Now or Later?

My life changed when I started asking myself one simple question: “Am I ever going to feel like doing this more than I do right now?” Spoiler alert: the answer is usually, “No.”

I read an interview with Mark Wahlberg a few years ago, where he shared he’d become much more disciplined in recent years. His body-builder form always gave the impression that he’d been disciplined. He explained, though, that it’s easy to stick with things you enjoy or that you get some obvious benefit from. Discipline is about doing things because you have to, whether you want to or not. Going over a boring business report. Making a phone call you have no interest in making.

I don’t know why the voice of Mark Wahlberg rang some come-to-Jesus bell for me. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time my dad said, “Sometimes you gotta do [pause for emphasis, tilt head, make eye contact, jut the chin out, open eyes wider] what you gotta do.” He said it in response to my complaints about doing many things that…well…I didn’t want to do. Yet reading Wahlberg’s comments, my whole body settled into the realization that there are many things I will just never be inspired to do. And yet, do them I must.

Now when I find myself thinking that I’m not in the mood to do this, or don’t feel like doing that, I challenge myself: Am I ever going to feel like doing this more than I do right now? If I’m waiting to feel inspired to do laundry, well, that’s just not going to happen. It’s going to be a bigger load if I put it off another day. So I take the action, and feel better for having done it.

Sometimes I find that the answer to my question is “Yes”. In those cases, it’s again a win. There’s a legitimate reason to delay. I’m already overextended, or it would be easier if I had more help or resources. Maybe I haven’t done enough research or planning to act with confidence. The answer helps me find a better time or better way to take action, and I don’t have to feel guilty or anxious about the choice.

It’s a little question but it packs a big punch. Try it next time your inner toddler voice whines, “I don’t wanna!”

Lasts and firsts.

It’s funny how independence feels like freedom when we don’t have it, and feels like responsibilities and obligations once obtained. Securing independence is the least of the effort. Sustaining it demands much more.

I still remember unexpected dread coursing through me when my parents announced that a college apartment rent check would be their last. They’d agreed to pay until I graduated. Twenty-one, with a college degree, a job in the city, and a paycheck, I would be on my own.

I’d known the day was coming. I’d looked forward to this ever since I could remember. Yet… wow! I would have to pay the rent next month!

I had a similar experience shortly after moving from an apartment to my own home. After 10 hours at work I arrived home to find that minor drip was a failed valve saturating an upper bathroom and the ceilings and floor below. A repair and restoration nightmare stretched before me.

Waiting for the plumber, the main water turned off and my adrenaline waning, I couldn’t shake the inconvenient irony. If this had happened at the apartment, I could simply have called the office.

Manuel would have taken care of the rest. Now I would be making the calls, running the fans, living with holes in the ceiling until I could find, book, and pay new vendors to fix them. And I would be paying for it myself.

My boys are teenagers, with decisions about schools, jobs, and lifestyles before them. Even though it was so long ago for me, I remember those days in my own history. Making my own decisions, setting my own course, being beholden to no one – those concepts were so attractive.

They seemed to be achievements, not states in flux whose maintenance would require constant calibration. Decisions that begot more decisions. Lifts that would at times be harder alone.

I do appreciate freedom. Now, though, I better understand the cost at which our freedoms are bought. I see that we are always adding and subtracting from two sides of a scale. We can’t make a change to one without doing so for both. It is a lifelong pursuit of firsts demanding lasts, of goodbyes making way for hellos, of balancing the imbalanced.

It’s why – if we’re lucky – our attraction to independence gives way to an appreciation of interdependence. Our self-reliance becomes something even better: an agent that moves to help others in their balancing, as they do the same for us.

This even makes cleaning fun.

There’s only one thing that can make cleaning more than tolerable: an upcoming visit from a best friend I haven’t seen in years. And that’s exactly what’s on my horizon.

Jeannine and I met as apartment neighbors in our early twenties. Before marriages. Before kids. Before we had any idea what paths our lives would take.

We spent mornings drinking coffee over games of backgammon. We did our nails flipping through magazines, talking about everything and nothing. Sinead O’Connor played in the background before she had the bad taste to burn the flag. We were responsible for nothing but our cats, our day jobs, and the rent.

We bought jeans together when comfort wasn’t on the radar. When all clothes had to do was accentuate our positives to make it to the register.

Jeannine introduced me to Earth Day when it was in its infancy as a global movement. We spent the day at the National Mall in DC against the backdrop of the monuments, considering how – if we all just pitched in – we’d have a healthier planet. Before climate change went mainstream. When environmental damage seemed a few household recycling bins away from remediation. Before keeping the planet inhabitable became a politically polarizing undertaking.

And so today I found myself steam-cleaning rugs to freshen the house, and ready it for my much-anticipated guest. The excitement lightened the effort as I spent much of the time reminiscing about the fun we’d had in the past, and the new memories we’ll soon make.

If I were smart, I’d invite her up more often. Think of the projects I’d get done with all the extra energy!

Not giving up the Ghost

If there’s one thing experienced authors can count on, it’s that at some point in the creative process they will look at their work in progress and believe it was, is, and always will be a huge piece of crap. Success rarely comes to those unable to navigate this nadir.

That’s where I was last month, when I watched a writing challenge – one I’d really looked forward to – turn to mush. Another NYC Midnight challenge, this one was:

  • a rhyming story up to 600 words,
  • in the genre of a ghost story,
  • with an emotion of vulnerability,
  • and a theme of around-the-clock.

I couldn’t have gotten any luckier getting assigned a ghost story theme so close to Halloween. And I had entered the contest wondering why they would consider giving more than a week to finish. Then, two days into it, I felt like there would never be enough time to turn this dud into a diva.

A rhyming story? Isn’t that a poem? Well it may be. But perhaps not. It needs to actually have a story, a plot. “Romeo and Juliet” is a rhyming story. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” is not…in my opinion. Emily Dickinson fans should feel free to weigh in.

I love a good rhyme. In college, I wrote a paper in rhyming verse format on the topic of Jonathan Swift’s “On Poetry: a Rhapsody”. The topic was assigned, the format I chose for kicks. When this challenge came along, I knew I had this! I was made for this.

And yet shortly in, I began to wonder why I had signed up, why I ever thought I could do this, and why the story in my head just wasn’t coming out on the page. I had a likable, vulnerable protagonist Ghost. The story arc was there, the inciting moment was solid.

But what was that theme again? And why had I chosen this rhythm? Why couldn’t I come up with something more sophisticated? Surely others would have ravens quoting “Nevermore”, and winds chilling and killing.

Although my writing eventually turned a corner, in the end I had to bow out of the contest. I didn’t give up on the idea or the character and story it spawned. Competing non-discretionary priorities just made it too tough to pull off in a way I could be proud of…or even stomach. The challenge offered a valuable reminder, though.

The difference between failure and success is often a matter of continuing to work through it. We need to keep walking the path until the woods clear before us – until we see how to get through, feel the joy of finding, and begin the run to the end.

I suspect someday I will write the story I envisioned, though likely not in rhyming format. It was a beautiful story, and beauty is best when shared. Don’t worry – I haven’t given up the Ghost just yet.

Happy Halloween!

“Are there no prisons?”

OOOOk-la-homa – the stuff of Rodgers & Hammerstein musical-making – may be trading sweet waving wheatfields for more correctional facilities. Benefitting from last month’s bumper-crop of Supreme Court decisions, the state realized expanded rights of law enforcement and prosecution for crimes committed on tribal lands, and enacted the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation, criminalizing most abortion from the point of fertilization forward. Yeoww, what a June!

What will Oklahoma do with its new-found criminals? Well, the US – with the highest per-capita incarceration rate among the G20 – is no stranger to using the Big House to solve small problems. Still, of our 50 states, Oklahoma stands out as an “overachiever” among peers. Its overall incarceration rate is well beyond the US average, and as states go, OK’s state-level imprisonment rate is second only to Louisiana’s.

Although not referenced in Oklahoma’s 2021 economic report, the economy built around a response to criminality sounds like a not-insignificant part of Oklahoma’s business model. And it includes inmates working for pretty much nothing. The state notes that inmates can participate in work programs, and those with special skills and good behavior can earn more than others, with salaries as high as $20 per month. That’s not my typo. Twenty U.S. dollars a month.

A 2022 research report by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic notes that the imprisoned work for literally pennies an hour, and are not subject to the same legal protections as employees outside the prison system.

“From the moment they enter the prison gates, they lose the right to refuse to work. This is because the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which generally protects against slavery and involuntary servitude, explicitly excludes from its reach those held in confinement due to a criminal conviction.”

“Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers,” ACLU and University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Research Report, 2022.

According to data presented in the Captive Labor report, Oklahoma is one of only a handful of states where the per-hour wage for the incarcerated tops out at $0.60. But considering king-of-the-Castle Louisiana’s high-mark is $0.40, some might say there’s gravy in there. Just sayin’.

Oklahoma offers that prison employment is for public works only. Some privatized facilities, though, have engaged in contracts providing inmate labor to private industry. Cases of inmates working for private industry began surfacing in 2020. The employed inmates made way more than $0.60 per hour…but not until the correctional facility took 80% off the top. So despite companies paying more than $7 per hour, inmates received less than $1.50 an hour for their work. I’m not sure what you can do with that amount of money.

Many of these issues are so complex. It’s hard to know whether we have the insight and information necessary to speak knowledgeably or to advocate toward the right direction. Still, when I see people celebrating the introduction of new criminalizations, I can’t help but feel that we should figure out how to address the problems we’re already failing to correct, without elevating others to the same status.

A 45,000 person problem.

How is it that we have a country-wide Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21, and we have a federal minimum age for sale of tobacco (Tobacco 21), but we don’t have anything analogous for purchasing guns?

Tobacco 21 doesn’t even have an exemption for military veterans age 18-20. You just can’t buy tobacco if you’re not 21. If we don’t consider 18 an advanced-enough age at which to buy your own liquor or tobacco, I’m stumped as to why we think 18 should be acceptable as a threshold for purchasing firearms, or why implementing an advanced age should be left to individual states.

Doesn’t the fact that we put alcohol, tobacco, and firearms under the same government agency tip the hand that similar treatment seems appropriate?

The ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) also regulates fireworks, but states and even municipalities seem to do a better job of restricting fireworks sales than they do of slowing inappropriate gun sales.

Many jurisdictions make a distinction between consumer or ground-level fireworks like sparklers, and display fireworks like the kind you gather to watch a professional set off. Anyone who’s travelled I-95 on the east coast passing by Pedro’s South of the Border knows that it’s easy enough to get around state-by-state restrictions if you’ve got wheels and enough gas. But at least there’s an attempt to put some reasonable guardrails up, resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities.

In Delaware, ground level fireworks like sparklers are legal for purchase only to those over 18 years of age and only between June 4 to July 4, and between December 1 to January 1, seasons where they’re typically used with innocent intentions. Many other types of fireworks can’t be sold at all, period. Its State Fire Marshall’s website offers, “Please leave fireworks in the hands of professionals”.

Could we expect that in the same jurisdiction they would restrict the purchase of firearms to hunting season? And instead of restricting only the purchase of semi-automatic or AR rifles to those over 21, could we expect it to restrict the sale of those types of products to general consumers entirely, as they do with bottle rockets and Roman candles? Nope.

But why not? I can’t find the answer in the statistics.

According to the American Safety and Health Institute, in 2019, an estimated 10,000 people went to emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries. With that for context, consider that Pew Research Center found that the number of gun-related deaths – deaths – the following year was over 45,000. Of all murders in the U.S. in 2020, 79% involved a gun. Just over half of all suicides – over 24,000 – involved a gun.

Some will say that cars kill a lot of people, and that you don’t see anyone interfering in the purchase of those. True. But of the gun-related deaths in 2020, accidental deaths by firearm accounted for about 3% of those 45,000. The rest are deaths where guns were being used intentionally for murder and suicide. Unlike cars which are being used for transportation sometimes resulting in accidental deaths, guns are being used as killing machines.

To be transparent, I have generally found myself in the middle of the road when it comes to gun control. My godfather and grandfather were avid hunters, and I grew up believing responsible use, care, and storage of firearms didn’t pose a threat. I personally enjoyed shooting at gun ranges for a time as an adult in my 30s, and owned a gun when I did. Most of my concern was with assault weapons or semi-automatic rifles. But could my comfort with the accessibility of more mainstream weapons be undue?

Shouldn’t we expect restrictions to mirror the understanding of adult-decision-making capabilities demonstrated in those of alcohol and tobacco? I recognize that prohibiting the use of guns until the age of 21 would reshape the military and law enforcement, and could have other repercussions. So I would not necessarily expect to see that extensive a prohibition. But for those who have no demonstrable job-related need of a firearm, why would we not restrict purchasing power similarly to alcohol and tobacco?

In reading this post, and hearing me asking “why”, and “why not”, you may have been fuming, “It’s the gun lobby, idiot!”, or “It’s the NRA, you ignorant, uninformed [insert your favorite expletive]!” Well, I’m none of those things.

I think we’re still in this boat in these rough waters because we’ve allowed special interests to take the helm, and because many leaders lack the confidence and spines to make the trip without support of those special interests. And sure, Citizens United v. FEC didn’t do us any favors. But I think it’s helpful to ask whether we could get to any answers that made sense without seeing it through that lens.

I don’t think we can.

Take a look at Pew’s research in “What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.” to understand just how badly we’re failing Americans by refusing to implement common sense measures that could save lives. These past weeks of May 2022 brought unspeakable heartbreak. We can’t think on it for long without wiping our eyes, grabbing for tissues, holding loved ones a little longer. And still, looking at the research suggests that the problem is even bigger.

It’s bigger than the stomach-turning mass shootings of defenseless children. It’s bigger than the people we have lost to heinous hate crimes. It’s not about whether people are acting in concert or as lone wolves.

The problem in 2020 was 45,000 people big. And for each of those 45,000 individuals, there were more who mourned their loss, and many who forever lost pieces of themselves alongside the obvious victims. Each year, the problem presented by easy access to guns unfolds all year long, not just when it’s big enough for the news to pick it up.

It’s a man-made problem, not a divine one. Let’s stop suggesting that thoughts and prayers alone are going to fix this.

Ode to a Robinson Crabapple Tree

Oh wavy tree, your trunk meandering nigh
Belies descriptions I so often read.
In catalogs, desirable symmetry…
Yet in my yard, Van Gogh not Klimt doth tread.

Your flowers - bright magenta - turn to pink,
Each spring I wait, anticipate the show.
But they emerge, and barely do I blink,
So short the time before away they go.

Now purple leaves turn bronze-green in their place.
Unruly branches sprout red fruits in fall,
Our christmas globes, the season to embrace,
But oh, I can’t get past your crooked sprawl!

Extoll your merits I may, but still can’t bear
This Dr. Seuss tree swerving here and there.

In 2017, I replaced a dying but lovely Zelkova. Extensive research landed me at a Robinson Crabapple, which offered flowers, attractive bark, berries, a generally symmetrical form, and appropriate root formation (it’s near a water pipe), while still being disease and pest resistant. Based on what I’d read, the Robinson Crabapple ticked all the boxes.

I enlisted my boys and husband to help plant it, convinced that as the tree grew over the years I’d not only love it, but love the memory of all of us working together to nurture what was sure to be a glorious defining feature of my front yard. A few things have happened in the five years since, though.

While I used to love planting and yard work as a child, my sons do not. This isn’t, therefore, the tree that we all look at with fond memories of togetherness. Hearing them tell it, they were conscripted for hard labor that day, toiling in the mud against unreasonable expectations of their ability to dig a hole and hold the tree straight while we filled it in. They have no affinity for the tree, and really wish we’d just have paid someone to put it in.

That’s sad, but I could get over it. The big issue: I don’t like the profile of the tree. Erratic is a good word for it. Unruly. Unkempt. While many stock photos appear as if the branches and trunk of Robinsons are straighter, they’re really not. And while I appreciate it in others’ landscapes having spotted them more since having my own, I just really don’t think it’s my style. I had a classic structure in mind, and this just doesn’t have it.

So I enjoyed its flowers again this spring. I marveled at its shiny burgundy bark as I walked the big dog last night. And I admitted this morning that it may be time to eulogize my Robinson Crabapple after all.

No, I don’t want a seat at the counter.

The slog through struggles to solve relationship issues, tease out how I really feel, or plan my future often unfolds and resolves in restaurants. It’s true. Along a spectrum from fast food to fine dining establishments, I find the change of venue helps me think best. In work and personal matters, getting out of my seat and into a new environment jump starts my brain.

You may recall from an earlier blog post my realization that everybody and his brother has published a book…except me. So when I began to find it hard to break from work long enough to find an optimal flow for writing, I revived my go-to: Dining Out.

It’s a two-fer remedy because it offers the stimulation of a divergence, and also demands I carve out a block of time for the experience. Now at least once a week, you can find me in a restaurant with my iPad, ordering breakfast, and writing. I go at times that aren’t busy, don’t overstay my welcome, and place a substantial order and tip so it’s fair for the restaurant, the server, and me.

I’m comfortable dining alone, since starting during my college days abroad. Some of my best journaling, life planning, and tough decisions have taken place at tabletops with emptied plates and coffee refills. Recently, though, an innocent question caused mental blips. The past two times I went to the diner closest to home, hosts greeted my approach with, “One?,” and followed my affirmative with, “Would you like to sit at the counter?”

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, but I felt an unexpected interruption of emotion, neither welcome nor warranted. I declined and took a table, but felt irritation veering toward offense at what I believed to be a suggestion that I didn’t rate a table like those who dine with companions. After all, at a relatively empty restaurant, parties of three rarely get offers for counter seating. Still, my response seemed irrational, and led me to wonder what lay beneath.

I have very fond memories of sitting at the counter of this diner with my boys in their younger days. I often sat in the middle, one sweet child on each side of me, ordering chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. My earliest counter memory is sitting with my dad at a stop on the way home from Pittsburgh. It was just the two of us that night nearly fifty years ago, but I can close my eyes and be there today.

We were losing my favorite grandmother in a year filled with the loss of family members on both sides. My mother had flown back to Jersey, and my dad and I pulled up the rear, driving home. He needed a coffee and bathroom break on the long night drive. Sitting at the counter, I ordered an English muffin, and he asked if he could help me butter it. I was old enough not to need the help, but I remember feeling very small and very young. It was a simple offer filled with love and strength. I took the help.

He did such a great job. No one in the world butters bread like my dad. He butters generously, patiently waits for the butter to soften on the warm bread, then spreads it. He did it that way for me that night, and then topped it with grape jelly. To this day, English muffins with well-melted butter and grape jelly remind me of my dad taking care of me when we all needed it.

My favorite counter memories aren’t times when I’m alone. They’re times when I’m seated close to people I love, closer than I would be at a table, and enjoying their company in a different way.

