Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Where is Carson?

Why haven’t I blogged in months?  Consider this: Since the last time I blogged - 
1.  I lost my 18-year job at our local hospital in August when they decided to close down transcription and outsource it all.
2.  I had to set up a home office from scratch on short notice, costing over $2000 with no severance pay to help with the expense and get used to a much smaller salary.
3.  I started a new job where half of my dictators are English-second-language folks and it is a huge learning curve trying to understand what they are saying.
4.  Our 3-year-old border collie died of epilepsy.
5.  My 91-year-old mom developed a stress fracture and we are considering moving her to assisted living.
6.  My sister lost her job to outsourcing as well.
7.  Our debit card was hacked again.

Now, I’ve heard of stress, but this seems like a bit much happening within a short amount of time.  What was the hardest thing about losing my job?  Believe it or not, it was the transition and all that entailed.  I had to choose new insurance plans, call Aflac and arrange direct payments instead of payroll deduction, notify providers of the insurance change, decide what to do with my retirement fund with the hospital, figure out which computer et al to buy for a home office, paint the room, choose virus software and make sure all required software for my new job was up and running, call the cable company to install a new connection, decide where to put my exercise equipment as the room was being turned over to an office, cancel and/or reschedule appointments in light of a different work schedule, make decisions about how to handle our medical reimbursement fund, make sure I keep receipts for the IRS for future home office deductions....whew!  The list makes me tired just looking at it.  

Do you know what I kept thinking the whole time (well, in between my crying jags and don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed days)?  I need a Carson!  

I’m a big Downton Abbey fan, and Carson is their butler.  Carson is always saying things like, “This problem is too small to worry his Lordship about.  I will take care of it.”  Or...”This problem is too big to worry his Lordship about.  I will take care of it.”  Carson is the transition man, the go-to man when something happens - and he usually successfully intercedes before Lord Grantham has to deal with it.  It is Carson’s job to handle transitions.  Carson calls the insurance company, Carson deals with Aflac, Carson calls the pension fund people, Carson cancels and reschedules appointments, Carson makes sure the bills are paid on time.   God bless Carson!

We all need a Carson in our lives.  Life’s transitions are just too involved nowadays; why, even a simple phone call can result in an hour of wait time listening to horrible music and even after reaching a live person, can be put on hold and/or transferred to other live people who know just as little.  The whole process is exhausting.  

It reminds me of when years ago my sister Joy started a home business of gift baskets.  She was trying to do it in her spare time and work 40 hours a week at her other job.  At one point, she realized there were meal bugs in some of edible goodies she had ordered.  The bugs had spread.  Poor Joy had to make the decision to close up shop.  She told me, “If I had been working full time and had no bugs, I could have done it.  Or, conversely, if I had the bugs but no full-time job, I could have dealt with it.  But - the stress of working full-time PLUS the meal bugs was just too overwhelming to fight.”

It was hard enough to lose my job and start over.  But the overwhelming part came when the energy to train in my new job was vying with the energy it took for my to-do list.  And, as life always goes on, there were the usual things to keep up with - bills to be paid, Christmas gifts to be purchased, bank statements to be reconciled, house cleaning to be done.  

How wonderful it would have been to have a Carson!  Most of the problems would have been taken care of before the news of them even reached my ears, and the rest I could have said, “Thank you, Carson.  You handle it; I trust your judgment.”  

Alas, I am my own Carson.  Husband Ed, of course, was a big help (especially in the encouragement department) but most of the jobs nevertheless had to be accomplished by me.  

After mulling this over for a time, I have come to realize that Lord Grantham is missing out a lot on life - for the petty problems he doesn’t have to handle are the very ones that constitute the mundane reality of life, and the big transitions that he doesn’t have to maneuver are the life-changing ones that we learn from - how to combat cynicism, depression, anxiety.  Handling these situations gives us more self-confidence when we come out on the other end, scratched up a little but still alive and kicking, with more lessons learned.  For to feel the confidence of meeting challenges, you have to be given challenges.  To feel the joy of overcoming adversity, you have to be given adversity.  To be courageous, you have to have something to fear.  

A Carson of my own would have been so helpful.  But I am a different person today than I was in August, and it’s all because I don’t have a Carson to handle everything for me, and maybe that's a good thing.  Hmm... why am I suddenly in the mood for a cup of nice hot tea?  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Gift for Generations

