Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year Thoughts

If you ever want to feel useless and unworthy, have I got a plan for you! All you do is take one of your hobbies or talents and compare yourself to those who have mastered those skills and can do everything better than you can. Look at how much time you waste, then compare that to folks who are organized and productive. Consider your present situation, then see how much other people get done despite having many more stresses and adversity to overcome. Check your appearance out against others your age who look younger than you, notice people with better figures than you, better cell phones, better brains, better temperaments. Don't reflect on your accomplishments; just stew over the great things others have done and focus on your own failures. Don't rejoice at how far you've come; just agonize over how far you have left to go. Be obsessed with how fast the clock is ticking and be paralyzed with the impossibility of doing everything you want to do in this short life.

I guarantee that the above will bring you unhappiness, discontent, and disillusionment. I know at one time or another, I have fallen in the trap of doing those exact things.

For instance, I read a lot of sewing-related blogs. One lady reviewed her past year of sewing and here is what she made: 24 dresses, 7 cardigans/jackets, 3 pair of pants, 3 tops, 3 skirts, 1 twinset, 1 vest, and 8 pieces of doll clothes. What clothes have I made this year? Two blouses that I had to give to Goodwill because I didn't realize I had to make a major fitting adjustment before I cut them out. Two simple skirts. One blouse correctly fitted but not put together yet, and one jumper for 7-yo Caroline that I absolutely have to finish before I see her on New Year's Day. Yes, I do work outside the home full-time, but I have no children living with me and my husband does all the cooking. I have a good sewing machine and serger, a cutting table, some lovely pieces of fabric and many patterns, and several reference books. So why am I so lousy at getting my sewing done? Compared to that blogger, my efforts are ridiculously ineffective. It makes me feel quite worthless.

Now, if I took that information about her productivity, and instead of using it to beat myself up, use it to provide creative inspiration, yes, that's where things change. There's a major difference in "If she can do that, what's wrong with me?" and "If she can do it, I can at least do more than I'm doing!" One paralyzes; the other energizes. Even better, I take the inspiration from her report, file it away in a corner of my mind, then only concentrate on myself. The word "inspire" means to breathe in, so I breathe in their accomplishments, and then the only step left is to breathe out my own accomplishments. In the end, it's all me - my plans, my joys, my life the way I want to live it - because others can provide inspiration, instruction, advice, and help - but it's ultimately my decision and commitment to create my own unique experience.

You can't compare yourself to others because every decision in life is a trade-off. Very few people are what we can Renaissance people who are geniuses at everything. If you want to be a concert pianist, you have to devote hours a day to practicing the piano - and therefore have to give up other things you might have used those hours for. Those trade-off decisions make life tough. As I've heard, you can have anything you want - just not everything you want.

I find at this time every year when I get introspective and reflective about what I have done in the last 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the next 12 months, I find it tempting to focus on everybody and everything except myself. True introspection is a nasty business, as it can lead to clarity, and clarity can be mighty upsetting. I get disappointed in myself, and I get frustrated when my specific weaknesses make themselves too apparent to ignore, and I ultimately know in my heart something needs to be done about them, and it's all up to me.

Yet, I persevere. I can see that I indeed did accomplish more than I thought this year - I made a baby quilt for Joshua, I renewed my Certified Medical Transcriptionist certification by completing the CEU requirements, I finally learned the pattern adjustments for my body type that will enable me to sew perfectly fitting clothes, I've learned how to eat for health and energy and have reached and maintained my goal weight, I've participated in my first software beta program and had a ball working with it, I've been more productive at my job, and I'm sure I have other things to my credit that I have momentarily forgotten. Once I satisfy myself that I am indeed getting things done and learning new skills, I am finally ready for the new year ahead and more goals and challenges.

One of the hardest things in life is to find that balance - of feeling good about yourself, yet realizing your past mistakes and the never-ending attempt to improve, learn, and prioritize, because the hopeful part about life is that we have indeed been given more time, even if it's only today. So, my advice to myself and my friends on the journey:
1. Don't compare yourself to others - it can be intimidating. Whether you pour all your efforts into many resolutions for self-improvement, or you just want to survive 2011 emotionally and physically intact, focus inward, not outward.
2. Prioritize. (Right now, we have a very sick baby Joshua and everything else pales in importance.)
3. As I said last week, this too shall pass.
4. Fly the Serenity Prayer as a banner above your head: Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
5. "Waste" is an evil word - whether you're wasting money, time, talent, or some other precious gift. Less waste in 2011 would be a worthy goal for all of us.

Welcome to the Great Adventure of 2011! We are travelers on the road together. I wish you safe journey.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

Our inheritance from our mom (who is still going at 87 years old) consists of many intangible things - her faith in human nature, her insistence that milk of magnesia cures all ailments, and her many aphorisms. Among the latter is "This too shall pass."

I must interject here that my immediate and extended family is coming off of a bad week: Unexpected financial difficulties, a lovely dinner not ready in time, being late for the kindergarten Christmas program, strep throat, broken glasses, excruciating tooth pain which necessitated two dentist visits and will result in an expensive out-of-pocket root canal, a Christmas present backordered, a fall down the steps, and a flat tire right before leaving to take the kids to school - just to name a few of the setbacks. This is one of those weeks that I have to keep repeating to myself and others: This too shall pass. It will get better. As my dad used to say, "Things will lighten up after Christmas."

Throughout my life, I've depended on "This too shall pass" to get me through the hard times. Today, though, just a few days before Christmas, I am reminding myself that the role of "This too shall pass" is not solely applicable to the stormy days. It's also good to remember during the happy, carefree times.

Yes, a lot of us are in financial straits. Yes, a lot of us have had bad news. Yes, things have happened that we would love to turn around and change. And we can be comforted by saying "This too shall pass." That's true.

But do you know what? Other, happier moments are fleeting as well. This is little Joshua's first Christmas. Soon it will be a memory. The years will go by quickly, and we will look at pictures of Joshua at 4 months of age and say, "It's hard to remember when he was that little!" Charlotte and Caroline will be teenagers one year, going on dates, getting their first jobs, and we will say, "How time flies! Remember when Charlotte was intrigued with her first personalized video from Santa? Remember when Caroline used to love to play in the attic?"

The key to life is remembering "This too shall pass" - the difficult times, and, yes, the wonderful, amazing times you want to last forever. That is what being in the present moment is about. The smiles and cries of a baby? That toothless grin of a first grader? The wide-eyed wonder in the face of a kid listening to Santa? Hold them closely to your heart and savor them. This too shall pass.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Goodbye soon, 2010

We are fast approaching the end of 2010, and I have just opened my new calendar for 2011. This annual task fills me both with apprehension and excitement. As I turn the empty pages, I can't help but wonder what is to come. What new experiences are waiting for me? What adventures and accomplishments will be filling these days? How much of it will I have control over, and how much of it will be beyond my ability to direct? Of course, with the good must come the bad - the sorrows, pain, and regrets. They will come as surely as winter follows fall. The whole next year of my life is a blank canvas for me and those I love.

I, of course, have my expectations. I make a resolution list like most people. I have hopes of making some clothes, finishing Matt and Sarah's quilt, learning some new sewing techniques. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family, watching Caroline and Charlotte develop and grow, and enjoying my first wonderful year with my new grandson, Joshua. I have goals at my job, too - speed, accuracy, and furthering my medical knowledge. As is always the case, I want to remember my priorities, my desire to simplify, finding meaning in life, choosing love over intolerance, hope over pessimism, and staying healthy to make the most of my time here.

That's a lot to ask from 2011. The pages are still blank, and Father Time is still silent on what is to come. I don't have a guarantee that I, or any of my loved ones, will still be here this time next year. But this I do know from my 56 years of living: I am blessed, and 2011, regardless of what it holds, will hold more love that I ever could imagine, more adventures than I ever could plan for, and more amazement at the beauty of this earth, the beauty of life itself, the gift of family and friends, and the ability to weather any disappointments. I want to go into this new year as a child at Christmas - with wonder, expecting miracles around every corner.

