Monday, December 17, 2012

A Season of Hope

~ All hope abandon, ye who enter in.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto III: The Gate of Hell, line 9.

I’m on a deadline and I don’t have “writers block”.  Frankly, ‘writers block’ would be an upgrade.  I’m standing at the gates of deadline hell and I’ve got… I’ve got… nothing.  Nada.  Not a single idea.  I’ve gone out for runs waiting for the ideas to sally forth and ring the doorbell in my mind.  But the stress of work, a son applying to college, a presidential election, and leaves that fall uncollected on my yard like unmelting lake-effect snow  has crowded out any space for creative thought.   I’m hanging on a single thread of something that propels me out of bed every morning: Hope.   However, I’m not in the Divine Comedy: I’m in the longest checkout line in the longest circle in hell.  And it’s not moving.   I need to find inspiration.

~ But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence. The least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.
Lord Byron, letter to Thomas Moore

Clearly, this isn’t it.  Lord Byron was in the mother-of-all foul moods when he wrote Thomas Moore, who – rumor had it – owed him money.  Hope is supposed to inspire us, to provide us a life raft when all else is lost.  If Lord Byron hadn’t become dust a long time ago, I’d give him the following advice: Get a prescription for Prozac, then promptly double up on it.  ‘Paint on the face of existence’…  ‘hollow-cheeked harlot’ … Can’t imagine what special brand of crazy cheer his Christmas cards must have contained.  Byron is not inspiring me. 

~ Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.
Sir Francis Bacon, Apophthegms (1624), No. 36.

Are we at all surprised that a guy named BACON would be the head cheerleader for hope as a breakfast food?  These Brits are completely transparent.  I need some help:  I’ve got nothing on the page but a bitter Italian, a depressed poet, and the English version of Jimmy Dean. 

~ He that lives upon hope will die fasting.
                                                            Benjamin Franklin

I’m pretty sure Ben Franklin never had a deadline.  Trying to coax creative thought from behind the locked vault in my head has been a mighty task.  Usually I go for a run and the ideas fall into place during the course of the course, but this month there haven’t been enough miles in the road.  I hope against hope and rage against these ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, and wonder if William Shakespeare ever had writers block.   My muse has abandoned me.

~ Hope is a waking dream.

I find hope takes so many forms.  When doing the math to fund another college education, I hope I can afford it.  I hope the economy turns around.  When I go for a run in the morning, I hope I feel good.   When my dishwasher broke the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I had hope I could get an appointment before Thursday, which is frankly daft.  When I stood in line to vote in the recent election, hope took the form of a line that snaked out the polling place and down the sidewalk.  There was so much collective hope, but half that line woke up the next day without it, while the other half was living the dream: as good an example of a zero-sum game as ever. When I proof-read an email a colleague has written I hope I don’t see the word “hope” because – as we’ve all learned – “Hope” is not an appropriate business strategy.  It is – however – perfectly sound for writing an article.  At least that’s what I’ve told my editor.  I feel hope at the start of every football season – which is a mighty thing for a lifelong fan of the Buffalo Bills.  After decades, to still believe, that truly is a waking dream.  Or lunacy; I’m still deciding which. 

~ Hope is patience with the lamp lit.

I have no idea who Tertullian was, but I love the sentiment.  It’s like he’s describing Hope as the “Motel 6” of the philosophical realm, but with better decorating and a much better breakfast (see: Bacon, Sir Francis.)  I don’t know about hope – what it really is.  Is it a waking dream, a thing with feathers,  springs eternal, or the only universal liar who never loses its reputation for veracity?  Nietzsche, never the eternal optimist, thought  “In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man's torments.”  But some unknown author countered “When the world says, ‘Give up,’ Hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’”  Hope is like the run: One more time, one more line, one more step, one more mile. 

Hope runs on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Patch of Red Earth

Grass doesn’t grow under the big oak in our back yard.  It’s not like there was never any grass, but for the better part of the past couple of years it has been replaced by a big patch of earth, tinted red with clay.  Behind it is a netted goal, and behind that is an even bigger netted backstop to catch the errant shots and protect the neighbor’s yard, fence, and windows.  The backyard was taken over by a dream – to play a game, to get better, to be the best.  Nearly every day for three years the kid would be out there – bouncing off the rebounder, weaving at unseen defenders toward the goal, ripping a shot.  It didn’t matter if it was raining or hot or freezing or near dark.  Even during the season – before and after practice the backyard was transformed into a practice field.  