Our dad, Ensley Tiffin, was a recorder.  He was a documenter.  His two most important priorities were his church and his family, and in the 1950s, Ensley Tiffin decided to buy a movie camera and document both for posterity.  My goodness, he had no idea exactly what kind of posterity he was dealing with.
We didn’t have much money growing up, and Dad hardly ever spent money on himself, as he had a family to support.  He did have a stamp collection he lovingly organized, but he allowed himself two major expenses (and they, of course, were for the family):  A yearly family vacation trip, and home movies.   He took movies at home and at church, and carefully separated them, splicing each scene in its respective category, because as he put it, “I don’t want to bore the family with church movies or the church folks with family movies.”  So by the time he died in 1980, he had amassed several decades’ worth of church movies, mostly of the church where we grew up, Harris Memorial Methodist Church in Memphis.  The fact that they were "silent" movies did not detract from the vibrant personalities of those who were filmed.
Most people who knew him remember Ensley with a camera up in front of his face.  His favorite place to stand was out on the sidewalk in front of the church, taking movies of everyone walking out the front door and down the steps.  It’s fascinating to watch them now - the ladies with their flowery hats and gloves, kids in suits and dresses with petticoats and patent leather shoes, elderly ladies with their elbows held by one of the men who helped them maneuver the steps, a group of men gathering to smoke out on the curb.  I always love to watch the people who were initially unaware of the camera, then a smile (usually a startled look, then a embarrassed or delighted grin) broke across their faces when they realized they were being filmed.  Some of the older folks weren’t used to a movie camera, so they would stand very still until Dad told them, “You can move, you know.”  The children would run around like crazy, enjoying the freedom after being cooped up for Sunday school and the worship service, many of them carrying little crafts they made or pamphlets from their Sunday school handouts.
And the parties!  Back in the ‘50s, the “young adults” who were starting their families (our parents) in the church weren’t financially well off, but they loved to have a good time, so they did it on the cheap.  Let’s have a costume party!  A talent show!  Hey, let’s dress up like hobos and each bring a can of stew and we’ll pour all the cans into one big pot and ladle it out!  Let’s have a “womanless wedding,” where all the men dress up as a wedding party!  Let’s put on a show that parodies all these crazy TV ads!  The costumes were clever and always homemade.  The laughter was contagious.  The parties were memorable.  The church fellowship hall, Moffett Hall, was the place to be!  
Of course, there were the pictures of the Easter altars, some pans of the choirs from different years, the Christmas programs, a few weddings, some picnics, and some softball games.  These movies run the gamut.  
Harris Memorial closed after over 100 years of service, then later the church building tragically burned down.  Like little capsules of time, though, the people in these home movies have shared something precious.  Some of us were there the whole time, others were there for just a few years.  Some of us have kept in touch for decades.  Some have lost touch but reconnected.  Some we can't find at all. We all share this though:  We know what it was like to be running around on that sidewalk after church.  We know where the hall was that Lib Wilson scared us as a witch at the Halloween party.  We know what was in that closet under the stairs leading to the sanctuary.  We can visualize that pulpit at which so many ministers preached.  We can see in our minds the door where Billy Grogan stood and counted heads so he could record the attendance.  We know what the choir loft looked like, we know where every restroom was, where every Sunday school room was, how the pews were laid out. We especially remember the light (and sometimes the wasps!) coming in those gorgeous old stained glass windows.  We are the last generation to have experienced these things first-hand.  These movies Dad left us remind us of a time gone by, experiences that changed every single person who was involved, in one way or another.
Last week with the death of another church member, I felt a strong urge to get these movies up and out there where people can see them.  We have lost too many of our “church family” already, and before long, there won’t be anybody around to appreciate them.  So Facebook it was.
In the last few years, my sister Joy and I had been looking into the possibility of publishing a collection of Dad’s letters, and have run into the stumbling block of legal ownership - Do the letters Dad wrote belong to us or the recipients - and do the letters he received in return belong to us or the writers?  That’s all being worked on.
However, with his movies, we know to whom they belong.  They belong to Marti, whose grandfather died shortly before she was born.  She gets to watch him “photobomb” scene after scene in his animated and delightful way.  They belong to Sheila, who recognized her late parents in a scene - filmed on their wedding day.  Sheila wrote me, “I just can't tell you how blessed my heart was this morning when I unexpectedly saw this...This video helped me beyond what I can ever tell you. I've seen pictures of my parents but to see them moving in this video !!!!!!........ There are no words!”  They belong to Phyllis, who felt blessed to see her grandfather; to the Grogan and Underwood families, who can watch their matriarch, Zuleika, who died just this week, demonstrate how she “blacked out” her teeth for a comedy routine to look as if she had some missing. They belong to the Tanners and Fosters and Prescotts and Agees and Archards, the Glasheens and Wilsons and Fletchers, the Rogans and Basses and Yarwoods and countless others who can see their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives, so many who have passed on.  And they especially belong, I think, to the children. They belong to every child who was recorded singing in the Christmas program or playing an instrument, every kid who contorted his or her face at the camera, or who was maneuvered to line up out on the sidewalk for a group shot.  My sister Joy and I were two of those kids - kids who are now grown, many of us with children and grandchildren of our own.  We get to watch our little selves grow up in these films.
It’s kind of ironic that Dad once told us, “If anything happens to me, don’t just let my stamp collection go; take it to be appraised, as there may be some stamps worth something in there.”  Joy and I did exactly that a few years ago - and we were told his stamp collection was considered worthless except for sentimental value.
What he thought might be valuable was not...and his real priceless legacy, his gift to generations of people he had never even met, has turned out to be his precious home movies.  The gift for generations.  At the time he recorded them, he would have not dreamed of the Internet, and that one day his beloved movies would be available for anyone to enjoy.  That time has come, and I feel blessed to be a part of it. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An Open Letter to Medical Dictators - Tips!

Dear Doctor/Mr./Ms./PA, FNP, CNM, etc:
If you spend what seems like an inordinate time dictating, I am sure you spend an equal amount of time wondering how you could improve the lives of the folks listening to you on the dictation system...us poor medical transcriptionists.  I know your time is valuable, and so is ours, and I know you think for the most part we do a good job and you are aware that improving things on your end would make it easier for the MTs to do our jobs...but try as you might, you have until now not figured out how to do that.
It’s probably safe to say you’ve never had an MT sit down with you and tell you how to improve your dictation.  Well, here’s your opportunity - listen and learn!
The first thing is the “pause” key.  You know those times when you have to sit and think in the middle of the dictation, or maybe search for lab tests in the patient record?  Most dictators think the pause key is the way to go.  That way, the MT is not sitting, waiting, fuming, during minutes of silence until you come back on to continue the dictation.  Well, I’m here to tell you to NEVER use the pause key!  MTs would much prefer the silence - it gives us time to give ourselves a manicure, for instance.  And those of us who get paid by line - don’t give a thought to how you are stealing money out of our pockets with dead air space when we could be making lines.  I mean - really, we didn’t really need to pay the mortgage this month.  I’m sure the bank will understand.  Bonus points for this:  If your phone rings and you let the dictation run and pick up the phone and carry on a private...I mean PRIVATE...conversation that we can listen to - that really makes our day!
I know you sometimes like to dictate on the cell phone while doing other things.  That’s great!  There are a few times you must absolutely be sure to dictate on a cell phone - when driving (don’t worry about running over that kid on a bicycle - the emergency room needs the business) - and at sports games, because the guy next to you, who never heard of HIPAA, has really enjoyed hearing the private medical details of his neighbor’s hospitalization.  And yes, some MTs are sports fans and we love to hear the games too.  If you’re not at the game in person, just dictate while you watch the game on TV, and make sure the volume is turned way up.  The same effect applies to the news.  MTs are so busy, we miss a lot of news, so we can listen vicariously through you.  Just make sure the volume of the TV is higher than the volume of your voice so we can stay informed.  Thanks!
Speaking of volume, if you really want to make MTs swoon, eat while you dictate.  After all, we know you’re too busy to do just one thing at a time, and we love to take turns trying to identify the particular food you are consuming, since we hear every bite so clearly.  After all, we get bored listening to your voice over and over.  Throw a few potato or corn chips in the mix, and it gives us a break from your monotone delivery.  Now regarding chips, you do know some are louder than others, don’t you?  We prefer the really crunchy kind - they make the loudest decibels in our ears.  And you get extra credit if you rustle around in a plastic bag to retrieve them!  Makes me giddy just thinking about it.  If you don’t have chips handy, there are alternatives, such as popcorn, crackers, and celery.  Use your creative imagination and surprise us!  Or, if you don’t feel like crunching on a certain day, go with...
Hard candy.  Mmmm...that sucking sound is out of this world.  And it even gets better while you try to talk through the sucks! Who cares if there are blanks in the medical record?  It’s worth it because YOU SUCK!
You silly dictators - always trying to please us in the most charming ways.  Sharing your mealtime and snack time with us is so nice!  We love to try to distinguish what you are saying through all the dietary intake.  Bonus points if we can hear you actually swallow liquids- and double bonus points if we can hear you make other bodily noises down below!  (Going into the bathroom?  We feel honored to come along!)
We know there are some times when you have the sniffles.  Aw, Mr. or Ms. Practitioner - we feel for ya!  Sometimes if we’re really lucky, you will sneeze or blow your nose DIRECTLY INTO THE PHONE.  Oh, yeah!  Some people might find that disgusting, but it just gives MTs a  reason to visit the ENT doctor for burst eardrums - after all, we need regular medical care for our ears, as they are our most valuable asset, right?  Thanks for giving us the impetus we need to go for a checkup!
We know how hard it is for you with all these foreign-sounding names these days, too.  When you admit a patient with the last name of Klzyakchkzn, please don’t bother to spell it or even give us the first letter.  It makes it like a treasure hunt for us!  Gives us a much-needed break during our shift.  Be sure not to give us any clues like a birthdate - clues are for sissies.  We want to spend the next hour  trying to find the correct patient - but if we accidentally put it on the wrong patient, that won’t really matter, will it?   Hey, things happen.  It’s our fault anyway - everybody should know how to spell Klzyakchkzn!  Bonus points if you say your dictation is on “Baby Boy Smith” and the real name of the kid listed in the electronic medical record is Chester Anderson Grobenoff III.   Just because his mom’s name is Smith, just go ahead and assume it’s the same for the kid. Your time is too valuable to double check that; please, let us do that for you.  
There are some words that sound so alike if you talk fast and/or slur:  Regular, irregular.  Hypertension, hypotension.  Incomplete, complete.  But that’s OK.  What difference does it make whether the patient has hypertension or hypotension anyway?  I’m sure the nurses know what’s what - they certainly don’t need to see it in the medical record correctly.