Thank you, God, for giving me the chance at writing another year's story in my existence. I'm looking forward to it with great anticipation!

Monday, November 29, 2010


What do you think of when you think of a life of privilege? Being wealthy? Being famous? Being born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Being high up in society? Having the best of everything?

Sometimes I don't consider my life a life of privilege, but when I think about it, it truly is. Of course, I lead a middle-class existence, but in this country, middle class can be called privileged, because, after all, I have a roof over my head, all the food I want, warmth in the winter, and a car to get me to work. Plus extras, like cable TV, a computer, a sewing machine, and many other things add niceties to my existence.

Today, however, I'm thinking of privilege in a different way. While we had our 7-year-old precocious granddaughter Caroline over this past weekend, I marveled that I have been privileged to have the opportunity to know my grandchildren, privileged to see my children get married, privileged to have lived long enough so far to watch my nieces grow up. You see, many of my high school classmates did not make it this far, even to my relatively young age of 56. Kathleen Capon White, Mark Williamson, Debbie Henrich, Debra Boone, Woody Phillips, Debbie Kaplan, James Galey...they died too young. My dear cousin Mike McDonald, a few years younger than me, died just a couple of years ago. Cancer, murder, heart disease, hepatitis, auto accidents - for whatever reason, they are not here and I am. Mark never got to see his only child reach adulthood. Kathleen, who adored babies, never saw her kids marry and never got to cuddle a newborn grandbaby in her arms. All of them were kind, smart, talented people - yet they are gone, and I am still here, enjoying life with those I love. There is no reason for this set of circumstances, and it is beyond my power to control. Yet I can't get over the fact that they are gone, and I am still here.

My wish is that I never take for granted the precious time given me on this earth. I live for those whose lives were cut short. I live for all the experiences they missed, all the grandchildren without their kisses, all the sunrises and sunsets and snows they didn't see, and all the Thanksgivings and Christmases, weddings and births and graduations that they didn't have a chance to participate in. I pray that I live my life as I know they would have lived theirs - with dignity, compassion, and joy.

There are no guarantees. Death comes unannounced and it comes for everyone. While I still breathe the air of this good earth, though, I realize I am indeed living a life of grand privilege, a life of wealth that has nothing to do with money, and a life of remembrance of friends and family who left us too soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The In-Between

Most of the time I don't enjoy being out in nature (bugs, heat, cold, wind, sunburn, etc.) but I love taking photographs of nature - especially Nature at her finest. The blue ocean bay at the height of summer with the sun glistening off the tide; the amazing fall foliage; the snowstorm that brought 2 feet of snow, with the evergreens hanging onto what snow didn't make it to the ground. I appreciate beauty, and I love to document it. At various times, I have been know to stop the car so I could take a picture of a scene that took my breath away.

I don't do that much in November, though. November is not a beautiful month. The trees, who a month ago sported their incredible fall colors, are bare and lifeless. The grass is dead with no pure white snow to cover the landscape. On top of that, it gets dark so early that I wouldn't have much time after work to take a picture anyway. November is the in-between season. Nature in-between her beauty, intermission between acts, while she's changing clothes to get ready for the next scene. Mother Earth can be extraordinary at times, but in November, you can just drop the "extra" out of that word. That leaves ordinary.

I think it takes a little extra effort to see the beauty in ordinary, but it's there if we are open to it. I look back on my photo-taking life. There are the usual photos - the Christmas pictures, the birthday pictures, the graduation pictures, the new baby pictures, the vacations, the zoo visits. I have found, though, that some of my most treasured pictures are ordinary, taken in the in-between times. On the surface, they aren't special. The ones above are examples. They were taken after I had gotten married and moved out of my parents' house, the only home I'd ever lived in. I had an extraordinary emotional push one day to capture the scenes of my everyday life, that one day I would not have my beloved parents anymore, and I wanted to remember them, not just in posed pictures on important occasions but in the in-between times, the un-special times, the non-holiday times. Here are two of the photos - Mama holding Mike the cat in her lap, as was her habit, and a picture of Daddy just coming in the door from work. These pictures derive their beauty from their sheer ordinariness. They're Mama and Daddy, as I remember them, in familiar surroundings, doing familiar things, in the familiar house in Memphis.

If I really think about it, some of my most joyous times have been the in-between times - giving or receiving an unexpected gift "for no reason," seeing a deer on our street on my way to work at dawn, laughing at my DVD "Lancelot Link Secret Chimp" when I'm feeling blue, or hanging out with my adult children and watching them interact with their own kids. Sometimes the love in my heart just explodes at the beauty of life. Yes, even in the in-between times. Maybe especially in the in-between times.

So before we know it, the snow will fall and Mother Nature will put on her usual spectacular show. In the meantime, though, it's November - and it's beautiful.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's a gamble

I like doctors; I really do. I just think they spend a lot of time guessing.

My journey to simplicity encompasses all facets of my life, and that includes my health. I enjoy keeping things simple. I've gotten my eating down to an art form, for instance. I eat the same delicious low-carb breakfast every day of the week that I go to work, and those days I enjoy the same big delicious salad for lunch. Yummy.... I've been repeating this routine since February this year, and I'm still not bored with it, and I still look forward to my breakfasts and lunches. I try to make healthy decisions and I'm at my ideal body weight.

But part of my health still lies in the thoughts and advice of the established medical community. Of course, I can clearly state I'm glad it does. With two C-sections under my belt, if the medical professionals hadn't discovered how to do those eons ago, I would be dead. Heck, I wouldn't even be here at all because I was born by C-section myself 56 years ago. And last year when my thyroid formed a growing nodule, a skilled surgeon excised it and now I'm on medicine to suppress my thyroid activity because pathology showed the nodule was the type that could have advanced to cancer. Thank God for medical science.

There are parts of medical science, though, that are just statistics, and stats are fickle. Researchers do their thing, have these studies, try to do them right, publish their findings, and regular family doctors read the interpretation and make their decisions accordingly. Of course, studies are always flawed in some way, because there is no perfect study. Maybe most of them have been done on men, and you're a woman. Maybe most have been done on folks in their 40s, and you're in your 50s. Maybe the starting assumptions were flawed. Maybe even the study was backwards - in other words, are the findings there because of some other reason and therefore correlate as a result of the problem and not the cause?

By now you are probably aware of the calcium study, which is making a lot of physicians tell their female patients to quit taking calcium supplements and only get calcium from their food. This is quite surprising, of course, since for years the same docs have been telling us to take calcium supplements for our bones. It turns out it is not getting in our bones; it is getting in our hearts instead, and the calcium from food doesn't have the same heart risk result. So I've quit taking calcium pills.

I don't fault the medical community for that turnaround. New studies, new data, and WHAM - new advice. I like progress. I'm glad we aren't subject of "blood letting" for every disease under the sun. I'm glad they grew out of that, I'm happy that they acquired more knowledge.

But in the end, it's just a guess, isn't it? "Right now, today, November 13, 2010, at 6:30 a.m., we think ________ is the right thing to do. Tomorrow it may be different." This is the message from the medical community. It's not their fault; it is just the way life is.

Everything in life is a gamble. Forget the casino, the lottery, and the stock market - those are just gambling's poster boys. Every decision we make, we weigh the options and decide whether to take the risk. Should I marry this person? Should I sell this house and buy another one? Should I have kids? Should I take this job? If I invest money in buying this dress pattern, fabric, and notions, will I have the skill to make it? Should I follow my doctor's advice or listen to my gut instinct? Place your bets, folks!

I once read a definition of insurance - life insurance, house insurance, car insurance, medical insurance - you name it. Paraphrased, it said insurance is something you hope you never have to use. By buying it, you are betting you'll need it. The insurance company is betting you won't. You hope they win and are paying them to think that way!

This is why all the studies in the world can't explain why a smoking, drinking man lives to be 100, while another man who follows the medical straight and narrow dies in his 60s. The stats just don't add up. Then you have to crunch more numbers, decide on how much genetics is worth, how important attitude and psychology are to longevity, accidents, and just fate. We can't explain everything, and neither can doctors and researchers. It's all a best guess and that can change on a moment's notice.

