Tuesday, December 30, 2008

You know you're old when...

  • All the ads for the tv shows you watch are for treatments for depression, diabetes or erectile and urinary dysfunction.
  • You don't see a single name you know on the list of celebrity birthday celebrants in the morning newspaper.
  • You're reading the morning newspaper in the first place.
  • You learn that your given name was the most popular in the nation for babies born between 1949 and 1954.
  • The year-end reports of what's in and what's out surprise you - not because of what's newly in, but because you never were actually aware of anything that is already out.
  • The only name you recognize on the list of New Year's Rockin' Eve performers is the almost-80-year-old founder who's had a stroke. Okay, that's not quite true, I recognize Lionel Richie's name, too.
  • You're just happy to still be on the planet to see the ball drop once again. Even if you're watching it from another time zone so you can go ahead and go to bed an hour early and count it done.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Bring on the frolleagues

I've never been one to worry about work-life balance per se. It's not because I'm a workaholic or on any sort of competitive career fast track - quite the opposite. Nor because I don't have a life (admittedly an arguable point....)

It's that I don't really see work and life as separate, distinct activities. What I do for "work" funds the "life," of course, but to me, one is a subset of the other. Work is one of the choices I've made for how to spend the 30 million or so minutes that have thus far comprised my life, and how I'll spend the untold millions - or thousands or hundreds, whatever fortune and my accident-proneness allow - that are left to me.

I realize this not a common view. And now, I find that it extends to my management, or lack thereof, of my Facebook page.

I wandered into Facebook a few months ago, primarily to avoid being too clueless about what's going on in the 21st century. I found a few people I knew there and invited them to be my "friends." Others similarly invited me.

I fussed a bit about the semantics. In the real world I do compartmentalize people I know into different categories of acquaintenceship, usually reserving "friend" for the most treasured relationships, which include some coworkers past and present. Not all those I know and like are friends by my definition, but I enjoy knowing them, am interested in what they think and do, and am delighted we share Facebook friendships. I'd prefer "people I like" as a more all-encompassing label, but I don't get to decide what Facebook does and I realize nobody else cares about my definition of friendship. So I've put that aside.

What I've found others do care about, however, is mixing work-life people. Somebody interviewed on NPR the other day used the word "frolleagues" to define the blurring of lines between people we know from our jobs and those we know from the rest of our life all coming together on our lists of Facebook friends.

The interviewee then issued a warning to those who allow fraternization of frolleagues on social networking sites. Echoing a sentiment I've heard from several others, he cautioned about employers, customers, lending agents or others drawing conclusions about you, based on postings by your Facebook friends, and suggested maintaining completely separate colleague and family/friend groups for your own protection.

I thought about that for awhile. He and all the other experts are probably right. My Facebook friends are diverse by every definition of that word: personal and professional friends, my kids and their friends, my friends' kids and family members, neighbors past and present. Divergent ages, races, religious and cultural perspectives, socio-economic levels, family make-up and political points of view are represented among the 30-some people on that list.

I'm pretty sure - in fact, really sure - they wouldn't all agree with each other on many topics. But I have decided I like it that way.

I don't define friendship, colleagueship, or I-like-youship, by whether or not you agree with me or others in my circle. Heck, I don't even define marriedship that way: my spouse of 35 years and the children we brought into the world (long before Web 2.0) don't agree with me or each other on most issues, most of the time.

So after much contemplation, and perhaps at my peril, I have decided to ignore the advice to segment my Facebook presence. For one thing, that horse is out of the barn and galloping across the countryside. For another, she who considers work a subset of life, likewise considers each of these individuals as one of many people to learn from and appreciate. There's not a definitive line a coworker or acquaintence crosses to become a life friend, and I don't want to waste time trying to draw one.

Most important, one of the very reasons I like all these people is that they expose me to perspectives beyond my own. It's sort of like Barack Obama choosing Robert Gates, Larry Summers, Hillary Clinton, Hilda Solis, Rahm Emmanuel and Rick Warren to play roles on his team. Okay, maybe a little different scale... but the point is, Obama is not judging Robert Gates by his political party, Hillary Clinton by her vote on the war, or Rick Warren by his views on homosexuality.

None of these people is that one-dimensional and none of them is proxy for Obama. They may inform him, but they don't define him, any more than my Facebook friends define me.

So if you find me on the social networking sites, know this about me and anyone on my list of "friends." Their opinions are their own; I welcome them, may or may not share them, but fervently believe in their right to express them. I don't go for the whole guilt-by-association thing and if you try to piece together what I'm about from the aggregate of my Facebook or real-world family's or friends' words and actions, you'll be really confused.

Until you understand that for me, the American dream is not about buying a house and a flat-screen TV. It's about living in a place where you can be true to yourself, do your own research, reach your own conclusions, and bring different people and perspectives together to arrive at common good. I'd much rather stand for, and behind, that concept than try to segment people into tidy like-minded groups. On Facebook, or anywhere else.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's all up from here

It's the shortest day of the year, and in our town, also the coldest (so far). There will be nine hours, 25 minutes of daylight today; 14 hours, 35 minutes of darkness. It's not the sort of day that inspires living in the moment, at least not for me.

But the sun is shining, the temperature has worked its way up to double digits (10), our furnace works and Christmas -- with three paid days off work, and a weekend to follow! -- is on the horizon. The kids are okay, none of us is in the hospital or in a cast. After the holiday break, we all have paid work to return to, at least for now.

And now the balance between light and dark begins to shift toward light once again.

A good day to be in the moment, after all. The perfect day to post this message, with thanks to my friend Patty for passing it along:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blessings of the season

Years ago, I was a shopping center marketing manager responsible for, among other things, Christmas promotional activities. This entailed hiring Santa Claus - not an easy task, if you consider who might be available and willing to work 40-plus hours a week for just five or six weeks a year in a really hot suit, being jolly as a constant stream of children crawl on and off your lap - as well as musicians, costumed characters, puppeteers and others intended to draw shoppers in droves.

I remember returning to my desk after lunch one autumn day in the thick of the Christmas planning season, with phone messages to return from the Dickens Carolers, Juha the accordionist and Candy (of Candy and MoMo) the Clown.

I went to college for this.

Four years of that, followed by eight years in a different role advertising all of those activities, drained my Christmas spirit dry. My kids were still young at the time, and while I did my best to make the season special for them, their sense of holiday spirit probably suffered as well. When it came to Christmas traditions, their mom pretty much gave all she had at the office.

To this day, I can't hear Jingle Bell Rock or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, which as non-religious holiday tunes were acceptable in a public space, without breaking out in hives. We haven't had a Christmas tree since the kids moved out; a landfill worth of ornaments and decorations are in boxes in the basement, most likely growing mold.

But now, with a couple of decades of distance from my shopping center days, I can at least enjoy lighting a candle and singing Silent Night at Christmas Eve church services. I still make a point of tuning in when It's A Wonderful Life comes on the TV.

And the older I get, the more I appreciate one of the most cherished seasonal traditions: being in touch with people whose paths have crossed mine over the years.

I love receiving their Christmas cards, photos and letters - especially the letters, accomplishments of child prodigies, exotic travelogues, medical summaries and all. Whatever they write, they're sharing what they've deemed important over the past year - at least what they're willing to divulge - and that gives me a glimpse into where they are and how they're doing. That's at least as interesting as the typical Facebook status update.

Sometimes Christmas brings me face-to-face with people I seldom see, like the lunch I enjoyed yesterday with former colleagues from those shopping center days. Sometimes, the Christmas connection reminds us to schedule time together after the season, like the promise of burgers and a beer in January with a couple of other holiday correspondents.

And sometimes, the connection is little more than a signature on a card -- but even that's enough to inspire fond recollections. The fact that they still have my address and the knowledge that we still share space on the planet grows more comforting with each passing year, as I know, sadly, this won't always be so.

For me, these are the blessings of the season.

And, hey, the cookies aren't bad, either.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

2008 Holiday Form Letter

To all who hoped that the demise of snail-mail would be the end of my photocopied Christmas letter, my apologies. The blogosphere makes it even easier to serve up the mundane details of the year. In fact, with Twitter and Facebook status updates sharing such breaking news as what we had for breakfast or what color pajamas we’re wearing, the digital era seems poised to deliver even more, not less, of the minutae that typically fills Christmas letters. 24/7, as they say.