I think I’ve about covered it all.  If you want more tips, we MTs are always happy to give them to you.  After all, that telephone line is a direct communication link between you and us - and the whole communication involves the entire health record of thousands of people.  I know we both want to do things right.  Right?  (Or left?  Oh well, it doesn’t really matter, doesn’t it?)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A necklace and poems!

I got the most wonderful Mother's Day gifts - a handmade necklace from my creative daughter-in-law which featured a thumbprint from 3-year-old Joshua and his 1-year-old sister Emily, a sweet card from my son, and then today I got poems written by my other two grandkids and my daughter (the latter who does not grant me permission to publish here!).  So here is my necklace:

And here are my poetic tributes:

From Charlotte, age 8
Dear Grammy:
I love that you're such a great singer,
And you can be strict just by wagging your finger.
I know when we're with you, we keep you a-hoppin';
My favorite part is you take us a-shoppin'!

Happy Mother's Day!

From Caroline, age 11 (3 poems)

Poem #1
And smart.

You steal
My heart.

and Definite.

My love
For you
Is strongly infinite.

Poem #2
Your music is infectious
Your love is very strong.
Your face can light the darkest room
And everyone else follows right along.

Your music is infectious
Your heart beats pure love.
Your blood is filled with many a tear,
But I cannot tell you enough -
I love you more than words can say
That only music can explain.
And it's more than likely
That it'd be yours -
Your music is infectious.

Poem #3
My feelings vary not for you
My love is more than enough.
My heart exceeds the largest limit
On the inside I'm like melted chocolate
Though I may look very tough.
I act like nothing scares me
But that is very untrue.
My eyes fill with happiness
At the mention of your name
And may feelings vary not for you.


The things my daughter wrote in her poem and that my son wrote in his card will not be written here, but suffice it to say they both made me cry.

If my legacy consists only of these two children and these four grandchildren, my life will have been worth it.  I am so blessed!

Monday, April 21, 2014

I must be getting old

...when blacks sat at the back of the bus.  Mom would take my sister and me shopping in downtown Memphis, and each time we rode the bus, I would see all the blacks sitting towards the back.  I always thought they liked it that way - why else would they sit there?  

....when women wore gloves and hats to church every Sunday.

....when the Blue Laws were in effect.  For those who have never heard of this, the Blue Laws were a set of laws which made illegal the selling of certain things on Sunday.  The Old Testament says the Sabbath (Saturday) should be a day of rest, which was basically a Jewish thing,  but the Christians said the Sabbath was now Sunday and that the "not working" condition applied to them, and they decided that if a product in a store couldn't be used without "working," then that product would be forbidden for sale on Sunday.  So I remember going into a store on Sunday after church and seeing white sheets covering half of the store merchandise, and learned why after asking Dad.  So you could buy a ready-to-eat item but not something that needed cooking, etc.  No bleach because that meant you were washing something.   Confused the heck out of me!

....when the phone receiver was attached to the phone and to get any privacy, you had to drag the phone as far as you could, then receiver cord a little more.  And there were no answering machines.  If you missed a call, you just missed a call.

....when bills were only paid through the mail, as there was no internet, no computers.

....when phones couldn't take pictures and cameras used real film that you had to take to the store to get developed and wait to see your pictures.

....when Daddy recorded church services and other interesting things on reel-to-reel tapes.  Later he graduated to a cassette player.  Yeah, I remember cassettes too.

....when we rode around in a car without seat belts or air bags or car seats.

....when the TV had 4 channels and you actually had to get up and walk over to it to change a channel or change the volume.  There were no recording devices to record a show to watch later.  As with the telephone, if you missed a show, you just missed it.

...when an interactive doll meant one whose eyes closed when you put her on her back.

....when you could buy records at many stores.

....when women wore corsages on Mother's Day and my sister and I wore rosebuds from our rose bushes.  We were told the flowers were white if your mom was dead, but were red if she was still alive.

....when there was no thing as a "digital" clock or watch.  Clocks and watches were round, had all the numbers in a circle, and you had to learn how to tell time with the two revolving hands.

....when kids used to get all new clothes for Easter - including socks and underwear and brand new shoes.

....when "home movies" didn't have sound - and to watch them, you had to get out a screen and projector.

....when girls at our high school weren't allowed to wear pants.  That changed in the era of the miniskirt when Memphis had a very cold winter.  The rule was restated to say girls couldn't wear pants except during the winter, but once the door was opened, it pretty much became okay.  Never jeans, though!

....when classes had chalkboards instead of dry-erase boards.

....when the smell of mimeograph paper accompanied all tests.

....when we had to hang clothes outside on the clothesline to dry.

....when you had to type school papers on a regular typewriter, trying to guess how much room you needed at the bottom for footnotes.

....when the garbage collectors had to walk to the back of the house by the garage to empty the garbage cans.

....when there were two water fountains in stores - one for "whites" and one for "colored."

....when everyone had to look up a phone number in the phone book instead of on Google.

....when you "dialed" the phone and "rolled down" the windows in the car.  We Boomers still use these terms, even though the phone no longer has a dial and the car windows are button-controlled.

...when every night on the evening news, they would list the death toll in the war in Vietnam.

....when you'd go to the doctor and see prescription pads with his name on them just lying around.

...when freezers needed periodic defrosting and you made ice by using ice trays.

...when the regular adult combo at McDonald's was the same size as the Happy Meal today.

...when sewing patterns cost 50 cents.

....when gas cost 35 cents a gallon.

....when our family of 4  could stay in a motel for one night for $12.

....when there was no airport security.

....when Cokes came out of the Coke machine in small glass bottles.

....when cigarettes were sold everywhere in coin-operated machines - no ID required.

....when doctors used to smoke cigarettes when rounding on patients.

....when you had to use a card catalog to look up books at the library.

...when Memphis had two daily newspapers.

...when you could buy candy cigarettes.

...when cigarette ads were all over TV.

...when Elvis was still alive.

