Saturday, December 10, 2011

Oh Christmas tree

Nature isn't perfect nor is it supposed to be, so of course there are holes in the Christmas tree. Big deep holes with nothing but whispy branches nearby - too weak to hold the lightest of ornaments.

Maybe I was meant to have that empty space - just there on the side of the tree closest to my favorite chairWith no bright distractions I can gaze into the space that leads to the trunk that holds up the branches that hold all the memories of Christmases past.

A piano plays a quiet "Oh Christmas Tree" on my CD player as I think about everyone I've known who has ever lost a parent - even my own parents. I feel a strong need to apologize to them for never fully understanding just how hard Christmas is when they're gone.

"I'm sorry," I whisper to the space without ornaments. "I just didn't know until now."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Inquiring minds

There are some things in life that really puzzle me. I don't know if there are any answers but here's my ever-growing list:

  • If the man who gets the title "Sexiest Man Alive" is still alive the next year, why doesn't he get that title again? Can you only be sexy for one year?
  • Does calling an event "First Annual" make any sense? I mean, if it's the first time it's happening how can it be an annual event? Don't you need some history to call it that?
  • Why do people say "Easter Sunday"? When has Easter ever happened on a Thursday?
  • Isn't it repetitive to say "He owns his own home?" If he owns his home, isn't it his own?
  • Why do cashiers compare your credit card signature with the electronic signature? You can't write normally on those devices and so they never look the same.
  • What defines Modern Art? Is it Modern when you need someone to tell you what the hell it is?
  • Why do some people who claim to love Jesus act nothing like him?
  • Why is it that when someone cuts me off on the highway they always have a zillion USA flags on their car?
  • When did companies decide that having a computerized voice talk to me like we're having a real conversation is less annoying than typing my responses into my phone?
  • Why do I always get a store coupon in the mail 12 hours after I visited that store the night before?
  • Why does baseball have managers while everyone else has coaches?
I find more and more of these every day. What have you got for questions?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What's your stereotype?

Every Tuesday I write a lesson plan for the high school youth group I lead on Sunday mornings at my church. I have a lot of ideas of what to talk about but since I want to facilitate their conversations as they discover the truths themselves, I have to come up with a lot of open-ended questions. And also a way to keep them engaged and the conversation flowing.

Last Sunday we had a very deep discussion on stereotyping. For two previous Sundays we had a guest facilitator run a session on the Myers-Briggs personality test. We learned a lot about ourselves and others in the group but after the meeting I started hearing some generalizations here and there from the kids based on their personality types.

So, last Sunday we talked about how it's all good. A diverse group of personalities, when working together and being respectful of each other, is more effective than one that is, for example, full of all extroverts or all introverts.

I passed out index cards and asked the kids to write down one label they either have been given or think they've been given. Have they been labeled as jock, or computer nerd, or something else? To help explain, I gave myself the label "Unitarian Universalist". That label says a lot of things about me that may or may not be true. People who don't know me but know my religion might make assumptions that I am super liberal, pro-choice, earthy-crunchy, don't believe in a higher power, etc. Some of those are true, some are not.

What we discovered in exploring the labels we've been given is that not only are stereotypes multi-faceted, but we are as well. There are multiple levels of stereotypes. The highest one we could come up with was gender. Assumptions are made about us and expectations are put upon us based on our gender. That's nothing new.

The interesting thing we talked about was all the layers beneath gender. Gender assumptions are made about our career choices, relationship behavior, hair color, interests, reading preferences, and on and on.

And within each layer are more stereotypes and assumptions. "Oh, you're a boy who likes computers? Then I guess you aren't interested in sports." "You're a girl with blonde hair? You must be dumb and boy-crazy."

I told the kids that we all have these knee-jerk reactions when we meet someone new. It comes from a primal place in our DNA. As mammals wandering around in a prehistoric world, our survival depended upon our ability to make quick assessments of a stranger. Is he friend or foe? That instinct still exists today.

