Thursday, December 06, 2012

Not everything was swept away.

“Broom swept.”

If you’ve sold a house, or bought a house, you attach a particular meaning to that phrase.  As a seller, usual contract terms require that on closing day, you deliver a "broom swept" house; no more, no less.  As a buyer, you can expect to take possession of a home free from dust – bunnies; no more, no less. 

Last week, I played the part of the seller, with broom in hand.  So why is it that when I started at the top of the hardwood stairs in my parents’ home, and swept my way to the bottom, I felt like I was doing so much more than just prepping for sale?   

Although I know an actual, definite number exists, it’s impossible to know how many times I climbed or descended those stairs over the years.  But I do know this:  some trips were more memorable than others.  Like this one:  When my sisters and I were young, my dad complained that we sounded like “a herd of elephants” as we ran up and down the stairs.  We were “young ladies.”  To help us learn what that meant, we had to walk up and down the stairs – quietly, almost noiselessly, mind you – for about an hour while he and my Mom sat in the kitchen listening to some very muffled footsteps.   

The good news for us was that the stairs turned a corner at the top and sometimes two of us took mini-breaks to sit down for a bit while one of us carried on the “lesson” for Dad.   I’m not sure we learned anything but this happened more than 40 years ago and I remember it very clearly.  Up and down a staircase?  For almost an hour?  On those little legs?  Isn’t that child abuse?  Nah.  Call off the social worker. Not one of us needed medical attention. It’s what people used to call raising children. 

Here's another staircase story, although I remember this one with much less bemusement than the “young lady” lesson.  One warm summer night, I was sitting on our front porch glider with a date, probably doing exactly what a young couple would do as they sat together on a warm summer night on a front porch glider.  No doubt we were in the throes of as much passion as we could muster on a front porch, albeit a dark front porch.  Then from inside the house, we heard a bit of mayhem, some bumps and thumps (like someone slamming into the wall at the bottom of the stairs, right inside the front door), muffled voices, and then silence.   

Later that night, I learned that my Dad, while drunk, mostly stumbled down the stairs, hit the wall, and was just about ready to confront me on the front porch with as much passionate outrage as he could muster given his state.  My mother stopped him cold, and the moment passed.  I remember my sister telling me, “Mom saved you.” 

Skip ahead about ten years.  I descended those steps as a bride.  A young lady in a satin gown with a long train, I posed for pictures with my parents in the living room.  No, I didn’t marry the guy from the front porch, and no, I didn’t have to confront my Dad’s alcoholism that day.  He gave me the gift of sobriety for my wedding weekend.  (A few years later, he made the choice daily to live the rest of his life sober, this time as an unspoken gift to his grandchildren.) 

Final staircase story.  The last night my mother spent in her home included a very labored, exhausting trip up those stairs.  One difficult step at a time, she made her way to her bedroom.  She left her house the very next day via an emergency squad gurney, so she never stepped foot on the stairs again. (For decades, every time we talked about downsizing out of this too-big-for-her house, she dismissed us:  “They’re going to carry me out of this house.”  She was right.) 

Despite the lesson we endured, I’m positive my sisters and I spent years stomping up or down the stairs as outraged teenagers, and my brother did his version of the same.  The wall at the bottom of the stairs (and the people in house) somehow held up against a number of drunken bumps over the years.  The staircase showcased a few brides, and new babies being carried up for naps, then older grandchildren (especially three little boys at once, sounding not unlike a herd of elephants) running up and down the stairs during visits and sleepovers.  This time, the din went unchallenged by Pop-Pop.  In the end, it posed a formidable challenge to my Mom, who never, ever stopped loving the house she and my Dad bought all those years ago, without even looking at the second floor. 

So there I stood at the bottom of the steps, next to a small pile of dust ready to be scooped up.  From my spot, I looked into the kitchen, then past the living room and the dining room to the doors of the sunroom. The silence felt overwhelming despite the fact that for me, the life of the house had been seeping away for months, leaving nothing more than a space, a shell, a structure to be “sold and settled” as the realtors say. 

Except for that day, except for that moment while I gathered the dust at the bottom of the stairs.  Right then, I gave myself permission to gaze; time to see just about every family moment we created in that house.  Then I checked the lock, and pulled the door closed behind me.  Walked past the glider – that same one! - and stepped off the front porch.  

I drove away.  I teared up a little bit.  And realized this: that broom swept exceedingly clean.  With my last look, I saw kinder, more joyful and more comforting scenes than I would have imagined.  Slammed doors went silent.  Shrill voices sounded soothing.  The only tears we shed were happy ones. The piano was always in tune; the cacophony of music and voices,  plus the television and noisy toys was inexplicably harmonious.  Even as I saw that very last morning at home with my Mom – so tired, so tired of everything her illness represented – the lens revealed only the love, not the despair and desperation that crowded my thoughts, and surely hers, that day.  Only the love. 

In this empty home, the people are gone.  The connections remain.  And those can never be swept away.    

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the words of my ophthalmologist: Better? Or worse??

Imagine it’s 1980.    You’re fresh out of college, degree in hand, and you’re looking for that great first job that will launch you into the business world.    Imagine you find a company that needs someone with exactly your skills – or near enough – and you secure an interview.  Everything seems to be going beautifully.  You’ve answered the “tell me about yourself” question with a charming, amusing and yes, slightly moving anecdote about your life.  You’ve indicated that your greatest flaw is that you “care too much about doing a good job” and they seem to buy it, and you’re just about ready to deliver your carefully crafted, spontaneous speech about how you’ve always admired the mission of the place, yadda, yadda.  (And if you don’t recognize the “yadda, yadda” reference, you may be too young for this post.)

