Twenty Cents

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I spent a short time today talking to a woman who was born in 1912. This 105-year-old lady was born almost fifty years before me. It made my day and I can’t stop thinking about the brief encounter, and one nurse said it made the old woman’s day because no one stops to talk. No one stops to talk!? I thought. That’s insane, but the truth is people are too busy to stop and sit quietly with a stranger. Me too; I just happened to be there with time to kill, and I became painfully aware of how important a few minutes can be. Lesson learned.

But driving away I thought about how the small things in life matter most; or annoy us most. In both cases, the big events are anticipated, planned for, and dealt with, whether the event is a birth, death, marriage, divorce, hiring or firing—we adjust. But the small stuff can kick us in the teeth or kick us in the ass.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (PS. It’s all Small Stuff) is one of the most successful books ever. But I disagree with the sentiment. Honestly, the small stuff is all that matters. The small stuff is the difference between service and “good” service; between a good day and a great day; a relationship and true love; on and on and on, it’s always the small stuff that makes the difference.

When people say “thank you” instead of nothing, or when they say “Can I help you?” instead of staring at you when you walk to the counter, they turn a brief experience into something unmemorable and forgetful instead of a bad experience. When you let someone cut in front of you in traffic and the other person waves “thank you,” it feels good and you’re more likely to do it again, or at the very least satisfied you did it that time. I don’t believe we should be looking for a thank you every time we do a favor, but it sure makes a difference. It feels good. And it is polite.

I can afford to buy food but the free samples at Sam’s Club are fun to graze. When I rent a hotel room I just need a place to stay, but thicker towels or a strong shower head make me stay there again. Small stuff. Free oil changes when I buy a car is most likely written into the price I paid to begin with, but not having to worry about laying down fifty bucks every three thousand miles is a nice touch. If I get to save five cents a bag by bringing my own bags to the grocery store, I want my twenty cents, dammit; I don’t care how much I just saved on Breyers.

Many people can do a job, but the one who gets raises and promotions is the one who goes beyond, and it might be in small ways—the extra thirty minutes early or late, the working with individuals, the overtime. In college classrooms 4.0 GPAs are pretty common, so the recommendation goes to the student who volunteered on weekends, joined the club, or tutored the weaker students.

When I was born this lady was forty-eight years old; not that much younger than I am now and I’ve lived a lot of lives myself. She was wheeling herself down a hallway by pulling herself by her feet. I was leaning against a wall and she paused in front of me and I said “Hello.” Her reply of “Well Hello!” was weak and less powerful for her lack of teeth and breath, but she was absolutely coherent. She wore yellow pants and the way she pulled herself showed ambition. When she was born the Republic of China was founded and flight was only invented nine years earlier. 1912 was the year George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, Dale Carnegie taught his first course in public speaking at NYU, and the Titanic sank. I thought about all that has happened in the more than a century since she was a toddler, and her head dropped backwards and she said, “I like flowers.”

Flowers. At the end of the day, she’s thinking about flowers.

Forget the big stuff—the house, the swimming pool, the convertibles, and the New Year’s Eve parties—it’s the laughter, the looking in the eyes when talking, buying her roses, making breakfast.

It’s Scotch on Tuesday nights, early morning talks about the news, taking sunset pictures at the river, putting on just the right shirt, fresh sheets, a walk. The small things make us laugh, or cry, give us hope or goose bumps.

I don’t think the forthcoming solar eclipse has made many people contemplate the power of the universe, but mention that right-handed people live on average nine years longer than left-handed people and everyone bolts for a search engine. It is the small stuff. It is the human contact, it is the personal touch. Saying “I Love You” is infinitely more common than taking the time to find the small gift that only you would know she’d like.

The short time I take in the morning to stop at the ocean and watch the sunrise stays with me all day. When I move closer to this woman’s age, decades from now, I want to remember those moments at the water, or picking tomatoes from my garden, or watching birds at the feeder. I want to recall the sound of my son’s harmonica when we travel, my father’s deep voice, my mother’s laugh, the incoming tide.

My ambition is simplicity, and my hope is that after a century of gives and takes, failures and fortunes, my final thoughts are about flowers.

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