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.