Saturday, February 24, 2007

In The Hole...Why I Don't Play Golf

Our daughter Rachel, her husband Chris, and our granddaughters Charlotte and Caroline visited us for several hours on Friday. It must have been the first time my quilt hoop had been set up for Caroline to see, because after I arrived home from work, Caroline seemed to take a curious interest in it.

“This is a quilt I’m making for your mom and dad,” I said. (OK, so I started it 5 years ago for their wedding quilt. It will be finished just in time for their 5th anniversary!) Caroline peered intently. I explained the mechanics of a quilt, how they called it a quilt sandwich, because it was 3 layers, and had a back, a middle, and a top. Caroline giggled. “But we don’t eat the quilt sandwich,” she said, her eyes twinkling. I gathered she thought the idea was pretty silly. (It was a great time for inserting something about a “high-fiber diet,” but, alas, when you’re discussing things with a 3-year-old, sometimes you have to forego the puns.)

She asked if she could learn how to quilt. I let her scoot underneath the hoop so she could watch the finger of my left hand from the underside as it deflected the needle. I showed her the callus on that finger, and I explained that actually touching the point of needle was the only way to be truly certain that the needle had penetrated all 3 layers of the quilt.

She then requested to cuddle up with me in my chair and “help.” I let her do so, showed her where I kept my thimble and what it was used for, showed her my tiny scissors that looked like a stork, my spool of thread, and my tiny, tiny needle. When she had absorbed all that information, I showed her how to thread the needle.

Now, you have to understand that I use a size 12 quilting needle, which is the smallest they make. It’s known for its ability to achieve the prized tiny stitches every hand quilter wants. It’s so small that if you ever dropped it, your only hope of retrieving it would be catching a glimpse of a piece of thread dangling from its tiny eye. And it is into this miniature eye that I am supposed to stick a piece of thread on a regular basis.

I do this many times in one quilting session. It never gets easier, and to add insult to injury, the older I get, the worse my eyesight gets, and the smaller they make the eye of the needle!

So there I was, trying to show Caroline how to thread a needle. I missed the first attempt (what a surprise!) and immediately thereafter missed the second, third, fourth, and fifth attempts. I tried all the tricks - wetting the thread, wetting the needle, cutting the thread at an angle - all the usual things - but that thread was stubborn and the needle was mischievous. For a while, I even forgot about Rachel, Chris, Ed, and Charlotte in the room. I even forgot about Caroline, sitting there so patiently. My surroundings just melted away as I repeatedly tried in vain to put the thread through that hole.

I have a needle threader, but gosh darn it, it was the principle of the thing by this time. I’m 52, not 82, and I ought to be able to thread a needle on command.

At last I received the successful outcome I had so ardently worked for. There! Did you see it? The thread went through the hole! I laughed, I giggled, I was thoroughly giddy. I did it!

At times like that, I push the thought from my mind that this is just one of many times I will have to thread the needle in the future, maybe even in the next few minutes. No - all I was focused on was my moment of thrilling success. As Ed says, “It doesn’t take much to amuse you.”

I continued the quilting lesson, letting Caroline pull the needle out of the quilt a few times, showing her how the stitches we were creating were forming a circle of stitches. She said, “How many have we got? I bet there’s 15!” So I counted. We had 8. I let her do 2 more stitches. “How many now, Grammy? I bet there’s a HUNDRED!”

Our little lesson filled me with gratitude. Of course, her interest may wane. Caroline may have had her fill of quilting after a while. But who knows - it may stick. I may be training the next quilter in the family. At the very least, though, I’m building memories.

Next time you hear someone say something is “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” you can smile and think of me. Because the hardest part is not finding the needle - it’s threading the darn thing.

Monday, February 19, 2007


My sister posted an interesting comment to my last blog entry, offering one of our favorite hymns to the discussion. “Be Thou My Vision” is a hymn that we made sure was sung at our father’s funeral, as the prayer expressed therein interpreted his life.

I’m thinking a lot about vision this week, as I have just finished the eye chapter of my studies. I learned, by the way, that the pupil does not increase and decrease in size - it is the iris which opens and closes, making it appear that the pupil is getting larger and getting smaller. Even studying about the eye, you can’t always “see” the truth easily!

