Friday, September 30, 2011


One of my favorite family Christmas stories is something that happened when our daughter, Rachel, was little. It was after Thanksgiving, the world was decorated for the holidays, and as we were driving one day, we passed a produce market with evergreen trees lined up, just like in the picture above, ready to sell.  I said, "Rachel, look at all the Christmas trees!"  She was dismissive.  "Those aren't Christmas trees," she said.  "Those are just trees."

Rachel in her limited wisdom of the world at that time couldn't fathom that what she was looking at were Christmas trees.   In her mind, Christmas trees weren't Christmas trees until they were illuminated with lights, decorated with tinsel and shiny, colorful ornaments, with angels on top.  She was pretty sure she could recognize a Christmas tree, and those didn't qualify.

Adults, however, have had many years' experience seeing the potential in bare evergreen trees.  We are aware of the destiny for which they were grown, and we have imagination to see them in their full glory.  Picking out a bare tree to adorn for the holidays can be a demanding process.  No detail is overlooked.  Is the tree fresh?  Is the height tall enough for that big room or small enough for those low ceilings?  Does it smell good?  Is it the type we want - cedar, cypress, fir, pine or spruce?  How about the cost - is it an amount we are willing to spend?  The perfect tree for one house may not be the perfect tree for next door.  The perfect tree when the kids were home may not be the perfect tree for empty-nesters.

We are experts in seeing the potential in bare evergreen trees, but as a society we seem to have a lot of trouble seeing potential in other places.  I was at Grandparents' Day yesterday at the school of Caroline and Charlotte, where a relatively small building was inundated with their regular students through 5th grade plus one, two, maybe three or four grandparents in tow for each child.  It was quite a scene!  As I watched all those kids, I was impressed with what I saw of the teachers.  It is always my hope that teachers will be able to see the potential in each individual child and be able to tap that.  Rachel, all grown up now, is teaching gifted and talented students this year, and one of her goals is to help teachers realize that gifted/talented kids are not always the stereotypical smart, well-behaved kids.  Sometimes they are the daydreamers who can't focus on their work.  Sometimes they are those who are problem students, who misbehave because they are bored.  Others don't even look like they could succeed anywhere (Charlie Brown tree, anyone?). There is a whole variety of gifted/talented kids who, to reach their full potential, could benefit from extra specialized learning and attention.

The same is true for all kids, whether gifted or not.  Just like a bare tree destined for glory, each child is unique.  Some can reach their education potential by going to college.  Others will fulfill their life's dreams by manning a lobster boat.  Others will thrive in trades such as electricians, carpenters, and plumbers.  Some will feel called to help society in different ways, such as being social works, ministers, firefighters or police officers.  Others will spread beauty and love in the world, through music, art, drama, and literature.  To look at an undeveloped child, full of raw unrecognized material that is waiting for someone to help mold it, is to look at a bare tree and trying to figure out exactly where it belongs and where it can develop its potential.  However, this is not one person picking out a tree and making the decision on where it should go.  This endeavor involves our whole society, and not only school teachers, but parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, medical providers, etc.  In real life, everyone is a role model and every person a teacher.  Everyone who comes in contact with that child has a beneficial or detrimental effect on encouraging learning, curiosity, discovering his/her passion, and helping the child find direction in life.

It won't be long before many of us will be heading to the market or the farm to pick out, as Rachel said, "just trees."  But we will see the potential of what they could look like, what environment will bring out their beauty, and where they could shine the brightest.  I hope society gets to a point where it is able to do as much with our precious children.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Letting Down My Hare

Have you ever been in an Asian restaurant and passed the time by looking at their zodiac signs on a placemat?  Ed and I love to do that occasionally.  Apparently he's a dog and I'm a horse.  I can't remember whether or not we are considered "compatible" or whether a relationship should be avoided at all costs, although I guess after 37 years of marriage, it really doesn't matter.  At any rate, I take it all with a grain of salt.  In the first place, how could a zodiac chart that only goes by birthday year presume to be correct?  It is basically claiming that most of my classmates in our high school graduating class constitute one personality type, which, when you think about it, is really ludicrous.

Aside from the birth year problems, there's one major reason why I don't subscribe to the truth of the Chinese zodiac.  It's because I have learned for certain that I'm not a horse and Ed is not a dog.  I am a HARE and Ed is a TORTOISE.

Anyone who knows us well is already aware of this.  Literally, our walking styles fit this picture.  I like to go out, walk fast, get it over with, and come back indoors to resume other activities that I find much more pleasurable.  Ed goes out and walks slowly, sometimes covering 6 miles a day.  He stops to light his pipe, he stops to blow his nose, he stops to talk to a neighbor.  He even (gasp!) tries to commune with nature!

Why am I so accident-prone?  Because I'm always in a hurry.  Heck, I've got things to do - important things!  And, like the famous hare in the fable, I end up underestimating the time involved on a project and end up resting under a tree when I should be gaining some ground in the race.