Imagine the person interviewing you sums up your typical work day as follows:    

“Okay!  We’d be delighted to have you join our company.  Let me tell you a little about what to expect. 

You start every day with about 37 notes stacked up on your desk that need your attention right away.   They are usually from people who stop by your office overnight.  They’re pretty sure you’re not there and can’t really help them until the next day, but since it felt convenient for them, they thought they’d reach out to you regardless of your availability.  Then, throughout the day, you can expect no fewer than perhaps 159 interruptions – give or take a few dozen - from scores of people, who poke their head into your office or cubicle and ask for your help.  Sometimes the interruptions will be substantive and require a lot of your time to fully address.  Sometimes they may be from someone who needs one specific piece of information you have.  Like a phone number.  Or a document.  Or a spreadsheet.  Or a calculation.  Or a contract.  Or an opinion.  Right now.  

Sometimes, but not often, these people will be connected and have similar requests, or build on the previous request.  Sometimes, what starts as one request from one person becomes much more complicated when they leave, but then come back again, dragging along one person, then another, then another – all of whom have a bit of insight to share, even if it’s worthless insight -  until you have about nineteen people stacked up, all waiting for your response about one topic.   

But just as often, people who reach out to you will be entirely disconnected.  That means you have to stop what you’re doing, and instead think about what they want and how you can accommodate them, and then go back to what you were trying to do before the last interruption.  Except actually - you can’t, because they’ll be another person at your door in about 78 seconds.  

One more thing:  not everyone who needs you will find you by poking their head in your door.  Some of them will come in through the window.  Or the skylight.   Or another entrance you may know almost nothing about.  Some of them will stop by and discover that you’re busy; so they’ll ask you to contact them when you have a moment.  

Oh, and don’t worry.  You’ll do a lot more than simply answer the questions or requests you get from colleagues.  You’ll participate in meetings, and be on the phone daily.  You’ll have tasks that are entirely your own responsibility to complete, presentations to write, meetings to arrange, and goals we expect you will reach.  You’ll sometimes be out of the office on business for a day or more.  

But this is a constant:  people will continue to need you throughout the workday (and beyond), even while you’re otherwise occupied or away.  They’ll just stack up outside your door, waiting for you to return and help them out.   

Sound good?  When can you start?”

Question:  How quickly would you run?

Imagine it’s 2012.  

If you’re in an office environment, you have not only accepted that job offer; it feels normal to you.   We live in that work environment every day.  But instead of people lined up outside our offices, the emails they send are stacked up in our in boxes and interrupt us on a regular basis, around the clock.  And if they’re not emailing, they’re leaving us voice mail.  And if they’re not emailing or leaving us voice mail, they’re sending a text.  And if they’re not emailing or leaving voice mail or sending a text, they’re skyping us. And everything is a priority; everything needs our attention.  

Maybe it’s an age thing – like so much of my life.  If the previous job description has been your only experience in the workforce, it could be of little consequence.  But maybe for people like me, who did go on those job interviews in 1980, we have one foot in an office environment that’s almost like ‘Madmen,’ without the Old-Fashions, and another dangling in cyberspace, which is not an entirely comfortable position to maintain.   

Several exhaustive studies have been conducted that prove the ineffectiveness of all this wired communication – particularly email - and its impact on our productivity.  Obviously, there is a point of diminishing return on this time-saving and ostensibly efficient communication.  Now, I’m not advocating we stand by the fax machine (remember those?) for critical correspondence or circulate important information on memos via interoffice envelopes but isn’t there a middle ground here?  When I started in the workforce, we had a few “while you were out” slips on our desks when we returned from lunch, left there by administrative assistants who picked up our calls.   

Now we’re never out, we don’t have admins or (often) lunch.  We’ve come a long way, baby.   

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The best three minutes of your day: guaranteed.

I can't quite explain this.  Here's an attempt:  it's perfect.  

What I think I love is this:  you can never go wrong counting on the creative nature of people.   We may be infants when it comes to choosing candidates and running elections.  We may be moronic when it comes to elevating individuals to superstar status for specious accomplishments.  We may not quite be able to keep marriages together, raise our children well, converse with thoughtful insight and empathy or even do something incredibly simple and satisfying like letting the other guy into our lane.  Me, I'm just trying to stop counting the items of the person in front of me at Wegmans, standing in the 7 items or fewer line, and thinking horrible things when I reach 9, for God's sake.

But we can make videos like this one and my God, I think it's genius.    BIG shout out to my Cameron who always finds these kinds of things worth sharing with me.  Thank you, honey.    Take a look and then come back.

Marcel the Shell

Now, I grant you this is all a matter of taste.  But then again, I believe this:  there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love Marcel and those who can't see the point.   Which are you?  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Commencing...your life.

As former colleague of mine used to say, and I mean this in the kindest way to every recent graduate reading this column, “Listen to me very carefully.” What you don’t know about life, the workplace, relationships and love is a lot. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying you should. It takes real life, away from school and textbooks and seminars, to teach you. And thirty-five years past my own high school graduation, I’m still learning. But that’s the real lesson here, the real truth that no one seems to ever tell you. No one does. Life itself is a class with multiple instructors, multiple topics, and multiple venues...and it has an unknowable end date.

