Saturday, December 28, 2013

Unplugged--and Almost Amish--for a Week

Day One
I pulled out of the driveway and picked up my iPhone for my usual morning conversation with my mother. Oh. Right. So, this was it: The 52/52 experience I dreaded most, the one which would prey upon my greatest fears, weaknesses, and addictions. A week totally unplugged—no phone, TV, radio, email, or internet.

I envisioned seven days of feeling incomplete. Isolated. Amish. Apparently, I’d be living the life of Ma Ingalls at the Little House on the Prairie.

The only exceptions I’d allow were phone calls and emails relating to my day job, inflexible obligations I couldn’t ignore without risk of losing my paycheck. Just before noon, I opened a colleague’s email from my work account. I clicked on the embedded Amazon link and began perusing a collection of books… *Crap*

I’d made it through twelve hours—half of those sleeping—and already I’d failed. I wandered ten yards down the hall to remind my coworker that I couldn’t read personal emails. Consequently, she saved a week’s collection of internet goods for me and, on the eve of day seven, she emailed me dozens of stories. She was nearly as weak as I was.

A half-hour later, I picked up my office phone and was greeted by the voice of Son #1.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hi. Is this an emergency?”

“Um, I thought I could call you at work.”

“Only if it’s an emergency.”

“Well, I do need to talk to you.” He paused, and I braced myself for alarming news.

“The band wants to play a show Friday night. Can you watch the dog?”


Two hours later, I received an email from the editor of my university faculty-staff newspaper. She was writing a story on The 52/52 Project and needed photos. Very iffy territory. But this was a work-related publication, I told myself. With a deadline! So, I clicked through to Facebook, where my photos resided. I stared at the glaring red flag: “14 NOTIFICATIONS!” Holy hell.

I copied some photos, emailed them, and closed out of Facebook. I applauded my willpower.

Late that afternoon, I also resisted the temptation to call my mother for my usual en route-home-from-the-office conversation. I gazed at the car radio. As my mind was forced to wander, I found myself thinking about Tom Laughlin of “Billy Jack” fame, who’d just died. I spent the drive trying to recall all the lyrics to “One Tin Soldier.” As I finally and successfully belted out the entire song, I concluded it was thirty minutes of my life well-spent.

That night, I read the last three day’s newspapers—even the sports pages—as well as three chapters of a book. “I love to read,” I announced aloud to myself. Really, how bad could this week be?

Day Two
I awoke to two missed calls from Son #1. No messages. What would Ma Ingalls do if she were frantic with worry about one of her grown children? I figured she would make a quick stop on her way to work, to ask Grandma Ingalls to text him.

My mother opened her door and hugged me. “I’ve really missed you,” she said. It had been not quite thirty-six hours since we’d talked.

She promised to check in on her grandson. An hour after I arrived at work, he called my office phone. Knowing he surely recalled yesterday’s conversation about “emergencies,” I worriedly picked up the handset.

“Hi, Mom. Hey, that show is actually Saturday, not Friday. Still OK for you to take the dog?”

Day Three
Not a single phone call all day from any family members. Sure, I loved them, but I had to admit, not having to mediate or coordinate anything—even for the upcoming Christmas holiday—was liberating.

Still, I felt disconnected from the world. What were all my cyber friends up to? What sort of horrendously delightful diatribes were internet trolls leaving in comments on Yahoo news stories? On the drive home, I stared at my iPhone lying on the front passenger seat. I had turned off all email and Facebook notifications. What the hell was I supposed to do at red lights?

That night, I wrote by pen and paper, then retired to bed far earlier than usual. I tossed and turned, Facebook images haunting me. I even—almost—missed Twitter. I’d hit an all-time low.

Day Four
My office calendar showed I had a doctor’s appointment the next day. The paper calendar in my purse placed the appointment at the day after. Since I couldn’t call to confirm, I decided to go with the next day. Better a day early than late, yes?

On the way home from work, I passed a discount furniture store. In the parking lot sat a concession truck, the type you’d see at a festival or fair. It advertised corn dogs, lemonade, and elephant ears. And, not just the usual sugar-coated confections but also “Dietetic Elephant Ears!”