It’s called progress.

So to faraway friends and family who received this year’s Christmas card, and its message that the annual paper holiday form letter has migrated to cyberspace, welcome. Thanks for taking the bait.

I’ll begin with Christmas 2007, and the absence of either cards or Holiday Form Letters from our house last year. Procrastinating as usual, I hadn’t yet begun the annual outreach when on Dec. 14 I slipped on the ice while taking Mr. James, the dog, for a walk. The result was two broken bones in my right wrist and several weeks of very slow typing and utterly illegible handwriting. Tom, who has written exactly one letter in all his nearly 58 years on the planet, declined to pick up the task, so that was that.

After three months of occupational therapy and adjustment to a new normal in right hand flexion and function, I can type again. And if you received this year’s Christmas card, take that as proof I can at least now write legibly enough for the Post Office to figure it out.

Otherwise, the highlights of our year (or at least mine) are mostly in these blog posts: our kitchen spruce-up that morphed into a two-month bank-balance-draining renovation project, my adventures riding the bus to work and sticking my toe in the waters of Web 2.0, my failed attempt to read War and Peace, a couple of updates about the kids.

You’ll see, if you choose to rummage through any of the posts, that as I approach the last few years of f-word birthdays, I’m trying to be better about appreciating the here and now, and finding lots to like, or at least blog about, in the moment.

If you lack the will to read on, I can’t say I blame you, so thanks for visiting, come back any time you dare or can't sleep at night. If you’d like a little chuckle, at least check out the link to the blog about unnecessary quotation marks - it's somebody else's, and it's "a hoot."

And know that in this time of hope, uncertainty and abounding bailouts, in this little corner of the world are a couple of geezers who wish you enough health to stay out of the hospital (or enough insurance to pay for it if need be)… enough fortune to feed your families and enough time with your loved ones to know that’s what matters the most.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hitting the wall

I was hurrying from the copy machine down the hall to my office when a co-worker rounded a corner just behind me. I turned to greet her, without breaking stride or paying the slightest bit of attention (ya think?) to where I was going, and ran smack-dab into a corner of wall that protrudes into the hallway.

So hard that I literally bounced off the wall and landed on the floor.
R-e-a-l-l-y graceful and classy.

Coworkers immediately gathered, and I got back up as quickly as possible to assure them no ambulance was required. The damage seemed limited to a bruise on the hip on which I'd landed, a bump on my forehead and split upper and lower lips. A few tissues stopped the bleeding, a cup of ice chips moderated the swelling, and a day later the only visible trace of my mishap is a semi-fat lip.

This is just the latest misadventure I've experienced of late, and as I take inventory of them all, a theme emerges. I misstepped on the ice almost a year ago to the day and broke my wrist... slammed my foot into the leg of a desk a couple of months ago and broke my toe... and now have become one, momentarily, with a wall.

Clearly, I have a proclivity for really stupid accidents.

So, is there anything to be learned? Why, yes. In addition to discovering I can bounce off the walls with the best of them, there are several lessons to apply going forward:

1) Slow down.
2) Look both ways. Or just look, period.
3) This attending to the moment thing is not only good for appreciating what's around me, it might well save my life one of these days. Or at least what's left of my dignity.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thought for the moment

No five-year plan for me – I’m on the five-minute plan. You can’t be joyfully participating in the day if you’re thinking too much down the road.
– Julia Roberts

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Scourge of the earth

Back in the day, stately elm trees lined the streets of my neighborhood. But by the 1970s, Dutch elm disease had claimed them all.

I'll give the city credit for planting new trees in their place... but whoever decided that sweetgums were a suitable replacement should be forced to lie in perpetuity in a bed of the fruit of the sweetgum tree: these horrid little spiny balls.

They clog gutters and storm sewers. They twist the ankles of unsuspecting pedestrians. Every gust of wind in the late fall and winter shakes more of them from the trees' otherwise bare branches. No amount of raking can keep up with them - they're like the scene in Fantasia where the dancing brooms bring more and more buckets of water to frantic sorcerer's apprentice Mickey Mouse. There is no end to them. They make the cold, gray days of winter all the more difficult to endure.

They do force me to pay attention to the moment when I take Mr. James for a walk, or make my way to and from the bus stop. If I don't watch my step, I'm likely to find myself sprawled on the ground amid them.

I guess they are Nature's way of reminding us that, smart and determined as we humans are, we're not really in charge.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Personal pride

This morning I boarded the bus to work to find it decked out for Christmas. Garland was draped over the windows, a shelf at the back of the bus was stacked with brightly gift-wrapped packages, and Carmelita, the normally feisty bus driver, was resplendent in a twinkling-light necklace and clear sense of accomplishment.

As we made our way downtown Carmelita told us she had purchased the boxes, wrapping paper and bows from the retail store where she works a second job to make ends meet. She said that her supervisor, seeing her work, had decided to rotate her bus during the season to different routes and drivers so others could enjoy her efforts as well. It was obvious she had mixed feelings about that - she had done this for her passengers, in whom she clearly takes an interest, and her bus, her personal work space. After all, bus #5804 is to Carmelita what my office is to me, and I can't say I'd appreciate taking time to pimp up my office and then give it up to other people work in. But she accepted the notion of spreading the cheer around.

Her efforts - and her obvious sense of pride - brought smiles to the faces of all who boarded, reminding me that in a time when we trample each other to get a deal on flat screen tvs, all it really takes to change someone's day for the better is a little bit of thoughtfulness.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I recently bought an iPhone and am trying to figure out how to use it. I don't really have a need for all the fancy things it does but I remember the beating George Bush the elder took when he expressed surprise at the supermarket scanners, and I don't want to follow in those footsteps. I may have been weaned on Typewriter 2.0, but I am determined to have at least a passing acquaintence with Web 2.0 before it morphs into the next big thing.

So over the weekend, I set up a couple of applications, downloaded some music and subscribed to a handful of podcasts, and when I boarded the bus to work this morning decided to give it a try. I plugged my earphones into the iPhone, listened to a couple of news items on an NPR podcast, then settled into tunes from Bonnie Raitt and Madeline Peyroux.

But here's the thing: it wasn't fun at all. I felt disconcerted, disoriented. Here I was, connected to a whole world of opportunities, but disconnected from the reality around me. It was really uncomfortable.

Before long, I put the iPhone in my bag and returned to my usual routine of people-watching and looking out the window. By the time the bus reached my stop, I'd regained my equilibrium and went on about my day.

I'm not giving up the iPhone. I'll try the podcasts again, most likely at the gym, where disconnecting from the reality of 45 minutes on the ellpitical machine will be a blessing. I'm already a text-messaging addict, and I love the GPS, the weather channel, the quick access to YouTube and the application that turns the iPhone into a flashlight. That "music genome project" thing is cool.

But if it's a choice between the rich and varied world inside the sleek little iPhone, and the messy business of real people, I'll take the people.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Change hurts for good

My Saturday morning aerobics class is one of my favorite activities of the weekend. It's a "low impact" class, said to be good for all fitness levels -- meaning that those who are overweight, out of shape or getting on in years can participate without requiring an ambulance on stand-by. It is led by a mid-50s looking fellow named Steve.

The routine each week is fairly predictable. Some warm up and stretching, 40 minutes of choreographed bouncing around to thumping remixes of tunes from Three Dog Night, Tina Turner and Fleetwood Mac, about 10 minutes of abs, and some stretching. The occasional newcomer catches on fairly quickly and we regulars don't really need Steve to tell us when to turn to the left, turn to the right or pivot to the back. If I choose to alter it at all, it's to add a little more bounce to my step during Proud Mary or Oye Como Va. I leave a little sweaty but feeling quite successful in having managed the steps, and maybe a little cocky about having been able to put more effort into the routine than some of my more elderly classmates.

Today, however, Steve was out of town, and a substitute named Michelle had been engaged to fill in. Michelle is a couple of decades younger, about as big around as a pipe cleaner and a lot more enthusiastic than the sardonic Steve. She played techno-disco music instead Pointer Sisters, and her definition of low impact clearly differs from Steve's.

She also did different steps, in different order, and with a different sort of count -- I can't quite explain it, but her correlation of limb movements to 1-2-3-4 had me a half-beat off through most of the routine. She had us marching forward and backward at different times and doing grapevines in different directions than normal, sending several of us left when we were supposed to go right and bumping into each other throughout the workout. It was a bit chaotic, compared to the predictable class it is when Steve holds the microphone.

