Friday, May 29, 2009


Watching the National Spelling Bee this week brought back memories for me. I’ve had a lot of disappointments in my life so far, as is true of everyone, but the disappointments whose bitter memories of regret still linger are those times when I have disappointed myself. I don’t really consider myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards and aspirations.

I’ve never been a great cook, but one dish in 1974 singlehandedly ruined my culinary reputation with my husband - curried apricot pork chops. I don't think it was anything I did; it was a dreadful combination of flavors to begin with. Hey, if it’s printed in a cookbook, I figured it has passed some kind of taste test. Ed occasionally “experiments” in his cooking repertoire these days, but he does this with aplomb because he can always say, “Well, that was bad, but not as bad as those curried apricot pork chops.” It’s so rewarding to know that my cooking effort has been set as the gold standard - for failure.

I’ve been disappointed in how my quilts turn out and how my solos (voice, piano, organ, harp) sounded. I’ve been disappointed in photographs I have taken. I have been disappointed that I quit college after one year (and worried that I let down my parents even more with that decision). I’ve been sorely disappointed with some grades I have received. But I can say that the personal failure that gnaws at my gut every time I think about it is the Memphis Spelling Bee of 1968.

Spelling has always been a passion of mine. I like the exactness of it. There is no room for ambiguity. A word is spelled this way, not that way. Of course, a few words can be spelled more than one way - therein lies my pitiful story.

Picture it: I was an 8th-grade geek who won the East Junior High Spelling Bee in Memphis, and as such, had moved on to the Memphis Spelling Bee, which was broadcast live on the radio. Such opportunity! Such pressure! It finally came down to three contestants, two girls and me. I can’t remember any words I spelled in that whole bee - except my nemesis word - ELEGY. Oh, yes, ELEGY. The word is burned into my brain. So is this paragraph in the local newspaper: “Carol Tiffin, an 8th-grader at East Junior High, won a $25 bond from The Press-Scimitar as second runner-up. Carol missed the word ‘elegy,’ but a judge said after the contest that the word she spelled would have been accepted if the judges had realized at the time she correctly spelled the wrong word.”

How does one “correctly spell the wrong word”? I spelled the word ELOGY, as I could have sworn I had seen that word somewhere at some time. After the bee, I went down to the judges’ huge dictionary and looked up the word ELOGY. It was there. And since the winning words were IMMUTABLE and ONYX - words I could have easily spelled - I could have been a champion. Sigh.

Just for fun, today I looked up the word ELOGY on Yep, it’s still there. A testament to my missed opportunity for fame and fortune. You might think I’m petty to continue to think about this after 41 years, and you may be right. However, it’s one of those missed opportunities I wish I could go back and change. A 14-year-old named Betty Gay Luton (described in the article as a “tall, willowy eighth-grader” - a description which rubs salt in my wound) won the Memphis Spelling Bee that year.

I wonder what those judges are doing today. I hope they are preparing to sit down to a tasty meal of curried apricot pork chops. Revenge can be sweet.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The School of Life

As I get older, I frequently contemplate the skills I would like to learn before I die. It’s not really a long list, but it is pretty specific. I’d like to learn and become fairly proficient at knitting and crocheting. I’d also like to learn how to play some other musical instruments, especially the flute, the cello and the violin. (A few years ago my wish was to learn guitar, but after several lessons, I just couldn’t “get it,” and surrendered that dream.) The rest of my goals are concentrated around the desire to just be productive and learn new techniques in skills that I already possess - my quilting, cross-stitch, harp playing. I also have a list of things that I have no interest in learning - gardening, scrapbooking, cooking, or how to install car seats. And why should I? I have my sister, my daughter-in-law, my husband, and my daughter respectively who have mastered these skills with passion and perfection. I will just bask in their glory.

But I’m thinking these days mostly about the violin. It is such a beautiful instrument, and so wonderfully portable, too. Caroline, my 6-year-old precocious granddaughter, has taken violin lessons for months now, and she has shown talent along with a keen interest (always a good combination). Therein lies the rub. Sweet little kindergartner Caroline can play the violin. I can’t.

When did that happen? I’m supposed to be the teacher here. Every time I visit, I teach her a new vocabulary word. I teach her about Lincoln, sing her special songs, teach her French and quilting. All of a sudden, here she is, gaining skill at something I know nothing about. It’s humbling - and intriguing.

