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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on Tectonic Plates



Whately Contest

Last night, I entered a photography contest. It was the second contest I have entered in three months. I am curious that I have done something like this. In general, I am not a contest kind of gal. I did enter a contest when I was 16 years old. I had to write my life goal in one sentence. I mailed it into a radio station because I wanted so very much to win a Gibson guitar. I wrote: “My life’s goal is to romp through new fields of endeavor.” My entry was chosen for its verve and exactitude from over 500 postcards. I did win the guitar and a surprise gift of perfume, Je Reviens. In college, when money was tight, I sold the guitar. I regret doing so today. However, what can’t be taken from me is that the scent of Je Reviens takes me back in to a specific time in the summer of ’74.
For some reason, the ads soliciting contestants for photo contests have caught my attention. The two that prompted action had a deep, personal relevance to me. The first was advertised in the window of the Whately post office. The Whately Conservation Commission wanted photographs that best characterized the rural nature of the town. The second advertisement appeared in the Vineyard Gazette. “Enter your photos taken on or around Martha’s Vineyard...” for publication in the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Both of these calls to action prompted me to scan through scads of photographs to see if any were worthy or relevant. I found two for each contest.

Today, this last day of 2011, I allowed myself to step back for a moment and take stock of what I am doing. I am a writer, not a photographer. Why am I throwing myself into photo contests for which I have no professional training? Maybe it is due to my recent sense of impending change. Naturally, that led me to read about change on our planet....which, naturally, pushed me toward a study of plate tectonics. If the earth is subject to major forces of change, might not our spirits be equally liable to change? As I understand it, plate tectonic theory is an outgrowth of the theory of continental drift. Basically, the amount of surface of the earth’s techtonic plates that disappear is pretty much equal to the surface of new oceanic crust that is forming. At the most simplified level, Einstein would say it is the conservation of matter. I would say, “Nothing lost, nothing gained.” So how does my self-tutoring on geological shifts relate to entering contests?
Like a canary down a mine, I feel change in the air. Real change is on its way. Change of a kind that can be measured on a Richter scale; the kind where lives get rewritten. With that knowledge, supported my conscious and unconscious intentions, I am putting myself in the direct course of that that change. Life is too short to hold any back.

I have a genetic disorder called Ehler’s-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). It is a connective tissue disorder that is due to the malformation of collagen. Collagen is compared to a “glue” that lends strength and elasticity to connective tissue. There are six major types of EDS. The type I have, Hypermobility III, is characterized by joint hypermobility, frequent dislocations and early onset of arthritis due to wear on joints.There are other characteristics of this Syndrome, including easy bleeding, easy bruising, soft and elastic skin, slow healing of wounds, poor muscle tone despite exercise and, for most, there are effects on the heart and its vessels. Individuals with Hypermobility Syndrome Type III are known to experience chronic, early onset, debilitating musculoskeletal pain. There is a 50% chance of passing on EDS with each child born to a couple comprised of an EDS patient and someone without the Syndrome. Individuals with EDS generally have a normal life span, but one that requires constant reacclimatization to change. Many aspects of EDS are degenerative. EDS Type III has been identified in about 1 in 10,000 people (depending on which study you read, others report it as even more rare than that). Each patient has to come up with his or her own plan to meet daily challenges head on.

The relevance of photography contests, plate tectonics and EDS is this; no matter who you are, what hand you have been dealt, there are elements at work shifting our worlds --- often so slowly we don’t notice a change. The impact of change can be dramatic or is can be trivial, but the net result is that there is an equilibrium to the equation.
My interpretation of this observations is that no matter who we are, what burdens we carry, or how we comb our hair each morning, we must step up to life. Put ourselves out there and do not worry about the outcome. Take a risk, try something new, try living in a larger, grander way and say out loud, “ I am here and what I do matters.” When I do this, all of a sudden I realize that I am being the person I want to be rather than merely wishing I was that person.

So I will enter contests, take piano lessons, start writing a new book. I will tell the people whom I love that I love them and I will cherish today. Because plate tectonics and EDS and photography contests aside, today is all I have.

The Vineyard Contest


Friday, December 30, 2011

The Day After Christmas


The calendar shows today as just two days away from a New Year. Somehow, I missed the traditions my family usually observed right after Christmas. Already, I find myself poised for the start of another year. With a flexibility granted by age and warranted by desire, I decided to appoint today my very own Day After Christmas. The 26th didn’t do it for me this year; it did not offer the pleasures and rewards I associate with the Day After Christmas, so with a wink, and a nod here it goes.
In my childhood, the Day After Christmas was a day of responsible dereliction. First, of course, thank you notes had to be written. It was a rule of thumb that we could not use a gift until we wrote our thank you notes. This ensured an adherence to etiquette that might otherwise have been overlooked. I raced to that duty with enthusiasm and verve. With the notes written, addressed and stamped, we were free to start to settle in to enjoy our presents. Yes, there was some light housework to be done; tasks such as vacuuming the bits of paper wrap and tinsel from yesterday’s gift-giving frenzy, shoveling the ashes out of the fireplace, putting away our best china and tidying up our haul. All tasks that were of legitimate concern today. I moved through these duties to the best of my ability and added a mountain of laundry that seemed to have taken on the ability to perform noncellular reproduction. The post Christmas laundry chore is always a delicate affair. New shirts may shrink, socks may bleed and lone pieces of chocolate secreted in a pocket are prone to melt in the dryer. I discovered which of the season’s gifts would shrink, bleed and melt today. In my childhood home, we ate leftovers, for all three meals. Free-range eating my mother called it. That was right up my alley today. Clementines, chocolate almonds and lasagna do a balanced breakfast make. As a teenager, I would lose myself in my new books, spend an hour playing a game with my sister and often start a craft project. Today, I lost myself in my Kindle. I thought it would be more intuitive than it has been, but I am catching on. I spent a long time comparing the qualities of waterproof cases for my Kindle (not splashproof -- I am talking take a ten-minute soak in the hot-tub proof). I have narrowed it down to three. I started reading two new books, one for fun, the other for edification. I have managed to knosh regularly on whatever cookies, snacks and remainders fit easily in hand to mouth.
I have luxuriated in a quiet that is unfamiliar on most Days After Christmas. This is because my husband and I put our three off-spring on a plane to Florida at 6:30am. He went off to his office and I, in a sense, to mine. The children were heading for sun and fun -- in their wake was a wide swath of silence.
As for my Day After Christmas, I have enjoyed myself. Still, I have felt the proverbial turn of the gears of time propelling me forward toward a new year. No tricks or proclamations can stem that motion. All I can do is get on board and surf on in to 2012...keeping a tight grasp on my Kindle.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Dawn: Games

A New Dawn: Games

Games

At eleven, I made a pledge with all of the passion and earnest angst an eleven-year old can summon. I swore that, if ever I had children, I would play games with them. Being the youngest in a family that was not particularly game-oriented, I wanted to change the course of history by starting a game-playing family of my own.
When I was dusting this morning, I happened to remember that vow. On the shelf underneath the coffee table in my living room there are stacks of books, an assortment of photo albums and yes, a collection of games. Without moving a thing, I could read the covers of various games: Mad Gab, Boggle, Apples to Apples, Scattegories and The Office. In a nearby kitchen drawer I have stored Scrabble, Monopoly, and Yahtzee. When I reflect on the young girl who so desperately wanted someone to make time, no, take time, to play with her, it seems like a lifetime ago. I was often sick in childhood, and I would long for companionship. It was the long stretches when my mother was teaching, my father was at the bank, and my sister was at school, that I developed my love of words. Since I did not have a partner to play the kind of games I longed to play, I played word games, passed time fiddling with anagrams, and read. When I finished one book, I always had three more at the ready by my bed. I had three or four decks of cards and books of mental challenges. All rather solitary in their pursuit.
During these holidays, I find myself with a crew of young adults who love to play games. My three children and their friends often gather here for game night. Pictionnary, What Would You Do? and Cranium are games we keep in the closet as alternatives to the ones under the coffee table. They are often pulled out for a change of pace.
However, I had a moment of the-world-is-a-wonderful-place serenity this afternoon. When I came into the kitchen, I found my daughter and her boyfriend engrossed in an intense game of checkers. I felt this small tickle of joy. Games, even old, tried and true games, exactly the same as ones I had once ached to play, are played in my house.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blood from a stone