The gist of all this is that I've been asked to go on two statins because my LDL is too high, although advanced lipid testing shows that the LDLs are type A and are the good, fluffy, benign particles, and my triglycerides are low, low, low, HDL is high, high, high, all of which is great, great, great. The doc is looking at the studies mainly done on men about what causes heart disease and the current thinking on what all those numbers mean and the current advice on what to do about it. He has years of experience, many studies with acronym names, and he has crunched a multitude of numbers. In the end, though, he admits reluctantly that it is still a best guess. Worse, it's unprovable in the end. If I do take statins and live a long, healthy life, is there any proof that without the statins I would have died early? No. You can't prove it one way or the other. I would just be another uninterpretable statistic.

My lipid specialist doctor is intelligent and trying to do the right thing. I, however, am ultimately responsible for my own body and health decisions. I am choosing at this time, I think, to wait on any kind of medication. It's a gamble to think I don't really need it and that the side effects would be worse than the benefit, but it's just another example of the gambling we each do on a regular basis. It's just a little scarier.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Questions to Ponder

I don't have anything deep or insightful to blog about this week, but I do want to throw out some puzzling questions that I have never been able to quite figure out.

1. If the normal body temperature is 98.6, how come when it's 98 degrees outside it feels extraordinarily hot? Wouldn't it be neutral if the outside temperature matched the inside temperature?

2. How come a "career politician," i.e., a politician with years of experience, is automatically considered undesirable, yet when we need a surgeon, we demand one with years of experience, the more the better? Why is knowledge of how things work and experience derided in the first instance and acclaimed in the second?

3. How is it that in school you can get more than half a test correct, i.e., 69%, and fail, yet you can be elected governor with only 38% of the vote?

4. The final question that Ed and I have been pondering, in honor of Daylight Saving Time "Fall Back" this Sunday: With DST, you lose an hour in the spring, and gain it back in the fall. If you die sometime between spring and fall, you would lose that hour forever, never having lived to recoup it. Is there someone your heirs can sue for that on your behalf?

Ah, logic!

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Ed and I had a most enjoyable day with Caroline. We took her to her violin lesson, and in turn she accompanied us on our many errands in Bangor, since when we have to travel and hour and a half to get somewhere, we only make it every 2 weeks or so and tend to cram as much on our "to do" list there as we possibly can. After a pleasant lunch, the violin lesson, some boring (for her) shopping, we ended up at my favorite store, Jo-Ann Fabrics. I knew she would enjoy the store because it has a large craft section which included scrapbooking necessities, markers, art supplies, etc., and she loves that sort of thing. I told her to pick out a few inexpensive items and I would buy them for her.

She's always drawn to the paper. In rows of shelving, they have single squares of all kinds of scrapbooking paper - shiny, glitter paper of metallic colors - smooth, satiny papers in rich jewel tones - whimsical printed paper using all colors of the spectrum. Her first choice was satiny silver paper. When she showed it to me, I could immediately see the defect in it - a place where the coating had scratched off. I said, "Honey, pick another one. This has a defect." Caroline, who will always ask what a word means if she doesn't know it, looked up at me and said, "What's a defect?" My quick answer was, "It's something that's messed up, not right, and keeps something from being perfect." She chose another one without a blemish and we checked out.

Caroline was content, but I was not. I realized I had been uncomfortable teaching her that word. One reason was that defect is a very powerful word. It comes with a lot of baggage, and if you invite it in, it can end up staying with you your whole life and generally making a mess of things. Secondly, I don't like to teach Caroline new words of which I personally cannot explain the meaning adequately. What exactly is a defect? Why do we always want things (situations, appearances, things we create, relationships, public servants) to be perfect without flaw? And when we find one, is it a real flaw or just a defect in our eyes?

As my dad was a philatelist, I always love stamp stories in the news, and my favorite stories are the ones where the stamp with the defect ends up being worth lots of money. From this week's news:

A rare sheet of 10 stamps depicting Audrey Hepburn fetched euro430,000 ($606,000) at a charity auction in Berlin on Saturday, two-thirds of which will go to help educate children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The mint-condition sheet of 10 stamps featuring Hepburn, a coy smile on her face and a long, black cigarette holder dangling from her lips, brought a profitable outcome to a botched stamp series that should have been destroyed years ago — and evokes Hepburn's starring role in the 1963 thriller "Charade," in which the characters chase a set of rare stamps.

Some stamps have defects because a plane was printed upside down or some other such printing error. In this case, as her son said, "In the original photo, she's got sunglasses hanging from her mouth, but they had flipped the negative and replaced the glasses with the cigarette holder." In any case, there was an objection and the stamps were supposed to be destroyed with one sheet saved for the archives and another for a museum.

Nevertheless, some got away and were circulated. Now those few stamps are worth much, much more, because there's "something wrong, something unusual, something messed up, something rare."

My wish for society is that we take the lesson of the flawed stamps and apply it to our lives. I'm talking especially to perfectionists like me, whose eye focuses more on the flaw in the quilt (or my body or my husband or my job) than on what's right with it. In the end, the flaw might be what makes it priceless - but at least it makes it of this world, not perfect without blemish, but human. And human is not an insult, as in "I'm only human!" It is a compliment. It is what we are meant to be. It is a child of God. It is possibility. It is perfect in the sense that it is "whole." And our very existence is worth much, much more than we seem to think.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Case for the Human

Don't expect anything original from an echo. ~Author Unknown

Anyone who can be replaced by a machine deserves to be. ~Dennis Gunton

It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

"Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow" so they [the Shakers] used to say. Work was an intrinsic part of their spiritual lives, thus its integrity was part of its appeal.

What is it like to think your job could be replaced by a machine? That scenario has become a reality to millions of people through the ages, starting as soon as the first machine was invented. After all, think of the many chores that have been eased for us as a society for which we used to have to labor with great difficulty. I can tell you with deep sincerity that I'm thankful I don't have to sew a dress completely by hand, that I don't have to wash dishes by hand or wash clothes by hand. But even in machines there are human brains behind them.

Let's take a washing machine, for instance. In the first place, a human had to imagine the existence of such a machine when there were none to see, and then the inventor would have to try over and over, with succession and failure, creating various prototypes and learning from them what works and what doesn't. Human brains even had to build the machines in the factories which helped produce the washing machines in great quantities. After all this human work, the washing machine lands in my house. I still have work to do. Sure, I only have to push a few buttons, but decisions are made by my human brain every step of the way. What items are going in? How are they separated? Considering the fabric, what cycles should be used? Hot or cold? Long or short? Heavy or delicate? What kind of detergent? Are there stains that need special attention? Should I take an item out to line dry or put it in the dryer? So far, at least, a washing machine has not reached my house that, when I dump a basket of dirty clothes on the floor in front it it, the machine sorts the items, makes all these decisions, opens its own door, sucks the laundry in, and cleans everything according to directions. My brain is still involved.

....As it is with medical transcription. It tickles me when non-MTs, upon questioning what I do all day, say, "What's the big deal? You just type what you hear." Oh my, if that were the case, there would be some very strange and incomprehensible medical records! Frequently the dictator will misspeak, and just as frequently my ears will hear something erroneously that the dictator did not say. The focus one must have for this job is incredible. The MT is driving along, sometimes down a familiar road, sometimes a totally new and unfamiliar one, and every second the MT is looking ahead to envision what is around the corner, at the same time looking in the rearview mirror to make sure everything was OK on that end, simultaneously trying to block out visual and auditory distractions as well as brain waves that would rather think about her personal grocery list or what to get her nephew for his birthday. And believe me, for most MTs, this car is speeding crazily down the interstate, not ambling down some lazy country back road.

If a machine can truly duplicate my job in a perfect way, then I'm not doing something right, because my human brain is my greatest asset in this job. As long as I never fall under the rule of "verbatim," a ridiculous (in my opinion) instruction to send the brain on vacation and type exactly and only what you hear, no matter how wrong you realize it to be, I am happy in this job. (Fortunately, I've always been allowed to use my gifts and my brain is always an active participant.)