The funny thing is that I rarely win the race.  I end up setting myself on fire, getting head trauma from a cabbage (appropriate for a hare, n'est ce pas?), or suffering some other calamity of going too fast and not paying attention, the injuries of which take me out of the race for a good length of time.  Sometimes I'll look at how far the finish line it, and say, "To heck with it," because the whole thing is just too daunting to even start.

Enters Ed, the Tortoise King.  He is never in a hurry.  He says he has read that slower people who smoke tend toward pipe smoking because it is a slow process (loading, packing, lighting, relighting, cleaning the pipes), or, conversely, people who smoke pipes are automatically slower folks because of these steps.  Whether his nicotine habit has anything to do with it or not, I don't know.  All I know is it is impossible to get him to hurry up.  When I try to, he just gets nasty and upset and blames every subsequent mistake he makes on me.

In my ongoing attempt to improve myself and organize my life, I came upon a book Self Discipline in 10 Days which is short and to the point in breaking through the barriers that prevent us from living the productive, organized lives that we want.  In the process of reading the book and taking notes, I decided that I would make a contract with myself to quilt 15 minutes a day.  Now, the whole idea sounds pathetic.  What can one possibly accomplish in 15 minutes a day?  You might as well not do anything!  Yeah, that's what I thought.  To my surprise, I can get a lot of quilting steps done in only 15 minutes a day.  I find the timing of every day helpful, for instance, to remember where I am in the sequence.  This avoids the frustrating inner dialogue of  "Do I need 80 7 x 7-inch squares of the print, and 80 sets of 2 x 2-inch squares and 2 x 3-1/2-inch square of the cream? ...and where the heck am I, anyway?"  It has actually helped me to become more of a tortoise, slow but steady, making progress that is not so evident daily but after a week or so, is all laid out for me to see.

I will never stop trying to get everything done quickly and Ed will never stop ambling along enjoying the scenery.  That probably means I'll burn myself out and he'll win the race with energy to spare, smiling all the way.  Oh, well.  I get him to appointments on time and he makes me slow down enough to see an eagle's nest.  Come to think of it, I think it will really be a tie score and we'll hopefully end up crossing the finish line hand in hand - if I can slow up enough to be able to finish the race with all fingers intact!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A cappella

My dad, as I've noted before, was an awesome choir director for several decades.  He didn't wear a robe or hold a baton, but with his smile and facial expressions and his hands always in motion, he managed to extract beautiful music from our relatively small choir.  One of his favorite things to do was to direct the choir in an a cappella song (without accompaniment, just voices).  Now, this is not an easy thing.  It would be hard enough for a soloist to hear a starting note, sing a song without aid of accompaniment, and end on the correct pitch - but a whole choir?  Very, very difficult.   All it takes is a slide up here, a slide down there, and the ending pitch may be off a whole note or more.

When Dad was ready for the choir to practice a certain song a cappella, he would have the organist play for the choir the starting notes for all parts - soprano, alto, tenor, bass.  There would be a general soft humming as voices prepared with their specific notes.  Then he would raise his hands, make sure everyone was watching, and he would start to direct.  The song would evolve (and believe me, most songs suitable for a cappella were absolutely gorgeous if everyone sang correctly and with emotion), and then came the end.  Dad would lower his hands and then give a motion to the organist, who played the chord of what was supposed to be the ending pitch, and Dad would react accordingly - if we were off, with a slight wince and a quick smile and an "Oh well, better next time" attitude - or, if the choir had kept perfect pitch, a wide grin that just radiated a "We did it!!" response.

I thought of that this week, as around this time of year I always enforce upon myself the fearful task of retrieving my New Year's Resolution list and giving my objectives a thorough examination as I evaluate how close I have come to fulfilling my dreams and plans for 2011.  Actually, I don't call them resolutions (I hate that word), but I call them goals for the year.  They cover all sorts of categories - my health, my hobbies, my work, my relationships - and under each one I list what I consider are priorities to concentrate on during the coming year, and I even have sublist of things that I wouldn't consider a priority but I would love to accomplish if I had the time or other necessary resources.

First, though, I start the page off with a list of accomplishments from the previous year - just to give me a little encouragement that I can be productive and get these things done, at least part of the time.   Most of the time, though, I have a long to-do list and never get it done.

Oh, I manage to get birthday cards off in the mail and Christmas card family pictures taken and sent, and I manage to pay all the bills on time and balance the checkbook and all the other things that if they didn't get done, we would be in hot water, but when I look over my goals and objectives, I have fallen so short. The year is over half over, autumn is in the air, Christmas will be here before I know it, and I haven't done any CEUs for my recertification, I never did enter a sewing contest at Pattern Review, I didn't even get close to piecing the top for Matt and Sarah's quilt, I haven't learned any new sewing techniques, I haven't played the harp much at all, etc.   We've been in this house now for 5 years and every year I put down "Paint the inside of the house" and we're still living with the white walls that came with the modular home.

It seems very much to me that I start off the year with perfect pitch, but somewhere, somehow, along the way, I always end up on the wrong note.   Don't get me wrong - the song of 2011 has been wonderful and adventurous with a lot of surprising twists and turns that have altogether combined to make lovely music, but I fear - no, I know for sure - that I will end up sadly out of pitch.