The expression “You can’t get blood from a stone” crossed my mind this morning when I went for a walk. With the warmer than usual temperatures, water that is usually frozen into a tundra-like mass on Chestnut Mountain was flowing, gurgling, racing down hill. The rivulets of water stayed inside the in the channel that was carved out of our driveway for just that purpose. I stopped a couple of times to adjust stones and remove leafy debris that was impeding the flow of water. At the base of the quarter mile drive, I noticed that the drainage pipes were clogged with dirt and stone. To the best of my ability, using my canes and some sticks, I scraped away the worst of the mass.
As I headed up the road for my walk, I passed an outcropping of rock. I noticed further evidence of the recent temperature shifts. There were some mudslides and small avalanches where rocks had split, then let go - tumbling down to the road. I thought of that age old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” What captivated me most was the way the water seemed to be leaking out of the stone itself. The water was tinged reddish-orange because of the iron in the rock. There, right before my eyes, it appeared that I was seeing the impossible. Maybe, despite popular belief, you can get blood from a stone.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Picture is Worth More than Words


A lot can be gleaned from a simple picture. When people offer to share their photographs with me, I am truly honored. A snapshot can be deeply revealing. I appreciate their willingness to let me peak into their lives, even if it is through the study of a photograph dangling from their keychain or a slideshow on their computer. My husband’s aunt took more candid pictures than anyone I ever knew. She taught me that there are no bad pictures. If a picture tells you anything about a person, place, thing or feeling, it is worth preserving. She encouraged me to look for minute details that others might miss. Do not concern yourself whether the subject is focused. Look beyond the subject, look outside the borders of the print. Are there lace doilies on the back of chairs? Do the dresses look handmade? What is the story here? Using her technique, I grew to observe more about a person and his or her world than I thought possible. Even clutter (or lack there of) tells a story. These days, a photo allows me to I do more than view the the outfits the people are wearing. Of equal interest is their body language. In candid photos where a photographer has not staged her own tableaux, people will give away much about themselves and their relationships simply by the placement of a hand or the angle at which they turn toward or away from the camera. The two-dimensional plane allows me to delve more deeply into the world held within the its single photographic plane.
When my children were toddlers, they would insist that I read the same story repeatedly; I would find myself reciting the book of the month again and again and again. The authors’ relinquished control of the books titles once they hit the bookstore shelf; the titles fell into the hands and imaginations of children everywhere. I know this is true because my own children were among those who renamed the books to better match their experience and understanding of the story details. For example, Richard Scarry’s Busy Town became “The Theme Park Book.” They were intimately familiar with the details they claimed to title it. We played a game in which they had to meet my challenge question. For example, how many people are wearing red sneakers? What time do the clocks say it is? How many stars are out?
My children have outgrown this game, but I have not given up on this habit.
However, as much as I want to identify and utilize the details in photos, whether they be in iPhoto, pictorials or 3d reality, there has been a glitch with my equipment over the past six months. I have been seeing double.
When so much of my world relies on my vision, this is a disturbing development. While my imagination can not be limited by what I see, it is certainly enhanced! I made an appointment with an opthamologist whom I respect; it was a six-week wait. The nail-biting was over at last. At my appointment, I learned that the ligaments in my eyes have grown overly lax. The result of this laxity is that, when tired, my eyes drift slightly, causing double-vision. He explained that I could spend months doing eye exercises with the possibility of correcting the problem slightly by strengthening the muscles so they could do the work of these lax ligaments. Alternatively, he could prescribe lenses with prisms that would do the work for me. It was an easy decision for me. However, before going to the expense of having progressive lenses made using prisms, I would try out a simple lens. I picked up a trial pair of prescription single-lens reading glasses today. It was miraculous. So amazing in fact, that I want to start flipping through photo albums to see what I might have been missing over the past year. I even want to reread such classics as “Good-Night Moon” just in case I missed the image of a petite mouse tucked away and waiting for me to find it all those years ago, when my children were little. I’ll have to let you know what I see.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chocolate Risk


All current information now points to the cocoa bean as hazardous to dogs. I was prompted to research this matter as a result of my dog’s misbehavior. When I came home from a two hour outing this afternoon, I found a plate of Christmas fudge on the ground. There had been half a batch; he ate about 1/4 of a pound of it. I went online and used my math skills to quantify how much he would have to eat to put him at severe risk for poisoning. My son wanted to call poison control. I wasn’t sure of the need. I believe in mathematics. Sort of....
There is a valuable number for Animal Poison Control managed by the ASPCA. They claim:
We are your best resource for any animal poison-related emergency, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you think that your pet may have ingested a potentially poisonous substance, call (888) 426-4435. A $65 consultation fee may be applied to your credit card.
I have used it twice before when my dog ate a bottle containing prescription medicine and another time when he ate holly berries. The person on the hotline was very helpful and all was well that ended well.
Tonight, I wasn’t sure there was sufficient amount of missing chocolate fudge to warrant emergency care. I decided to watch the dog closely, keep the number at the ready, and be prepared to drive the five miles to the near-by Emergency Room of a nearby animal hospital. I have taken his heartbeat repeatedly. I am, in every way, a nervous nelly.
Despite the medical information I gleaned from the internet, I am a worrier. Part of what helps me relax are the memories of my first dog, Banner. Banner, became a beloved member of my family in the sixties. He was all kitten in a boxer’s build. He was known to love chocolate. In fact, the mysterious disappearance of a chocolate cake laid blame clearly at his paws. He enjoyed that chocolate-fest on a day that we had not sufficiently Banner-proofed our home before leaving.
Banner was lonely and bored his vet told us. It was these feelings that led him to do such destructive things as going into the walk-in kitchen pantry. He pulled all the cans off the shelves five feet and lower, and used his sharp nails to remove the labels of the canned goods. For months, it was a game of chance what we would find when we opened a can. My mother was frugal and would never consider disposing of well over fifty cans of perfectly good food. Guests found this quirky, I hated the uncertainty of what I would find on my plate every night. Certainly, we could identify tuna by its shape. Canned pears and tomato sauce were a little trickier. In the time period in which we Banner-proofed, crates were not in common use. For this reason, we devised our own method of protecting our dog and our property -- gates opened and then laid across three sofas. All doors were closed. A gate was placed at the bottom of the stairs. All surfaces were cleared of pens, pencils, knick-knacks, and paper goods. All such items were at risk for demolition by an under-stimulated dog. My mother was a teacher, my father, a banker. The house was empty between 7:30am and 4:30pm.. We came to accept as normal a certain degree of material damage due to Banner’s antics. The disappearance of a chocolate cake seemed minor in light of such incidents as the time he leapt through a double-paned bay window and went a.w.o.l. for ten days. Or the time he gnawed through the door to the basement, desperate to get to a kitten we had added to our menagerie.
My internet research suggests that a dog may react to chocolate from 4 to 24 hours after consumption. I suspect I will be getting up regularly tonight to check Scooter’s breathing and measure his heart-rate. He had one incident of crazy, boundless energy that I found impossible to control. I took him outside to give him more room. I ended up having to drop my cane and use two hands to hold onto the leash to prevent him from taking off after the scent of a deer or a fox. At one point, he paused, head up, ears lifted, nose at the ready to catch a scent of freedom. We are inside now, settled down for the night. When he falls into his dreams, I can’t help but wonder if he might be dreaming of chasing Hershey’s Kisses.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas 2011

A ring from my father.