Does it make it okay to say, "I'm just being true to my DNA?" and continue to stereotype? No, of course not. But being aware that we do it and reaching back into our souls for the labels we live with is a huge step forward from our prehistoric selves.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nine Eleven

It's been downright impossible to escape the memory of 9/11 this week. There are so many articles and stories in this week's papers, each with its own angle. Adding one more to the archives may go unnoticed but I feel the need to write it anyway.

Ron and I have been out with a lot of friends since 9/11/01. It's strange how the topic still comes up in conversation. The question invariably is, "Where were you when the planes hit the towers?" I can answer that in one simple word: Work. But the memory is much larger than that and its lessons much deeper.

It was a beautiful day, just like everyone remembers. So beautiful that it seemed impossible for anything but beautiful things to happen. I was sitting in my cube, nose stuck in my computer monitor doing something inconsequential as is the norm in most jobs. I had my back to the aisle, focused on my work.

I was startled by a hug. It was my friend Patty who had just arrived to work late due to a dentist appointment. As she hugged my shoulders she said quietly, almost emotionless, "Get on the internet. We're under attack." I switched to and saw the headlines. Stunned, I said and did nothing except grab Patty's arms, still holding me tightly from behind almost as if she were trying to keep me from slipping away.

"I love you," she said. "I love you, too," I choked out almost too late for her to hear it. She was off to tell the others.

I instinctively called my husband at work. He had just heard as well. The next thought that came flying through my fingertips was to call my parents. Dad answered.

"Turn on CNN," I said firmly.
"A plane flew into the World Trade Center. It doesn't look good."

Dad turned on the tv and said that both towers had been hit. I tried to refresh but too many others had the same idea. I had no access to news and was frantic.

But not as frantic as my father who went into a panic because my mother was out at the hairdressers. They only had one car and he couldn't get to her. He, like me, was wondering just how far this attack could reach.

By now, the office was buzzing. Someone found a tv and hooked it up in the conference room. I worked at a semi-small company and quite a few of us could fit into the room. We sat in silence with the exception of an intermittent "Oh my God" as each person came to terms with what was happening.

We were sent home shortly afterwards with instructions to drive carefully. We left in a fog. Parents worried about their kids; I worried about my cousins who worked in Manhattan.

Driving in those conditions was dreamlike. Everyone on the road was looking up at the sky as they drove, trusting the ground would find a way to get us home.

When I arrived at my house, I turned on the tv and sat on the couch. I sat there in some sort of trance. My dog Brittany hopped up on the couch next to me. She sat intently and stared at me with that motherly look she gave me when she didn't understand what I was feeling. Every so often she'd lift her front paw and tap me on the shoulder pulling me back to Westford.

I watched the towers implode over and over. No matter how many times I saw it, I still couldn't believe it. I called my mom and talked to her about it. She had all the phone numbers for our family in NY and was trying desperately to get through.

The next several days were just more of the same. Mom did eventually reach our cousins who were safe. But the rest of the time suspended. The tv in the conference room was moved to the cafeteria. It seemed okay with management that we mingle in and out and check for the latest updates. They knew on Tuesday that the week was a loss.

Ten years later, I look back not just on that day but on the months that followed it. I see now how that moment in history gave me valuable insight into the true nature of the people I interacted with.

My friend Patty who broke the news to me that day will always be that person - as if time stopped. When I see her now, I can't disconnect who she was in that moment from where she's at now. Everything I see in her is wrapped around that hug and that "I love you". In that 30-second timeframe when she thought we might never be together again I learned who she is at her core - a caring human being and genuine friend.

People rise or fall to occasions during extreme stress. My friend Chris invited a Muslim co-worker (who, by now was being looked at differently than he was on 9/10) to sit with him and explain the Quran as he understood it. Chris's open-mindedness and genuine embrace of difference is what I see most in him now.

My dad's instant panic about losing my mother still exists today. Now that my mom is gone, he still lives his life around needing to be with her. And for mom, her concern was for others in a crisis. That's who she always was, even when the crisis was hers.

And me? I don't know what my reaction says about me. I felt like I was sleepwalking but I'm sure I did more than that. I do remember calling my mother-in-law on 9/11 and saying how horrible I felt for all the kind Muslims who would suffer for the act of a few.