Today, I left a whole lot sweaty and not at all cocky. I already know I will hurt tomorrow -- I can tell I used different muscles, in different ways.

But it's the sort of hurt that comes with accomplishment, like chasing cobwebs away, like moving in a different, better (or at least interesting) direction. The sort of hurt that's good for you. I'll be glad when Steve returns and my Saturday order is restored, but today it felt good to change it up a bit, and I'm better for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The buzz beyond

There was lots of conversation on the bus this morning. All of it with people who were nowhere to be seen.

A woman in the seat in front of me was discussing weekend movie options on her cell phone. I was reading through and responding to office e-mails on my BlackBerry, getting a head-start on my day. All around me were passengers similarly tapping at keypads, sending text messages somewhere into cyberspace.

As I finished my e-mail review, stuck the BlackBerry back in my bag and took note of the scene around me, I thought about the irony of our bodies bumping along on the bus while our voices and words sped ahead. We must still transport our physical selves in the analog world of the bus, but our thoughts are not similarly bound.

Pretty cool. As long as we don't forget altogether how to connect with each other in the here and now.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A moment of grace

I sing (loosely speaking) in the alto section of a local church choir. There are about 125 of us, but we split Sunday duty over three services, so rarely are we together as a group in anything but Thursday night rehearsal, which I haven't been attending all that faithfully of late. We all tend to know the others who sing in our sections at normal Sunday service times pretty well, but the altos who sing at 8 a.m. (like me) may only know the 9:30 a.m. altos in passing, and may not know the 11 a.m. basses at all. Which is what made today special.

Today there was a memorial service for the son of a fellow alto, one with whom I'm well enough acquainted to say "hello", but she's an 11 a.m.-er and I'm long gone by then. She's friendly, personable, and having stood next to her one year at the Christmas concert I know she sings in tune, but I don't really know her.

The choir director had asked for volunteers to sing at the memorial service, and I had dutifully signed up. But as the time drew near to head to the church for a pre-service warm-up, I wavered. I've got a busy week ahead at the office, and some catch-up work to do today... nobody will actually notice if I don't show up... she doesn't really know me....

Ultimately I heard my mother's voice in my head, telling me I had committed to be there, and whether anybody cared or not I should keep my promise. So I went.

As did virtually all the rest of us, from all sections, all service times. I haven't seen that many of my fellow choristers together since last Christmas. The look on the grieving mother's face when she entered the sanctuary and saw all of us... well, I knew I'd made the right choice.

I learned that my fellow alto's son had been a vibrant young chef at a ski resort in Idaho, with a passion for skiing and snowboarding before lymphoma cut his life short at age 39. I learned that she had endured not one, but two major losses -- first her husband, then her son -- in less than two years. The minister's words were comforting, the choir sniffled its way through "Be Thou My Vision" and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," and many of us lost it altogether when a pair of sopranos sang a breathtaking "Pie Jesus."

It was a lovely service, but more to the point, it was a collective moment of grace, an hour of my time that mattered a whole lot more than the office work I would have otherwise done this afternoon. To her... and to me.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Leap of faith

The sound of sirens in the distance pierced my early morning reverie one day last week while I waited at the bus stop for my transport to the office.

Newly conditioned to attend to the moment, I noticed the scene as the sirens came closer and closer. Cars on all sides came to a halt and in moments, two police cars and an ambulance barrelled through the usually busy intersection.

As traffic resumed I thought about the leap of faith the drivers of those speeding, screaming vehicles must make every time they set their course for emergencies. Will drivers of the cars on the road hear the sirens and respond? Are they even aware of the rules that call for them to pull over and stop? Or in their haste to solve someone else's crisis, will those who drive emergency vehicles become victims of one themselves?

Of course all turned out as it should at this intersection that morning, as it almost always does. So the police and ambulance drivers are justified in the faith they place in others on the road to know and abide by the rules.

Today, as I contemplate the close of an amazing week in our country's history, I think about the leap of faith we the people all take every four years when we choose a president, and many times in between when we vote for a host of other local, state and national leaders. Did we study the issues sufficiently to make informed choices? Did the candidates represent themselves honestly? They can't possibly keep all the promises they make in the course of a campaign -- but will they be able to do what's necessary to take action on those that matter the most?

The sirens are screaming for our economy, for energy independence, health care, national security and a host of social and policy issues. There's a fair possibility some or all will come crashing together in the intersection, with consequences I prefer not to ponder.

But today, I am feeling good about the leap of faith we collectively took this week, and hopeful our leaders can navigate the road ahead with the fewest fender-benders possible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

As I type this, the outcome is unknown. I'm glued to the tv and will continue to be so until a winner is declared or I fall over, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, this day has given me a lot of things to think about. Among them:

Tim Russert. I'm sorry he's missed this election, I hope he's watching it from wherever he is, and I really miss his genuine passion and exuberance in following and reporting the political process.

Uncle Walter. Today is Walter Cronkite's 92nd birthday. He covered the elections of my youth, as well as everything that mattered in my formative years. Happy Birthday to someone who was at one time the "most trusted man in America" in a time when some journalists actually earned and merited that kind of trust.

Nastiness. Living in a "swing state" our snail mail and voice mail have been barraged with absolutely scurrilous and clearly untruthful messages. This stuff must work or they wouldn't spend money on it, but I hate what that says about us.

21st century marketing techniques employed by the Obama campaign. We in the business world should take note.

Hope. Not as a political slogan, but as a fervent wish that those who emerge as our leaders have the smarts, the will, the tenacity and the persuasive power to work together and confront the difficult issues ahead. I hope we can talk through our differences and look for common ground to move forward. There's too much to do to continue to spend energy in kneejerk partisan sniping.

History in the making. It's historic whichever way it goes... but the very idea that an African American man is knocking on the White House door is particularly stunning for me to contemplate, given that it wasn't so long ago that African Americans were not even permitted to cast a ballot. One more step forward. Many more to go.

And mostly, community. I have complained about my state not offering early voting, and I think it's ridiculous that we continue to hold elections on Tuesday - a decision first determined in the agrarian era to be convenient for farmers bringing their crops to town. But when I got in line at 6 a.m. this morning, and emerged a little over an hour later having accomplished my civic duty, I felt like I'd contributed to something important, and part of that was the collective experience of the voting process. There's so little we do together any more, at least in our physical presence, that I think maybe Election Day is worth keeping as a day to literally stand up (even if it's in a long line) and be counted.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Party bus

The bus was a few minutes late and unusually full when I boarded it this morning.

I soon discovered why: our bus had picked up passengers from another vehicle that had broken down, and our driver was determined to get her bus back on schedule. As we barrelled toward the business district, stuffed to the gills with twice the normal number of commuters, all struggling to remain upright or not be catapulted out of our seats, I had to check now and then to make sure Keanu Reeves wasn't at the wheel.

It was a wide ride.

It could have been fraught with fisticuffs as well, but it wasn't. In fact, it was party time. Perfect strangers of every imaginable stripe smiled and shrugged as they elbowed, jostled and hung on to their neighbors or rearranged themselves to let others disembark. A newly boarded passenger paid his fare, startled briefly as he turned to see the scene before him, then squeezed into a crevice and wished everyone on board a blessed day. Even Carmelita, the no-nonsense driver, was chatty. The good-will aboard was palpable.

I'm not so starry-eyed as to believe such conviviality would last indefinitely if we'd been stuffed in the bus any longer than the time it took us to get downtown. But my jolly ride to work this morning did more than give me a great start to the day. It gave me hope that we can, now and then, all just get along.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This is when it's great to be in the moment

This walking trail -- where trolley tracks used to take people to work downtown and back home again when our neighborhood was developed in the 1920s -- is about a half block from our house. It's where Mr. James and I go walking every day. (It's also where I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist last December, but we'll ignore that for now). My camera doesn't do it justice, but trust me, it's quite wonderful to walk amidst the splendor Mother Nature sends our way, however briefly, at this time of year.

