Saturday, December 26, 2009

Be careful what you dream of

As I survey the scene outside my window this morning, with strains of White Christmas running through my head, I want to throw something at Bing Crosby.

A snowball, maybe. With a rock in it.

OK, I'm not that vindictive, and poor old Bing is long gone and not responsible for the landscape of gray (in the sky) and white (everything else) that spreads before me. And I'm sure his - and songwriter Irving Berlin's - intentions were fine. But this season's very white Christmas in my city is a reminder to idealists such as myself that sometimes when things that seem lovely in theory become real, the devil really is in the details.

"... where the treetops glisten..." lovely when it happens, but requires sunlight, which this morning is masked by a cover of thick gray clouds. No glistening in these parts today.

"... and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow..." no neighbor kids out and about - too cold, and the snow piles are taller than many of them. And if there were sleigh bells to be heard their sound would be overwhelmed by shovels, snow blowers and the spinning of car wheels attempting to escape curbside drifts.

"with every Christmas card I write..." unless you run out of stamps and don't feel sufficiently confident in your driving skills to go out for more in the freezing drizzle that preceded the snow.

"may your days be merry and bright..." okay, it's back to the theoretical, but I'll go with that one.

"and may all your Christmases be white...." NOOOOO!

Not that there aren't some positive outcomes of this holiday snow-blast. I don't actually have to be anywhere in particular for the next few days. I did get to enjoy some time with my kids and their sweeties. The gym is closed (a detail over which I spill no tears today, although may come to regret after a weekend of holiday consumption) and my husband, more intrepid in driving through this stuff than I, fetched my daily latte for me.

Plus, I can afford the latte, as well as the gas to power the furnace that keeps me warm inside a house with a mortgage payment I also can afford, which makes me more fortunate than many - in fact, makes my life what many others still dream of.

But still, it's not what I was dreaming of last time I sang along with Bing.

How any of this might be applied to larger issues of the day -- health care reform, climate change action, war surges, what to do about the whole lot of screaming blowhards on both sides of the aisle in Congress and all over cable tv -- I will leave to others who know far more than I about the actual details of worthy ambitions with many thorny complications.

I just know that after experiencing the reality of an actual white Christmas and the details that came with it, I'll take a pass on this particular dream in the future.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pretty good after all

It's cold and dark (even at midmorning) and a big winter storm is supposed to be blowing in. We passed the winter solstice earlier this week so daylight is hard to come by anyway. I'm off work for holiday break - ok, that's good - with tons of work to do in the interim - oh well.

Against this backdrop, the phone rang this morning. It was a woman from the specialty division of my pharmacy - I have a chronic medical condition that (knock on wood) doesn't much slow me down but does require daily injections of phenomenally expensive specialty medication to hold it at bay. The pharmacy lady calls every month to quiz me on my progress and order a refill on my behalf.

She launched into her usual round of questions. In the last 30 days have you missed any doses? (no) Have you had any side effects? (no) Any unusual reactions? (no) Any relapses of your condition? (no) Any falls? (no) Any other problems? (no).

As we concluded the conversation I realized she'd just taken me through a Christmas Eve counting of my blessings.

I'm bumping along just fine, as are my family members. We all have jobs and roofs over our heads, with running water, electricity and furnaces that work. If the promised snowy deluge occurs, it's Christmas, I can choose to just stay inside, safe and warm. If the power goes out, I have a flashlight and blankets. I have medical insurance to pay the lion's share of that gold-plated prescription.

Truly, good fortune I should not take for granted. Plus, we gained a minute of daylight today.

It's a pretty good day after all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas Twetter

Following is excerpted from what I mailed to part of my Christmas card list before I ran out of stamps and then ran out of time...

* * * *
Another year flown by, one in which the pace of change is beyond the ability of my arteriosclerotic brain cells to comprehend. We are now the old people at the neighborhood block parties. I’ve never heard of anyone under age 50 in the celebrity birthday lists. My children are both beyond the age Bob Dylan famously decreed untrustworthy. Wallowing in the retrospectives prompted by the death of Walter Cronkite this past July, I realized my sensibilities are so deeply rooted in the last century I must do something to remain relevant in the current one.

So I joined Facebook and opened a Twitter account. The latter, of course, is the social media platform that requires you to speak your mind in no more than 140 characters. You might guess that’s difficult for me, and you’d be right. So why not use the annual Holiday Letter to practice? Thus I present…

Our Year In Tweets

Son Rob moved out of our house and into his own apartment. Took his dog, too. I missed the dog so I got my own.

New dog Otis is a rescue. A sweet Boston terrier who burrows in bed. Don’t know why his previous owners gave him up. Don’t care. He’s mine now.

Rob’s new place is 2 minutes from work (at Boulevard Brewery) and 2 blocks from 39th St. food and fun. Nice!

Jen still nannying, and now has therapeutic massage license. Teaming up with local massage/skin care group for weekend clients. Hooray!

Took Otis to dog school. He learned to sit and stay (sometimes). I learned it’s more about training the person, not the dog.

Tom’s 09 motorcycle trip: Four Corners (UT, CO, AZ, NM). On newer, bigger, noisier motorcycle. Good time had by all, including me by myself at home.

Still going to gym 6 days a week, sometimes 7. Doesn’t work as well as it used to, though. Could it be my addiction to baked goods?

Still singing in the shower, but lately, not in the choir. Too tired by Thursday night to go to practice. This is good news for the choir and the congregation.

Attended 40th HS reunion – my first reunion ever. Beyond gray hair and wrinkles of old classmates, not much has changed. Glad I went. Won’t go again.

Many HS classmates are now retired. How about me? Tired old body says yes. Bank account – uh, no.

Got an iPhone this year and learned to text and play e-scrabble with son. It’s fun! Wreaks havoc with spelling, though.

In my final year in college, a traveling exhibit of the future of personal computing visited our journalism school. In those days we banged out stories for the school newspaper on typewriters and literally cut (like, with scissors) and pasted (or taped) the paper to move paragraphs around – or just started over retyping. Seeing the demonstration of highlighting a piece of text and moving it around electronically made quite an impression on me – it was magic! Never could I have dreamed that 35 years later, not only would I likewise be doing electronic cutting and pasting, I would actually be willing to use “friend” as a verb. Perhaps this is progress, although I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that even if I don’t often have occasion to see or talk with many annual Holiday Letter recipients, I think of you often and it pleases me greatly that I have the honor of sharing time on the planet with you. I am indeed grateful -- and I do mean grateful, not gr8fl – for many blessings of my life, and knowing you is one of them.

Merriest Christmas and Happiest New Year to you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dinner for one

Thursday is my husband's golf or bowling night, depending on the season, with his friends. That leaves me home alone with the glorious opportunity to do whatever I want.

Now, I realize that makes me sound as though I am an oppressed little woman whose other evenings are dictated by her man. Not so. In fact, very much not so. For one thing, I'm not at all little, but more to the point, neither one of us hovers over or makes many time demands of the other. He does most of the cooking (in self-defense -- we'd starve on my cooking ability) and I do most of the cleaning up (likewise in self-defense -- he's the messiest cook ever) so mostly what's for dinner is up to him and that's fine with me.

But when I head home from the office on Thursday evenings I look forward to dinner for one, of whatever I want, with no compromises to make to someone else's tastes or desires. Sometimes it's a giant bowl of popcorn or Cheerios. Sometime it's fried eggs (over easy). Sometimes it's a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Tonight it was a particularly strange combination of carrot sticks, Triscuits and spinach dip left over from last weekend's guests, and fresh baked honey biscuits with dried cranberries mixed in.

Life requires so many compromises. Where to set the thermostat, what color to paint the wall, what to do with the tax refund, what movie to see (or not). All of that necessary to get along peaceably with others, which is a pretty big thing with me.

But sometimes it's nice to just put my feet up, find an episode of Law & Order on a cable channel somewhere, and enjoy the spinach dip and honey biscuits.

Heaven.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Passages

I'm tired this evening. Sad, and restless, with a disturbing sense of unfulfilled promise.

The immediate cause of this discomfort was our weekend trip to our alma mater on the occasion of the death of a college friend by her own hand. Suicide is always difficult for survivors to work their way through -- and I say that having observed it way too many times, including two of my husband's siblings. This particular suicide is especially hard to understand, as the victim was widely known in the region for tenacious environmental advocacy. That she could care so deeply for and work so hard on behalf of all the planet's creatures, yet dismiss the value of her own life, is something I have a hard time resolving in my own mind and heart. That she could have been in such emotional pain is painful to all those she left behind.