It's been ten years but the insight I gained about others will always stay with me. And I think, too, about how the US has this one moment of terrorism that shook the nation and exposed our vulnerability. It makes me wonder if nations like Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Kashmir mark each date when terrorists killed their people and destroyed their sense of peace.

Maybe they stopped noting the dates after the first time. No more firsts to mark; all the lessons have been learned.

Friday, September 2, 2011

If the label fits

I've always believed that before I give myself or anyone else a label, I had better know what I'm talking about. Not only do I not want to use a word incorrectly (there's a concept), I also don't want to offend.

Before I go off on my rant, let me say that I'm a good UU. I try really really hard not to use any sort of labels at all. Some, however, are inescapable. Like that fact that I call myself a UU. That is my religious affiliation and an appropriate label.

When people call me a liberal, I tend to bristle. I am liberal in some areas, but a moderate in others. For example, most liberals I know are opposed to the death penalty and have never voted for a Republican (gasp!).

So when someone uses a label inappropriately, I do correct them lest it lead to their using it incorrectly again, or cause them to form an opinion about me that is not true. This applies to strangers also since I am a communication Nazi.

Today in the supermarket - where, I've noticed, I tend to leave with some sort of rant every week - a woman called herself a vegetarian and then proceeded to tell me about the lobster rolls she loves and the chicken salad sandwich recipe her mother gave her.

I said, "Then you're not a vegetarian." To which she shockingly responded, "I am too. I don't eat red meat!" 

I told her that being a vegetarian (like me) means that you don't eat meat or fish. Which caused her to use yet another incorrect label - vegan. I had to then explain to her that I am not a vegan because I eat dairy and eggs where vegans do not. If you don't eat meat but do eat fish, you are a pescetarian.

I've stopped counting the number of times that I've had to make that distinction to people. Maybe more people are calling themselves vegetarians because it's the new in thing so I'm hearing it used incorrectly more often.

But whether the label is food-related (and, p.s. I'm not a vegetarian because I'm on a diet) or not, it would seem to me that before you give YOURSELF a label, you would look up the definition first.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Writing through grief

My blog has been wasting away since my mom died three months ago. It has been on my mind constantly in the sense that I feel like I should write but then can't. I don't know what to say in my writing. And then, when I feel like I have something to say, I can't find the right words.

The loss of my writing muse has been a surprise. Writing through my mother's illness and death was easy. My blog was an outlet for me to place all the emotions and events that I was dealing with - somehow making them more real. And, at the same time, allowing me to work through this horrible reality by finding a gem hidden in the dark mess that was me.

I wanted to blog about the best dog on the planet, Brittany, who died a few weeks before my mom. But I didn't. And still can't.

Today I took my laptop to the local coffee shop. I was meeting a dear friend for lunch and then I thought I might stay and attempt some writing. It was hard to get started, but I did. In fact, I wrote a piece that I like so much I will shop it around to magazines.

I found that getting out of the familiar helps me with my grief. Grief that I can't seem to integrate into my life but know I need to. I'm very guarded with sadness. I always feel that I'm needed by others (like my dad) and that if I start grieving, I won't be able to be there for those who are in worse shape than me.

There were never any expectations placed on me to be "the strong one" but I always felt up to the task. And although that task has been taking a huge toll on my own sense of happiness, I feel like I have to stay in a role that took 52 years to perfect. Why? I don't know. I guess because my mom would want me to. Or maybe because it's a job that needs to be filled and I've got the best resume.

Whatever the reason, I'm hoping that getting back to writing helps me work through the grief. Even though the subject I need to write about is something I always dreaded.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

When the justice system sees its shadow

Casey Anthony
I have been watching friends' responses to the Casey Anthony verdict with much interest. Admittedly, I really haven't been following it in the news as closely as others. I do know, however, that a young child was murdered and an emotionally-erratic mother was prosecuted.

When I was in my 20s, I became a bar-certified paralegal. One of the electives I took was Criminal Law. Every advisor in the program said I was crazy to waste my time since there are very few criminal paralegals. But since I have always been interested in criminal law since the Perry Mason days, I felt I would enjoy the course and also learn a lot about the inner-workings of a criminal court case and the American criminal justice system.