I probably wouldn't go out and enjoy this nearly as often -- maybe ever -- if Mr. James didn't require a daily constitutional. He's more focused on the squirrels than the blue sky and colorful leaves that enchant me, but I definitely have him to thank for the experience of these moments.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


There's a lesson I clearly remember from 4th grade social studies about the value of free speech in America. In my mind's eye I can still see the textbook illustration of two guys with patriot-looking hair and knickers, apparently in heated conversation in a 1700s style Town Square. Next to that picture was another depiction of the same two fellows shaking hands.

It wasn't the illustrations so much as the teacher's comment about them that made such an impression on me. One of the things that makes living in America special, she said, is that here people can express different points of view and not get jailed.

Can disagree about things, and still be friends.

Cut to today. That social studies book is probably out of print, and the point it tried to make seems sadly out of style.

Our local newspaper this morning carried a story about vandalism of presidential candidates' yard signs. It seems in some areas, signs are taking a beating from both sides of the great political divide. Mostly they're just being snatched out of yards - one fellow found his Obama sign folded up and stashed in a sewer, the story reported, and a McCain supporter said she's had to replace 20 signs so far.

But more pernicious, the story noted that several Obama signs have been spray-painted with hammer and sickle symbols or the letters "USSR," while McCain signs have been covered in black or marked with swastikas.

We all have different interpretations of what constitutes the American dream, but the concept represented by those long-ago textbook illustrations - of the freedom to speak your mind and not be bludgeoned (or spray-painted) for it - is high on my list.

From the news article, it appears there are at least a few like-minded citizens out there.

"I would think we could behave more civilly," one was quoted as saying. "Our country is not going to solve any problems with this back-and-forth."

"It breaks my heart to see the country so divided," said another. "Someone's going to win this election, and we're going to have to work together."

Call me gullible, but I refuse to believe either of the candidates themselves personally sanction the hostility their campaigns seem to be engendering. Rally rhetoric and slanderous robo-calls aside, I believe they both are good men, well-intentioned, genuinely want to serve the country and its citizens. They just have different ideas about how to go about it, and they're passionate about their point of view. Just like those two guys duking it out, at least verbally, in my 4th grade social studies textbook.

I also believe that when the votes are counted and a winner is declared, both men will put country first and behave accordingly. They may not exactly shake hands and go off for a beer together, but they'll seek some scrap of common ground to start working on the considerable problems we face as a nation.

They may never be friends. They may not even be particularly cordial. But I think they will be civil.

It's not them I'm worried about. It's the rest of us.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Kitchen, before and after

I don't really have good "before" pictures of my kitchen. I never took pictures of it over 27 years because it its physical presence was sufficiently awful, I saw no need to have any additional evidence of that. Then on the night before demolition, I couldn't find the camera.

But it happens that the contractor took pictures -- mostly of plumbing and things he documented for bidding and planning purposes, so most are not very instructive as "before" pictures. But there are a couple that offer a sense of the horror that is now in a dumpster somewhere. The rest will just have to live in our memories. Or not.

I would hope you can tell which images represent "before" and which are "after", but just in case they're not self-evident -- the old kitchen departed this life with red walls.

It's still a small galley kitchen, with an even smaller, inefficient breakfast nook that couldn't come out (unless we wanted to spend $30,000 more). But at least it's a fresh start.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sometimes, the moments suck

Today wasn't the best of days for moment-dwelling.

This morning, we learned that a coworker who had been in intensive care after being hit by a drunk driver over the weekend had passed away. She was 44.

About an hour later, my daughter called, in tears, to tell me that a high school friend fighting cancer had received bad news - the disease has spread to her brain. She'll spend her 32nd birthday next week in the hospital.

Gather ye rosebuds, indeed. And while you're at it, make sure the people you care about, know it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Gather ye rosebuds. EOM.

It's a perfectly gorgeous autumn day in my town. Brilliant blue sky, balmy temperature, just the right hint of breeze, leaves just beginning to turn colors, a few falling gently like a soft rain. In fact, this beautiful day follows a happy string of equally fine days, somewhat unusual in a climate that is just as likely to bring either blazing heat or bone-chilling cold.

So what was I thinking as I took Mr. James for his morning walk? Was I relishing the fresh autumn air and the sweet perfection of nature around me?

Of course not. "We've had too many beautiful days," I caught myself thinking, as usual looking ahead and projecting future doom. "Better enjoy it now, because there will be hell to pay this winter."

At which point I looked down at Mr. James trotting alongside me and realized it was time to take a lesson.

He was thoroughly happy. He wasn't worried about January. He doesn't even know January is around the corner, but when it comes, he'll deal with it then. In the meantime, it's not too hot, not too cold, there's plenty of stuff to sniff, this crazy lady at the other end of my leash is taking me for a longer walk than normal, life is good.

Of course, he also doesn't have to deal with January's heating bill, or the ugly numbers enclosed in the 401(k) statements that are about to hit our mailbox, or the project I'm behind on at work.

Balance is as much a virtue in moment-living as it is in pretty much everything else in life, so it's not entirely bad that I contemplate the future. For instance, if I wish to be able to pay January's heating bill, I'd best get that late project finished, or those winter moments will be unpleasant to live in.

But when it comes to something like this beautiful day, which no action on my part whatsoever can affect, I should take my cue from the dog and just gather the rosebuds, metaphorically speaking, and deal with what tomorrow brings, tomorrow.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

wts ths wld cmg t

A year or so ago, I was a volunteer tutor at the local literacy council, trying to help a middle-aged man learn to read. It was an eye-opening, humbling and infuriating experience which deserves greater discussion, but I will save that for another time. The context in which I bring it up now revolves around the new language emerging from the technology of text messaging, which I find as indecipherable as the sentence "Bob and Pam got eggs at the store" was to my reading student.

This week, a friend at work discovered the following comment posted on a blog as part of a discussion about downloaded music:

thr's nthr ptn fr hnst flks wh wnt t spprt thr fvrt rtsts clld cds. ts nt d- y cn by th prdcts y ctlly lk nd ppl tht crt ths prdcts cn mk lvng.

Anyone who reads web forums or peruses comments posted in response to online news articles is aware of the sad state of spelling and grammar in America today. And after trying to explain to a man who can't read why the "e" in the sentence about going to the store for eggs is pronounced three different ways (one of them being not at all), I can appreciate attempts to simplify English, which has to be one of the most confounding languages around. I before E except after C or pronounced A as in neighbor and weigh, or any of a hundred other exceptions....

Add unintended typographical errors, and it's a wonder any of us can read anything.

But "thr's nthr ptn fr hnst flks wh wnt t spprt thr fvrt rtsts"? Have vowels been rendered irrelevant in this brave new world of online communication? Is Vanna soon to be out of a job?

Is this progress?

Between the two of us, my colleague and I interpreted this sentence to be as follows: There's another option for honest folks who want to support their favorite artists, called CDs. It's not downloading (still not sure that's what the d is for) - you can buy the products you actually like and people that create these products can make a living.

I hope the person who posted this "simplified" statement used the time he or she saved for some noble purpose, because it sure took a chunk of my day trying to figure it out, and I'm still not sure we got it right.

I find it interesting that the truncated spelling of what I presume to be "support" and "actually" retained the double consonants, which would have been my first choice to cut; clearly, I don't know the rules of this language.

I will happily grant you "donut" rather than "doughnut" and "catalog" over "catalogue," and I'm willing to let the ancient sport of diagramming sentences recede into history. But I'll go to my grave believing vowels and punctuation still have a worthy place in our language.

I guess that means next time I'm at the literacy council office, I'd better ask them to find a tutor for me, because if ths s th w v th wld m gg t hv t st vr.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Too much of a good thing

While teaching me the benefits of living in the here and now, from time to time Mr. James also demonstrates why unfettered ability to follow every impulse of the moment isn't always a smart strategy.

This dog will eat anything, without apparent restraint. He catches and consumes flies. Walking him requires vigilance to keep him from eating leaves, acorns, even cicadas that continue to buzz while he swallows. If he had access to his bag of dog food, he'd chow down until his intestines exploded. Now and then he'll be successful getting into something he shouldn't and have a miserable (for all of us) day or two of diarrhea as a result.

But living in the moment as he does, he doesn't connect the forbidden food with its unpleasant consequence. He sees something he wants now, and without a clearer head to restrain him, goes for it.

This morning I took him out in our fenced back yard, which usually is fairly safe territory. We do have tomato plants in our tiny garden, and if he happens to find one on a vine that extends beyond its encircling wire cage I don't much worry. Squirrels eat our tomatoes freely and come back the next day for more, so I don't stress out over Mr. James scoring a tomato or two.

