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.