Almost everything I learned about the computer and other technology has been from my son, Matt, starting when he was in junior high school. Sure, I was older and he was younger, but age didn’t matter. He was willing to teach, and I was anxious to learn. One of these days, I will be ready to learn the fundamentals of playing the violin. And at that point, the tables will be turned, and Caroline will share her knowledge with me.

Even though I never stayed in college, I’ve always considered myself a learner for life (the only difference being that now I learn what I want to learn and not what I have to learn). I think the key to lifelong learning is the openness to allow others to teach, sometimes in unconventional ways, sometimes by unconventional methods. Those who have the skill and willingness to teach are blessings to those of us who continually want to learn. The older I get, the younger some of my teachers will become - that just goes without saying. There are actually people who think there is nothing new or exciting to learn, or that they are too old to learn, or that there is no one worthy enough to teach them anything. How sad!

Part of the wonder of my job as a medical transcriptionist is that every day I learn new things. I love all the parts of learning - anticipation, learning on my own from books and web sites, having things explained to me where they make sense, the “aha” moment of understanding, and finally, the last and ever-continuing step in learning - the teaching to someone else what I have learned. And the cycle continues.

Forever student, forever teacher. Sounds like a good plan to me.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Inevitably when I babysit my 3-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, I bring out my camera and take lots of pictures. And just as inevitably, she asks if she can take some herself. I usually let her. Then when I get home and load the pictures onto my hard drive, it’s always fun to see the kind of pictures she took.

Some, of course, are not very good, but others are surprisingly well done. Recently she took a close-up picture of a pillow, which I deleted, but yesterday she took a few great pictures of Ed and Babe. At one point she took a picture of the sky - and I think there is a tiny rainbow in the resulting photograph. Mixed in with all the pictures of her surroundings are always a few self-portraits.

Now, self-portraits are hard to do when you are holding the camera, because you can only get as far away as the length of your arms as you extend the camera out to the front. In addition, you have no idea what you are taking a picture of - you point the camera generally in the direction of your face, but that part is quite tricky. I should know, because years of trying to hold out the camera to take a head shot of myself for a handful of Internet chat sites has led me to bring out the tripod and do it the right way. Nevertheless, it intrigues Charlotte to turn the camera on herself.

They say that we never really see ourselves in reality, because all we have access to is a flat image - in the mirror or in a photograph. We can’t see ourselves in time and space with three dimensions, which is the way we see our fellow human beings. And I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the less I like looking at myself in mirrors or photographs. Ouch.

The one time I do allow myself to examine what makes up “me” is in this blog. One can avoid mirrors or cameras to a degree, but eventually the introspection can’t be avoided - and that’s a good thing, I suppose. Even if this blog were never read by another single soul, in the activity of writing it, I am forced to reexamine my life, my priorities, my goals, my relationships, my life experiences, my triumphs and failures, strengths and weaknesses, in the Journey to Simplicity. Sometimes my introspection just turns out to be a picture of one eye or the top of my head, or, if I’m lucky, I am rewarded with a good clear “photograph” that makes me smile, laugh, or sometimes cry. Yeah, the crying part is important, too.

Everyone learns about him/herself in different ways, and that’s the way it should be. My internet friend from Prince Edward Island ( documents her life with almost daily blog posts, with a lovely photograph accompanying each post. What a remarkable record! I’m lucky if I manage one blog post a week. I think it’s helpful for us all to take a little time now and then to do some self-examination, whether you post it on the Internet or just write it in a journal. It’s not all deep psychological introspection - it’s also good just to stop and take stock of where you are in life, where you are going, if you’ve strayed too far off the chosen path or if it’s indeed time to choose a whole new path - and to celebrate how far you’ve come in this fascinating journey of life. To stop and give thanks, shout a big “aha!” or sigh a big “whew!” - life goes so fast and we can feel as if we don’t have enough time to respond. And keep a camera handy. Such wonderful inventions - especially in the tiny hands of a 3-year-old ball of energy!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pretend You Don't See Me -Thanks

I get tickled when I hear about people wanting to seek their “fame and fortune.” The fortune part is fine (although that brings with it a lot of problems, too) but fame? No thanks!

On the TV show TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” the fashion advisors lament the fact that they see so many young women dressing as if to fade into the woodwork, looking as if they want to just be invisible. So what’s wrong with that? Some days I just run some errands and hope I don’t see anybody I know because I look like a total mess. Of course, I wouldn’t want to live my whole life that way, but occasionally it’s just reality.