Before he had the practice area, he’d taken to rebounding off the side of the house, the side that shares a wall with my office.  The amount of time he spent rebounding balls off the wall was inversely proportional to my productivity.  After he took out 3 porch slats with errant shots, we finally broke down and bought him a rebounder.  Sanity and job security were restored.  That purchase was quickly followed up by a practice goal.  And after balls landed with annoying regularity in a neighbor’s yard, we purchased the giant net backstop.  Our backyard had been successfully usurped.

After so much use the nets have hastily patched holes, shredded in spots from wear and tear.  The poles that support the backstop are tall and lean at odd angles, the net drooping between each pole; they’ve taken a beating.  The yard isn’t particularly level and the tree interferes with the left side of the otherwise adequate field of play.  We back up on the Mount Hill Commons and one day a big owl flew into a tree and watched Luc play for nearly 30 minutes.  It was like something out of a fairy tale.

I can see this home-spun practice area from my office and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard my son come in from school through the front door, and minutes later hear the back door slam.  It has become a daily ritual.  I’d turn around and see him jogging toward the net, gloves on, cradling a ball in the head of his lacrosse stick.  He runs to the net and winds up and lets a shot fly.  Sometimes a shot will ricochet off a pole and rebound with a large CLANG off the heat pump that is just behind my window startling me out of my chair.  Others might end up in the woods in the leaves, which is why I actually have a monthly budget for lacrosse balls.  It seems a small price to pay to help shepherd such devotion.

I’ve come to love this daily practice because I know it is all his doing.  I admire people who have such passion and faith.  But I love more the abandoning of oneself into play and how rare a commodity that becomes with the increasing pressure and responsibilities of adult life.  I look out my office window and see that patch of red earth I can imagine him running past a ghost army of defenders, toward it and the goal.  I envy that age when play is the most important thing in your life.

My favorite part is not the goal, the shredded net, or the leaning poles; it’s that patch of red earth.  Every time I look at it I marvel that a single kid did that over the course of a couple of years, trampling any hope of grass in the foreseeable future.  Many might think it’s a scar in a far-from ideal lawn.  But to me it’s a badge: of work, of effort, of hope and belief.  My son is a rising senior, and I know one day soon he’ll will be off to college, and then on his own.  The nets will eventually come down and grass will make its bid to reclaim that patch of red earth.  But for now, I like it just the way it is.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Summer Vacation

Be aware: this is not a family friendly entry.  It’s not vile or violent, but if you’re looking for some tips on planning a family vacation or ideas on where to go, this isn’t the place.  I love the idea of family vacations; we’re just not very good at taking them.  We do them when we are compelled to do them: birthdays, holidays, graduations – we’ve never taken a family vacation that didn’t involve an extended-family reunion at the destination.

We’ve talked about them, but by the time summer rolled around any disposable income had been consumed by art and music lessons, instruments, sports, sports equipment, school activities, and other miscellaneous extra-curricular life activities.  My husband and I are adamant about paying for stuff as we go. The idea of a vacation is to relax and unwind and to follow it up with stress of how to pay for the bill in the aftermath would unravel all the benefit.  That doesn’t stop the occasional Maybe we should rent a house at the beach… or We should think about Charleston… from escaping our mouths every once in a while.

He has always been great about taking the kids for a weekend getaway camping.  I’d gladly join if not for my unwavering need for a mattress and electricity.  It’s not that I’m high-maintenance; I just don’t rough it that well.  If I’d been a pilgrim I’d have shipped back on the first boat to England inside of two weeks.  Honestly, my idea of camping is a spa in the woods.  I navigate wildlife at work all year long - I don’t want to have to do battle with  it during my vacation.  Even if I can’t afford it every day, I like the idea of being able to order room service.  Of fresh towels.  Of the bed being made by someone else.