Be warned: the description that follows may well be your own path in the years ahead. You wake up, kill a stink bug that looks perfectly at ease perched on the bathroom faucet, rouse your children, tell them again to hang up their sodden towels, then remind them to put the cereal and milk away, and comb their hair before leaving the house. Then you start a load of laundry, drive to work, concentrate as much as possible on the responsibilities for which you earn your wages, and then head home for a dinner that may or may not include all the food groups, or all the family members, then run around in or out of the house completing the next set of agenda items, then fall asleep during whatever you’re watching on Netflix.

Fascinating, I know. Again, listen to me very carefully. This doesn’t sound all that exhilarating but that’s my point. Unless you’re counting on world renown of one kind or another, with some minor adjustments to the details, you’ll live some version of this life. My husband and I have for the past twenty-five years, along with everyone we know, and our friends and family cover a broad spectrum of ages, household incomes and lifestyles. Regardless of the things that surround us, the demands placed on us or the degrees we hold, we are all living that spectacularly unglamorous life you never see nor read about in the media.

It’s fabulous and it’s good, and terrible, and then great and then pretty hard and then very sad and then funny and then its okay and then it makes you crazy again. Jobs come and go. They can give you an enormous sense of accomplishment or an enormous source of stress, sometimes simultaneously. People move in and out of our lives for reasons we may never fully understand. You lose touch; you reconnect. Children arrive and turn a couple into parents overnight. Families and friends leave us, and we all figure out a new way to interact with each other that will never really be the same. What I hope you’ll take away from this is that life is not one unending upward trajectory toward what most people see as their goal, that elusive commodity called “success.”

Through it all, it’s unlikely you’ll remember the speech you heard at your graduation. You’ll be busy creating a life, a home, maybe a family. I hope you’ll live in surroundings that bring you comfort and a bit of sanctuary. You’ll pay your bills (or figure out how to juggle them) and walk the dog and plant some flowers and match up the socks that come out of the dryer and hug your kids and put away groceries and take out the recycling. Once in a while you’ll read an outstanding book, or see a memorable movie or play, or attend an amazing concert or take a memorable trip. You’ll laugh and cry with friends and family. You’ll forgive and ask forgiveness. You’ll feel angry, or disappointed, or bereft, or enthralled or hundreds of other emotions over the years. You may become a parent and raise your own children. If you’re fortunate, one day you realize that you’d like them even if they weren’t your kids. You may find some time to give back to your community, and share your own unique gifts with others.  Quietly but relentlessly, the days will become the weeks that become the years that become your life.

One more time, listen to me very carefully. Please don’t spend the next twenty or thirty years thinking or saying things like this: Once we buy a house, or a bigger house, everything will be better. Once I own that car, it will be better. Once I get a raise or a promotion or a better job, it will be better. Once we take that trip to Europe, it will be better. I just need the 1000 thread count cotton duvet / the spa vacation / the projection home theater and it will be better.

It won’t. That will never happen. Please don’t waste time waiting for life to get better because of an event or a purchase or an activity. Not one of those things will make a difference to your long term happiness; not one. Know this: everything that makes life “better” and fulfilling and worthwhile can be found within you, and in what you say, what you do, and the person you are to yourself and those around you.

Once you learn that, you will have achieved success by any measure.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Somewhere, someone is asking this question: What's a watch? And who gets a gold one?

I'm getting really old. And cranky. This story is tongue-in-cheek humor, I get that, but days after I read it on, it’s still annoying. (And by the way, I absolutely act old on my cell phone. I really, really miss landlines and being able to hear every word on every call and never having a battery die mid-sentence. There. I said it.)

I re-read it and wondered if I could substitute the words “like a woman” for “old” but then I realized that wasn’t the problem. The piece was aggravating because apparently being “old” at work is also code for “responsible” and “authoritative” and “focused” and “reliable.” Clearly, these are attributes few people value in an employee these days. It's aggravating because there is some portion of the workforce that actually agrees with every single point in the article because they are, well, not "old."

You know I'm right. Who has time for such mundane things like punctuality, planning and learning from experience in our status-updating, tweeting, checked-in everywhere we go, pinning our latest fancy, youth-obsessed world? I ask you: Why go to work if it isn’t fun, or at least a little freakin’ awesome every day?

What follows are the “rules” about how NOT to act old at work, with my comments following each. Once again, I get it: it's humor, and it's directed toward people of a certain age. Fine. Lovely. But somehow this feels like the joke could be lost on an entire generation, which troubles me.

How Not to Act Old at Work
Hint: Don’t bring the donuts.

Don’t arrive at the crack of dawn and make everybody feel guilty for not being there as early as you. If you’re bushy-tailed and at your desk by 6:35, at least have the good grace to keep your mouth shut about it.

How to act young and awesome: Stroll in just about on time and make everyone feel great about putting in just about 40 hours a week. I mean, we don’t live to work, right? How very “like your parents” of you to arrive early and stay late.

Don’t bring the donuts. You don’t need to be Mommy or Daddy to the entire office, showing up with coffee, remembering all the birthdays, making sure everybody signs the card.

: This one I almost agree with. My overall feeling is this: we all have one birthday a year and we all get to choose exactly how much of a spotlight we want to shine on it at work each year. Once we all agree on this, we get to think about one birthday in the office: our own. If you want to display balloons and offer cake to the team that day, by all means start the party. On the other hand, if you want to let the day quietly come and go: fine by me. Or mix and match the options: keep mum about your own day but send a greeting card to everyone in your group or in your company if you want. Lovely.