Such an occasion, of course, brings together people who in happier times never quite get around to connecting, and this was no exception. So a few of us, friends of four decades who have gone our separate ways but maintain a cosmic connection, gathered to reminisce about our friend, catch up on each others' lives and retrace our steps in old college haunts. We were surprised how small the bar district really was, how many bars were packed into it, and what a short walk it actually was from our dorm-- an entirely different experience on a Sunday morning in 2009 than what we recalled from Saturday nights in the early 70s.

We stepped into the dorm where we'd met all those years ago, noting the remodeling of what had been a comfortably shabby common area where students in our era convened to play cards, organize lawn volleyball games and debate issues of the day, into a far more efficient, but far less inviting, lobby space. We walked across the campus, remembering classes we'd taken (or skipped), adventures we'd plotted.

Forty years gone by in the blink of an eye. And for me, little more than an eye-blink accomplished.

So as I struggle to understand my friend's choice, I'd better appreciate that she actually made lasting contributions to wildlife habitat in our state and living conditions for her fellow citizens.

That the friends with whom I reminisced, a nurse and physician, have quite literally saved people's lives.

That my dues for the space and resources I've consumed thus far remain to be paid. Time draws short to get it done.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Everyone gets a trophy

Back in the dark ages when I was 16, most teenagers took drivers ed in school. I was among them. I sat in a classroom listening to a teacher talk about the various rules of the road in the state driving handbook, spent the requisite number of hours in a driving simulator, drove an actual car once or twice, took a test and emerged with a valid driver's license.

To celebrate, I was to take the wheel - my dad in the front passenger seat next to me - and drive the family to a restaurant for dinner. We got maybe six blocks down the street when Dad ordered me to stop, reached over to grab the key, turn off the car and order a change of places. I spent the next several weeks driving around a nearby parking lot under his watchful eye and only when he thought I was not a danger to myself and others did he let me drive on public streets again.

The state may have pronounced me good to go and issued a driver's license, but I didn't know how to drive.

I thought about that this week as Otis and I completed a series of dog (and owner) obedience classes. In seven weeks, Otis was to learn to heel, sit, sit automatically when I came to a stop, lie down, turn left and right, stay, wait and stand still (as in, when the veterinarian is examining him). The final class concluded with presentation of certificates and photo opps for each of the dogs with a mortarboard supplied by the instructor.

So, a freshly minted dog school graduate, what can he do? He will sit when I ask him to, stay (sort of) for a short while, lie down about every third time I ask and only if I have a treat. He won't wait at all, and we only really accomplish "heel" by my managing the leash.

We've made progress, but if he was driving a car, I'd take the keys away from him.

Which only continues to prove that just because you have a piece of paper doesn't mean you know what to do with it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What a difference a week makes

So much for glorious November weather. I guess winter really is on its way.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Weekend gift

In our town, where early November is as likely to be rainy, gray and cold as it is to be balmy and bright, we've been blessed the past two weekends with an exceptional display of the latter. Sunny skies, temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s and light breezes stirring leaves of exceptional color have been Mother Nature's gift for us to enjoy before winter sets in.

And enjoy it we have. The nearby hiking trail has been filled with joggers and moms pushing strollers. Neighbors cordoned off our block last night, setting up tables for a chili cook-off and a firepit to gather 'round, and inviting residents to bring their lawn chairs, Crock Pots and coolers of their favorite beverage for conversation and calorie-consumption under the stars.

Otis and I have taken in every moment possible of these moments of autumn glory. My iPhone camera cannot do justice to the splendor, but it will have to do.

And in any case, with everything else that's gone on in the world this week, most of it punctuated by sniping both from words and bullets, it's a lot more pleasant to consider.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Birthdays

Anyone over the age of 21 knows that time passes at different rates of speed based on your age. When you're a kid waiting for Christmas, the month of December is at least two centuries long. If you're the mom organizing the family's holiday observance, it's about two days. And by the time you're my age, the whole dang year from one Christmas to next seems to fit within one 24-hour news cycle.

A related concept is the different rates at which we age. I trudge along from one year to the next, and so do the people around me every day. But people I don't see frequently, particularly young'uns, remain frozen in time, shocking my socks off when I'm forced to face the reality that they, too, have taken a few journeys around the sun, just like me.

Such has been my pondering through the month of October, as my son turned 30, the son of a dear friend turned 16, and Grace Slick, lead singer of late 60s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, turned 70.

The fact that my son has reached the age of distrust -- a reference no one under the age of 50 today will even recognize -- is not a surprise, since I do see him every so often, mostly when he is out of quarters for the coin laundry or food in the refrigerator. The fact that the past 30 years passed so quickly is cause for wonderment -- it really was just yesterday he was on my shoulder, being burped -- but not a nerve-jangling jolt.

The fact that my friend's son is 16 is more of a shock. To me, he's a bump in his mother's pregnant belly. At most, he's the precocious grade-schooler at a long-ago Saturday evening picnic/party, not a teenager with car keys and license to use them.

The fact that Grace Slick is 70 -- s-e-v-e-n-t-y -- is utterly beyond my mental grasp. She can't be 70, jowly and white-haired, as her "today" picture on her Wikipedia page suggests. No, she's the sultry, outspoken ex-model who made men drool and whose distinctive vocals on White Rabbit and Somebody to Love provided the backdrop to my discovery of beer as a college freshman.

If she's 70, what does that make me?

Running out of moments to live in, that's what. Time to get busy.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ugly moment

Driving home from work this evening, I came to an intersection two blocks from my house -- one that's on my daily dog-walking route -- and encountered quite a scene. A dozen or so otherwise normal looking people, including a few children, were gathered on the corner waving signs that commanded the attention of passersby.

"God hates fags," said one. "God hates Jews," proclaimed another. "Jews killed Jesus." "Obama is a beast." "Bitch burger" (huh?) And "God is the enemy."

I'm not sure what God hating Jews and gay people has to do with Obama or burgers of any sort. I've made enough trips around the sun to know that it's a phenomenal waste of time trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. But I work in communications, so I can't help but try, when I encounter an organized effort such as this, to figure out what action the organizers hope to inspire. For the life of me, I can't fathom what they were protesting, why they were in my neighborhood, or what onlookers to this scene were supposed to do with this mish-mash of foulness, other than dismiss its perpetrators as hateful beings.

It scares me to know that people like this are out and about in society, and that they bring children with them to pass the revulsion along to succeeding generations. I'm less charitable than another small group that had gathered on the opposite corner with hastily hand-drawn signs noting that "God loves everybody, even these guys."

But I also believe in free speech, even when it's offensively spewed. So I'll support their right to spew it

But I took another route for my evening walk with Otis.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

HS Reunion: Clueless in Topeka

I attended my 40th high school reunion this past weekend. It was my first-ever -- I was a new kid in a class of some 650, was shy, quiet, relatively studious and decidedly not cool, so my memories of that time are not particularly fond.

But a high school reunion is something everybody ought to experience once, and by now enough time has elapsed for life and gravity to have leveled the playing field. Plus, as a practical matter, by the 40th, you're kind of looking at a now-or-never situation.

So I went, and came away with one overarching realization: I've been absent from the moment for a very long time.

This is a picture of my high school, one that doesn't do it justice at all. It's a fabulous building, designed in 1929, built during the first years of the Great Depression and opened in 1931.

It's testament to the value the citizens of Topeka placed on the education of its young people in the 1930s. Its young white people, anyway -- the elementary school that became the focus of Brown v Board of Education is less than a dozen blocks up the street....

As I took the tour of the building arranged by the reunion committee, I saw it not only through fresh (albeit bifocaled) eyes -- I saw it for the first time. It's got interior details to die for -- marble and granite, millwork, great wood beams and doors. A 2,000 seat auditorium as fine as any you might on the register of historic places.

I spent three years in that building, walking those halls every school day, attending assemblies, pep rallies, plays and concerts in that lovely auditorium, and didn't notice the beauty around me.

Not a bit of it.

Mr. James has his work cut out for him.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Second chances

Otis and I were out for a walk one Sunday morning not long ago, and as we crossed a street, I spotted a penny in the road. Noting its presence but lacking interest in retrieving it, I passed it by and we continued on our course.

About half a block later, however, second thoughts began to gnaw at me - specifically that old wives' tale about seeing a penny, picking it up and all the day having good luck, with some following line I couldn't remember about the ills to befall those who let loose pennies lie.

So, being sufficiently decrepit already to fear any possibility of bad luck, we retraced our steps so I could pick up the penny -- and found it nowhere to be seen.

There had been no cars on the road, and no other people out and about. There was no way anybody else could have picked up that penny. Otis and I combed every corner of that section of the roadway, to no avail. No penny, nowhere.

Eventually I gave up and headed for home, watching my step very closely. I have an unfortunate history of tripping on the smallest of obstructions, and I wasn't about to let my failure to pick up a penny result in another broken bone followed by months of physical therapy.

