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?