But then again, having someone in the department who likes remembering co-worker birthdays and coordinating the celebrations means they’re probably just organized and nice. Why does that make them “old?” When did that happen?

Stifle the self-aggrandizing anecdotes. Reminiscing about the year you almost won the Pulitzer or that time you saved the company a million dollars won’t convince people you’re cooler than they already think you are.

Translation: “…Cooler than they think you are?” How about more accomplished? How about they may help younger co-workers realize you may just be able to teach them something about the business? When did accomplishments have to make you "cooler?" I get the feeling that anyone who has done anything at all noteworthy shouldn’t reveal it to younger co-workers because that will somehow diminish the feeling of awesomeness among them. No one likes a braggart but working with brilliant people? I like that.

Don’t be tough. The young gestalt is much softer and less direct. People ask questions and seem to defer to others even when they have a strong opinion. And if they want to do it their way anyway, they’ll just go ahead without discussion or confrontation.

: This is almost too much to bear. “Much softer and less direct” means everyone is right and no one knows more than anyone else. Don’t be too demanding; don’t make anyone feel unprepared or uncomfortable or challenged. Remember: everyone is a winner and everyone can do anything they want to do.

Look, I respect and learn from the young people I work with every single day. They are bright, energetic and talented. But the idea of not being “tough” when the work calls for strong direction, leadership and yes, authority, because their sensibility is ‘much softer and less direct’ is ridiculous. This isn’t a support group. It’s an office.

Don’t stay glued to your chair. Rolling everywhere, avoiding getting up and walking across the room, and sitting there till your ass grows around the cushion is definitely acting old—and won’t do much for the way you look, either.

Translation: Go hang out in someone’s office; or in the break room, or in the conference room, or in the cafeteria, or wherever you’re not doing any work. Too much time in your office makes you no fun and feels too much like you’re trying to show up everyone else.

No long-range planning. Looking too far ahead, wanting firm commitments on times and places far (i.e., more than a day or two) into the future, is definitely an old thing. If you simply must plan (I know I must), do it in secret and be flexible if things change.

: Awesomeness of any kind may be right around the corner and how could you be expected to commit to a Thursday morning meeting on a Tuesday afternoon? And if you think keeping your calendar up to date and informing coworkers of your schedule is polite and efficient, you’re wrong. It’s acting ‘old.’

Don’t be a human archive. There may be value in having someone at a company who can detail the résumés of everyone who has held a job there since 1981, who can remember what year manual typewriters were upgraded to electrics and when secretaries were replaced by voice mail. But there isn’t much value in letting that person be you.

Translation: Your experience is worth nothing. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that business is cyclical; that everything old is new again; that lots of smart people have come before you and, in fact, done some pretty successful things is thinking “young.” Let's face it: for some people of a certain (young) age, nothing is real until they've done it, right? What good can be gained from experience or tapping the knowledge of your older co-workers?

So what have we learned? If you've been in the workforce for more than one presidential term, and want to be perceived as young as awesome, keep your experience to yourself and /or risk coming across as too “tough.” Watch what time you show up in the morning and how much time you actually spend in your office (later and as little as possible are the correct options.) Don’t make any commitments to things like quarterly forecasts or God forbid strategic plans that outline the approach you'll take with the business over the next five years.

If these are the new rules of business, we’re doomed. Gold smart phone, anyone?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Note to self: how are you?

Sometime in early January, I put a note on my calendar; specifically a note on March 28th that read as follows: "How are you?"

March 28th marks three months since my Mom died. Like many people, I have picked up the daily responsibilities that don't go away, no matter how numb I feel. I've rejoined the workplace and have found equal measures of distraction and panic there over these past three months.

I've felt bereft and heartbroken. I've wanted time to pass quickly so the loss would feel softer and more distant; I've wanted time to stop completely so I could just sit quietly with my sadness and give it its due.

So, Renee, how are you?

I've wanted to call my Mom just about every day; sometimes several times a day, and many evenings when I had time on my hands and knew she would enjoy a story about something that had happened that day. I've wanted to give her extremely good news and have her celebrate with me; I've wanted to share frustrations and feel her comfort. I wanted to hear about her day; her stories about her lifelong friends she saw regularly; her updates from her many visits to half a dozen doctors.

Events that are coming up, including Easter (when she still insisted on coloring eggs every year and putting out baskets of candy), my son's senior recital that would find her bursting with pride, and the births of two babies that are due to join our family this summer, will all be missing one tiny scrap of happiness for me because she won't share them and take absolute joy in in each of them.

But really, how are you?

I'm a little different than I was three months ago. I've lost a touchstone of sorts; a person who could be my rock, my cheerleader, my sounding board and my challenger, always accompanied by unconditional love. The new me has one less lifelong friend in the world; someone who knew me like no one else does.

In between the meetings with the attorney; or my niece who is selling Mom's house; or the insurance companies who never seem to request everything they need from me at one time, I try to separate the pile of paperwork from the emotions that pile up and then crash from time to time. I've apologized to my husband and sons for being distracted and upset about "estate" things that tend to take over my life from time to time; and have thanked God for their understanding.

The questions don't seem to stop. Unanswerable, of course: questions like why I didn't do one thing or another for her, why I didn't insist on doing one thing or another instead of accepting her resolute nature about what she could do on her own.