“See” is one of the first words we used to learn. Remember the Dick and Jane books - See Spot run! Run, Spot, run!” See this, see that. Seeing is believing. Seeing your way clear. See what I mean?

The eye is a most intricate instrument. As I understand it, the cornea bends, or refracts, the waves of light, then the light is focused on the retina (the nerve layer), which in turn sends impulses to the brain through the optic nerve. Of course, many of us have defects in the ability to properly focus images, resulting in vision correction in one form or another. Add to that diseases of the eye, such as glaucoma, and sometimes we really can’t see clearly. But in essence, the eye “sees” and the brain “understands.” That’s the kind of clarity I’m looking for.

Coincidentally, as I was studying the anatomy and function of the eye, I was reading an article by Steve Pavlina called “The Power of Clarity.” Mr. Pavlina is CEO of Dexterity Software, and he is writing mainly to people in business, but his thoughts apply to us all, I think. We all want to have clarity in our lives - some kind of vision that directs our lives in such a way as to reach our goals and give our lives some significance.

Here are some of the things Mr. Pavlina has to say:

Bunker Hunt, a man who rose from a bankrupt cotton farmer in the 1930s to a multi-billionaire when he died in the 1970s, was once asked during a TV interview what advice he could give to others who wanted to be financially successful. He responded by saying that it’s not terribly difficult to be successful and that only two things are required. First, you must decide exactly what it is you want to accomplish. Most people never do that in their entire lives. And secondly, you must determine what price you’ll have to pay to get it, then resolve to pay that price.

First, I want to thank Mr. Pavlina for modifying the word “successful” with the word “financially.” As I mentioned before, there are lots of different ways to be successful. I would also add a phrase to his last sentence, “ must determine what price you’ll have to pay to get it, then resolve to pay that price or decide if that goal is worth that price.” Some people would love to make a few million dollars, but an 80-hour (or more) work week and no family time is not a price they are willing to pay, for instance. Or maybe you want to lose 100 pounds but realize that you aren’t willing to commit to the level of exercise or food intake that that goal would require. Clarity can help us set reachable, sustainable goals, and clarity can help us sometimes find the wisdom to redefine, adjust, or even relinquish those goals, if their price is just too high.

The whole idea of goal-setting can be overwhelming. I once had a goal software program that used an outline form. I had major goals, then minor goals under those, then goals that were “activity” goals under those, and so on. Then I had to decide whether to work on one or two goals first, or try to get a little done on every goal at the same time, or adopt some other method. There were even built-in reminders that would pop up on a calendar, detailing my “activity goals” for the day. The whole thing got to be too overwhelming, and I just dropped it.

To set goals for our lives, we have to have clarity, seeing the world through wisdom’s (God’s) eyes rather than the eyes of the marketing industry or the latest celebrity’s idea of fulfillment. It’s very hard to tune out all that cultural noise in order to concentrate on what direction we want our lives to take.

As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Pavlina even says the just choosing a life direction isn’t sufficient:

Many people assume that because they have a direction, they must therefore have goals, but this is not the case and merely creates the illusion of progress. “Making more money” and “building a business” are not goals. A goal is a specific, clearly defined, measurable state. An example of the difference between a direction and a goal is the difference between the compass direction of northeast and the top of the Eiffel Tower in France. One is merely a direction; the other is a definite location.

In other words, you know when you get there.

He goes on:

Every day is a mistake if you don’t know where you’re going. You’re probably spending most of your time working to achieve other people’s goals. The local fast food restaurant, TV advertisers, and the stockholders of the businesses you patronize are all very happy for that. If you don’t decide what you really want, then you’ve decided to hand your future over to the whims of others, and that’s always a mistake.

I think some goals that just function as directional goals are necessary. Not all goals can be measured. How will I know that Ed and I have raised responsible, kind, loving kids? It’s not something I can pinpoint in a single moment of awareness, but as I see our kids live their lives, raise their own kids, and interact with others, I am assured that we gave them a solid foundation and they are developing as we would have hoped.

Likewise, our journey to simplicity requires some directional goals and some measurable goals. How are we spending our money? How are we doing on controlling waste (not only of trash, but of food, money, time, energy, and our gifts)? Am I achieving the goals I wanted to achieve after we moved - like spending more time out in nature? Taking time to exercise? Taking time to quilt and to play the harp? Spending more time with Ed and less on the computer? Learning to live in the moment? Having a grateful attitude? Paying attention to my priorities?