My instructor was a private criminal defense attorney who just made the break from working for the State of MA as a public defense attorney. He had some great stories and wove these examples into his class. I was fascinated.

One of the things we discussed quite a bit was the burden-of-proof concept and how that was really the basis for all law, but especially criminal law. When convicted of a criminal offense, what's at stake is a citizen's freedom or life, not his material possessions. So, the burden of proof is higher in criminal cases. 

The reason, for example, that OJ was found not guilty in a criminal case while later being found guilty in a civil case for the same offense, is that shift in the burden-of-proof.

When the State prosecutes a criminal case, it has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. In a civil case, the plaintiff need only prove a preponderance of the evidence.

There are many differences between criminal and civil law but that "shadow of a doubt" concept is the biggest.

So, when I heard that Anthony's defense attorneys did a good job creating that shadow, and that the State of Florida didn't do a good job of proving that the shadow was unreasonable, I assumed a not guilty verdict would be delivered.

As it should in this case.

My criminal law professor said that it's better to let one hundred guilty defendants go free than to imprison or execute one innocent defendant. And as hard as that is to hear, it is absolutely the way you want your country's court system to run.

I never blame the jury, I always point to the attorneys and the judge if there are questions about the verdict. Was the rule of law upheld? Was the discovery process fair and open? Did the attorneys on both sides have every opportunity to defend or prosecute fairly?

If the answer to all of those questions is Yes, then you have to question either the skill (or lack thereof, see: OJ) of the prosecuting attorneys, or the quality of the evidence or witnesses.

I've seen lots of instances where, if the defense attorneys do a great job, those who question the verdict often pin the blame on them accusing them of being soulless mercenaries. To that I say, if it were your head on the chopping block, you would want nothing less.

Case law is the most important type of law in this country since most of the subsequent law is based on its verdicts and judges' opinions rather than on statutory law. So, getting it right is huge.

But forgetting the balancing scales of justice and replacing them with emotion is the biggest shadow anyone could cast on this very American system.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Get lost

I was driving home tonight from a meeting in a town I don't know very well when I missed a left turn. I was lost in my own thoughts and, by the time I realized I had missed it, I was quite a ways down a road I had never been on.

My first instinct was to turn around and head back where I came from and, this time, look for that turn. But I didn't. Instead I kept driving knowing that, at some point, I'd come upon something I would recognize.

Things do look different in the dark but as the Welcome-to-<insert town/city name here> signs changed things started to look more familiar. My heart skipped a beat when I guessed where I was and then saw the street sign to confirm it.

I've always had a great sense of direction. I have no idea where that inner compass comes from but I'm glad I have it. I'm also a little crazy because I enjoy getting lost from time to time. It makes me step outside of my comfort zone and check in with my instincts. Something I do less and less of in middle age.

When I was in the Berkshires for a few days with a friend last week, she directed me all over the area as I drove. She knows it like the back of her hand, where I'm almost never in that section of the state. Funny thing is, no matter how many times we travelled some of the same roads, I still couldn't figure out where to turn half the time. I told her that if I didn't have her as a co-pilot, I would already know my way. I'd have to rely on my own sense of direction and would be paying more attention to landmarks if I knew I didn't have a cushion.

It's been a bizarre six weeks since my mother died. The one person I could always count on to guide me is gone. And I've been feeling like I'm constantly walking on new ground. At my age, I haven't felt like I needed my mother in a long time. But having her there to listen has always helped me figure out what direction was right for me.

Feelings of uneasiness persist. Like there's an earthquake happening while my foot is in mid-air. Waiting for the ground to settle so that foot might find a stable landing spot. But every time the earthquake looks like it's stopping, more tremors arise.

All of my experiences are new ground now. Old traditions are now as new as new joys and sorrows. Because they're experienced without my mother.

The feeling I experienced tonight by missing a familiar turn was not new even though some of the ground I travelled was. I was never really lost even though it felt that way for a moment. In deciding not to turn around but instead forge ahead into unknown territory, I realized that I still have the skills I need to move forward. And that new ground is only unfamiliar the first time you step on it.