Dietetic elephant ears, offered by a random festival truck in a mattress store parking lot, in the middle of winter? I reached for my iPhone to take a picture of this bizarre sighting.


OK. I’d at least take a note to write about this later. I grabbed my iPhone again, to leave a recorded note on my favorite Dragon Dictation app.

*Double Damn*

Day Five
I needed to check on the hours for the zoo’s Christmas lights. Impossible, without phone or internet. I needed to find a new recipe for our family Christmas gathering that weekend. Apparently, I’d have to go home that night and reference my three dozen dusty cookbooks.

After my doctor’s appointment—at which I fortuitously arrived on the correct day— I was feeling socially unconnected and deprived. I decided to stop at a nearby friend’s house. She wasn’t home. The rules forbid me from calling her cellphone from mine, to see where she was.

Who made these damn rules anyway?

As I rounded the corner, I happened to pass her approaching car. And so, we managed a visit after all. Several beers were involved. It was the best of times, out there on the wild prairie.

Day Six
Son #2 arrived in town for the Christmas holiday. At least I assumed he did, since he he’d been instructed ahead that he couldn’t—and indeed he didn’t—call to say he safely made the five-hour drive from Milwaukee. A terrible, inconsiderate, rule-abiding mother I was. I worried, but never allowed myself to pick up the phone.

After a mid-morning meeting, I returned to my office to find one of my best friends leaving a series of Post-It notes across my desk. She’d stopped to ask me, the old-school way, to meet for drinks after work. Heck, yes! Except for the problem of driving the half-hour home to let out the dog first.

She convinced me it wasn’t cheating if she called Son #2 to see if he’d arrived home and could manage dog duty. He told her he was a couple hours away and would take care of it.

What he couldn’t take care of, however, was paying for his scheduled eye appointment and new glasses. For that, he needed a credit card number. I was forced to return his next call. I told myself it was a matter of medical emergency and financial hardship. As well as a small matter of my not planning ahead.

Poor Ma Ingalls probably always had to plan ahead. Me? Thank God I had just one more day left of this shit.

Day Seven
My right ear had throbbed for three days. Ironically, as I’d gone unplugged, my ear had plugged right up. It was worse this morning, but still I didn’t call the doctor. I figured I’d already used up my “medical emergency” with Son #2.

I glanced at my dog, Ringo. “Quick, Pa,” I shouted at him. “Run and fetch the doctor!” Ringo blinked at me, not budging from the couch.

I struggled through my last day. I drove home from work, resisting temptation by burying my iPhone at the bottom of my purse. Just knowing I’d be reconnected at midnight made it bearable.

I went to sleep, dreaming of my four BFFs: my iPhone, Google, Pandora, and Facebook.

Day Eight
I woke the next morning--Christmas Eve day! I was off work, and finally back to the rest of the world around me! I raced to my laptop.

No internet connection.

I turned on the TV. No cable.

Hours passed. I stared at my laptop, clicking “internet access” over and over and over. I gawked at the flickering snow on the TV. Given that the weather was decent, I felt certain a random outage wouldn’t last long.

Oh, the cruelty of life’s great ironies.

Nearly twelve hours after what should have been the end of my week-long nightmare, it finally ended.

I spent the rest of the day on the telephone, including a call to the doctor. I embraced my laptop, cranked some Christmas tunes, and turned on “The Grinch.”

Somehow, I related more than ever to him: that ornery old recluse.

Just imagine how happy he and Ma Ingalls might have been, if only they were Facebook friends. 

The thought of going unplugged for a week: Terrifying or liberating? What would you miss most? Seriously, how pathetic am I?

Friday, December 13, 2013

You Can Ring My Bell

With so much of The 52/52 Project focused on experiences that could potentially frighten or embarrass me, I decided to undertake a small venture I hoped would result in a positive outcome for someone else.

Every Christmas holiday season when I spy the Salvation Army volunteers and hear their bells ringing, I toss them a couple dollars—on my first several passes. Then, I spend the rest of the holiday season attempting to slip past them without making eye contact. 

I decided to make amends this year by making it my mission to help those the Salvation Army serves, by collecting a bucketful of cash.