Every Christmas seems to be characterized by a theme. I do not believe that this is contrived or planned. It is the organic outgrowth of the interests and activities of our family and its members that year. For example, there have been Christmases that have consisted of largely hand-made gifts. I still treasure the quilt my mother made be when I was eighteen, and had just started living with my boyfriend. She embroidered on the back, “Love is a warm bed.” That Christmas, her handiwork exceeded mine, but I did manage to sew some aprons and my sister made my parents an amazing rendition of of Martha’s Vineyard in elaborate crewel.
One Christmas, I recall all of the gifts somehow revolved around kitchens. Cookbooks, cookware, gift certificates to food purveyors, kitchen tools and kitchen towels were exchanged. We laughed very hard when the clips my mother had purchased to close bags of chips and pretzels were put to a much baser use on my brother-in-law. This led to the use of kitchen string and the clips being used as a tool in a spoof of an x-rated movie. The laughter at the adults-only humor caused a sudden rush of many of us to the bathrooms.
There was a Christmas of outerwear and underwear. Everyone on Santa’s list received coats, hats, hand warmers as well as long johns, briefs and bikinis.
There was a Christmas of beauty salves and tonics for renewed vigor of hair and skin. A most confusing year because it wasn’t clear whether these were hopeful suggestions or desperate ones.
This year, it came down to exceedingly thoughtful gifts. The presents that I found under the tree were ones that reflected my interests and longings. Not a year of computer technology, nor one of cosmetics or giftcards. Instead, we gave and received, a panoply of very personal treasures. For me, some of my gifts included my signature scent - Chanel No.#5, a cashmere shawl and parts to repair my broken hot tub. I gave my husband warm socks and snow shoes, my son wanted Desert boots, my daughters asked for pens and earrings, stockings and books. All budget-worthy items that were easy to acquire and were things on their wish lists. Santa left one glaring disappointment as he packed his bag to leave Chestnut Mountain View.
No Philip was delivered for my son, Charles. Charles has lobbied since August for a kitten to join our menagerie. This scheme he hatched grew at an alarming rate and intensity. Three days before Christmas, Charles still maintained the only gift he desired this year was a kitten. A fictitious kitten that he named Philip became the focus of most of his discussions with me. He lobbied hard both in person and through texts, emails and voice messages. He contacted the local animal shelter to ask about availability. Charles reported back to me that kitten season was almost over, but the shelter had two or three from which to choose.
“No,” I said.
Firmly. Kindly. Repeatedly. I stated that we already have a dog and a cat and that is all this household can manage right now. This morning, the stockings were filled to overflowing and it took over an hour and a half to open all our gifts to and from each other. There were squeals of excitement, ooohs and aaahs, and a general chorus of appreciation. I confess to trying to win Charles’s affections by baking cupcakes and piling mountains of vanilla frosting on each one. He thanked me politely and asked if Philip was in my office waiting for him.
Beside Charles’s focus on Philip, this year’s theme would easily be summarized by one word...Thoughtful.
The gifts I gave, the gifts I received, were related by one strand of a common thread: all of the gift-giving was exceedingly thoughtful and attuned to each individual. For me, that meant such diverse items as homemade preserves from my friend’s farm, a flowing sweater, Chanel Number 5, a Kindle, two charms for my Pandora bracelet and a ring from my father. I hope that, in gift-giving, I captured so completely one element from the complex composition of character that compose my friend’s and family's interests.
This Christmas would be best characterized by an intimacy borne of familiarity of each individual’s tastes and preferences. For that alone, Christmas 2011 will be one I remember.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Shared bounty from a friend's farm.
Our tree and its glimmering lights-
The holiday season is evident all around us.



A myriad of topics have flooded my mind today as I set out to write my blog. It is, after all, Christmas Eve. I realized that nothing I have to say could compete with the simple message:

Peace to all, good will to men.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Scooter

I could write a very long essay about my love affair with our family dog, Scooter. He came into our lives because my daughter was ill and a dog was a bribe that gave her hope. This cute, little fluffy white puppy was just what the doctor ordered. After nine months of being ill, my daughter turned the corner and started to recover within a month of Scooter’s addition to our family. The truth was that the removal of her severely inflamed appendix probably had a lot more to do with her improvement than the puff-ball of a dog we call Scooter. There are many Scooter tales, lure that we will tell for decades. This is the abbreviated version.
Scooter is a Labradoodle that has grown to a healthy 75 pounds. That is a lot of dog, though he doesn’t quite know that. He cuddles and plays like a miniature variety. Lately, he has regressed to behaviors that I thought we had trained out of him five years ago. However, when it comes to food, do you ever really convince a dog not to eat unguarded food from a coffee table? Or train him to pass on the chocolates out of Christmas stockings?
Well, Scooter’s list of transgressions is long, no one could argue otherwise. Yes, he ate my $459 sunglasses (I went for poly-carbonate and polarized for starters...) and a few 
Christmas light bulbs and opened the wrapped Christmas gifts. However, before I thoroughly cast dispersions on this dog that we have all grown to love, he has, with one action alone, redeemed himself. Here is how.
I am prone to sleepwalking. Yes, I am going to see a sleep specialist about it in January. In the meantime, I am making the best of it. Thus far, there are neatly folded loads of laundry, a dishwasher inexplicably emptied, garage doors opened, garbage bagged and taken outside. And these are the things I know about! I have walked into door, both open and closed, walls and tables; I have the bruises to prove it.
Two nights ago, I felt myself tipping over and just barely righted myself before falling over. I was decidedly disoriented as to which was up, what was down. Think of getting tossed in fifteen foot waves. I steadied myself and took in my surroundings. I was standing outside in boots and my pajamas, holding the dog’s leash. It was very dark, a thin streak of red illuminated the eastern sky. I noticed that there was no tension on the leash. Scooter! Had I taken Scooter out, and let him off leash? I called after him over and over. He didn’t come bounding toward me. I was on the verge of crying. As I turned to call his name in another direction, I tripped over something nearly on my feet. It was Scooter, guarding me. I laughed and petted him while saying over and over and over “Good dog!” Thus, before I lambast him due to his behavioral deviance, I must remember his good nature and protective instincts.
ultimately, when I needed him most, Scooter stayed right by my side.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fudge


AUNT TINA'S FUDGE RECIPE -- (covered with plastic, of course!)
My husband’s Aunt Tina first sent us a box of her fudge in 1985. She and her husband were childless, but she mothered many of us who were in her life. That fudge was a Christmas gift that knocked our socks off....five pounds of 1/2 nut, 1/2 plain confection for my husband and me to devour. I remember cutting pieces, arranging them on plates, then creatively packaging them to share the bounty with friends. Fudge is best eaten fresh. Year after year came Aunt Tina’s handiwork; our appreciation seemed to grow exponentially.
As she aged, I worried about the strain the fudge production put on her. She would make fifty pounds each year. The pans were heavy and it was tiring to stir the sugar and evaporated milk down from a full, roiling boil. Aunt Tina confided in me that she had started making the fudge in lots, starting just after Thanksgiving. It was easier to manage cooking, packaging and shipping her gifts this way. Gingerly, I asked for her recipe. I proposed that I make the fudge for our growing family and help cut down her work. She wouldn’t hear of it. Another year, and another and I kept pleading with her. “No,” she said. Then the year came that she said, “I’m putting Crume (her husband) to work. He’s my assistant.”
I didn’t dare argue that I could make our batch. The Christmas came that she called me. “I’m late making the fudge this year; I had a quadruple bi-pass and....”
I interrupted her, “Aunt Tina, you are crazy. Please, let me make our fudge.”
“No,” she said, “But do you mind if I just send one pound of it this year?”
Two years later, Aunt Tina called me with a surprise.
“Dear, I have put the recipe for the fudge in the mail to you. But I wanted to explain a few things....” Whereby she launched into details about what a roiling bowl looks like. And explained that she opens all of the ingredients and measures them into separate bowls. Premeasured ingredients allow for ready addition to the mix according to Aunt Tina. She warned me to cover the fudge before it hardened or I would have a crusty top layer on the fudge. No-one wants that.
So began the hand-off. I was honored that she shared the recipe me. She said I was the only one that showed such an interest. Also, because she knew I wrote food articles for the local newspaper, she started sending me recipes she liked or used often Just because. I think it pleased Aunt Tina to know that, though she didn’t have children of her own, she could pass on recipes that were part of her life story.
This year, for the first time in thirty-five years, we received a Christmas card in Crume’s handwriting. My heart gave a little lurch, was Aunt Tina gone? No, but Aunt Tina would not be making fudge again; dementia has claimed her memory. So, this year, more than any other, I felt compelled to make Aunt Tina’s fudge. And yes, I remembered to cover it with plastic as soon it set up. Crusty fudge would never have passed Aunt Tina’s exacting standards. We couldn’t have that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Indignation

Before
After


The word “indignation” sounds old-fashioned. It is burdened with disappointment, expectation and anger. I recognized the feeling of indignation just this morning.

