Category Archives: community

“I’ve BEEN A WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN…”

One afternoon while heading out of the college cafeteria during the last semester of college, a classmate clearing plates and cups from the tables in the Union lost control with her hands and it all came crashing to the floor. That moment inspired a poem that I wrote based on how she responded.

WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN

Although the saucer fit the dish, she turned too quickly, threw the cup,

and watched in vain as coffee stained her shoes and left her morning drained,

“You’d never know,” she said to me, “I’ve been a waitress since thirteen.”

Last night I was writing at a local eatery and overheard the head waitress talking about her previous places of employment. Both are well-known restaurants. They’re not cheap places to dine. She talked about the fact that some of the clientele was snooty, and that the establishments charged way too much for what they provided. Now she’s happier working in the open bar and restaurant atmosphere where customers are more down to earth. She works the room with candor and kindness. An expert waitress in her element is a sight to behold.

Hands-on, hands off

Two weeks ago in Florida, we celebrated a landmark birthday with a relative at their golf club. Our round was delayed by rain and there was a wedding going on upstairs where the main bar and grill are located. So we moved to the downstairs bar and ordered food and drinks. Things were getting merry among the members that had already played that morning. Several were showing the effects of drinking.

The waitress working the room is a veteran of such situations. I watched her deftly fend off the handsy attentions of a member well into his liquor. She kept a smile on her face the whole time while using her arms like fencing swords to redirect his advances. In those situations a waitress is something far more than a person who serves food and drinks. She was at once counselor and therapist well-aware that there would be a tomorrow even if her customer refused to recognize it in the moment.

Frontline dedication

During this pandemic mess, we’ve all learned who the real frontline workers are. They are people at the point of contact for all sorts of human interactions. This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that here in Illinois, customers will be required to keep their masks on while ordering food. That’s a small move to protect the health of those who wait tables. Surely some people will take offense to that requirement as they have toward the concept of wearing masks at all. But they would be selfish and wrong to do so. Sadly, some will refuse to comply.

That further places our wait staff in positions where they are forced to govern all sorts of human behavior. Here in America, waiting tables is typically viewed as some sort of servitude. Not so in other parts of the world, where being a waiter or waitress, or however you care to describe it, is considered noble work. It takes real character to be a good wait staffer, whatever the circumstance. It is a form of caregiving in real time. Our sense of community in this world comes from such dedication. Wait staff are the frontlines of civility.

In-flight service

The same goes for the people working these days as flight attendants. That profession has changed drastically over the years. Where full meals used to be served on many flights, these days it is more common to receive a bag of salty snacks and a glass of ice water.

The old standards about appearance that once applied to flight attendants are now gone. Travelers also don’t fly in formal wear they way they once did. Airplanes are now packed wall-to-wall with people to maximize profits for every flight. That strategy has backfired in the age of the pandemic, and the middle seats now sit empty.

The entire industry is a bit more low-brow and some regret that loss of glamour. Flying moved from an experience to be enjoyed to a gut-level mode of transportation. Airplanes are no longer a version of a flying restaurant for shorter flights. The in-flight movies can be nice, and Wi-Fi is appreciated. But these are more about sharing isolation than engaging in the communal experience of air travel with flight attendants as hosts.

Noble work

It is still noble work taking care of others, despite what the prideful and selfish among us care to think about it. In a world where so many people behave grotesquely in public while looking down on others for their manner of earning a living, it is the right kind of pride to look for the humanity in all those doing their jobs. Because unless we all do that, the world is doomed to its caste-like appetite for tribalism, wrought with greed, dismissiveness and abuse.

So to make the point about treating others right in public, we’ll leave with this video from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. The first time we watched this in the theater my brothers and I almost heaved up our popcorn while nearly dying from laughter. Absurdity is often the best illustrator of graphic abuse. There’s a little too much Mr. Creosote in the world right now. That’s not the right kind of pride.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.

people can generally get along great, if you let them

Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.

Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.

Humanity on the block

We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.

Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.

We all have challenges

That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.

We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.

These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.

I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.

Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity

That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.

One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.

Nacho diplomacy

One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”

For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”

He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”

I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.

Just let it happen

The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.

The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”

Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.