I've heard that the Shakers had a philosophy of doing their work with integrity and to the glory of God. No matter if they were washing a plate, making a chair, or cooking a meal - they knew the integrity of what they were doing, and the importance of what they were doing, no matter how simple or how mundane it appeared to be. They used the same heart and soul and intent when they weeded the garden as they did when they designed a beautiful cabinet. The brain was engaged, the heart was engaged, their whole beings were engaged. What a beautiful attitude!

Changing the Thoreau quote above for my career, "It's not what you hear that matters; it's what you interpret." It's logic, it's experience, it's ear training, it's brain training. The letters, words, and sentences flow out of my fingers through my brain, through all my life experiences, every book I've read (even non-medical ones), every person's voice I've heard in my lifetime, nuances of speech, my education in French - and it all adds up to much more than a machine throwing back echoes. Through my complex brain storing my life experiences and learning, through my dependable quick fingers which follow the flow, through my heart which aches for the dying, celebrates with the newly born, and follows the courses of patients with their personal challenges and fears, through my very being, my job unfolds. I would like to think, yes, I do think, that that cannot be totally and in true essence replaced by a machine. I only hope the medical world realizes that and makes its decisions accordingly.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Pinned down about sewing

I only know one person who sews clothes - and she lives across the country in California. My sister owns a sewing machine, but the only thing she sews anymore are curtain-type things or cushion covers. Nobody I work with sews. Every time I used to shop at a fabric store in Bangor, I wondered how they could stay afloat. People just don't sew anymore, I thought. One of these days all the fabric stores will close after the sewers like me die, and sewing clothes will become a quaint craft found only in history books.

I really felt in the minority until I discovered a web site where sewers review patterns and teach techniques and share photos of their current projects. From there, I linked into sewing blogs and other sites and all of a sudden I felt less an anachronism and more a person on the cutting edge (no pun intended). I think that's one great thing about the Internet - it has connected people who think erroneously that they are isolated in their interests or hobbies.

Of course, we all can find fellowship for our specific passions on the Internet. Apparently there are groups for people who can't get sexually aroused unless the blowing and popping of a latex balloon is involved. If I felt disconnected, just think how they feel. What are the odds of finding someone with the same emotional requirement in your own neighborhood?

But I digress, of course. When I discovered the sewing community online, I finally regained hope for home seamstresses (and the future of my local fabric store). There were actually young people who were excited by the idea of creating their own clothes, possibly energized by TV shows such as Project Runway.

I don't think they teach sewing in the schools anymore, at least not that I know of. When I was in school, every girl took at least one year of what was called Home Economics, which supposedly encompassed sewing, cooking, and learning things like what to look for in a really good piece of furniture. I enjoyed the sewing, learned nothing about cooking, and the only thing I remember about buying furniture is to look for dovetail joints. When I started Home Ec, I had already learned some basics of sewing from my mother, but not much. It took my teacher, Mrs. Ray, a tall, lanky woman who made all her own clothes, to lead me into the world of sewing. (Sorry, Mrs. Ray, I never became a good cook, but luckily, I compensated by marrying one.)

Back then, patterns were 25 or 50 cents (now they can be priced as much as $16 and more), fabric was cheap, and the clothing style in fashion was minimal, so sewing was the obvious way to go. When I got my first job, my supervisor was sewing all her own clothes, and she was such an inspiration to me. Decades later, when I asked her why she quit sewing, she said she had only sewn to save money, not for the pleasure of it, and when she could start buying clothes cheaper at Walmart than she could make them, she put away her sewing machine. That made me question my motives for sewing.

They are, I have decided, manifold. Certainly, part of it is saving money. Clothes can be outrageously priced these days, and it doesn't take much money to sew a short lined plaid wool skirt as compared to buying one for $80 (LL Bean's current catalog).

But it's more than that. It is fit. Very little read-to-wear fits me. I have a weird body, and I know I'm not alone. For one thing, I'm short, so have to have a petite sizing, and that's not always an available option in ready-to-wear. I'm studying hard these days, with the help of my online communities and some books, to master the art of adjusting patterns to fit me. It's an ongoing process.

But it's more than that. It is control. I don't have to go to Eddie Bauer's catalog and be restricted to 3 colors for a skirt I admire. I have the whole JoAnn fabric store (and online retailers as well) to choose from. I choose the pattern, I choose the fabric color and feel, and I choose everything from buttons to whether it has a shallow or deep hem. It's one of the few things I can control in this world!

And finally, it's even more than that. It is creativity. It is the pleasure of making something with my own hands, something unique, something useful yet lovely. This is the reason that outweighs the others, the reason there seems to be a growing community of (mainly) women who feel the need to express themselves in a new way. We may not be in the majority, but we are a dedicated bunch.

So today I am thankful for my friend, Sally, who inspired me to get back into sewing clothes after years of only making quilts (I'm still quilting, too - have two in the works). I'm thankful for the ordinary working women, housewives, mothers, and grandmothers who blog about sewing, who provide pictures of their creations for inspiration, who share their frustrations and, yes, their failures, and who take time to answer questions and teach new techniques. I may spend the rest of my life without someone locally who can sew with me, but a whole other world is as close as my computer, and I am still eager to learn. I like to think Mrs. Ray would be proud.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Reuben Philosophy

I enjoy most foods, although I draw limits at things like escargot, eel, oysters, squid, and octopus. Then there are things that I could eat if I had to, but I just don't like. For instance, I detest rye bread, swiss cheese, and corned beef, and sauerkraut isn't my favorite either. A few years ago, however, I tasted a Reuben sandwich for the first time, and I immediately fell in love with it. Now tell me, how can I hate these four main Reuben ingredients individually, yet when you put them all together, my taste buds rejoice?! It just doesn't make sense, but I swear, it's true. Who knows why? Is it the addition of the thousand island dressing? Is it the grilled bread? Is it the chemical reaction of the various components? Who knows?

As I ate my half a Reuben sandwich last week in our hospital cafeteria, I again questioned how it could be possible that I can't stand the ingredients on their own, but could find so much pleasure in their combination. In reflecting, I started wondering if my Reuben paradox could be applied to life.

Would it be possible to take days where so much goes wrong and end up with a day that is saved in some way? Is it possible to endure the miserable things of life and come out with something to make you smile? To take experiences that, individually make you shudder and nevertheless combine them into days, weeks, months, and years that bring contentment?

My daughter believes that everything happens for a reason. I don't personally believe that, as my life experience runs more in the line of "crap happens for no reason," but I can compromise with her in this way: Regardless of why the crap happens, something good can always come out of it - whether it's a lesson learned, a new direction or calling in life, a new empathy for others who are suffering, a determination to improve, or even an opportunity for humility to take effect. It starts with the attitude that, although I might wish to change the circumstance, I will use it to my benefit in some way, and by gum, I'm not going to be beaten down and I refuse to surrender my power in the situation. I'm not willing just to tolerate the crap; it's actually going to make my life better!

Dealing with crap is one of the very definitions of life as a human. One thing is bad enough, but two, three, four things you hate descend upon you? Don't automatically give up. Start with a good attitude, embrace what you can't change, add some more ideas, try something new, and what you end up with might surprise you!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The 4th movement

Something remarkable happened to me this week. As I was driving to work (before sunrise), I was taken aback by the beauty of the bright gold harvest moon in the sky straight in front of me. A few seconds later, I turned on the radio to our local classical music station, and within a few notes I recognized the piece being played - the lovely Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. That song holds precious memories for me, for its first movement was one of my favorite piano recital pieces as a teenager. Listening to the Moonlight Sonata while watching the gorgeous moon just seemed serendipitous.

For those of you who are non-musicians, the Moonlight Sonata is a piece played solely on the piano and consists of 3 movements, or parts. The first movement has always been relaxing to me, even though, in its minor key, some folks find it a bit sad. It has a wonderfully soothing rhythm that is steady, varies little in volume or style - almost like a lullaby. As I kept driving, watching the moon, and listening to the first movement, the moon was stable in the sky and stayed in front of me, bright and clear.

