Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Can't lose for winning

A local adult literacy program (for which I volunteer) holds an annual fund-raising spelling bee, with teams of spellers from various businesses participating. My company sponsors a team of four spellers, and holds a pre-bee to determine which of several potential spelling bee teams will go on to the big city-wide bee.

That pre-bee was today, and I was on one of the teams. We came in third, so no city-wide spelling glory for us. But that's okay because our goals were to 1) not be eliminated first, and 2) also not be the last one standing. None of us wanted to advance to the big bee - we only signed up to participate in the internal event for the fun of it.

But a funny thing happened as other teams fell away and we remained in the hunt. We really did not want to win. But we didn't want to be wrong, either....

So basically, it was lucky for us that none of us knew how to spell (or pronounce, or define or use in a sentence) the word that eliminated us from the contest. I'd never heard or seen it before and six hours later don't even remember what it was. But in the few seconds we were given to consult over its possible spelling, we were as determined to try to get it right as anybody going for a first-place finish.

Maybe it's personal pride. Or maybe there's something hard-wired in us, or conditioned by American society, that pushes our competitive buttons. In any case, something overtook reason, compelling us to win, even when the only real way to win was to lose.

So tonight, as better sense returns and I reflect upon the day, I can only be grateful to fate for saving us from our competitive selves.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coming up for light

It's cold again today. By the end of February, I'm ready for the end of winter, too. It's a lot like the way I feel about two-thirds of the way through my morning strength-training class at the gym - enough already, let's get to the part where we get to lie down and stretch.

This year Mother Nature has teased us mercilessly with a day here and a day there of balm, quickly dashed by single-digit temperatures. Like another round of deadlifts and mountain-climbers, it's wearisome.

But even in sub-freezing temperatures, February also brings hope. After weeks of indiscernable shift in the balance between day and night, the pace begins to pick up. Just in the last week or so, the day is brightening when I take Mr. James for his morning walk, and there's still a bit of sunlight on the horizon when I walk home from the bus stop in the evening.

Even if I didn't check the daily sunrise and sunset times in the newspaper, or remember the lessons from 7th grade science class about the earth's annual trips around the sun, I know from memories of Februaries past that brighter days are on the way.

I thought about this one day last week while reading a Newsweek article about economic meltdowns over time. We've all seen the articles comparing our current situation to slowdowns in 2000, the early 1980s, even the dismal days of the Great Depression. This article went a lot further back, however, detailing the economy's ups and downs since the late 1700s.

The overarching take-away for me is that for every plunge, there has been a rebound. Sometimes sooner rather than later, but it seems that centuries of experience tell us that what goes down, economically speaking, eventually comes back up. Maybe not with the same predictability as winter that turns to spring and 15 hour nights become 15 hour days. But the cold, dark days do cycle into warmth and light.

Which of course doesn't make it any easier right now, when we don't know if it's November, with the darkest, coldest days ahead, or January, when the worst is behind us. I'm thinking it's probably the former. I fervently hope that I, and those I love, don't find ourselves out in the cold and that those who suffer find a haven to survive the arctic blast.

But when I step outside to take Mr. James for his morning walk, and see day breaking in the east, I have hope.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Moment of zen

My various radios are all permanently tuned to NPR. This is not just because I'm a news junkie and public radio seems to be one of the last remaining places to find the practice of journalism in gathering and delivering the news.

It's because now and then, amid the reports from Iran and Afghanistan and interviews with experts real and self-proclaimed, come sweet little stories about ordinary people doing things that make a positive difference or reveal a useful truth.

This morning's Weekend Edition program offered one of these stories. It's about a woman who plays the harp in the emergency room of a busy urban hospital to bring some calming comfort to patients and staff.

It made me smile on a Valentine's Day morning, a moment worth noticing, and in hopes that it does the same for others, here's a link.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Concrete connections

Taking Mr. James for a walk on a perfectly gorgeous day - one more like April or May, not February, dimming the memory of a 10-degree morning just four days ago - I was reminded of why I was drawn to this neighborhood almost 30 years ago.

To be sure, it was partly the charm of the 1920s homes, the value for the money, the small yards that would be quick to mow and the appeal of features like hardwood floors, arched doorways and crown molding everywhere. (That last item, by the way, became much less attractive when it was time to paint...)

But what really tipped the scale for me was something far more pedestrian. Literally.


The sidewalks in our neighborhood encourage intermingling among the residents of homes along the street. They give the adults a route for a summer evening stroll or a brisk hike to the bus stop, and the children a guided path to friends and new experiences.

When our kids were little, every summer Saturday brought a cavalcade of bikes, trikes and Big Wheels as the neighborhood youngsters traveled safely up and down the cement corridors for hours on end. Sidewalks also defined a boundary the kids generally respected, although I do remember a neighbor mom's challenge keeping an adventuresome preschooler out of the street after a block party closed the road for an evening, calling the sidewalk's barrier power into question.

Today's scarier times and scheduled activities have reduced the neighborhood Big Wheel traffic somewhat, and tree roots beneath have cracked some of the concrete slabs. Insufferable spiny balls that comprise the bumper crop of droppings from sweet gum trees that line our street make the trip hazardous for the inattentive.

But our sidewalks still carry moms pushing strollers and people like me walking dogs. The dogs sniff each other, the people exchange friendly greetings, and we go along our way feeling like we're part of a community.