Some of the questions are specific: why didn't I go clean her house once a week? Why wouldn't I have made it my job to pick up her groceries and run her errands? Why didn't I help her organize her basement while she and I could have laughed together about the chaos that my Mom preferred to think of as temporary until she could "get to it."

Why didn't I ever buy her an amazing hat and take her to the Kentucky Derby, her favorite sporting event of all time?

Not one of these things was on her list of "things Renee didn't do for me." It's all on me; I know that. But they're all part of my answer to the original question: how are you?

I'm hanging in. Doing what needs to be done. I'm laughing; I'm crying. I'm not great but I guess I'm okay. I miss her.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Remember these outrages? Yeah, well - we're still all worked up, all the time. Just about different stuff now.

NOTE: I've been reading about how people want everyone to take a break from the outrage swirling around us daily and thought about a column I wrote - in 2005. There may well be no new stories; only new details filling in the same old story.

Read on for the column and feel free to substitute the 'apologist / offended party du jour.' It's kind of fun.

I’d like to propose a new official day for the public’s general approval. Let’s make every other Wednesday “give no apology / demand no apology” day. That wouldn’t be too tough, would it?

I’ve about had it with apologies being demanded by everyone from everyone else these days. I’m going to guess that the human race has been offending each other for centuries but it seems like the outcry we hear for apologies has never been more prevalent than it is today.

I did a very brief search of people making news with their demands for an apology over the past few months. Believe me, there were scores of them to choose from. Here’s a very quick list:

Al Sharpton demanded an apology from Vincente Fox, President of Mexico, for his comments regarding jobs held by illegal immigrants in this country

The G.O.P. has demanded an apology from Nancy Pelosi for her verbal attack on President Bush

Hillary Clinton has demanded an apology from Karl Rove and the G.O.P.

Islamic groups have called from an apology from evangelist Pat Robertson for his remarks that disparage American Muslims

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has demanded an apology from Senator Dick Durbin for his comments about prison conditions and treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay

Billionaire George Soros has demanded an apology from House Speaker Dennis Hastert for implying that at least some of Soros’ money comes from illegal drug operations

Brooke Shields wants Tom Cruise to apologize for his remarks about depression and prescription drugs

Both North Korea and Iran have demanded apologies for different reasons from the United States

Estonia has demanded an apology from Russia

High school graduate Thomas Benya has requested an apology from his school’s officials after they withheld his diploma because he wore a bolo tie to his graduation ceremony.

My plea for ‘Give no / Get no apology Wednesdays’ won’t get very far. If you want to make headlines, you can try one of two things these days: do or say something that deeply offends someone or be the offended party that responds to it. I may as well join in. As the offended party, I’d like to demand the following apologies, even if they don’t earn any headlines:

From Anna Nicole Smith - I want an apology from both you and your agent for your “appearance” at the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia.

From Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for announcing her plans for retirement and giving our esteemed representatives in Washington a whole new reason to get up in the morning and snipe at each other from across the aisle in the Capitol Building. You’ve also opened the door for a whole new level of pundit diatribes for a few months. Thanks.

From Marina Bai, a Russian astrologer - an astrologer - who is suing NASA because their probe’s crash into a comet has “deformed her horoscope” and caused her “moral suffering.” Her lawsuit is causing me moral suffering. She’s asking for $300 million to restore the order in her life.

From Mark Felt - Am I the only person in America who kinda liked not knowing who Deep Throat was? What’s next? The singers from The Archies will come forward and claim responsibility for “Sugar Sugar?”

From Hyoung Won, inventor of the “fetus phone” - a device that acts as a cell phone and a portable monitor. A pregnant woman can capture and upload photos of her baby moving, and record the heartbeat while he or she grows. Just stop it. Right now. Can’t we bond with our babies without creating a website about them for God’s sake?

I can only quote French mime Marcel Marceau to try to put an end to all these pronouncements of moral outrage and the indignant requests for apologies for the same: “It’s good to shut up sometimes.” If only more people took his advice.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

One woman's dream: we all polish in peace. It could happen, right?

Thanks to my friend Karen, and a story she posted on Facebook, I was reminded of two incidents from my past. Yes, once again – these are flying stories.

After reading the report of this woman’s arrest and detention, I can only thank God I emerged from my own civil disobedience with my non-arrest record intact, and not all that long ago. I chalk it all up to good old-fashioned civility. Read on and let me know if you agree.

This story happened more than ten years ago; well before 9/11. As passengers, we were pretty far from the myriad restrictions and constant high-alert most of us are accustomed to these days. On this particular day, I was one of the first people on the plane for an early morning flight to Chicago, courtesy of my frequent flier status. (Attaining “elite” status earned me “priority seating,” and I could board the plane before many of the other passengers. In other words, frequent fliers get the privilege of spending more time on the plane than non-frequent fliers. This is what airlines consider a reward.)

So picture this: I’m sitting on a nearly empty plane with nothing but time plus a lowered tray table in front of me. That meant one thing: time to polish my nails. Bear in mind I had done this dozens and dozens of times before in exactly the same situation. I was also well aware of the fact that the aroma of nail polish isn’t entirely pleasant, and could possibly aggravate allergies in some passengers. But because I was usually seated early, patiently waiting for the entire plane to board, I had time to start, finish and recap the bottle well before everyone was seated and the doors were closed. While traveling, I usually opted for a pale pink to minimize obvious strokes or visible mistakes.