He didn't get any tomatoes this morning, but as I turned my attention to conversation with the next-door neighbor, I let Mr. James sniff, pee and hunt for chipmunks to his heart's content. Thus it happened that I did not notice the dead bird he found until it was too late to do anything but watch the tips of its feathers go down his hatch.

He's now asleep in his little dog bed, presumably digesting the bird, and I'm watching and waiting. I don't know what will happen next -- maybe just some intestinal distress, maybe something that calls for a trip to the animal hospital -- but I have learned once again that this dog's unbridled instinct to go for what looks good now, no matter how shiny or tasty it seems in the moment, can have negative consequences that are unpleasant for him and require cost and clean-up for us.

So a little bit of attentive forward-thinking and action on the part of someone with a bigger-picture perspective may preclude problems down the road.

Is there a parallel between my inattentive regulation of Mr. James's voracious appetite, and the $700 billion mess that short-term gain from creative mortgage financing schemes has dropped at our collective doors? You be the judge.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Top 10 reasons I love my new kitchen

My kitchen is mostly done. There are a few items yet to be completed -- a pantry on order, a gazillion miles of trim to paint (how can such a small kitchen have so much trim?), some shelves to install -- but the dishes are out of the living room and in the new cabinets; the countertop looks absolutely expansive, relatively speaking; the dishwasher, sink and faucet are in and water is running.

Of course, the bank account is now emptied, and I can't help but consider the irony of our timing. This work has needed doing for the full 27 years we've lived here, including when credit was easy and the economy was humming. So it figures we'd finally get around to it just as the financial system collapses.

Oh well, if the cabinets are soon to be bare, at least they'll look good.

Meanwhile, it's fun to be present in my fresh new kitchen, and here are the top 10 reasons why:

10 - When we turn on the lights, we can actually see. Although it must be said, suitable illumination in the vintage version would not necessarily have been a good thing.

9 - Ice cubes that appear without having to think about it in advance. We couldn't improve the kitchen and leave the quarter-century-old refrigerator in place, and with a current model comes all sorts of newfangled features, including ice that does not require re-filling plastic trays, which mostly never got done in a timely way.

8 - Cold filtered water at the push of a button. This is related to item #9. I didn't care one way or another about this feature until I experienced it. Cool.

7 - A deep double sink. D-e-e-p.

6 - In addition to being deep, the sink is stainless steel, therefore gray-ish on purpose, compared to the gray that had been white, once upon a time.

5 - Abounding electrical outlets. Everywhere we might want to plug something in, we can. Now let's hope we can continue to afford the electricity they deliver....

4 - A groutless countertop. Glory hallelujia.

3 - Insulation in the walls, where before there was none. Of course, I can't see it now, but I know it's there, and come January, I'm pretty sure I'll notice the difference.

2- Walls without bumps and cracks. I've done a lot of wall-painting in my day, but we've always lived in houses built before 1930. So I've never painted a wall that wasn't plaster, and that in itself was a new and exciting experience.

1- Washing the dishes entails pushing a button and walking away. Another glass of wine, anyone?

Monday, September 22, 2008

All the news that fits my point of view

Breaking down organizational silos, or building connections between them, is all the rage in many workplaces today, mine among them. I think that's a good thing. It leads to greater-good decision making, cooperative behavior, better results.

Meanwhile, however, it appears society at large is heading the opposite direction.

Case in point:

Our local newspaper trimmed its staff last week. A dozen of the downsized were newsroom staffers, reporters who kept their finger on the pulse of the community, gathering, interpreting and sharing, more or less objectively, the information about events that affect life in our town.

Columnists who put forth personal viewpoints were spared this round; research must show that readers are more interested in opinion than they are facts. Or that the old notion of professional journalists probing multiple sources in search of the truth has become as quaint as the typewriters they once used to compile their news stories.

In any case, our hometown paper has fewer news-gatherers to report on the happenings in our city, which makes the paper even less relevant. And because newspapers are about the only organizations left that actually pay journalists to be reporters, that's bad news for those of us who genuinely want credible information about what's going on in our communities and the world.

So, what's a citizen to do? Walter Cronkite is long retired, Tim Russert is gone. Newspapers fill their dwindling pages with opinion, infotainment and celebrity drivel from the wire services. And anyone with a keyboard and an axe to grind is a "journalist" on the internet.

It no longer pays news organizations to serve a mass audience that today has splintered into thousands of fragments, which leaves us on our own to find sources we trust to learn what's going on in the world.

And because we really don't have time to seek out varying points of view, most of us turn to sources -- talk-radio programs, columnists, blogs, late-night tv hosts and newsfeeds with agendas to advance -- that reinforce what we're predisposed to believe.

Which means I get one version of the truth, you get another, my neighbor down the street gets yet another.

Truth silos, if you will. All the news that fits my world view for me, your world view for you.

As damaging to society's common good as organizational silos. Government of, by and for the people who do the best job of marketing their silo.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Glad to be living in this moment

I grew up in Buffalo, NY, far enough north that I never personally drank from a water fountain reserved for my race. But I am old enough to remember what happened to black students who sought to attend white schools in Little Rock. I remember the news reports of Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus and I went to high school in Topeka, where the Supreme Court case that ended state-sanctioned segregation originated.

I also remember when John Kennedy's religion elicited deep concern about whether his loyalty would lie with the Constitution or the Pope. And I think any number of American women are at least as capable of leading a country as Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir.

Which brings us to this past week. I hope that years from now, those who follow will look back on this week - when a black man became one party's candidiate for president, and a woman was put forth as the other party's vice presidential nominee - and wonder what the big deal was, because race, religion and gender will have become no more consequential to a candidate's resume than height or hair color.

But in my time, this week has been a big deal indeed. In particular, watching an African-American man take center stage surrounded by 80,000 cheering party faithful, on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech, has been both astonishing and immensely satisfying.

Of course there's a long way to go before we really judge a man (or woman...) on character content rather than skin color. But it's another step forward. And an extraordinary moment I am grateful to have lived in.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What she said

I found a few great words on the value of being present in the moment in, of all places, Business Week. The comment, from someone who works for Hewlett Packard in New Dehli, was included in a story about balancing work and life.

It speaks for itself, so I'll just repeat it:

Focus on the simple things of life -- rain, wind, new flowers, green grass, simple food, family visits, a stroll in the garden. There are no sudden things that will change your life for the better. It is the accumulation of beautiful small things.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Honoring my mother

As I look back on my past there really aren't too many things I'd go back and do differently. Even stuff that didn't turn out so well was worthwhile in the learning it offered.

But if I had it to do over, there is one thing I'd change. I would have taken the time to get to know my parents as people, not just parents.

This specifically applies to my mom. She died 10 years ago today, so I'm thinking about her, and how I was so absorbed in my own little life that I never really stepped back to see and know her as the lively person she was, beyond being my mother.

This realization didn't hit me until after she died. As I sifted through old records and memorabilia she had kept, I discovered all sorts of things about her. The headaches her feistiness gave her grade-school teachers. The leadership positions she took in college. The letters she inspired from a lovestruck suitor (before meeting my dad), how many friends and colleagues valued her support and professional mentoring.

And how well attuned she was to living in and appreciating the moment. I missed that during her lifetime, too, so here I am, learning about that from a dog instead.

But I do at least have those letters, and so on this anniversary of her passing I will share one of them here. It's a note she enclosed in Christmas cards to faraway family and friends several years earlier, before she became sick.

Here's what she wrote:

On the whole, this has been an interesting year:
* Beautiful sunrises and sunsets that can only be fully seen in the country.
* My first falling star, like a Fourth of July rocket.
* My first hearing of an owl in the middle of the night.
* Our joy at our marigolds volunteering up out of the soil too wet to spade and flowering through a dry summer. And I don't even like marigolds.
* And we made it so far!

A pretty nice year in review, don't you think?

In the few remaining minutes before bedtime I believe I will rouse Mr. James from his snoring nap, take him for a walk, and together we can watch the night sky in search of falling stars.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Attitude adjustment

It's Sunday night, when my thoughts are usually consumed with the next day being Monday and how many days it is until Saturday.

However, this Sunday night, I'm trying to think differently.