My host’s counter offer reminded me that I’m flying solo. Though loneliness wasn’t along for the ride at my arrival, it glommed onto me at the host stand after our exchange. Couldn’t the host see the laptop in my hand and realize that although I need only one seat, I am accompanied by my work? And must I now, having been unwittingly and silently labeled “alone”, put my solitude on display at the counter for all to see, the single diner who can’t possibly need a table? I suppose there is sediment stirring in my otherwise clear waters.

This morning, though, was different. Rather than subject myself to another sparring of innocent inquiry and simmering sentiment, I set off to a diner a bit farther away. It’s larger, with an expansive counter in comparison, so I could have been setting myself up for more of the same.

I was greeted by a host who asked, “One or two?,” despite the fact that there was no one standing near me. “One,” I replied. He looked at me with my iPad case in hand. “I have a nice booth for you over here, and it even has an outlet so you can plug in.” Now that’s the kind of host we all need.

NOTE: My very accommodating host and serving staff were at Amphora Diner in Herndon, Virginia. Thanks, Amphora!

Happy Heavenly Birthday, Tyler.

Tonight we are gathering at DC Prime, a restaurant in Ashburn, Virginia, on what would have been the 21st birthday of Tyler Joe Young. Having lost his life to a tragic fentanyl overdose at 19, Tyler could be one of the many smiling faces in People Magazine’s recent Special Report “Deadly Drugs in the US: Faces of the Fentanyl Epidemic”. Except there’s simply not enough room on its pages for so many we now celebrate in absentia.

On April 6, 2022, the DEA issued a letter expanding its 2021 public safety alert, disclosing that fentanyl continues to be seized at record rates. Its 2021 haul included “15,000 pounds of fentanyl […] which is enough to kill every American”. Pause and read that sentence again. “Enough to kill every American.”

Overdoses can result from an amount the size of the head of a pin, and traffickers leverage its highly addictive qualities by incorporating it into everything from fake prescription pills to the spectrum of street drugs. Tyler simply took a pill that looked like Xanax and went to sleep in his bed at home. He never woke up.

My in-person time with Tyler was brief, but I felt I knew him far better. I experienced him over the years through loving stories from his mother, my colleague and friend. He was brilliant, creative, funny, and kind. And in the midst of living his extraordinary life, he sometimes battled addiction in an effort to quiet his extremely active mind.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog, please click the link below to learn more about Tyler and to make a donation to a memorial fund at the Inova Keller Center in honor of Tyler. The fund supports mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs for children and adolescents.

Please Donate at: https://us-p2p.e-activist.com/3084/give-p2p/117929/julie-and-jeff-hines-fundraiser-in-honor-of-our-son-tyler

If you’d like to see Tyler in action, check out his tongue-in-cheek You Tube video where he spoofs a social influencer reviewing a Waterpik. Or his “Food Review” of Skittles, which clearly takes place in his bathroom, as he delivers the dead-pan line, “I’m in my kitchen now”.

Tyler’s departure was unplanned, and he left us wanting more of him. Let’s work toward reducing the number of others that do the same.

Will the allure of theme dining ever get old?

I’ve dined at my fair share of upscale restaurants. Still, some of my favorite dining memories involve theme dining, even at home. My love of theme dining started in San Francisco, when I was about seven years old. The first restaurant we chose when we arrived had a different theme at every table. A cable car. A stage coach. It was so glorious to my seven-year-old self. I tried alligator nuggets for the first time. Yum! You’d think it would be hard to top.

Next we went to a Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant. It was a Polynesian restaurant located on a boat, and I believed the decor and mini-umbrella-bearing Shirley Temples were the height of cool. Good thing, because it literally took HOURS to get our food. By the time it arrived, I had fallen asleep, head on the table. I breathed in the delicious aroma of Polynesian chicken in its creamy sauce, marveled at its elaborate chafing dish. It was outstanding. But I, and my by-now-livid parents, were too tired to eat. They do not share my happy memories, but I just thought it was the coolest place EVER.

We had more success at the Hyatt Regency’s Ponte d’Oro, where everything was gold or some facsimile thereof. Celebrity George Peppard waived off the Maitre d’s attempt to seat him before us, although we would have been fine with the preferential treatment. Then the food was awesome, the service impeccable, and we sat in a booth that was fashioned as a “gold” cage. We are memorialized in a slightly faded photo of the night, forever tanned and beaming in our golden booth, my mom’s and my own trendy 70’s floor-length dresses beside my dad’s groovy lapels.

While San Francisco may have introduced me to theme dining, we had just as much fun with it at home. It came back to me on a recent night when we ordered Chinese food from a wonderful restaurant in Great Falls.

I arrived home with our takeout to find one son still mid-X-Box game, and the other about to start on the PlayStation, asking to take his meal upstairs. I, too, had just 20 minutes to eat before running outside to a neighborhood s’mores toasting. Fortunately it was taking place right outside my home, so I didn’t have far to go.

I settled in by myself to enjoy Kung Pao chicken, asking my fine frequent dining partner, “Alexa, play Chinese music”. She began to play something that sounded like a traditional tune, and I smiled, recalling childhood theme nights.

My mom would make an Italian meal and I’d put out a red table cloth, grab a bottle of Chianti bearing a well-melted candle and throw an Italian record on the turntable. Sometimes she’d make sukiyaki, and we’d play a Japanese record, and I’d wear a kimono. My dad was a good sport about it, too. It was so much fun, like taking a mini-vacation. When I think of those nights, I smile a deep smile, from the depth of me, grateful for the nights, and the memories that still stay with me.

I’m not an expert, but I suspect it takes three things to build these memories. First, we need to make the memories – do things out of the ordinary, out of our ordinary, out of the routine. It doesn’t take a lot of money or a lot of time to do this. I don’t think the Japanese record we had was exceptionally expensive, and it probably only took about an extra 15 minutes to throw on the red table cloth, the candlestick, and the Italian record. But it was novel. It wasn’t everyday, so it stood out.

Next, we have to be present in the moment of experience, to truly have the experience. We can’t have our phones out playing games, or reading through something for work. Our minds can’t be wandering around wondering when we’ll be done and able to move to the next thing. It’s not an experience if you’re working around it, squeezing it into things you’ve allowed to take priority for better or for worse.

And last, we have to be present in the moment now, to enjoy what we’re doing and to let our mind connect it more deeply to our past. It’s a rewarding cycle. We can always be making new memories, and if we are open to it, have some old ones at the same time.

Who would you be without that thought?

Someone recently asked me if I get anxious about anything given that many of my posts are upbeat. You betcha! There were many unspoken questions in that musing. And I could say, “Yes” to all of them in varying degrees. I have become vigilant about helping fears dissolve, but sometimes they do catch me by surprise. Flying under my radar, they overstay their welcome.

It happened just last week. I held a several-week streak of improved exercise and healthy eating. I hoped to see some demonstration of success each morning as I stepped on the scale, but nada. No change. I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t figure it out. It’s simple math. Increased caloric expenditure plus reduced caloric intake should equal weight loss. Then on this particular morning, I stepped on the scale and saw one less pound register.

Did you just imagine me “whooping”, throwing jazz hands, or air punching out a growly and glorious, “YES!”? None of that happened. I looked at the number and stepped off the scale in silence. I had the sense that I should be happy to have finally gotten what I’d hoped for, but felt not even a blip of satisfaction. I wasn’t sure why.

A couple of hours later, I caught a dark thought crossing my mind. Had I worked hard enough to lose that pound…or could I be sick? In other words, had I lost a pound because I had cancer again? It was a ridiculous thought. I had worked at this, and I hadn’t even experienced weight loss as a symptom when I did have cancer.

Morning turned into afternoon. As I stood at the refrigerator filling a water bottle, I realized my brain was telling me it had found the words. “Unexplained weight loss,” I found myself thinking. “That’s what the term is, the doctors ask if you have ‘unexplained weight loss’.” My mind was still working on “the problem”. It wasn’t really a problem, but it had crept into a recess of my mind that was prepared to tackle it. And tackle it, it would, whether helpful or not.

My weight loss was neither dramatic nor unexplained. It was a perfect case study in slow and explainable weight loss. And friends, don’t you worry about it, because that pound is already back! Still, there I had been. Around dinner time, admitting that the thought hadn’t really left me, I focused on talking myself off the ledge. Unfortunately, I’d lost most of what should have been an uplifting day to that waste of time and energy.

Do I worry about big things like dying? Sure, sometimes. Do I have rational but pointless concerns, like whether the grocery delivery is going to really include what I ordered? Will I still have to drive to the store to pick up another head of broccoli because the one they included isn’t big enough to serve all of us? Yes. Yes, I do. How do I get out of it, you ask?

When I find myself ruminating, I ask myself one of the questions Byron Katie poses in her methodology “The Work”. “Who would you be without that thought?” Who would I be without the thought that I may have fewer years left than I would like? How different would today feel if I enjoyed sitting and reading a book instead of worrying about whether I would have to squeeze in the grocery run when I least want to? When I imagine the person I would be without the disturbing thought – whether big or small – it’s like a weight lifts from my shoulders. I experience what it would be like without worrying about that, and I smile and move on to the beautiful day in front of me.

I can usually tell legitimate concerns from a “glitch” in my thinking, one that draws attention away from enchanting things, and keeps me focused on scary what-if’s. Anxious glitches are rabbit holes leading to an unending stream of worries. Go into one side, and come out the other with an opposite, equally troubling worry. What if cancer recurs? Alternatively, what if it doesn’t recur, and a perfectly good future was wasted by making decisions for a truncated stay on planet earth? The scenarios agitate, but what if none of them are true? How open would the road before us be if we didn’t live these thoughts in our minds, going through the emotions and disruptions, as if they were real?

The only way to win the anxious glitch game is not to play. We can decide in these moments to be the person we would be and will be without those thoughts. We have this day. Let’s not give it away without enjoying it!

I’m in love with my air fryer

I’m unabashedly in love with my air fryer. If I had to choose between the dishwasher and the air fryer, I’d be buying rubber gloves, sponges, and dish soap in bulk. Its plethora of settings actually work instead of frustrate. It has a classic retro look, like a 1950’s toaster oven you’d use to heat hors d’oeuvres, but souped-up. Smart and good-looking, too.

I own the Emeril 360 XL Air Fryer. This is not a paid advertisement, but if Emeril put me on camera I would be one of those testimonial-spouting fans. Right now, I’m toasting a chubby frozen bagel, and I don’t have to worry about whether it will fit in the slots of my toaster. Why? Because I gave that thing away when I got the air fryer. Ditto for the crock pot. Gone. My air fryer toasts, slow cooks, does convection, warms, air fries, and generally cooks better and in less time than the oven, toaster, or crock pot. It’s the single most versatile appliance in my kitchen, so everyone uses it, and it delivers every time.

The only thing it can’t make – I’m told – is cake. I got this information from the seasoned food critics who occupy my sons’ bodies from time to time. The texture is a little different, and I suspect it’s similar to an Easy-Bake Oven. I “suspect” because, as much as I wanted an Easy-Bake Oven, I did not have one. My mom thought the idea of cooking with a lightbulb was ridiculous when we had a full-size oven in the kitchen. And since she was willing to teach me to cook with the “big oven” instead, I didn’t have an arguing leg to stand on. Also, she controlled the purse strings. I’ll give it to her, though – it was a good alternative and served me well.

I’ve had some great appliances over the years, so the air fryer had competition. A Philips pasta maker transported me to heaven in its earlier days. The fondue maker gives me smiles whenever I use it. A Nespresso coffee maker almost lost its luster after about 10 loyal years when the difficulty of getting pods in the pandemic made it too stressful. It was clutched from the jaws of Goodwill when Amazon began offering the pods with one day delivery. Phew! But then, like a dark horse, that air fryer came out of nowhere and pushed that baby out of my heart and practically off the counter. Indeed, it’s pushed as far over as it can get to make room for the air fryer.

The air fryer wasn’t my idea. My older son lobbied for about a year and a half before I cut the only-if-we-ditch-two-other-appliances deal. As when my kids told me they would lavish care on a new puppy if we got him, there were promises of cooked dinners that have yet to materialize. Still, credit where credit is due: If he hadn’t been so persistent, I would never have found my true kitchen love. And believe me, this one is a keeper!

One garden always leads to another.

I was a child when I first encountered the concept of distinct garden styles at what had been the country mansion of George Jay Gould. A railway exec and first son of robber baron Jay Gould, George had the good luck of both inheriting and earning his fortune. That luck ran out after a visit to Tutankhamun’s newly-opened tomb in 1923.

After his death, the Lakewood, New Jersey home and grounds – and well-designed gardens – were purchased by the Sisters of Mercy. It quickly became the all-girls Georgian Court College, now Georgian Court University.

I had some luck of my own. More than 50 years later, my mother began her studies at Georgian Court. The Sisters had somehow managed to maintain the estate well. I explored the grounds and buildings from time to time, and imagined what life would have been like to live as the Goulds. I loved the mansion and on-site casino building, especially its indoor swimming pool and bowling alley. But the outdoor “rooms” were as beautifully crafted as the interiors.

The garden writ large was profiled in the November 15, 1903 edition of “Gardening”. It mentioned that 9,000 arborvitae were needed for the Italian garden, and that 100 of its 180 acres were devoted to lawns and polo fields. It described a “Herculean” effort required to prepare the sandy soil for planting by top-soiling those acres with 8” to 12” of loam. Having grown up nearby and played in that sand, I am not surprised. Italian gardens don’t sprout in that sand.

None of these gardens were anything like the property’s natural landscape, rich with pines which are visible in this post’s featured image. It is situated just outside the pine barrens known as Pinelands National Reserve, the first National Reserve in the United States designated through the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978.

The Sisters did not maintain the gardens exactly as the Goulds had. That likely required an army of landscapers. But they did keep the spirit intact. You can wander through the gardens in person and virtually now. The university has been accredited as an arboretum, and its website shows the Japanese garden, the Italian garden, the Lagoon Garden, and the Formal Garden.

While some home gardeners strive for one unified style throughout their landscape, I instinctively try for that feeling of separate spaces I so loved at Georgian Court. My property is the size of a postage stamp. Still, an end unit townhome lends itself to different garden spaces. Walking around corners provides surprising opportunities.

Last year’s plantings started with a french country-style garden of cool blues, purples, whites, and greens in the front. Turning the corner revealed a pea graveled sitting area, a more formal container garden with iron trellises, evergreens, and colorful annuals. Continuing on the sidewalk led to stairs winding down a side slope, where a perennial border of neat plants in warm, creamy whites, bright pinks, and greens. Those led to a woodland moonlight garden in the back. A deck above held hot sun-loving containers spilling over the rails.

Creating it was as much fun as seeing it finished. Although a garden is never really finished. It changes as the weather changes, progresses as the seasons progress. Each season is a new opportunity to adjust.

I didn’t get to enjoy my garden as much as I would have liked after its planting last spring. By the end of May, everything in place for the Reston Garden Tour, I spent subsequent months recovering from surgery, avoiding the cicadas, and staying out of the brutal summer heat that sapped my already-waning energy.

When fall arrived, I didn’t plant mums or tuck tulips in for the coming spring, as I had the year before. It’s okay, though. My biggest garden expectation is that it should continue to be full of surprises. I can’t wait to see which plants and plans find me this spring and summer. I never aim to duplicate, and I’m never disappointed!

Note: The featured image in this post was taken in 1901. It is available from the Library of Congress. [Detroit Photographic Co. (ca. 1901) Georgian Court, Lakewood, N.J. New Jersey United States Lakewood, ca. 1901. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008679539/.%5D

Mantle

Wild French Camargue horses splash into their white reflections. The sun is setting, the sky and sea turn pink, coral, orange. What will it be like? How does the sea smell, how loud the thundering hoofs? I’m sure that it will be breathtaking. I say, “it will be,” because I intend to see it in person.

William Ireland’s Camargue found a place above my mantle this week, and these horses greet me as I reflect at the end of a long day. Their promise affects me already. I’m inspired to plan the trip slowly but surely. Perhaps a Photosafari from Marseille. Maybe a side trip from a tour of ancient ruins in Provence. The more time I spend with these horses, the more I want to be in motion.

I clear the mantle just below Camargue. Yes, I’m one of those people. I change mantle decor, preferring variety over perfection. After hanging the work and putting only a couple of items back, something is missing, but I am convinced it’s something I don’t already have. Candlesticks, maybe crystal or light wood, but somehow different than what had been there before. A search for worthy accessories begins.

This isn’t my first rodeo. I’m into antiques, and unique pieces, and I’m often luckier online than I would be hoofing it through the local mall. I head on over to my standbys: Chairish, 1st Dibs, Ruby Lane, and Etsy.

Hour one rolls into hour two. I begin to believe the chances of finding a match are stacked in the house’s favor. So many options to go through, even with the best filters. I filter items to my price range, but periodically find something gorgeous only to see its price expressed in thousands.

I scroll on with that sense that the winning item might be just ahead. Random Reward. My mouth is dry from holding my breath in anticipation. Shouldn’t there be a cocktail server coming by to take a drink order? The three-across and five-across image displays on these sites even resemble the one-armed bandits of Vegas and Atlantic City.

I watch images I’ve already come across popping up a second and third time, blended back into the results. Considering how efficient I am at scrolling, these could qualify as subliminal messages. “I’ll take an icy cold coke and those Val St Lambert crystal candlesticks, please. I don’t know why, I just really feel I need them!”

I’d like to say I wrap it up on my own, but I run that iPad until the battery dies. The next day, standing in front of the Camargue, inspired by their motion, I decide to get off my tail and trot to some local stores. In store three, I find candles poured with a spiraling pattern. I hadn’t set out for that. Still, the sense of upward motion seems more interesting than the solid tapers. Minutes later, they are mine.

Now we were getting somewhere. Emboldened, I head further west to a mall where I hope to find many stores offering home furnishings. Maybe some mainstream candlesticks will do, now that the candles are unique.

When I arrive, though, I am greeted with a venue much diminished. I realize with sadness how long it’s been since I ventured here. I’ve been to malls east of me which are closer to the DC metro area, but not west, deeper into suburbia. Of the pre-pandemic five department-store anchor tenants, all that remains is a Macy’s without any home furnishings or crystal to speak of, and a JC Penney. No Pottery Barns, Crate & Barrels, Ballard Designs, or other home decor stores. Many storefronts are empty. Even some of the escalators aren’t running.

The lack of stores and inventory make hours of online candlestick roulette seem like a dream shopping excursion. I decide the only upside is that I’m actually getting exercise finding nothing, instead of sitting in a chair finding nothing. Eventually, I drown my sorrows in a cup of cinnamon sugar Auntie Anne’s pretzels that I would strap on like a feedbag if I could. I take my spiral candles and make my way home.