People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them

I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.

Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.

The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.

That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.

We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.

Lord, Ask me anything except to be treasurer of the church

For twenty-five years I was a member or a medium-sized Lutheran church along with my wife and kids. Over the years I served many roles, including teacher for both Middle and High School student Sunday School classes, singing in multiple choirs and holiday cantatas. Ultimately I wound up playing rhythm guitar in the Praise Band until the leaders left the church. Then I led the group for a while as well as chairing the committee to select a new full-time leader.

During that process, I assertively kept committee meetings to an hour. As anyone that has served on a church committee can tell you, that is nearly impossible to do. The pastor emeritus serving on the committee, a veteran of 45+ years in the both campus and congregational ministry, took me aside and thanked me for the efficient use of time. “I wish more of my meetings over the years had been this clear.”

That said, the decision itself still required a series of “side meetings” by committee members who thought we were moving too fast. Three months passed before they made up their minds, ultimately choosing the candidate we’d originally decided upon. Such is life in a church bureaucracy.

Years later, ordained as a minister to serve as an officiant at the wedding of a friend. An honor I never imagined, but willingly embraced.

After that term of service I was elected to the Church Board as a Member-At-Large. That role came along at an interesting and difficult period of decision in that 100-year old congregation. There was a building expansion on the table, and a band of extremely dedicated volunteers worked with architects to come up with a wise and efficient plan for growing the narthex and re-organizing space upstairs and down.

I’d been through a vote or two of approval in congregational meetings when I was asked to join the board. It appeared the decision was already made to go ahead with construction. There were a few glitches to solve that might have added pennies on the dollar, and the Board President wanted to take it back to the congregation for one more vote.

Frustrations

This took place over a matter of weeks. I could sense our Pastor’s frustration at the continuing fussiness and fear involved in the decision. I waited a few weeks to actually offer much of an opinion, which was much out of character for me. But I felt that listening was an important part of playing the role of Member-At-Large.

Painting of Easter Lilies by Christopher Cudworth

But as a meeting wore on one late winter night, and the arguments for and against the changes repeated themselves yet again, I sort of ran out of patience. Pounding my fist firmly on the table, I said out loud, “This has already been voted on twice. The congregation wants to move ahead. No more discussion is necessary. No more votes either. Let’s vote right now and get this moving forward.”

Gratitude and grace

That’s what we did. On the way out of the building that night, our 6’5″ pastor, thin like a stretched out crow in his all-black outfit, reached his arms around to wrap me in a hug. Then he leaned back and said, “Thank you.”

Sure, I was kind of an asshole about how that was handled. But it did move the project forward after weeks of what felt like self-righteous hand-wringing about fiscal responsibility and conservative ideals.

High and mighty

I’d been in other situations where people got all high and mighty about their roles while projects faltered and budgets overflowed their banks. One was a Chamber of Commerce in which the Board consisted of twenty people. Our meetings were held in a giant City Hall chambers where people sat thirty feet apart. There were no budgets for any of the events or activities of the organization and people felt no compulsion to require them. The chamber was finishing in the red every year.

We fixed all of that in a year. Cut the board to eleven people. Required budgets for every single line item. And issued all new marketing materials. The changes didn’t win me friends, but they proved effective. There’s beauty in discretion. The structure of that organization is still in place thirty years later, and it is thriving. Before that, it was directionless and struggling. That’s the type of change you call a success.

Poorly suited for the job

But there are some jobs for which I am poorly suited in life. While I understand the need for a budget, I have none of the skills needed to build or outline one. Those talents I have always left to actual accountants and other people that love to work with numbers. Then we can discuss the meaning of those numbers, and the needs they dictate.

Windmill by Christopher Cudworth

Yet a couple years after serving on the church board I received a call from a church committee leader asking if I’d be interested in being placed into the election as Treasurer for the congregation. I am embarrassed to this day to admit that I laughed out loud at the prospect of that. “I’m the last person to consider for that job,” I told her.

A few years after that, my late wife and I left that church over differences in theological emphasis. We met with the pastor to wish him well and say goodbye. He’d visited us in the hospital during my late wife’s treatments for cancer. He’d prayed with us for her healing and strength. So we were not ungrateful for his ministerial care.