I will find my way without mom as I did on the dark, unfamiliar road tonight. My inner compass will guide me through wrong turns until I learn a new way to navigate. I will trust my instincts as I always have remembering that firsts are only firsts once.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

See you on the other side

To those who have been following my blog and the journey with my mom, I wanted to let you all know that she passed away Monday, May 9th. I was blessed to be there with her in the end, though it was the hardest moment of my life.

There's a lot running around in my head about mom but I can't seem to find the right words to write. So, I'll share the eulogy I wrote and thank you all for your love and support.

As I sat down to write this eulogy last night, I struggled about where to start. So I took to mom’s own words for guidance. As I reread the obituary that mom wrote many months ago, I realized that she left out many facts about herself. She didn’t note her age or employment history. She didn’t mention where her kids live or where she was born.

What is in the obituary, however, is what mattered most to her -- and that was the people she loved. Mom liked nothing better than to have her family around her especially when she could cook her fabulous turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. And she insisted on doing just that last November – chemo and all.

My sister Lisa said recently that mom’s spirit was and is so strong that she will never really be gone. Since I feel the same as Lisa, I would like to address the rest of these words directly to mom.

Hi mom. We are missing you like crazy but family and friends are all gathered here just like you wanted. Even people who never met you but love the children you raised so much that they know you through them.

My friend Patty called yesterday. You remember Patty. My friend who met you only a couple of times years ago before she moved to Florida. She called to say that she felt a connection to you that she hasn’t felt since her own mother passed away twenty years ago. And that she was sorry she couldn’t be here to honor you.

You had that effect on people, mom. I never met anyone who didn’t instantly fall in love with you. Must have been that they recognized your instant love for them. Every person you met was a potential new friend and received that big warm genuine smile and a hug before you parted.

You made everyone feel like they were at their best when they were with you. I know I did. This awkward, socially-scared little girl who grew up to be a confident, extroverted woman because of how much you accepted and loved her unconditionally.

I always marveled at how quickly and completely you could peel away the outer layers of insecurity and false bravado to find the jewel that lay within. You knew people through their hearts not their missteps. This kept you free from the disappointment in others that the rest of us struggle with and it also opened up your heart to a greater knowing and a deep kindness.

This spiritual freedom allowed you to live fully in each moment and capitalize on any fun that may be lurking around the corner.

Ron says you were a walking party. We’ve been reminiscing about the pianos you couldn’t walk by without plunking down on the bench and playing a tune. Didn’t matter if it was in a fancy restaurant or a pub in Ireland. There was fun to be had and you were on call 24 X 7.

We all loved sitting around the piano in your living room singing the old songs that you knew by heart. I think you liked to play the piano mostly because it brought people together. That was your mission in life and where you found and shared so much joy.

But I think that your love for dad was greater than any other love in your life. It was especially evident in the way you cared for each other in times of poor health. Dad’s devotion to you in this final battle was the greatest gift of love anyone could give. I know you know that, mom, but I wanted to tell you anyway.

Thank you, mom, for trusting me and Joe to walk with you in your final moments. There has never been a greater love between a mother and son as there is between you and Joe. And that will live on along with that strong spirit that Lisa talked about. Your spirit won’t just live in your immediate family but will be there in the nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends whom you’ve celebrated and who have given you so much love in return.

We are all looking forward to meeting your newest granddaughter, Nora Cecelia Lindsay.  Just think, mom, you’re finally getting a Nora in the family. And Lisa, Scott, and Toby won’t be the only ones to tell her all about you. You’ve got all of us here who know and love you in our own personal ways.

So, be at peace, mom, and know that you accomplished something that few others can. You not only made us love you, you also made us love ourselves. We will be lifted by your beautiful spirit as we carry on, our loads lightened and our hearts full.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Holding both sorrow and love at the same time

My church's "caring quilt" (made by me and friend Lynne)
that sits at the foot of my mother's bed
 The last two weeks have been the hardest weeks in all of my 52 years. My last post ("Doing hope") told the story of one of those weeks. The second week tested my ability to hope even further.

