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What if I were loyal?

I had a sublime experience last night that carried into my morning so powerfully as to eclipse any other possible flair for the day.

I entertained a woman who owned a service dog. This black lab sat all night at our feet, waiting to take action in case my new friend had a seizure. The dog can predict up to two minutes in advance if the woman will have a seizure, and then he alerts her by tapping his nose on her thigh. Then the dog leads her to a safe location, helps her to the ground, secures a perimeter, and then stretches out on the ground beneath her head until the seizure ends. It gets better. The dog can also go get help by opening doors, retrieving cell phones, and even finding a dominant presence (usually an alpha male) in a room who can call 911.

I looked at that dog lying peacefully at our feet. No way.

Guess how he knows. Smell alone. The dog senses slight variations in the way my friend smells. Before a seizure, a chemical emits from glands on her neck that the dog perceives.

What? I looked again at the dog. I had to know more.

Apparently, the dog is just like other dogs: he plays, he runs, he eats, he poops. But at all times, he’s tuned in to my friend. He senses any variation and takes immediate action.

I felt overcome by awe. I also felt something that surprised me.

As the woman talked about the dog sleeping close beside her, waiting with eagerness for her to emerge from a shower, or just noticing the slightest change in her smell, I considered how thankful I’ve been for people who “tune in” to variations in my moods, my health, or my well-being. I remember difficult times in my life when friends sensed a variation in me, led me to a safe place, tried to make me comfortable, and called for help if I needed it. Am I that loyal to my family, my neighbors, my coworkers and students that I can sense a variation, offer help, secure a perimeter, and provide comfort? What does that look like for me to “tune in” to people in my life?

When I’m not myself, I’ve had a friend say, “You don’t seem right. Can I help?” Am I close enough–tuned in enough–to people in my life that I can observe these things? I want to be.

Living with flair means tuning in to others, providing help and comfort, and getting help for them if I need to. Living with flair means I notice subtle changes in others that might indicate something deeper. I want to be the one who secures a safe spot. Maybe one of my friends needs to rest on me until an episode passes. It’s flair to be that loyal. It’s not just for the dogs.

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The Sign of a Happy Adulthood

I heard once that the greatest gift you can give a child is boredom.

Dear friends of mine just left from an overnight visit. This family has five children who have mastered the art of play. You can send them out in a yard, and within a few minutes they’ve devised a game. They also know how to get dirty faster than most children. The mother said to me: “The sign of a happy childhood is dirty children.”

Because this family stayed a part of the morning today, my youngest daughter asked if she could “take the day off” and miss preschool. Well, then, what would we do all day? I wondered what it would look like to not schedule one thing. What if she just got dirty? What would happen if I observed this child, created deliberate boredom, and just sat back and took note? So many other cultures and so many other mothers just let their children be. Could I be one of them?

Left on her own, she jumped rope, rode her bike, picked flowers, sang songs (even ones to God), made a bakery out of sand and grass in pie pans, dipped cookies in milk, and went to her room to check on the status of her window greenhouse. Two days ago, she planted cucumber and green bean seeds. Today, they sprouted. She’s amazed by this. Now she’s back to running around somewhere. Oh, and she’s absolutely filthy. My friend would be proud.

If one of the gifts I give my children is boredom, and the sign of a happy childhood is being dirty, I wonder what great gift I need as an adult. What’s the sign of a happy adulthood?

Taking the day off with my daughter, doing nothing but sitting and watching her, feels like flair. No schedule, no stress, no rush. In fact, if you try to rush a child, guess what happens? Tantrums. Tears. And when you try to rush an adult, the inner landscape is no different.

Living with flair (and perhaps the gift I give myself) has something to do with the space for boredom. Even if I have to schedule a space for absolutely nothing, I’m on my way to a more vibrant adulthood. In that bored space, I can let my mind tell me what it needs. My daughter enacted the very rituals that I find I need to feel balance: exercise, time in nature, artistic expression, worship, snacks, and cultivating something. A doctor once told me that a healthy adult needs to know 5 or 6 ways to refresh and relax. The average adult can’t think of one—unless it involves watching TV which, ironically, stimulates the brain instead of soothing it. My daughter’s bored day—taking the day off—taught me something about living with flair.

I need to enjoy some boredom. There’s flair in just sitting. Like those little seeds in the greenhouse window that don’t do anything but sit and then bloom in the sitting, I wonder if I could really be still and unscheduled for a day.

I’m wondering if I can go dig up some earth somewhere and get really, really dirty.