When the organization contacted me with instructions, I was told I couldn’t directly ask anyone to contribute. This was SO fine with me. Although I work for a fund-raising organization, my job entails communications; fortunately, I’m not required to ask people for money. I chose this experience for the good I hoped it would do, but also because I figured it would still take me a bit outside my comfort zone.

The volunteer coordinator did, however, offer a few suggestions to encourage giving. So, I bought ten dollars’ worth of candy canes and chocolate Kisses, and I headed out to a nearby Kroger store, wearing a Santa hat and a big smile.

I rang a bell for three hours, and I came away learning a few things about human nature.

First, I learned that bribery works. The people with children in tow nearly always gave something. And when I asked if I could offer their youngsters some candy, most parents nodded and admitted that was precisely why they were contributing—because the children had already spied the candy and begged for a piece.

A couple youngsters gave me money from their own pockets or wallets. In return, they got to ring the bell and received an extra dose of candy. Hell yes, they did.

I also learned that some people won’t—or can’t—give, no matter what. Even when I offered my brightest smile and warmest greetings, some folks went out of their way, literally, to avoid me, by walking diagonally across the store lobby. I couldn’t judge. I’d done the same thing myself, just last year.

Although most adults shook their heads at my offering of candy, a few approached me and asked for a piece without putting a single penny in the bucket. I wanted to call them out on this, but I pushed aside my own Scrooge side by simply smiling and wishing them a Merry Christmas.

Even some of the non-contributors still provided a laugh. As an elderly man in an electric scooter passed, I rang my bell and shouted, “Ho-ho-ho!”  

He glided by, without pausing, and retorted, “Don’t say that on a downtown street corner.”

Finally, I learned the more I gave of myself, the more others gave.

I started out the evening by simply smiling and offering holiday greetings to the store’s customers. By the end of the night, I found myself dancing and pounding my bell against my hips, in rhythm to a silent version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” A few people grinned and said, “Are you dancing to the music in your head?” Spurred on, I gathered the nerve to whisper the tune, and eventually I belted it out.

The smiles grew. Several customers glanced at me and said, “Well, you sure seem happy!” And, apparently, people’s hearts are warmed by the sight of a jolly old elf. Once I became more enthused and more engaged, the customers did, too.

One man cocked his head and raised his eyebrows at me, but then he stopped just before he reached the exit. He came back and stuck some greenbacks in the bucket. They didn’t make it all the way through the slot, so after he walked away, I reached down to push them in. I didn’t count them all, but I did get a good look at one: a ten-dollar bill.

I figured roughly half the people who came in and out of the store put at least something in the kettle. My gig proved far more successful than I expected.

Yet the success of the evening wasn’t measured only by numbers. My favorite moment of the evening came when a woman stuck a couple dollar bills in the bucket and I held out my tin of candy and asked, “Would you like a treat?”

She shook her head and smiled. “No, thanks. Being able to help IS my treat.”

That way of thinking is probably the greatest gift of all.

P.S. Thank you to the readers who showed up at the supermarket that day to say hi, including Linda Wagner Truman, who brought me a cowbell to ring!

How will you give this holiday season? What charities is it a treat for you to help? Does that Santa hat bring out the red in my blood-shot eyes?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band)

I had a few hard-and-fast rules about jamming on stage with a band for my 52/52 Project: 

  - Rehearsing with the band  
  - Singing back-up only (singing lead would wait until my promising music career exploded)  
  - Looking hot, with a great haircut and an ultra-cool outfit  
  - Being at least two sheets to the wind
It was a good plan. But, as the saying goes, if you ever want to make God laugh, just tell him you have a plan.

I’d already been invited to sing with a band and was still waiting for confirmation and details when I attended a huge party at my friend Joan’s house. The occasion was the rivalry game between Ohio State University and The University of Michigan. More than a hundred guests filled a large barn to watch the game on a projected screen. Afterward, most stayed to enjoy The Danger Brothers, a popular Midwest band Joan and her husband, Bob, hired for the day.

As parties go, it was top-notch. A great crowd, fabulous food, and terrific live music. In between songs, while I congratulated myself on having the nerve to get up on the dance floor—while fully sober—I overheard my son, Kyle, talking to Joan. Something about, “My mom… the 52/52 Project… singing with the band.”