Back at the ranch, I stand before the horses, holding my spiral prizes up to see whether I can claim anything from the day. I’m struck by how well they work together. These horses, or at least the painting of them, has a sense of movement and action. It’s one of the things I love about this piece. The candles’ ever-upward spirals move with the horses. There is no weighing down here.

My body and my mind are also in motion thanks to the miles I’ve walked over hours. I reach for a set of my own antique rosewood candlesticks, where dark carved dragons wind their way from bottom to top. The spiral candles slip into the bases, a perfect fit. It’s not at all what I imagined at my sedentary beginning. It’s much better.

The Great Gatsby: A Floral Interpretation in Six Parts

You read the title right. Every April, the love of gardening meets the love of books, as some garden clubs honor National Library Week with book interpretations in flowers. Some clubs stick to strict rules and a specific set of books. My local garden club is a little more flexible. That’s how, exactly a year ago today (at the time of this writing), I found myself re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with an eye toward capturing its essence in flowers.

The Great Gatsby was one of the first non-animated motion pictures I remember seeing in a theater. I was very young when Robert Redford’s cool Jay Gatsby met Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 version. I thought it was glorious. Even as a child I understood the depth of character in Jay and Nick contrasting the superficial veneer of Daisy, Tom, and Jordan. It was a beautiful initiation into the flavor of the Jazz Age and great American literature.

Shortly afterwards, my mother took me to her college English Lit class when my elementary school was closed. They were studying Fitzgerald’s work. After raising my hand and responding (insightfully) to the professor’s question about the symbolism of the green light, I was invited not to return. Whatever. You’re never a prophet in your own land. Anyways…

I’m not sure how Gatsby leapt to the top of my mind during last year’s challenge. Maybe I’d been thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio, or how I could have used something like bootleg liquor in a dark speakeasy to make the pandemic a little more tolerable. In any case, I love all things Gatsby, so I had a blast with this exercise. Most people do one floral arrangement to represent something from the book. My design was a cluster of smaller arrangements. It was “The Great Gatsby: A Floral Interpretation in Six Parts”. The arrangement was set on a silver drink tray, and the story was told through each of six floral “scenes” on the tray. The picture below shows five of the six scenes (one is hidden in the background).

If that sounds interesting, read on and enjoy!


The Great Gatsby: A Floral Interpretation in Six Parts

Meeting Leading Lady Daisy Buchanan: Shortly after the story opens we meet leading lady Daisy Buchanan. Our narrator Nick arrives at the Buchanan’s house and describes an italianate garden with a “half acre of deep pungent roses”. Daisy tells Nick that he reminds her of a rose as they sit and talk with Daisy’s friend Jordan. Everything is white and bathed in a rosy pale light. Images include dresses, windows, and billowing curtains reaching for a wedding-cake ceiling. Floral Interpretation: A small crystal bowl wrapped in white chiffon ribbon holds three white roses.

Meeting Mistress Myrtle Wilson: In contrast to the previous wedding-like imagery, we meet Daisy’s husband’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson in darker tones. She lives above a garage where her husband takes care of cars and owns a gas station. Her furniture is tapestried, and their interactions are frenetic and passionate, overblown. And at some point she changes into an “elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon”, which doesn’t seem to fit the surroundings. Floral Interpretation: An inexpensive table glass holds autumn-colored bright blooms, with rough textured pieces splaying out over the glass.

Gatsby’s Wild Parties: We meet main character, Gatsby – the legend – through lavish jazz age parties at his mansion. Primary colors, especially yellows, mix with gold and citrus imagery. Dancing twins are dressed in yellow, crates of oranges and lemons are shipped in for their juice, a full orchestra’s brass section plays “yellow cocktail music”. At another of his parties they describe a starlet as being a “scarcely human orchid of a woman”. Floral Interpretation: the tallest arrangement on the tray resides in a vessel covered in a red and gold embossed paper; it holds yellow orchids, and an ostrich feather, all underlaid with kumquats.

Gatsby and Daisy – Reunited Young Lovers. The lavish and loud party atmosphere is followed by a scene where Gatsby and Daisy – once lovers in their youth before the war – reunite after 5 years apart. It occurs in a little garden cottage that Gatsby has filled with flowers, where they drink tea and whisper together in hushed tones. There’s an awkward shy embarrassment between them, leading to a glowing elation. There’s bridled passion, and a sweetness and a hesitancy about their interaction. It is at once simple and innocent, yet complicated. Floral Interpretation: A vintage Noritake Morimura Lusterware tea cup holds a large creamy white double daffodil.

TJ Eckleberg’s Watching Eyes See Myrtle’s Demise. Their love rekindled, Gatsby presses Daisy to tell her husband Tom that she never loved him, and only loves Gatsby. At the first false start, Tom has Gin Rickeys brought in, and then they all leave to go into the city. Along the way they drive by the watchful eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleberg on a billboard, eyes behind glasses with retinas a yard high, who Mr. Wilson believes is God watching all. In the city, the scene goes from bad to worse, and Daisy and Gatsby drive off. As they pass Wilson’s garage, Daisy hits Myrtle Wilson, killing her, and leading to Gatsby’s ultimate demise. Floral Interpretation: A tall highball glass holds sparkling seltzer with lime segments; perched atop the glass is a miniature pair of eyeglasses – wire rims with violas inset for eyes.

Jay Gatsby, the evolution of Jimmy Gatz. And in the end, we’re left with a very solemn and solitary funeral for Gatsby, with few mourners. Nick as narrator speaks of Gatsby’s ever hopeful quality. He describes his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”, and says he had an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person”. Floral Interpretation: A single white rose, its stem wrapped in black satin.

Thus ends our story, in flowers and otherwise. If you’ve never tried a floral interpretation before, April is just around the corner. Consider trying it yourself. There are so many ways to approach it, you can’t go wrong. Just use your imagination!

When is “evidence” evidence enough?

My trust of cashiers and servers is no lower now than in 2021. This point surfaced for me after hearing Rich Roll suggest we note that our everyday interactions likely don’t reflect the level of contention seen in the media and social media. It’s an interesting observation.

Charting trust for over two decades, The Edelman Trust Barometer indicated year over year downward trends in trust across the board in 2022 – media, government, business leaders, and multinational organizations. Institutional distrust may be undeniable, yet I’m not skeptical of the intentions of individuals I encounter in business or in daily transactions regardless which organizations they represent. If anything, I’m likely to give people the benefit of the doubt, feeling as if we’re all trying to do our best in these challenging times.

Still, the call for “evidence” seems to be on the rise. Evidence of what’s behind charts. Evidence of what was removed from social media. Evidence that evidence exists or doesn’t exist. It begs the question of who would be qualified to review the evidence, and what you’d have to do to get reliable evidence.

A recent check-engine light on my dashboard prompted me to consider how I choose trust, trust-but-verify, or outright distrust, and the role evidence may play along the way. The way I saw it, there were two possible responses:

  • Option A: the check engine light is a reliable indicator of a problem; I better get this checked out, or
  • Option B: the car manufacturer applied a variable algorithm triggering engine lights in hopes of getting parts-related income; the company believes that unethical mechanics, in an attempt to get labor fees, will purchase OEM parts to fix even non-existent issues; my work here is done.

Call me naive, but I choose Option A. I bring it to our local service station for a $150 assessment. Imagine the service manager says, “Ms. Vitalie, there are fairies that run on a treadmill just above the engine. Their shoes are wearing out, and we’re going to need to replace those shoes. Also, it’s winter, so we suggest you let the car warm up more before you start driving. You need to give their little legs a chance to get going before you get to those high speeds.” At that point I would say, “Frank, pop the hood. This I gotta see.”

Instead, Frank recommends $1,000 of corrective work to fix both the engine light issue and a squealing belt I’ve noticed. Should I ask for evidence? I think not. I know very little about how my car works. I do not ask that they bring me into the bay to show me that the valve is in fact stuck in the open position, or that the tensioner assembly isn’t running optimally.

I generally trust the service station. Trust in this context includes both believing they give me honest estimates, and a believe in their competency and ability to execute repairs. Still, the service station has already performed $2,000 in repairs in the past two months. I go home to think about it. As if on queue, the car’s remote start also stops working. Now I have a new diagnostic issue, and it relates to something that the dealer is probably best positioned to address.

At the dealership a week later, I fork over another $150 diagnostic fee. It confirms the original diagnosis from the service station, and I learn that the remote start simply doesn’t work when there’s a check engine warning. Seeking similar information independently from a different source was really the only evidence that was helpful. But it cost me a lot of time, effort, and hard dollars to get this evidence.

The service manager tells me there is also some additional work recommended. He says my coolant is dirty and should be flushed, and my spark plugs aren’t firing quite as they should. Alarms begin to sound as they do when additional unexpected recommendations arise. A soft whisper at the back of my head urges, “Don’t. Don’t.” I ignore them. Why? I seem to be in a trusting mood given they did not exploit my suspected remote start issue. I give the green light for the repairs.

I’m feeling pretty good, thanks to my high supply of trust. The repairs progress quickly. As I prepare to leave, I hear an interesting exchange between the dealership’s service manager and another customer.

The service manager explains to the man that his tire is beyond repair. The car will need four new tires, which the service manager doesn’t even have in stock. Also, he notes for the customer, “You really need a coolant flush and new spark plugs.”

Really? What are the chances? Now that’s evidence I wish I’d had earlier. *sigh*.

Writing fairy tales

Would more people write fiction if they could imagine characters they’d like to be around? Wouldn’t it be fun to get lost in worlds of your own making, populated with a cast of perfect characters? In theory, yes. But it’s not that easy to execute. Stories move forward through tension, opposition, and conflict. Characters grow to correct flaws or underdevelopment. They improve and become interesting when their status quo is insufficient for the tasks at hand, and so they rise to meet them. The action can’t be all wine and roses, and the characters can’t always be at their best.

I recently thought of a storyline that had legs. I had a hard time breathing life into it, though, because it took awhile to find a likeable and sustainable main character. My mind crafted possible protagonists, and as quickly dismissed them as boring, shallow, or agitating. Some characters had the chops to go the distance for a sequel or series, but I just didn’t think I’d like them enough to keep them going. I had visions of wanting to kill my own hero off so I wouldn’t have to write yet another saccharine missive.

Birthing a novel is a significant undertaking in terms of emotional investment and time. There is the actual writing effort. Even for a fast writer, 60,000 words or more doesn’t come easy. An article in The Writer discussed the variety of writing speeds of some well-known authors. Ranging from around 600 words per day to over 2,000 per day, one couldn’t expect to write a novel in under a month. Hence the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) month-long challenge to write 50,000 words each November.

Add to that, those word counts aren’t in “salvageable” words. Many fall to the cutting room floor, only to be replaced with more writing, more words. And of course you’ll spend more time in creative thinking, editing, and rewrites. Something about your fictional world and its people has to keep calling you back. So you have to like it at some level.

Once birthed, the manuscript can’t exist without your nurturing.  It takes more effort to get it packaged and staged for shelves, virtual or otherwise, and to market the work.  During that experience you’ll talk about the character, consider the character, speak to their motives, strengths and failings in your effort to gin up interest and engage future potential readers.

When I consider the level of effort, I’d rather not embark on it with a main character that is petty, miserly, miserable, sociopathic, or just plain irritating. It might be satisfying in a redemption work, like watching Scrooge become a better self in A Christmas Carol. But redemption stories have inherent limits. After all, there’s no Scrooge franchise with Another Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s Fourth Ghost, or Educating Tim.

Given my unwillingness to commit to writing worlds and personae I don’t like, I began to wonder how writers of grizzly horrors or psychological thrillers manage to live in their novel worlds long enough to finish their own books. I found some great answers in Lee Murray’s piece, “Horror in Real Life: Writers and their Mental Illness Demons”. This is not to suggest that all authors who write horror stories struggle with mental illness. But Lee’s interviews of horror story authors provide fascinating insight into how the writing process impacts different individuals.

In fact, after reading Murray’s article, I even felt brave enough to consider adding some menacing characters into my storyline. But don’t get ahead of yourself. I may be willing to sprinkle them in, but there’s no central role for them anything I plan to write.

I’d like a plate of inspiration without the struggle, please.

I was in the mood for curling up with an inspirational movie. One problem: literally every inspirational movie I found had components of hardship built in. Did I really have to watch the suffering to get to the good stuff?

There are no hero stories without monsters of one kind or another. There can be no catharsis without angst, uncertainty, inner turmoil. In a story arc that ends in a transcendent, hard-won success, characters will travel a rough road to get there. Glancing at the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, I saw that each of the 46 I’d seen had dramatic components.

So maybe, I thought, a movie wasn’t what I needed. Maybe, I thought, quotes are safer. Quotes can be inspiring without presenting negatives because they don’t require a story arc. Or can they, and don’t they? I headed to a box of quotes I keep on a common shelf, and began to dig.

Marianne Williamson’s inspirational quote, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world” seemed innocent enough. But the ideas of playing small, and embracing the calling to serve others and to have a greater purpose – these create tension, which only resolves if you commit to play bigger.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step” presents strength in the face of underlying hesitation, the unknown, uncertainty of direction. A first step feels brave precisely because we don’t have a vision of the whole staircase.

Many quotes I read leveraged fear behind the words. Some were stated, as in Michael Jordan’s, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try,” or Jack Canfield’s, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” In others, the concept wasn’t stated, but still resided. A Charles Darwin quote I remember from undergrad Anthropology seems to surface every week in someone’s writing, thanks to the constant state of pandemic-related change: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” As it inspires many to get flexible today, the quote embeds the scary prospects of survival of the species itself.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s, “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions” encapsulates the forced abandonment of our former, smaller selves. Do we fear failing to challenge ourselves, or abandoning ourselves in the pursuit of self-realization? Does Eric Thomas’s “Fall in love with the process, and the results will come” harbor a quest for results, for progress or completion we may otherwise be powerless to attain?

I had to face it: There is no transcendence to be found without struggle. It’s not a diner menu favorite that you can order up as you’d like. It’s the endgame of an arduous process. Contentment, while beautiful, doesn’t motivate us to do or feel anything else. Conflict begs resolution. I find some comfort in this. Remembering that one can’t exist without the other inspires perseverance. Perhaps that realization is inspiration enough.

Can banning be the best advertisement?

I spent some time this weekend considering banned books, the banning of books, the burning of books, and censorship generally. Good times.

I wondered to what extent banning requests were being exploited as another political or ideological tool. To find out, I headed to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (online, of course), which tracks and publishes challenges and ban requests. I needn’t have spent so much time there, though. Later in the day, the New York Times published an article answering my questions. There is a range of efforts, campaigns to shape the shelves of U.S. libraries. They include efforts to criminalize the stocking of the shelves by librarians and others who choose works that go against conservative preferences.

A rapidly increasing body of efforts take aim at public school libraries on a platform of exercising parental rights over what children can or must read. In 2020, half of the challenges to public libraries generally were brought by parents. ALA’s OIF provides details as to the basis for some of the challenges of years past. After scrolling through a list of challenges to the top 100 American Novels, I wondered if I could support some of the requests that centered around age appropriateness in cases of required reading. I personally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my late twenties, and it was rough content. It was an amazing book, but I could see that I might want to be sure my child was ready before requiring that. It’s certainly a balancing act.

It seems, though, that the balancing act is going to get harder instead of easier. Thanks to publicity around book banning efforts, newly banned books are flying off shelves faster than hotcakes off a diner griddle on Sunday. The New York Post reported that after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winner Maus last week, the 30-year old graphic novel series soared to the top of Amazon’s charts, breaking through the Best-selling Graphic Novels category into the Overall Best-Selling category. The book is not only back ordered due to demand, but an online fundraiser to purchase the books free for students generated over $80,000.

One of the most important books in my life was a frequent flier on the banned and challenged lists. By the time I read Go Ask Alice, it had already been banned by some middle schools and high schools. The 1971 book was purportedly the diary of a teenager who fell into drug addiction. It was raw and graphic. It endured years of challenges, appearing among the top 10 most challenged books in 2003. I read the book in 6th grade, at 11 years of age. What it did for me was to strip every bit of glamour off drug use.

By the time I finished that book, I understood drugs to be a bad trade – a trade where I would give up myself and my self control to awful people in exchange for fleeting experiences. That book single-handedly helped shape my perspective and life choices for the better. As a former two-and-a-half-pack-a-day smoker, I can tell you that I likely wouldn’t have been a dabbler in the drug world had I chosen to enter it. It probably saved my life. That’s the power of a book.

Those who try to ban books may meet with initial success. Still, they may just be advertising for the very books they hope to restrict. In the end, I believe they sow seeds that will become forbidden fruits of which many will take note and interest, and ultimately ingest. I say, “Let the feast begin!”

To beach or not to beach

Since my early twenties, I’ve dreamed of the looking down at the ocean waves through walls of glass in an ocean front condo; dreamed of turning to the door and heading down for a sandy walk and a salty swim. That I’m even entertaining the idea that beach living may not be my endgame intimates how much I and the world around me has changed in the past couple of years.

I had a clear picture of my future self sunning against the backdrop of shimmering waves and a warm breeze. I’d begun researching before the pandemic, and could envision great scoping vacations in resort areas across the country. I even considered a minor career adjustment that would have made all of it easier.

Fast forward to today, our pandemic limits travel, inflation floats beach properties higher each day, and my brush with cancer makes me wonder at times what lies ahead. I’ve started rethinking where I see myself in my future years, and how long I’m willing to wait to get there. In a few years I’ll have an empty nest. And if this pandemic EVER subsides, I’ll be able to begin vacationing again. But will I research areas near beaches as I’d planned? I’m not sure.

During my early research I bumped into a legitimate issue. As you know if you’ve read my earlier post about a writing contest, I’ve developed an aversion to dark water. And frankly part of it is predatory fish. Although I grew up near the beach and frequently swam in ocean and bay water with low visibility, I’ve developed some trepidation. Still, though, something more insidious crept in. It’s the changing value I place on the conveniences I have.

Post pandemic and post cancer treatment, I’ve come to value how connected my current location is to everything I could need. Paths and natural wooded areas allowed us to continue outside activities when indoor areas closed down. A nearby metropolitan area means access to all manner of deliveries and services. When searching for medical care I found exceptional doctors and facilities in my own back yard. They’re things I thought I didn’t need, and yet somehow they’ve become table stakes.

So were I bent on a beach relocation, I’d be looking for a place with crystal clear water, mild climates year round, recreational places and spaces to enjoy, city-style amenities reasonably close by, world class medical resources, close to a major airport and highways so I can easily stay connected to family and friends. Did I miss anything? And is there any chance this place exists?