Everything was going as planned. I had finished nine of my fingers when a female flight attendant stopped next to me and said, “You can’t polish your nails on a plane.” I thought she meant I couldn’t do it because of turbulence or some other kind of impediment, so I cheerfully replied, “Oh, it’s no problem. I do it all the time.” But I heard her wrong. She didn’t mean “can’t” because I wasn’t skilled enough. She meant “can’t” because she wouldn’t allow it. She was clearly worked up because she said again, just a bit more (read: much more) forcefully, “You can’t polish your nails on a plane.” Now, as I said, I had done nine. I had one pinky finger left.

Nope. She would have no part of this anarchy on her watch. I capped the bottle and put it away. Note that not one passenger had complained about this activity. And also that the doors weren’t closed for at least another 15 minutes. I simply complied with her ridiculous rule, but not without registering at least a little annoyance.

Once I was in the cab in Chicago, I did the last nail. Whatever.

I am nothing if not resilient. I am not a quitter. And, in the language of the grade school play yard: “She’s not the boss of me.” Which meant that the next time I took an early morning flight – same airline by the way – I again boarded early, dropped down the tray table, and started my touch up ritual with the pale pink polish.

Oh no – not again. This time, a male flight attendant stopped by my seat and started in on what I anticipated would be “the speech.” I cut him off and said, “You’re not going to tell me I can’t polish my nails on a plane, are you? Because honestly, I’m just about done here.” He seemed surprised at my response, then smiled and said, “No, I was just going to say, ‘Nice shade.’ ”

I loved him. And this little exchange taught me two things: At least back then, this kind of “no polish” rule was completely arbitrary and random. And that the female flight attendant hated working with the public. Or hated female passengers. Or hated female passengers who used their downtime on a plane to do a little grooming.

All I know is that no one detained me when I exited the aircraft. No one questioned me or arrested me because I disagreed with the flight attendant and spoke sharply to her.

I realize times were different in 1997 or 1998. I realize the world has become a scarier place with scarier people, at that’s not even counting everyone outside of Washington. But here’s the thing: can’t we all please just have one moment of sanity, clear-thinking and common sense when it comes to this kind of faux outrage and hysteria over something as ridiculous as this story? Nail polish? She was arrested over using nail polish and having an argument with a flight attendant? Are you kidding? Are you f--king kidding me?

Everyone needs to just get the hell over themselves. The only person who thinks about you every day, and worries about everything that happens to you, and is concerned that everyone treats you fairly and honestly and kindly and nicely, and will always, always, always see your side of things, and thinks that you are absolutely right in all ways about all things at all times … is you. And possibly your mother.

But I guarantee you that even the mothers of this flight attendant, the polish-wielding passenger, and the airport security officer would tell each of them to settle down and try being polite for a change. What a concept.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Swimming to Antarctica...and other other thoughts on this Valentine's Day.

When Lynne Cox was a little girl on her swim team in New Hampshire, she never wanted to get out of the pool. She wasn’t the fastest on the team and she rarely won races but that didn’t matter: she was always the last to get out of the water.

In her book, Swimming to Antarctica, she tells the story of one particularly blustery morning. All the other eight-year-olds on the team were complaining loudly and energetically about the cold water, the cool air, the ominous sky and the discomfort they felt in the pool. Their coach, reluctant to give up on the practice entirely, offered them a trade: they could get out and dry off if they spent extra time on calisthenics in the locker room. They took him up on it and scurried inside. Everyone except Lynn. She asked him if she could keep swimming.

Turns out that her slower strokes, and her naturally buoyant body allowed her to remain at a comfortable temperature in cold water longer than almost anyone else. As each of her teammates would pass her and complete their laps, they’d stop swimming and linger by the side of the pool. Because of their inactivity, and because most didn’t have as much body fat, they would quickly begin to cool down. It wasn’t until one of her coaches recognized Lynne’s ability to withstand the cold and simply endure being in the water longer than most swimmers that she began to understand that her pace and her body type were assets, not liabilities. She drew on her natural gifts to train for the more challenging, longer, colder swims she came to love. Starting at age fifteen, Lynne Cox began a career where she would set and break numerous cold-water swim records. She documents the natural accommodations her body seemed to make to the water temperatures and many of her incredible achievements in her book.

So what does this have to do with love? In a word: nothing. But in another way, I keep thinking about love and marriage and Lynne and her determination to stay the course. My parents were married nearly fifty-two years before my dad died. Many of their friends have also been or will soon be married fifty years as well. I like to think of them as the long distance swimmers of love, if you will. Maybe all those couples decided, consciously or not some five decades ago, that their marriages would withstand even the coldest of times, because that’s what marriages did.

Seems to me that staying together is a choice couples make every day, year in and year out, whether they acknowledge it or not. Sure, you may have repeated the “in good times and in bad” pledge with sincere intentions but who ever imagines what “the bad” could possibly be over the next few decades? Some years, it feels so very easy to remain true to that commitment. Some days, it feels very impossible. No one ever tells you that. And even if they do, you think they can't possibly mean it.

But I’ll bet if someone asked my parents or their friends about "the bad times," they’d say, “Of course it’s hard! You have your good and your bad and that’s your marriage. It’s called being a human being; being imperfect. It's called life. Why would marriage be anything else?”

And yet, many marriages do break apart. Many of them should. They’re toxic; they’re hurtful and debilitating. The thing us, ending a marriage, even a very harmful one, is a sad time. I’ve never met a couple who were thrilled to divorce. Somewhere inside, even the most hostile partners must somehow mourn the end of their one-time hopeful story of what might have been between them, even when they know it will never be. It’s a loss for everyone around them, too.