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What My Starbucks Apron Would Say

I broke up with Starbucks last year (who can afford it?), but every once in awhile, we get back together. The barista taking orders today had on this glorious apron that said, “Coffee Master” underneath the Starbucks logo. I asked him what he had to do to become a coffee master. Apparently, it involves a nomination and a year of training.

The barista making the coffee, a kind older woman, (she offered me extra shots of espresso–why not?) had nothing written beneath her Starbucks logo. She told me that nobody has nominated her yet. I cupped my hands in a whisper and told her I had a sharpie in my bag. We could write “Coffee Master” on her apron and nobody would know the difference. She laughed out loud.

As I watched her concoct my drink, I wondered about Starbucks. Why is Starbucks so unapologetic about what it’s good at? Why can they, without any hesitation, ask employees to boldly display a claim like “coffee master?” The concept resonated with me because I just finished teaching two classes on memoir writing. I asked students to write down ideas about some experience they’ve had that allows them to offer wisdom or insight for another person. So many students said, “I’m so boring. I have nothing to say to anyone.”

Not flair. Not flair at all.

Don’t most of us feel this way? But what if I had to wear an apron to display what I was best at, what I knew I could contribute, what I’m sure could help others? What would it say? And why is self-esteem so troubling for us? Finding what we’re good at seems so hard, and yet, I practically wrote an essay this morning at kindergarten registration when the form asked me to tell them what my daughter’s “special talents” are. Could I have written with the same enthusiasm about myself? We so easily find the good in others.

Starbucks has never had a self-esteem issue. Maybe they could market personalized aprons for the rest of us.

People are coffee masters, grill masters, yoga masters, master craftsman. Couldn’t I think of just one thing I could put on an apron that signified my contribution? Maybe it would be “master of the dishes” or “master of bedtime snacks.” Maybe I’ve mastered suffering or mastered survival. Whatever it is, I want to be unapologetic about it.

Living with flair means I think about what my life experiences qualify me for, and I can celebrate that like the Starbucks barista who knows she can make a great cup of coffee.

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Finding the Flair in Trash

You’d think that my trying on a fancy dress with sparkly shoes (I’m in a wedding) or going to a nice lunch out today would constitute flair. I’m amazed with what doesn’t trip the flair sensor in me. I’m stunned with what does.

I wake up each morning, and I start looking for my flair moment. I can’t wait to discover it. Surprisingly, none of these moments have had anything to do with dresses, shoes, or even food (and I love food: I’m still remembering an amazing carrot cake cupcake I ate).

It’s always the common thing seen in an uncommon way. Flair erupts from the banal, not the sparkly.

While in the Lowe’s parking lot a few hours ago, I saw a man notice a piece of trash in his path. When he bent down to get it, the wind blew it just out of his reach and in front of my car. I braked and watched him scurry after the trash, lean down, nearly reach it, and have the wind swirl it out of reach again.

It felt like I was watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. After two more attempts to hold the piece of trash with his foot, the man finally grasped the paper, held it up in victory, and went to find the trashcan. I rolled down my window and screamed out, “Nice job! You did it!” He held his fist in a cheer, laughing with me. It was a small victory, but so important. Maybe it would be the only battle he’d win today. I had to celebrate it.

Living with flair means I celebrate every small victory. And I mean celebrate (you have to cheer with somebody–hold up a fist and pump it in the air). Cheering with a stranger about picking up trash was flair.

It wasn’t sparkly at all. I didn’t even have to pay for it. In fact, the stuff I want to wear or eat or buy seems like counterfeit flair to me. It’s not the real treasure.

Living with flair means I can find joy in trash because that’s the treasure.

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Student Excuses and Flair

I receive some fantastic excuses about why students miss class. Usually these involve recovering. (Cancun recovery, Birthday party recovery, first day of Spring recovery).

I have an unusual teaching philosophy. I value flair, so if you’re going to miss class, you might as well do it with flair. This means I want the true story, rich with sensory detail. And by all means, use a semicolon somewhere.

Today’s flair moment arrived in the form of an email in which a student describes the scene of his car breaking down: anti-freeze spilling everywhere, profuse smoke, a behemoth truck! (all his wording). I wasn’t mad; I was proud.

I have ten classes left to teach 50 students how to write with flair. Today I reminded them of the romance of the semicolon, the whisper of the parentheses, the shout of the dash. I talked about flavor and tone. Writing with flair means I turn each sentence into a masterpiece.