Of course, there are many reasons for this, chiefly my ever-present tendency towards procrastination and biting off more than I can chew, my propensity for having endless creative ideas but not much follow-through, my paralyzed response to being overwhelmed where I just sit and do nothing, and last but not least, my perfectionism that makes me afraid of doing anything if I can't do it perfectly.  But I will admit that this year has been rather unusual and has brought many challenges, with moving my elderly, debilitated mom and her dog up here from Tennessee (constituting two trips and a lot of planning), making a room for her out of my former exercise room (making exercise an even more inconvenient thing to accomplish), and trying to eat healthy when mom likes her starches and sweets.

I realize that I will never have a perfect pitch year.  And that's OK.  I will still make my obligatory goal list for 2012, if for no other reason than to focus my attention on priorities, and on January 1, 2012, I will start a new a cappella song on the correct note and I will sing my heart out through the year, belting out the highs and the lows and everything in between.  Sometimes I'll be sharp, sometimes I'll be flat, sometimes I'll be right on the note, and sometimes I'll take a good rest between the notes.  Sometimes I'll be singing along with a group of others, sometimes just by myself.  Some of the song will be sad, I'm sure, and some will be gloriously ecstatic. Some parts of it will be so lovely, it will make me cry in pure joy.  Some parts of it will make me wince and want a do-over.  Sometimes I will follow the music exactly as it is supposed to be sung, and other times I'll just make it up as I go along.

But - in the end, it's my song, and my wish is that it will be authentic, loving, patient, grateful, and full of hope and possibilities - with some self-discipline and flexibility thrown in for good measure.  So what if I end a note or two from where I should be?  If I concentrate on the beauty of the song and not on its imperfections, I think I'll still make my Daddy proud.  All I have to do is what The Carpenters advised:

Sing, sing a song
Sing out loud, sing out strong
Sing of good things not bad
Sing of happy not sad

Sing, sing a song
Make it simple to last your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear
Just sing, sing a song

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Turning over a new leaf?

I saw a cute sign that would be perfect for my 8-year-old granddaughter, Caroline, a voracious reader.  It said, "Life is Short.  Read Fast."  Of course, "Hurry Up" is my mantra.  Ed is constantly berating me for doing everything too fast.  He says the reason I'm accident-prone does not evolve from some physiological impairment; it is just because I'm trying to move too quickly and I don't pay attention - with which I completely and sadly agree.

Of course, I was reminded of this at my annual physical this week.  Alas, I had to enumerate the many ways I had suffered injuries this year, including hitting my head on the corner of the bedside table which necessitated a trip to the doctor for a heavily bleeding scalp laceration; hitting my head on a bathroom drawer that was at hip level (long story); and, the most embarrassing of them all, how my head collided with a giant cabbage.  The latter happened when I had returned home from the grocery, was putting things on the counter in the kitchen (including the monstrous cabbage), leaned over to get more items out of a bag on the floor and the huge cabbage rolled right off and smacked me with great force on the back of the head.  (Well, at least I have an excuse for my senior moments.  My brain has been undoubtedly damaged.)  At least the cabbage story was a little funny.  We went at it head-to-head.

This is only a small sampling of my accidents through the years, the major one of which was burning my face with fire starter gel and in the process, setting fire to the curtains in the room and having to be taken by ambulance to the burn center in Portland.  They also include having a sewing machine needle break and pop in and out of my eye, years after having another sewing machine needle jam into my finger as if it were a piece of fabric, bending inside when it hit a bone.

In my defense, however, I must mention that my job demands speed.  I am a medical transcriptionist, sit and type all day transcribing dictation, and I get paid by production.  The more I transcribe, the more I get paid.  Once I start the work day, I'm at breakneck speed until I leave.  Even at lunch, I walk to the cafeteria too fast and eat my food too fast.  I'm on a roll.

And the toll all this speed takes on me is evident from all the above mishaps.   When I race through my 40 hours of work a week, it's hard to slow down for the rest of my off-work hours.   This tendency reveals itself to Ed and me, for instance, in our walking styles.  When I go out to walk/exercise, I like to walk at about 4 mph and get it over with.   Ed likes to stroll, and, gasp!, try to pay attention and enjoy nature.   I'm a hare and I married a turtle.

With all my sticky notes tacked up on every available surface, my to-do lists and calendar appointments, I think the Slow Down sign above should be probably be the top priority reminder for me.  My family already winces when they see me with a needle, knife, or scissors, as well they should.  They flinch when I'm around an open flame.   They even get nervous when I am negotiating around a sharp corner on a piece of furniture or an open drawer.   I think, though, I have hit rock bottom in my addiction to speed.  You know something has got to give when you have to relate to your doctor the story of a massive cruciferous vegetable inflicting head trauma.  I'm already not allowed in the cooking implements aisle, or the office supplies aisle, but I certainly don't want to be banned from the produce section.   Sigh.  Yeah, it's time to slow down.