Then the second movement started, and immediately the moon became playful with me, following the cues of the music. It appeared on the left, then it appeared on the right, then just around the bend, it was on the left again. The music of the second part of Moonlight Sonata picks up the tempo, frolicking a bit and bringing in some changes. You're aware you've turned a page, something is different, and the quiet lullaby is over.

Then came the third movement. I remember that I tried valiantly several times to learn to play that third movement, but it was just too difficult. It starts at 90 miles an hour and never lets up, fingers flying everywhere on the keys, and oh, my, is it loud! Banging, clanging, pulsating, and just when you think it's over, it starts up again, going every which way. It makes your heart race just to listen to it. By this time in my commute, I had turned a different direction on a rural road thick with trees, and most of the time I lost sight of the moon totally.

Then all of a sudden, with a few loud chords, it was over. Silence. Beethoven chose not to balance his sonata with a nice quiet fourth movement after the noisy third movement. The frantic race is over, and there is no cool-down time.

Then it hit me: I'm living the Moonlight Sonata. My life started out as a lullaby, a familiar, secure feeling of love and acceptance, my wonderful childhood. The second movement started when I became an adolescent/teenager. Life became a little more complicated, still fun, but insecurities and changes made their debut, and the ubiquitous teenage worries about appearance, grades, and other self-esteem issues made that time a bit more stressful. The third movement, my adult years, came in with a bang, as I got married at 19 to an active alcoholic, started working, had two children, and tried to pay bills. Even when Ed got sober, things didn't magically calm down, as he entered the ministry and it was another round of stress and changes which threw me for a loop. For the whole third movement of my life, I never was sure if I was banging on the low keys or slapping the high keys - life was everywhere at once, providing me with incredibly uplifting moments and other times hitting me in the face with anxiety and worry. Even after we moved to Maine, as the saying goes, "good" stress can be just as hard on you as "bad" stress. Both kids got married, grandchildren started coming, and we had a very difficult time selling our house, financially and emotionally. The third movement was the roller coaster of movements!

Then it occurred to me that I am now in the fourth movement of my life. My sonata didn't end with those loud chords when we finally downsized and moved to our little house in the country. It just started a new part, a quieter, more peaceful part, and I am composing it every day by the choices I make. I am realizing that the more I choose to honor my priorities and fill my hours with meaning, the more harmonious the music becomes. If I react to situations with anger and frustration, the more dissonant the music becomes.

I've heard people talk about the idea that we write our own stories, the books of our lives. I think I prefer to say I'm writing my own sonata. It's got a lot of sad music, happy music, and everything in between. I'm in the fourth movement, and I'm not finished yet!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Just a few seconds

Every night I call my mom in Memphis and have a little chat. Our talk always includes a short summary of our police report. She enjoys this because usually, with our lower crime rate, our police reports are filled with various and sundry items of curiosities instead of murders. People in Maine will call the police for the most unusual reasons. For instance, there was a man a few years ago who called the police to report he was seeing holographic pictures of his nude wife on the side of his garage. (You have to wonder what he was smoking.) Recently there was a couple having sex on the dock, and in the same report, some condoms had been shoplifted. Wonder if there was a connection there. There are also reports of cows, chickens, pigs loose, and the town of Bucksport always has a "suspicious" person or two every week.

Today, however, the newspaper was full of depressing, not funny, news. There were 3 car accidents involving fatalities, one even wiping out a family (dad, mother, 4-year-old daughter). Sometimes the results of excessive speed, sometimes with DUI, but ultimately most of the accidents we read about (including the tragic one this week of the family above) happen because a driver crossed the centerline. All it takes is a few seconds, and your whole life is changed (or even eliminated). It might not even be the person who makes the mistake who is killed; many times innocent people are victims.

I have been grieving for that family (the mother worked at our hospital, although I did not know her). A few seconds of distraction, whether it's texting or turning the head to look at something or trying to kill a wasp in the car or answering the cell phone or changing the radio station or being blinded by the sun - and lives are gone, just like that, in an instant.

I immediately talked to my adult kids and reminded them to stay away from that centerline and to watch oncoming traffic that appears close to the centerline.

But it doesn't have to a life and death situation for a few seconds to alter your life. It only takes a few seconds to say something hurtful that immediately you wish you never said, or to press "send" on that insulting e-mail before you have a chance to think it over, or even to put up that "funny" photo of yourself on Facebook that your future employer will see. Some decisions in life just don't get the rewind opportunity. You may have the ability to handle troubles, financial and otherwise, and you may be able to handle hurt and disappointment and fear, but regret burns itself into your soul and haunts you forever.

It only takes a few seconds.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Fair (and Wayne)

This time of year always makes me nostalgic for the Mid-South Fair. I lived all my childhood in Memphis, just blocks from the fair site, and going to the fair in September was one of the highlights of the year for my sister Joy and me. School would usually give us a holiday for the fair with reduced or free tickets, and we could hardly wait to start the walk to the fairgrounds.

Of course, in Memphis, even towards the end of September, it was usually very hot, but that didn't matter to us. As we got nearer the site, we could hear the sounds of the fair - and the smells. The first chore was walking past the farm animals, who were stationed in an arena with a roof but no walls and you had to pass them to get to the good stuff. You'd think, growing up city girls, we would have been fascinated with the animals, but that was not the case. The stink of mature and straw was just a minor inconvenience that we had to endure before we could get to the main attraction - the rides, of course!

Our funds were limited and our fear was infinite, so we stuck to our preferred time-tested relatively low-key favorite rides - ones that were cheap and not too scary - in other words, rides that stayed pretty close to the ground, like the bumper cars and scrambler. Dad took many home movies that showed how much fun we were having laughing and screaming. As a child, I was always fascinated by the Fun House, but that was more expensive to ride, scary in its own way, and it wasn't until I was an adult that I finally was brave enough to try it.

You can't have a fair without the food, though, and I was a sugar addict, so I bypassed the gyros and corn dogs and headed straight for the cotton candy. Our dad absolutely hated to pay for spun sugar. He knew it was bad for the teeth and considered it a total waste of money. But every year at the fair, he relented. Add to that an occasional snow cone, ice cream cone, and Coke, and I was in sugar heaven.

Forget those mysterious trailers with loudspeakers urging us to "see the Gorilla Man" or "feast your eyes upon the Half Human/Half Alligator Boy." We never got to partake of those opportunities. I did enjoy, though, seeing all the pictures of what was inside. Likewise, we didn't have the money to participate in the "win a stuffed animal" booths and other "games of skill," but it was fun walking by and seeing all the various ways you could empty your wallet quickly.

After we were exhausted from rides, or just wanted a break in some air conditioning, we would walk through the crafts building. This I could only appreciate when I was older, in high school. I was a seamstress by then, and I was really interested in the clothes and items that were sewn for all the fair contests. They all made me feel good - the ones with exquisite workmanship gave me inspiration, and the ones with shoddier workmanship made me feel better about my own skills in comparison.

The Mid-South Fair always had a star attraction giving concerts in the Coliseum. As these tickets were extra, of course, from fair admission, our family budget rarely allowed us to add this to the itinerary, but one memorable year, Joy and I got to see the Cowsills! Another year, though, was a real dud. The fair always fell around my birthday, and that year, for some reason, part of my birthday present was our parents giving us both tickets to the star of that year's fair - none other than Mr. Wayne Newton. Now Wayne back then was not the megastar he is today. He was not popular, not cool, and we didn't even like his music. There we were, two teenage girls, sitting in the audience watching Wayne's performance, wishing we were anywhere else. The audience was small, so Wayne didn't exactly have the biggest fan base at the time. To this day, I hope we kept our disappointment hidden from our parents, because it was a very sweet thing for them to do. Now I laugh when I read a ticket to go see Wayne Newton starts at $80 because he is in such demand.