By my calculations, I've been on the planet close to 21,000 days. No telling how many I have left, but I'll be fortunate to get 7,000 or 8,000 more in decent health. Do I really want to waste any of them wishing my way to Saturday?

This Sunday night, I'm remembering a day near the end of my father's life. He was in the hospital with pneumonia and had spent the night in intensive care, breathing through a tube, with assorted pharmaceuticals being pumped into his veins. His body terribly disfigured by osteoporosis - "severe thoracic deformity" was listed on the death certificate as a contributing factor - he was in constant pain, had been unable to get in and out of bed, get dressed, even roll over in bed unassisted, for years. Not the way any of us would wish to live what days we have remaining.

That morning, I was in his room as a nurse arrived to awaken him, assess that his breathing was enough better to remove the tube, shift his position in the bed a bit and discuss the possibility of moving him to a regular room. After she left, he looked at me and declared matter-of-factly, even hopefully, "Well, I'm ready to greet the day."

He ultimately only had two more days to greet, but even critically ill and in great discomfort, he did it with far more grace than I.

So it's Sunday night. Tomorrow is Monday. Six days until Saturday. Six whole days to cherish rather than whine, and accomplish something.

No time to waste.

Friday, August 8, 2008

While we're at it

I have concluded that living in the moment is not advisable when remodeling your kitchen and every passing moment costs more money.

The original project was to tear out and replace the 1927 cabinets and ugly but very enduring tile-set-in-cement countertops, install such modern conveniences as a dishwasher, and smooth out the bumpy old plaster walls. A big dollar number, to be sure, but one we and the home equity line of credit were up for.

The first call from the contractor came after the cabinets and countertops were gone. "These old plaster walls are pretty flaky," he said, "I'm not sure we can skim coat them without it just flaking off. Do you want us to just remove the plaster, take it down to the studs, and put new drywall up?"

It will only cost $X, he said, and it will look a lot better. "Okay," I said, thinking while we're doing this work anyway, might as well.

The plaster gone, we could now see what lay under the 80-year-old walls. For the most part, it was solid, but there were a few issues. Notably, old knob and tube wiring that we thought had been replaced in an earlier rewiring project, complete with dangling live wires, and a hole cut through a structural support beam from an earlier plumbing repair.

"The wiring is dangerous," the contractor said. "And you can see where there is sagging from that plumbing repair." No disagreement there.

"It will cost $X and we can fix that right up for you." Might as well do it now, while we're at it, and reduce our chances of the back of the house dropping to the ground or burning down altogether.

Next was an option to move some pipes, remove a wall and open up the space slightly. "It will give you more room for your refrigerator," he said. "We can do it now, while while we've got everything opened up." Sure, we said.

By now, however, just seeing the contractor's name come up on my caller ID at work made me cringe. The next call was about plumbing, most of which we'd replaced over the years -- but not a supply line to the tub and shower.

"Have you noticed low flow to your shower,?" he said. Of course - it's an 80-year-old house. "We looked at the supply pipe and it's got a lot of deposits in it blocking flow. Do you want us to replace it? Now's the time, before we drywall over it... it will cost $X."

This time, $X seemed pricier than it should, but what are you going to do, slow down the work and get three bids for replacing a pipe? "Go ahead," I said. "Might as well, while we're at it."

I fear by the time this is over, "while we're at it" will end up costing close to $5,000 a word.

Come to think of it, maybe living in the moment during kitchen renovation is a good idea after all. Beats thinking about the debt-laden future.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Eating my words, or at least regretting some of them

My book group is reading War and Peace. Really.

It is largely my fault - I'd read a review about a new translation of the Russian classic, celebrating how accessible it made Tolstoy and how close it was to his original prose style. I suggested it when group members were considering the 2008 book list and they took me up on it. I'm on about page 60 - only 1,100 or so to go...

In the meantime, there is a "wow" factor in even being able to say that I'm trying. Another book group member has taken it with her while traveling, and says it's a conversation-starter in airport waiting areas. It's clearly at the top of the heap of classical literature, iconic for its length and gravitas, a book that few tackle unless forced to by an English teacher at some point along the journey through formal education.

The story actually is interesting, but the Russian names and their various permutations are hard for me to follow. My confusion is not helped by the fact that two of the characters are Boris and Natasha; each time I encounter them I cannot escape the mental image of a like-named couple from Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons of my youth.

Some of the dialog is in French, which baffles me -- if these gifted translators bothered to export the text from Russian to English, why not go ahead and translate the French as well? -- but I get the fact that keeping the French in its original form helps identify characters from the Russian nobility. Still, having to stop every few paragraphs to check the English footnotes slows my progress.

But what's most annoying is Tolstoy's wordiness. He never fails to take 50 words to express what could be accomplished quite nicely in 15. And therein lies this realization: I am getting a dose of my own medicine.

So, to all of you through the years who have urged me to whittle my words - I get it, and I'm sorry. Brevity is a virtue.

War and Peace has not yet cured me of my chronic verbosity - a fact clearly evident from this post - but check in about a thousand pages from now. Maybe it will have.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

For granted

The front seat was open when I boarded the bus one day last week, so I sat in it. As I settled in to watch the comings and goings of fellow commuters for the 20-minute ride to work, a modest sign affixed to the window caught my eye.

"This seat dedicated to Rosa Parks, 1913-2005," it read. That's all - and for me, that was plenty.

To be honest, I almost moved to another seat. I felt unworthy of sitting there. I'd just plopped down because it was available, with nary a thought about how not that long ago, the seat that welcomed me would not have been open to others.

As other passengers embarked, I wondered how the seating would be apportioned if our travels had been 50 years ago. A man in a business suit who took the seat next to me a few stops later, speaking Spanish into a BlackBerry phone, would surely have been sent elsewhere. The tall blonde could have stayed up front with me, as could an eager red-headed fellow with a backpack. It's clear where the black woman across the aisle would have been relegated, but I'm not sure which block of seats the two young Asian women, or the man I guessed to be from India, would have been assigned. Or who would have monitored and enforced such a pointless seating chart.

We've got our fair share of problems today, of course. The opportunities I'm granted, and take for granted, still aren't necessarily accessible to all, and in their own way these times are as just as troubled as Rosa's.

But today, someone who doesn't look like me has the unchallenged choice to sit in that seat dedicated to the woman who helped make that choice possible. As I try to live more in the moment, I'm sure glad it's this moment, not that one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reality bites, the sequel

Last week, my effort to attend to the moment caused me to notice the sign offering gasoline at $4.09 a gallon. This morning, once again waiting for the bus, I put the Blackberry aside, looked up and saw the same sign announcing a $3.84 per gallon price.

"Wow," I thought. "Better get over there after work and top off my tank while the price is so low."

And that brings me to two observations.

First, the one-week price drop of 25 cents is what in my youth bought a whole gallon of gas. Of course, that was back when we all walked barefoot in the snow 20 miles to school. But still, it's pretty stunning to think about.

And second, how quickly I have reset my definition of "acceptable," and even "low," in our new economic reality.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No news

Fair warning. This isn't about being more present, unless paying attention to the day's news counts. But sometimes the news, or more appropriately lack of it, gets ahold of my brain cells and won't let go.

What's triggered my brain cell hijack over the past few days is release of a study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism about the current state of newspapers. No real surprises in its findings - newspapers report less space for news today, coverage of national and international news has declined at a majority of papers and business news has declined at a third. Features, opinion and coverage of science and the arts is reduced.

Some 85% of large papers have cut staff, with copy editors -- the people who catch and fix inaccuracies -- among the likeliest to be broomed. Photographers are becoming an endangered newspaper species as well. Papers are embracing the online versions of themselves but expecting smaller staffs to pick up the extra workload.

Various media have reported on this study, quoting assorted journalistic heavyweights expressing angst about the future of the newspaper and concern that the speed, depth and interactivity of the web exacts a toll in accuracy and journalistic standards. That with a couple of wars, dependence on foreign oil and a flagging economy, now is not the time to slash space devoted to national and international affairs.

I share that angst - I believe that some some attempt at objective fact-finding and reporting of issues that matter is fundamental for an informed citizenry to make decisions about who will lead our government, how our taxes are spent, what movies are worth seeing, stuff like that.