We did do a family trip to France several years ago in the summer.  It was my Father-in-Law’s 70th birthday and as a native of France he wanted to get the family together in his homeland.  We should have had a clue the trip would be a challenge when we tried navigating our way to the house my in-laws had rented.  It was in the hillside in Nice, and to avoid getting lost while jet-lagged, we rented a car with a GPS Navigation system.  The streets are not as well-marked as one would have thought, and we were scolded more than once by the GPS unit with her perfect British accent to “Make an authorized U-turn”.  When we saw a sign “Monoco – 5 KM” and I read the sign and stated the obvious – We are lost - our middle son piped up MAKE AN AUTHROIZED U-TURN which was followed by the GPS giving the same instruction.  Hilarity ensued.

We spent two weeks in various parts of the country and our kids – the oldest of who was just shy of 15 –*maybe* didn’t have the depth of life experience to put most of what they saw in proper context.  I played the part of the parent who forgot what it’s like to be a kid by continually reprimanding them with  You don’t know how lucky you are!  Look at this history! And if you keep rolling your eyes like that they’re gonna get stuck in the back of your head!  The masterful “Tapestry of Bayeux” to them was a long piece of cloth with a lot of weird embroidered spelling.  The trip to see Notre Dame or Mont St. Michel was met with GREAT.  ANOTHER OLD CHURCH. The day-long tour of the D-Day beaches was – to me and my husband – fascinating.  To the kids it was, well, a long day.  At Versailles – the decadent masterpiece of Louis XIV’s self-absorption -  the great Hall of Mirrors was closed for renovation, so we were left to the palace (lots of art and statues), the gardens (which were brown from lack of rain), and the Grand Trianon (a little palace when the King needed to escape the rigors of the big palace.  Poor thing.)  It was hot, sunny, and water fountains were in short supply.  The cacophony of whining could be boiled down by kid: the oldest was hot and tired, the second was bored and hungry, and the third had to go to the bathroom.  Throughout the two weeks, the complaints rarely varied from kid or postal code.  Nice…Normandy…Paris… from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Eiffel Tower – what I wouldn’t have paid for shade, a sandwich, and conveniently located restroom.   

We recently had a discussion of possible destinations for a family trip.  My husband suggested The Grand Canyon – I thought it a capital idea.  We floated it past our kids.  My middle son looked at us and said Are you crazy?  The Grand Canyon? IN THE SUMMER? We’ll be riding donkeys – right?  Sissy will complain that they smell and she’s hot.  Jammer will have to go to the bathroom every 5 minutes, Dad’s donkey will take a wrong turn and he’ll freak out and have to make an authorized u-turn.  And you’ll be screaming at all of us to shut up and enjoy ourselves.  Out of the mouths of babes.

So, we have no vacation planned for this summer.  My husband will probably take the kids for a weekend of camping, my daughter managed to snag a summer job.  The boys have opted to knock off a class in summer school.  And I’ll just keep battling the wildlife at work.

Friday, April 6, 2012

There's an App for That

“What’s great about the iPhone is that if you want to check snow conditions on the mountain… THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT.  If you want to check how many calories are in your lunch, THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT.  If you want to check exactly where you parked the car, yup, THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT.  There’s an app for just about anything on the iPhone”
 Remember that 2009 commercial for the original AppleTM  iPhone?  The apps (or applications) were what separated the iPhone men from the BlackberryTM boys.  These two fruit-named phones entered into the mother-of-all food fights to conquer our hearts, minds, and wallet share.  I’m pretty sure AppleTM  scored a TKO in the first round because – all together now - they had an app for that. 

Ever the late technology adopter, I didn’t upgrade to an iPhone until a year ago.  I was happy with my Blackberry; I wasn’t a huge user of it and grudgingly paid the very large cellular bill not so I could ensure my place in the land of the gainfully employed, but so I could enhance communication with my children.  Which is one of several patently deluded ideas to which I subscribe.  I never thought I’d use apps, they seemed more like silly little diversions than anything that would be of practical value.  I’ve been suspicious of mobile technology from the start.  There was a commercial by a bank ten years back touting the convenience of banking from your computer.  It showed a guy hiking up the side of a mountain and once at the apex, he whipped out a laptop from his backpack and started balancing his checkbook.  I know:  ludicrous, like anyone would do that.  While we all crave to complete menial administrative tasks in the splendor and glory of nature there is NO WAY you’re not going to convince me this guy got decent wireless service on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro:  I’m just not that gullible.