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;
be thou my best thought in the day and the night,
both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise:
be thou mine inheritance now and always;
be thou and thou only the first in my heart;
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A sad state of affairs

I finished studying another chapter for my CMT exam tonight and decided to “reward” myself by watching some TV. As usual, I had my pick of two channels, and since the ABC show 20/20 was airing a show called “Promises, Promises,” I watched that. They were exposing deceptive marketing techniques of today’s product promotions. Promises of weight loss, “genuine” designer handbags at 90% off, fine print in car ads and other commercials on TV (print so small that you can’t even read it as it flashes across the screen), dubious claims from Suzanne Somers that her brand of hormone pills will guarantee eternal youth, off-label uses (not FDA approved) for prescription medications, encouraged in ads (paid for by the pharmaceutical companies) made to look like medical research papers - and on and on. Of course, the show itself was supported by commercials, all well versed in the latest marketing techniques.

We are a consumer-driven culture, certainly. We also are apparently a gullible group of consumers. The expression “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” just falls on our deaf ears - deaf, that is, to common sense, but very much intact to empty promises. In the end, we can blame the deceptive practices of corporate America, the naivete of the average American, or, put in a more flattering light, the endless supply of hope in the human soul. We want desperately for something to work, to keep us young, to get rid of the weight, to be an incredible bargain, so much so that we accept the questionable product claims and ignore the fine print and warnings. The whole thing made me rather sad.

That 20/20 program, plus the countless commercials I sat through to watch it, reminded me again how entrenched our culture is in acquisition and how corporations and individuals take advantage of that. The advertisers know how to catch us - by encouraging our greed and by zoning in on our tiny glimmers of hope, knowing that we expect that this product or that product will be the key to our happiness in one way or another.

Another way the culture imposes its values on us is by its definitions. Take, for instance, the word “Christian.” There are groups of people in the world now whose idea of what it means to be Christian is diametrically opposed to mine. The word “patriotic” means something different to me than to many other people. Our environment (including but not limited to the advertising industry) has strongly suggested one definition over another time and time again.

I was listening to the radio this week when they aired a commercial for Donald Trump’s latest “success” kit. I’m not sure if it was a book and/or CDs and/or DVDs, but whatever it was, Donald Trump said that if you bought it, it would make you “successful.” He kept saying that everyone wants to be successful like he has been successful, and he would graciously show you the way there.

Well, Mr. Trump, there are many definitions of success, and financial success is only one. According to your standards, Mr. Trump, my dad was a total loser, because he never made much money. You would consider him unsuccessful, in spite of the fact that he had a wonderful, lasting marriage and gave his two girls a happy childhood, worked for peace and justice, wrote many letters of encouragement, and shared his love of music with his choirs for decades. I don’t really want to go into your personal life, Mr. Trump, but if you represent success, I think I’ll pass.

If there’s one thing I want to teach my kids and their kids, it’s this: Scrutinize the message society sends, because it is often a furtive, devious message that distorts the higher meaning of life. It can accumulate in your brains for a long enough time that it soon becomes the only message you can perceive. Don’t accept everything you hear as truth. Listen to your spirit for your innate wisdom. Ask questions about sources of information. Don’t assume a self-appointed “authority” really knows what’s best. And most important - create your own definitions and live with integrity. You too can become a success...just like my dad.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Fix

I got my fix tonight. I didn’t realize I was so desperate, of course. I ignored the warning signs of pensiveness, inability to focus, unexplained longing, and frequent sighing. So I gave in, picked up the phone, and called the only one who could help me.

My fix was not for drugs or alcohol or even for Coke (which, by the way, I have not had since we moved in December). No - my fix was for Paw.

Paw is a character created by our son Matt when he was an adolescent. It was a virtual soap opera situation. Matt created an old man several billion years in age (if Matt was 11, Paw was 11 billion years old, and Paw’s age stayed commensurate with Matt’s). Paw had no teeth, of course, so Matt mimicked that by pulling his lips over his teeth. Paw's story evolved as Paw matured, and we discovered he had a girlfriend named Trixie (he already had a wife, The Old Hag). Oh, Paw had quite an exciting life, yes, indeed.

