Roses Are More Than Red

When I need to escape at work, I go to the rose garden. It sits on the edge of an area where beautiful spots congregate. It seems a bit unfair that the spots don’t spread out, especially since they surround the College of Business, as if to show that money really can buy happiness.

Last time I was there, I saw a man with a hoe inspecting the flowers and thanked him for his work. Turns out he has been tending that part of campus for thirty years and created not only the rose garden but also the cactus garden across the lawn, not to mention a sheltered dirt path that always feels as if you’ve found a secret place none of the other 20,000 people on campus know about.

So did I ask this person who created one of my favorite spots what kind of connection he’d forged with the piece of earth he’d tended for thirty years? What it feels like to know a location so intimately? Why he decided to plant a rose garden? What his favorite flower is?

No. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it resembled “Sure is warm today, isn’t it?”

I used to hate small talk. My answer to the weather question was “Yes.” This approach did not help me at parties. Then I realized that small talk isn’t evil and vacuous; it’s useful and vacuous. It puts many people at ease, and in a world where so many of us spend so much time wondering what we’re doing wrong, providing a little mind balm is not necessarily a bad idea.

But it’s a shame to make such a habit of it that when you meet the man responsible for a particularly beautiful corner of earth, you can’t get beyond thank you. I hope I get to see him again and get another chance to learn something real about this place and the person who cares for it. In the meantime, I am going to assume that his favorite rose is the same as mine, the orange and yellow one that somehow manages to bloom in at least three shades at once.

Reach Out and Touch

Yesterday I understood for the first time that mechanical engineers build things. I may be a bit behind the curve on this one.

I was talking with a mechanical engineer who said he was looking for a company who wanted to build things. He put such passion into those last two words. This conversation was the latest in a series of reminders about the way we connect with objects that we don’t with pixels on a screen.

At a baby shower last week, the mom-to-be removed tissue paper from bags to reveal ever cuter items, and I thought, I am so screwed; I brought the dud gift of the shower. When she got to mine, she took one of the children’s books out of the bag and began reading it to the gathered adults. They all got quiet and listened. For a writer, it was a magical moment.

I am not opposed to e-books, and I understand more and more publishing will go that way, though no one knows quite what that way is yet. But no one of any generation will react to a download the way this future mom reacted to the physical object, the hard cover and paper pages.

That same week two real letters arrived, the kind that come in the mailbox not the inbox. Some of the delight of letters must be caught up in the ripping of the envelope, the holding of the pages. I would not have reacted in the same way to receiving the same words in an email.

I think whatever it is that makes mechanical engineers want to build things also attracts us to printed books, to gathering in groups in person not just online, to eating together. Look at the countless handmade goods on Etsy or the way people enjoy moving things around with their fingers on an iPad. It’s the closest computing gets to the physical (at least for most of us—some people are blurring the edges).

It’s easy for me to forget that my thoughts do not encompass reality or even the most important parts of it, and staring at a screen all day can reinforce that amnesia. But physical connection, with something other than my smartphone, reminds me that our senses are designed for more than reading type on a screen or watching youtube videos—and can offer a lot more joy besides.