As I grew up and became an adult, the rides no longer interested me. I still enjoyed the food and the fun of just walking around, but my child-like excitement had been replaced with being able to take our own small children to the fair, with the joy of watching them react to the sounds, smells, tastes, and atmosphere of one of my fondest childhood memories.

The children are grown with kids of their own now. I don't go to the fair anymore; Ed and I don't like to get in big crowds these days. But a whiff of cotton candy, a shot of a ferris wheel in a Monk TV episode, an odor of a hay-eating cow, or a picture of Wayne Newton as "The King of Las Vegas," and I am right back there in Memphis, Tennessee, enjoying the glorious, exhilarating, irreplaceable Mid-South Fair.

Friday, September 03, 2010


As I mentioned in July, we recently downsized and traded two cars for one (a Subaru). After about a week of driving the new car, I realized a major difference in it and my old Toyota: On the Toyota, the number right up top center on the speedometer was 60, and in the Subaru, the number in that same position in 80. As I drive mostly highway miles on my commute, I have always been used to seeing the arrow point straight up to 60; now if I go only by the arrow, I would be speeding at 80. I can't just look at the arrow for guidance anymore; I will have to watch the numbers until I get used to the new setup.

I have to continually remind myself the same lesson as I age. For many years, I have gotten relatively comfortable in my own skin. I have understood my limits and my capabilities. I knew how much weight I could lift, how flexible I could be, how fast and far I could walk. After a few years have gone by, though, as I've aged, the speedometer has changed. I'm so used to seeing the arrow at one point, and forget that a few more years on the calendar means trading in for a new, different speedometer, and the same rules no longer apply.

I think that's one of the hardest parts of aging. You get used to your body behaving and responding in a certain way, then one day it fails you. A joint will crunch painfully or your digestive system won't cooperate or your eyes aren't as sharp; even your hair won't behave like it used to. Yet, somehow we assume things will never change, and then when they inevitably do, we prefer to avoid reality and pretend everything is the same. After all, that arrow has been pointing straight up for a long time now; if it's still straight up, everything must be normal and familiar - in other words, nothing has changed. We may even panic. It can't have changed! How can we act/look so old when we still feel so young at heart? I've heard ER tales of baby boomers who were sedentary all week and then on the weekend, participated in a few too many basketball games or tennis matches, because, after all, that's what they used to be able to do, right? Well, their muscles or bones or heart or some other body part didn't think so. It can be disheartening when you realize your body and stamina have deteriorated. My husband Ed said he was totally deflated a few months ago when he caught a glimpse of his 63-year-old thin lower limbs in the mirror and thought, "Oh no! When did I get my Daddy's legs?!"

Alas, with aging, we know that change is inevitable. Just ask the billions of dollars we consumers spend on products which promise to turn back time. Experts tell us to embrace the change. I don't go that far; I think, however, realizing that change has occurred is paramount. You can't be driving 80 mph when you can only handle 60, and you need to be aware that the speedometer you have been used to seeing has shifted its landmarks. You can't assume things based on the past. Every day is a new day with new challenges, every birthday has more to teach us, and every year our bodies remind us that things, they are a'changin'.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dad time

Mom and Dad at home

Had he lived, my father would have been 95 years old next week. As I’ve mentioned before, he died when I was 25 and my sister was 23. Of course, I think about him a lot, but especially around his birthday, and I am filled with regret that I didn’t get a chance to learn about him more. You just take for granted that your loved ones will be around for a long time; after all, my great aunt Bessie and my maternal grandfather outlived my dad. But Dad, being the most interesting person that he was, left before I could pick his brain. When he died, my sister Joy and I were just coming into full adulthood ourselves, and though Joy did enjoy some time working with Dad on some genealogy research, we never did get to spend the quality adult time that kids crave with their parents, when parent and child can join as equals.

For those of you who still have loved ones or close family friends who are getting on in years, now is the time to “pick their brains.” Some people do this in a documentation form, either videotaping/audio taping an interview, or having the older person write down some of their thoughts. Some, of course, just sit down and talk.

If you’re lucky, the elderly person will want to talk. Some, like my mom, become kind of uncomfortable discussing much beyond relating what she had for dinner, what her weather is like, and so on. Occasionally, she will come up with a childhood story, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

Here is a conversation I’d have with my dad today: Tell me some stories of when you were growing up. What kind of games did you play? What kind of books did you read? What was an average day like for you? How did you handle being an only child? What were your favorite and least favorite parts of school? What kind of courses did you take? Do you feel you made the right career choice? What are the most favorite and least favorite parts of your job? If you had been able to go to college, what would have been your concentration of study? How did you feel when you first became a parent unexpectedly after 12 years of marriage? You had 2 girls; did you ever wish for a boy too? What were your greatest fears and worries? What would you do over if you could? What is some wisdom you could share about marriage? How did you come into your faith? Are there parts of your belief system you question, or have curiosity about? What was daily life like during World War II? The Great Depression? How were you treated in the army when others learned you were a pacifist? What did you never learn or do that you wished you had? What is your greatest disappointment? Tell me more details and stories from the traveling you and Mom did before you had kids. What were the difficulties in having your elderly, sick mother living in our house when Joy and I were growing up? What are your ideas about death and heaven? What important ideas and values do you want to make sure to pass on to future generations? How does one best handle the aging process? Why do you consider yourself to have always been a “maverick?”

Through Joy’s ongoing genealogical research, we are still putting together bits and pieces of Dad’s life, but the deep, important things that made him the remarkable man he was are hard to ever discover now that he is gone. I believe it was Tennyson who wrote “Too late, too late, ye may not enter now.”

I certainly don’t want to end on a depressing note. I did have many wonderful, enlightening conversations with my dad, and he made us well aware of his ethical code, his basic understanding of what his role in life was, his call to serve God, his priorities, his social conscience, his willingness to speak up when others wouldn’t. What I wouldn’t give, though, for one last long, poignant conversation.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


H! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

'Tis the wink of an eye, 'tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud,--
Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

The above verses are the first and last stanzas of Abraham Lincoln's favorite poem (by William Knox). Abe has always been my hero, so in high school when I learned that this was his favorite, I made haste to get a copy and read it. Well, believe me, if you want to enjoy an uplifting poem, this is not it. A more moribund, ghastly, depressing group of words you would be hard pressed to find. If you're curious about the rest of poem, go here and read it - just don't make it a day you're already feeling low and stay away from any knives. Lincoln was known for being "melancholic," and if this is an indication of how he felt on a daily basis, poor man.

Despite all these statements, the poem is a true one. You know what they say - Death and Taxes. Death, the great equalizer, always coming for us and those we love.

I had an interesting dream the other night. In the dream, I was driving at night, and the only thing lit up on the dashboard was the little red arrow that points to the miles per hour. The numbers themselves were invisible, and I could see only the arrow. I remember in the dream feeling as if I were driving fast, but I couldn't tell exactly how fast. I studied the speedometer in panic, trying in vain to picture where those invisible numbers were in relation to the arrow. Was I going 40? 60? 80? 100 mph? Couldn't tell. With my foot firmly on the gas pedal, I was speeding to some unknown destination at some unknown speed in total darkness, save for that one brightly lit arrow - which was, after all, pretty useless without the other indicators.

I'm dependably a morbid person. I've blogged about death before, read books on death, talked about death, and I guess as I go through this second part of my life, I will continue to haunt me (forgive the pun). I realized last week that next month, I will be 56 years old, now closer to 60 than to 50. Wow!

As in my dream, I do feel as if I'm speeding through life, or at least my life is speeding. Even though my average day is relatively routine, I get time to relax, do some crafts, social networking online, etc., there is an underlying current of time rushing by, and that urgency never quite leaves me. How fast am I really going? How much time do I really have left?

I heard another poem on The Writer's Almanac radio show Sunday, oddly about the same subject. It is "Last Meal" by Bill Holm. "On death row you celebrate your last night with your last dinner..." The poet goes on to ask if you were in prison, what would be your last meal request? Then, the gut-wrenching question, "And how do you know, my friend, that you are not
eating your last meal at this very table now?" That's the kicker - we don't.