Couples like my parents and their friends, or couples who simply stay the course, through tide and weather, and count on smoother waters ahead understand so much about marriage and partnership and loyalty and “getting through.” Maybe they know exactly what many of us haven’t figured out yet. Maybe it’s this simple: sometimes people choose to stay together because they promised they would. That’s it. Sometimes that’s enough. A strong partnership outlasts the bad times - even the bad years – because all the good they share, especially when it feels like a dim memory, is so very worth it. These champions of long time love never jump out of the pool because of a cool breeze or a cloudy sky. They don't start looking for more comfortable surroundings or another way to keep warm when they begin shivering.

They just keep swimming.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The shriek du jour is over. Nothing to see here; move along.

I think I have this straight now.

The definition of “giving in to pressure:” Acting in a way that contradicts liberal sensibilities.

The definition of “doing the right thing:” Acting in a way that supports liberal sensibilities.

[Before we go further, let me say this: Of course! The right-leaning among us could be painted exactly the same way. Just substitute 'conservative' for 'liberal' and there you have it. Done. This is my point, by the way. But please read on.]

On one end, we have three decades of service to women fighting breast cancer by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization that raised and distributed nearly $2,000,000,000 (that's BILLION) toward for their cause. Research accomplished, lives saved, treatments developed, families supported, educational materials developed. The list goes on.

On the other end, we have Foundation cutting $680,000 in funding to Planned Parenthood.

Let me understand this. Today’s outcome is the greater good? The past two days have shown us a dedicated and vocal attempt by those opposed to the Foundation’s decision regarding their funding choices; attempts that could well destroy 30 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and support because SKG chose not to support an organization the group supports. That was never stated aloud but let’s be honest: wasn’t that one of the possibilities here? Destroying an organization along with a boycott of the companies who support it? Dissent and debate: yes. All for it. It was certainly their right to do so and as of today, those outraged by SGK have achieved their goal: PP funding has been restored.

But with the battle won and the "right-wing pressure" (inaugurated by a Republican serving on a government committee who began an investigation about fiscal allocations)defeated, it might be proper to take a moment here, please. There has been a lot of outrage and shrieks of “shame on you” thrown around for the past 48 hours. All directed outward. With a moment’s clarity, perhaps at least a few of the outraged individuals will turn inward for the next 48 or so, and see what all of this has really accomplished.

Just what we need: more divisiveness. Awesome.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Race for the Outrage

I’ve read dozens of Facebook posts of outrage today about the Susan. G. Komen Foundation’s decision to end their affiliation and contributions to Planned Parenthood, because according to their own standards, they will not support nor continue to support an organization undergoing federal investigation.

The outrage doesn’t surprise me because many people often take whatever opportunity possible to denigrate a political party or group for whom they feel nothing but contempt. In this case, the outrage has been directed toward a conservative politician who requested the records and reports from Planned Parenthood regarding their practices to determine if public funds were improperly spent on abortions, not cancer screenings.

His investigation has been called “politically motivated.” Well…yeah. He’s a politician. The investigation was apparently encouraged by an anti-abortion group. Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t it have been? Regardless, he is an idiot – what else could he be? He is, after all, a Republican. What does surprise me is this…well, several things to be honest:

First: Last time I checked, organizations like Planned Parenthood accept donations from private citizens. So by all means, support the non-profit groups of your choice, including Planned Parenthood. I know that’s not quite as easy as buying yogurt with a pink top but writing a check isn’t that hard, either.

Second: This isn’t a difficult a concept to understand: people who don’t support abortion on demand also don’t support organizations that do, and they really don’t want to see their own tax dollars supporting them, either. I know, I know, I know, I know - they’re all morons who hate women and they need to stay out of my body and they don’t care about any child once it’s out of the womb. And now they want women – especially women who are on the outside of the insured health care model - to be stricken with breast cancer.

Dear God. Isn’t that all just a little ridiculous??? Regardless of your personal beliefs, isn’t it reasonable to expect we have different points of view and understand that we’ll hold to them dearly?

Third: No one wants to watch more women suffer from breast cancer. It’s idiotic to twist this Komen decision into that conclusion.

Fourth: According to NPR, Planned Parenthood conducted something like 4 million breast exams over the past 5 years, and almost 170,000 of them were funded by the Komen Foundation. That’s about 4.25%. It’s not 0% - I’ll grant you – but can we stop with the hyperbole about how all women who are served by Planned Parenthood are going to be refused screening? If the NPR numbers are correct, 95.75% of them will get breast exams.

I know. That’s not 100% and women and their families will suffer as a result. But now that we have a hard-fought health care plan, maybe we can have our country’s health care providers cover that other 4.25%.

Fifth: The accounts I read indicated that the Komen Foundation donated $680,000 to Planned Parenthood last year. (Planned Parenthood lists net assets of $900.3 million and liabilities of $184 million in their 2009-2010 Annual Report.) That means the Foundation contributed .08% to the operating capital of Planned Parenthood.

As I write this, the signature count on the petition posted by numbers stands at 19,852. So basically, if everyone who signed it would send Planned Parenthood $34 instead, they’d be covered. And that doesn’t count every other petition out there and the people who signed those as well. In fact, this may turn out to be the biggest fundraiser Planned Parenthood ever had. Now wouldn’t THAT show those right-wing nutjobs!!!!