Near the bottom of my driveway is an old tree, half-broken, but clinging to life. It is nestled between the lazy meandering waterway called West Brook and Westbrook Road. A fortuitous split of the tree left a flat, table-like surface at about 45 inches off the ground. Over time, the surface of this “table” has been overgrown by moss. This small altar-like artifice undergoes mysterious seasonal transformations. At the beginning of each equinox, an offering is placed by unknown hands. Fall might bring a smattering of pumpkins and gourds, Spring offers small flowers dug into the moss, often pansies. Summer the moss does all the work as it turns lustrous and green. Winter, there might be a few small pebbles and stones, piled artistically. It always makes me think of the tree that housed treasures in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In this case, it seems like little fairies come out and do the work while the rest of the world sleeps.

On a recent walk, I noticed that squirrels had nibbled into one pumpkin, knocked down another and chewed a gourd down to its neck. It was at that moment I hatched my plan. I would do the seasonal display myself this time! It was with tremendous pleasure
that I turned over various ideas. What intruded upon my thoughts was exactly the same thing that has intruded upon my thoughts on every walk I have taken since September.
There is a small bridge that passes over West Brook. At the corner of the bridge, a bag of garbage had fallen or been thrown from a vehicle. The offending bottles, cans, and detritus had sat untouched for weeks and weeks and weeks. When the town crews were mowing there, I thought they might have removed the trash. No, it just sat. Through flood and blizzard and gale force winds, the offending items remained. It occurred to me that if I was going to spruce up the special place, I would have to do something about this careless mess someone left behind.

I set out on my walk with determination the next morning. I had a white Hefty kitchen trash bag, gloves and a fistful of colorful Christmas balls that I threaded with pipe cleaners. My first stop was at the special tree. I hung ornaments and made a spray of evergreens to decorate the tree with a festive, non-denominational kind of feel. From there, I headed to the bridge to pick up and bag the garbage. I filled 3/4 of a bag. I left the bag, and continued on my walk, seeking out other garbage I could remove to beautify the scenery along a road I love so much. On the return, I picked up the sac, dumped in the additional trash, then headed on home. I stopped once again to admire my handiwork at the tree, then proceeded on home.

I dropped the plastic trash bag along with the latex gloves into a big, green garbage bin before going inside to wash my hands. I was looking forward to seeing my handiwork on the next trip down the driveway.

This morning, I got suited up for my walk in the cold and the dark. Snowpants, hat, gloves, scarf and winter kicks. I felt a small frisson of satisfaction when I saw the incongruent silver, gold and red ornaments hanging from the fallen tree at the bottom of my driveway. I looked forward to - finally - passing over West Brook Bridge without seeing garbage strewn on one side of it. But wait! What’s this??? I did a literal double-take when I saw a scattering of new empties at the exact same site I cleaned just 24 hours earlier.
Enter indignation.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of INDIGNATION matches my own: anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean.
I felt indignation and disbelief that there was one spot that someone appears free to use as a repository for their trash. I am angry that I went to the trouble to gather and remove the last load and there it was, back again. As I marched home, propelled by my righteous indignation, I paused a moment in front of the altar of the seasonal delights. I confess that my steam of anger lost its head as I looked at a few ornaments and a spray of evergreens. As I headed up the long driveway that leads to my house, I found myself considering whether I should swing by with my car to pick up the offending rubbish or bring along another Hefty kitchen trash bag on my walk tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Notes on the world around me


There are times that I will be in the car and will want to come to a screeching halt. The question on my lips is always DID I REALLY SEE THAT?
~I saw a tire swing hanging from an electric tower in someone’s back yard. Wrong, all the way. Just wrong. In Yahoo! Answers, moof1boy asked, “Is it dangerous to live near an electric tower?”
Best Answer - Chosen by Voters
There have been a number of studies and ideas on this and nothing much proved either way. Bear in mind the power companies have a lot to lose if it was ever proved to be a danger and had to pay out compensation so guess what their studies show.
I wouldn't live near one because I think there is a possibility. Let those that think its safe live there. They seem to be upset that anyone disagrees so maybe they're not that certain themselves.
~I saw a man handing another man a handgun through the open window of his car. This was directly in front of a city home with children playing in the front yard.
~I saw a field of lavender stretching as far as I could see with the deep, rich color of the flowers in contrast to the vivid blue of the wide sky above them.
~I saw a full moon hanging low and orange as the fruit on a citrus tree.
~I saw a ninety-six year old woman hold her great-great grand-daughter in her lap, the wrinkles in each of their faces mirrored in the other’s.
~I saw a young woman riding on her boyfriend’s lap. He was in a motorized scooter rolling down the sidewalk. She held on to a child’s hand; the child ran to keep up with the couple in the chair.
~I saw a pack of teenage boys running together. They wore Deerfield Academy jerseys. It was obvious they were in training; they took turns carrying each other on the other’s back.
~I saw a snake release its hold on a field mouse. As the mouse ran out from under the bush to apparent safety, a hawk dived down, talons outstretched, and scooped up the mouse for dinner.
~I saw a field put to bed for the winter, with blankets of plastic laid down, in straight, even rows to conserve the topsoil.

As long as I continue to see these sometimes startling glimpses of the world, I will file them in my memory and then try to find the words to share them with others. It is for this reason, among others, that I call myself a writer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Secret Shoppers

At one point in my life, I considered becoming a Secret Shopper. I had a trial run at the job and was later approached for a permanent post; this gig required that I visit branches of banks to grade the offices on physical appearance and the attitude, knowledge, and service orientation of the staff. I did a number of branches, but honestly felt like a turncoat. There would be offices that were dilapidated and unattractive housing top-notch service people. Just as there would be manicured and groomed facilities that were run by people who should not have been in a service industry. I had a two-page form on which to color in circles on a series of questions. I reported on my observations on a form clamped to a clipboard. The reports I handed in were covered in footnotes and addenda. On every question, I wanted my comments to be as thorough and precise as possible. The feedback I received was that my comments were insightful and helpful, but somewhat difficult to translate into a form appropriate for data analysis. Had I considered doing this kind of work in the field of hospitality? They thought I was a natural. Apparently, I had the critical skill set needed to assess a situation, compare it to a standard to assess where, and if, they differed. To me, it was as simple as using a checklist to guide me in my evaluation. I can discriminate between good and great. I can discern the difference between poor and unacceptable. It is not rocket science, after all.

Last week, I had occasion to wish I had my clipboard again. I was on Newbury Street in Boston. In particular, I stopped in at 353 Newbury Street at 11:30 am on December 8th. I was hoping to meet up with some friends who were shopping nearby. I popped into this particular store because my daughters generally love the fashion-mindedness of this particular clothing line. The company motto is
“Be Unique, Be Yourself.”
And that they were.

When I had taken no more than five steps into the store, I came to an abrupt halt. I felt my eyes widen trying to fully take in what I saw. It was like a bomb had gone off. The merchandise throughout the entire store had been rifled through and dropped willy-nilly on the ground, on tables and shoved onto shelves. The floor was littered, simply LITTERED with clothing and shoes and boots. I saw two women talking together toward the back of the store. One called out a welcoming greeting (she would have gotten a check in the Excellent column if I were completing a Shopping Evaluation). I continued to scan the utter chaos of the store, slack-mouthed and speechless. Finally, I asked, “What happened here?”