...when parents had to wait until delivery to find out their baby's gender.

...when bank security was so lax, they let my sister and me play around back in the tellers' area and even step into the vault (Dad was a teller).

...when most homes boasted a set of encyclopedias that were outdated as soon as they were printed but which occasionally would save you a trip to the library.

...when personal hair dryers were humongous hoods you had to sit under.

...when families collected Quality Stamps, then traded them for merchandise.

...when one of our favorite restaurants still had the sign at the door that read, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."  I remember asking Dad what that meant, and he sighed, shook his head and said, "They don't want to serve Negroes."

...when sewing machines only sewed a straight stitch.

...when it was safe to walk home alone from school.

...when we rode bikes and roller skated without helmets.

...when babysitters were paid 50 cents an hour.

...when grass was mowed with a rotary mower.

...when you had to wait until your favorite movie was broadcast on TV before you could see it again.

...when almost all toys and games needed no batteries.

...when Prince Charles was just a teenager.

...when a Dairy Queen cone cost a dime.  (I remember Dad every once in a while agreeing to take us to Dairy Queen, but it was a rare thing.  He said, "I hate to pay 40 cents for 4 cones when we could go to the grocery and get a half gallon of ice cream for 42 cents!)

....when the girls had to wear UGLY white one-piece shorts/top set for gym class.

...when the lions at the Memphis zoo were confined to small cages.

...when kids were lined up at a community center/hospital to receive polio vaccines in little sugar cubes.

...when we lived through hot summers without air conditioning.

...when a family of 4 could share a small house with only one bathroom and only one phone and only one car and somehow it all worked out.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Riddle

Every day I call my mom in Memphis and in the process of catching up, she always asks for a joke.  I have had to buy joke books and search the Internet for appropriate ones (after all, she is my mother!) and in the process have stumbled across a few great riddles too.

My latest riddle is this:  You have 2 coins that add up to 30 cents.  One is NOT a nickel.  What 2 coins do you have?

The answer is simple and obscure at the same time.    Just think about it.

The answer is....

A quarter and a nickel.   

"What?!" you say indignantly.  "I thought you said one was NOT a nickel!"  

That's right - a quarter is not a nickel.  Feel free to hit your head on something.

This riddle encompasses everything about how we think.  The riddle says "One is not a nickel," but we hear/read this:  "Neither one is a nickel."  Big difference.

Countless books have been written about "thinking outside the box."  (Believe me, I'm a e-book addict and I know.)  The box is what we are handed in life.  We assume the answers are inside, and we assume the person who handed us the box, indeed the person who describes to us what is in the box, has our best interests at heart.  Not always the case.  Sometimes our brain is required to interpret. And our brain, though remarkably intricate, is not infallible, as it is filled with false assumptions, prejudices, ideas that are less than truthful, and, yes, is skewed to hear what we want to hear.

Riddles like this can turn your thinking upside down and inside out.  It makes you question everything you think you know, because we interpret and assume so many ideas based on what we think we have heard/read.  Each new day brings a new opportunity to think again, twist an idea, try out an experiment, see things from a different point of view, and challenge our assumptions.  As they say, statistics can lie, depending on who is using them.

The next time you hear something that someone asserts is "fact," stop and think.  It may indeed be fact, but, on the other hand, you may be hearing "Neither one is a nickel" and your mind is led down the garden path of assumption.  And from personal experience, I know it's an easy, mindless walk, but in the end leads to nowhere very interesting.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Caroline

My dear granddaughter:

I get it.  You're bored with school.  I also get that you are one of the smartest people I know.  I also get that the work at school is not challenging you.  I get your frustration.  I also understand that there is a part of you that is a rebel - just like I was when I was growing up.

You come by it genetically, of course.  At least on our side of the family, we come from a line of rebels.  My own father (your great grandfather) confessed to being a maverick.  When he was starting to raise his family, black people were being denied access to just about everything.  They even had a special day at the Memphis Zoo for the "Negroes" to visit so the white folks wouldn't have to be around them as they watched the animals.  Can you imagine?  Well, of course, your grandfather had to speak out.  The danger was this:  He was afraid if he wrote letters to the newspaper he would lose his job as a bank teller.  The mayor of Memphis at that time was a powerful man and didn't want any complaints about how he ran the city.  So Dad wrote for a while under a pseudonym, then after a time wrote under his own name became open about his beliefs in the equality of all people.  He was frustrated at what he saw and heard, and he was in a minority when it could be a dangerous time to speak out, but he did anyway.   He would stand up for what he believed until the day he died.   He was a functioning, giving, caring member of society and he did everything that was expected of him - but on his journey, he took his typewriter and wrote and wrote so the rebel in him could be given a voice and his thoughts about how to live out his faith honored.

OK, so being upset with school is not anywhere near being upset with the way the blacks were being abused.  But...I can get closer to your feelings by telling you what else I see in you....I see myself.

My school years were not too different from yours.  I wasn't quite as smart as you are, but I was intelligent enough to get into some accelerated classes.  My response to school was always one of three emotions:  1) I adored my class and my teacher and found the work exciting.  2) I was bored to tears because I wasn't being challenged, or 3) I was frustrated that I had to learn "crap" that didn't have anything to do with what I wanted to learn and which didn't apply to or enrich my life in any way, something I considered a total waste of time.  On top of this, there was a rebel inside of me that the minute I was "told" to do something, I automatically resisted.  I absolutely hated giving other people power over my life.

I've mentioned to you that one of the highlights of my junior year in high school was having to read Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  Now, I had nothing against Walden Pond.  Part of it I really enjoyed.  Now Mr. Thoreau had a way of going on and on and on with descriptions, so much so that I had trouble staying awake to read the book.  However, I read enough to understand his message.  So on our test, one question dramatically stood out:  "How deep was Walden Pond?"  Seriously???!!  Of all the important  ideas and observations in that book, this is a question my teacher felt needed answering?  I was shocked, upset, offended, frustrated, and angry.  How can you take a book and dissect it into mere facts?  How can you take a book and make it a multiple choice quiz?  Where was the joy in reading?  Were we just some sort of machines that spit out what was fed in?  Were we parrots or monkeys, repeating and mimicking what we were taught?  So from early on, a book I might have picked up on my own and might have enjoyed became a power struggle once it was officially "assigned" in school.  I indignantly resisted every word on every page.

As I have told you, I dropped out of college after one year because I wanted to immerse myself in history and French and music alone - and the college requirements mandated that I take math and other stuff I had no interest in.  Even then, I figured out life was too short to waste it studying something that wasn't interesting or relevant to my life.

But here's the thing:  I always kept up my grades.  I could have slacked off with a lot of excuses about how it was boring and I was frustrated and I didn't want to be there and I'd rather be doing something else, but I didn't.  I just gritted my teeth and got on with it, mainly because I didn't want to disappoint my parents.  But I did learn something back then - that this is part of life.  Every day unfortunately can't be a roller coaster ride.  Sometimes it just consists of riding in the car to the grocery store - BORING.  But we take the good with the bad.