It's been more than a week and so far, no bad luck I'm aware of. I have scolded myself for the arrogance of privilege that allows me to place such little value in a found penny that I can't be bothered to reach down and pick it up.

But the larger lesson takes me to the core of my goal to be more present in the moment. When the brass ring (or, in this case, the copper disk) presents itself, grab it. There may not be a second chance.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Julia & me

In my workplace, the word "authentic" gets tossed about a lot. Usually in the context of speaking in an "authentic voice" or just being "authentic." I hear it with such frequency that I think it's become one of those buzzwords that gets applied to anything somebody wants to get budget approved for, without much concern for whether it might actually be authentic in any way.

I thought about this today as I happened upon a couple of episodes of The French Chef, Julia Child's 1960s vintage how-to cooking show on public tv.

Of course, the Julie & Julia movie has reignited interest in the trailblazing tv chef, and we still snicker at famous Julia Child send-ups, most memorably Dan Aykroyd's too-close encounter with a meat-cleaver on a long-ago Saturday Night Live. My mother watched her show in my youth, and I remember my college friends and I trying recipes for haricots verts, soupe a l'oignon and supremes de volaille a blanc aux champignons (which we christened simply "Julia's Chicken Boobs") in our apartment kitchenettes.

As I watched those old episodes this morning with fresh eyes and a far more seasoned -- or perhaps more accurately, jaded -- perspective I saw something more.

I saw authenticity in action, in the form of a deliciously dowdy, engagingly ebullient woman who dared to be just who she was in front of all America.

There she was, all 6'2 of her in a basic little mid-century kitchen, gleefully brandishing a giant knife before whacking the head off a fish... standing behind a long row of chickens ("a peep," she explained, in her distinctive high-pitched voice) to point out the difference between fryers and stewing hens, then wrestling the stump of a neck off the chosen roaster and giving it a "butter massage"... tying a napkin around her neck to demonstrate the proper way to eat bouillabaisse.

Here was a woman who clearly had passion for her work and simply wanted to share it with us. There was no shred of artifice -- if she had a wardrobe and makeup consultant, it was not apparent, and if she made a mistake, she acknowledged it breezily and forged on.

Contrasted against today's frantically paced productions (food and otherwise), hosted by Barbies and Kens with graphics packages and crawling text to divert our attention lest we realize there's no substance under all that hairspray and makeup, it was, well... joyful. Delightfully simple.

Authentic. For real.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A mom's reflections on her firstborn's birthday

It's my daughter's birthday.

A birthday is a day to stand in the the spotlight, eat too much, open presents and have a celebratory fuss be made over you. That's as it should be. But there's at least one other person who was/is quite personally involved in your birthday, standing in the shadows and often arranging some of the fuss -- your mom.

I never considered what went through my mother's mind as I clocked additional years, and I never thought to ask her. Now standing in her shoes I can guess how she felt (old, for one thing!) but I'll never really know what my birthday meant to her.

But I have a blog and a day off work, and have been thinking about my daughter's birthday since 7:06 -- the moment 33 years ago she entered the world and my life changed forever -- this morning. So I have an opportunity to share my thoughts about what my firstborn's birthday means to me.

It means that the end of summer with its cooling temperatures, bright blue skies and shortening hours of daylight will always signal new beginnings to me. It will always transport me to the little blue Datsun that sped me to the hospital in that magical hour of not-quite-light before the sun comes up. It means I'll forever hear my husband's voice admonishing, "settle down, you've got hours to go," as I struggled to breathe through a contraction.

For the record, we were actually only about 30 minutes away from the big moment, and my advice to about-to-be fathers everywhere is to choose your words more carefully than that....

It's ground zero for more memories than there's space -- even in the limitless world of cyberspace -- to convey. Let's just say it represents the birth of a new life for me as someone whose focus expanded to encompass another being whose welfare was, and is, and always will be, more important to me than my own.

And it's an opportunity to consider the amazing, intelligent, resourceful woman that little pink squawking bundle who entered the world at 7:06 a.m. Sept. 7, 1976, has become. And feel enormous pride that I played a part in introducing her to the world.

Happy birthday, Jen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The ground is shifting. Who'll be left standing?

I read a report today that a school somewhere is ditching its library in favor of an electronic reading room, where there will be computer stations with internet access instead of dusty old books that take up space.

The U.S. Postal Service is ripping out mailboxes and shutting down postal stations as Americans' use of the mail drops like a rock. The last several births among my circle of friends and acquaintences I've learned of through Facebook -- not baby announcements.

A store near my workplace that sold Franklin planners, the requisite corporate accessory of the '90s, just closed. Who needs to lug around a day planner when your life is mapped out on your BlackBerry?

Our stash of CDs defines us as dinosaurs now that music is digitized, downloaded and delivered through earbuds attached to a playing device not much larger than a cigarette lighter. (Weren't CDs the great new replacement for vinyl just a few weeks ago??...?)

People used to want to meet the President, back when we respected the office, even if we disagreed with the perspective of the person. Okay, I admit that's not been the case for awhile, like since Nixon was in the White House....

Conversation's cut off after 140 characters, where it's now ok to ask how U R 2-day.

You can't even count on the bankability of movie stars any more, at least according to a radio talk show I heard yesterday where the guests discussed Hollywood's puzzlement that the box office for GI Joe surpasses that of movies with names like Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise.

Every conventional wisdom is turned on its ear. Everything I think I know, I don't. Everything experience tells me is wrong. Everything I thought I could count on, I'm not so sure about any more.

The ground is shifting under our feet. It's both exciting, and for a fossil like me, a bit frightening, to be on the planet at this moment in time. I wonder if this is how people felt at the start of the industrial revolution, or when electric lights made night baseball possible.

Who'll be left standing? Will I survive this dramatically changing landscape?

As Otis naps nearby after an afternoon walk, as the buzz of cicadas provide a soundtrack to a lovely September afternoon, as I think about the real people behind all those Facebook and Twitter profiles, as my husband slices tomatoes from the garden in the kitchen for supper, I think the answer might be "yes," if I just hang on to the things I believe are solid ground over time.

I hope I'm right. Meanwhile, I think I'll head over to Amazon.com and check out the Kindles....

Friday, September 4, 2009

My health care questions

Let me just say up front, it is not my intent to blog about politics in general, nor about health care reform in particular. I have not read a single one of the 1,000 pages of the proposed House bill. I know little about the current system beyond my personal experience -- mostly positive, as one of the "haves" in this "haves" vs. "have nots" debate -- and what I've read and heard anecdotally about others' experience -- mostly negative.

I share concerns about how any of it gets paid for; I figure Medicare will be bankrupt by the time I get there. I worry that my personal experience will become negative if my employment is threatened (and whose isn't these days?) and I'm just hoping that I'll have enough savings to pay for pain medication if I can't get anything else next time some serious medical condition befalls me.

I think there are things that seriously need to be fixed, but I do not presume to know enough to have an informed opinion about how to fix it, and I'm not as prescient as all the talking heads and people with loaded pistols at town hall meetings who seem to be certain about what problems will arise as a result of the fix, whatever it is.

But, I have questions about two of the points that have been put forth on the topic. I pose them not to make a political statement, but to seek understanding.

Please, help me understand.

First is the argument that there aren't enough physicians to care for the 47 million people who are now uninsured. If everyone has access to health care, this reasoning goes, there won't be enough doctors to go around, and those of us who now have access to health care will have to stand in line with the newcomers.

Whether there are or aren't enough physicians isn't my question. Rather, it's this: how is it okay for me to deny your opportunity to see a doctor, regardless of how sick you may be, because I might have to wait longer?

When my kids were young there were mothers who refused to share the names of their babysitters, for fear other moms would "steal" them. This argument feels a little like that, with far darker consequences.

Is this really what we're saying?

Then, there's the argument about rationing. Pass health care reform (in whatever form, I gather) and rationing of care will follow. I actually don't doubt that. Too much demand chasing too few resources -- whether doctors or dollars or anything else -- means choices much be made, even if only on the basis of who showed up first.

My question is: don't we have rationing now? People with jobs and insurance get care. People without jobs and insurance, or people who have pre-existing conditions, or whose doctors recommend treatments that aren't covered in the policy, or people whose insurers find a reason to cancel their coverage once they get sick, do not get care or go bankrupt trying.

How is that not rationing, just with a different set of criteria, and a different person making the rationing decision than might be the case with some other process? What's the difference?

Help me understand.

Just don't tell me that it's okay for me to shrug and say "I've got mine. Too bad for you."