So many plans, so many interests and hobbies and so many things I want to accomplish - with virtually no guarantees except this very minute. It's a sobering thought. My first reaction is, as in my dream, all-out panic, pushing harder on that gas pedal, stay busier, overstuff my schedule to the max. My second reaction, though, is maybe, just maybe, if I can't tell how fast I'm going, I should just release my foot - ever so slightly at a time - off that gas pedal and slow down a bit.

It's true that time rushes on, days and nights seem to come closer and closer, we get older, and we still feel far from accomplishing all we set out to do in life. The only guarantee I can muster is that I promise you there will never be a time I can sit back and say, "OK, I'm ready to go, I've spent enough time with my family, I've made enough quilts, I've seen enough beauty, taken enough photographs, sewn all my fabric, and I've made enough music to satisfy me." Ain't gonna happen, no matter how fast I'm driving or how much anxiety and panic controls the speed. There will always be things left undone, better ways I could have spent my time, and mountains of regret staring me in the face. Reality can be hard to accept. I think it helps, though, to - every once in a while - ease up a little bit on that accelerator - and hope for an occasional dash of moonlight to help you get your bearings.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Smarter than you think

Since January of this year, I have been privileged to be a part of a beta test group for Instant Text, the expander software we medical transcriptionists use at our hospital. (For you non-MTs, expander software is our major tool in transcription to increase production, accuracy, and lessen the wear and tear on our hands, wrists, and fingers). The Instant Text folks were working on their new version 7, and asked for beta volunteers. I had never beta tested anything before, and I loved using their software anyway, so I jumped at the chance.

What an experience! I had to check for bugs, typos, and incompatibility with our other software platforms, but I also got to offer suggestions and feedback! I got to say, "This works well but could be improved," or "I don't really use this feature, and I don't think it's really necessary." One of my suggestions was actually adopted - and I feel as a group we beta testers were taken seriously, given a voice, and performed a valuable service for the company (as well as ourselves), helping to design the product to be the absolute best product of its kind on the market.

What a concept, huh? Finding out what users want and need, discover how they use the product and how to design a product to meet their needs! Actually taking time to ask questions and listen to the responses! Testing for bugs and everything else that could go wrong BEFORE you put it on the market!

As soon as the beta was over, I had mixed feelings. I felt bereft that the testing was finished - but also, I felt I elated that I had been present during the labor and birth of a new software. I also thought a lot this week about other companies and other products on the market, and wondered how extensively they were tested in the real world. I thought about all the recalls I hear in the news every day and wonder if products were rushed to market to make money as fast as possible without adequate testing for possible problems. Even going further, forgetting testing for bugs and quality control and that sort of thing, how many products in our society are actually given input from real people who will use the product? For example, I can't really believe that our TV remote control was ever tested by ordinary people. Maybe you have a remote that is clear and easy to use, but ours certainly isn't. I realize my opinion is only that of one individual, but there are just some things I use which push me to say, "What the heck? Who designed this piece of crap?!!"

I was impressed that in the case of Instant Text, we spoke and they listened. There was give and take, back and forth, compromise, clarification, and if they couldn't implement something on our "wish list," they took the time to explain why. We were constantly in touch with the programmers, and they with us. We could read the opinions and ideas of the other beta testers and comment on those. We all used the software in our everyday jobs in every possible situation, and with our feedback, the engineers were constantly improving and honing each facet of the product.

I believe there are many of us out here - regular people - who are insightful, intelligent, resourceful, and creative, who in our jobs or business dealings or even primarily as consumers, become just worker ants - with a specific job to do, here's how it's done, no time for questions, no time for feedback, just fill your spot in the economy and do an adequate job and everything will be OK. We hear, "Just buy (or make) the product and deal with it. Trust us. We know best." Where is there room for "I have a better idea!"? Where is there space for "I think this could be made more user-friendly!"? Where is an area for creative minds to tell the upper echelon in the company, "I want to do my job as efficiently and accurately as possible, and here are my ideas for accomplishing that!"? The best person to give input on improvements and changes in any job situation is the very person who does the job on a daily basis. No, we are not experts, some of us don't have college degrees, we're not influential or powerful people in business, most of us haven't written a book or had a research paper published. But we are in the trenches, day in and day out. We know what works and what doesn't. We can anticipate problems. We are smart, and our ideas have value.

The folks at Instant Text listened to me for over half a year. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been involved. Other corporations, designers, engineers, food producers, product manufacturers - are you paying attention?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ready to work?

I've blogged about this before, but sometimes we assume that simple automatically equals easy. This is not necessarily the case. Indeed, many times simplifying takes a lot of planning, work, and time.

For instance, moving from our giant house to our current small house was our first major simplification undertaking. Notwithstanding the anxiety and stress of selling one house, building another, and the actual process of moving, there was much work to do once we moved in - mainly, even after paring down, how on earth was I going to move my piano, 2 harps, quilting and sewing fabric, supplies, and books, computer with assorted office accessories, and exercise equipment, into this smaller space? How was I to organize it so that I could keep what I used frequently in appropriate places but still have reasonable access to necessary items I used less often?

Of course, paring down is when you ask the question, "Do I really need this?" That question is a beginning, but you have to be careful you don't handle the simplification process the same way the school systems usually do - "Oh, we need to get back to basics like reading, writing and arithmetic, and budget cut on art and music, because they aren't really necessary." On the contrary, I happen to think art and music are very necessary, and my creative hobbies are as necessary to my existence as the pots and pans in the kitchen. Other people might look at the "stuff" I have for music, sewing and quilting, and see excess. I see tools that enrich my life. Again, simplicity is different for everyone. So even after we pared down an abundance of unnecessary things, we still had a lot to fit into our small house. That took a lot of work to figure out and things can get crowded in here sometimes.

This month we finally accomplished what we had talked about for years but were too afraid to do - simplify two cars to one. Everyone is so used to having a car apiece these days (and most of the time, out of necessity, with couples having two jobs with two commutes) that it seems almost anxiety-provoking to go to one shared car. However, in our situation, Ed is retired and is around the house all day, whereas I have to commute to the hospital, and when I'm not working, we do everything and go everywhere together, that it seemed to us that having two cars (and their coexisting registration, excise tax, repairs and maintenance costs) was not required anymore.

It was after we traded in our two cars and bought a new one that anxiety set in for me. I immediately started considering every possible circumstance where one car would be restrictive. If Ed needs the car during the day, he will have to take me to work and pick me up. We wouldn't have a backup car in case something went wrong. We have to keep changing the seat position to accommodate each of us. What if Ed were chain sawing wood and had an accident? He wouldn't have a car to drive to the emergency room. What if I am at work and have an accident or acute illness? He wouldn't have a way to come be with me, as the car will already be at the hospital. It's the same as the "what if" syndrome one encounters when one is fixing to throw/give away an item - "What if I need this one day?" Nope, never easy.

I am also in the process of revamping my wardrobe, to pare down and buy/sew clothes that work in such a way I can get by with less. Should be easy, right? Sounds that way, but it's not. When you have fewer pieces of clothing, each piece has to step up to the plate and fulfill its responsibility on a higher level. Each piece has to conform with my list of requirements - it has to fit, be comfortable, go with most everything else, be a color I love, be a style I love, be a fabric I love, be flattering to my figure and coloring, be age-appropriate, be office-appropriate, be affordable, etc. Most of the time for me, by the time I consider something in ready-to-wear, it won't even pass the first requirement (fit), much less all the others. When I sew a piece, I can be more choosy about the fabric and colors and style, but every pattern needs a great deal of measuring and adjustment before I can even use it. Again, this seemingly uncomplicated process of simplifying my clothing has taken on a life of its own.

