Friday, October 30, 2009

My Excuses

I’m one of these poor souls who gets into the Christmas spirit early. I usually start listening to Christmas CDs in my car around September. It’s really not my fault. There are two good reasons for this: 1) I’m a seamstress/quilter/crafter. 2) I’m a choir director’s daughter.

Everyone knows if you make some of your Christmas presents, you have to get started early. Many years have I ignored this caveat and spent late nights with little sleep trying to finish a project near the deadline. (Projects invariably take longer than I assumed they would.) So, as much as I get frustrated with seeing stores change over to Christmas merchandise the day after (or day of or days before!) Halloween, I need to get in the Christmas spirit if I am planning to make one or more of my gifts. I also need to be able to buy the holiday-related materials for my projects.

On top of that, I’m a choir director’s daughter. Choirs always have a Christmas program, and, well, you need lots of weeks to practice, so as a choir member, you’re used to singing Christmas music starting in October.

Now, we hear all about how hard it is to be a PK (Preacher’s Kid - just ask Matt and Rachel), but nobody ever talks about the wild lives of a Choir Director’s Kids. Here is a rundown of what you would have done as a CDK growing up in our family: For one thing, you're inducted into the choir early - like 12 years old. The choir needs another soprano or alto, and the choir director's daughters just fit the bill. If you play the piano, you will have to fill in for the organist when a substitute cannot be found. Church is your second home - Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and some weekends. Your parents take you to the church on some Saturdays, where you go into the tiny dark choir room and take music out of file drawers and stack it in piles on a long pew in the sanctuary. Then you take all the sung anthems (choir music) out of the folios (music holder folders) and place the new anthems in said folios, in the order in which they will be used. While you’re there, you are even asked to tidy up the place! But it’s not all work and no fun. You can always find a few minutes to stand at the pulpit and pretend you’re the preacher. You can do a lot of things when you’re the only people in the building.

Of course, Christmas at church was special for Joy and me. I mean, really - the choir was singing our names! “While by our sheep, we watched at night, glad tidings brought an angel bright. How great our Joy! (echo: Great our joy). Joy, Joy, Joy! (echo: Joy, joy, joy). Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high! (echo: Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high!)” I’m not counting, but that’s 7 Joys in each refrain. My sister en”joy”ed every moment. I got her back, though, when we got to “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play...” Of course, those are within the lyrics - but titles were actually in the bulletin, where we could see our names in print. She got “Joy to the World” in the bulletin, but I got her back with “Carol of the Bells.” (I just don’t understand that nasty rumor that Joy and I were always competing.)

The sad thing is - I work on Sundays now and haven't been in a choir in over a decade. I also don't know if I have enough time to make any of my Christmas gifts this year. Nevertheless, it's in my genes to have my eyes focused on December 25 months ahead of time.

Halloween will be over tomorrow night, then it’s all speed ahead!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dear Charities:

Dear Worthwhile Charities:

I understand your need for money. Indeed, times are tight for all of us. We all must step up to the plate and help our fellow man/woman. I give regularly to several charities, and have for many years, the primary two being Habitat for Humanity and Komen Breast Cancer Research. I understand that if I give you $10 one year, I am on your mailing list for the rest of my life. I appreciate your return-address stickers, your labels, your little cards, your calendars, and your heartfelt letters stating your cases.

I remember a letter to an advice columnist a few years ago from a lady who received such "gifts" in the mail. She said she felt guilty keeping them if she didn't send any money back, but was she supposed to just throw them away? The columnist said the items had not been solicited, and therefore were hers to keep and do whatever she wanted with them.

Knowing that I cannot possibly send money to every charity that writes me, I have to selectively choose which ones to support. For every one I support, there are at least 30 more of you that send me solicitations. It seems like such a waste - you are paying for envelopes, paper, plus your little "gifts," and I am sending you nothing. I guess it is just a risk you take. Maybe you feel that people are more likely to send money when they receive a little nicety.

But this year you have gone too far. You are sending me nickels and dimes. You state, "Just send this nickel/dime back to us with your check." Now this really upsets me because it puts me in a quandary. I don't like quandaries. I like to do the right thing. I certainly don't like guilt. Yet, here I am with these nickels and dimes. I can't afford to support your charity, so I can't send a check, yet I have your nickel or dime. I don't really see the value in paying 43 cents postage to mail back your 10 cents. I certainly can't throw it away.

I'm sure you started this gem of salesmanship because your marketing guys thought it was a great idea to pour on the guilt. I'm sure they did research that says people will feel guilty enough to write a check twice as fast if they get a nickel or dime than if they get some labels. You are deliberately putting people in a quandary. I may not be able to afford to donate to your causes, but I certainly don't want to take money from you instead!