Help me continue to believe we're better than that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thought for the moment

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee." -- Marian Wright Edelman

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Conceding the fight for the elliptical machine

The early morning crowd at the gym is pretty consistent. There are Clarice and Michael, and Margaret and Narvon, both friendly, sweet retired married couples who wear matching t-shirts every day. There's George, who regales the group on the elliptical machines with his most recent gorging at the area's buffet restaurants; Ruth, an elderly preacher's wife who speedwalks around the track, and Charles, who makes a point of speaking to every person there. Except for the slender woman whose name I don't know because she doesn't talk to Charles or anybody else but walks on the treadmill with great intensity while listening to whatever is coming out of her headphones, also with intensity.

And then there's Evelyn.

Evelyn is an older woman who is waiting for the door to open at 5:30 every morning. She actually arrives closer to 5:15, just in case she can badger the attendant into opening a wee bit early, which she sometimes does. Heaven help the staff person who doesn't get around to opening the door until 5:31....

Once allowed entry, Evelyn makes a bee-line for elliptical machine #1. She's usually there first anyway, but the rest of us know not to claim that machine if Evelyn is delayed in any way. She spends 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, then 20 minutes on the recumbant bike, then either walks on the treadmill or heads off to the swimming pool. I don't know how long she actually stays because I need to leave by 6:30 to get to work on time.

But suffice it to say, Evelyn is there more more than an hour a day, every day but Sunday (or election days -- she volunteers as a poll worker), and has a routine from which she does not vary one iota. The rest of us are welcome to work around her routine if we like, but we WILL bend to her wishes.

Now, there are only four elliptical machines at this gym and the race for the other three can be fierce at 5:30. I can occasionally be one of the contenders, and I have been known to find Evelyn's commandering of elliptical machine #1 annoying. "You're retired, for heaven sake," I have grumbled to myself. "Couldn't you come an hour later when the elliptical machines are all open because those of us with jobs have gone on about our days?"

Today, however, I was walking on the treadmill as Evelyn, in the recumbant cycling stage of her daily routine, chatted with a fellow on an adjacent stationary bike. The male bike rider asked Evelyn her age -- oh-oh, I thought to myself. I've seen Evelyn in fighting mode, this will not end well. But instead of the fireworks I anticipated, she responded proudly that she is 92.

Ninety-two. Nine decades plus two years. Four score and 12 years ago.

When I presumed she was a mere youngster in her 70s, my attitude toward her attitude was not particularly charitable. I don't know why it makes a difference that she's 92 and not only still upright, but still upright and at the gym for an hour or more six days a week. But it does.

I don't necessarily aspire to live to be 92, but if that's how it goes for me, it will be my great fortune to be able to be pounding on the door of the gym to hurry up and open at 5:30 a.m.

And in the meantime, I'll patiently wait my turn for the elliptical machine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lessons learned late

Our nest recently re-emptied, I think this time for good, I've been pondering the relationship between adult children and their parents. Specifically, my children and me... and me and my parents.

When I was my kids' age, I was busy living my adult life. I had a husband, two kids, a full time job and a house. Weeknights were about meals, clean-up, laundry, homework, preparing for the next day of school or day care, settling the logistics of who would pick up whom when the next day, then everyone to bed and my time to catch up on stuff from the office. Weekends were even busier, especially once the kids were in school activities.

My folks lived an hour away so seeing them required planning. I called every week or so, went to visit monthly (especially if we wanted to drop the kids off for a weekend). When they'd moved a little closer and my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my visits became more frequent as I took her to doctor visits and chemo treatments and did grocery shopping for her and my dad. But even then, it was all about fitting them in around all of the other aspects of my oh-so-busy life.

They were very conscious of not intruding. They'd raised me to be independent and self-sufficient, after all. So I rarely heard from them unless my mother was really worried about something, such as whether I'd made it to work safely in an ice storm. I rolled my eyes in exasperation at those calls, infrequent though they were. But otherwise, I didn't think much about what my parents might be thinking and feeling about me. They had their life, and I had mine.

They're both gone now. But finally, I get it. My life was all about me. And as respectful as they were of giving me my space, as many friends or activities they had at the retirement community... so was theirs.

I get that even as they "gave me my space", there wasn't a day they didn't think about my brother and me, wondering how our days had been, what we were doing, whether we were happy and safe. I get that parenthood really is for life, even long after the formal responsibility of nuturing, protecting, teaching (and paying!) is past.

Because that's how it is for me.

I'm luckier than my parents, because my kids are better at keeping in touch. They were here Sunday night for supper, and it was such a pleasure just to be with them, listen in on their conversation, be reminded again what interesting, resourceful young people they have become.

I'm glad they are more attenentive to me than I was to my parents. It makes my days more enjoyable now.

And I hope, means they'll have fewer regrets in years to come.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A great day in the moment

I have been thinking about something profound to blog about. But today it's time to take a lesson from Mr. James, forget about profundity and just enjoy.

It's August, a time when the green spaces turn brown, the singing of cicadas is overwhelmed by the mechanical white noise of air conditioners humming 24/7 all along the block, and a high temperature in the mid-90s qualifies as a cold front.

But this afternoon it's a balmy 76 degrees, an August rarity. There are a few clouds in the sky, but enough sun to be cheery, with a breeze blowing the curtains lightly through the open windows. Thanks to an equally unusual spate of August downpours earlier in the week, the lawns up and down the street are green, as are the grassy areas alongside the neighborhood trail where Otis and I are getting acquainted with each others' walking habits.

The cicadas seem to be enjoying this fine day, as evidenced by their happy buzzing, clearly audible without the drone of synthetic cool production.

It's a Friday, I have the afternoon off, Otis and I have already gone for three walks. He's curled up next to me now, snoozing. Maybe I'll log off now and read a book. Or maybe I'll join Otis in a nap.

Whatever I do, it's my choice, and it's clearly a moment to enjoy, so with a tip of the hat to my canine mentor, I am doing so quite happily.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Enough love for both

Meet Otis.

He's new to our household, following last week's departure of my son and his dog to their own place.

Knowing it was a good thing for my son to get back out on his own, I tried not to talk too much about how much I'd miss my granddog and moment-living mentor, Mr. James. But I must have failed this effort, as Rob, his older sister and even my husband, encouraged me to get a dog of my own.

So, I started looking, all the while wondering to myself -- could I love another dog, even one of the same breed as my beloved little granddog, as much? The question lingered.

Having become enamored of Boston Terriers after knowing Mr. James, I sought another Boston, and found him languishing in doggy-foster care through a rescue organization. He's an escape artist (as is Mr. James); his previous owners apparently got tired of retrieving him from the pound, took him to a vet for boarding and never came back for him. So now he's here, microchipped and learning to stay away from the door. Well, sort of -- he's already scooted out twice, corralled by helpful neighbors and returned to his new home.

He and Mr. James look similar, and share several Boston behavior traits. But they're very distinct dogs. Otis is sweet, where Mr. James is vibrant. Otis seeks approval, Mr. James just assumes it. Otis is as in-the-moment as all dogs, but less forcefully than Mr. James. It would never have occurred to me to follow Otis' moment-living example, whereas Mr. James commands it.

And yes, I love them both.

Not unlike my two children, matter of fact, who come from the same gene pool and share some Odell traits, but are two distinct, and very interesting, people, who I love and appreciate for the unique individuals they are.

I won't rename the blog. Mr. James is a one-and-only, and I'll still see him frequently enough that he can remain my mentor. Even in his absence, if I consider WWMJD - What Would Mr. James Do? -- his point of view can guide me.

There'll be something else I can learn from Otis. But there's room for both in my heart.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Long time, no blog

No, I didn't expire. Nor did I decide I had no more lessons to learn. I didn't even run out of ideas to write about or time to assemble my thoughts.

My computer got the electronic version of swine flu and had to go to the computer hospital for de-virusing. I think it had been chronically ill for a good long while -- it was running really slowly, and giving me all sorts of inscrutable error messages (why do they even give you an error message, as though it is providing information, when the words are completely incomprehensible?) When it finally wouldn't let me go to any site that required a password, such as signing into my blog, or my Facebook page or email, that was enough.

It was released from the hospital this morning. The computer fix-it guy said they removed 17 trojans and 250 other issues - he said what they were but it was in the same language as those error messages. So I'm just presuming they were bad.

They also removed my previous anti-virus software, which apparently wasn't doing much for me, and gave me a different, hopefully better, one. The new one talks to me when it's been updated, presumably to remind me to do a new scan. That actually might be the only thing that's "better" about the new software -- it attempts to compensate for inattentive, lazy users.

That's all for now. I have a tsunami of email to go through and an assortment of backlogged stuff to deal with. There is news from our household, but I'll save that for another time.

Although here's a clue:



And now, my anti-virus software just told me it has updated itself. Time for a scan.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's the way it was. And isn't any more.