Although a real endeavor at simplification can result in contentment in the long run, the process itself is usually not easy. It can be stressful, time-consuming, and a lot of hard work. It involves introspection, thinking, brainstorming, searching through myriad choices, making hard decisions, flexibility, and organizational skills. You have to define your "needs" and "wants" and even before that, define and refine your definition of "needs." I think the whole attempt is like planting a garden. You spend a lot of time planning before you even plant the seeds, then you spend more precious time watering, weeding, pruning, and generally maintaining your project. Only you can decide if the effort is worth it for you. My personal experience says it is. Just remember, the whole process, though it is work, can have its own set of blessings, and once you finally simplify one area of your life, you'll probably find another one that needs attention, and you have to start the process all over again. It can be scary, but then, isn't life itself filled with leaps of faith - every time you make important decisions, such as whom to marry, whether to have kids, where to live, what job to take? Sometimes you just have to jump in there and try. You might be surprised at where simplification will lead you. In the meantime, be ready to sweat.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My new man

There's a new man in my life. He doesn't care if I'm thin or fat, he doesn't care if I have a bad hair day, he doesn't care if I have wrinkles or sagging skin or a face without makeup. He doesn't care that I can't cook, he doesn't care if I don't sing as well as I used to, he doesn't care if the quilt I made for him has crooked seams.

What does he care about? He cares about the fact that Ed and I raised our son Matt in such a way that he became a responsible, loving, compassionate adult. He cares about the fact that in time Matt took for his bride an equally responsible, loving, compassionate adult, and between the two of them, they will be the greatest parents ever. He cares about the fact that he will live in a safe and secure environment, where his physical and emotional and mental needs will be met. He cares that this family unit will prepare him through the years to be a responsible, loving, compassionate adult himself. One day he will look back, realize all this, and be so grateful.

And Ed and I, in the present, look forward to watching him grow and develop, awaiting his first laugh, first step, first everything. We are totally assured, as in the Allstate commercial, that he is "in good hands." My new man is starting life with the blessings of generations before him who have led to this moment, on both sides of his family, who have nurtured their children who in turn nurtured their children and paved the way for this new little (or maybe not so little!) human being, who, I know, will absorb like a tiny sponge all of this boundless love which surrounds him.

Welcome to the world, Joshua Edward James, 9 pounds 15 ounces. You are one lucky kid!


Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Brand New Person

When we were teenagers, my sister and I were privileged to be able to usher on a regular basis at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. There we saw everything from the Metropolitan Opera to Bobby Sherman to Broadway Shows to symphony concerts and instrumentalists like pianist Van Cliburn and cellist Pablo Casals - all for free, of course. What a golden opportunity for cultural education! My sister and I owe unending gratitude to our dad for driving us downtown and picking us up, many times at midnight when he had to get up early for work the next day. He never complained, because he realized it was an experience for us that he could never have afforded to give us on his own.

Some of the Broadway shows were so enjoyable that I almost memorized the whole script. When you sit through 8 performances of a musical, you retain a lot. One of my favorites was "I Do! I Do!" with the incredible Mary Martin and Robert Preston. It's hard to believe, but the whole play consists of just those two actors, who at the beginning pose as two newlyweds, bright-eyed and naively optimistic about what marriage was going to be, and it takes us through their married lives, their fights, their midlife crises, their kids being born, and the most beautiful song near the end, where they look back over their marriage with fondness, singing the poignant duet "My Cup Overfloweth with Love."

Decades later, I still remember many of the lyrics, and one particular song has special meaning for me this week. It's called, "Love Isn't Everything," and it talks about the excitement of bringing home a new baby into the family. The father sings, "At one minute after 2 in the morning, 6 hours following my wife's confinement, early on the day of January 12, in room 22 of the new City Hospital....A BRAND NEW PERSON SUDDENLY WAS, WHO NEVER USED TO BE! He weighed 6 pounds and 14 ounces and we named him after me! A son! A son! A son!....." and of course, reality sets in and the mom sings the chorus, "Love isn't everything...It cannot buy the pills, or pay the doctor bills...Love cannot heat the house, or warm the baby's formula when he starts crying....Love isn't everything...It cannot buy a new supply of fresh dry diapers! Love keeps us on the run, but when it's said and done, love is what makes it kind of fun, kind of fun, kind of fun, kind of fun!" Later in the skit, Mary Martin has another baby, a girl this time, and Robert Preston continues the "reality" chorus, singing, "Love isn't everything...It cannot hire a nurse or fill an empty purse...Love cannot pay for milk or put the satin ruffles on her party dresses...It cannot sign the check for her piano lessons....Love keeps us on the run, but when it's said and done, love is what makes it kind of fun, kind of fun, kind of fun, kind of fun!" At the end of the song, they both sing together: "Love keeps you on the go, but when you're feeling low, love is what keeps you a'hummin', when all the bills keep a'comin', love is what makes it sorta fun!!!"

I've been singing that song all week, because on Tuesday morning, we will welcome by C-section our third grandchild, who is also our first male grandchild and our son's first child, and suddenly the world has changed for us, for the other set of grandparents, for aunt Rachel and uncle Chris, for uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great-uncles and cousins on both sides of the family, because there will be a new entry into the annals of human history. He will be Joshua Edward, born into a family chock full of love, and, of course, that's what "keeps you a'hummin when all the bills keep a'comin."

That's the experience of every couple starting a new family. So my message to our wonderful son and fantastic daughter-in-law is this: The love gets you through all the changes and anxiety and fears and additional expenses - and the feeling of holding your newborn baby, the "brand new person" who "suddenly was, who never used to be," is totally, utterly, completely worth it. Of course, they don't need to hear it from me. They'll find out for themselves on Tuesday morning. And Ed and I are so blessed to be able to share in their happiness.

I can't wait to see and hold you, precious Josh! Love, Grammy

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's Today

“Your days are your life in miniature. As you live your hours, so you create your years. As you live your days, so you craft your life. What you do today is actually creating your future. The words you speak, the thoughts you think, the food you eat and the actions you take are defining your destiny - shaping who you are becoming and what your life will stand for. Small choices lead to giant consequences over time. There’s no such thing as an unimportant day.” - Experience Life Magazine July/August 2010.

We’ve all heard it - “You are what you eat.” The proteins, fat, carbs, minerals, vitamins, fiber, etc., are all “building blocks” for the body. Whether these blocks are constructed wisely and build a foundation for health, or whether these blocks are constructed haphazardly with inferior materials and result in disease, fatigue, and body system malfunctions is always our choice. Of course, the problem with those choices is that they have to be made every single day, several times a day. You can’t just make a decision to eat healthier once and for all and expect everything to be smooth sailing from there on out. It’s not some kind of decision like what college to attend or whether to have kids or not - something that’s a done deal, decision made, case closed. It keeps coming back and back, every meal, every bite. It’s a decision that has to be made, remade, over and over and over.

The quote above from an article in Experience Life Magazine was really thought-provoking for me, for it takes the adage “You are what you eat” and expands it to encompass every decision of how you spend every second of your entire life. We are not just physical beings, and while we are creating building blocks that affect our health, we are simultaneously creating building blocks that involve our spiritual selves, emotional selves, mental selves - basically the wholeness of our souls and bodies. Every choice we make contributes to the structures that we call ourselves and the lives we will end up with.

That’s not to say everything runs in a perfectly straight line and can never allow for mistakes. Thank goodness there are second chances, changes of heart, do-overs, and such. We can undo some of the damage our choices have done to us, our bodies and souls and relationships. But in the end, our decisions and experiences are part of the whole package. They can be improved upon and repaired, but they can never be deleted. Yesterday makes us who we are today, and today makes us who we will be tomorrow, and the cycle is always in motion.

Those who know me are aware that I have written my own obituary. I will be 56 in September and I realize that I have more of the sand on the bottom of the hourglass than at the top. The process of creating and updating one’s obituary results in mortality staring one in the face. Each time I think about my obituary, I have to reevaluate my life anew. What do I want the final portrait to be? What is my legacy? What good changes have I brought to the world? I’ve heard so many people say that we miss the Big Picture in life, but what makes up the Big Picture? The tiny small pixels. Small pixels that on their own look meaningless and unimportant, but when put together finally reveal the complete portrait of a life.

You may want to join me in adopting this motto that I have selected to start each remaining day in my still-evolving life: “Small choices lead to giant consequences over time. There’s no such thing as an unimportant day.”