Living with flair means I turn my life into a masterpiece. It means I find some flair even in my highway breakdowns. Besides, the world needs more true stories of why we aren’t where we’re supposed to be. There’s a story there, ripe with flair, that makes what’s important not what event we missed, but what experience we had while we were trying to get there.

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The Flair Disaster

Today in church, during the most reflective part, a little girl in a soft pink Easter dress spilled her grape communion juice. It trickled down her dress and pooled on the floor beneath her sandals. I was sitting two rows behind her.

Quickly, her grandpa and grandma (who happened to be the pastor and his wife!) found a cloth and began to wipe her dress and the floor. Her father joined in, trying to minimize the damage. And then, her mother–hawk-like and decisive–turned from her seat at the end of the aisle and made her way to where her daughter sat.

I felt myself bristle. Would this mother scold? Would she grab her daughter and drag her out of the church, shaming her for distracting the other worshipers? Was the Easter dress expensive, and would the little girl be punished for staining it?

The mother leaned down to her daughter. I couldn’t see the daughter’s face, but she had her head down, shaking.

The mother took the child’s face in her hands, firmly, tilting the chin up.

Then, looking clearly into that little girl’s eyes, she kissed her cheek and smiled.

It’s Easter.

Something about the way that mother held the girl’s face, something about tilting a chin up, something about that soft kiss overwhelmed me. It was a picture of God’s grace: choosing to love and not shame, lifting a face, covering a stain with a kiss. It was Easter flair.

Maybe I was so struck because I studied the emotion of shame in graduate school. When we feel tormenting inferiority because of a shortcoming, the body’s response is to look down. We hide. We cannot endure the gaze of an audience.

But this mother tilted the child’s face up. By refusing to allow the shame response, this mother locked eyes with her daughter and gazed with love and unconditional acceptance.

Later, I saw that little girl laughing and running around at an Easter egg hunt. The bright stain on her dress made no difference to her. But it could have.

Living with flair means I take a face in my hands (even if it’s my own), tilt up the chin, and choose to love regardless of the deep stain. Who isn’t walking around with grape juice on their clothes? Who isn’t that child? Who doesn’t need a love like that?

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The Throw Back

There you are, eating a burrito or picking at a hangnail, and all of a sudden, it happens: You have a thought.

I wonder about this. I read recently, in a Richard Selzer account, that “a surgeon knows the landscape of the brain but does not know how a thought is made.” Does anyone? Does anyone know how a thought begins? It’s a mystery to scientists.

Today, as I was drinking coffee and watching sunlight filter through the potted tulips, I had a thought. I wondered what great thing I might do in my life. It was a nanosecond of a thought.

I closed my eyes and thought about the great people I know. I concluded that every great person I know has sacrificed deeply. They live for a mission that’s bigger than their own comfort. As I sat there (very comfortably) on my couch with my just-right coffee, I wondered if I could rise to the challenge of mission. What would it take? And why do people do this? Why some and not others?

I sat there, reflecting on a life’s purpose. What does it mean to reflect? Is it useful? Reflection means to pause in the day and contemplate what I’m doing and what it means. A reflection literally is a light or sound wave being thrown back from a surface. I want to let things I observe and experience be “thrown back” in my face; I want to consider them deeply and fit them into the narrative of my life.

If a reflection is a “throwing back” of light, I wonder what I throw back to people when they observe me. What do I reflect, what do I teach?

My moment of reflection stirred something up in me. But I almost lost that thought in the rush of life. I could have ignored it altogether. (I mean, even at this very moment I’m thinking about 20 other things including but not limited to: how to manage the ladybug infestation in my house, how many calories are in a serving of ham, or why all the kids like that Iyaz “Replay” song). That greatness thought, like some shooting star across a dim sky, was barely there, embedded in the mush of neurons. I just had to figure out a way to hold it in place, let it do its work, and honor it today.

I want to be more reflective. I want to teach my children to develop curious, reflective minds. I want to be able to ask them, each day, what they wondered about. (I’m not sure how to guarantee this. I briefly considered sending the children to their room to meta-cognate before lunch.)

Living with flair means I let my experiences “throw back” something to me.

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Luring the Turtle

Today I tried to lure a hibernating turtle out from underneath my back porch. I actually devised an elaborate plan. Coaxing turtles into the open isn’t necessarily extraordinary, but why I did it felt like flair.

My elaborate plan involves calling to our turtle and leaving fruit around the yard. I realize this is ridiculous. But still.

I know he’s in there. Last fall, I fed him tiny slices of fruits and vegetables. Then, in a bombardment of freezing rain, winter came early. The turtle burrowed deep somewhere in my yard, and, since we couldn’t find evidence of digging, we assumed he went where it was warmest: under the porch near the house.