Mom ended up in the ER one week ago. After many tests and visits from specialists, it was determined that my mother has another intestinal blockage, and has suffered a heart attack as well. With no heart disease in the family, that last one was a shocker. It was no doubt related to the stress she's been under for 9 months and especially these last two as health issues have been piling up related to either the cancer or the chemo.

It was a really tough day for all of us. The entire family was there including my sister who was down from Maine with her husband and my seven-year-old nephew.

The docs hooked mom up to all sorts of machines and got her comfortable and then we headed home. Upon returning home, we found the world's greatest dog, our Brittany, in distress. We rushed her to our vet's office and it became obvious that she had suffered some sort of major neurological episode. We had no choice but to put her to sleep.

Ron and I have processed very little grief associated to Brittany, though we know it will catch up with us. There's no time or emotional space for that grief right now. I will dedicate an entire post to Brittany in the coming weeks since she was a creature that filled my life with joy for almost 11 years.

After consulting with many of mom's doctors, it was decided that there would be no more surgery and no more chemo. We are in a palliative care mode which will shift to a hospice mode probably sooner rather than later.

It is getting increasingly difficult for me to process all of this sorrow. As always, I try to buck up and get through it for everyone else's sake. Still, I try to find a life lesson in all of it. I'm still a bit of a mystic and feel that the universe always has something it wants us to learn from all of our experiences - good and bad.

I'm still sorting out the lessons but there's one thing I have learned. My friends, my family, my husband, my minister, and my church hold me in a way that I cannot explain. I feel enveloped in a kind of love that cannot be expressed in a Hallmark way.

It's there in the hugs from the amazingly wise and kind high schoolers from the church youth group I co-lead. I find it in the meal sent home to my father from my sister-in-law after our Easter celebration today. I hear it in the many private discussions I've had with my mother's doctors who have treated her and grown to love her since last July.

I will get through all of this grief because I have to, and I will learn to let go and trust the universe to teach me more lessons along the way.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Doing hope

I have a quote-a-day calendar that Ron gave me for Christmas. He bought it because the box it came in had the picture to the left as its cover. My friend Moira sent me that avatar months before and I immediately printed it and stuck it on my refrigerator.

There was a lot going on then as there is now and so I've kept that mantra in plain view at all times.

It was a tough week in the Nolan family and I needed to keep that quote handy. Dad ended up in the hospital for a few days and I took care of mom while my brother coordinated Dad's care.

I struggled this week both emotionally and physically. More than I have since mom's cancer journey started last July. My chronic fatigue syndrome is always there. Like a flu you just can't shake. I've lived with it for eight years and will continue to do so, I expect, till the day I die.

To make matters worse, in the middle of this stressful week I contracted the norovirus. Strangely enough, although I have a chronic illness, I tend not to be susceptible to the contagious stuff. I may get a minor cold once a year but that's usually it. I guess the universe figures I've paid my dues.

Dad returned from the hospital, recovered and well, and I returned home. At home yesterday - where I didn't have to keep up my caregiver facade - I was surprised to find a lot of overwhelming feeling spilling out of me. It was the meltdown that I've been pretending I could avoid for the past 9 months. I had this grand illusion that I could think myself through all the feelings. "You will have no regrets." "You are as strong as your mother." "This is all part of life." "Keep calm and carry on."

Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the norovirus that kicked the crap out of me, or maybe it was just the proverbial last straw. Whatever it was, it wasn't pretty.

Ron, the world's greatest guy, answered his phone while he was at lunch. What he heard was a sobbing, mumbling woman who could barely speak because all of her energy was being used to keep her shoulders from heaving themselves to the floor. He said, "I'll be right home."

I spent most of the afternoon sitting on the couch with my rock of a husband and a box of kleenex. Then I was sent to bed to sleep.

There were lots of feelings that made their way out of my mouth in between sobs while I sat on that couch with Ron. Some of it made no sense but feelings are not about sense. When I got to the point where I was too exhausted to cry anymore, I said to Ron, "So what am I supposed to do now?" He said, "Get some rest."