Paw usually slipped in unexpectedly. Matt would fade into the background, like some kind of medium, and all of a sudden, there would be Paw, telling us his latest joke or timely observation. Paw was always amusing, entertaining, and most welcome to join us at any time. He appeared in restaurants, in the car, and even at church. One never knew when Paw would show up.

Rachel, of course, was not to be outdone, so she invented a character named Wap (Paw spelled backwards). It made for quite a few interesting conversations.

Alas, Paw gradually disappeared as Matt became an adult, and I had only my fond memories plus a few videos. My dependable source of laughter had fizzled.

Paw talked about many subjects, but the one expression he could hardly say with a straight face was, “Oh, crap!” Now, it wasn’t the most polite thing in his repertoire, but for some reason, whenever he said that phrase, I broke out in laughter so hard that it made me cry. We could all try to imitate him, but only the original Paw could say it with just the right nuance. Paw was loud, obnoxious, and absolutely adored.

Oh, yes, I needed my fix, and I needed it bad.

Videos help, photos help, but I always wish for someone to invent a magic button to push that would stimulate the memory part of my brain to replay poignant scenes from my kids' childhoods. I just can’t accept that those days of innocence and frivolity now only exist in the minds of a few people.

So I dialed up Matt on his cell phone. “I need to hear Paw.”
Matt was obviously taken aback. I could imagine his expression.
“Uh...Paw’s not here,” he said weakly.
“Oh, but I think he is,” I admonished gently.
The awkward discomfort on the end of the line was palpable.
Thinking he might be in a public place and might be concerned about embarrassing himself, I asked, “Where are you?”
I could tell he sensed defeat. “Home,” he said in a small voice.
“Well, then, I need to hear Paw.”
Again, hesitation. “This is just weird,” he muttered.
Ed, talking in the background as he always does when I’m on the phone, offered, “Say OH CRAP.”
And then it happened. All the intervening years faded away, and I heard Paw’s familiar booming voice on the other end of the phone. “Oh, crrrrrap!”
I laughed until I cried. My baby still had it. Paw will never disappear, not as long as this despondent parent can coax his presence forth one more time. Paw has staying power. After all, next month he’ll be 24 billion years old!

Sunday, February 04, 2007


There’s a person who works at my hospital who has a license plate that says NORGRET, which I assume means something along the line of “no regrets.” It makes me sincerely happy to know someone is living in this world today who is in this condition, but I think, unfortunately, this person is in the minority. Most of us have many regrets, both major and minor, especially by the time reach the second half of our lives.

I think it’s pretty universal to wish for a life rewind button. Oh, the bad choices I have made - the precious time I have wasted - the stupid things I have done! Even if many things turned out all right in the end, my journey has been full of unnecessary strife and pain. Regrets? I have regrets, indeed!

Yesterday Ed and I were discussing the news story that Americans are now so far in debt that the savings rate is, for the first time ever, in the negative realm. We talked about the idea that every high school could offer a course in financial matters, from checking accounts to investments to buying a house to credit responsibilities - things many of us just learned by experience, not all of it good experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could add more courses to the curriculum? Ethics? Manners? How to live as civilized human beings?

But at the top of my list would be wisdom.

All my life I have relied on knowledge as the most powerful tool. And I still believe that it is powerful - one reason I’m studying for my CMT exam. The reason I have regrets, however, is not that I lacked knowledge - it is that I lacked wisdom. “The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment” - one definition of wisdom. I realize that wisdom can come with age (but not necessarily), with experience (but not necessarily, as some people never learn), and with knowledge (again, not necessarily). Unfortunately, wisdom is not inherited (or I would have been all set), it is not really learned (I had remarkable teachers for other things), and it’s one of those things the Bible praises but everyone has a different idea of what it means. A lot of people think that if you agree with them, it follows that you are wise, and vice versa.

I still don’t have as much wisdom as I would like. I say things when I should keep quiet, don’t say things when I should speak up, and hurt people unintentionally. I either act before I think, or think so excessively and obsessively before I act that I am paralyzed and can’t do anything.

No, I will always have regrets, and they are ongoing. My only hope is that the scale will tip to the side of wisdom as I come nearer to completing my journey.