So here is my compromise. We are keeping a jar of all the nickels and dimes from you good charities that we receive. When the Salvation Army bell ringers appear, we will take the jar and drop its contents in their kettle. That way, the money still stays in the charity realm. It just changes hands.

Now, honorable charities, I would really appreciate it if you ask your marketing guys to use their collective genius and think of another way to ask for donations, because your current method is not playing fair with our consciences. Take a cue from our Good Shepherd Food Bank here in Maine. They sent me a 3 x 5 card with an envelope. No gifts, no gadgets, no guilt. In 12 precise sentences, it states the facts of their need far greater than your 2-page letters and stickers. I am sending them a check next week.

Keep up your good work, my friends. I hope you prosper. But please - nix the coins. Thanks.


Carol Tiffin James

Saturday, October 17, 2009


We have holidays to honor mothers, fathers, grandparents, bosses, secretaries, plus the usual weeks to honor various careers. (A favorite topic on MT Chat is “What did your company do for Medical Transcription Week?”) I saw a topic on the web today that asks this question: If you could create a new holiday, what person or event would it honor and how would you want people to celebrate it?

I didn’t even have to think about it. I would create a “Tell the Boss Day.” Let me explain. I read a letter in one of the national advice columns years ago that said something like this: “If you find that someone in his/her employment capacity did an outstanding job, went above the call of duty, helped you in some special way, or represented the company in an admirable manner, complimenting that employee is a wonderful think to do. But go one better - TELL THE BOSS.”

Ed and I have done this many times. It’s the best feeling in the world to go “up the ladder” and tell a restaurant manager that our waitress did such a great job. Sometimes we do this in front of the employee; other times, we don’t know if the employee ever realized our intervention. People tend more to complain than to compliment, so when a customer makes a boss aware of an exemplary employee, I imagine that would brighten the boss’s day too. Everyone involved - the complimenter, the employee, and the boss - can benefit from a major attitude shift toward the positive. Most of the time, it involves just a little effort to pass on the commendation.

At my job, I try to go the extra mile if I can, especially as our hospital’s mission is quality, timely patient care. For instance, if a patient is admitted and a recent office note has not been yet transcribed and the dictator verbalizes how helpful it would be if she had access to that note, I will find the note and transcribe it if possible, then send an e-mail to the dictator that it was ready to view. I will most of the time get a gracious thank-you. On other occasions, I have sent e-mails to doctors asking for clarification on a misspeak in their dictation - and they write back that they are so thankful that I was paying attention enough to catch the error in question. Those are very satisfying moments for me, of course. Any MT will tell you that a compliment from a practitioner is always well received. However - if that practitioner had actually contacted my boss to relay the “job well done” message, that would have been even more exciting!

(Oh, and by the way, this works with parents, too. There is nothing in the world like having a stranger, friend, teacher, or whoever, come up to you, stating, "Your child has such nice manners!" or other such compliments.)

So since my suggestion for such a national holiday is unlikely to be granted anytime in the near future, I propose that we all take advantage of our opportunity to make every day Tell the Boss Day. Pass it on!

Monday, October 12, 2009


I’ve been listening to two new Christmas harp CDs I bought last week. The performances are incredible! I can picture in my mind those professional, talented fingers just gliding over the keys, seemingly effortlessly. They put my poor attempts at harp-playing to shame.

I used to wonder why I even try to play the harp. If I want to hear harp music, all I have to do is pop in a CD and hear professionals execute exemplary form, perfect rhythm, and flawless technique. I’m also an adequate pianist, but why spend time playing on my old digital keyboard, when I can download from iTunes the great Van Cliburn playing a Steinway?

After questioning myself, I cannot deny that the above statements are logical and practical. But beyond logic and practicality, there is something else going on here. It’s the ability to create. To lean the harp against my body and pluck one string after another and hear them vibrate their beautiful sounds - there’s nothing like it. To sit down at the piano and be able to play “Moonlight Sonata” or “As Time Goes By” as I touch the keys and give my expression to the pieces - wow! Oh, certainly, I wish I knew more of what I was doing. I wish that on piano and harp I used the correct fingering, hit all the notes I should, and could create a seamless performance. But perfection is not the goal here. It is creation.

Ed and I recently watched a show on PBS about crafts in America. The show highlighted the apprentices and masters still in this country who try to create objects of beauty, from jewelry to pottery. The section that impressed me most was the part featuring people who make violins. I never thought about where violins came from or who made them - at least the non-mass-produced kind - but the whole process looks intriguing, starting with a cutout of a violin-shaped piece of wood and taking it from there. I could see the pride in their work, their joy at creating something so beautiful. Each violin is its own unique self.

And so are my performances. Every piece I play is different - it has its own beauty and imperfections. But it’s mine - I own it - I create it from the depth of my soul. I take an inanimate, silent instrument and bring it to life. I take various fabrics and sew them into a one-of-a-kind quilt. I take flour and water and salt and a couple of other ingredients and bake a loaf of bread that didn’t exist yesterday.