"If you could pick any living person to sit in the seat next to you on a trans-Atlantic flight, who would it be?" It was a question asked as an ice-breaker exercise at some group planning session I attended years ago. Most people named some hot actor or musician. One or two named a spouse or friend.

My answer was easy, and none of those: Walter Cronkite.

My interest at the time was to ask the guy what he really thought about the world events that defined my formative years. He'd been in my living room every evening of my youth, delivering the day's news with calm and measured demeanor. His was the voice that alarmed my parents - I was too young to understand why - about missles in Cuba pointed in our direction. His words were the soundtrack to somber pictures of a president's flag-draped casket pulled by horses through the streets of Washington.

From him I learned about the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ... civil rights demonstrations... confrontations between Chicago police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention... the Vietnam War and protests against it... the break-in at the Watergate hotel and its subsequent ramifications.

Never did I discern that he had any opinion about any of these events, save for two. My 7th grade classmates, glued to a black and white tv in the junior high gym waiting for follow-up reports to shocking news from Dallas, witnessed a moment of emotion when he announced that President Kennedy was, indeed, dead. We'll likely see that moment a lot over the next day or two, its rarity coming from the normally composed Cronkite making it all the more memorable.

And too, there was his coverage of sending people into space, especially (40 years ago Monday, matter of fact) setting foot on the moon. My physicist father was intensely interested in space and flight but seldom allowed his enthusiasm to show. So I was attuned to hints of passion in the voice of a dispassionate man, and in Cronkite's coverage of America's adventures in space heard something akin to the excitement of a little boy on Christmas morning.

Having seen these glimpses of something like an opinion from the avuncular news anchor, and realizing he had a front-row seat to every important event of my formative years, I wanted to know more about what he really thought about the events he conveyed to us for all those years. If he'd been stuck next to me on a long plane ride, I'd have welcomed the chance to pry that out of him.

That never was likely to happen, of course, and now it certainly never will.

But it points out what we have lost in the passing of Walter Cronkite. Clips of his broadcasts in today's retrospectives stand in stark contrast to what passes for tv news today.

He asked questions to get answers with intent to understand and inform or evince his subjects' true point of view, not to goad them into a sensational soundbite. He stated that it was the journalist's job to put personal viewpoint aside and give fair hearing to all sides, not to seek out the most extreme views, report from the flame-throwing fringes and define the result as balanced.

His words were spoken, not shoulted. They were well-crafted and presented in a calm, authoritative way, with confirmed facts behind them. Entirely unlike the live, late-breaking, shallow speculation (or fabrication) hurled at us today.

He delivered more useful information in a 30-minute newscast than anything we get on 24-hour cable today. Quality does indeed trump quantity if the goal is an informed public capable of self-governing.

He didn't seek stardom, but he was a star, at least in my universe. He represented what I thought journalism was supposed to be about when I chose it as my course of education. As quaint and lonely as that point of view now seems, he still does.

RIP Uncle Walter. Sorry I never got to share a plane ride with you. But now that I think about it, maybe I'm better for it. Because your opinion was not as important to me as your example.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sister Berta

Getting to work yesterday was a challenge. We had a first-of-the-morning division meeting for which I needed to be on time, and events were conspiring against me. Aerobics class had gone a little long. Had to wait in line for my latte at the coffee shop. Couldn't find one of my shoes. I made it, but just barely, and in one of those grumpy things-just-aren't-going-right-for-me moods.

On the agenda was a presentation by the employees organizing our division's United Way pledge drive. Their plan to engage us in ante-ing up this year was to bring us face-to-face with one of the agencies that receives United Way support, and they had chosen Operation Breakthrough, a school/child care facility serving 600-some children in our city's central core. We received a list of school supplies needed by the youngsters whose families are hard-pressed to supply supper, let alone pencils and crayons, with a request to purchase and donate the necessary items.

Sure, happy to help.

Then Sister Berta, the agency's founder and director, came to the front of the room to speak. She expressed appreciation for our willingness to help, for our company's longtime support, all the requisite good-citizen attaboys. And then she told us a little about the families her organization serves.

The single moms who go to work every day, cleaning hotel rooms or serving fast food burgers, pick up the kids from school and take them home, wherever that is and whatever they can afford on a $14,000 annual income. A relative's spare room or a domestic violence shelter if they're lucky. A car, abandoned building or under a bridge if they're not. Sister Berta spoke of one mom who never missed a day of work and got her kids to school, dressed and on time every day, from living quarters in a sheltered bus stop.

I thought about the time I used to spend helping my kids with their homework, and wondered how on earth we'd have accomplished that from a bench in a bus shelter.

She spoke of the fragile network of services that get families from one day to the next. Operation Breakthrough provides some -- a dental clinic, a food pantry, a GED program for parents -- and others are patched together as resources allow. What's for dinner tonight? When the utilities are turned off and there's neither refrigeration or the means to cook, the choices are limited.

There was more, but you get the picture... of a spoiled, vastly over-privileged woman (that would be me), considerably chastened by the juxtaposition of Sister Berta's words and the memory of my morning meltdown over assorted inconveniences.

As I travel in my little bubble midst people similarly privileged, it is easy to forget there is another whole world out there where getting through each day is a genuine struggle. I forget what luck I had to be born to parents who had educations and jobs and set me on course for the same. There may have been bootstraps in the past -- my dad, actually, pulled himself up out of the dust storms with some -- but there sure aren't enough to go around these days. And even if there were, it's hard to get to Square 1 when you start at Minus 50.

I have my shopping list for the 5th graders at Operation Breakthrough and I'll be buying school supplies this weekend.

I'll also be a lot more patient, for awhile at least, waiting for my latte. Or better yet, skip a latte for a day or two and buy an extra box of crayons instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Disconnected

A storm came through this morning and knocked out our cable service for most of the day. It cut me off from my Sunday morning political programs on tv, which was annoying, and from the internet, which was surprisingly disconcerting.

It seemed like everything I planned to do, I couldn't. No email, Facebook or Twitter. No online bill-paying. No blogging or catching up on blogs I follow. No Weather Channel online or on the iPhone (no wireless either) to check out the temperature.

It took forever to unearth the phone book to find the number to call Time Warner to report the outage. I've come to depend on Google to find phone numbers, and don't use the old phone book much any more.

I was cut off from my connections.

So, I went to the gym and the grocery store. Got the political commentary I was missing on tv from the newspaper's opinion page instead. Took the dog for a walk. Actually went through some of the stuff I haul to and from the office to read "sometime." With other distractions unavailable, today became a pretty good "sometime."

Tonight, with both the cable and my world order restored, I'm thinking about what I've learned from today's moments of disconnection.

Not that long ago, I didn't even know what the internet was. Now I depend on it, and the access it brings to people, information and ideas. What new capabilities will I depend on, or even take for granted, 10 or 20 years hence (if I'm still alive by then), that I don't even know I'm missing today? The possibilities are exciting, and I am eager to learn the answer.

At the same time, it's not such a bad thing to be sent back to the basics now and again -- disconnected from some of my expectations, but reconnected to the real world.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

No peeing on the flag

I'm not much of a flag-waver. Don't get me wrong, I am most thankful to have been born in this country and I believe in its ideals. I understand that the flag is a symbol of those ideals, and I respect it as such, particularly the ideals of freedom of thought and expression in civil discourse.

I understand the emotional power of the flag as a symbol, having come of age at a time when the stars and stripes were commonly seen upside down on the backside of bluejeans as an expression of protest against the Vietnam war. I have in my possession a folded flag presented as a token of appreciation for my mother's service as a Navy WAVE during World War II, and I value it beyond measure.

But I also understand that others bring their own interpretation to the flag's symbolism, often far different than mine. Those who use it as cover for hate crimes, or as a rallying cry to "take America back for white people," for example, see in it something I find reprehensible - the opposite of the meaning it holds for me.

So, wishing not to be mislabeled or my views misinterpreted, I don't wear flag pins (clearly, I have no political aspirations) or t-shirts. I don't put flag decals on the car. My mother's flag remains folded in a protective box displayed inside the house.

I respect the flag as a symbol of values I hold dear and a political system that, while imperfect, I wish to be preserved. But I don't wave it around in public. Ultimately, I see it as a symbol, and only that, not as the ideal itself. Much like the letters I type here allow me to express opinions, but are only symbols representing (with varying degrees of proficiency) the beliefs in my head and heart.

Which brings me to this morning. It rained last night, so Mr. James and I took a dry sidewalk course for his daily constitutional rather than the probably-muddy hiking trail at the end of the street. As we rounded a corner, we passed a house with miniature flags on sticks in the yard alongside the walkway, presumably placed there in celebration of today's July 4 holiday.