But some of the beliefs that Lutherans of that synod abide we ultimately found intolerant and shortsighted. So despite the many friends we’d enjoyed and years we’d spent raising our children in that church, some of its teachings had become more intolerant and toxic over time. So we moved to a new church where I volunteered first as a confirmation mentor and then a high school assistant after my wife passed away from cancer.

No one-size-fits all

It’s clear to me after all these years that the Lord may ask us to do many things in this life. But just because the church asks you to do something does not mean you have to do it. It’s not like we’re all just a bunch of power cords waiting to be plugged into some role that God chooses for us.

And just because the church tells you to believe something does not mean you have to accept it. Neither is the Bible a literal instruction manual of any sort, or a “one-size-fits-all” garment to wrap around your body and claim protection against all misdeeds or evil.

There’s no such thing as Magic Underwear or even any sort of spiritual armor we can squeeze ourselves into in hopes of protecting us against bad things happening. We all live in the moment. We are called to make decisions based on our sense of morality and conscience. Those are quite different than assuming that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

We can learn from those people and events we read about in the Bible, but they aren’t direct extension cords leading from God to our souls. Every word of the Bible, whether some want to admit it or not, is a working symbol. That’s why the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Why is that so hard to understand? The words of the Bible are a connection to God, but not a literal one.

Finding our paths

The Lord wants us to find the sources of power and paths that best suit us. We all have different skills, outlooks and circumstances. Beware those who tell you there’s only one way to think about life, or who project upon you unrealistic or misguided expectations, or who want to plug you into something for which you’re clearly not suited at all. I no more belonged in the role of Treasurer than John the Baptist deserved to clean the platter on which his own head would be served.

If that’s shocking to you, then you really haven’t read or understood the Bible at all. When it comes to faith in this world, it’s great to have faith in God, but you also need to learn to have faith in yourself. And that’s the right kind of pride.

cHance meetings in the field

While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.

Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.

Photo of a meadowlark by Christopher Cudworth

After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.

Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”

Christopher Cudworth with Jerry Hennen, President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.

“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”

“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.

His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”

In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.

Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.

I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.

Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.

Photo of a singing dickcissel by Christopher Cudworth

For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.

That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.

That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.

Photo of a bald eagle by Christopher Cudworth

During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.

Photo of tarsnakes by Christopher Cudworth.

Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.

Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.

All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.

It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.

Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?

Photo of a robin feeding its young. Christopher Cudworth 2020.

Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.

Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.

THE RACE OF A LIFETIME

I’m white-skinned.

The first time I was made emphatically aware of that fact was at six years old. I was playing with two kids that I’d gotten to know. We were running around a schoolground next to the baseball field where my brother played games in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Every week I’d meet up with two kids, a pair of twins actually, that were a bit younger than me. They loved to play tag and wrestle around.

Struck down

But one day I was chasing one of them and he came to a sudden stop. I was a bony, skinny kid who was all elbows and knees and one of those struck him right in the eye. He went down crying. I helped him up, then his brother came over, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him across the field toward the wall of houses south of the field.

The next week I showed up to play and the twins were nowhere to be found. Nor the week after. Finally I saw them at the playground the third week and ran across the grass to greet them. I loved those two kids. They were bright and funny and loved to laugh. But when I approached their faces fell.

“We can’t play with you,” one of them told me. “Our momma said so.”

“Why not? I’m sorry if you got hurt,” I pleaded.

“She said we can’t play with white boys,” the one with the black eye told me.

“Was it because I bumped into you? Was that it?” I wanted to know.

Rough mistakes

Of course it was more than that. Their mother feared their children were being roughed up for no other reason than they were brown-skinned.

It broke my heart in the moment to realize that a rough mistake on my part had led to a broken friendship. But at six years old I told the two boys, “It’s okay. I understand.”

That was that. I realized for the first time that the color of my skin could be a threat to other people. That made a big impression on me. I’m not saying it cured or prevented me from racist reactions that I might have learned along the way. But because the race you inhabit is something you inherit, and it can’t changed, there are racist thoughts one learns along the way. That makes it impossible to know exactly what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. The people that are targets for those racist thoughts, actions and reactions never escape them.