This week, as I shopped in one of the four grocery stores a stone’s throw from my house, Coastal Living magazine with an island life feature caught my eye. It occurred to me that if I’m never going to be happy without clear water sans predatory fish, maybe I should just stop this seaside search and consider being happy with a pool.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but it was a practical thought, so I stood for a couple of minutes and let it settle in. Given that I was in an obvious crisis, I did what my fellow Americans do in times of crises: I bought stuff.

Don’t worry, it was nothing big. I purchased two magazines: Coastal Living and Traditional Home. I wanted to explore what resonated and what didn’t. During my first flip through Coastal Living, I found that some of the coasts were beautiful…if I also had a pool, because I wasn’t loving those brownish green waves. Needing a pool defeats some of the purpose of moving to the beach. Shifting to Traditional Home, there was some appeal to the thought that I wouldn’t have to swap out French country furnishings for conch shells, sand dollars and shiplap. Over the years I’ve lost my affinity for classic coastal decor. It’s fun for a vacation, but it wouldn’t be my every day choice.

Moving beyond the superficial is going to take a little more courage. It’s not so often we wrestle with letting go of something we’ve held on to for so many years. So I’ll take some deep breaths and I’ll flip through more pages. Because a lot has changed for all of us. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that any successful rebuilding can only be done by being honest with ourselves about what we need, what we want, what has passed, and what may yet lie ahead.

How comfortable can you get with a changing world order?

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be reading a book on “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order”, you would have heard a long and hardy laugh. And yet here I am today, listening to author Ray Dalio on Audible, hoping to gain a perspective that will make the contents of The Economist remotely digestible this week.

I rarely read magazines cover to cover, whether digital or hard copy. I find an article or two of interest, then move on. Not so today, as I wondered, would be wise to go full monty for a change? Well, it might be wise, but one look at the table of contents sent me running.

From The Economist’s Americas section, I could choose between articles on COVID, electoral administration, insurrection, “Mexico’s bad, mad energy plan”, or video games in Brazil. Oh, but the video games article was actually about video games expressing the political divide. Or I could turn to Asia, with offerings like, “Myanmar’s defectors”, “Omicron in India”, or “Unrest in Kazakhstan”.

Before you tell me to turn my attentions to Glamour if I want to read horoscopes and happy handbag stories, let me say that The Economist bills itself as including politics, science, business, culture, and the arts. It’s just that the rampant rise of bad news crowds all else from its pages.

When the pandemic first hit, I wished that I’d understood more about how previous generations had handled their own pandemics, and how their cultures, countries, and economies had evolved as a result. I reasoned this holy grail of knowledge could inspire some optimism in darker days. But I was distracted by the strain of living in our maddening world, and by my gratitude in being able to still experience beautiful moments in the face of our hardships.

Well, good news. Turns out Ray was doing a study of the rise and decline of empires at around the same time, and if I understand the press correctly, he incorporated the info I was wondering about into his new book. Unfortunately, the audible version is nearly 14 hours long. Fortunately, Ray’s intro says I can feel free to skip whatever sections I want. Woohoo!! Freedom!!

So I have embarked on this reading in the hope that insights into evolving world orders from a historical context will neutralize some of the anxieties that one can’t help but feel when faced with the barrage of bad news. I am cautiously optimistic. I mean, as optimistic as anyone can be about world order changing.

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.

Maybe we can talk about it over dinner.

Nearly three years ago, I made a choice I hailed as my most brilliant decision ever. I became my own boss and started a consulting firm. I would advise organizations in Ethics and Compliance after leaving a company I’d been with for 13 years. Having been a consultant before, I was excited by the prospect of doing it again, this time for myself.

Working for myself was wonderful. I loved my boss! We had the same values and priorities, and she supported me when I decided to be selective about which engagements I’d take and which I’d decline. That meant I enjoyed the work more, because I chose engagements where I could make the most difference, and worked with clients I enjoyed. I also spent more time with my family. For the first time, I felt my work fit into my life, instead of fitting my life in around my work. I vowed never to return to working in-house.

Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder what it would be like to work in-house again. I’m becoming – dare I say it? – work lonely. Given that I’m not around people as much as I used to be, I’m feeling that gap of wanting to be a part of a team and community all working toward the same goals. The drama of being so invested in the outcomes seems to be missing. Trouble is, everyone else seems to be leaving their employers, often finding the same gaps on the inside. In November, more than 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs, leaving a near-record number of job openings.

Does my future lie with my current boss, or should I, like two thirds of the working population, be looking for a new job? The work environment in this seemingly never-ending pandemic seems to be making everyone generally dissatisfied. LinkedIn keeps prompting me to consider jobs that match my qualifications, and they sound wonderful. But would I be running toward some great opportunity, or just running away from something that’s making me temporarily unhappy?

I think it could be either. With all the movement in workplaces now, there seem to be some genuinely great opportunities. And as a result of the pandemic, changes in priorities, work styles and remote-friendly processes have added some upsides that didn’t exist in most companies before.

This situation keeps reminding me of the time I ran away from home when I was 5. My parents wouldn’t let me walk to the 7-Eleven a mile away, past vacant lots, construction sites, a park, and roads with speeding cars, all without sidewalks. I couldn’t continue to live under those intolerable conditions. I packed my blue and white kindergarten book bag with a few important items including my piggy bank, and set off.

I met my friends at the corner, a few houses away from my own. Seeing the road before me with choices to the right and left always seemed like reaching a milestone. They were about to set off to the right for 7-Eleven, but suggested I go home and talk to my mom before going further. I refused to be dissuaded. I mean, I was packed. I was on the road. I did agree, though, that I should probably go back and say, “Goodbye”.

When I reached home, my mom sweetly opened the screen door and listened to me announce that I was running away, and that I had just come to say, “Goodbye”. She said in a soft voice with softened, dark brown eyes that she was sorry to hear this…and that coincidently she’d been in the kitchen making my favorite meal. It was too bad I would miss it. Or maybe I’d like to come in and talk about it over dinner?

I want to have someone open the door and welcome me in that way again. I want to go home. I, like many others, just don’t know where that will be right now.

Getting Back to a Beatles Christmas

My teenagers don’t like the Beatles and don’t even understand their attraction. It’s hard for me to bend my mind around, because my experience of the Beatles has been their timeless and global presence. They show up gloriously in so many memories.

Twist and Shout’s “Shake it up, Baby!” brings me back to a college luau with my besties. I sang along to Hey Jude as it played on repeat during car rides on winding roads in Europe. Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds played the first time I’d seen the Apple label spinning on a record player. I instantly loved the song, and begged my cousin to play it over and over while I danced around in the platform heels I’d taken from her two older brothers, both sporting the long hair look the Beatles inspired.

Perhaps I should have played the Beatles more for my own children, because at this point neither shows any interest, let alone the reverence the music deserves. It was with this reverence that I anticipated watching Get Back this holiday season. I expected to hear many of my favorites in the course of its seven plus hours. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy watching their creative process.

While I’ve been a fan of their music, I’ve never explored the history of the Beatles as a band. At the beginning of the documentary, I couldn’t figure out how – or even if – they would pull off anything resembling success. Having allowed themselves around 14 days to write more than as many songs, and entering the scene with dour looks and a constantly present Yoko, I had my doubts. It was a bit of a nail biter.

By part three, though, as they worked out the final versions of some songs and were just beginning the writing of other recognizable classics, I got a lump in my throat as the messiness resolved. Lennon’s early reminder that he did his best work when their backs were against the wall was a testament to their comfort with the chaos, and the payoff it would yield. Creation has to include a level of tension, a willingness to explore without perfection, and an ability to disassemble and reassemble to bring out the best in anything. It was an unexpected treat to watch all of that transpire on the screen.

It was also a treat to watch producer George Martin’s interaction with the group. I had been impressed by his 1998 release of In My Life, featuring a cadre of celebrities covering Beatles classics in unexpected but undeniable style. Sean Connery’s voice on the title track was about the only way I could imagine that song getting better. Get Back hints at Martin’s ability to do that, though. His understanding and appreciation for the music, and his commitment was obvious. You could imagine him having enough of a handle on the essence of it to give it a second life.

It was personally fitting for me to watch Get Back during the holiday season. Some of my earliest Christmas memories include decorating the tree while listening to the Hard Days Night soundtrack. We usually listened to Christmas music, but when this album surfaced among the LPs, I liked it too much to take it off. I played it over and over again, dancing around to it.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of how much the Beatles have meant to the world and its people shows up in the movie “Yesterday”, which I caught on the big screen with a dear friend before the pandemic drove us from theaters. In it, a phenomenon leaves the world with no memory of the Beatles. Main character, Jack, however, recalls and begins to recreate their music to wild worldwide enthusiasm. When Jack learns that several others with memories know what he’s doing, he expects to be turned in as a fraud. But no – they wouldn’t do that. They’re grateful that someone is able to fill the world with the Beatles again.

It’s a construct that wouldn’t work for most other bands, but it completely makes sense when it comes to the music of the Fab Four. A world without their music is a world less grand. Having a bird’s-eye view of how it came to be is Get Back, and it’s worth the time to watch.

Note: Get Back is streaming on Disney Plus at the time of this writing.

The first day of the rest of my life

The morning after my last chemotherapy infusion, I woke feeling exhilarated, as if it was the first day of something big. And it was. It was the first day of the rest of my life, a life made more meaningful by the difficult terrain. I finished shy of the 190 days, coming in at around 177 days instead. But what a life-affirming journey it has been!

I have emerged with a different lens through which to judge how I spend my time. I now ask, “If I only had 5 years left, would I want to spend any of it on this? And what about 10 years? Or 15 years? What about 20 or 30?” It’s a healthy line of inquiry I wish I had begun years ago.

Some things I know will bring me joy or satisfaction, and regardless of duration, I would consider it time well spent. Those are my new “Yes” decisions. Other things would be a long slog for what might be lucrative or bring status, but I weigh more carefully what I would have to give up to get there. I’m shuttering a second business that had a great business plan and minimally saturated niche market. While I’m passionate about the issue it solved, and it’s a great opportunity, I’m not interested in spending my years building it.

I’ve learned the value of being kinder to myself. For most of my life to date, I ignored how tired, hungry, or thirsty I was, how difficult or heart-wrenching the effort before me, or anything else that might have gotten in the way of getting through tasks at hand. I’m now more attuned to how I’m feeling, and what fuel and care my body and mind needs to run effectively and produce better results. Craving chips gave way to craving fruit. I’m realistic about what time I turn in at night, and prefer to be fully present for important conversations instead of multi-tasking my way through them.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is how freeing it is to live a life less guarded. Having built perimeters around my privacy for decades, now sharing expositive aspects of my life, my thoughts, and my history seemed like an exercise in vulnerability. And it has been, but in a good way – in the way Brené Brown describes as the birthplace of love and belonging. My experience blogging and interacting with others who play in this space showed me that sharing ourselves isn’t a zero-sum game. The more we share, the more we have to give, and the richer our lives become. My efforts at hardening the target only kept me from living a more whole-hearted life with boundaries instead of walls.

This journey reminds me a bit of hiking the Samaria gorge in Crete many years ago. Our group began at the top where it was cold enough to warrant a jacket, the path surrounded by alpine flora, lush and green with a steep descent. As the hike continued, the land became flatter but drier and rockier, our bodies more tired, the late summer sun and heat exhausting. In the later kilometers, my ankles buckled a couple of times as my body began to exercise veto power over my will, something I’d never experienced.

Samaria gorge,Greece

By the end of the 18 kilometers, bone dry, hard terrain eventually led to the Libyan sea. A lump in my throat, I walked into the water and stood there for what seemed a long time. I looked out at the sea and felt grateful that my preparations had helped me get through, and that my body had held up without injury for the full hike. I felt relief, joy, and accomplishment. I felt blessed. And most of all, despite the physical toll, I felt stronger for having made the journey.

After my last chemo follow-up oncology appointment.

How I learned the high price of lying.

For young children, the line between what they hope is true and what they know is true can blur. This is probably a gradual process for most, but for me it came all at once, with a painful splash.

When I turned 5, I began kindergarten and my mom enrolled in college. Among the benefits to me was better access to recreational classes, like swimming. I already loved the water, but lessons made it even better. The pool even had diving boards. One was low, and the other went up forever.

At some point I learned to dive, and began diving off the low board repeatedly. My mom would watch me to my delight, though it must have been boring watching the same moves over and over.

One day I ran to her and told her she’d missed a great dive. She asked if I’d gone off the high diving board. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, “Yes”. I immediately wished I could take it back. She said something like, “Oh, I missed it.” I don’t know if she prompted me to “do it again”, or if it was my own idea. Either way, for some reason, I thought that if I simply did the deed, my lie would become a truth. And so off I went, wet feet splattering water everywhere, toward the high dive.

My mom must have thought that faced with that prospect of doing anything from that height, I’d own up to my lie. Years later she shared that she had watched me go, thinking that I’d turn around at any moment. She watched as I climbed up the ladder…and up…and up…and got to the diving board, and stood at its edge. And she thought I’d turn around. But I never turned around. I was doing this. I dove off.

That dive was the most painful of my life. I attempted to do a shallow dive, but my chest and legs hit at an angle that made it feel like more of a belly flop. It felt like death by a thousand slaps. I resurfaced quickly but the pain made it hard to catch my breath. Eventually I did catch my breath. I swam over to my mom and confessed that it was actually my first time off the high dive.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes it’s easy to think that if we say things and believe them hard enough, they’ll be true. But it’s good to have a reminder that it doesn’t really work that way.

Following our passions is getting easier.

“Cowboys and Indians” was the earliest game I remember playing in my neighborhood. I always wanted to be the ingenious Indigenous, powerful and stealthy from knowing the place, strong and tan from living off the land. I didn’t understand why most kids wanted to play the boring interloper cowboy, but it worked for me.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t just want to play the role, I wanted to be an American Indian. The way my four-year-old self saw it, there was only one thing keeping me from sleeping in a teepee and hunting game on horseback with my new peeps: golden blonde hair. I knew from every TV show I’d seen that there was no such thing as a blonde American Indian.

Nightly, I would pray to the Guy in the Sky to give me long, straight black hair. I pictured myself at the top of a clay mountain on horseback, the sun high overhead, waving goodbye to my family as I prepared to gallop away. A shirtless brave with equally awesome long black hair was on his own horse beside me. We set off for my new home, our matching hair waving majestically in the wind behind us, along with some feathers from our headbands.

As I grew older, I came to understand that I would not be fishing in cold, clear streams with my fellow tribesman and sleeping under buffalo skins. I never lost my soft spot for the Indigenous people, their culture and traditions, though. The more I learned, the more I believed I’d been on the right side of that childhood game. So in my 30s, when the consulting firm I worked for landed a contract essentially helping the attorneys for the “cowboys”, I was horrified. I decided to decline being staffed on the project, even if it meant giving up my job. Fortunately I wasn’t staffed on the engagement, so it never came to that.

A few years later, now at another consulting firm, I learned of a project working to reconstruct the records of Indigenous tribes in an effort to get their assets appropriately assigned. I was thrilled at the chance to right some past wrongs. Alas, the job involved a lot of on-site time at remote reservations and came with a hazmat suit, and I was pregnant. Contributing in that way would have meant a lot to me, but the time wasn’t right.

Over the course of my career I haven’t always felt passionate about the projects I undertake or refuse. I was reminded of these two engagements, though, when I read about an increase in employees making working decisions based on the values and social positions of their current or potential employers. The importance of Corporate Social Responsibility has been increasing in recent years, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated employees prioritizing it from their employers.

I wonder how it will shape assignments and engagement choices in the future. I suspect it would be much easier to decline an assignment that clashes with your values, without having to accompany it by a resignation. I feel comforted knowing that as businesses evolve there will be more of a place for our social conscience, and more opportunities for employees to do work that touches their hearts.

Let down by the promise of the pre-lit

Am I alone in feeling betrayed by the promise of pre-lit Christmas decor? I once bought what I believed to be the perfect Christmas tree. Its stems wrapped in 500 lights promised to make my life oh-so-easy each year. By year two, only some of the lights lit, and we began stringing additional lights around them. It was the only solution, as they were hard to troubleshoot, wrapped as they were around branches. When year three arrived, I spent what seemed like hours carefully clipping the now-dark strings from boughs just to save the tree I’d come to love. And my hands were a mess!

The tree fared better than the pre-lit deer that’s been in storage for five years. It was glorious for the first year, but that’s as far as it went. Its lights also have to come off, and they’re not easily replaced. The glitter-covered metal wires aren’t easy to work around either, and so each year I just put it off a little longer.

Why did I expect anything different? Most of my holiday lights peter out somewhere towards the end of season two, regardless of how much I spend, what brand I buy, and whether they’re attached. The lost investment of time is as irritating as the hard dollar costs. I have a lot of opinions about lights, so purchasing isn’t a breeze. Are the multicolored strands pink enough, or would they be too blue? Are the white strands a warm white? Do they blink or do they twinkle? They should twinkle, as if fairy dust and Christmas magic created random sparkles in the night. You see how it is, right?

This year, I pulled out three strings of twinkling, colorful, high-end outdoor lighting to find that every strand had sections that wouldn’t light. “It must be me,” I thought. I simply lack the light maintenance skills needed. Well, “No more!” I vowed, This time would be different. I broke out the Lightkeeper Pro and went to work.

After about an hour testing bulbs and sockets, matters were worse. More segments had given up the ghost. The Lightkeeper Pro had just prolonged my suffering. I hadn’t even begun to move on to the white lights I string on trellises each year, which were also out of commission. This light maintenance business could be a legitimate job.

I had to ask myself: “Could this be the year to lower expectations?” “Yes,” I thought. Yes. I went online and bought 5 sets of brightly-colored $5 lights from Target, and decided to toss my 2019 investment. The new lights arrived in three days, and every light lit up. They twinkle, and the color is fine. I abandoned my trellises and decided I simply didn’t need them this year, so I would forego the white lights.

I survey the glow each night when I walk the big dog Cooper, and I have to admit that this year’s results aren’t quite what they’ve been in years past. But I’ve decided it is fine. I was able to make it all happen in a short amount of time, with little mental energy. That’s the beauty of not having pre-lit items. I can be flexible from year to year. I do think the front lawn needs another item, and maybe next year I’ll get around to rehabbing the deer. He also has an antler that needs soldering, but since metal shop was my favorite class in middle school, and I do own a soldering iron, I can’t wait to fix that part! Just as soon as those darn lights are off…

In the meantime, I’m appreciating some of the decor that doesn’t light. The dove in the picture above is my favorite this year. It opens, and has a small compartment inside. At the end of last season, I stowed away a small piece of paper with the year’s best Christmas memories. My life was so different then! Before hanging the ornament this year, I opened the paper and got to relive the joy of those memories of last season. If you’re looking for a new holiday tradition, this one is wonderful. And you never have to change the bulbs.

You don’t have to go far to make a memory.