So, you might say, Grammy, how did you manage to balance the rebel with the acquiescent student?  That's a good question and it deserves a truthful answer.  I wrote.  Oh my, how I wrote!  I wrote poems that made fun of everything that frustrated me - some teachers, homework, even the cafeteria in the school! I made fun of how literature teachers always wanted to find hidden meaning in every word - which I sincerely doubt was intended by the authors in the first place.  (To do that, I took the poem "Mary had a little lamb" and wrote pages and pages of "hidden meanings" that were insanely funny!) I wrote it all down cathartically.  I can still to this day recite some of these poems.  I had to see the humor of the situation or I would have cried every day through high school.  Writing my poems kind of gave me the "last laugh" and those clueless teachers didn't win after all - at least that's how I felt.

There's no need to write anything nasty or vindictive.  There's no fun in that.  That's just pure revenge.  But parodies and comic poems and things like that - that's where the rebel in me could shine.  Of course, the teachers in question never saw these.  I shared them with a couple of close friends only.  I would never, ever want to hurt someone's feelings.  But I had to let it out somehow.  Somehow this silly, ridiculous, test-oriented, one-size-fits-all education had to be challenged, and that's what I did - in my own way.  (Even your great grandfather concentrated on writing complimentary letters to those were were taking unpopular stands, or letters of encouragement to those who were being victimized.  His rebel wanted to bring light into darkness, not more hate  - as there was quite enough hate to go around.)

The good student in me graduated high school with excellent grades.  The rebel in me wore white shoes during the graduation ceremony instead of the black shoes that were required.  Just little things - they kept me sane.

Every one of us, Caroline, is a blend of personalities.  It is very hard for a nonconformist to have to conform, and just as difficult for the thinking minds to accept boring assignments.  It is frustrating for the creative mind to see assembly-line education.  We don't want to be stagnant or lose our focus or passion, and want outlets where we can empty ourselves in the pursuit of beauty and philosophy and the wonder of the universe.  Somehow you have to let the rebel and the conscientious student live side by side in your brain and figure out a balance.  Believe me, when you get to be an adult, you will still feel the need to speak out against stupidity and ignorance and ask the uncomfortable but important questions.  That never goes away.  But to get there, you have to settle down, do your homework, and in your spare time, use your creativity to help you deal with the daily frustration.   Once you keep earning grades that reflect your intelligence, you can go on to high school and college and can choose whatever path you want in life with that good foundation.   And that is what I want for you, my sweet Caroline.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Coming out even

Ah, the joys of being a grandparent at Christmas.  It's like being a parent, only magnified.  My kids are both adults now, and I miss their little selves; there is nothing like seeing the faces of children at Christmas - children who still believe in miracles, in magic, in things they can't rationally explain, in pure awe.  Of course, my kids have blessed me with two grandchildren each, so Christmas is again a time of wonder as the family with the "little ones" convenes on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts.

It's not so much a problem with almost-1-year-old Emily, or even 3-year-old Joshua, because they can't count perfectly yet.  On top of that, it would never occur to them that one of their cousins or their own sibling might, just might, have opened more presents than they did.  But nevertheless, I try to keep all my four grandchildren equal in the gift-receiving department.  I can remember Matt and Rachel when they were adolescents - making their piles of gifts, and let me tell you, they had better come out equal.  Older kids don't realize the visible inequality of several inexpensive gifts versus one costly gift.  They can count, though.  Their specialty is not counting money, but counting items!

I haven't seen that as much with my grandchildren, but maybe that's because I meticulously try to keep things coming out even.  I can even beat them at their own game:  I can keep the total number of presents to unwrap even, but put several different smaller items in one box, and they never know the difference. For instance, I got 10-year-old Caroline some art supplies on her wish list - colored pencils, a sketch pad, and a small blank canvas.  They went in one box.  That probably was worth approximately the same amount as 8-year-old Charlotte's Barbie thingamajig.  But in their minds, they are each opening one present.  Grammys learn this kind of trick early on.

Then, too, gifts tend to get more costly the older the child gets.  That's something else the children don't realize.  Even with all these things to keep in mind, my primary goal is to give my grandkids something that will make their faces light up - while keeping the whole situation fair.

The whole present thing made me think about my own life.  One of my lifelong complaints has been, "But it's not fair!"  Of course, that is usually when I've been given the short stick.  I less often complain of things not being fair when the "victim" is somebody else.  Actually, when I look at the all the gifts I have received in life - and obviously I'm not talking wholly material gifts here - I find the situation truly, horrendously unfair.  So many people go without, yet I am clothed and warm and fed.  So many lose their mothers before their time; mine is still here and thank God, still knows who I am when I call.   And even though my dad died before we were ready, his love for me and my sister still pervades our lives.  So many people grow up in abusive homes; mine was loving, patient, and compassionate. My parents encouraged us to appreciate great music, great friends, and great family traditions.  My sister was and is a treasure.  My cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles and beyond brought me boundless love.  My friends have been faithful and supportive.  So many people have unfulfilled wishes for children or grandchildren; we have two children and four grandchildren, all in good health.  Both my kids married wonderful and compassionate spouses. My husband has been sober now for 29 years.  So many people have no access to good education; I have had wise mentors and teachers who taught me everything from diagramming sentences to speaking French to playing piano and organ.  So many people hate their jobs; yet I love my job and find that it uses all my strengths.   I am in good health, I can walk, talk, hear, think, and create.  I have been forgiven more times than I can even acknowledge.  I have been praised and encouraged way more than I deserve.

So, no, life is so unfair!  The things I return to the world will never, ever, equal the gifts I have been given in this miraculous life of mine.  I think if a lot of us examine our own blessings, we will feel the same way.  It will never come out even.  I'm sitting here counting my "presents" and the pile takes up the whole area under the tree and spills out the front door in an endless march of blessings, and I sit silently in grateful tears.

Merry Christmas to everyone, and may your New Year be filled with awareness of the unfairness of life!  Give, give, and give again - more of your money, your wisdom, your talent, your friendship, your listening ear, your patience - for although it will never come out even to what we have been given, our job is to do the best we can to get it as close as we can.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Losing Peter

I had a vivid dream last night.  It was Christmas, and we had a tree decorated, but after a couple of days, the limbs starting falling off, along with their ornaments.  We ended up with half the tree missing. Next, a neighbor came in and asked me to look across the street at their new yard decorations.  I went over to the window.  At first, the decorations were just shadows through the glass, but if I looked, oddly enough, directly through the curtain, I could see them.  They were life-sized carolers, holding their hymnbooks, mouths in song.

This was one of those dreams I could easily interpret on my own.

The high school which I attended had a chorus group whose members were close to each other.  (I'm sure other chorus groups and band groups can relate; musicians are a tight-knit group.)  Through the years, we have seen many of those classmates pass on, many of them my good friends.  This past week,  Peter Russell, a talented guy who was liked by all, died in Memphis.