The benefit of not having to live with racial stigmas has been accurately branded ‘white privilege.’ Some white people love to deny that it exists. But much of what has happened in the 200-plus years of American history, and that continues to this day, proves that white privilege not only exists, but is getting worse in this moment when selfish white Americans are claiming persecution for themselves. And we all know who’s leading the charge.

Race of a lifetime

I doubt those children with whom I played in the 1960s recall the incident when I bumped into one of the twins while playing together. It is far more likely they either symbolically or literally experienced events in life that really were racist in origin. So the divide is apparent: I got to go on with the race of my lifetime, being white, and they got to deal with what it meant to be brown-skinned or “black” in America.

That has everything to do with the unrest we’re seeing in this country today. The allegory of my accidentally knocking into that child and giving him a black eye holds true in many ways. Black people are constantly getting knocked upside the head and even killed simply because their skin color differs from the majority white population.

Which is why the instincts and reaction of that mother trying to protect her children from harm during their innocence was a lesson in their race of a lifetime.

Experiencing racism

That mother showed the right kind of pride. Whatever her prior experience with racism––and it was likely rife in the early 1960s when these events occurred––she knew that two four-year-old boys were hardly ready to deal with it. She likely wanted to give them the tools to avoid trouble when they could, even if they weren’t trying to cause it.

I still remember the beautiful smiles and sparkling eyes of those twins. And their creative nature during play was a joy. They made a big impression on me before I accidentally caused the end of our relationship with an elbow.

It’s hard to get back to that place after something bad has happened. If it keeps happening over and over, it’s really hard for people to be perpetually forgiving of the insults, the slights, the blocked opportunities, the economic and social prejudice, and the violence.

The closing lyrics of the Stevie Wonder song Living in the City seem to ring true now more than ever:

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, no where could be much colder
If we don’t change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city

How to be discriminately indiscriminate

 

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In the days before the pandemic, human interaction was conducted a bit closer. But even with the pandemic restrictions of social distancing in place, eye contact makes a difference. 

One of the things that I do every day is to look people in the eye. Everyone I meet, I look them in the eye. Not out of suspicion. But to seek a connection of humanity.

I often smile when eyes meet. That’s a little harder now that we’re all wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of Coronavirus and the associated disease and conditions it produces, Covid-19. So I try to make my eyes smile. Which is harder. But still worth it.

It is important to look people in the eye, to make eye contact, to tell them: “I recognize you as another person. I respect your presence. I honor your struggles and joys, whatever they are.”

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It is still possible to make eye contact, and make the eyes smile if you can. 

That is how you be discriminately indiscriminate. Once you get in the habit of acknowledging the humanity of other people, you can even advance to celebrating it. And while it is also harder to hold discussions through the mute cloth of a mask, it is still worth it.

Ask how someone’s day is going. That’s all it takes. “How’s your day going?” It is the most open-ended and compassionate question one can ask. It says nothing about money or race or social status. It opens the conversation up for you to listen, to hear, and to acknowledge the worth of that person. Indiscriminately.

The word indiscriminate means “done at random or without careful judgment.” Perhaps you’ve never paused to consider that definition. I’m asking you to do that now. Because random meetings are the best opportunity to get outside your own bubble. Over time, you will find, as I have, that the prejudicial habits of our minds are persistent. It takes both courage and commitment to let down your personal guard and be vulnerable enough to ask the question, “How’s your day going?”

Take time

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Take time to make someone’s day better.

So you have to discriminate against those instincts that hold you back. They might be old or present racial or cultural fears. There might be fears or suspicion of strangers. So you have to discriminate in your own mind to separate those “careful judgments” from your action and behavior.

Being discriminately indiscriminate is actually nothing more than being a good person. Someone to trust even when society conclusively compels you to draw back, pull in, protect yourself from every danger.

Social distancing?

This is not to say that you should be wanton in hour behavior, or incautious in protecting your own health. But you’d be surprised how much talking to another person actually reminds you both what social distancing actually means. It is simple courtesy, and sane behavior to stand back from someone else.

But don’t ignore them. Don’t let this pandemic crush the humanity of our society. Then it is only the yellers who triumph, the selfish who get heard, and the dividers who conquer.