Travel advertisements seem to always promise that you’ll make memories if you simply join them on this cruise or at that resort. I have made such memories, and would never trade them. But I’ve also noticed that many of my fondest memories come from everyday experiences. The slightest objects, smells, or sounds can bring us right back to a moment past. Here’s what I mean.

Sometime in the early 1970s, on a hot summer night, my dad introduced me to plums. We were huddled in our TV room – which we called the Blue Room because it was – you guessed it – blue. He sat down with plums and asked me if I wanted any. I said I didn’t think I would like them. He responded, as he did many times, “You don’t know unless you try.” So I tried. They were black plums, deep purple on the outside and deep red inside. They were juicy and they were delicious! They were so refreshing in the summer heat.

Over this past summer, that night came back to me, as if I were a small child in that blue room, talking to my dad. I’d bought a variety of plums and to my delight found that some were exactly the same as those I remembered. The second I cut into the first, saw the inside and smelled it’s sweetness, it all came back. It tasted like our smiles in the light of the television.

Cherries reminded me of my mom for many years, and still do. It’s because one summer she’d put a bunch of washed cherries in a big metal bowl, we took them out on the very green grass of our front yard, and she taught me how to eat them while we picnicked. Now they also remind me of my son, who also enjoys them.

Grape Kool-Aid reminds me of childhood days at the beach with my mom. She’d fill up a Tropicana glass gallon jar full of ice and grape Kool-Aid, and I would help mix in the sugar. The cold jar beaded condensation by the time we got to the water’s edge and spread our towels. It was too heavy for me to lift, but she would pour it into the cup for me. I loved the sound of the ice rattling against the glass jar, and how it tasted when the ice was melting, watering it down. I still love watering down flavored drinks, like Gatorade, and even orange juice.

Kiwi reminds me of my college friends. I had never had a kiwi before college. My friends got one or two to cut up and try. We all decided we liked them, even though they looked pretty gross. Because I was extremely opinionated and largely unfiltered in college, I am sure I said exactly that upon trying it. But when I eat kiwi now, I always think of the girls we were and the women we were becoming on that day.

Touching fresh mint springs brings me back to a tender scene with my grandfather. He would make iced tea and add fresh mint from his garden. I remember him bending down and asking me sweetly in his Italian accent if I’d like some. Sometimes when I drink something with fresh mint, I’m back at his summer home by the bay, the breeze blowing through the house from front to back, the hydrangeas on either side of the front door, and the pea gravel back yard where we sat enjoying those summer days.

Anything made of Mother of pearl reminds me of my grandparents in New Jersey, and of being at their home as a child. My grandfather had a business that made buttons. They mixed shell scraps into the cement for the sidewalk at their home. I thought the sidewalk, which ran along the house and next to a big apple tree, was beautiful. I would crouch down to trace the shell scraps with my fingers, little half-moon cut-outs where buttons had been successfully punched out at the factory. Other pieces were broken buttons damaged in the process. They were shiny and reflected light unlike the chalky-feeling outer shells. I marveled at the layers of shell that could be seen in some pieces. When my mom told me that they were scraps that weren’t needed after the buttons came out, I couldn’t fathom how anything so beautiful and interesting could be unwanted. I don’t have mother of pearl in my sidewalk, but I do have some picture frames that bring me joyful memories of those days.

Creeping phlox in my garden remind me of another grandparent. I think of her when their flowers emerge in my garden each spring. My grandmother planted long borders of them along one side of her sand-colored brick house. We would sometimes visit the home in Pennsylvania for Easter, and would be met by a long row of neat, mounded pink and purple blossoms visible as we approached over the hill. Everything about my grandmother’s house was very neat. Yes, even the creeping phlox.

Her husband – my grandfather – was just as neat. His garage was literally as clean as the inside of the house. Every tool shined and had a place on peg boards or in drawers. The floor was a shiny gray. Though the house and garage were relatively small, there was space around everything, and no clutter to speak of. Having lived through the Depression, they lived out the “waste not, want not” principle. Sometimes when I look at my own garage I have an urge to get everything out, wash it, paint the floor a shiny gray, and find homes for all that remains. Alas, I came of age with the saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and my garage reflects that. So it’s a little easier said than done. But a girl can dream!

Music transports me to many places and experiences from years passed, but in a different way than objects. I don’t think there’s anything else that can move me across a variety of decades in the way music can. And there are both special days and every-days that surface for me. If I give in to the memory as the music plays, I find that my mind moves rapidly on to related memories. It’s as if I’m at a buffet, and there’s just one table after another of deliciousness to choose from.

Hearing Styx’s “The Best of Times” through the car radio, with its own nostalgic quality, I was immediately back at my cousin’s wedding as he married his high school sweetheart. I was in that room dancing and watching them dance, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives that I loved then, and love still though some have passed on. As I gave in to the memory, it shifted. I was at my own wedding many years later when that groom was a guest watching me get married. Then I was at a pool in Las Vegas celebrating my aunt’s birthday with our families, yet another wonderful experience.

We have so many precious gifts locked away in our brains, just waiting to be brought back to life. We can miss them on days when we move too quickly through the logistics of just getting things done. We should give ourselves the time to pause in the present, and to enjoy our experiences. Then we not only make new memories, but we are sometimes rewarded by moments of unique beauty past.

To forget is to live without lesson.

A priest once told me that God forgives and forgets, but the human condition and its challenge is that we have to try to forgive while we may be unable to forget. I think that’s true. It is human to remember, whether it is our own transgression or that of another. And it is both our burden and our opportunity to try to construct a better future even though these memories remain. Our universe only cares about what we do in the present. It doesn’t care whether we did a good job yesterday.

The more I experience, the more I understand others, and my role in their world. A few weeks ago, I walked slowly across the grocery store parking lot. A car approached my general direction. To the driver, it must have looked like I was taking my sweet ol’ time. In fact, I was going pretty fast considering how I felt. On that day, the grocery visit was all I would have energy to do, and I was at the tail end of the trip. I thought of all the people I’d watched slowly cross the street in front of me over the years. My impatience muttered things like, “Anytime now”, “Yeah, no rush, we’ve got all the time in the world. It’s not like I have to be somewhere.” In the not-too-distant past, I always had to be somewhere, like 5 minutes ago.

I had another such awakening years ago, driving our dog to vet visits during her cancer treatments. In my 6-speed roadster with a loud, vibrating engine, I’d try to go a little slower and shift gracefully so our beautiful girl would have less discomfort during the ride. Those trips changed me forever. I realized that we have no idea what’s going on in the car next to us, what kind of day the driver is having, or what they’re dealing with. I stopped wishing the “idiot next to me would learn to drive”. I figured out that maybe I should be a little more kind and generous with the road.

I’m grateful for these lessons, because they’ve added a little more compassion to the world. Don’t misunderstand – I still have my days. But I’m better than I was for these miles walked and driven. That only happened because I’m willing to acknowledge these lessons, despite the fact that the “knowing” makes me cringe a little more when I do have a moment of impatience, or sigh deeply when I remember acting less than my best. If we truly grow, yesterday’s actions and choices won’t always align with the people we are tomorrow. We’ll need to accept that, and sometimes to forgive ourselves. I suspect given the stresses of the past couple of years, this universal need will be more keenly felt.

“We are going to make mistakes – own them, make amends, and move on.”

Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights, 2020

So what can we do with this painful misalignment? When it happens – and it’s going to happen – say, “Thank you”. Remember that forgiveness is good. Be kind to yourself and let it wash through you. Make amends if you can, but don’t ruminate about it if you can’t. Stop trying to forget. Forgetting, while we’d all love to, would mean abandoning the lessons that help us grow. Coming face to face with the reality we lived before we knew better can be tough, but it just means we’re more aware. It doesn’t mean we are bad or unworthy. It’s a necessary part of the journey towards greater humility.

Closing our eyes hoping the past goes away robs us of our chance to learn from our mistakes. Be brave. It’s through these lessons that the gravity of our prior actions can drive us to be our better selves tomorrow.

**Photo by Penny Shellhorn-Schutt. Thanks to Maria Ulbricht at The Holistic Woman for permission to use her photo of a modified Exalted Warrior. The Warrior poses in yoga chronicle a warrior’s journey that ends in compassionately accepting regretted past actions, which results in renewed life and wholeness.**

Memories behind the lenses and brush strokes.

I love taking pictures…of people taking pictures. Not just anyone. People I know. It’s exciting to capture the moment of experience, the moment when someone finds something so interesting they’d like to keep it. I remember being there with them, and sneaking the pic. My family is used to it by now, so they usually wave me off when they catch me. I remain undeterred. There’s no winning without trying.

This picture taken at Big Fork in Montana is only precious to me now because I remember the people in it, and being part of that group and experiencing it together. The view attracted us to the spot, but the memories aren’t about the water, the trees, the sun, or the rocks. They’re about the people.

Big Fork, Montana.

I also don’t need entire bodies in my pictures, as you can see from the Hollywood Star in this post. Seeing our sneakers instantly reminds me of huddling together to get our feet in the pic, the giggles, jostling, and c’mon’s that accompanied our “star” photos that day. Remembering where we were, how we felt, and what we were doing, is the best part of photos.

It’s rare, but every so often, even if we’re not in the picture I remember and appreciate it. Like when we’d spent a few days trying – and failing – to see the Hollywood sign through the fog and smog from every go-to lookout point known to man. Then my husband had the now-legendary idea of just getting in a cab and asking the driver to take us to a spot to see it, and did that ever work! We were ecstatic when it came into view. It was the hard-won victory, as much as the breathtaking scene.

One great idea and $22 or $32 later…We saw Hollywood despite the fog!

I’ve had the reverse emotional experience with artwork, where I’ve arrived at a place I’d seen only in pictures. It seems surreal to be there, in it, to smell and hear and feel the wind, and know the place better. The Square of Saint Mark’s, Venice, by Canaletto was a popular work in the 1970’s. I grew up seeing reproductions of it. Standing in St. Mark’s Square on our honeymoon years later, I welled with tears, realizing that I now knew what was on the other side of that pink building if you walked to the water, knew what was on the other sides of the square, and knew how it felt to walk on the stones and dance there with a man I loved.

Canaletto’s The Square of St. Mark’s

The pandemic offered opportunities for many amazing photographers to take pictures of what the New York Times called “The Great Empty”, allowing us to see normally crowded but now empty spaces. The pictures are at once beautiful and heartbreaking, as we see a new view of the bones of the places, but we also know the fear, grief, and anguish that forced people to stay away long enough for photographers to capture these photos.

Monastiraki Square, Athens, Greece (photo by Savvas Karmaniolas)

I wonder what people will think of these empty scenes when they look back years from now. Though we are all changed forever as a result of what’s behind the photos, I hope that many will recall finding the strength they didn’t know they had, finding community in unexpected places, and helping each other through to better times. And eventually, I hope they make and remember new memories of dancing in the many squares of our world.

Paris, France, May 2021. Dancing Argentine couples tango at Tracadero square (photo by Krzysztof Pazdalski)

Can we stem the proliferation of misquotation?

Some quotes are so good that they inspire you to read more from the source. They beg the question of what other wisdom and pithy phrases envelope them. I experienced the wondering and the search recently with a quote attributed to Anäis Nin – supposedly one of her best quotes, in fact. Here’s how it went down…

…and then the day came

when the risk to remain tight,

in a bud,

became more painful

than the risk it took to blossom…

Anais Nin. Elizabeth Appell?

Before tossing a lightly used journal one morning, I flipped through and cut out a few special quotes. The one above was among them, listing Anäis Nin as author. Literally two hours later, I decided to begin re-reading Jen Sincero’s, You Are a Badass. By page 13, I stumbled upon Jen’s statement, “There’s a great line from the poet Anäis Nin that reads: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’”

The universe was clearly directing me to learn more about this work, so I embarked on what became hours of research trying to get to the bottom of exactly which Nin work featured this line. Turns out it’s none of them. My search yielded the sad surprise that it wasn’t demonstrably hers.

How could this be? Zazzle sells t-shirts, pillows, magnets and posters all attributing the quote to Nin. Goodreads and poetry sites attribute the quote to her, sometimes calling it a poem titled “Risk”. Poem analysis sites speculate on Nin’s intentions expressed in each line. It’s been referenced as hers in published works by other authors. I chuckled at the irony of seeing the quote in a blog post on the Nonfiction Authors Association site. And yes, I felt ashamed of myself after I did it. But really…how did we get here?

I headed to Sky Blue Press, which specializes in publishing and researching Nin’s works, and which operates the official Anäis Nin blog. A post noted in 2009 that the unevidenced credit was an unresolved mystery. Then in 2013, a woman came forward alleging she had written it in 1979, and offering proof of publication. At the time, she had only received credit as editor. Sky Blue Press agreed that Elizabeth Appell’s story makes for a compelling claim. Nin wrote much about risk and courage. Did anonymous voices of the internet simply choose her as the author of a phrase she never uttered?

Despite authoritative noting in 2009 that the quote didn’t appear to be Nin’s, there is no sign of its attribution slowing. I was at least heartened that a 2015 doctoral dissertation by Clara Oropeza – which included substantial discussion of risk as a topic in Nin’s writing – did not include any reference to the apparently non-existent poem “Risk”. Thank you, Clara, for being a light in this darkness!

The inability to reliably source or attribute quotes – especially the most inspiring – seems to have become commonplace. I expect it to become worse. After the “Nin” incident (as I call it), I began researching authors’ quotes before using them, and citing their specific source. I feel better doing the heavy lifting to get to accuracy, even if it means speaking with university archives research librarians or the credited authors themselves.

Unfortunately for me, I drew the line at folk wisdom. I didn’t feel the need to nail down centuries old common sayings. Then, as if the hand of fate needed once again to drive me forward, someone commented on my blog post mentioning their favorite line from my post. The sentence was a derivative of a phrase I believed to be common folk wisdom. I began to write that I couldn’t fully take credit since I’d heard its sentiment before, passed on to me by someone who’d heard it from another. But the wondering started…what was the origin, anyway?

I entered it in Google Search and was immediately met with pillows and mugs showing the original quote along with an author’s name. “Fool me once, Zazzle!”, I thought. But as I continued to research I became convinced that it wasn’t folk wisdom, but someone’s actual quote. I reached to the author credited, and confirmed it was, in fact, hers. The author was gracious and provided me with a preferred reference to a source. I updated the post to include her actual quote and source.

Inadvertently failing to give credit where it may be due is not a new phenomenon. Isaac Newton is credited with publishing the phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” although it’s been identified as a possible derivative of statements by two others many centuries before.

Still, giving credit where none is due seems to be a different sort of issue. Especially given that it can overshadow an author’s real brain children. My heart was heavy when I thought that despite many other great quotes, Anäis was being remembered for and reintroduced by one that wasn’t her own.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Anäis Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944, June 1941 entry

Nin did produce inspirational quotes. One that has stuck with me over the years seems especially important now. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. We should all have the courage to question, and to search, and to find our truths. Sometimes it’s best to dig deep even if it’s easier to cut and paste.

Wading into writing contest waters.

Although I love a good challenge, writing contests hadn’t interested me until recently. A friend shared her experience with NYCMidnight, a contest that launches at midnight on a specific date, and allows you only 24 hours to write and submit a newly written piece. It sounded like a fun effort, and I loved the idea of so many people taking the same prompts at the same time and turning them into unique works.

I decided to give it a go, and signed up for an October 15 contest of micro-fiction (250 words or less). As midnight approached, I couldn’t wait to find out what my prompts and genre would be. The anticipation was so exciting! It felt like Christmas! The launch message came, and I navigated to my name for my group assignment. My face fell. I’d be writing something in the Romance genre, including an activity of swimming in a pond, and using the word “dawn”. A few important points here:

  • I have never written micro-fiction in any genre.
  • I have never written or desired to write romance.
  • Swimming in a pond is my personal nightmare given my aversion to dark water and what lies beneath.

The thought of ditching it crossed my mind, and not just once. But I pulled my big-girl socks up and gave it a shot. Given the challenges with the assignment, I am pleased to say that I did manage to write something and submit it. I’m also pleased that, despite falling into the romance genre, it’s not too blush-worthy for prime time. I won’t know how I fared in the contest until December, but I have to admit that I enjoyed rising to the challenge of stretching into a new genre and format. I’m sharing the micro-fiction here, as likely the only piece in the romance genre I’ll ever write…unless another contest comes along.

Sunday Ritual

Written October 15, 2021

She caught her breath as the chilled night air greeted her. Walking toward the pond he’d built, her lips spread into a smile as she thought of how his vision, though not his hands, had made it reality. A pond for their children to swim in, but no ordinary pond. She walked past steps flanked by urns with cascading bright flowers. Her toes broke the dark water, irises and rocks surrounding it on all sides, backlit as the sun peaked up in front of her.

Waist deep now, she spread her arms wide, and watched the water swirl around her fingers as she moved through. In an hour it would be dawn, and she would lie next to him in the silence of the smooth teak deck, slightly warmer than the night, but not as warm as his chest and thighs. They would watch the sun rise, and speak quietly words for just the two of them. When another hour had passed, the patter of tiny feet would run toward them, starting their day, wondering about breakfast.

Having crossed the length of the pond, she turned back toward the house just in time to see him slip out of the bedroom doors, a towel slung around his waist. He was more than she had imagined when they married. He became even more each day. She waited for this man who had made her the woman she was at that moment. Waited for their Sunday ritual.

Judging Books by Covers

Ragdoll cats are known for their sweet, docile personality. Our vet describes our Ragdoll as “spirited”, despite her pedigree. A note for technicians on her file warns to take care, as she “will lunge at face”. She appears sweet and can be cuddly, but when miffed, she packs a punch.

Conversely, our dog, despite claiming lineage from several restricted breeds, has been known as the friendliest dog on the block. There is one hound in our neighborhood that he barks at ferociously. Hackles up and pulling like a freight train, he looks and sounds as if he’s about to eat her for lunch. It’s very stressful for us and the other owners. Once he caught me unaware and literally dragged me across pavement to get to her. I looked up from the ground horrified, expecting to see a blood bath, and confused by the quiet. He was licking her with his tail wagging a mile a minute. We didn’t know what he was when we adopted him at 7 weeks, but now we know he’s 80 pounds of love.

The rescue group said Cooper was a shepherd mix, but his adoption paperwork pronounced him a lab/boxer/hound mix. Two veterinarians thought he looked to have Great Dane in him. We weren’t sure what he was, but we knew it was awesome. He learned sit and down commands immediately. He would fetch through obstacles – including a beagle twice his size – and protect the ball until he could return it to me. He was handsome, sweet, and the most social dog we’d ever met. He loved people and pets equally. When we brought him to puppy day camp for evaluations, we were told he was exceptionally well socialized. He grew cuter each day. Cuter and bigger.