So with that as backdrop, I opened yesterday's local paper and found, in the precious shrinking news hole valiantly guarded by editors serving the public's right to know about issues affecting their lives, a full column devoted to --- the various women who had dated musician John Mayer.

About those journalistic standards....

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Down dog

A couple of years ago, my daughter talked me into joining her in a yoga class at the gym. I'd heard others exclaiming about how relaxing yoga is, and despite misgivings about being able to arrange myself into the requisite poses, I figured it would be good mother-daughter time, and even if I wasn't very good at it, it couldn't hurt.

Well, I was two-thirds right. It was good time spent with my far more flexible offspring. I wasn't at all good at it. But it hurt plenty.

Plus, the language was mystifying. The one-legged "tree pose" made some sense, as did "warrior", in the same general way that the ancients saw huntsmen, queens and dippers big and little in the patterns of stars. But "down dog" was all the more difficult for the struggle I had understanding how being on all fours with my butt in the air represented a dog being down. Seemed pretty much "up" to me, until of course my trembling arms could hold my weight no more and I literally went down.

Eventually my daughter explained that down dog was short for the pose's real name, "downward facing dog." Ahhh. Context is everything.

I never did get to the place where yoga was better than sex, as one of my friends described it, but I did make my peace with it. Pose adaptations suggested for the stiffer students helped, and I felt the thrill of victory the first time I was actually able to hold the down dog pose as long as the the rest of the class without crashing into an agony-of-defeat heap on the yoga mat. On Sundays, my daughter and I followed yoga class with lunch, and that conversation time was worth every bit of muscle ache.

Then this past winter, I slipped on a patch of ice while taking Mr. James for a morning walk and broke two bones in my wrist. Several x-rays, splints and hours of occupational therapy later, the bones are generally healed and my hand movement is mostly back to normal - not what it was, but as good as it's likely to get. Not good enough to do everything I used to do, but good enough to do what I need to do.

I thought about all of this today as I watched the yoga class from another part of the gym, where I pedaled away on the elliptical machine. I'd forgotten to bring a magazine to read, the batteries were dead on my portable radio and I refuse to watch the trivia that is Sunday cable news programming on the gym's tv.

So I had plenty of time (30 minutes plus cool down, to be exact) to watch my former yoga classmates contort themselves into plows and trees and cobras, and think about the compromises we inevitably must make as change and time have their way with us.

One of the things my hand doesn't do like it used to is flex back, which means I can no longer do push-ups (aw, shucks) nor dogs up or down. Plus, I don't want to tempt fate with the balance poses - I've had the broken bone experience, I don't need to fall over and do that again. So yoga is now in my past.

I kind of miss it. It was both a literal and figurative stretch for me. I definitely miss the excuse for scheduled mother-daughter bonding. But I can stretch in other ways, and my firstborn and I can find other occasions to connect.

I'm living that old saying about windows opening when doors close, and I know it's just one of many such examples to come as the years pass.

The thing is, I know that over time, there will be more doors closing than there are windows to open, and someday the consequences will likely be more severe than giving up yoga.

All the more reason to appreciate what I've got as long as I've got it. Up, down or straight ahead.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Best laid plans

Three years ago, my son got a great deal on a good car. Not a sexy car, but a plain little Toyota Corolla sold under the Chevy Prizm nameplate, which made it cheaper. One of those cars that's distinctly un-pimped, but looks pretty smart in the winter when it passes all the cool cars spinning their wheels in the snow, and lately has looked smart at the gas pump, too.

A car you buy when you're thinking about sensible choices for the future.

He'd just put new tires on it, renewed the tags for two years, and with 80,000 miles on it, he figured it was a safe bet for at least a couple more renewals.

That was, until he ran it into a telephone pole this past weekend, and reminded us all why you might as well live in the moment because your carefully thought-through plans can crumble in an instant.

Which was about the length of time he says he turned his attention to a text message on his cell phone while on his way to pick up some Chinese carry-out. He's okay, neither he nor anyone else was hurt, but his sensible, drive-forever, gas-saver car is on its way to becoming spare parts for others.

There are many lessons to be learned, of course, among them that when you're driving, it's really quite imperative to be in the moment, and that seatbelts are worth wearing. I'm pretty sure he's now absorbed those lessons fairly well.

Beyond that, for me it's a reminder that I should always wear clean underwear just like my mother said... never be too busy to spend time with those I care about... and don't invest so much in the future that I fail to appreciate what I have right here, right now.

About that right now... Mr. James is lobbying hard for a walk. So I think I'll postpone the bill-paying I was planning to do, find his leash and share the summer evening with him.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Reality (really) bites

Sitting at the bus stop this morning awaiting my transport to the office, I looked up and noticed the sign at the convenience store down the street proclaiming the price of gas at $4.09 a gallon.

If that isn't reason enough for me to channel Mr. James' penchant for the present - and make adjustments accordingly - I don't know what will be. Otherwise, that future I so enjoy contemplating may be pretty darn bleak.

The bus is looking better every day.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Living in the same moment at the same time as somebody else doesn't assure that later, you'll both remember it the same way. This is something my son pointed out this weekend, after reading my post about the flag cake.

"You are wrong about the flag cake," he said, with righteous indignation, discounting my claim of having found the recipe in a magazine. "I distinctly remember I saw the flag cake on tv and asked you to make it."

I distinctly remember seeing a recipe in a magazine. But I will admit, I'm more likely to have responded to a specific request from one of the kids, than from anything I found in a magazine. So I'll give him due credit for a tradition that, no matter its origin, lives in our respective memories.

He caught me on something else, too. When I told him that I would give equal time to his point of view on this important subject, I added that blogging is giving me something new to feel guilty about. Despite the fact that I have a regular readership of one (myself) and a very small handful of drop-by visitors (half of whom are my children), I've already made this blog a Responsibility to Worry About. I have added "think about what to post" to my already-overflowing to-do list.

When such a thought process is a prompt to appreciate what's in front of my face, that's great - the blog is accomplishing its purpose. When it assumes the form of another layer of guilt for one more thing I'm not doing as well as I wish, that's just plain silly.

Or as my son put it, "if you're trying to live more in the present and less in the future, why are you spending time worrying about future blog posts?"

Point taken.

I think you're right about the flag cake, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Missing the kibbles for the bits

I'm mixing my metaphors here, but Kibbles & Bits works better than Nine Lives or Whiskas, so give me some creative license here....

Before I go to the gym every morning, I first feed the Ted the cat, then take Mr. James out for a quick pre-dawn walk around the block. Ted is an outdoor cat who takes his meals from a dish on the front step. He usually eats about half of what I give him -- a spoonful, a whole can, six cans, no matter the amount he starts with, he eats about half of it -- then rests under a bush for awhile before returning to finish. Mr. James knows there is usually cat food in that dish when we head out for our walk, and generally gets to the dish and scores a couple of bites before I can close the front door and pull him away.

This morning, however, I'd dropped one small bit of cat food on the step next to the half-eaten dish. Mr. James shot out the door as usual, saw the single bite and gobbled it up, giving me just the time I needed to pull the door shut and keep him away from the dish altogether.

Worked out great for Ted, who actually got his full second-half meal when he later emerged from the bushes. But in going for what was immediately apparent in the moment and failing to see the big picture, Mr. James missed the more bountiful breakfast opportunity just inches away.

So while I can learn a lot from Mr. James' laser-focus on the bits in the now, when it matters I'll still go for the kibbles.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In the moment on the bus

Inspired by the price of gas, environmental guilt and approaching dotage - addicted as I still am to the future and preparing for the day my driving skills are rotted through - I have begun regularly taking the bus to work.

Quite to my surprise, not only am I enjoying the ride, I'm also discovering new opportunities to practice presence.

Our city is not known for its fine public transportation - quite the opposite. But our house is three blocks from the stop for a bus that takes me within easy walking distance of my workplace. Drops me at the door of a coffee shop, matter of fact - a happy side benefit. I no longer need to chauffeur children to school and activities, I rarely go out for lunch, there's really no excuse for me not to ride the bus, especially when it can save me a buck or so a day, which I can then put to productive use at the coffee shop....

Among those in our town who don't ride the bus, there 's a stereotypical view of those who do, and I don't necessarily fit the stereotype. But now that I've joined the bus-riding ranks, I find that I fit quite nicely within the broad range of local humanity around me.