Discriminate from all that. Be indiscriminate in your interactions with other human beings. Seek them out. Be nice. Invite them into your world even if sharing social space has its limits.

It is much harder through social media to be discriminately indiscriminate. Even a poorly handled joke can be misconstrued. Pointing out even basic of obvious facts can be taken as a threat. So this is not about being indiscriminate on the Internet. We can talk about that another time.

But through channels of direct, humane exchanges will emerge a better feeling about the world, and about yourself. And that’s a good place to start.

All plugged into this new remote thing

 

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The first time I worked remotely was back in 1994 during the original advent of email communications and the Internet. I’d started a small company called Environs whose clients included a fitness company, a real estate management company, a pair of newspaper companies, and a few other clients.

Communicating via the web was not too slick back then. My nifty new Powerbook 540c laptop had dialup capabilities, but the connection process as you might recall was slow, noisy (that dialup tone was classic) and bandwidth was limited.

But to me, it all still felt like magic. I could communicate with clients far away, send and receive proofs of creative work and writing, and seldom feel alone.

Technology helps

Because while I’ve never been a tech device geek or software coder, I’ve always loved what new technology can do. Clearly, I was not alone in that realm, as Apple products appealed to people like me who found the IBM/Microsoft world offensive in its lack of intuitive traits and its often cloying yet clunky interface. If I could have obliterated that paper clip character when using Word on client computers, I surely would have.

The arc from the early days of Apple through the Macintosh years to the melding of compatible software with Microsoft pushed the world toward increased efficiency, and it has all been remarkable. Now many of us are working from home thanks to the enhanced speed of computer performance and Internet accessibility.

While I’ve worked as a full-time employee in marketing, communications, and public relations for thirty years, I’ve also always worked from home in some capacity. So the Coronavirus demand for social distancing and WFH mandates is nothing new. It’s just a matter of plugging into another new reality. Some people find it easy while others struggle with a sense of isolation. 

The multi-tasking debate

The first question everyone has to ask themselves when working from home is how much multi-tasking they can or should try to handle. Some efficiency experts insist that multi-tasking is the absolute bane of productivity. “Don’t do it!” they’ll insist. “You can only do one thing well at a time.” 

Well, the parents of children working from home can’t afford that luxury. So people adapt to circumstance as need be. As a person that was once a caregiver to three people simultaneously while holding down a full-time job, I learned how important it is to build a solid foundation of self-affirmations.

I was looking after a mother with cancer, a father with a stroke, and a wife with cancer, so I learned quickly to give myself credit for things accomplished. I also learned that multitasking isn’t a luxury at all. It is oftentimes a necessity. People working from home have to juggle multiple worlds. That means learning how to compartmentalize the daily task list, putting things into groups, and doing things in segments. It can be a great feeling to see a chunk of work through.

There is no real reason you can’t shift gears, do some other things in groups and segments, all while keeping a line open for unexpected calls and unanticipated emergencies. It might seem more stressful than working in a contained office space, but learning how to cope in different environments is, over the long term, a quite valuable skill.

The drama in your head

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Here’s a ‘dirty’ little secret about working from home. The world outside often can really wait.  It’s the drama in your head that is the real traumatizer when you’re working from home. Granted, some companies are measuring every moment spent and every keystroke logged. So let’s not be naive. If that’s their measure of true productivity, it may well be the case that any day-to-day functions need to rest outside working hours.

But for many of us, it’s a question of how well we get the job done, not how many keystrokes we’re plinking away during the day. If the kids need attention or the dogs need a walk, go do it. You may well solve a problem in your head during those activities. Almost all the solutions to problems that I conceive are the result of going out for a run or a walk. It works miracles.

Through success and failure while working remotely, learn to take a breather and step away if you need to. Working out at noon can be a great way to break up a day. Sitting at the same desk in the same office you’re occupying 8-to-5 or longer can be physically and mentally exhausting. Go outside and walk around for even five minutes if the pressure builds up or you grow frustrated. It’s a great way to find perspective. 