I thought she might say they had an 80% discount last night and they were still trying to put things to right or that they had been burglarized. Instead, the store employee laughed and said, “Crazy isn’t it? Corporate has a lot of merchandise they want out on the floor. We do our best to keep up...” Her voice trailed off as we looked around.
“Do you mind if I take a couple of pictures? My daughter works in retail and I would love to show her your store.” “Oh sure, go right ahead.”
Three shots and I was out of there like a flash. There was no way l could bring myself to wade through the displays to find appropriate sizes or styles. As I was about to leave the store, I turned to look back one more time. The sales girl called out, “Thanks for coming in. Come again soon!” If I had my clipboard in hand once again, I would give her a gold star for her friendliness.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Daily Five


The shoe says everything about the season. Today was the day to make the change. By choosing winter sneakers for my daily perambulation, I am bowing to Winter. The lingering kind of snow that one hopes for during holiday season has been slow to arrive. But the wind and the cold air are incentive enough to start wearing warmer gear from head to toe. When my children attended elementary school, they were required to wear The Daily Five: this consisted of hat, coat, mittens, snow pants, and boots from Thanksgiving until March. The Daily Five rule simplified getting out of the house in the morning -- only because it was understood by all that winter attire was a non-negotiable fact of life.
Despite much teasing from my family, I adhere to that same rule today when I go for walks in the winter. My body does not like the cold. It rebels in mysterious ways; I sometimes resemble an ancient football player when I go from sitting to standing. I hear pop,snapple, crack from mysterious places in my hands, knees and spine. I rely on The Daily Five to keep me toasty and my joints happy. Recently, I have added a scarf as a reinforcement against the invasive cold. Does this means the rule becomes The Daily Six?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Season of Hugs



December should be declared National Hug Month. The holiday season brings with it lots of gatherings, gift-giving and celebrating. An intrinsic part of these occasions is our expression of love and appreciation for one another with a simple hug.
I had an exceptional hug yesterday. A hug that, for one moment, stopped me from thinking of anything except that I was loved. My friends’s arms embraced me. I was completely enfolded in her love. Hugs can be unsatisfying, leaving you wanting to take a shower and wash away the other person’s touch. Hugs can be wholesome and wholehearted. Hugs can be tentative, they can be stiff, they can be given with an awkward lean in -- so bodies do not touch. Hugs can hurt. Hugs can heal.
A reflection on the nature of hugs led me to research more about them. My investigation of the nature, meaning and origin of hugs convinced me that hugs are necessary for a healthy, fulfilling life. The sensation of touch is stimulated when we hold each other. Hugs have the ability to reduce illness, curb appetite, slow aging, build self-esteem and dispel loneliness. Apparently, hugs pack quite a punch! It bears saying the hugs that I was reading about were of an appropriate, healthy, and non-sexual type. The positive effect of hugs outweighs the real concern of an untoward, undesired advance.
A Google search brings up a vast number of self-proclaimed “hug experts”. To me, this seems like an oxymoron; in a hug, shouldn’t all pretense and posturing be put aside? However, there are sociologists and psychologists who have dedicated their lives' work to dissecting the common hug. Apparently, I was naive to think that the only prerequisite of becoming a hug expert is to hug a lot. Hug experts explore should questions as
......Why do hugs feel good? What is “hug therapy?” Are there scientific facts to back that claims that patients who receive daily hugs post-surgically do better than those that don’t? .......
This morning, I ran into an acquaintance of thirty years. I proffered my hand to shake his. He took my hand with his, then surprised me by giving me a hug. A sweet, unexpected, and kind hug that made me feel just a little bit more special.
Research shows that we need to hug each other more often. Experience shows we feel better when we do. After my reading on hugs, I hope to hug more confidently, more often, and with the knowledge that any hug I give to another comes back to me in many ways. Maybe the power of a hug is, in essence, that it is a lot like love.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reality Bites

There is a an illusion that one can maintain by tucking away unpleasant thoughts in a small, dark chamber of one’s mind; for example, it is that easy to pretend that one is avoiding the effects of gravity and time. This was brought home to me by a last-minute party invitation. A friend called together a gathering of friends to celebrate the holidays. With a three-day lead, I did not have time to go shopping for something new and exciting to wear for the festive and semi-formal event. Over the years, I have accumulated enough gowns, cocktail dresses and formal wear to fill a closet. The needle on the scale has remained fixed on the same number plus or minus two for almost forty years. Why fret?
I had it covered.
This was when reality intruded.
Three hours before the party, I thought I would try on the top contenders. Well, what do you know? The first gown emphasized areas I would prefer to ignore. The next dress was too young and flirty. The next try demanded I go forth bravely and without foundation. No longer an option, in my mind. Relax, breathe, go for an old stand-by. Okay, but boring. Black, catalogue-common. I recruited my son’s opinion at this point. Perhaps I was being unduly harsh.
The two red dresses I modeled worked, but not in a WOW-what-a-nice-dress kind of way. Around then I started repeating “Clothes do not the woman make” as my mantra.
A long black velvet gown, too much. A short, red, Grecian-style dress worked. I breathed a sigh of relief. I turned to admire the back of the dress. To my horror, two large stains. The dress still had its tags. There was a dress that I came remarkably close to wearing, but I saw the effect of three spinal surgeries showing in the open cut-out in the back and couldn’t bring myself to subject others to that sight.
I decided pants. I have black and grey pants. I was disheartened. The blouses and halters I considered cut into the lines of my figure at the wrong places.
Skirts? Dowdy or functional, not fun.
With her permission, I raided my daughter’s closet. Five dresses. Two sufficed, but really were too young. I spent half an hour hanging, pinning and restoring all the garments I had donned so I could put them away. With no decision made, I went to do some online shopping. Avoidance.
Just a couple of hours later, it was time to get ready. I bathed, washed and blow-dried my hair then applied my makeup. For jewelry, I picked out special earrings and a pearl necklace. Still in my robe, I walked into my closet and chose my shoes. Black Baby Janes from Clark. If I couldn’t work top-down, I would work bottom-up. Then nylons from DKNY. Black slacks from Express. A silk camisole from Hanro. A lovely silk blouse from Ralph Lauren and... TADA!!
With the help of all my friends -Clarks, Donna Karan, Express, Hanro and Ralph - I assembled an outfit to wear for the party -- not withstanding the unfamiliar terrain of my aging physique.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Knitta Please



There are times I find myself wishing my mother was still alive. Case in point, today, when I found out about the graffiti knitting movement. Also called yarn bombing, "graffiti knitting," is a global movement of dedicated knitters. They are committed to adorning relics of everyday city life such as parking meters, statues, lampposts and mailboxes--with knitted scarves, animals, and sweaters. This would have captured my mother’s imagination; she was a prolific knitter. We used to laugh at the instructions for knitted tea cozy’s, toilet paper roll covers and lampshades that appeared occasionally in her knitting magazines. I remember her saying, “If this, what next?”
Examples of graffiti knitting have been left in Manhattan, London, Tokyo and Reykjavik. It is a new effort -- only about six years old. Magda Sayeg, an artist in Texas started small. First, she knitted a cozy for the doorpull of the shop in Houston, then for a stop sign pole and things took off from there. The group of artists who expanded her work in Houston were called Knitta Please, best known as Knittta. Their idea was to create graffiti-like projects using knitting.
I was introduced to graffiti knitting by none other than my seventeen-year old son. He told me about his friend’s godmother who is a yarn-bomber. She lives locally in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. Northampton, a city of about 30,000, boasts the highest number of lesbian couples per capita in the United States. Does Northampton also claim the highest number of knitters per capita? The city's has a nickname of Paradise City -- which begs the question of the origin of such a nickname. According to the city's homepage, the nickname was coined after Jenny Lind, a famous opera singer in the late 1870’s, visited Northampton and labeled it a paradise. Into Paradise City have come the yarn bombers fashioning their cable knit scarves for benches and wraps for parking meters. I can imagine my mother looking down from her perch in Paradise applauding the entire effort for its frivolity and spirit of artistic expression. Come to think of it, maybe this weekend I will dig up my own knitting needles....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Career Happiness

In September, 2011, Forbes Magazine reported on an article that appeared in Christian Science Monitor. (www.Forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/09/12/the-ten-happiest-jobs/) The gist of the article was pretty much in-your-face obvious. It highlighted the jobs that people find the happiest -- especially when the “happiest” list is compared with the Most Hated jobs lists.
Christian Science Monitor article http://www.csmonitor.com/CSM-Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/The-10-happiest-jobs
The Ten Happiest Jobs

1. Clergy:  selflessness has its reward
2. Firefighters: Eighty percent of firefighters are “very satisfied” with their jobs, which involve helping people.
3. Physical therapists: Social interaction and helping people apparently make this job one of the happiest.
4. Authors: there must be something intrinsically rewarding about expressing oneself.
5. Special education teachers: if pay is not a motivator, helping children is.
6. Teachers: fifty percent of new teachers are gone within five years. Those that remain love their work and care about the children.
7. Artists: Creative expression seems to lend itself to happiness.
8. Psychologists: Psychologists must be applying their own practices to finding happiness in their lives.
9. Financial services sales agents: Sixty-five percent of financial services sales agents are reported to be happy with their jobs. It’s not unusual to make $90,000 for a 40 hour week.
10.Operating engineers: Playing with giant toys like bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, scrapers, motor graders, shovels, derricks, large pumps, and air compressors can be fun.  Demand for operating engineers exceeds the number of trained operators. Job security contributes to overall happiness.