Once my device was fired up, veteran iPhoned friends provided me plenty of advice on ‘must-have’ apps:  The aptly named Around Me lets me know – shockingly – what is around me in the form of stores, restaurants, pharmacies, or my nearest Apple store.  And I use it: at a late-finishing lacrosse game in the middle of Bumwinkle, Virginia and need to find the nearest sub shop to feed the famished player?  I can find it.   Apple product on the fritz and need to belly up to the nearest ‘genius bar’?   I can find that too.  My friend Gill – who I’m fairly certain owns a substantial interest in StarbucksTM  - made her recommendation so that I’d never find myself in dire need of a Venti skinny vanilla latte and be left to shrivel into a caffeine-deprived heap.  I will admit it came in handy while at a Lacrosse tournament in November in Emmetsburg, Maryland.  With a break in the action, I was freezing cold and hankering for a decent triple half-caff mocha lattechino with a half twist, and - horrors! – the concessions stand didn’t have an espresso machine.  Barbarians.  My iPhone came to the rescue and let me know that the nearest StarbucksTM was exactly 16.9 miles away in Gettysburg, PA.   I was stunned to discover that apparently there is a corner of the Earth without a Starbucks, and this app had done double duty by providing me that nugget of information as well as a potential business opportunity.  Assuming, that is, that cows drink coffee.  Talk about convenience!  Let’s not forget Fat Face.  Why wouldn’t I pay good money for a program that could digitally enhance my photo to make me look 100 pounds heavier – it’s a dream app!

The number and variety of apps out there is staggering.  In the Medical category, one of the top selling apps is the Instant ECG by iAnesthesia.  No lie, you can’t make this stuff up.   In the Education category, a 5-star ‘absolute must buy!’ is TeachMe: Toddler.  For a scant $0.99 you get a platform which teaches your toddler these essential education subjects: letters, abc phonics, numbers, shapes, colors, and the art of cold fusion in the tubby.  Finally in Utilities, there is Sparrow.  The description reads “Sparrow is an iPhone mail client designed with love to provide you with an efficient and pleasant mailing experience.  With its pane navigation, its new threading system and many new features, you’ll never look back.”  I have absolutely no idea what any of that means.

What I can’t find are apps that would be of actual, meaningful value to my everyday life.  For example, there is an app for Past Life Regression Hypnosis.  Well into the app, the dulcet-toned narrator describes a scene where you are walking through a flower-filled forest to a small bridge attended to by a brown-robed hooded figure, who is apparently a gentle and kind being, but the only image I’m conjuring is the Grim Reaper, after which my imagined self runs screaming from the forest.    What I really need is an app that will help me cope in the here and now.  I type “Coping” in the App Store search bar and the top result is something called Loudbook.   I’d be happy to share with you what it does, but the description is in Russian.  I find something to assemble my life and the instructions are in some foreign language.  Typical. 

There are plenty of apps that will let me scour thousands of recipes for delicious, nutritious, and time-saving meals.  However, I’d find invaluable one that would take it to the next level by first scanning the inventory of my pantry and fridge, and then displaying the world of possibilities.  Currently I’ve got a half-consumed jar of capers, a cup of plain non-fat Greek yogurt, a wilted head of celery, some gluten-free crackers, and a roll of paper towels: c’mon Mr. Silicon Valley Genius, show me your magic. 

Finally there is the app Dealing With Negative Emotions.  I don’t want to deal with them; I want to act on them.  Anonymously and without repercussion, of course.   What I’d really like is a Voodoo Doll app that lets me literally give a pain in the hindquarters to those who are a pain in mine.  All those who think the terms ‘children’s sports teams’ and ‘snack list’ belong in the same sentence?  You get a big pin, maybe two.  Parents who drive their teenagers to school and don’t require that the prince or princess exit the vehicle until they are EXACTLY IN FRONT OF THE DOOR, you get two big pins and an extra pin for each kid who thinks they’ll perish of exhaustion by walking 25 feet.   That girl on the wireless provider commercial who texts her friend across the table gets several pins through her cell phone thereby rendering it useless.  Telemarketing scammers from “Credit Card Services” will get box of pins as well as a complementary electric shock; think of it as a “gift with purchase”.   And incompetent slack-jawed navel-gazing administrators who overstep the limits of their mandate get an extra special pin, and a free iLobotomy from the Medical apps.  To app developers out there, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet.    When you make something really useful, give me a call.  Until then I’ll be playing Angry Birds.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bring on the Wonder