To get more insight for future health choices, our vet recommended a doggy DNA kit. The results were surprising. My super-retriever was, in fact, not a lab. My Dane-y looking pup had no Great Dane, either. He was 37.5% American Staffordshire Terrier, 25% German Shepherd, 12.5% Boxer, 12.5% Chow Chow, and 12.5% mixed breeds. The American Staffordshire Terrier is a “bully breed”, like a pit bull, known to be either a viscious toddler mauler or a great family pet like Spanky’s childhood companion, depending upon which side of the controversy you lean. German Shepherds and Chow Chows are also considered restricted breeds.

I was surprised, but unphased. As a child I heard my dad talk about his childhood bull terrier on rare occasions. You could hear he was choked up on the inside, even into his 40’s when he spoke of this dog, who he said was the best dog ever. She had run into the road to push him out of the way of an oncoming car. He was saved. She was not. I learned that people that train pit bulls to be bloodthirsty killers were a problem. Pits and bull terrier breeds in their entirety were not.

Cooper spent two to three days each week at a wonderful dog day care in his early life. He was well-played and well-loved. Occasionally on a weekend, I’d bring him to a near-by dog park, but sometimes it wasn’t a great experience. On one particularly grueling dog park visit, two aggressive dogs had been seeking Cooper out and nipping, and their owners couldn’t have cared less. Looking for a safer space for him, we drove directly to a nearby PetSmart to find out whether that might be a fit for a few hours of playtime at their Doggy Day Camp.

The woman at the front came around the desk, looked at him for about 3 seconds, and rejected us. She said she definitely saw pit in him, and if a bully breed is dominant, they couldn’t have him playing with other dogs. I looked down at the love bug next to me and couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

For a long time I didn’t return to PetSmart. I was so offended at the idea that a corporate policy would literally reject customers based on the way they looked. It felt too close to the offensive biases that keep people from having equal opportunities, equal access, social justice and social equity, and more. I still don’t like it as a policy.

“Furthermore, for the safety of all animals and associates, we cannot accept dogs of the “bully breed” classification or wolves/wolf hybrids including American Pit Bull Terriers, Miniature Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bull Dogs, Bull Terriers or mixed breeds that have the appearance or characteristics of one of these breeds.”

PetSmart Doggy Day Camp policy, https://services.petsmart.com/content/daycamp-requirements?origin=DDCPage&type=DDCRequirements&desc=LearnMore

I recently came into some information that helped me understand what may have shaped that PetSmart’s poor policy. “Restricted Breeds” are a term used to describe breeds of dogs (or mixes with quantities of a particular breed) that are considered high risk in terms of liability. In fact, if you own a dog with a fair amount of restricted breeds, your homeowner’s and umbrella policies probably don’t cover you in any way for events involving these dogs. The same holds true for dogs who have a bite history.

Policies that do cover liability related to these dogs generally appear to be offered as standalone policies, or reinsurance offerings that are tough to access, expensive to maintain, and fraught with potential fraud. Coverage options do exist, as some states require proof of coverage, for example, in order to avoid euthanizing your pet after a bite incident. But there are stories of insurance representatives taking policy funds and not actually insuring the dogs or paying out when an incident does occur. Yet according to one insurer’s site, the average claim for a dog bite is around $30k, so going without the coverage is a risk for anyone.

I could understand that, from a business perspective, it would be desirable to limit exposures involving restricted breeds. Still, I don’t respect PetSmart’s “looks like” method, where an employee could simply look at my dog and determine whether they are restricted. I have been at reputable, successful dog daycares that have different but effective methods for determining whether a dog could play safely, or potentially getting them there if they’re not. Here are some examples of alternative vetting options:

  • Introductions to your dog with staff, then with other dogs of different sizes and temperaments to ensure they are able to play safely with others and are a good candidate for interactive play. Not all dogs are good candidates. In that case, a rejection is fair and appropriate.
  • Employing and appropriately staffing play spaces with dedicated and knowledgeable staff who monitor dog activity and know how to spot potential issues and react.
  • Requesting proof of breed makeup from the owner, such as dog DNA results.
  • Offering a series of training sessions for your dog prior to becoming a candidate for playing with others; this makes them more comfortable and confident, and social play can be introduced gradually. While more expensive, this is an option for some.

Why do I feel so sure that the “looks like” method should be ditched? Well, I recently worked on getting insurance coverage for my restricted breed dog for my own sanity. For each potential insurer, I had to answer reasonable questions about my dog, as expected. Oddly, no one in the insurance industry has asked me to send a picture of my dog so they could make a premium assessment just by judging the book by the cover. Go figure.

Note: The featured photo of me and Cooper is by Matt Mendelsohn. It was taken outside, and no – there were no fans blowing! Matt is just magical at capturing moments. You can read more about him and see examples of his amazing work at his site, https://www.mattmendelsohn.com.

Phill Singer is in my bathroom.

Some years ago at the Reston Art festival I found myself in front of two pieces I couldn’t leave without: Phill Singer’s Anger Management and Tiger by the Tale. Luckily they fit perfectly in my home office where I saw them daily, and they frequently appeared on conference calls and webinars for several years. They were poised to live a long life there, until renovations following a leaking chimney cap forced them from the wall.

The art was fine, the walls were not. Renovation efforts expanded, as they often do. Furniture moved around, too, as you can imagine it might against a completely blank canvas. When it was time to rehang, the previous location of the two early pieces was no longer available. And by now I’d bought a third: Night Moves.

For a long time, Phill’s work lived in my closet while I tried to find its new “perfect place”. I wanted it to be a trafficked area, or at least a space I used frequently. But most of those spaces held other things that meant something to me. Botanicals I’d gotten as a gift. Photos and other works with sentimental value. Reproductions of Audubons I’d fallen for and decorated around. And while I wasn’t treating these three works as interior design pieces to blend with anything else, I wanted the colors and style of the space to enhance rather than detract from the viewing.

About once every few weeks, usually around the time of a morning shower or long hair-drying experience, it would cross my mind that they would be at home in the master bath. I quickly eschewed the thought, because a) I didn’t want to risk humidity damage even though it’s a pretty big room that never fogs up, b) they should be where others could see them besides me, and c) I didn’t even like the idea of having something so amazing stuck in the bathroom. I felt they were better than that. Surely it would be some kind of slight to put them in a bathroom.

So Phill’s work continued to live in my closet for more months, supporting my “better than that” prejudices. Now, anyone who has spent a minute perusing the Houzz website has likely seen palatial bathrooms bearing unique art all over their walls. Finally, I accepted that, as much as I would’ve liked them to go somewhere else more fitting, putting this art in the master bath was the best chance I had of actually enjoying it each day. I had to get over my idea that a bathroom was somehow less deserving of artwork than other rooms. I told myself I could take them down if it didn’t work out. And let’s face it, that’s better than having them stuck in a closet where I felt remorseful each time I saw them living in their interim-soon-to-be-permanent space.

So into the bathroom my Phill Singers went. To my surprise, this turned out to be the perfect place. Not only do they glam up the room, but I frequently find myself stopping to look at them more closely, or just appreciating them generally. Another wonderful surprise was that, after hanging them, I found I had enough room for a piece I’d wanted but couldn’t fit before: Fatal Attraction. Guess what I’ve asked for this Christmas?

High expectations and high standards are good, and they can help us improve in many ways. Still, if your search for perfection stops you from experiencing things that bring you joy, send those expectations on vacation for awhile. Make some choices that bring happiness today. Now Phill Singer is in my bathroom, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Note: Anger Management image used with limited permission from the artist.

Holding on to hugs and little hands.

I love seeing parents holding small children, guiding them across a parking lot with a hand on a shoulder or back, or holding a soft, tiny hand. My “boys”, while still teenagers, now look less like boys than men. As many moms warned, the years went quickly. Witnessing these families reminds me of the best everyday pleasures I used to experience with my own some years ago.

One of the best rituals was the greeting I’d get from my older son when I picked him up from daycare. He’d had a great time there, but would run from wherever he was in the room, arms wide to give a huge hug. He was so joyful, and his hugs so heartfelt. It was the best end to every work day. Even now, he gives the best hugs. Several months ago, he hugged me goodbye as I left for surgery. There was so much love and strength in it. You couldn’t mistake how he felt with a hug like that.

When he moved to elementary school, I found another favorite ritual, this time at the beginning of the day with my younger son. Taking him alone to daycare was one of the rare times in a day when I did not have both boys with me, and could focus entirely on one. Each day, as we held hands from car to building door to keep him safe, I would embrace how grateful I was to be holding that little hand. I knew that someday his hand would be bigger than mine. I felt honored to have this time to guide him. His hands are bigger than mine now, and he uses them to help me in all sorts of wonderful ways. But I will never forget how it felt to be there – for him and with him – in those early years.

When I talk to mothers who have small children, they say the days are so long. I remember that. They wonder if they’ll ever make it to the teenage years with their sanity intact. I remember that, too. It is true that the days are long, but the years are so short. My wish for all parents is that we appreciate the precious gems hidden in our everyday actions. Their comfort never goes away.

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project (2009)
https://gretchenrubin.com/books/the-happiness-project/about-the-book/

We put great efforts into holidays and big celebrations, as if those special days hold something more meaningful than others. Still, if I could go back in time to any day, I would pick an ordinary day. There would be no department store Santa or wee St. Patrick’s Day celebration, no graduation or birthday. It would be an Everyday.

Instead of sweat beading on my upper lip as I raced to get everyone ready, I would cherish picking out clothes for the day, and putting a sock gently on a tiny foot unlined by miles of walking and years of running. I would trace my finger along toes and smile at the tickled giggles. We would play with bath toys and bubbles until the water turned cold.

I wouldn’t be so worried about getting to work on time. The worrying never got me there quicker. I would be slow about breakfast, unconcerned with whether someone ate everything. I would cut apples sitting at the table with my children and hand them out as I sliced, instead of taking them out of packages and frantically plating them like a short-order cook. It would take the same amount of time, but we would experience it together. And my cellphone wouldn’t be on the table.

I would not pretend that I could work an 11-hour day during work hours, come home and take care of my family, and then return to checking emails and working for another few hours without giving up something. There’s actually not enough time in the day for that. I would make more informed choices. From experience I can say that my kids and my husband didn’t get the best of me, and neither did I.

When I started my own business in 2019, I realized that I lived my best life if I guarded against distractions equally in work and personal activities. We all won when I focused my time and spent less of it on work, not more. Clients got more value from me, I was far less stressed, and I was able to have a conversation with my kids when they came home from school. My quality of life soared. Better late than never, I guess!

We sacrifice so much in an effort to “get” time, and to “spend” it efficiently. The only way to get time is to pay attention to it in moments, instead of letting it slip away.

Half-way Day is Here!

I began this blog because so many words and thoughts spinning in my head wanted to come out. Life had become more precious after my brush with cancer. I relished realizations, cherished memories, and felt closer to family and friends than I had in years. I didn’t know who would read or care about my stories, but I knew they needed a home outside of me. Unlike journals that I’d kept to myself for many years, I believed these thoughts should be shared. That’s how 190 Days came to be.

My first post went live on July 1, the day I began chemotherapy. Why “190 Days”? Those of you who read my first blog post likely guessed that my 190 day journey is about my road to preventing a recurrence of a cancer my surgeon successfully removed. My treatment is expected to take place over 6 months, and it was preceded by a port placement surgery about a week before. Altogether, about 190 days.

I have learned so much on this journey, which has reached its half-way point. I have completed 6 of the 12 cycles, and 95 days. The best lesson was how kind and supportive people can be, and what a difference that can make. I was unexpectedly surprised by the compassion and generosity of family, friends, and neighbors who learned of my surgery and path forward. They were all especially creative in the ways they supported me, offering things I never would have considered asking. That safety net was a great comfort. Just knowing made me stronger, and gave me more confidence to be there for myself.

Below are some of the (many) highlights, which I’m sharing in the hope that they help others be creative in supporting their own family and friends.

  • Offering Rides to Appointments: Neighbors offered to take me to and from surgery, to and from appointments, or other places I needed to go. I took two neighbors up on a ride to and from the hospital, and was touched by how much it lifted me to see their faces on either side of my surgery.
  • Dog Walks: Neighbors offered to walk my dog. My 80 lb. bundle of love can be a handful so I went a different route. But had he been a small guy I would have said yes. My dog seemed confused about me not walking him and playing the way I used to, so getting to spend time with a neighbor would have been a treat for him.
  • Picking Up Groceries and Prescriptions: Although I had grocery delivery down pat thanks to the pandemic, the offer to pick up groceries or take me grocery shopping could have been a make or break if I’d lived in an area without good delivery, or if I needed something quick. Picking up prescriptions after surgery is huge. If you can’t drive or you don’t feel up to it, having someone drive you there to get them is priceless.
  • Watering Gardens: Some neighbors offered to water my garden. It’s no small offer. I have a modest townhome without much yard. Still, I’d been a stop on a local garden tour earlier this year, and I had lovingly planned and planted annuals and pruned and nurtured more perennials than you could shake a stick at around all three detached sides of my home. The offer to water, even from those who weren’t gardeners, was so touching because I felt like they “saw” me. They knew it was something I cared about, and they cared enough about me to try to help me keep it.
  • Small Kindnesses: Things like offering to meet me anywhere I wanted for lunch made staying in touch easier. Another friend met me for walks, which was good for me physically and just a good way to catch up and have fun. And she let me set the pace. My dental hygienist knew of my condition because she did my pre-chemo checkup and cleaning. She saw me in the lobby twice since when I took my sons for routine visits. Each time she came over and asked me how I was doing – and not just a cursory ask. She met my eyes with hers and I could see she cared, and was there for me if I had issues to ask about or share. These small kindnesses really made me feel cared about.
  • Being There With You and For You: Family and friends local and distant offered to be there for me at the hospital or during recovery, or to take care of my family. It was such a comfort knowing that I could launch a Plan B if needed! One friend offered to stay in a nearby hotel and come and play scrabble with me during my hospital stay. Another offered that I could call at any time and they’d fly in that day. Cousins I love but rarely see offered to fly or drive in from other states to be there for us. If you are able to offer this kind of support, offer it and repeat the offer a few times, so they know you mean it. Those offers made me feel like Popeye eating a can of spinach. It instantly pumped me up.
  • Treating You Like a Person…Instead of a Sick Person: What was most impressive about the offers and goodwill was that they weren’t accompanied by a “poor you”, “you can’t do this without me”, “I feel so sorry for you”, “you better lean on me”. It was more like, “Hey, I’m here, I’m on your team – just let me know when to get off the bench and start playing – I’m ready!” That’s empowering. That’s the best kind of help you can give.
  • Caring Conversations: I spent hours texting and talking to caring friends and family after my diagnosis, and in the early cycles of chemo. Those who had been through cancer and/or chemo, or had helped someone close to them were uniquely helpful. Hearing their journeys, advice, and tips helped me make good decisions, and helped me take more control over my journey. “Gratefulness” is too small a word for how I feel about these people. I know that recounting their stories involved revisiting difficult experiences and emotions. Some were distant scars, others fresh wounds. They dug deep into their hearts past their own pain, took my hand in theirs, and put their great wisdom into my small palm. They were courageous and inspiring, and continue to be so.
  • Respecting Wishes: I am generally a woman who knows what she wants. So I really appreciated family and friends who respected my boundaries in words and in practice. The words were just as important as the practice because of the comfort they brought and connection they maintained. Some of the best articulations:
    • “I understand you don’t need anything…, but if that changes just let me know”. Well, it did change, and that “just let me know” made all the difference.
    • “Whatever you decide, I’ll be there for you.” We don’t always make the choices that others would make. It’s huge to know someone will be there for you 100% without judgement despite that, and that you won’t lose the relationship along the way.
    • “I’ll respect your wishes”. When someone wishes the answer was yes, but it’s no, acknowledging that they hear your “No” and will do as you asked alleviates anxiety.
  • Prayers and Healing Thoughts: Even if you aren’t very religious or don’t subscribe to the idea of healing energy in the universe, the power of spending time with positive thoughts does make a difference. I loved when people said they were praying for me. I really didn’t feel like I could do it effectively for myself, so it was a boon to have someone else pulling for me with the Big Man Upstairs. Sometimes people shared the prayers they said, and they were beautiful. Like this one: “May the angels surround you and go before you, with you, and after you, and protect you and divert any harm away from you and your family.” If you don’t want prayers (or even if you do) there are plenty of other healing options. Laughter is the best medicine, and it’s easy to come by and to share in the form of funny gifs, jokes, hilarious conversations, or comedic movies. Reiki and other methods of healing energy can help physically and mentally, and have worked for me.

The mentions above really helped me with the big “C”. But one of the special surprises for me was about another “C” – connections. It happened in a new way for me when I began to blog regularly. I enjoy not only the creative process but also the connections I’ve made with those whose blogs I read and with those who read what I write. I’ve also found that I’m reconnecting with my past, and connecting my past with my present more gracefully. I was helped along by the fact that when I told friends and family I was going to blog they were supportive instead of telling me to pay attention to other things or worrying about what I would write.

Connections come in many forms. For some it may be art, or music, or a book group, or zooms or lunches or walks with friends. But it’s important to feel that connection to something that stirs your soul, and I’m grateful to those who have encouraged me to and supported me in doing so.

And now, continuing on this road, let’s see what the next 95 days will bring. Thank you for being part of the journey this far!

Some lessons never leave you.

Creative Writing is not usually a high point in one’s high school experience, and unsurprisingly it was not in mine. In fact, I believed I barely had a memory of it until I decided to wind up 2020 with a reading of my past journals…about 40 years worth. Though the teacher – Mrs. Campbell – was not mentioned by name in any journal, her creative writing assignments are likely the reason I had the journals in the first place. I was not a willing vessel, but Mrs. Campbell’s class provided me with two worthwhile lessons: The importance of proofreading, and the benefits of journaling.

I learned Lesson #1 when my first writing assignment came back with a C+ in red ink at the top. The grading policy included a zero-tolerance policy on misspellings. Even one resulted in a starting grade of C+, and the grade would decline from there based on the work’s merits. I paid little attention until the rubber met the road (or the red hit the paper). Ouch! I can practically still see the grade circled on the paper, and feel my self-righteous indignation welling up. Complaints to my parents that evening about the injustice of it all were met with no sympathy. I’d known the rules, and I should have proofread.

I thought it was stupid at the time. In truth, though, typos and misspellings are a distraction. However good a piece is, your message suffers when the reader is distracted. And on the rougher end of the spectrum, especially in business, those who would like to see your points dismissed can point to those errors as defects illustrative of the quality of your work, thoughts, or care. It may not be fair, but that’s how it goes down in the real world. So well done, Mrs. Campbell!