Practical measures

There are some practical measures you can take to quell any productivity drama that builds up in your head. Take a moment to document what you’re doing and develop the instinct to be tactically sparse and ‘remotely confident’ when communicating your progress. If something isn’t getting done, or you need answers and can’t make progress until you get them, be honest and even-keeled about it. Many times the people with whom you are communicating are also juggling tasks and just want to know when to pick up the next task. Amusing fact: they may even be relieved that you’re not outworking them. But where there are genuine deadlines to be met, don’t hedge bets. Prioritize those first and don’t let distractions get in the way. 

Doing things right

At one of the agencies where I worked as a creative director, our graphics department had a saying that went like this: “We always have time to get things done in a hurry, but never time to do them right the first time.”

That’s a hard thing to remember when communicating remotely. We all make mistakes of passing things along just to get them out of our inbox and “done.” So remote work requires us to take one extra look at the things that we and our associates do. It never hurts to enlist a partner in that process. Having a champion alongside you in project management helps to confirm the importance of what you’re doing and can provide important reminders of when things need to be done. And how to do them right.

Look for consensus

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Working remotely is increasingly reliant on group conferencing calls through Zoom, Teamworks, Google Meetups, and the like. All these apps are scrambling now to improve their capabilities and win the market for remote conferencing. Yet it all comes down to one thing: providing a platform where people can build consensus around ideas, projects, and plans.

To be a successful conferencing user, look for opportunities to be a leader in building consensus. We don’t know how long this WFH world may last, so you’re a valuable team member if you help people come to an agreement and even inspire and motivate others. It’s entirely possible for you to be that person.

Ask questions

Want to know the easiest way to lead in this world? Be prepared to ask questions. Make up a list of smart and necessary questions before any conferencing call, or issue one good question per session to contribute in the best way you can.

And when communicating via email, chat or any other channel, ask questions quickly if you’re going to ask them at all. We can all make the mistake of waiting too long to get clarity. That leaves the impression that 1) you’re not on the ball 2) don’t care 3) don’t understand the project as a whole 4) are unsure of yourself.

Prioritizing

Being quick or attentive to potential problems may be the most important “rule” of all, but it’s not always easy to do when working remotely. Just like the “real” office, people aren’t always available.

In that case, make a point of considering genuine solutions. That value is even greater when you’re directing projects for multiple clients, as freelancers often do.

At all points, people need to learn to prioritize, and we all know pleasing everyone can be tough. No client or partner likes to think they’re playing second fiddle to what you’re doing while working remotely.

Surely that holds true in working for bosses and collaborating with teams or other partners. It all comes down to focusing attention where it is needed most. That’s the base principle behind all successful remote workers. Give full attention to whatever is in front of you, ask questions early and to fully understand the goal, and multi-task by prioritizing at all times.

Most of all, take pride in your work no matter where you’re doing it. That’s the right kind of pride.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregving, and Community. Available on Amazon.com. 

 

Friday night calls for ZOOM

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About ten years ago, two close friends began having dinner on Friday nights with a woman they knew that was going through a divorce. Her husband was bipolar and the marriage had dissolved over the stress of trying to hold things together. She was also dealing with children spreading their wings at the same time, so there was plenty to talk about.

My late wife and I joined their little group, and Friday nights were spent mostly at a Mexican restaurant called El Mocajete. It was a small place without room for parties of more than four or five at best. But it was our place, and it served the purpose.

Eventually, our woman friend moved out to Colorado after some dating adventures that included meeting a winemaker famous for his inexpensive reds and whites. She turned him down for a date, but somehow that gave her a sense of independence and liberation and she moved out to Colorado.

Once she moved on, other folks were invited to join the Friday night club. It grew organically from there, mostly with members of our church, which was also going through some growing pains. So there was plenty to talk about along with family, work and other changes familiar to the fifty-plus set.

Working through loss

A few years into the Friday night social club my wife passed away. She’d been through eight years of treatment and surgeries from ovarian cancer. Together we’d received much help along the way from the people in the Friday night club, especially one woman that was the preschool director where my late wife taught four-year-olds. So it was a strange thing to meet those first few Fridays after her passing. So many conversations had taken place over the years.