I rushed over. “No, no, no! Not today,” I explained to Joan. “Yes, singing on stage is on my list, but I can’t do it today. I need to be prepared. I have to plan a song and rehearse it first. Plus, I’m wearing this old sweatshirt and jeans, and I had to cancel my long overdue haircut last week. I don’t look hot at ALL. Today is definitely not the right time.”

Joan nodded and smiled. I slunk back to my chair. She climbed on stage, and I held my breath. Thankfully, it appeared she was only announcing a couple birthdays. I blew out a sigh.

And then the keyboardist called me up.


I plodded, zombie-like, toward the stage. I passed my grinning son. “But I didn’t get to rehearse,” I hissed at Kyle. “And I’m totally SOBER.”

My 52/52 life flashed before my eyes. My Brazilian wax. My “Survivor” audition. My tent-camping, mime, and nude beach experiences. And now, this. I hung my head. Why did I keep finding myself sober at the most inopportune moments?

The keyboardist smiled at me. “So,” he asked, “What do you want to sing? Any particular song? Any special band?”

I stared blankly at him. Being suddenly put on the spot, I had nothing.

He forced an encouraging smile. “The Stones or maybe The Beatles?”

The Beatles! Yes, my saving grace! I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last night (probably microwave popcorn and beer), but I still knew every lyric The Beatles ever wrote.

“But you need to sing with me,” I whispered to him. “I can’t sing lead by myself.”

In honor of the birthday boys, who were also standing on stage, the band launched into “You Say It’s Your Birthday.” They shoved a microphone into my hand, and I turned to face the crowd.

The music cued: Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Dah. There was no turning back.

“You say it’s your birthday,” I yelled into the microphone. “It’s my birthday, too, yeah.”

I glanced down at the mic. Was this thing on? Or had the band wisely turned my mic off? All I heard were the instruments. I wasn’t sure anyone else could hear me either. Which would clearly be to everyone’s benefit.

So, I kept on singing. I smiled out at the crowd. Some of them smiled back. I grasped my microphone, belting out the song. I danced around the stage.

As I sang and danced, I pondered what the hell was happening. I had never sung on stage in front of an audience before. My two singing lessons, a few months back, had proven less than encouraging. So, why wasn’t I a nervous wreck? Why did I feel so at ease with all this? Why did this feel so right?

But, as the first stanza ended and the music continued, I became briefly confused. When do I come in again next? Should we be singing now? I stood limply, uncertain, for a few minutes and then glanced at the keyboardist. His mouth was moving. Damn. I collected myself and quickly chimed in, finishing the song, but with only some of the gusto and confidence I once had.

I learned later that the “earplugs” which singers wear are actually a kind of monitor allowing them to hear what the audience is hearing. This was why I could only hear the instruments and not my own voice or the keyboardist’s. And why I found myself momentarily lost.

If I’d rehearsed with the band—or had any musical background at all—I might have made it through the song snafu-free. But the reality is, The 52/52 Project is about going outside my comfort zone while trying something new, encountering both successes and failures. And this experience, clearly, had included both.

Although I failed to nail the timing of my song, a few people in the crowd told me I did great. It probably helped that most of them had been drinking all day. As I guzzled a drink, far too little too late for me, even my son—and God knows our children are our biggest critics—told me I did a decent job.

Whether or not my performance was a success wasn’t the real issue though. What struck me as noteworthy was that, other than that mid-song error, I’d felt perfectly at ease singing with the band. Even unprepared, in front of a crowd of seventy-five or so, I’d endured little stage fright.

After living through twenty-seven other frightening and often humiliating new ventures, had I become braver? Or just more desensitized to fear? Or, maybe, was I was simply destined to perform on stage? Yes, I’d go with that.

I still had twenty-four new experiences to go. I knew I’d face every one of them with more courage than I had once imagined. My journey wasn’t finished yet.

Who says it’s over when the fat lady sings? 

How much should I pay my son to delete the video from his iPhone? What song would you have chosen to sing? On a scale of 1-10, what's your level of stage fright?