My point here isn’t to try to convert anyone from one side of the aisle to another. God knows there is no more pointless task on the planet. But what I’d love to see is an end to this mindless, relentless shrieking about why everyone who doesn’t agree with this set of standards or that type of political persuasion is nothing short of an abomination to mankind, deserving of scorn, ridicule and yes, hatred.

Enough. Rodney King posed the right question, although I haven’t heard anyone answer him yet.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

To have even half the joy and love my Mother had; what a blessing that would be.

I shared this at my mother's funeral on Saturday, December 31. An unseasonably warm day to say goodbye to warm woman who will forever claim a corner of my heart.

After the funeral, several people remarked, "How could you get through that?" Or, "I don't know how you did it."

My only answer - even now, days later - is "I guess it's because I couldn't not say it. It's my Mom."

I hope in some small way you feel her joy and kindness in every word. Please hug your Mom tonight, or call her or write a note. If that can never be, just think of her with all the love you can. I'll do the same.

You may not know these two things about my Mom: her bathroom closet contains dozens and dozens of bottles of lotion. A kitchen drawer has a plastic bag that holds hundreds of twist-ties. I know both of these facts seem kind of random and unimportant but you never know: she definitely has more than enough for the entire neighborhood to be well prepared for any kind of hand-lotion or twist-tie emergency.

I share this because it’s exactly what made my Mom laugh. We would come across these kinds of things from time to time and begin to comment about it and I can just hear her: “Don’t make fun!”, or “Go ahead! Make fun!” laughing while she said it, knowing that we loved her all the more for little habits like this. She made us laugh but was always in on the joke at the same time.

One of the many reasons my Mom was so easy to love was her sense of humor. Beyond her ready smile, her laugh, and her kind disposition, her good-nature meant that she accepted with incredible good-humor the teasing we all dished out to her, especially when we teased her about her household.

Look around her home for the small testaments to the woman she was and what gave her joy. A small Boyd’s Bear in a Marine Corps uniform stands at attention in her bedroom. Her jewelry box holds six or seven rosaries. Into a framed photo of her and my Dad, she had tucked a few smaller pictures: her engagement photo, my dad at about age 18 and another of them on the 50th anniversary. An entire lifetime on display with just a couple of snapshots.

But you don’t have to look very hard to see her piano. Having the piano in our home, or hearing my mom play it, even during afternoons of mayhem according to my Aunt Kay, meant her love of music found its way into the lives of each of her children. The only thing my Mom loved more than music: her family and friends. And when she could combine the two – music and people she loved – she was in her glory. She loved playing for us; playing with us, and sharing her music with friends. She adored playing Christmas music and listening to carols; she loved the concerts at the beach house every summer.

We looked at the piano this past week and noticed the stack of music nearby, about a foot high, made up a few books but mostly of single song sheet music pieces, many of them seventy years old. I like to think about my Mom buying a new song every week and then learning it and playing it for family and friends. When she bought the Marine Corps hymn, I can imagine how excited she was to play it for Dad.

I looked at that stack of music and thought:

For every sheet there, she made so many people smile throughout her life.

For every sheet, she helped scores of people feel welcome and loved in her home.

For every one, she offered friendship to strangers. Over her decades on Ferry Street, neighbors moved in and found a second mother, or second grandmother when they met my Mom. I guarantee you she hugged them goodbye the first time they met.

For every song, someone can tell a story about her endless optimism and positive thinking about almost any situation. It was remarkable. How many of us heard this? “I have faith. You’ll see. It will all work out.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sobbed on the phone or in her kitchen, dumping many of my life’s challenges into her always accessible lap. I wasn’t quite looking for answers or advice, although she often offered insight I valued. No, somewhere along the line I discovered that I did it for one reason: To hear her tell me, “It will work out.” The days I would cry about some situation as a wife or as a mother and she would say, “I have faith in him. And in you. I do. Everything will all be okay.”

I’m positive many people here today did the same with my Mom for the same reason.

It’s her certainty and her faith that inspire me daily. You could call this her view through “rose-colored glasses” or quite frankly, an inexplicably and relentlessly positive point of view, when almost none of the facts would seem to offer reasons for good cheer. You could say that choosing to believe in one good scrap of promise when the reality of a situation is telling you something quite the opposite gets you nowhere.

Or does it? When she learned of her cancer just two months ago, she broke down quietly with me and said, “I’m not ready.” We held each other and I just cried along with her because if I spoke it would have been to say. “I’m not either Mom. Don’t leave me.” Then she moved onto new doctors and new procedures and what could be. And also filled those two months with concerts and shows and family visits, parties and holidays.

But it was her time. She did leave us. As Rob said so beautifully on our last afternoon with her, “You’re in your living room, Mom, looking at your beautiful tree and all the lights and decorations you loved. Everyone is with you and we’re all fine. We’re safe, and together and happy. When you’re ready, turn off the lights and go to sleep. We’ll all be okay.”

Despite the enormous emptiness in our lives, in thousands of ways, she’s here and always will be. In her children and grandchildren, in the family and friends who felt her love and kindness. I’ll feel her in every fall day she used to love. I’ll find her in every concert I attend; in every bit of music that I know would bring her joy.

If there’s a celestial piano somewhere, I guarantee you God led her to it and sat her in front of the keys. And everyone who was waiting for her looked up with great joy and said, “Marge is here! Let’s start the party.”