The Ten Most Hated Jobs
1. Director of Information Technology
2. Director of Sales and Marketing
3. Product Manager
4. Senior Web Developer
5. Technical Specialist
6. Electronics Technician
7. Law Clerk
8. Technical Support Analyst
9. CNC Machinist
10.Marketing Manager

Even simply reading this list, I find myself yaaawwnnnning. Any sustained satisfaction I have ever derived from work has come from being invested in the well-being of others. I feel like my work is meaningful, that my efforts, thoughts and ideas are contributing somehow to the well-being of others. That meaning comes from an intrinsic sense that my work counts. Companies like Amazon and Apple sustain profits and loyal customers because they understand that model; happy employees happy customers make.
Into that arena of self-awareness comes this discovery; in my immediate family, we have ALL, every single one of us, chosen professions that are, purportedly, among the happiest. My family’s list of careers includes Author, Artist, Psychologist, and Financial Services Sales Agents. There is a certain amount of satisfaction that, on paper, we are positioned for happiness. However, above all else, there is one thing of which I am certain; the bulk of our happiness is ours to determine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

I fell into the Rabbit Hole this afternoon. It has been a long time since I became so engaged in what I was doing that I forgot everything except what was directly in front of me. I started my journey at 4:10 pm. I intended to do a little Christmas shopping. As Santa’s helper, I take my job seriously.
I had a list rattling around in my head, so I thought I should attack it. I did so with gusto. I did notice - around 5:15pm - that my husband had come home briefly. I did notice it was so dark in my bedroom that I was using to phone and my keyboard to illuminate my papers. It then dawned on me to turn on a light. I renewed my efforts to take advantage of special offers and sales. I visited websites that specialize in tracking discounts down for consumers. My favorite, and most successful, is retailmenot.com. Go figure. In any event, I started to lose myself when I realized I had ten or eleven windows open as I comparison shopped. I sent orders to my printer and moved on. I started to wonder where my son was, I was stunned, when I eyed the clock, that it was 6:40pm. How did that happen?
I recalled he was meeting a friend after school to study Chinese. I, on the other hand, was studying the economic base of our country as it related to consumer spending. Back to the chore at hand, I rolled up my sleeves and marched onward. First, however, I clicked on a lamp. I neglected such minor inconveniences as the need to visit the bathroom, the dry rasp in my throat when I cleared it, and the loud objections my stomach was making because I had so thoroughly ignored it. I pushed the Google Pay button and placed my next order. At this point, my son called to say he was on his way home, and he had not had dinner. More a request than a statement, I knew he was wondering whether I would make his meal. I looked at my clock and looked again. It was 8:06 p.m.! I was stunned that I lost track of another 90 minutes. I started the unravelling. I backed out of my many open screens. Through Nordstrom and Overstock.com, and Wintersilks, and Madewell and Fossil and Urban Outfitters and ...
Whew, no wonder I am wiped out. All in the name of hope, that the gifts I have chosen will bring the recipient a smile, and perhaps, make their lives a little brighter. I can’t change the world, but I can try to bring joy to my little corner of it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Do-overs

There is no use wishing for do-overs. Do you remember the practice of do-overs from childhood? There was a time when the cry “do-over” was used to impose reason and order in a world that didn’t always make sense. The idea that anyone -- even the weakest among us -- could assert the request to redo a play meant that we had leveled the playing field. “Do-overs” was an accepted practice in most of the games we played: badminton, bombardment, four-square, jacks, tag and even tennis - it was a reasonable way to settle a dispute. Do-overs didn’t solve everything, but they gave us a way to move past arguments. Everyone had an equal voice whenever they suspected a misplay. Imagine if, as adults, we could call do-over when a dispute is dragging out too long with no sign of a resolution. It would be a relief to be able to declare do-overs in such circumstances or in those moments that we inadvertently say something careless or thoughtless. It seems to me that we should have a way to ask for the the space to make amends for the things we have said or done to hurt others. I am ready for do-overs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Catalogue Christmas

A sure sign that the holiday season is upon us is the huge stack of catalogues burgeoning by my bedside table; it speaks volumes. There is a satisfaction that comes from turning the pages laden with enticing products and earmarking them for later comparison. If that feeling is good, just wait.... it even gets better. When I move into the purchase mode, I do so online. Shortly thereafter, a confirmation email arrives. I drag and drop it into a folder called Mail Order Purchases. From that moment on, I have the habit of forgetting my good deed. An email verifying that “Your order has been shipped” reminds me of the pending delivery. Once again, however, thoughts of mail order gifts slip from my mind in the bustle and flow of everyday life. When a bright yellow card appears in my mailbox, I recognize the code. It means I have been summoned. The Ruler and Emperor Supreme of the local U.S. Post Office is telling me to come in and get a package --now! The local Post Office is so small that if you blink while driving by, you will have missed it. My Postmaster General needs the space occupied by my deliveries for the next truck load of deliveries in the afternoon. My boxes take up precious floor space in our little post office. When I have the pleasure of picking up my packages from the post office myself, the Postmaster inevitably has my boxes stacked up on the counter ready for my signature before I even open the front door. He catches a glimpse of my car, and he is at the ready, willing to serve. When he sees me struggling with packages, mail and cane, he will even help me out to the car. I feel so special! The post office keeps a recycle box at the ready, under the counter. Occasionally, I open my shipments then and there so I can discard and recycle what I do not need. It is a cathartic way to lighten my load. With multiple large orders, such a small change can make the transportation of the gifts to the car considerably , considerably ddmore manageable. Once I arrive at home, the gifts are inventoried and hidden until I can wrap them. Every year, I do such a bang-up job hiding the gifts, that one or two refuse to come out. I find them sometime before July, usually.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Google It



When did Google become a verb?
Inquiring minds want to know. How to find out? Google it. So I did.
Wikipedia came up with ...
Google (transitive verb) -
refers to using the Google search engine to obtain information on the Web....It was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary on June 15, 2006, and to the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006. The first recorded usage of google used as a gerund, thus supposing the verb, was on July 8, 1998, by Google co-founder Larry Page himself, who wrote on a mailing list: "Have fun and keep googling!"
There was a time when I had a good relationship with the reference librarians at both the Forbes Library and the Jones Library. I had a library card for U.Mass library as well. I would call the reference librarians, often with a bit of embarrassment, to ask how to obtain the information I needed to write an article or to develop an essay idea. No longer. Rarely do I have to leave the comfort of my home to collect overwhelming amounts of information to consider. In fact, my job has gone from desperately seeking sufficient information to whittling down the information I do find to make it accessible to others.
Do all weeks have seven days?
Where was the first reference to Ezra Stone made?
In what year was Citizen Kane released?
How many seats does the North Kentucky Convention Center hold?
With Google, I have easy access to information, day or night. I relish the notion that, with the right wording, and some degree of tenacity, I can unearth just about anything I can imagine asking.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tracks



The sight of railroad tracks brings with it the possibility of change, escape, adventure.
When I was young, it was a place forbidden, where the kids who smoked and drank would party at night. Early in the morning, I would sneak out of my house and walk two blocks over to investigate the debris of teenage rebellion. There would be broken beer bottles, empty gin bottles and soda cans recklessly tossed aside. With a long stick, I would lift used condoms and send them flying into the woods. Once, I had a ten minute belly laugh when the rubber settled on a tree branch, draped like a deflated ornament.
I would walk the tracks for miles, then turn around and come home. I knew the train schedule, I knew I was safe. For most of my life, I have had a healthy respect for the massive engines of steel as they trundle through the countryside. LIke all the kids my age, I had heard tales of amputated legs, cars stuck at a railroad crossing causing derailings and untold deaths as well as horrific accounts of mortal damage. The train’s whistle cuts through my memories like a knife through cheese. My entire life, every house I have ever owned, has been within a whistle blow of railroad tracks. I have called New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York home .. each of these states rely on trains for transportation of goods and passengers. The piercing train whistle carries great distances, both a reassurance and a comfort over my decades of listening for it. Oft times, when I hear the whistle, I pause for just a second to think about the train and wonder about its passengers and its destinations. I have heard the lonely whistle at one in the morning and I have heard the optimistic whistle at one in the afternoon. No matter when I hear it, I am reminded that I am not alone in the world. That there are places to go and people to meet and that they are connected to me by something as prosaic as railroad tracks.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blogging 101