Lesson #2 came from an assignment to start and maintain a journal each day. The subject was undefined, but we were required to write for a minimum period of time to develop the habit. I was generally unstructured and impatient, and hated the assignment. Still, I found that when prompted by silence and the ticking of a clock, new thoughts would form, and words flowed. I’d tried to diary and journal at earlier times in my life but without “success”, or so I thought given my sporadic activity. The journaling assignment taught me that there could be value in the effort even if it wasn’t a daily event.

I took up journaling after the class continued, and kept journals through most of my years. Over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings about the journals. Near the 2020 holiday season, months after completing some estate planning, I began to wonder what would happen to the journals when my time expired. Would others read them? What would they find, how would they feel? If that wasn’t okay with me, should I just destroy them? If I did, would I live to regret it when I was old and wanting to remember the good…enough to read the bad?

Those questions became a challenge as I wondered whether I myself would ever be brave enough to read the journals. Serendipitously, a quote I’d cut out and placed on a memento board many years ago helped me out. It is the only quote on the sparsely populated board, and as it caught my eye it begged the question of whether there were small boldnesses hiding in those books, should I have the courage to look.

“In the cellars of the night, when the mind starts moving around old trunks of bad times, the pain of this and the shame of that, the memory of a small boldness is a hand to hold.”

John Leonard, Private Lives (1977) https://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/02/archives/private-lives.html

So I breathed deep, called up my strength, and spent the last months of 2020 reading those journals and their witness to 40 years worth of experiences. I approached with trepidation, opening each to the first and last passages to put them in chronological order. Even peeking that much caught my breath. As I touched the covers and bindings, felt the textures of paper and saw the colors of pages and scripts written, memories flooded in. I remembered squirreling them away at a friend’s house during a divorce when I worried their sanctity could be violated. It was good to have a friend I trusted enough to take the heavy box and store it knowing curiosity would not get the upper hand.

As I found gaps in dates, I remembered I’d stopped writing at some periods. In some cases I was having too much fun to stop and write, and at others the weight was too heavy to shift onto the page. Sadly, I’d failed to capture the development of the greatest romance of my life, for the former reason. I resumed writing at some point, but wished I’d done so sooner. I broke with it again as my children grew. I didn’t feel free to express myself knowing that at some point my boys might read Mom’s journals and see me in a different way. And if I’m honest with myself, I think maybe it was hard for me to bridge the person I was becoming with the person I had been.

Despite the strength it took to even begin reading, once I did, it was a true page-turner. Seeing yourself in your younger years, knowing how the story being told at any time actually turns out, knowing how you grew as time passed – it was all such a gift.

I could literally see the quality of my writing and the depth of thoughts change during the months I spent in Paris during a college semester abroad. Almost instantly the experience of being in another country, of being a fish in new water, an outsider instantly recognized as such by the locals, transformed me by years. Even the parts of the story I hadn’t written about flooded back to me as I relived that time through written words. I remembered how much I hoped to look like I belonged. My hair was styled in the latest French fashion at a high-end Paris salon; I dressed in clothing bought locally from head to toe – even down to the shoes and winter coat; I smoked French cigarettes and wore French perfume and used French toiletries. Even without opening my mouth, locals would walk up to me and begin speaking English. They could spot me as an American a mile away.

And I remembered that it was a round trip problem. When I came back to the states and rejoined my college, I no longer felt like I quite fit in there, either. Still, I was glad to be home. And my journal bore witness to my delayed flight home and my literal kissing-of-the-ground in the good ol’ USA upon deplaning.

Those journals brought back beautiful memories of everyday blessings that I’d failed to remember on my own. At parts I steeled myself, bracing for times and events I knew had been so hard. But I found that, though I wanted to hug the girl in those stories, I read them as a different woman seasoned by time and experience, stronger for the paths trod and choices made between then and now. It was comforting and healing seeing them from the other side, knowing I had made it through mostly better for the wear and that these events shaped the person I am today.

One of my journals began with entries that were simply excerpts of songs, poems, and other published works, as if my own words were insufficient to convey my thoughts and feelings. It included a quote I’ve considered many times over the years. It seemed oddly appropriate both to life and to this reading adventure.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

When I’d finished reading all of the journals, I had gained a new inner peace believing that my life was surely at least half over, but that it had been a life well spent. I mused about what the next half would bring, as if having reached the top of a mountain, I surveyed the descent before me understanding it better than I had on the way up. Indeed I knew the place for the first time.

I was reminded of Mrs. Campbell today. I told my now high-school-age son that something was serendipitous. He said I use that word a lot. I remembered the first time I’d heard it was in connection with a compendium of pieces from various students that Mrs. Campbell called “Serendipity”. She seemed delighted by the word. I do not recall what my contribution may have been. I do remember thinking in my then salty-as-a-sailor voice, “What the F—— is Serendipity”? Maybe serendipity is best seen from the perspective of an age and experience I didn’t have when I’d heard the word the first time. Certainly from where I am now, I can see that Mrs. Campbell’s assignments turned out to be serendipitous for me.

A Blue-eyed white ragdoll cat peers out of a cat condo.

Kicking irrationality to the curb

The journey of 1000 miles starts with one thought: “What if I stumble, fall, and can’t get up?” Threats to mortality invite that sort of anxiety. That’s what happened the morning I came to believe that I should take precautions not to fall into my cat’s litter box. Before my bathroom mirror, fresh sutures a few inches from my collarbone, I slowly looked down and remembered the litter box tucked under the counter. I stood wide-eyed considering the threat it presented to my new – albeit temporary – vulnerability. What to do?!

I’ve had a cat – one cat or another – for over 30 years. I have NEVER fallen INTO a litter box. I can’t fathom logistically how it could happen. If an intruder came in and cornered me in my bathroom, and my only chance of escape was wedging his chest into the litter box, I would need Ocean’s 11 planning to make it happen. It’s not wide enough for a chest. You could pretty much do planks over the litter box, and you’d still be fine.

Still, at that moment two months ago (at the time of this writing), the fear was real. It’s been awhile since I felt as if “anxious” was the word to describe my constant state. I left that behind long ago, and was taken aback when it revisited. So when I spoke with my oncologist and she asked if I had any questions, my question was, “Does this anxiety get better?” I wasn’t as concerned about whether the progression of treatments would wear me down physically. I just needed to know I’d be myself mentally again. And fortunately, she gave an emphatic, “Yes!”

That has been true. Now, two months later, I see the litter box for what it is. But time doesn’t have to pass for us to challenge our own irrational thoughts. Asking the questions, speaking concerns out loud, and getting support from our team – whether medical providers, family, or friends – is what does it. Challenging our irrational thoughts reduces them to what they are…just thoughts. Let them pass and get back to real living.

I’m a sucker for the sparkles.

This is the story of how I ended up buying a flashy beach cover-up that has no business being seen at my neighborhood pool, let alone on me, and that I am unlikely to wear. Ever.

Blue smoky puffs waft through pale, diaphanous fabric. Metallic silver and gold threads run its length. The threads are exactly like those of my favorite shirt as a teen – four decades ago. That shirt was plaid. Yes – metallic threads in a plaid pattern. You’d think no one would try that, but they did, and I wore it. I wore that baby out.

Fast forward to a dressing room this June, as I try on this new number. The phrase about not wearing a trend twice flits through my brain. Whatevs. I let that thought pass through and keep on going. Yoga skills. This cover-up has a few rows of small ruffles towards the ends of the sleeves, and a flirty flounce that looks like scalloped edges a few inches above its hem. Ruffles aren’t really my thing in a cover-up, and small ruffles on sleeves aren’t really my thing anytime. But the shimmery threads tug at me.

I’ve shared my story of pool bling, so you know I’m a sucker for the sparkles even without the aforementioned shirt nostalgia. I try to put it in the “Nope” pile, but I know it will forever be “the one that got away”. Other thoughts flitter through my mind. This beach cover-up is not compatible with any bathing suit I own. It’s more than a little impractical considering my pool hours are spent at the neighborhood pool, not a resort in Baja or Bali. No matter. I convince myself that it would look great on a cruise or on some Caribbean beach. Neither is in my immediate future, but either could manifest…if I just had this cover-up to inspire me to action.

Fast forward to my home this July. Each day I walk into my closet and see this cover-up sitting in limbo, waiting to be worn or moved into a drawer with the other beach wear. Each day I think, “I like you, but no, today is not your day.” I know if it takes up residence in the drawer I’ll never wear it. So I move it to a dress form. Maybe seeing it on display will increase its chances of being worn. Au contraire…I’m confronted instead with stark reality.

Someone experienced in design could put better words to it, but in layman’s terms this cover-up is a hot mess of design elements. It’s like a cooking challenge where you get a basket with caviar, chocolate bars, nectarines, and broccoli and you’re supposed to make a cohesive meal with it. Each is good, but together?? Seeing it on the dress form I realize this cover-up has some great attributes, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Now I’m faced with the inevitable question…

What am going to do with this thing?!

The summer is officially over, and I never did wear it. Do I keep it, put it in the drawer and hope that one day I’ll want to wear it more than today?

Or maybe cut my losses and donate it? There’s someone out there that would love this and may actually have occasion to wear it.

Or maybe take scissors to those sleeves…Could getting rid of those ruffles do enough?

What would you do? Drop a line in the comments, I’d love to know!

Jeff Bezos: Dud or Demigod?

Earlier this year, I stood in front of the Whole Foods bakery section contemplating which of several yummy whole grain seeded rolls to get. A man who was striking even with his pandemic mask had walked in behind me a few minutes before as I entered the store. I realized he was again behind me at the bakery when I heard him saying, “You’re super-cute”. It was not something you normally hear at the grocery store, and he followed it up by asking if I was married. I later laughed about it with a friend saying that if I’d been interested in finding a guy during a pandemic, even that Jeff Bezos could have arranged for me.

There’s no shortage of unsavories that come up in Bezos-related conversations. He’s been credited with perpetuating climate change, disrupting small businesses, destroying book stores, departments stores, and retail sales as we knew them. He’s been accused of running sweat shops, chilling whistleblowing, illegal union-busting, and more. I abhor all of those things. I literally work to prevent that sort of business conduct and the harm it does. And I don’t know which of the integrity-related accusations will prove true, which I find especially troubling.

Still, the companies and services Bezos founded, nurtured, and empowered have undeniably improved my life over the years. As Quartz put it, his legacy is “complicated”. But here’s what I think of when I see his name.

  • When my mom was sick and the pandemic prevented me from driving across several states to shop for her, I could order food, supplies, and comforts from Amazon. I ordered supplies for my home, too. No one else could get them there.
  • In a year when I had two kids still in diapers, I ordered nearly every Christmas gift for family and friends from Amazon as they slept, at all hours of the day and night. And I was happy with the selections. For a new mom, that was a big deal.
  • Zappos saved me from repeated trips to and from shoe stores with two disinterested little boys who would say anything fit just to go watch SpongeBob or hit Build-A-Bear. Let’s not minimize how much those saved hours matter when you’re working full time and trying to be a good parent.
  • The Washington Post kept me from losing my sanity many times, especially in recent years. Enough said on that.
  • Audible helps me get through books when I otherwise couldn’t, like when I’m walking the dog, getting exercise, or just don’t want to look at more words on pages or screens. Bringing books in a high-quality audible form at scale has made books accessible to many people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise experience them.
  • Alexa turns on my lights, helps me turn them off when I’ve forgotten, and serves up my shopping list while I’m at the grocery store. She even includes the items my sons add, like, “New brother” and “Every chocolate toaster strudel on the shelf”. So I get some good laughs in, as well.
  • Earlier this summer, as the DC-MD-VA area experienced its “rash” of mite bites following our summer of cicadas, used Cortisone-10 that Amazon delivered to my door in less than 24 hours. I had visited three pharmacies for ANY anti-itch or rash treatment. The shelves looked like the toilet paper shelves in March 2020. I got back in my car after pharmacy three and ordered it from my phone, there in the parking lot.

Given my gratitude for all Bezos’s companies have done for me over the years, I was dismayed by a recent email from Washingtonian with the subject, “Bye Bezos”. It was actually an advertisement from their ad partner, The Rounds, offering to keep my home stocked in a way that was “basically nothing like Amazon”. And they were right – it was nothing like Amazon. Curious, I went onto the site and clicked on a picture of a water bottle only to see that the description said it came in cans. Compass coffee was offered in small-sized containers leading to more than twice as many trips for the same volume I would get in one order on Amazon. Same with detergents and fabric softeners, which they offered in 3-pod packages. (That’s not a typo. Three pods.)

Their compelling feature – reusable packaging and the picking up of used packaging from me – sounded responsible. But I wondered how allowing them to transport my used packaging back to their site to recycle saved anything over me walking it to the curb for my own weekly recycle service, or just reusing it myself. Given all that, slams at Bezos and Amazon seemed cheap and ill-directed. I wondered who thought mud-slinging would be the most effective marketing strategy for the altruistic, sustainability-concerned crowd.

If I were writing a classic play, I wouldn’t suggest Bezos was a god. He definitely has feet of clay. But his beyond-mere-mortals track record of turning remotely-plausible visions into my everyday reality puts him close to demigod territory. I’m interested in watching what else he might do now that he’s stepped away from his CEO role. And I’m not quite ready to say, “Bye,” just yet.

A blooming pink rose on piano keys

You never know where you’ll find some heart and soul.

When I was five, my family walked across the street to our neighbor’s house for a party. The homeowners were a young couple. The man’s name was Neil. I only vaguely remember what he looked like, and less about his wife on that day. I don’t recall going back afterwards, although we may have, children’s memories being what they are.

What I do remember is that Neil had a piano, and he let me sit down and play it. In a matter of minutes, Neil taught me to play one part of “Heart and Soul”, and he played the other. Then we switched parts. Those minutes must have appeared completely inconsequential to observers. They were not. The making of music with black and white keys reached right into my heart.

Before I go on, please know that I did not become a professional musician. Don’t wait for me to tell you when I hit the big time or about all the lives I’ve touched. It didn’t happen that way for me. This is just a story of a girl and a piano, and how an encounter with Neil and his piano cleared an enchanted, winding path that I still revisit from time to time.

After the Heart and Soul experience, my parents made a stretch investment. They sank $400 into a gently used Winter piano and signed me up for group lessons at our community college. But I hated practicing things like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. What was a bonnie anyway? In class, the short electric keyboard heard through headphones didn’t sound anything like the piano at my house or at Neil’s house. I wanted to play songs that sounded big and had lots of notes. I wanted to make real music.

My teacher, an accomplished Romanian concert-pianist, tried to keep me on one-handed scale exercises and one-clef songs. Finally, though, she broke the news to my parents: I had too good an ear for my own good, and not enough discipline to follow her lessons. They were wasting their money. And so, for the next six years, we dusted, polished, and walked past a silent piano in our living room.

Then in seventh grade I met new friends at a new school. They played piano…really well. Watching them play, I longed to make music again, and declared myself ready for lessons. My parents’ response can be summed up as, “Been there, done that, done pouring money into this.” They reminded me that I should feel free to break out any of the several books they’d bought last go-round, and start practicing. It was a reasonable and understandable response. And I took the advice.

After seeing the musical “Annie” and loving all the music, I got the score, and set about teaching myself to play. I broke out the old books. I learned the notes, scales, and how to read the symbols. I had a good memory, so I wrote notes to guide me, learned a few measures, memorized them, and moved on to the next measures. I spent hours each night at the piano. Eventually, I had taught myself to play most of the songs comfortably. So I asked again: Could I have lessons?

My parents agreed to give it another go with private lessons from a friend’s teacher. Each week he would put new progressively difficult sheet music on the stand, and tell me that frankly…trulyhonestly…he thought this piece was beyond my skills…but maybe I could give it a go. The psychology worked. By the following week, I had learned and memorized the piece, and we’d start the same dance over again.

This continued for several years, during which I learned my favorite pop songs, show tunes, and all manner of classical including Chopin waltzes. I still didn’t have the patience for music theory, sight-read poorly, and didn’t get a thrill from public performance, so I was never going to make any money at this thing. Still, I experienced incalculable hours of enjoyment, escape, and accomplishment during that time. It was something of an addiction. When eventually my teacher shared that he had taken me as far as he could, we tried to find an advanced teacher, but could not.

Without new weekly challenges, my mind became occupied with other high school concerns. The passion remained, despite playing only occasionally. I nixed the opportunity to go to a college where the admissions officer sneered when asked of the possibility of taking music electives. I chose a college that had a recognized music and drama school. I’d agreed not to major in music as a condition of my parents footing my very expensive college tuition, but there was no way I was spending four years at a school that didn’t see its value. And while I didn’t take lessons, I did visit practice rooms from time to time.

In my senior year, that Winter piano moved to my college apartment. It has followed me to four other homes since and is still one of my favorite possessions. I’ve played other pianos in many places over the years, including a digital Yamaha in our home that can make anyone sound like a one-man-band. The most amazing experience was playing a Bösendorfer grand piano left unlocked for a concert by some happy accident. It was big. Its sound was bigger. I had a lump in my throat from the beauty of it.

Still, the sound and feel of my Winter is warmest. The sound of my Winter is the sound of my life. It has spent so many hours with me for pleasure and for comfort. I played Christmas carols by twinkling tree lights, and welled tears of joy hearing my children practice on the same keys I loved so well. I played to heal when I was devastated, tears streaming down my face onto keys. I played when I was frustrated, and life was complicated, and nothing made much sense. Many times after playing, my head rested gently on the music stand, one hand on a key block, the other tracing the grain in the polished golden wood or fiddling across keys without any pattern or point. Those were moments well-spent, and gratitude for distractions or memories remembered.

A few years ago, after decades of my own version of carpool karaoke to anything that came on the radio, I decided to take voice lessons. I was not a natural. Still, by some good fortune and destiny, my teacher introduced some theory as part of our lessons. After decades of not caring, I was finally interested in how musical phrases came together to convey different emotions, and how the patterns and structure of a piece could feel predictable or unpredictable to a listener. It was fascinating. Although I wasn’t able to continue the lessons and focus on theory, I may resume some day. I have a feeling that when my nest is empty, I’ll again look for comfort in the keys. This time, I’ll be interested enough in theory to experience playing in a new way.

Would I ever have stumbled into this had we not gone to our neighbor’s house that day? What if we’d gone, but Neil hadn’t stepped over to help me play? Every day we meet people and have seemingly innocuous interactions. Sometimes we don’t know whether or how they touch our lives. I’m sure no one at that party understood that they’d witnessed the exchange of a gift that would keep giving throughout my life.

And what if my parents had simply gone home from that party and thought of it as an entertaining evening? Instead they discussed how they could nurture me, looked through classifieds to get an instrument, found teachers, and drove me to and from lessons for years. What if they’d sold the piano when I was seven, impatient to use the space for other things and recoup at least some of their losses given my allergic reaction to structured teaching? Surely I wouldn’t have taught myself those songs from Annie, or went on to learn so many others.