We’d all been through those struggles together, and several of my Friday friends encouraged me to date. Before long I met a woman that I really enjoyed through a dating site called FitnessSingles.com. The Friday night group liked her company and the months and years started to roll past. Four years into our relationship, we got married. Through it all, we met most Fridays with an alternating group of regulars that at times totaled fifteen people. We’d squeeze tables together at whatever restaurant we chose and talk with whoever sat closest to us. Sometimes we’d catch the eye of someone down the table and wink and wave. It was accepted that not everyone would get to talk each week.

Stay-At-Home

When the Coronavirus Stay-At-Home order came through in Illinois, our Friday night group adapted like so many other social connections in the country. We jumped on Zoom. The call was ably coordinated by the original organizer of the Friday night club. That fellow and his wife have been friends of mine since college. We’ve even served as godparents to each other’s children and have helped each other through some harrowing stuff over those forty-plus years, included auto crashes and bicycle crashes, heart attacks and family crises of all kinds. But all along, there has been joy as well.

In fact, there’s a foundational feel to the Friday night group as a whole. Thus our Friday night Zoom calls are not strained affairs. In some ways, other than talking over each other on occasion, the calls have transcended even the conversation capabilities of the weekly restaurant meetups. We’ve had amusing moments given the varied technical capabilities of our collective users as people play with the views on Zoom. Somehow a friend outside the group even had a call in which her mother’s image was upside down. Yet even our typical on-screen facial expressions and body language call for a new awareness. It seems the whole world is learning these things together during this pandemic.

Dining and defining local

But all of us agree that being safe is important to ourselves and everyone else. So there’s no selfish whining about why we have to Zoom rather than dine out. We’ve each been catering food from local restaurants to support them. That’s the first round of conversation: “What’s everyone having tonight?”

Then we open up the forum to what’s happening in life. We’ve gotten laptop tours of new flooring and baby chats with a prior and new grandchild. Cats and dogs have made appearances, as have daughters and sons living with parents during this odd moment in history. On that front, it’s interesting to hear what the kids think of our inevitably overhead, often loud, filled-with-laughter conversations blaring throughout the house.

Nothing’s perfect

Nothing in life is perfect. Thinking back over the time covered by the Friday night group makes me realize some of the mistakes I’ve made on the work front, the family front and life in general. Yet there have been joys and successes as well. All we can really hope to do is ask forgiveness for the dumb or thoughtless stuff we might have done and appreciate those who share this multifaceted journey we call life.

After all, it all goes by like zoom. And then it’s over. So it’s much wiser to live fully in the moment, hope for the best, plan for the worst and work to make things better the best way you can. That’s the right kind of pride.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Communityon Amazon.com. 

 

 

 

When body and spirit become like oil and water

 

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Photograph by Christopher Cudworth. 

I didn’t have much time to consider the meaning of my late wife’s death between her passing and the Good Friday service being held several days later. I spoke to my brother the night before, and he said to me, “You’re going to Good Friday services? You’re gonna walk right into the pain…”

That’s actually why I go to church, I thought to myself. To deal with the pain of life.

It happened there was an interim pastor serving our church during that period. I’d gotten to know him well enough that we exchanged glances as I entered the church. His eyes fixed on mine and I gave a short nod. People can see when you are covered with the coating of grief. It does not shed easily.

Pain points

The structure of the service was somber as usual in remembrance of the time Jesus was crucified. Having so recently experienced the death of someone I loved, the whole ritual took on a different meaning. I sat there quietly until the service invited us all to come to the area behind the altar and pray with the deacons and pastor in a time of repentant consideration. I kneeled down in front of the pastor and noticed there were tears falling from his eyes. He was well aware of all that I’d experienced leading up to that point. He said something on the order of “You’re in the right place.”

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Oil and Water. A painting by Christopher Cudworth.

Oil and Water

By that time my grief had already journeyed down a path of consideration farther than I could have imagined. In truth, I’d been grieving for years and had long since let go of the sensation that I was in control of her spirit. We’d shared in all the challenges of being “one flesh” through all those bodily changes. But its ability to sustain her in this life ultimately ran out.

The body and spirit become like oil and water at that point. One can no longer mix with the other. The spirit floats on the surface, takes on its own aura and color, then moves into the spectrum of the imagined, yet realized.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community. Available on Amazon.com.