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!