My first introduction to blogs was made in a fairly dramatic manner. My daughters were in middle school, my son still in elementary school. One of the girls caught me off guard on a holiday shopping trip to a large shopping mall. After having spent a pleasant day with all three children, I had relaxed into the comfortable feeling that “the universe is good, all is right with the world.” (As a cautionary aside, I don’t recommend doing that as a parent!) It was at this point that one of my daughters announced that a girl in her grade at school was planning to commit suicide. “No, this can not be,” I thought. “There is a misunderstanding.”
“What makes you say that?” I inquired. My stomach did a fast-car-over-a railroad track lurch. I was trying to maintain my calm and not be too reactive. I didn’t want to scare her away; she was nervous already. I tried to refrain from drilling her with all the questions that were running through my mind. With as calm an affect as I could muster, I asked, “Do you think she is in any immediate danger?”
“I KNEW YOU WOULD DO THAT,” my daughter cried out. “I shouldn’t have told you and I knew you were going to make a big deal of it. Just leave it alone.”
In my head, I felt calm, but I understood she was projecting all of her apprehensions onto me. Clearly, my daughter was worried; she had told me for her own health after all. On the other hand, she didn’t want to be responsible for the fallout that could come of having told me; she asked me to keep it a secret. That did not, in any way, feel right - although I understood she didn’t want to be labeled a snitch. I wondered about the veracity of the information and whether, maybe, just maybe, we had a phone tree result going here, wherein each generation of the telling the story changed by a small increment. Maybe by the time I caught wind of it, the truth had changed beyond recognition.
Enter Blogging.
When we got home, two hours later, I asked my daughter to fire up her laptop. She punched this, pushed that, and there it was, this girl’s blog that revealed all. With an abandon I never showed as a young teen - even while writing in a locked diary, kept under lock and key - she wrote about her depression, her mood swings, her battle with her feelings of isolation and abandonment and her contemplation of suicide. I drilled my daughters about what was this webpage called? Who could see it? How were “friends” invited?
They gave me answers that made complete sense to them, but left me still confused.
What I was not confused about, however, was my duty to let someone know of this child’s bleak and destructive state of mind. My daughter was doggedly adamant that I was violating her trust. She said she wanted to be able to talk things over with me without me taking it as a call to action. I explained my sense of responsibility, and moreover, the dread of the guilt I would feel, should anything happen to this girl while I sat by silently.

I called the Head of the school to set up an appointment for the next day. I told her that I had information that caused me to be deeply concerned about one of her students. I said I was not at liberty to divulge the source, but I could let her assess the situation herself. I handed over a little postit with an ip address to the girl’s blog. She asked if either of my girls knew anything about the matter. I answered - truthfully -that it would be a violation of their trust in me if I were to further discuss the source. Okay, that was a pretty straightforward answer while still sticking to my accord with my daughter that I wouldn’t “tell” how I knew. I was going through convolutions of word and deed to accommodate honor and social responsibility.

The thing was, the Head was well-apprised that the girl was struggling. Perhaps, she said, she was not apprised of the extent that the student was troubled. Within a week, the blog was gone. Within two weeks, the girl was hospitalized for more psychiatric care than she could receive at home. She did return to school after two months, but it was a very rocky year for her.

That, with its complexities of relationship, duty, and ethics, was the first blog I ever read.
My impression at the time was that it was a self-indulgent journal for people who were not sufficiently engaged in the real world. How radically my views changed as my understanding of the internet, social media and communications grew. Today, I see blogs as a way to bring us together, a vehicle for expression, and tool for learning as well as growing. The only limit to blogs are bloggers themselves. Having said all that, I am glad to say that I write a blog.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

City Life

I live in a fairly rural area. Not say, in the plains of Montana where the next ranch over is fifteen miles down the road, but rural, as in twelve acres on a small mountain with no street lights or stores for miles. When I visit New York, Boston, Montreal, D.C., or any other Eastern seaboard city, two things happen. Initially, I am enthralled by the lights, the bustle, and the very momentum of a metropolis. However, sometime later, I want to bar myself behind doors where I am out of reach of the eyes, ears, and judgements assaulting me.
It comes down to this -- as much as I love mankind, I weary of humanity.
So tonight, after a full day shopping, deal-making and dodging raindrops,I am triple-locking my hotel room door, grateful that I have this temporary shelter from the masses.
And going to bed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rituals of Travel

Whether I am going for an overnight or a three week trip, the rituals of travel remain the same. I have found that, without exception, I take longer packing for a trip than all the unpacking, laundering and putting away that take place upon returning home.
I can not say whether this is a result of life’s hard knocks having taught me to go prepared, ready for a changing itinerary and a variable weather forecast, or if it is simply my nature to plan, plan, plan.
Some of the fundamental wardrobing miss steps I have taken include faux pas that might make a weaker woman whimper. From my travel grab-bag of fashion disasters comes the times when I attended a formal wedding rehearsal dinner in jeans because my luggage was misplaced by an airline that specialized in incompetence. I felt uncommonly dowdy and self-conscious as I sat miserably wishing I had thought to pack some makeup in my carry-on bag. Seven hours of travel did not wear well on me, or on my jeans and hoodie.
The night of my husband’s 25th high school reunion I wore a stunning, body hugging evening gown (red) that puddled on the floor. It puddled a lot more than I intended because of my oversight in packing. No heels, only Merrell clogs with fleece linings.
My husband said no one noticed. The men were not looking at my feet and the women were looking at their men.
I have packed for three days and been stranded for three weeks. Perhaps the most extreme problem in attire occurred on a trip to San Diego. i had a silk evening gown, stunning in its simplicity. The neckline draped strategically so that the absence of supportive undergarments was not noticeable. The gown was suggestive, but tasteful. We were running late for the dinner, so I went into gear - showering, makeup, hair. Finally, I took the dress out of the plastic wrap the dry cleaner used after pressing the bodice folds for me. I held my arms up over my head and shimmied the dress down. And down it went. Much further than I intended. The artful scoop of the neckline had stretched when it was ironed so that the neckline of the dress sat below my breasts. My husband’s comment?
“Looks good to me.”
The straps were in place, just the fabric had been damaged. I fought back tears because I didn’t want to mess my makeup. I tried such creative options as a sportsbra (white just didn’t cut it with a black silk dress), scarves, and even a nightgown instead of the dress. Ultimately, I pinned a sarong in a criss-cross pattern effectively draping myself like a mannequin. As if that wasn’t enough of a lesson on that trip, an entire bottle of perfume broke inside the luggage bag my husband suggested we share.
The olfactory effects were a lasting taunt to not observing some basic packing rules. Never mind that a $72 bottle of perfume was wasted!
Dawn’s Cardinal Rules of Packing
Pack compactly.
Plan layers.
Color coordinate everything around a few colors.
Plan for multiuse items. A sweater on day one can be
be reused on day three with leggings.
Keep a few essentials in handbag if traveling by air. Including all medicines
Bring extra shoes.
For formal events, pack two options.
Use scarves to mulitply fashion wear options.
Try not to bring irreplaceable items.
Extra socks always get worn.
Condense handbags to one day, one evening.

I suspect that I will continue to may mistakes. All I can do is hope that I continue to learn from them!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Becalmed


The first time I heard the word “becalmed, “ I thought it sounded lovely; The image I had conjured was of a person so free of anxiety that they were without care or worry. It was during a high school SAT prep session that I discovered that I had misapprehended the word in its most common meaning.
According to Merriam-Webster, becalmed means

1 a : to keep motionless by lack of wind
b : to stop the progress of
2: to make calm : soothe

Sometime thereafter, I became enamored of the genre of books that demonstrate the remarkable ability of man’s spirit to overcome obstacles in the face of natural disasters and devastating calamities. Among my favorite accounts were those in which individuals show epic heroism and ingenuity in order to survive. While I had absolutely little doubt that I did not have the mettle to be as ingenious and resilient as these characters, I found inspiration in their bravery. Over the course of about a year, I read eight or nine biographies and fictional accounts dedicated to sea-faring adventures. These included works detailing the first solo Atlantic crossing in a thirty-foot sailboat trips around Cape Horn in the 1800’s and other briny tales. It was this passing acquaintance with things nautical that introduced me to the practical meaning of being becalmed. I read accounts of what transpired when crews were short on rations with no land in sight and the wind quit. For a frame of reference, think Mutiny on the Bounty. Or consider the book The Life of Pi that takes the reader aboard a boat in a lengthy narrative describing a becalmed sea. I have since learned that a wind that has been becalmed is as treacherous as an incessant one when it comes to humans’ psyches.
Books, practical experience and observation have led me to believe that we are neither as fragile nor as resilient as I once thought. It appears to me however, that sometimes, when one finds one’s momentum halted, that it may be best to take a lesson from sailors around the world. There will be times when the wind dies down and there will be nothing to do about that except to mend the sails, plan for the future, and wait for the wind.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Grace Notes


It’s often the little things that give me a quick and transient jolt of happiness. I have accumulated a list over time. I have to believe everyone does this. How else could they muddle through the difficult days? It makes life so much more fun...like a novel you just can’t put down.