As the news junkie I am, I enjoyed watching all the reports and commentary leading up to President Obama’s election. I remember one reporter saying that he didn’t think the reality had yet set in for Mr. Obama that he can no longer remain anonymous. He can no longer blend in. He can never again run to Burger King for a quick lunch, pop into the store to buy underwear, head over to 7/11 for a Coke. Once he became world-famous, life as he knew it once was essentially over.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a celebrity. Famous people say that some parts of it are horrible. Can you imagine not being able to leave your house without photographers waiting to snap your picture? Some paparazzi even specialize in securing photographs of celebrities that reveal the stars' cellulite or wrinkles or paunches or bad hair days or faces without makeup. Every pound the celebrity loses or gains is news. In addition to invasion of privacy in the physical sense, if you’re rich enough and famous enough, and have children, you have to worry about the possibility of kidnapping. Finally, everything embarrassing thing you’ve ever done (or will do) in your life is up for grabs as tabloid fodder. Past and current acquaintances (and nasty competitors) are always willing to sell your humiliation for a price, and photographers are waiting in line to catch you in a misstep.

Of course, with your life an open book, you'd better practice what you preach. Can you imagine the publicity and embarrassment if you were Oprah, just having talked in public about your struggle to lose weight, and you were seen eating a Quarter Pounder? We've seen politicians pleading for morality being caught in affairs and televangelists preaching against fornication ending up with prostitutes. Sports heroes bemoan steroid use and then fail their own drug test. In regular life, if we slip up, we hope it's a private thing, or at least limited to our community, depending on how well known we are. On the other hand, if you're famous, all bets are off.

Some famous people didn’t start out with a desire to be famous. They just wanted to act or sing or play an instrument and be one of the best. Fame appeared as a byproduct. Others wanted to be stars from early on in their lives. Regardless of how it arrived, fame is another one of those curses/blessings that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with. If you occasionally look as bad as I look sometimes leaving the house, you ought to be thankful, too!

Friday, May 01, 2009

The 3 D's

My almost-86-year-old mother was recently diagnosed with macular degeneration. Being a medical transcriptionist, I had to immediately research the disease to learn more about it, as curiosity is one of an MT’s great assets. Here is a quote from emedicinehealth’s web site:

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of legal blindness in people older than 55 years in the United States. Age-related macular degeneration affects more than 1.75 million individuals in the United States. Owing to the rapid aging of the U.S. population, this number is expected to increase to almost 3 million by 2020. Because overall life expectancy continues to increase, age-related macular degeneration has become a major public-health concern.

That certainly made me think. As a Baby Boomer, I’ve read lots of insightful articles on whether our out-of-control healthcare system in this country can accommodate the great numbers of our age group who are going to be laden with diseases of old age. What? Did we really believe we could scientifically add years to our lives with no downside? In spite of health advances enabling most people to live to a ripe old age, unfortunately the medical knowledge has not found cures for all the diseases of a ripe old age. It’s the old gift/curse syndrome.

I, like a lot of people, I suppose, have spent a great deal of time wondering at what age I will die, but even more than that, I yearn for healthy, active, independent, and productive years leading up to that time. (OK, Rachel, I know this freaks you out, so you can quit reading now...) Everyone wants to live a long life, but more and more we are thinking about what constitutes a healthy one. We grow old, blessed with the increased years longevity gives us, cursed with the 3 D’s - disease, decline, and degeneration - that accompany those extra years. At some point, your body just can’t handle it anymore. When I was pregnant with Matthew 26 years ago, my maternal grandfather died. I don’t remember the exact age Paw-Paw was at the time, but he was old and had lived a long and productive life, and at one point, all his friends were gone, and his body just got worn out and he was just tired and ready to go. They say each of us is actually dying from the moment we are born - that natural process is put into action even while cells are growing and multiplying. Eventually the “shelf life” of our body parts is limited. We are not meant to live forever as physical beings.

Fortunately in my mom's case, her car accident, although it set her back physically, did nothing to impair her mentally, and she is as sharp as ever. Damage to the neuro and brain system (such as dementia or stroke) is probably one of the most prevalent fears of Baby Boomers. We can handle aches and pains and other signs of wear and tear, but we want to be able to recognize our family members.

Because we are discovering so much about how good food and exercise and decreased stress are all so integral to our health, it does make me regret a lot of choices I made in the past, and makes me wonder how much time I have left to implement habits that will preserve my health as I age. I remember my mom always saying, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” As with most of her maxims, I can appreciate its wisdom the older I get.