Mr. James, who doesn't know a flag from a fire hydrant, spied one of the stick-bound banners and began to lift his leg. I was sufficiently in the moment to notice and quickly yanked on his leash, pulling him away and averting disaster. "NO," I said firmly. "No peeing on the flag."

I steered him clear of the rest of the yard decor, and as we continued on our way, I reflected upon my instinctive reaction to the possibility of my dog relieving himself on that little piece of patriotism. The flag-on-a-stick was just a symbol, and a cheap dime-store version of it at that, the red, white and blue stamped upon a scrap of polyester, then stapled to a dowel rod by a 12-year-old in China.

Does it really matter, I wondered to myself, what Mr. James does to it?

Ultimately, I concluded that it does, for the same reason I believe I should be able to write these words -- the symbols of my ideas and opinions. You may have different words for different ideas and opinions, and I invite you to share them freely and debate them vigorously, but without vitriol or violence - a courtesy I grant to you as well.

It matters because the symbol stands for something that deserves our respect, appreciation and commitment, even if it means something different to you than it does to me.

Or, perhaps, because of just that.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A dog year

This is the first anniversary of both this blog and my attempt to be more present in the moment. I don't exactly have any great accomplishments to note, so instead I will celebrate by sharing a few photos of my mentor Mr. James in action.

Or inaction, as the case may be. I've never had a dog that actually slept in a dog bed, but Mr. James does. If there's a person in a person-bed to curl up next to, he'll be there instead. Otherwise, the dog bed works. Good morning! First things first -- breakfast. Letting us know it's time for a walk.

First, scoring some breakfast the cat left behind. A moment of victory.
Then off for a tour of the neighborhood, where there's lots of stuff to sniff. I spoil the adventure by not letting him off the leash to chase the rabbits and squirrels. But things get better in August, when there are cicadas to catch and I'm not fast enough to intervene. Sometimes the bugs are still squawking as they go down. That's a happy moment for the dog. Less so for the cicada.


Then, back at home, cooling off. Dogs like this with smushed in snouts don't have much way to cool themselves off, but splaying himself on the floor for a few minutes seems to work.



Mmmmmm. Belly scratches from my Daddy are some of the best moments there are. And then back to sleep. It's been a good day.
Happy birthday, blog. And thanks, Mr. James, for making the concept of dog years a whole lot more fun.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Lesson from another MJ

The death of Michael Jackson offers all sorts of opportunities for reflection. Why creative genius always seems to come with mental and emotional instability... why an adoring public turns its angels into demons... how events like this seem to bring people together in surprising ways... now the nation's newsrooms must have been scrambling last night to put together retrospectives on such an unexpected occurrence... the price to be paid when heavy expectations are placed on such fragile shoulders....

I'll leave those topics to others. Instead, I'll focus on a personal lesson the events of the past 24 hours have inspired, as ubiquitous tv reports and YouTube links have reacquainted me with Michael Jackson's music.

This is stuff I haven't seen or heard, or even thought about, in years. I'd forgotten how much of it I liked. I'd also forgotten how jaw-dropping his music videos, and especially his 1983 performance at the Motown 25 celebration, were back then. I'm appreciating his work in a way I didn't bother to consider at the time, and refused to consider later, when the weirdness took over.

Too bad he's not here to know that.

Too bad as well he had to die before he could hear all the pundits trampling over each other to praise his talent for the tv cameras. To me, all the strangeness with plastic surgery and kiddie sleepovers suggest some great hole in his soul that might have been filled in some small way with the plaudits his death has elicited. Too late, too bad, so sad.

So where in all this MJ mania is a moment-living lesson worthy of my own little MJ, Mr. James?

It's a reminder to find what joy I can in what's around me... to appreciate the blessings I have but take for granted... and to say what I need to say to the people who matter to me while they're still around to hear it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What moment would you relive for eternity?

An essay in today's paper asks that provocative question.

It stems from a movie with a plot that turns on that question, as newcomers ascending to the Pearly Gates get to choose their best moment on earth to relive forever in heaven. The essayist reaches a sweet conclusion related to fatherhood -- it is Father's Day, after all -- but poses the question to his readers to consider as well.

That's a challenge I can't resist.

Some contenders on my list of relivable moments seem obvious, but ultimately don't make the cut. Memories of my wedding day are hazy -- I was so focused on not blowing the vows in public, I don't remember much else -- so not sure what I'd be getting myself into if that was my choice.

Giving birth was wondrous and life-changing both times. But it hurt. And anything that would have me spending all eternity in a hospital gown is a definite non-starter.

So the real contenders are more obscure.

Watching my daughter deliver an essay she'd written about brushing her cat's teeth for an 8th grade speech contest is one. Her speech was well-crafted and hilarious, and she delivered it with a poise I didn't realize she had. She earned a first-place trophy for it, and a spot on my "hey, that's my kid!!" favorite moments list.

Watching my fourth-grade son put his all into the softball-throw at the grade school track meet similarly stands out in my memory. He came in fifth, which was good enough to add one point to the team's track meet total. In track meets and other sporting events to come he'd bring home plenty of blue ribbons and trophies, but in that fifth-place success I saw his confidence begin to blossom. I'd be okay stuck in that moment for all time.

Most of my top 10 involve being part of something larger than me. Drinking a beer with coworkers backstage after a summer concert series we'd pulled off as a team. Singing Bach and Vivaldi in the alto section of community choirs with symphony orchestra accompaniment. Still singing in the alto section, but this time with my church choir in an abbey in the English village of Teweksbury, my and fellow choristers' voices echoing off ancient walls and mingling with the ghosts of those who had sung or spoken in that place over the course of 900 years.

These are vivid memories, flashes of personal awe and wonder. But I suspect they might dim in encore, and are best left as they are.

Which brings me to my choice: the evening of May 31, 1991. It was a graduation party I and other parents put together to celebrate the two dozen members of my daughter's 8th grade class completing elementary school. The kids in that class were extraordinarily close, and all but one of them had showed up, with parents and siblings, for pot-luck and Karaoke in a small outdoor ampitheater. The weather was perfect and the mood was convivial. The spirit of that evening alone would qualify it for my live-forever list.

But what puts it at the top is the way the evening closed. As the sun set we gathered up picnic remains and settled in to watch an hour-long commemorative class video produced by yours truly. The video had entailed hours (and hours and hours) of videotaping, marking time codes and editing in the waning days of analog technology. It was rough, but I was proud of it. The personality of every kid in the class came through, and it still stands today as a glimpse into the quirky perspective and promise of children on the threshhold of young adulthood.

We all - kids, parents, brothers and sisters - sat under the stars watching the video together. When it ended, we hugged and sniffled and hauled our lawn chairs back to our cars, knowing we had just shared a special experience we would treasure for years. We were nostalgic to realize what we and our kids were leaving behind, but eager to discover what might come next.

If I get to choose a moment to relive for all time, this is it.

So what about you?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Words to live (in the moment) by

Saw this bumper sticker on the window of a parked car while walking Mr. James this morning. It's just what I needed to see on this almost-longest day of the year:


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Midsummer lament

The time has come to admit that, despite the stellar example set by Mr. James every second of every day, when it comes to living more in the moment, I may be uneducable.

For proof, I need look no further than this week.

This is the week of the year's longest days. Every morning since Dec. 21, I've checked the sunrise and sunset times in the newspaper, seeking evidence of each new sliver of daylight. During those cold days, I leave for work and return home in the dark; I must take it on faith that the sun actually makes an appearance even if I can't see it from my office.

By my husband's birthday in late January, we've gained a half hour and are starting to gain speed. By my birthday six weeks later, it's another whole hour. By April, the light is literally at the end of the tunnel, everyone's mood improves and I eagerly anticipate the long days of June when light begins to break even as I leave for the gym at 5:30 a.m.

This is the week I've been waiting for, for six whole months.

So am I happy? Am I enjoying these glorious 14 hours and 55 minutes of daylight?

Of course not. I'm lamenting the downward slide that begins at the end of this week.

Mr. James suffers no such perverse thought processes. He might notice he gets longer walks when it's warm and light and fewer when it's cold and dark, but I doubt it. To him, every day is a new adventure, an opportunity to eat and sniff and demand a good belly-scratching. It's clearly a path to happiness for him and my loss that I can't seem to follow suit.

But I'll keep trying.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Talking point peril

I'm a news junkie. I'll take Washington Week in Review over American Idol any day. I wake up to NPR, I'll subscribe to the newspaper 'till the bitter end and can get lost for hours on news blogs and websites. News is something that actually does keep me in the moment. (And by "news," I mean real news, not the latest household theatrics of Jon & Kate +8.)

I've also worked in communications for 30+ years, so I understand the role of news in shaping the Zeitgeist. Using the public's interest in a hot news topic to advance a related point of view can be powerfully persuasive. I've done it myself, and counseled others to do likewise when it makes sense.