As we age, we will lose more and more branches off our personal trees of relationships.  And with those branches go their decorations - the smiles, laughter, talents,  compassion - everything that made those individual branches bright and special and unique.  The tree is now half empty, and it makes me sad.  I try to concentrate on the intact part, but I can't help missing the empty part, the friends and relatives who brought joy to my life.

But, just across the way, I see them, as if through a veil, still singing.

It reminded me so much of the I Corinthians verse:  For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.

I think one of the very first posts of this blog was about trying to deal with my visible accumulation of memories as we started downsizing.  All those memories involved people, who, when they go, take with them a piece of my life.  Especially in chorus, our experiences in that group are shared by us and us alone.   The Broadway shows we put on, the assemblies at which we sang, the concerts we gave, the fun we had hanging around our chorus room, and our exceptional teacher, Miss Rose Gillespie - our generation will be the last to know what that was like.  One by one, the list of the departed grows, and the list of those who are left on earth shortens.  This does not invalidate the memories; indeed, it makes them even more precious.

Outside my room as I write this, there are more leaves on the ground than are on the trees.  But their brilliant colors will be remembered, and I know I will see them again next autumn.

RIP, Peter.  You are with a talented group of carolers.  Give Miss Gillespie and all the others a hug from me.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Learning from Blackberry Season

Whenever people ask me what my favorite season is, I generally say autumn.  Who doesn't like fall?  (Except maybe kids who are returning to school...)  Autumn has it all - colorful scenery, hot chocolate, football, York apples, pumpkins, wood-burning stoves, and culminating in Thanksgiving!   I love the season so much that one year I honored it in a quilt (below).  On the back, I quilted all the things I loved about this upcoming time of year (including a silhouette of Santa in one corner - because, as we know, when fall ends, Christmas is right around the corner....).

The sign to me that fall is on its way is the ripening of the blackberry bushes.

We have a few in our yard and several in our neighborhood.  It's good vision practice to zero in on a few ripe black ones in a sea of unripe red ones.  I love to pick blackberries and I love to eat them!

Blackberry season is over, I'm afraid.  I think I picked about 5 quarts in all.  Every seasonal change is a curse tied up with a blessing - for as much as I hate to see one season go, the next season has its own splendor and celebrations.  I had a lot of time to think as I was berry picking last month, and the more I pondered on things, the more I realized that blackberry picking is a lot like life.

1.  Everyone matures at his/her own unique rate.  Not all the berries on one street, one yard, one bush, or even one branch ripen at the same time.  It always amazes me that one branch, which gets the same amount of sun and the same amount of water and temperature will have some berries ripe on Tuesday, more on Wednesday, more on Thursday, and so on.   The very same bush I checked yesterday, from which I gathered every ripe berry until none was left, today is loaded with the juiciest, blackest berries you ever saw.  Just yesterday they were red.  Go figure.

It's the same with people you run across in life.  Sometimes just in the same family, children will be totally different in their physical, mental, and emotional maturity.  Yet they were raised in the same environment by the same parents.  So too are all the folks we encounter in our lives.   It's difficult not to judge immaturity in people, but you never know - that same person might be one day away from an insight of wisdom.  We encounter people traveling our road, but not necessarily at our speed, and there are always people ahead of us and behind us.  It doesn't mean they are better or worse than we are - it just means they are on a different maturity growth schedule.  (Unfortunately, some, like the shriveled red berries that never ripened, never make it all the way to maturity; witness the police reports.)

2.  Evaluate the risks.  Ah, yes, those pesky thorns - and mud - and a dog on a leash and a basket in one hand.   There is a spectacular set of blackberry bushes on the road in front of a house that a Pennsylvania family uses as a vacation home right now.  A family member saw my husband one day who commented on their plethora of bushes and they said they wouldn't even be around for blackberry season and to tell his wife that she is welcome to their bushes.  Very nice!  However, just like a castle with a forbidding moat, those bushes are on the other side of a shallow ditch-like area, which in blackberry season is usually filled with mud.   Wise or not, I always walk the dog when I am berry picking.  So one day the temptation of those plump berries calling my name was too great, and with the leash over my left wrist, and the basket in my right hand, I stood sideways and took a giant step with my left leg over the muddy water and stood like that while my left hand snatched what berries it could.   However, the hill where I had one foot propped was a mudslide waiting to happen - and of course, it happened, and as I panicked I grabbed the bush to stop the slide, which, of course, showered me with countless thorns.  Not a pretty picture.  The next trip, the bush still tempted me, but as I evaluated the risks of falling in mud and cutting up my arms, I decided it wasn't worth it.

One thing I transcribe every day is this: "The risks and benefits of the treatment were explained to the patient."  Everything we do in life consists of a risk/benefit judgment.  Every day you drive you are saying the risk of a wreck is worth the reason for the trip.  Whenever you take pain medicine, which always has some risks, you are saying it is worth it to feel better.  When the benefits outweigh the risks of our choices, decisions are easy.  The hard part comes when the risks are great and it might be better to cut our losses or keep the status quo and turn away.

3.  Look at everything from different angle.  It never failed - on my walk down the road, I picked the blackberries until I could find no more ripe ones.  Then as I walked back to the house up the road, I noticed that, from a different angle, I could see all the ones I missed on those same bushes.   I think I'm so smart and so thorough - yet I always found more berries on my way back from the exact bushes I picked "clean" on the way down.

In life it can't hurt to take a look from a different perspective.  From the other side, or from another set of eyes, or from hearing another person's opinion - you may just find something you missed.

4.  Savor the pleasures in life, for some are short.  Blackberry season is only a couple of weeks.  It's something I look forward to and hate to see go.  Time is of the essence.  You pick and pick and then one day there aren't any more black berries, and the red ones that never turned are withered and you realize blackberry season is over for this year.

In life, the child-rearing experience for parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, is fleeting - babies start crawling, kids get potty trained, children start the first day of school - and on and on.  What may seem like an eternity in the present slips away before you know it, leaving you looking back with sighs and a few tears.

So those are the lessons I learned from the blackberry bushes.  I'm a survivor of blackberry season - and I have the scars to prove it!  Sometimes I won, sometimes the bushes won, but gee, the muffins were delicious!  So goodbye to summer, and just around the corner is pumpkin time, then Christmas, then another year will have passed.   The special thing about life, I find, is that I know (unless we annihilate the human race or our damage to the environment makes the earth uninhabitable) that blackberry season will come again next year.  It's a comforting thought.   When we say goodbye to a season, it's always a temporary au revoir because there's a great chance we will be welcoming it back next year.  Some of us, of course, never make it.  So if you live to see another returning season filled with its special beauty and memories, consider it a wonderful blessing to be appreciated.

Friday, August 09, 2013

I'll never be an expert.

I have a lot of respect for most experts.  You know the kind - on the evening news they'll start out with a health report and interview their medical expert.  Then they'll have a story on the embassy shutdowns and interview their terrorism expert.  Those news stations have access to everyone who is considered an expert in their chosen field.

