Little Things

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Little Things that you do,

Make me glad I’m in love with you.

Little things that you say,

Make me glad that I feel this way.

—- Little Things, by Dave Berry, 1965

It’s almost Christmas, and depending on your faith, your hope, and your charity, some ‘big things’ are about to happen: seeing family and friends, decorating the tree, giving and getting presents, making and eating special foods. Are you having turkey, a ham, fancy stuffing, mashed potatoes, Grandma’s famous tricked-out yams, Bubbe’s famous latkes, kreplach, strudel? In our household, I make matzo brei in schmaltz every year on Christmas morning (one year it was even fried in bacon grease; fortunately, Jahweh didn’t seem to mind), and if that isn’t the American melting pot for you, well, I don’t know what is.

All of these ‘big things’ are the traditions that we wait for, look forward to, and even rely on, to make the end of the year a special time for pausing to celebrate family, loved ones, the joy of giving, and the fun of receiving. For some of us, Jesus even manages to squeeze in there – somewhere between the rum balls and the mince pie.

As a sentimentalist, and a traditionalist, I love those old, familiar ways that we revisit together, again and again, down through the years.

But I love surprises, too. The little things that weren’t planned, but seem to happen because, for the holidays, we’ve gotten out of our regular ruts and made way for them. Today, the last Sunday before Christmas, brought a few surprises that I particularly enjoyed:

Figuring out the chords to Georgia On My Mind with my son’s friend, Krister, on my old player piano – the one that doesn’t play on its own anymore, since Angus peed on the electric cord and it dissolved. Krister has been around forever, almost like a brother to Nick, and almost like another son to us. There have been lots of ups and down, ins and outs in our relationship with him over the years, but I’m glad he’s back in the fold. It was especially fun to figure out that E major seventh on the second “Georgia” in the lyrics! (That’s when played in C, by the way: I play everything in C.) And then, when we nailed that whole Edim-to-Dm7 change, whoa, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! And to see Krister ‘pick it up’ and start playing it on his own, with a big smile, well, that’s what I mean by ‘little things.’ Maybe it wasn’t Hoagy Carmichael, but it was damn fine. And afterwards, he and I worked together to string the lights on the tree, and when we plugged ’em all in for the grand unveiling, well, there went another big ‘little thing.’

And then later, we went to see the movie Wild, and it was sort of percolating along, just okay, when, out of the blue, there was an unexpected scene near the end where a little kid sang Red River Valley: wow! Before that, the buttered popcorn was the best thing about the movie; after that – well, that kid kind of sprinkled salt and butter over the whole rest of my afternoon.

After the show, we were walking down Piedmont Avenue, still glowing about the kid in the movie, when a little kid in real life, walking down the street with his Mom, suddenly went down on all fours, started crawling, and yelled, with glee, “Me baby!” Wow, talk about a blast from the past! It took me back to walks with the twins, when they used to put their arms up and cry, “Hold you!” And twenty years before that, when Mhat would do the same thing and cry, “Carry!”

Those little things – man, they really get to you. Unplanned, unexpected, unwrapped gifts from the universe that sneak in under your habits, and your defenses, and put a smile on your face, or tears in your eyes, or just a warm glow in your heart.

And one of the fun things about being a therapist is, I get to hear about other peoples’ little things, too. Recently, a woman about my age, whom I have seen off and on for a long time, told me a story about her father’s last days. While he had a warm heart, he could be, quite frankly, a grinch. Well, my patient and her sister had been taking care of their aging Dad in the last days of his life. One day my patient came over to her sister’s house, where Dad was in residence, in sort of a home-based hospice. Well, Dad hobbled to the kitchen, where they all sat together playing cards and dominoes, as they always had. And as she and her sister had always done, one of them started singing a show tune, and then the other sister joined in.

And as always, their father rolled his eyes in dismay, shaking his head in an, “Oh boy, here they go again” gesture.

But a little while later, my patient looked up from her dominoes in surprise: Dad was singing, too!

He died the next day.

See what I mean? Little things: they mean so much.

Another patient, a young woman who’s simply an amazing person, was having difficulty with insomnia, over a long period of time. Finally, I suggested something that I use to help me sleep – a CD of falling rain, that also has some other sounds of nature, periodically, as it goes along, including a memorable hoot owl about an hour into it.

She said she’d give it a try, so I made a copy of it for her, and we spoke no more about it.

Well, a few weeks later, I asked her if she’d ever used it.

She nodded, “Yes – it helps, sometimes.”