God has many nuances, but one of those is the Creator. Ed always said that when we make something in this world, we are co-creators with God. We see the joy of bringing something to life with our stamp on it. It doesn’t matter who wrote the music, built the harp or piano, wove the fabric, or grew the wheat - the bringing it all together is the thing that brings me incredible satisfaction.

An old “rule” for quilters is that you leave one error in your finished quilt - to remind you that only God is perfect. In other words, give up trying to make the perfect quilt or play the perfect song. The satisfaction is from the creating, not the perfection. Those harp CDs are lovely, but actually sitting down to a harp and plucking it - that’s the real joy!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Birthday Reflections

There are two times every year when I reflect on my life, values, goals, weaknesses, desires, and priorities. One is, of course, on December 31. The other is September 27, my birthday. Hence, the following list of things I have learned in the last 12 months:

1. I don’t want to play for any more weddings. Most weddings are lovely, but the hassle of accompanying them on piano or organ is just no longer worth the trouble. I receive much more pleasure being just a guest and enjoying the festivities, rather than waiting for cues from the minister, wondering if the piano is in tune and if I have good lighting, trying to lengthen or shorten pieces according to the wedding party movements, and other distractions. I might consider singing for weddings in the future, as that is not so time-consuming, but I think I will retire my accompanist availability.

2. Speaking of singing, I have learned this year that I had no idea how important it was to me. I started singing at an early age, and my father, a choir director, roped me into singing in the choir at age 12, and I’ve been singing ever since. I’ve sung in churches, schools, nursing homes, and countless other places. I’ve sung with the choruses of two operas. I’ve sung as the mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors. I’ve sung in church dinner theaters. I’ve sung solos, duets, trios, quartets, in small choirs of 6 and larger choruses of more than 200. I’ve sung at weddings (including my sister’s) and funerals (including my father’s). I’ve sung in French and Italian. I’ve sung torch songs sitting on a piano in a sequined purple evening gown (see picture above, courtesy of the best photographer Memphis ever had, Earl Major), and I’ve sung stirring Mozart and Handel arias on Easter Sunday. I’ve always taken singing for granted...that is, until I had my thyroid surgery in August. I panicked when I tried my first note after the surgery, and even though the surgeon assured me that my voice would come back as the swelling went down and my tissues healed, I wondered what I would do if it didn’t. I can’t imagine a life without singing. As I gradually get my singing voice back, I think I will never take it for granted again.

3. I’ve learned if you have specialized shoes for playing the organ, and you don’t use them for over a decade and store them in a plastic bag which at times has sat in a storage unit between moves between houses, they will mildew and you have to throw them out.

4. I’ve learned that my electronic piano that I’ve had for 20 years sounds a lot worse than I thought it did, thanks to a week of playing my sister’s perfect, shiny baby grand piano. The comparison is simply incredible.

5. I’ve learned that instead of printing out family photos at Walgreen’s here in Maine, sticking them in an envelope and taking them to the post office to be mailed to my mother in Collierville, Tennessee, I can upload them to Walgreen’s online, pay for them, and request that they be printed out at the Walgreen’s store in Collierville, where my sister will kindly pick them up for her!

6. I’ve learned never to trust a corporation, specifically a credit-card company, because they will stick it to you no matter how good and reliable a customer you are.

7. I’ve learned that my sister Joy has more generosity, patience, and strength - and our mother has more resilience and determination - than I ever thought possible. For Joy to take our mother (and her dog) into her home after Mom’s wreck and surgery demonstrates a love that knows no bounds. Joy had to turn her dining room into a hospital room, put up with potty chairs and wheelchairs and sleepless nights and everything else to take care of Mother. For our mom to come through the trauma of an MVA at 85 years old, hip and ankle surgery, constant pain, immobility, and having to leave her own home and her independence behind - without giving up and staying in bed the rest of her life - awes me. She was determined to get out of that wheelchair and walk again, and now even does light household chores. What remarkable role models my family has in these two strong women!

8. I’ve learned that having grandchildren is fantastic, but having a granddog is kind of fun, too!

9. I’ve learned that remembering my age is much easier when I’m 55 than when I was 54. Those increments of 5 really help.

10. I’ve learned in reading a book about the beginnings of American exploration that Hernando Desoto joins many of his fellow conquerors/explorers in having carrying out horrible atrocities and now I wonder why they honored him with the Hernando Desoto bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis. We have peculiar heroes.

10. Finally, I was astonished that America in my lifetime would elect a man of color as President of the United States.

So this is what I have learned over the past 12 months. Life is certainly full of learning experiences, and I'm sure there will be many more to come!