But this week I saw a misuse of this tactic that made me want to disavow all connection to communication expertise. It was a missive put forth suggesting that the slaying of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum exemplifies the need for labor legislation now being considered by Congress.

It seems that security staff at the museum had requested bullet-proof vests, and been denied. If the legislation now under consideration had already passed, reasoned the author of this argument, security staff would have formed a union which would have mandated vests be issued, thus sparing the guard's life.

I was, in a word, appalled, to see the facts of this tragedy take such a circuitous route from cause to effect and end up as fodder for the latest set of talking points.

I have no wish to debate here the merits of labor laws, nor whether protective vests for security guards are warranted. Seems like a reasonable idea, actually, although it appears the perpetrator in this case would have been just as happy to shoot up museum visitors, so unless distributed to all at the door it seems bullet-proof apparel would not have been an adequate solution. And to be fair, I have seen subsequent reports that more clear-headed supporters of the proposed legislation have rejected this particular argument, which gives me hope that rational conversation can prevail.

But I do suggest that these two data points -- proposed labor legislation, and the killing of a black security guard at a Holocaust museum by a previously convicted white supremacist anti-Semite -- are in no way related, and tawdry attempts to connect them via talking points to advance a political agenda are reprehensible.

I'm all for intelligent discussion of the political question. Put the pundits on Meet the Press and the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers. Give them full opportunity to put forth reasoned arguments for their points of view and let the public consider the matter. But do so with the civility and intellectual honesty that the matter deserves.

And let the shooting, and the hatred that fueled it, exemplify what it really is: the face of evil.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shiny new objects

We mammals must be wired to be drawn to the bright, the shiny, the wow or just plain new-and-improved.

Drop a crumb of coffee cake anywhere near Mr. James, and he'll abandon his beloved rawhide hoof in a heartbeat.

So prone are we to tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones that a whole set of historic preservation rules have been put in place to protect worthy relics, or at least delay the wrecking-ball's onset.

Old Jay Leno leaves, shiny Conan O'Brien steps in. Old "ER" closes down, shiny new reality show with wife-swapping cockroach-eaters debuts. Okay, maybe that's not the best example.

Even I, by any measure a boring old soul who's usually content with the tried and true -- married for 36 years, almost 30 of them lived in an 80-year-old house -- regard my shiny new kitchen with awe and wonder. Although in that case, no sane person would argue to save the hell-hole we gutted to make way for the new.

But is it always a good trade? Is "new" necessarily "improved"?

If the glint of a falling food particle causes Mr. James to turn away from a steak bone that gets picked up and disposed of in his absence, maybe not.

If my 80-year-old house were to burn to the ground and be replaced by a new one with insulated walls, an open floor plan, family room, finished basement, a second full bathroom and a walk-in closet... well, maybe. But I still think I'd miss the old crown moldings, arched doorways, original (albeit creaky) oak floors and stairs, gazillion windows and space arrangement that's inefficient, but cozy. Plus, I like my new kitchen in my old house just the way it is.

Toss the old husband for a new one? I'm not cougar material, and I really don't have the patience.

But sometimes it's not that easy to tell. Those bright new objects look fresh and enticing, and the trick is knowing whether the shine is real, or just pimped up for the cameras.

Once again, perhaps Mr. James has the answer. Three years ago, in a really bold (and, to be honest, I think witless) move, he bolted sans any identification from whoever cared for him. It's my guess he spied a passing rabbit -- to him, not just shiny, but positively luminescent -- saw an opening in a door or gate or fence and went for it. My son's girlfriend spotted him dodging cars in a busy city intersection and stopped to save him from certain squashing.

And here he is today, collared, tagged and microchipped, curled up and snoring in his little bed, well-fed, frequently walked and belly-scratched, and much, much loved.

So maybe it just all works out and isn't worth the angst. Just pick a path and move forward on it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Enjoy the nuts, they're free

I met my son for lunch the other day. I was expecting pleasant conversation and yummy food -- we met at a gourmet burger place that satisfied both his vegan requirements and my end-of-week desire for something unhealthy. I got that, and more.

Mothers worry about how their children are getting along, no matter how adult those children may be. At least this mother does. So our conversations invariably include my probing for how he's feeling about things -- is he happy? Does he have what he needs? Is he pursuing his dreams? What obstacles are in his way? Can I help?

At this point in his life he's struggling to define his way forward and doesn't appreciate my inquiries, but he usually puts up with them more or less patiently. This time, however, he took a different approach.

"Life is hard, Mom," he said. "It's just really hard. But if it's not going the way you want, you don't jump off the plane. You try to change seats, or wait it out until it lands, and when they come by with nuts, you take them.

"Enjoy the nuts," he shrugged. "They're free."

If Mr. James could talk, I think that's what he'd say. He'd probably substitute sniffing dog poop for snacking on airplane peanuts, but I choose not to split semantic hairs.

So in the days since, I've taken inventory of recent nut deliveries, so to speak. Here's the result:

* Two perfectly lovely May mornings, for long, refreshing walks.
* An elderly man riding a bicycle past me on one of those walks, calling out "Good morning, ma'm, have a great day!" as he pedaled by. His cheery greeting made my whole morning better.
* More than 14 hours of daylight now, and for the next 50 or so days. More light improves everyone's mood.
* Ripe canteloupe - as opposed to those awful orange chunks that pass for melon in restaurant fruit salads all winter long - with fresh raspberries and blackberries mixed in.
* Speaking of raspberries, a raspberry scone from the coffee shop.
* Discovering, totally unexpectedly, an absolutely perfect greeting card for somebody. I'll give it to her tomorrow and I can't wait to see her reaction. I'm pretty sure she will laugh, and she'll enjoy the moment of grace and support I intend for it to share.
* The air conditioner works as the afternoon sun heats things up.
* A phone conversation with a clerk in a government office who was friendly and helpful. You forget how rare it is to find someone, in government or anywhere else, actually willing to help you, and it's a little moment of joy when you do.
* And finally, hearing this quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, on tv this afternoon: "Arrange whatever pieces come your way."

Seems like another way to say, enjoy the nuts.

Friday, May 29, 2009

If it was a snake...

This morning when I made my daily stop at the coffee shop, the proprietor and barista were mid-conversation.

"I'm afraid those kids are going to be disappointed they they didn't collect much," the proprietor, said.

"Collect what?" I asked.

"Food for the Salvation Army food drive," she replied.

"I think their box is too big," the barista said.

"What box?" I asked, cluelessly.

At which point they both pointed to an enormous cardboard box with a big Salvation Army logo and a sign made by some youngsters participating in a food drive at the neighborhood elementary school.

An enormous cardboard box with quite visible signs, right next to the door I had opened every single day this week without noticing. At all.

If it was a snake, as my mother used to say, it would have bit me. Mr. James may well have peed on it on one of the mornings I combined my coffee run with the dog-walking.

As it was, I would almost have had to shove the dang box aside to get into the coffee shop without tripping over it. In fact, given my history with things such as bouncing into walls, stumbling over rocks and slipping on ice, it's a miracle I hadn't.

I have no defense, other than the likelihood that at that point in my mornings I am very focused on getting my caffeine hit. But after a year of making a conscious effort to be present in the moment, it would appear my progress is, uh, minimal.

This should not make anyone who shares the local roadways with me behind the wheel particularly comfortable. Red lights, stop signs, ambulances.... please, Lord, let me notice.

At least, now that I finally noticed, I have made amends. After enjoying my latte and taking the dog for a walk, I went to the grocery store and circled back an hour later to drop some jars of peanut butter and cans of vegetables into the big box.

But looks like Mr. James is going to have to step up his game if he's going to rehabilitate me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Paid to do nothing

I took today off to give myself a four-day Memorial Day weekend. It was a lovely day. I did my time at the gym, indulged in a latte and a scone, ran a few errands, walked the dog, got a head start on the weekend laundry, tuned into Oprah.

In essence, I spent a whole day doing nothing. It was great. Even better, I got paid for it.

So on this weekend to think about and appreciate those who have made sacrifices for our collective well-being, I am also thinking about whatever social force arose in times past to make the idea of employer-paid vacation a fairly standard benefit.

I don't know how that came to be. I know that it's not the case for all workers -- I am extraordinarily fortunate to work where I do. I'm sure it's not entirely born out of the goodness of employers' hearts -- if they want the best talent, they need to meet or exceed others' perks. But I suspect somebody, or lots of somebodies, in some time past, worked long and hard to instill the notion that paying people to be absent now and then would be in everyone's best interest.