I was pleased, and figured that was that.

But then she looked up at me and added, kind of shyly, “Do you ever make it to the bird?”

Well, maybe you had to be there, but to me, it was just about the most adorable thing ever.

Still, we don’t need to wait for these little things to happen, do we? If we pay close attention to our moments, and have an open heart, we might notice them all the time – kind of like how, when you’re looking for red Volkswagens, you start noticing them all over the place. Sure, some might call it “Mindfulness,” but hell, you can save yourself two hundred bucks for a weekend seminar, and not even have to listen to some boring dharma talk, by just shutting up and taking a good look at the world around you.

How about we just start with the miracle of sight: being able to read this writing like you’re doing right now? The eye is a crazy-fantastic instrument, and it comes Standard on all models!

Or how about noticing the humor in everyday life, like something I overheard at a Chinese restaurant:

A diner asked the waiter, “Do you have long beans on the menu?”

The waiter said, “No, but we do have green beans.”

The diner was pensive a moment, then he nodded approvingly and said, “Well, they’re pretty long.”

Or take something you’re interested in, like gardening, the weather (a patient of mine checks the weather forecast every day – for Paris!), politics, books, or architecture, and make a point of noticing one ‘little thing’ about it every day.

Take baseball (please!), which I happen to love. One of my favorite little things in baseball is a story I read about the 1961 season. For those of you who aren’t baseball freaks, that was the season that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, of the Yankees, were chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season record of sixty home runs. Well, for much of the season, they were both neck-and-neck, keeping up with the ‘pace’ Ruth had set back in 1927. As the season went on, and they kept hitting homers at a record pace, the whole country sat up and took notice: I’m telling you, women who barely knew a baseball from a football actually knew who Roger Maris was, and how many home runs he had on any given day. I mean, people in foreign countries were checking the totals every day!

Well, finally Maris started pulling ahead of Mantle, who went down with a leg injury, and soon it was just Roger Maris against history, with big headlines every single day on the sports pages:

Maris Hits Another One: 56!

Maris Fails – Stuck On 57!

Well, here’s the thing: Roger Maris was a very private, edgy guy, who had never had this kind of attention paid to him: heck, no one ever had. Every day, hordes of media types crowded around him – in the clubhouse, in his apartment, at his restaurant table – hounding him for details, pressing for answers to impossible questions, nasty, probing questions. Remember, this was before social media, before People Magazine, before the cult of celebrity meltdowns: baseball players had never been subjected to this kind of scrutiny before, and here was this introverted, laconic guy from South Dakota, being analyzed to death, prodded to the point where his hair started falling out.

Every day the same relentless questions came, over and over:

“How’d you feel out there today, Rog?”

“Do you really think you’re better than Babe Ruth?”

“What was wrong with you today, Rog?”

“What makes you think you can beat the record, when the greatest players of all time never could?”

Finally, it was coming down to the end of the season. The Yankees were playing a series in Detroit. Maris had 57 home runs – only three to tie the record, four to beat it. The place was in an uproar every time he came to bat, every pitcher saving his best ‘stuff’ for this young punk who thought he was better than Babe Ruth.

Maris stepped in to the plate. The pitcher prepared to throw the ball, and forty thousand people held their breath.

Suddenly, Roger stepped back out of the batter’s box, and looked up at the sky.

What was he doing? He was taking a ‘mindfulness’ moment to look up at a flock of geese, flying in formation, high over the stadium. Here was this young country boy, under the fiercest media pressure of all time, and he had the presence of mind to step out and take the time to watch a flock of geese.

Now, that’s my idea of a beautiful ‘little thing’!

Yes, Roger Maris did go on to break Babe Ruth’s record, though when he did it, the Commissioner of Baseball decreed that he hadn’t ‘really’ beaten the Babe’s record, since that year, the season had been expanded from 154 games to 161. Oh, and by the by, it turns out the Commish, a former sportswriter, had once been Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter!

But they couldn’t take away from Roger Maris that one, small, beautiful moment that he had taken for himself, and that’s my favorite ‘little’ memory of that famous season.

So, you can take seminars, pay gurus, spend weeks at a time in silent retreats, or turn around in circles while chanting your mantra, but eventually, it all comes down to taking the time, every day, to look up at a flock of geese, or notice a little kid who wants his Mom to carry him, or join your daughters in singing show tunes, or listen to my rain CD.

So come on, people – if you pay close attention and don’t miss a moment:

Maybe we can all make it to the bird!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.