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.