This morning's passenger profile, for instance, included a woman who might best be described as a bag lady, a man in a crisp black suit and tie, a young man wearing a starched white jacket heading to his hotel catering job, and lots of what appeared to be office workers across the age and income spectrum. People with Blackberries, college students, a baggy-pants teenager hooked up to an I-pod -- the first to give up his seat to an elderly woman, I noted -- and a tall, willowy blonde with expensive-looking shoes.

I planned to use my time on the bus to catch up on reading, but it's much more fun to watch the passing scene and eavesdrop on conversations. This morning I overheard a creative director at an ad agency complain about her job. Yesterday, it a young accountant who spoke much more enthusiastically about his.

And last week, it was a 20-something white guy telling the middle-aged African-American woman in the next seat about the demise of his relationship with a 40-ish mother of two. He wanted to take the relationship further, but his lady friend apparently couldn't get past the age difference. "She told me if I was a few years older, I'd be the perfect man for her," he said sadly, as his seatmate nodded sympathetically. "I told her, all I know is right now, all I know is what we have today, and it's good. But she just couldn't accept that."

Hmmm. Sounds like another case for Mr. James. Or at least a trip or two on the city bus.

Riding the bus is giving me a new appreciation for my city and its people. From the windows of the bus, I see houses, parks, restaurants, businesses and churches that escape my attention when I'm behind the wheel of my car. These are places I've passed by for decades, but never really noticed, and they're worth the look.

Which I figure is pretty much the whole point being in the moment.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

In praise of flag cake

Just because I’m not attentive to the here-and-now doesn’t mean others around me are as oblivious as I.

I am reminded of that every time my grown children and I reminisce about their childhood days. Many events that I thought would be permanently etched in their memories, they recall dimly, if at all, while much of what they remember seemed inconsequential to me at the time.

In my recollection, for instance, the day they finally saved the princess in the Super Mario Brothers video game was a defining achievement. We whooped, hollered and high-fived, even took pictures of the tv screen to document the milestone. Maybe the significance was greater to me because I hoped it would be the end of having to hear the Super Mario techno-tune. But to my son, that was just another Saturday, one he barely remembers today.

Some of what they do remember makes me wish for a second chance. My daughter, for instance, recalls the sound of my footsteps coming down the long hallway at her school at the end of the day. In her memory (not mine), she was always the last kid to be claimed by a parent from the after-school program, and the click, click, click of my sensibly sturdy heels signaled that Mom was finally coming to get her.


If I’d tried to be more in the moment back then, would I have wrapped up earlier at the office? Possibly. I’m pretty sure whatever I was doing the last 10 or 15 minutes at work wasn’t all that crucial. What a waste of precious time that was nothing to either me or my employer – but eons to a little girl watching her friends get to go home before her day after day after day.

Most of my kids’ memories, however, surprise me in their simplicity. Like the flag cake I made one July 4 weekend.

I’d seen a recipe in a magazine – an ad for Cool Whip, I think – for an easy, no-bake Independence Day dessert. It entailed multiple frozen pound cakes, sliced and arranged in an appropriately proportioned rectangle, covered with Cool Whip and topped with blueberries for stars and strawberry slices for stripes.

It wasn’t that tasty, and the strawberry stripes had a tendency to slide over the side of the flag. But both my kids remember it. In fact, my daughter asked me to make one this past weekend as a treat for a visiting youngster.

The moral of the story, of course, is that consequence is in the eye of the beholder. You never know when the words or actions you’re dismissing, or not even noticing, are making a lasting impression on someone else. So choose them carefully.

The lesson comes a few decades late for me. But better late than never.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Selective smelling

One thing I've learned as I try to be more in the moment: not all roses are worth stopping to smell.

The employee cafe in my workplace has a television tuned to one of the 24-hour cable news channels. On my morning cafe run for coffee yesterday, the screen caught my eye and I noticed a vaguely familiar figure talking, and the words "BOY GEORGE SPEAKS OUT" identifying the segment topic.

Now, I believe in free speech, a free press and the crucial role both play in our democracy. But Boy George? What could he possibly speak out about that would merit time on national news? And what decade is it, anyway?

He was wearing a hat that looked like a cross between Abe Lincoln's stovepipe and a sombrero, so perhaps he was speaking out about fashion choices. I didn't stay to find out, but instead headed back to my office thinking perhaps this living in the moment thing wasn't such a great idea, if the moments I was living in put Boy George on my mental horizon.

I was still pondering the situation this morning as I took Mr. James for a walk. As he trotted happily alongside me, I realized how he makes it work.

When there's a bone to chew, a walk to take, dog poop (far more smellable than roses in his estimation) to sniff, or a person to scratch his belly, he's wholly engaged. Otherwise, he turns his back, curls up in a ball and goes to sleep.

So I will continue my quest to be attentive to the here and now. And bid Boy George good night.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Just do it

After 27 years in our house, we're redoing our kitchen, and I have Mr. James to thank for it. Or rather, Mr. James, and a rusted-out door hinge.

The small galley kitchen in our 80-year-old house is vintage, and not in a good way. For years we've talked about new cabinets, countertops, a dishwasher, maybe taking out a wall and changing the layout... but never made it past the talk. One reason is that it's pretty much all or nothing - you can't replace the sink without taking out the tile-set-in-cement countertops, you can't replace the countertops without damaging the cabinets, putting in a dishwasher meant taking out cabinets and countertop. So making any change required a lot of dollars, but even more troublesome, a lot of decisions.

Would we like wood or white cabinets? Soapstone or granite counters? Stainless or black appliances? What would help the resale value (never mind that we're not planning to move any time soon)? I was paralyzed by the choices and what seemed, given the cost, to be earth-shattering implications.

Then a few weeks ago, a hinge on the cabinet door under the sink rusted out. My husband could find nothing to replace it available these days, so the choice became: redo the kitchen, or live with a dangling cabinet door along with everything else that's wrong with the room.

So, I've faced the decisions, and inspired by my four-legged mentor who lives in the moment, realized it just isn't worth all the angst. The fact is, once we do this work, future changes will be a lot easier. More important, whatever we choose, it will be a whole lot better than what we have now.

That's 27 years of standing at the sink developing dishpan hands, worrying about what-ifs, that would have been much better spent with a good book and a glass of wine while the Whirlpool hummed in the background.

So bring on the white cabinets, quartz countertop, glass tile backsplash and stainless appliances. It will be good enough, and no better time than right now to begin.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A dog's world view

I'm all about tomorrow. Anticipating the future, being prepared for (or, my children assert, worrying about) what may come, laying the groundwork for something else.

My favorite day is Thursday, because it means Saturday is within reach. My least favorite day? Sunday. Because it's a whole week until the next Saturday. I check sunrise and sunset times with enthusiasm beginning Dec. 22 when each day brings a minute or so more daylight, and with resignation June 22 when we begin the descent to winter darkness. Forget that we're still enjoying more than 14 hours of light in early July... and that it's almost the reverse in January. It's the path we're on, the possibilities we're headed toward, that matters to me.

Enter Mr. James. He's a little Boston Terrier who came into our son's life as a stray dodging cars in a busy city intersection. Mr. James is all about now. Not one minute ago, and not one minute to come. RIGHT NOW.

Clearly, it works for him. He appears to have been well cared-for when he hit the streets without tags or any information to help us find his rightful owner. He has since escaped our yard as well - although now micro-chipped, those adventures now lead back to us.

But I don't think it matters much to Mr. James, because whatever he does, it's all good. Couldn't catch the squirrel he chased up a tree? Okay, there's a chipmunk to go after instead. This person got tired of rubbing his belly? Blink big brown bug-eyes at that person, who'll scratch his back. Slipped out the door, went running and forgot the way back for dinner? Somebody will find and feed him.

Even if Mr. James had to report to the office on Monday, I think he'd appreciate Sunday because there are things to see and do on Sunday, not bemoan the weekend drawing to a close. He'd appreciate 14 hours of daylight in July for whatever it brings today, with no sense of January's impending doom.

I'm pretty sure if I stood in the middle of a busy city intersection I'd get run over rather than rescued - a midwest, midlife mom with moderate views, I'm neither as distinctive nor as cute as Mr. James. So just taking what comes might not work as well for me as it does for him.

But still, I think there's much I can learn about noticing and appreciating what is, today, this moment, from this little dog. With this blog, I intend to try.