I'd like to think I'm an expert in something.  I've spent the last day trying to figure out what that might be.  I can quilt, but I'm not an expert.  I can sew, but a tailor I'm not.  (I'm still too afraid to try the invisible zipper installation.)  I know medical terminology and medical knowledge, but I'm certainly not an expert in that or I would be a doctor by now.  I know a lot about nutrition but wouldn't consider myself an expert.  I can play the piano, organ, and Celtic harp, sing and even direct choirs, but I'm no expert musician.  I know a lot about Abraham Lincoln, but I'm no match for the people who have written books about him.  I'm a great speller, but I'd lose in the first round of the National Spelling Bee (have you ever seen those obscure words they use??).  I'd like to consider myself an expert in my chosen expander software program, Instant Text, but there are features in there that I've never had to use and thus have never learned.

You see, when I really have an opportunity to see or hear an expert in action, I am awed.  I know just enough about a lot of things to enable me to really value expertise when I see it.  I realize, however, that for those areas in which I am lacking experience, my mind can never fully appreciate these artistic endeavors.   For instance, I really enjoy looking at pretty flowers and love to eat delicious food.  But alas, I have never been a gardener and I have never been a chef, and thus I know I really have no idea how much toil, learning, setbacks, etc., that went into producing those masterpieces.  My friend Sally knits.  It looks very difficult to me, and when I see one of her intricate sweaters, after I deeply admire it, I know that I will never be able to appreciate it as much as one of her fellow knitters would, because I have no idea how much time it took to make and how much time it took to learn the patterns.  Maybe one day if I ever learn to knit, I could revisit all those beautiful pieces and be blown away at an even greater level by her handiwork.  But I do have experience in some things, and I believe that has given me a better understanding of the work involved.

I remember seeing the late Van Cliburn perform when I was a teenager.  The general audience members were entranced with the performance, of course.  But I'll bet you that we pianists, young and old, in that same audience had a deeper appreciation of what was happening before our eyes, because we knew what it was like to practice (in a small way), we knew what it felt like to give a recital (in a small way), we knew how frustrating it was to learn something new and master it - again, in a small way.  He was doing the same thing we had done - only on a much grander scale.  He was our inspiration.  Forget super heroes - he was the young pianist's awe-inspiring moment.  He made it look easy - but we knew better.

This is why when I see beautiful quilts, I am wonderstruck by the work that I know went into it.  I can admire the spellers in the bee, the seamstresses on Pattern Review, the Maine harpist Julia Lane, and the authors who write about Lincoln after countless hours of research.  I feel that a tiny piece of me is present in them, because we share the same desire to learn - only they became the expert and took it to the limit, while I am content with coasting along in my learning, basking in their well-earned glory and marveling at their talent.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.  That's a lot of time to dedicate to one magnificent thing.  If I practiced piano for 10,000 hours, that's a lot of hours I wouldn't be sewing or quilting or transcribing.  Every hour to perfect one skill takes away an hour of enjoying another.

I decided years ago that I would give up chasing the expert label.  I had to ask myself if I would rather be fairly good at a number of things or a bonafide expert in one thing - and the answer for me was the former.  Van Cliburn dedicated his life to the piano and the world is better for it, but he worked hard and long to perfect his talent.  I'll bet you he didn't make a single quilt the whole time!

Of course, the world always has the "Renaissance person" - the Leonardo Da Vinci type - the one who is an expert in many things.  But those people are rare.  Most people who are experts in one thing can only handle expertise in a couple of other things before they just run out of time.

I'm writing this post on National Book Lovers Day - in honor of all those authors who dreamed big and worked hard to master writing and illustrating, for which I am so grateful.  At the same time, I honor the artists, musicians, crafters, growers, knitters, spellers, and everyone else who was hungry to learn, worked hard to get better and better, and by that, have added beauty to our world.  (Yes, I believe a correctly spelled word or an appropriate apostrophe is a beautiful thing!)  I will never be an expert, but neither will I be complacent when the experts shine.    Thank goodness we don't all have to have experience in something to have at least a tiny inkling of the work involved when we see what others have produced.  We are co-creators, and I am honored to share the world with you!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Here's the thing - I'm 58 and I still lie to my mother.   The lies one usually tells parents are the childhood ones - "No, I didn't take that cookie."  "Yes, I finished my homework." "She hit me first!"  Those are just silly kid things.  Then when I became an adult, I started telling lies to her because she just wouldn't understand - "This dress caused $25" when it really cost $75, because Mom, bless her heart, hadn't shopped for clothes for years except at Goodwill, and she has no idea what clothes cost these days.  It's easier just to deflate the price in the conversation.  Those kinds of things - well, they don't bother me so much.

Now, however, my sister and I are reaching a crossroads.  At some point in our lives, lying to Mom (or keeping important information from her, which is the same thing) has become an ethical dilemma.  We used to lie for selfish reasons, to stay out of trouble, etc.  Now we lie for compassionate reasons - so she won't worry.

Our mother has great anxiety, and it has gotten worse through the years, and now at 90, if you tell her ahead of time about an appointment or an outing or other worrisome thing, she will ruminate on it and start shaking and worrying until she's driven herself crazy.  My sister Joy and I don't want to contribute to her anxiety.  So we keep information from her.

These lies consist mainly of health issues of other people.  For instance, I've had some medical issues lately and am going in for a CT scan next week.  Do I tell Mom?  Certainly not!  She's down in Tennessee, and I'm up in Maine, and I couldn't even hug her to reassure her that I'm OK.  I'll worry on my own, thank you.

This has become the new norm.  On our frequent phone calls to each other, Joy and I usually have to insert the reminder caveat of, "Of course, don't tell Mother."

This week, however, we reached a conundrum.  Mom's only sibling, a slightly younger brother, has been urgently hospitalized for a colon blockage and was scheduled to have surgery for what could be a cancerous tumor.  Mom doesn't talk to him every day, so we could easily get by with keeping the information from her, as he lives in another state.  My sister and I agreed - she would worry herself sick.  We'll have to tell her at some point, but maybe we'll wait until after the surgery when we know everything's OK.  We'll tell her after the fact.  Meanwhile, our cousins are updating Joy and me on his condition.  As I updated my own kids on Uncle Tommy, I repeated my mantra:  "Now we're keeping this from Granny so she won't worry - but DON'T YOU EVER DO THIS TO ME WHEN I GET OLD, UNDERSTAND?  I don't want to be kept in the dark about anything!  Don't treat me like a child!"  Each time my son just laughs in my face. "I will keep things from you, and Josh (his almost 3-year-old) will keep things from me one day and his kids will keep things from him.  That's just how it is."  Kids.  Sheesh.

As the evening before surgery progressed, however, Joy and I had a change of heart.  We came to this conclusion separately after discussing it with our spouses.   Joy is my only sibling.   We are very close and love each other very much.  What if when we get older she had to have surgery for what might be cancer?  How would I feel if that information was kept from me so I wouldn't worry?  I would be devastated!  How dare others, even family members, even from a sense of compassion, pick and choose what I have a right to know?