Whoever they are, or were, I am grateful to them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All things in moderation

I wouldn't go so far as to say (as the writer of this essay wonders) that living in the moment caused our current economic problems, but this is an interesting point of view on how over-focus on "now" may not always be such a good thing.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2009/05/on_the_web_living_in_the_now.html?sc=fb&cc=fp

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mr. James' morning walk

What better time to live in the moment than a perfectly stunning May morning? Mr. James notices everything on a walk - rabbits, birds, squirrels, the scents of past travelers, passing bicyclists and especially other dogs. I'm more inclined to spend our walks inside my head thinking about things.
But that's a habit I'm trying to break. So this morning I vowed to notice what I passed, and brought my cell phone along to snap pictures of what captured my attention.

Thus I present a travelogue of my morning walk with Mr. James.

Right out the front door, I noticed the pretty red flowers our next-door neighbors have placed outside their front door. The people who live here have been our neighbors for nearly 28 years. We share a drive with them. They raised 5 boys in this house, and now it's fun to see their grandchildren -- including, finally, some girls -- play in their yard. All quiet this morning, though.



Across the street, more flowers, on these blazing pink bushes.








Oh-oh. Looks like somebody ran over the traffic island at the end of my street.










Bicyclists out early this morning.

We also encountered a man walking a dog that was either a Boxer puppy or another Boston terrier. He didn't speak English well so I couldn't quite understand the particulars, but the dog's name was Chula. She was much better behaved than Mr. James. I'm sorry I didn't get a good picture of her and her person. I appreciated meeting them this morning.




On the left is a look at my view from the walking trail, built on the route of old streetcar rails that once served what were then city suburbs. On the right is the view from Mr. James' perspective. I like my view better. I doubt that he cares.

Volunteers from the neighborhood plant flowers and bushes at the bus stops and street entrances. I am not one of those volunteers, for good reason -- the plants would not survive my care. But I appreciate the effort of those who tend them throughout the year.





And now we're almost home. The house is that of our neighbor to the east, the brick steps lead to our house. The trees are sweet gums, which drop nasty spiny balls in the fall, but right now they shade the street beautifully.


I love my neighborhood. Thank you, Mr. James, for encouraging me to pay attention to it this morning.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's worthwhile

I get the idea of focusing time and attention where they will make the most impact. There's only so much time, and so much (less so lately) money; we are smart to use these resources strategically.

And yet... maybe it's not always about being smart and strategic.

I volunteer for a local adult literacy agency, on a committee recruiting volunteer tutors to help functionally illiterate adults learn to read and write. We staff tables at author booksignings, speak at book festivals, go wherever we think we can find people who will consider giving their time to teach someone to read. We also try to make potential students aware of this free program that can literally change their lives.

So that's why I found myself heading off to a local branch library today to speak, along with another volunteer, to a group of young women attending a "women's empowerment seminar." While perfectly willing to do this, I was puzzled about our purpose. Being able to read is surely a foundation for empowerment, but I wasn't quite sure how what we had to say fit into their program - or what their program actually was - nor who the audience was. Were we talking to potential tutors or potential students? Both? Neither?

When I asked the fellow volunteer who arranged the appearance why we were doing his, he responded: "Because they asked."

Now, there's a smart, strategic reason.

We were welcomed by La'Keisha, an energetic and delightful young student at one of our local colleges, who has taken it upon herself to organize quarterly seminars for a small but engaged group of young women in her community. As attentive as they were, I am pretty sure there weren't any potential tutors among them. We might have indirectly reached a possible student: one of seminar participants picked up our handouts to share with a friend struggling to pass a test to be a certified nursing assistant, in case better reading skills will help.

The time was not without redeeming value. At the end of our presentation, La'Keisha gave me a trophy with an image of helping hands as a gift and my fellow volunteer, who had done this gig last year and thus already received his trophy, got a pair of movie passes. We also got to congratulate one participant who had contributed a trash bag full of teddy bears to another of La'Keisha's projects, donating teddy bears to the police department for their use in working with children in scary situations.

But against our primary goal of finding new tutors, not a productive use of time. Against our secondary goal of making potential students aware there is free help available for them, so-so.

Not smart. Not strategic. But will I do it again next year?

In a heartbeat. Because they ask.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When it really needs to be real

Picking up a prescription at the drug store this evening I overheard the pharmacy tech talking to a coworker about her upcoming graduation. She will receive a college degree but because she took most of her classes online due to her work schedule. she's apparently been told her graduation ceremony will be online as well.

Not good enough, she said. She did real work for that degree, she wants to walk across the real stage, shake somebody's real hand, pick up a real diploma and hear the cheers of her real friends and family.

That got me to thinking. There's plenty of stuff I used to do in the real world that I now accomplish in front of a computer screen. Bill-paying, for one. Research for another -- both on topics I need to learn more about, and products I want to buy. Shopping -- that's a big one, at least for some things. I still want to try on clothes in the store, but I haven't been in a bookstore or a library in ages, because everything I used to find there, I now can get online.

But the morning newspaper? I like hearing it thump on the sidewalk before dawn, and I like holding it, scanning the headlines and sipping my coffee before the workday begins. Yeah, I'm old. I know it makes more environmental sense to read the news online, and I know it doesn't much matter what I like, there aren't enough of me to sustain the newspaper's business model. But I like the real newspaper.

I like real cards and letters. I like email, too, and I love being able to touch base with my family through text messages. But kids, if you're reading this, know that I want a real Mother's Day card, with a real note in your real handwriting. And a real hug.

It's fun watching YouTube videos, but I like being present at real concerts. I like chatting with friends and colleagues on Facebook, and I'm sure if I ever tried Second Life, I'd find it intriguing. but that can't beat an evening in the company of friends in the flesh, with a real burger, chips and beer.

Through blogs I can read about experiences I can barely imagine, like the family friend (and follower of these words) who writes so eloquently about living and working in Haiti. Her words paint poignant, breathtaking images. But I'm pretty sure it's not like the real thing, and I'm thinking her parents back in Kansas agree it's not like having their sweet daughter close by.

Those are things that really need to be real for me.

What about you?

Oh, and to the pharmacy tech at Walgreens -- I agree with you. Make 'em let you walk across that stage. You've earned the real thing.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Aporkalypse

When I was a kid, my mother told me a fairy tale about a boy who cried "wolf!" I don't recall the details, but it seems the boy repeatedly pranked his fellow citizens with false alarms about an impending wolf attack. Eventually people figured out there was no wolf and started to ignore his cries. So when an actual wolf showed up and the boy screamed "No, REALLY this time!!" nobody paid any attention.

I don't remember who the wolf in the story ate (Little Red Riding Hood, maybe?) and I certainly wish no harm to a child. But if the boy is a metaphoric reference to today's community of infotainment tv talking heads and the wolf has swine flu, I kinda hope the wolf enjoys a satisfying meal.

Because I've had it to here with the siege of media-fueled swine -- make that, N1H1 -- flu hysteria. Near as I can tell from the relatively calm updates issued by assorted public health officials, there is a reasonable level of caution being applied to the situation, and if we all were to use the brains we were born with, we'd be appropriately alert but not pandemic-panic-stricken.

Reasonable and appropriate, however, do not garner attention on the endless stream of babble that has become the 24/7 news cycle. So instead we get frantic "developing story" and "breaking news" reports.

As I type the U.S. total is (earnestly concerned brow-furrow) 160 cases. Worldwide total is now - cue the graphics package - 658 cases in 16 countries.

Yes, 658 cases out of a global population of 6.76 billion. My calculator can't even compute what an infintessimal percentage of total that is.

There aren't even 658 people living in my two-square-mile neighborhood. If I tried to convince a journalist that 658 people using my employer's product represented a trend worth reporting about, I wouldn't even get a polite hearing, much less a breathless breaking news spot on the nightly newscast.

And while the 16 deaths reported thus far are no small matter to the families and friends who loved them, according to the Worldometers statistics site (http://www.worldometers.info/) 23,000-some people around the world died today of something we pretty much already know how to prevent - hunger.

No special-report graphics for them. Nor for the 36,000 who die, on average, each year from the regular old non-newsworthy flu.

So let's have a little perspective, people. True, we don't know much about this virus. Yes, we know that in 1918, a new strain of flu had its way with a few people, went dormant for a time, then returned with a rampage that killed millions. Incidentally, one of them was my mother-in-law’s father, so trust me, I don’t take the possibility lightly.

But I think we’ve learned a few things about public health in the past 91 years. So if those who speak with reason and knowledge can be heard over the din of the flapping jaws at the news desk, if the worst happens I think we should be able to minimize the harm.

Unless by then, we’re so over the swine flu story, we don’t believe a word of it.

Meanwhile, I will wash my hands, sneeze into a tissue and ignore cable news. I suggest you do the same.