When I go grocery shopping and the total of my bill is a perfect round number. Yesterday, it came to $79.00. I asked the cashier if she watches out for these special gems.
“Yes,” she said. “One day I had three!”

When I catch someone CHANGING the letters on large, outdoor signs for movies and coming attractions. It seems that most of the time, the actual act of change takes place at some (and mysterious) other point in time. Witnessing the person responsible for changing the signs standing below with a long pole -- that’s pretty cool.

When a friend’s birthday happens to coincide with mine (that would be you, Nan) and a parent sharing a birthday with his child (Ken Jr. and Ken Sr.). I know the statistical likelihood does not make this event that rare, but it is still worthy of just a pause to reflect upon the ordered nature of the universe.

When I get on the scale and my weight is the EXACTLY the same as last time.

When a recipe I am making calls for two eggs, and I used all but two eggs earlier in the day.

When I receive a card from a friend who has been on my mind.

When I see a daisy blossoming out of a pile of rubble next to a burnt-out building.

When I pick up the phone to call a friend, and, before I dial, I hear her voice.

When I extend my forefinger toward one of my children and they touch mine with their’s and we say, “Shot of love.” A sizzle, a glow, a moment of connection.

When I watch a house wren feed its chicks through a glass window not 12” from the nest. I get to see a miracle unfolding.

When an autumn leaf floats down and lands, then settles on my head.

When I am present to witness the cracking of ice on a large, frozen pond. That crrrracccking sensation is both terrifying and exhilarating -- bringing with it an adrenalin rush of panic and excitement.

When I look at a clock and it reads 9:58. The month and year in which I was born.

These are some of the joys, large and small, that do not go unnoticed in my life.
I am ever-ready to find these punctuations in the middle of any given day. They cause me to pause, take note, rejoice. These are the grace notes that are there for the taking.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Great Commandment

Today, I discovered what a prolific writer I am. Five plastic cartons of my files were unearthed; I found essays, proposals and queries dating back to 1976. To my surprise, these papers were all remarkably well-organized. I was left wondering who was that person who wrote so prolifically? Those were the type-written works. The twenty or more personal journals I have written in longhand were stored together in an antique trunk.
Who was the woman who had so much to say?
I found only about a quarter of what I wrote has been ever been published. I wonder if these years and years of writing were a way to hone my craft as a wordsmith. Maybe my time has come.
This morning I had an auditory hallucination. I was getting out of the tub and -- honestly, a voice rang out like a person was in the room with me --

“Use your gift to give voice to those whose voices aren’t heard.”
Admittedly, I have slept less than three hours for each of the three preceding nights. I have read that both visual and auditory hallucinations are possible as a result of sleep deprivation. But then again, maybe this was it. My great commandment.
In any event, it was this precipitant that prompted my excavation into the wasteland of words housed in those five plastic file boxes. I was looking for a clue. Whose voices aren’ t heard? That question goes unanswered. Creatively, I feel like I am gaining momentum, that I am moving toward some undefined outcome. I am hopeful I will find a meaningful way to share the lessons I have been fortunate enough to glean on my life journey. My voice might matter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Loss

I know loss.
There is a unique kind of panic that takes hold when you think you have lost something. I am intimately familiar with it. Just today, after running two errands, I came home and was planning to move my receipts from wallet to checkbook when I discovered my wallet was not to be found. First, I removed everything from my bag. I put everything back and repeated the procedure. Still, no wallet. I went out to the car and looked under the seats, between the seats and on the ground. I went inside to do another walk through, thinking maybe I mistakenly placed it on the counter with the groceries. I called the grocery store and asked if any wallets had been returned. While I was on hold, I was thinking I would have to thank my friend who sent me an email urging me to xerox the contents of my wallet for just such an occasion. I took her suggestion. But where did I put the copy? Customer service returned to the line. No wallets today. Try back later. I went back out to the car. I did find the missing lighter knob, but the wallet was not there.

I stood absolutely still and visualized every thing I could recall since removing my debit card to buy gift cards at ....... then I knew. It was in a small brown-handled bag containing the Starbucks gift cards. Before any wild conclusions are cast, this has been a lifelong condition, in no way associated with my age and dwindling mental capacity. I feel like I try so hard to keep inventory of the things most important to me that I sometimes, inadvertently, crowd out their location with my anxiety about losing them. My car keys, my iPhone, my wallet, they are all at a high risk of being misplaced.




I did, once, put my keys down to pick up and consider an item for purchase. This, after having shopped in T. J Maxx for an hour. The moment I realized the mistake came when I went out to the car. The sick feeling in my stomach competed with the I-can-fix-anything me. In such instances, I feel like I am calculating the best way to resolve the problem (on that occasion, my husband was out of town and my children didn’t drive) while reenacting my actions from the last time I could remember holding the errant item. The enormity of locating a set of five keys on a silver key ring in a store that size was daunting. What worked was what I continually strive to practice. Detachment. I will find my keys. I won’t find my keys. Whatever happens, my keys still exist. That calmed me. I stood stock still, shopping bags mounded at my feet. I envisioned my meandering path through the store until I reached the register. An image came to me that I was no longer carrying the keys when I was in the Children’s department. I was still carrying them when I was looking at Housewares. I gathered up my purchases and headed to the Housewares aisles where I suspected I may have laid them down.
Tucked innocuously between a glass platter and a crystal bowl, my keys sat waiting for me.
Of course, losing people is on a scale exponentially more distressing. I have, in my lifetime, found myself looking for lost people on numerous occasions. My aging godfather went missing one evening on Martha’s Vineyard. He was going to buy milk and didn’t come home. A huge search party was mobilized that November night. Despite the best efforts of his family and scads of volunteers, we didn’t find him before he died of exposure. My father-in-law, who lived with us for two years before he was debilitated by dementia went missing several times. The first few times, he knew it and was terrified. Another time, he left our house before we did one morning and hitch-hiked to his daycare center nine miles away. Later, when he arrived at the day care center he was puzzled by the brouhaha. He said he was getting to school and didn’t understand why people were concerned. My son, Charles, was prone to disappearing acts when he was a toddler. The police were involved only twice. Good news, we laugh about those times now. At the time, I swore I would have grey hair before he was five. Twelve years ago, my husband’s beloved cousin was lost at sea. The turmoil around that sea-faring tragedy can still, even ten years later, bring me to tears at times unexpected and certainly, unbidden.
Loss can come in forms corporal as well as intangible. It can bring you to your knees or slowly eat away at your spirit. Our reactions to loss are often not about the matter at hand. However, we can displace our emotions only so long until they intrude on daily living in ways that may surprise you. That is because there is a cumulative nature to letting go of people. places and things that can cause an apparently sane person to become inconsolably distraught over something seemingly benign. For example, two weeks after my mother died, I went to the grocery store to buy laundry soap. I smelled every one on all the shelves. I studied labels and I compared prices. I was in the aisle for well over thirty minutes, but I couldn’t seem to decide which one to bring home. Finally, I turned to a woman who looked like she might be accepting and said, “I wonder if you could help me. My mother died recently and I can’t choose laundry soap. I have been here half an hour and I think I may be stuck here forever.” I laughed embarrassedly. She said, “I am sorry about your mother. Why don’t you buy this one? This is the one I use.” I reached up and took the one she was pointing to and put it in my basket.
“Thanks,” I said, “I know this was kind of pathetic. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry about it. I couldn’t leave Walmart when my mother died.”
We smiled at the flicker of understanding that passed between us. Loss. It happens to us all.