We can never know how our everyday actions may shape the future for one or for many. But if we lead with our heart, lean in with our soul, we do make beautiful music together.



A mother and daughter laugh and enjoy each other in a tent made of sheets and twinkle lights

I want to support choice, but I love too much.

There was an underlying narrative in the first wave of the pandemic that the people hit hardest were those who had lived their lives as they wanted and made their own choices. Many victims were elderly. The narrative was that no one wanted to see them in pain or worse, but at least they’d led a long life and many were close to an end. Those who weren’t elderly often had co-morbidities. In some cases, the narrative went, these were brought on by choices to eat rich foods, not exercise, smoke, or otherwise enjoy the good life.

This wasn’t truly accurate, but it was a convenient sentiment that balanced support of personal choices, including the choice to remain unvaccinated. After all, weren’t they making what they believed to be a healthier choice for the long-term, based on their low-risk profile, or concern of complications from a less-than-ideally-tested vaccine? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to make that choice?

Now that Delta has arrived, that narrative is gone. In some states, over 99% of people over 64 years old are vaccinated, and those individuals aren’t dying. Children are getting sicker and dying. Some hospitals are stretched from helping adults who could have vaccinated but chose not to do it. Some hospitals are unable to continue giving non-COVID-related care to those who need it. Required – not elective – surgeries are being cancelled. There’s just not enough beds, rooms, or medical staff to accommodate everyone.

There are many people who don’t have a choice as to whether or not to vaccinate, including those with uncontrolled or unstable infections, and children. Children haven’t had a “long, rich” life. They did not make choices that increase their proclivity to contract or suffer from this illness.

To those who still choose not to vaccinate, I suggest thinking back to your child’s, godchild’s, niece’s, or nephew’s first grade school picture. See those big doe eyes and the little teeth in that smile. Someone who looks like that, and talks like that – who thinks like that and feels like that – is dying. They may be doing it amid a sea of strangers in a hospital hallway, without the comfort of even holding their mother’s hand, because hospital beds are filled with people who made a personal health choice.

This isn’t a personal health choice anymore. It’s a community health crisis. And it’s time to start caring beyond our own health profile. I wouldn’t support a friend who habitually drove drunk because they felt it was their right to take a chance that they’d get home safely or because they didn’t trust the Uber drivers. I wouldn’t do it because their actions put so many other innocent lives at risk. I would love them, but I wouldn’t support that choice. So now, at the risk of evoking the crackly voice of Sally Struthers talking about the price of a cup of coffee, I’ve got to say I feel it’s time to save the children. Get vaccinated.

A beautiful mess.

Some days when I’m leveling off flour in a measuring cup or pouring sugar crystals, I’m visited by memories of bakings past. For a while in my youth I spent Saturday mornings at a 4-H program where Miss May taught us how to bake all sorts of yummies.

I’d never met anyone like Miss May in my town. I grew up in an area largely populated by people who’d moved south from New York and North Jersey. Their families had spent summer weekends on the Jersey shore. Scrappy and confident, from those who had made their way through Ellis Island for better opportunities, they now made the move toward bigger homes in a place that held happy memories. We were loud, quick, and bold. Everyone talked over each other, especially over spaghetti on Sundays.

Miss May’s ancestors also hailed from another continent, possibly against their will. They had moved north from the south, where I heard they knew everything there was to know about baking. Miss May moved and spoke calmly, and gave direction with infinite patience, as if time were no matter. She had a joyful spirit, a quiet tenderness in her soft drawl, and she was inspirational. I wanted to use the butter wrapper to grease the corners of the loaf pan as well as Miss May could. I had to pass the knife over the flour cup three times – forward, back, and forward again – to make sure it was as level as Miss May’s demonstration. I still do it today.

Each week she’d hand out a new paper with a recipe. We’d put them in our 3-ring binders to make our own recipe books. My pages still bear fingerprinted crusts of floury pastes and butter splotches, attesting to the name of the group – Messy Makers. I understand the program still exists, but know nothing of when Miss May stepped away. Thanks to her and the 4-H program, in the short time we spent together I learned to enjoy baking breads, muffins, rolls, and more.

I loved the feel of the dough on my fingers, the warmth when it had risen, the way the air felt when it escaped as I kneaded. I loved the way an egg rested in a mound of flour, and how it all came together when mixed. I loved when the ball of dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, when it was changing from plain ingredients into something that would be beautiful. I loved the special set of mixing bowls and measuring cups and spoons my mom had bought so I could have what I needed to bake. I even loved the waiting periods when I needed to let something rise, and could go off and do something else while it did its thing. And I loved the smell as it cooked, and the goodness that emerged when it was out of the oven.

At some point I started entering the county fair, and winning ribbons for the goods my little fingers created. I won ribbons in the adult categories, even though I was a child. My favorite blue-ribbon winner was blueberry muffins, made with blueberries we’d picked at a farm. But there were other ribbons. So many, in fact, that one day I was trying to figure out what to do with them, moving them from one place to another. I poo-poo’d the reds and yellows – second and third place winners – as meaningless. I told my mom I could probably toss them. Oh, that did not go over well…at all. My mom was having none of that.

I got a stern but appropriate talking-to about how grateful I should be to have gotten those red and yellow ribbons; how many others would have loved to get any ribbon at all; how the fact that I had gotten them meant that someone else – someone who wanted them – did not get them that day; and generally, how I’d better become a better sportsman, or kiss my competition days goodbye. And rightly so.

Eventually I stopped entering the fair. I don’t recall why or when. But the lesson about good sportsmanship stuck with me. I still have a competitive streak. In time, though, I learned the value of effort, and that most often the effort is worth much more than the recognition or the results.

I value how the “game” – any game – is played, and what goes into it, and the personal stories that bring us to those moments. I’m willing to fail and try new things, and that helps me take chances that pay off. It’s helped me professionally to innovate, and it’s helped me personally in ways too private to share. I enjoy competing with myself, with my own best. I ask myself, “Is this my best?”, not, “Is this the best?” And I enjoy and appreciate the work of others freely, without feeling their success minimizes my own.

Although I’ve won a few awards as an adult, those I prize most are the team awards. I love people coming together and doing great work, creating something better than any of us could have done alone. I’ve learned that sharing success makes it that much sweeter. I’ve lost to competitors on some awards, and I’m just as proud of the attempts and the growth that came of them. My breads are no longer worthy of ribbons, but I love them just the same. It’s a long way from where I started, and a much better place to be.

Pool Jewelry: You can take the girl out of Jersey…

When I was a teenager, it never occurred to me to take my jewelry off before going to the beach or pool. You weren’t dressed without plenty of jewelry and dark black waterproof mascara. Jersey. What can I say?

I carried that tradition well into adulthood. I wore irreplaceable jewelry to beaches and pools everywhere I went. I just got lucky that I left with what I’d come with, and that the pieces weren’t worse for wear. In recent years, though, I’ve been buying inexpensive pieces I consider “pool jewelry” every once in a while. They sparkle and offer the bling factor without damaging the good stuff. They make me so happy!

Why don’t I leave jewelry home altogether? It’s not that I want to look a certain way, or that anyone else cares. I just really enjoy seeing anything sparkling in the sun with the water’s reflection. Nothing looks as good as fingers gliding through the water in front of you with freshly painted nails and glistening rings. It’s a whole experience. The rest of my pool wear is usually pretty toned down. I’m sure no one even notices my pool jewelry, and I like it like that.

My younger self would have been aghast at the thought of separate pool jewelry. That girl believed her life and future pool experiences would resemble the 1980’s Chanel No 5 commercial that bid her “share the fantasy”, a sleek gold-threaded coverup discarded here, a high heel sandal placed just there, a black bathing suit, and perfection all around. I had no idea that the commercial’s director – Ridley Scott – was offering me a fantasy as unlikely to come to fruition as any scene from his Alien films. It all seemed attainable.

One of the pleasures of growing up is that I’m not so wedded to a larger fantasy. It frees me to enjoy experiences for their own qualities instead of their congruency to an overall vision. Sure, I love diamonds, and they have their place. But I can also appreciate crystals that sparkle in the sun in a place that’s shared with others having their own good times. I still do like the idea of that Chanel pool. But I love watching families at Reston pools playing with their children, hearing them giggle and remembering those younger family days in my not-so-distant past. The girl I once was would have grabbed the solitary pool scene any day. The woman I’ve become thinks that might be fun for an afternoon, but it could never be as rich as my real life.

A drop of water in an endless sea is okay by me.

I’m a sucker for traditionally classical instruments in rock songs. Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover” played with a full symphony is probably my favorite example, but it’s not alone. This week I was transported by one of those songs, back to days long before I could put words to such preference. A song can do that. Take you back to a place and a time, the feeling of sun on your face, a breeze through a half-open car window, smelling like something close to home. You see the half-constructed jug-handle turn near the newly-built Pizza Hut…when Pan Pizza was a new thing. Your eyes stop seeing what’s in front of you for a second, a moment from years past so close you might be there now.

That’s what happened when “Dust in the Wind” – the original Kansas version – shuffled up in my playlist this week. I’ve heard it plenty of times, but in this second my eyes glazed and I was a 10-year-old in the back seat of my parent’s car. I was telling my mom how beautiful I thought this song was. The premise made sense to me, and the violin lifted my soul. She disagreed, the thought of our mortality being horrifying. But I liked everything about the song.

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

Now, decades later, I can understand how a mom might not appreciate the thought of us being mere dust in the wind with quite as much relish as her 10-year-old. But when I heard it this week, a different line grabbed me, and for a different reason. “Just a drop of water in an endless sea.”

You see, just before the song played, I’d gotten a notification that a high school friend had accepted an old Facebook invitation I’d sent. I felt instant joy at the memory of her smiling face, and felt we were connected again despite years of being out of touch. We had gotten to know each other in classes in high school, and connected only briefly after graduation. A few letters and calls here and there. Even during high school we’d seen each other mostly during school days. But seeing that Facebook notification I thought how much better my high school years had been having had Deb in them.

I mouthed a “thank you”, grateful for her bubbly personality, and the many laughs we’d shared. Some were predictable – like when she would arrive at the cafeteria and ask me if I’d remembered that we had a vocab quiz in English in about 25 minutes. I’d always forgotten, and would frantically grab the word list just in time, thanks to her. I can still hear her saying, “Dohhnnnaaaa, not again?!” It’s beautifully ironic that I became an English major in college, but that’s probably thanks to Deb, as well. Those reminders helped me place out of entry level English classes in my first college year. I’d replaced them with a literature class I loved so much. It inspired me to switch majors. The choice served me well.

Perhaps we are just drops of water in an endless sea. But each drop ripples, and our effects on those we touch are significant. If our voices and actions reverberate and resound, I’m glad the sea is endless. It just means our impact is that much greater.

While I still love the violin solo, the music, and the vocals of “Dust in the Wind”, I now disagree with most of its other lyrics. It’s not that they are horrible to think of, but that I no longer believe in their truth. I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with so many who impact other people and our world in positive ways. Buildings we build may crumble, but the good we do for others remains. We are not specs of dust. We are remarkable. We are drops of water, water we all desperately need.

We hear when we’re ready.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that I no longer heard my sons dropping their middle-school and high-school backpacks like sacks of rocks onto foyer tiles. For a couple of years prior, I heard myself at least once a week explaining, cajoling, shouting to please be careful. To understand the tiles would break. To appreciate that the floor ran through three rooms and would “cost a fortune” to replace.

Hairline cracks emerged on several tiles at the foyer’s outer edges, and I would point these out as examples. I stood over said tiles, my pointer finger calling out the new defects. I do not recall anyone else bending down to take a look or an interest. Blank stares.  After the schools had closed, I remember picking up one of the backpacks and retiring it to the closet. I literally whispered to my floor that it would be safe for a while.

One day last month, my son called me to the foyer to direct my attention to a particular tile. He pointed to it, two hairline fissures spreading from a point of impact. I recognized the tile as one of the first to show signs of distress some years back. “It’s cracked,” he announced. I stared blankly at the tile and at him. In my brain, a man in sooty engineer’s overalls and cap shoveled coal into a steam engine, and a high-pitched whistle began to sound. I blinked and caught my words. With relative calm, I inquired if it could possibly have been from the backpacks I’d been shouting about for years. Had I really invested so much time and effort, only to come to this moment of “unprompted” epiphany? 

We try so hard to share messages in every way we can. Sometimes a person just isn’t ready to hear. It happens to all of us, in the reverse, too. Sometimes the universe pushes things right in front of us, and we’re like, “What? Huh? I don’t get it.” It’s all just noise until we’re ready for it.

That fact came back to me recently. I’m blessed to have a dear friend who is a phenomenal holistic coach. She was giving me some nutrition guidance and I was lapping it up like a desert traveler at an oasis. I was all intrigued by this “new” information. Then she asked, laughing, if I had paid ANY attention to the nutrition session of the yoga retreat we’d been on several years ago. “Uh, nutrition session?” I sputtered, prompting us to laugh harder. Survey says: I guess I didn’t!

I vividly remembered nearly everything about that life-changing retreat…except the nutrition session. Since that conversation I’ve realized that I actually do recall some of the nutrition session topics, and had even incorporated elements into my life when I returned home. But I must have been in denial about how important it was at the time, and I really didn’t give it it’s due. Fortunately, now I’m ready.

I could be in Avalon…you never know.

The past few days of 90+ degree weather drove me indoors into air conditioning. Walking man’s best friend this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find more reasonable temperatures, a slight breeze, and much-reduced humidity. My response: coffee on the deck, listening to birds, gazing at flowers, and planning a day with some outside activity. “I’ll head to the pool for a swim,” I thought. But when? I launched my trusty weather app to help find the cross-hairs of my schedule and acceptable temperatures. Wide-eyed I stared at a glorious forecast – a week of sunny, beach-worthy weather with temps in the 70s. It would have felt worlds away just yesterday.

My exuberance was brief. I realized I’d left the app on the weather for Avalon. Not King Arthur’s version, although it may as well have been considering how dreamy and fantastical it seemed. I was looking at the weather for Avalon on Catalina Island. You see, I save locations in my weather app for places I might like to be other than here. Reston weather is rarely brutal, but let’s face it: Catalina Island, Maui, Hilton Head – they usually have it better. Every once in awhile I forget to swipe back to Reston. Following those days, as today, I open the app and am transported into a climate far better than my own. It is a fleeting but beautiful experience. Shortly thereafter, I spend moments wondering why I’m not there, or when I might be there, or how I might get there.

As to Avalon, I considered several years ago that, at some point in my future, I could choose to work remotely from there for a month or two. I’m a consultant, and even before the pandemic, much of my work lent itself to the virtual and digital. Now that the world has revisited the value of in-person work, that plan seems even more likely. I was on Catalina once for a day as a child. It was worthy of a return. When my nest is empty, I would relish living like a local and getting to know the place beyond a travel brochure. I can close my eyes and imagine looking out a window to see the bowl-shaped port full of white ships just beyond my balcony’s rail, the smell of salt air on the breeze.

Today I scheduled in a swim, and paid attention to staying hydrated in our 90 degree weather. But if I keep reminders of my dreams close by…well…you never know. I could be in Avalon someday.

Anything looks good in this frame.

When you arrive at the Farmers Market and they’re still setting up, you know you’re too early. I hadn’t visited in over a year, and hadn’t bothered to check the time. How could I literally have beat the farmers? Well, according to the sign, I was 40 minutes early today, with nothing to do. I say, “nothing”, but there’s always something to do at Lake Anne. Watching the water ripple. Watching geese cruise the lake’s center. Looking at beautiful flowers and plants hanging off private balconies. Watching the sun rise a little bit higher. And window shopping.

So it was that I found myself walking on the lake’s short boardwalk , glancing across at Reston Art Gallery & Studios. In the first window, a small, vibrant abstract lived in a thick gold frame. Even from 20 feet away, I could see that the frame brought out its rich colors. It occurred to me that you could put pretty much anything in that frame, and it would be worthy of your best wall. I kept moving. The next window featured a seascape. Two boats floated close together near a pebbled shore. The unframed canvas wasn’t very large, but it had a reflective quality that drew me in. I could smell the sea air, touch the water, I could walk into it. I wanted to be there.

I continued walking for awhile. On the way back I chose the sidewalk closer to the windows. I wanted to know more about the paintings. I reached the seascape first. The Dorothy Donahey piece looked very different from 2 feet away. The colors and strokes that produced its reflective qualities from a distance looked more pronounced. I still liked it, but the experience of it was different. I liked new things about it. I could see the boats were tethered together and to the shore. One was smaller than the other, I felt they had a relationship. I backed away a few feet, and the reflective quality I loved was also back. Beautiful!

With somewhat less interest I walked on to the next window, and saw the gold-framed work I’d dismissed earlier. But when I got in front of it, I could see it for what it was. Rosemarie Forsythe’s swirls were stunning. Gold, red, and blues moved and glowed in front of me. I hadn’t seen its beauty at all from 20 feet away, not because it wasn’t there but because I wasn’t where I needed to be to see it.

Perspective is everything. And having more than one perspective helps us know a thing better. I now realize I didn’t arrive at the Farmer’s Market early today. I arrived right on time.

A touch of emphysema, a brush with cancer

Years ago, my dad had announced that he’d gone to the doctor and learned that he had a “touch of emphysema”. I shared with a friend who said, “No one gets a touch of emphysema. You either have it or you don’t.” That sounded right. Another friend laughed out loud at the phrase. Still, “a touch” sounded better than plain old “emphysema”. He treated it as if it was just a bit of something instead of a defining condition, and I think that perspective helped. That was probably more than 10 years ago and he’s managed to keep his “touch” of emphysema at bay.

The innocuous, minimized description recently came back to me when I struggled with how to share with my in-laws that I’d had cancer surgery and would be undergoing chemo. I hadn’t found the words to say it out loud, so how could I share? Did I have cancer? Well, surgery had been successful in removing it, but no one can say whether it’s floating around and planning a rally. It’s as if I’m running a bed and breakfast, and I’m waiting for confirmation that some unruly, unwanted guest has left, and taken his loud obnoxious friends with him. I’m sending staff to the pool, the bar, the restaurant, the lobby, hoping to gracefully exit him and his buddies if found.

I smiled as the Touch of Emphysema phrase came back to me. “I’ve had a brush with cancer”, I said aloud. The words rolled off my tongue, painting a picture of some level of danger, though implying that something more serious had been successfully averted. My unwanted guest could be long gone from the premises. Or he could be reclining on a large (and prohibited) float in the pool, holding 10 lounge chairs with towels and t-shirts while he waits for a car full of drunken frat bros to join him out there. We’ve all got our unwanted guests. We also have the stress and anxiety of worrying what they’ll do next, how we’ll get them out, and whether they’ll return. No one knows what the end game looks like, but for now, “a Brush with Cancer” sounds about right to me.