So by the next morning with a change in plan, Joy told Mother the details, saying her brother had a blockage and they had admitted him and later that morning were going to do surgery to take out a tumor that was blocking his colon, omitting the word "cancer" because that wasn't a given anyway, at least not yet.  Mother handled it well and said she appreciated Joy's telling her.  Now at least Mom's brother was in her thoughts and prayers.  Mother can deal with things better than we think, sometimes.

I have concluded that we now have veered from all-out lying, all-out omitting information, to a selective communication with Mom.  If I receive a bad diagnosis from my CT scan and other tests, I will tell her, but there's no need in telling her what might happen ahead of time.  That's a good compromise.  I hate giving bad news to Mom.  I was with her in the ER in 1980 when the doctor came in and said her beloved husband had just died.  When I know she has been emotionally hammered, I just want to take it all away and hold her until she's better.

But life is full of bad things and most of them she deserves to know about.  There's something about respect and dignity in this, too.  As she tried to protect us from worry all these years, now the paradigm has switched and we are trying to reassure her.  Sometimes we make good decisions on that score; sometimes we miss the mark.  I hope the proper decisions outnumber the poor ones.  But even the poor decisions are done out of love and what we think, rightly or wrongly, is best.  It's a difficult and confusing journey and one that requires endless wisdom.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Never Alone

On a past post, I mentioned my high school years ushering at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, where I saw Broadway shows free as a thank-you for helping out.  The show "I Do!  I Do!" starring Robert Preston and Mary Martin was one of my favorites.  Even to this day I have most of the songs memorized.

The interesting thing about this particular show is that the two characters carried the show by themselves - no other actors to help share the load.  From Wikipedia:
The two-character story spans fifty years, from 1895 to 1945, as it focuses on the ups and downs experienced by Agnes and Michael Snow throughout their marriage. The set consists solely of their bedroom, dominated by the large fourposter bed in the center of the room.

As I was thinking of those extraordinary performances, I realized that only as I got older did I appreciate the magnitude of a 2-person play.  The responsibility of singing the songs, getting the laughs, evoking the tears - just using the skills of two people - what a feat that was!  Of course, these two were seasoned, magnificent performers and the audiences adored them.

Also as I got older, as I accumulated the wisdom one can pick up here and there, I realized that these two exceptional actors, of course,  did not carry the play alone.  In preparation to doing the play, they were helped by choreographers and voice instructors and directors.  People had to sew their costumes.  People had to print the scripts and the programs.  When the two went on tour, people had to book their performances, make reservations for hotels, find transportation, generate publicity, and all other necessary planning steps.  Then during each performance, there were other people in charge of costume changes, set, lighting, audio, musical accompaniment.  Even before the touring group got to Memphis, people had to clean the auditorium and prepare all the details of what would be needed.

The audiences played an important part, because without an audience, there is no show.  And that's where I come in.  I helped seat the audience.  I was a part of it all.

Just another reminder that we are all connected and it is impossible to be a self-made man or woman.  We all had help, and continue to have help, along the way.  Even today, a mechanic keeps our car running well so I can get to work, the Bangor Hydro folks keep the electricity going so we can maintain a household and I can type these words, the good people at John Edwards downtown worked to sell us the food we will have for supper, the doctor's office gave me the Rx for my daily thyroid pill I took this morning - and, of course, the list is never-ending because the chain is never-ending.  Life is a group effort.

I love the idea of daily moments of gratitude, and part of that gratitude has to be a thanks to all the fellow humans who have helped me and continue to help me along the way.  My life is not a one-person show. Bless you all.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Public Speaking

One of my favorite jokes:

A man is sent to prison for the first time. At night, the lights in the cell block are turned off, and his cellmate goes over to the bars and yells, "Number twelve!" The whole cell block breaks out laughing. A few minutes later, somebody else in the cell block yells, "Number four!" Again, the whole cell bloock breaks out laughing.

The new guy asks his cellmate what's going on. "Well," says the older prisoner, "we've all been in this here prison for so long, we all know the same jokes. So we just yell out the number instead of saying the whole joke."

So the new guy walks up to the bars and yells, "Number six!" There was dead silence in the cell block. He asks the older prisoner, "What's wrong? Why didn't I get any laughs?"

"Well," said the older man, "sometimes it's not the joke, but how you tell it."

It's true that some things don't need to be spoken.  It's also true that this happens more and more as a couple stays together.  Ed and I, married almost 39 years, can certainly finish each other's sentences and sometimes we will encounter a situation or hear or see something and I just know that we are remembering the exact same shared memory and we will laugh or tear up spontaneously in response to that without a word being spoken by either of us.

I've said and not said a lot in my life so far.    Just like actions, some of the things I've said I'm happy I got to say them.  Others, I cringe when I think about them.  Then at other times, I should have spoken up when I stayed silent.

Communication is a strange thing.  Language can hurt or heal and so much of it is so impulsive that we rarely take a prudent moment to realize the long-lasting effect of what we are about to say.

My niece Kate, like many others her age, is graduating from college today in Tennessee.  At graduations all over the country, speakers (famous, infamous, and relatively unknown) are gearing up to give the new graduates the wisdom of the ages, or at least of the moment.  I often wonder what I would say to Kate and her younger sister and our grandchildren and everyone else growing up in this wild world if I had only a limited time to impart advice.   So I wrote her a short letter about my mantra, the Serenity Prayer, which I've quoted in this blog many times  - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.   That's a solid foundation on which to make decisions in life.

What I would also tell these young folks is this:  Remember, life has no rewind button; speak carefully.  I gave a children's sermon once about feathers from an old Jewish tale, and it went something like this:  A rabbi took his students out into a large field.  He asked his students to distribute a load of big rocks across the field, which they did.  Then the rabbi asked them to gather up the rocks that they had just distributed.  With effort and time, they managed to find every rock and bring it back.  Then the rabbi produced bags of feathers and asked the students to scatter them over a great distance.  The students did.  Then the rabbi asked them to retrieve each and every feather.  They tried, but had to return to the rabbi, saying that it was impossible because so many feathers had been carried off by the wind and could not be gathered back into the bags.  The rabbi explained that words we say are like feathers - once said, they can never be unsaid and can never be placed back into the bag.  So say them judiciously.

The things I most regret saying, of course, are hurtful ones - words said in the heat of an argument or in a moment of hopelessness or in an escalating time of pure frustration and impatience.  Those words were heard and understood, and they will probably be remembered.  Oh, we can apologize, for sure.  We can try to make it up, which is an admirable step, but in the end, words were said that, like the feathers, are forever blowing around.

While I'm at it, I have to include advice from my mom:  This too shall pass.  That, as I've said before, can be comforting or scary - for as it is a relief to realize the bad stuff will pass, it is disconcerting to realize the good stuff will pass as well, so we need to appreciate it while it is here.

So today Kate graduates from college, and next week our oldest grandchild, Caroline, will turn 10 years old.  I think they both realize what's important in this world, that learning is lifelong, and that they can improve the world by how they act and speak.  You can't go wrong if you speak with love.  And....that they are infused, covered, and permeated with encouragement and support and blessings from family and friends.   Godspeed!