Spring is here. Let the turtle emerge!

Today, I circled the yard, looking for that beautiful box turtle. As I walked among all the green shoots in the garden, I knew in my mind that the hunt was completely useless. Our turtle most likely departed for the woods long ago. Chances are slim he’s anywhere near my yard. He might be in another state by now.

But my heart–and the glimmer of childhood left in me–focused my eyes to spy any hint of that brown and yellow mosaic turtle shell. No turtle. But I’ll wake up tomorrow wondering if today’s the day I’ll be drying dishes at the kitchen sink, look out across my back yard, and see him lumbering towards the apple slice I’ve left for him.

I’ll circle the yard tomorrow, too. It’s good for my soul.

Living with flair means I hunt, despite the odds, for what might be.

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A Hand in the Wind

Sometimes flair bursts into our lives in obvious forms: a promotion at work, good news from the doctor, a first date, or an unexpected gift. Other times, we consciously create flair. We do something out-of-the-ordinary like take a vacation, enjoy a nice dinner out, or challenge ourselves to try some new sport.

Today, I tried to plan my flair. It involved taking the girls to a beautiful creek. And while the whole morning made us smile as we splashed in a creek collecting rocks, it didn’t create that stop-me-in-my-tracks reflection moment so characteristic of flair.

What did was the split second I decided to thrust my hand out of the car window to feel the breeze as I drove home from the creek. I spread my fingers out, then did that undulating wave-like motion to feel the air flow, and finally, like some large awkward bird, I actually started flapping my arm in the wind. (If you happened to be driving behind me and wondered who that crazy woman was on the road today, yup, that was me.)

Soon, the girls copied me. The older one said, “Are we allowed to do this?” and the little one just said, “Ahhhh! That’s feels nice.” There we were, driving down the road, flapping our arms. Fully alive, fully enjoying the rush of wind on our hands. We couldn’t help but laugh.

Flair does that.

It was a small decision to enjoy the wind with my hand. And it made me think about other tiny gestures of the body. Maybe today I could stop, lay down on the warm grass and turn my face toward the sun. Maybe, no matter how stressed I feel or how trapped I am in a schedule, I could open a window somewhere.

Living with flair means I let my hand enjoy the wind.

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Going on the Radio with Pearls

Today I’m going to be on the local NPR radio! My “I Believe in Flair” blog won a contest, and so I get to read the entry about Michael Jackson on the air. I’m wearing my pearls. My student today reminded me that it’s radio, not television, so it won’t matter how I look. But still, I put on the pearls. Besides, I’ll know how I’ll look.

I’m going to be on the radio! I’m going to use one more exclamation point.

Here: !

Excitement manifests as exclamation points in my world. Some might say I’m a walking exclamation point.

My daughter’s the same way. I woke up to her asking why the other neighborhood kids’ Easter Bunny hides their Easter baskets. She wanted a hidden Easter Basket, with clues, on Easter morning. She was gesturing with her hands and reenacting the hunt she’d go on to find her basket. She suggested that I write a kind note to the Easter Bunny to explain the new hiding-the-Easter-basket ritual. I agreed.

“And mom,” she said hurriedly, “make sure you use lots of exclamation points.”
“Why?” I asked, rubbing my eyes and trying to shake off a nightmare I had about my high school.
“Because then the Easter Bunny knows how important this is. He will know how much you care about this.”

I thought about how right she is. Exclamation points do signal excitement, passion, flair. In academic writing, we never use them. In fact, my grammar book on writing with flair doesn’t even mention them. It’s almost as if the exclamation point drains out of us as we age. We lose things to be passionate about (perhaps because it’s not sophisticated to be enthusiastic). Sometimes I ask students to make a list of 5 things worth arguing for. Since they have to write rebuttal essays, I encourage them to pick topics that really move them. We are all surprised with how hard this task is. We’ve lost some flair and replaced it with apathy.

Most children exude passion naturally. They learn apathy. On the walk to school, I’ve witnessed some serious throw-downs about which website ranks higher (Club Penguin, Poptropica, or Webkinz). I see kids willing to go to the grave about whether or not it’s pizza or bagels for school lunch. I’ve seen them literally not stop talking for 20 minutes about Legos or Star Wars.

I want to be able to talk about things, with passion, like that.

Living with flair means I encourage the exclamation point. I draw out the passion in others; I ignite it in myself. So I’m really excited to go to the radio station! Did I mention I’m wearing my pearls?

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