January is a reflective month.  It’s the antidote to the joy-and-light-and-food-and-drink-induced mania of the holidays.  After December, many of us set about making our lives right again, reclaiming health or goodness – or in my case, closets – in the form or resolutions.  Resolutions are, however, quick.  I’m not sure we give them a great deal of thought and more often than not we’re picking up that cookie a scant eight days after we’ve sworn them off for all eternity.   I don’t know if they provide some humility or have a shelf life that induces amnesia to our initial enthusiasm.  Regardless, they can be an annual challenge with which so many of us wrestle– and more often than not – by which are pinned.  Organization is the bane of my existence and a foe that chases me eternally.  More accurately, I chase it and am forever one or two steps behind the chaos and clutter. 

I do somehow manage to pull myself out of bed at the crack of dark most mornings to go for a run with friends.  Some days we have a crowd, and other days it’s just two of us.  On the sparsely attended mornings, the run is more a communion of quiet minds.  While I’m more often known for excessive story-telling (particularly on hills – it’s the supreme distraction from the incline), today the morning was cold – in the teens – and my friend and I were quieter than normal for the first half mile.  The effort of warming sleepy muscles in the frigid air becomes harder as the years pass.  The sky was velvet black, the stars in abundance and Venus hanging low and bright in the pre-dawn sky.  I mentioned to her a particular habit I was wrestling with, one of those resolutions that I haplessly thought would be as easy to keep as it was to make.  My friend agreed, and then made a statement that struck me for its elegant and simple decisiveness:

My resolution is to live every day as if it’s my last.

There can be many interpretations to this but I know for fact that she wasn’t suggesting to throw caution to the wind and live life loud and large, to spin in an external existence free from consequence.   Like so many of us, I can get caught up in the daily routine and rigor of my days.  I’ve been missing the opportunity to experience the wonder and beauty of the details of these routines that provide root and foundation; these seemingly inconsequential happenings are threads in the bigger fabric of life.  When some of those are suddenly gone and the fabric unravels, the hole left behind lays bare their importance and meaning.

This past year has been difficult in so many ways.   I’m getting to that age where my body starts reminding me more of my age.  I’d changed jobs – twice – and worried more about everything in this difficult economy.  I found myself worrying more about the future and living less in the present and this year I was reminded of this folly:  on the last day of summer, my friend lost her husband suddenly and without warning.  When we who were his friends and neighbors emerged from the thickness of our grief, we set about trying to resume our lives in a place seemingly tipped off its axis, the orbit of the neighborhood altered with the addition of unwelcome space.

In the months that followed, I’ve personally felt his loss not in large ways – he was a dear and cherished friend - but in little ones.  Sitting in my home office, I’d often glance up and see him coming back from work pulling up short of the driveway and stepping out in his work uniform of suit and tie to grab the mail out of the box.  Other days I’d see him taking the dog out for a walk, cutting the grass, walking down the driveway in his slippers to retrieve the paper.  I never thought much about these at the time.  It was only after he was gone and I’d look up from my desk and be met with a void that I realized the impact of these small moments, these specks of memory in a day in continual overdrive.  I’d come to unconsciously depend on them; they were an integral part of my day, and I’d sorely neglected to recognize their value.  Isn’t that how it so often is?

Too often I’m closing the barn door after the horse has gone for yet another unauthorized romp.   I’d grabbed that morning coffee and drank it quickly without taking time to savor its aroma, how the cup feels so warm in my cold hands, how perfect the first sip tastes.  I’ve neglected to hear to the music of the rain as it hits my car in traffic that has slowed from the weather, the wipers beating out syncopation.   I’ve sat at the table with my husband or children, reading the paper, no one talking and hadn’t the slightest inkling how different it feels doing the same activity in an empty room. Even this morning I cursed the cold air as I stepped out of my house.  But oh how that cold air assaults my lungs with its frigid perfection, how alive and vital it makes me feel.    Tiny shifts and movement fight for attention; it’s easy to overlook their importance when we come to unknowingly count on them to give us balance.

My resolution is to live every day as if it’s my last.

I know what my friend means: to live generously, free of the petty ambivalence to which we can often be prey.  To remove the blinders of our harried existence and drink in and savor what we see.  And to have gratitude and appreciation for the simple and fragile wonder so abundant in our lives.