to do. It seemed so long ago, and so far away. He hadn’t wanted to go through it alone, but he’d said that he would—that he could—and he had. Certainly, there had been new friends, new memories, but never the same closeness. Never the same magic that they’d all shared. He’d made this life. His life. The way he wanted it. But there was no one to share it all with. Except maybe for her. When he’d met her, he’d caught an echo of those feelings—the closeness and the warmth. It seemed possible, anyway.

Breaking suddenly from the fit of nostalgia that clenched him tightly, he turned again to the window. The man was still there, standing in his place on the sidewalk like a sentry at his post. He hugged his arms close against his body now, as the wind lashed into him. Cars drove by, and as they passed, the sentry studied each one, expectantly. People hurried past on the sidewalk, taking little notice of his determination.

Minutes passed. Just as began to turn from the window and go back to the Christmas cards, something changed. It was a subtle change most would have missed. The man’s demeanor and stance changed. His grip on his own chest relaxed, and his head rose as he straightened his neck, giving up much of the protection his collar provided from the wind. His face lightened. An instant later, a taxi came into view and pulled up alongside the curb where he stood. His face lit up with a warm smile. He reached for the rear door of the cab but before he could grasp the handle, it flew open. A woman burst from the backseat, chestnut hair flashing elegantly under the harsh glow of the street lights. Her gray, flowing overcoat and silk scarf seemed forgotten in the moment, as did his own coat. The coats and the cold and the cab and the whole of the world seemed simple ornament, as she leapt from the taxi and they held each other, frozen for a moment.

He turned from the window again, and sat down in his desk chair. He did not look back to his work though. Instead, he glanced around the apartment and mused. “Everything looks better under Christmas lights,” he said to the night. The Christmas lights’ reflection in the bathroom mirror drew his eye. From his chair he looked in upon the sink and noted the tube of toothpaste resting there. The same kind he’d used since he was a kid. Looking at the tube felt the same as the clean, new feeling it left after he brushed. Nothing special about it. But it was pure and simple.

As he shifted his gaze, it caught on the corner of the desk. Once more, the Christmas lights directed his vision. The light they threw caught on a glass of ginger ale, and danced among the rising bubbles. The colors of the lights bounced around and diffused into the gold in the glass. The crisp, old-fashioned flavor drifted across his tongue. Simple. Pure. His eyes fixed upon some other object briefly, and then snapped back to the glass. The way the bubbles danced and sparkled reminded him of her laugh and how her soft brown eyes danced when she did. On his face the smile faded with the distance of the recollection, but inside it grew and his heart beat faster because of it.

“Wouldn’t life be a grand thing, if you could customize it, fill it with just the things you loved most? Just the things you loved the most,” he said to the lights.

The smile returned to his face. He could explain it later, but for now it would do. The pen rose in his hand once more, and the gold nib glided across the card stock on a trail of ink.

“How does ginger ale toothpaste strike you?”

by William Murphy


It doesn’t have to be that difficult.

15 12 2009

With the holidays nearly upon our merry little heads, people around me seem to be succumbing to seasonal stress. The shopping, the spending, the cooking and planning, wrapping, eating, attending parties, sending cards, making travel plans—in short, there’s a lot going on this month.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that while everyone finds a busy schedule to be more stressful than a relaxed one, a lot of us (meaning, a lot of you) are making things much harder on yourselves than is necessary. Life simply doesn’t have to be as difficult and complex as many people choose to make it. Get some perspective. In all situations, stressful though they may be, step back and get some perspective. They will still be stressful, and you will still have to act and make uncomfortable decisions. That’s life. But most things needn’t be quite so bad. For example:

  • You don’t have to tend to the baby every waking minute. Is he crying? Or is he talking to himself because he likes the sound of his own voice? Is he sitting happily nearby, playing with a block, or watching the cat walk around? If so, you don’t need to entertain him. You don’t need to pick him, move him to another room, rock him, or feed him. Babies are people, and people enjoy brief periods of quiet, calm, and relative solitude. 10 minutes of prattling away happily in the crib will neither harm your child, nor get you arrested. Enjoy the 10 minutes off and stop acting as though the umbilical cord is still intact.
  • Every meal does not have to be shot for the Pottery Barn catalog. Watch Gordon Ramsay. Watch Emeril. Watch Bobby Flay. Watch Martha. What do they all emphasize? Fresh, local, simple, wholesome. Did you get that third one? Simple. Each food on the plate does not need 7 spices and a flavor-infused oil. Farmhouse tables, diners and the most popular “American” foods all share one thing in common. They’re simple. Food should be nourishing first and enjoyable second, and that’s it. If preparing a meal gives you cold sweats of anxiety, you’re trying too hard and defeating half the purpose of cooking it at all. Relax the standards on presentation a bit and enjoy a little more.
  • Stop dousing every object and body part in anti-bacterial agents. The bacteria living in and on your body outnumber your own cells by about 10 to 1. Your immune system learns how to fight off infection through practice, not manuals and classroom training. Coming into contact with low levels of relatively benign bacteria actually strengthens your immune response. Wash your hands, avoid touching your face especially when you’re outside your home, blow your nose, try to avoid contact with things like door handles, faucets, etc., especially during cold and flu season. Hydrate, eat right and get plenty of rest. Beyond that, there’s no need to turn into Howard Hughes with rubber gloves and surgical masks and hosing off with Purel 18 times a day. The typical flu virus, in particular, is an outstanding piece of natural engineering. It is as insanely good at getting people to catch it as our species is at surviving its onslaughts (we’re made for each other). Chances are, it will find you at some point. Minimize your exposure, maximize your defenses, and quit being a germaphobe already.
  • People are difficult. Whenever possible, give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people have good intentions and that they have faced challenges and obstacles in their day that have worn down their otherwise good manners and behavior. That doesn’t mean you should let yourself be steamrolled, but what do you gain by making a preemptive strike on someone, especially someone who’s already in a bad frame of mind? Take care of yourself, but bear in mind that verbally clobbering someone will probably not improve their behavior  towards you, which is what is upsetting you in the first place. A little diplomacy and kindness likely won’t cost you anything and may get you a lot further. It will also make you feel better about your own behavior.
  • Recognize that your actions may have unintended consequences. Sure you’d like to pull into the garage so you can stay out of the rain. But if someone has to move 2 cars and lawn equipment in order to make it happen, maybe you could just grab your umbrella. If it’s once a month, it’s a reasonable request. But if you’d like valet service 5 days a week, think about the toll you may be taking on someone else. Sure you might be frustrated that you haven’t gotten to making a decision yet — but are you holding up someone else in the process? You may both be impatient. Taking a breath and working it out helps you both, rather than venting your frustration.
  • You can’t and don’t have to solve every problem. Think about how many people you encounter each day. Now add in how many situations you deal with where you have to make decisions. Driving, shopping, work, dinner, laundry, etc. How much control do you honestly have over all of that? Not much. So why expect yourself to solve problems whose factors you can’t control? Give yourself permission to say “I can’t fix everything.” Do what you can without bankrupting yourself (mentally, emotionally or financially) and accept that. You can control how much food you buy, or (maybe) which store you shop at, or whether or not you answer your phone. You cannot control the weather, your supervisor’s mood, the economy, whether or not you get a cold, or how other people feel. So relax and stop thinking you can direct or fix the world.
  • Participate. This is easier said than done. How often do people answer a question with “Whatever. Either way.” If everyone does this, nothing gets done. If everyone in the room is totally complacent, stand up and make an executive decision. “OK, let’s get Chinese.” One of two things will happen. Everyone will agree because they really are complacent, or someone will chime in with “oh, I don’t really want that” which means they were just pretending not to care, and now you’ve got something to work with. Either option is better than a group of people sitting around being indecisive in the fear of making a choice everyone is not behind 100%.
  • Level with people. This may not always work with strangers or loose acquaintances, but it should with the people close to you. If something isn’t working, if you need something, if you can’t solve a problem, level with people. If you need something, ask. Don’t guilt people into doing it for you. Ask. Don’t make up stories or excuses, don’t obfuscate. Be honest, be open, and ask for help. If the people around you won’t help after that, then part of your problem might be your support system.
  • Stop working. Humans created things like art, music, improvements in technology, complex writing systems, because they had time to spare from survival. If you work all of the time, what are you working for? Sure, the house will be spotless, the recycling sorted, the hearth swept, the dishwasher empty, the wood stacked, your clothes ironed, the baby food sorted by color, consistency and fiber content — but at what point will you enjoy any of it? At the end of the holiday, for example, you will have missed your favorite treats, or that holiday movie you love so much. You will have drunk no eggnog, sampled no cookies, not enjoyed the sound of your friends and family around you—but your sink will look nice.

Slow down, people. Take a breath. You can have some order and planning in your life, but you don’t have to micromanage the universe, nor do you have to have a spotless, picture-perfect existence. When you’ve grown old and can no longer take out the recycling or sweep the floor, or shop and cook for 50, your sink, your gift list, and your achievements in dish management will be poor company. Your family, your friends and your memories of a warm, rich life, however, will stick by you. For my part, I intend to continue to make time for the following, some on daily basis, some whenever conditions permit.

  1. Grind, brew and really taste good coffee in the morning.
  2. Watch my children’s faces light up at their favorite holiday events.
  3. Stand outside and listen to the quiet of a dark night with snow on the ground.
  4. Watch the dog experiment to see if snow by the fence tastes the same as snow near the barn.
  5. Determine if classic, golden or vanilla eggnog is the best.
  6. Actively experience the comfort of falling asleep under the weight of the feather bolster on a bitterly cold, crisp night.
  7. Do as much as possible by the light of the Christmas tree. Everything looks better under Christmas lights.
  8. Read “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Repeatedly.
  9. Laugh with people.
  10. Sit by the window and watch the snow fall.

Good luck.