I know I didn't articulate my question correctly. I honestly didn't know how to at that moment. But I knew I hadn't found the answer I was looking for. That is, until this morning when I ripped off yesterday's page on my quotations calendar. " not a feeling; it is something you do." -- Katherine Paterson.

And there it was. Something I could do, not just feel.

I can't stop my feelings from overtaking me sometimes. But I can hope. I'm not foolish enough or in denial enough to hope that a cure is found for pancreatic cancer in time to save my mom. But there is still much to hope for.

I can hope for more treasured moments with mom and dad that will carry me through. I can hope that my loved ones will continue to be there for me as they have all along. I can hope that tomorrow will be a better day. And I can hope that no matter what I'm feeling, I can still choose hope.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dennis Miller time

I always assume that anyone who reads this blog thinks I'm some sort of a sweet person. That is, anyone who hasn't had the experience of being around my rather sharp sense of humor. A friend of mine told me once, "You're a good person but you'll never be a nice person. Nice people don't challenge people. They just say, 'How nice for you'. You could never do that when you disagree."

I use this blog for thoughtful pieces and discussion and it's true that this "good" person prefers not to get off on a public rant. But then, there are moments when I channel Dennis Miller.

And this is one of those moments.
  • If you're in a lane that is marked (on the pavement and on signs) as a right-hand turn lane only, is there a reason, Mr. Driver, that you feel the need to also put on your right directional?
  • And another one from the overstating-the-incredibly-obvious file... If you're merging from an entrance ramp onto a highway, do you really need to tell me with your directional that you're going to the left? I mean, where else can you possibly go in that situation unless you're hell-bent on becoming intimately acquainted with a guard rail?
  • If you are over 16, you should know how to use "you're" and "your".
  • I'm a vegetarian, not a vegan. There is a difference. Please stop correcting me and telling me what I am. K?
  • My name is pronounced deh-shane, not du-shane. Do you see any u's in my name? Didn't think so.
  • If you have a cellphone for emergencies, why is it never on when I call? And, why have you never learned to operate voicemail? If you don't want to be reached easily, why do you have a cellphone?
  • And while we're on the subject of cellphones... When you're in a public place, put the damn cellphone on vibrate. I don't need to hear your bad taste in ringtones or your loud voice punctuated by "huh?" because your crappy phone can't hold a signal.
  • If you're a cashier in a supermarket, don't pick up my one cortland apple and say, "What are you going to do with one apple?" And when I reply that it's for a scone recipe, don't show your culinary ignorance by scrunching your face and turning your head sideways while looking at me. I'm not expecting Julia Child behind the scanner, but I do expect that most adults have some clue of the existence of non-processed food. Especially when you work in the food industry.
  • If you're over 16, you should know the difference between there, their, and they're. There.
  • And while we're at it... affect is a verb, effect is a noun. It's that simple.
  • If you don't know the difference between a verb and a noun, how did you graduate high school?
  • It's Kathy, not Cathy. You've known me for 30 years. It's time to learn my name.
  • If I put my name on a waiting list for you to call out when there's a table, why must you always make me and the people in line behind me wait longer by asking if I spell my name with a C or a K? You'll be pronouncing it the same no matter how I spell it. Seems like bad time management to me.
  • I drink decaf coffee because caffeine gives me migraines. It still tastes good to me. No one is impressed by your coffee snobbery.
  • If I'm going through a really difficult time in my life and choose to talk about it which is rare because I always suck it up and hate to whine, it's now your turn to listen to me. I've been listening to your non-stop tales of woe for years. It's not always about you.
  • I'm okay with stupid. Just do it quietly.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The power of words

Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by the power of words. Not just words that tell a story or report the facts. I'm talking about words that help change lives.

We've all had times where we get lost in the words rolling around in our heads. We future-think ourselves into corners, fight verbal battles with opponents, and sometimes end up creating entire lives for ourselves without ever living them.

Those who follow this blog know that my mom is not well. Anyone who has heard a doctor deliver an incurable cancer diagnosis to a loved one knows what an emotional nightmare that is. Mom's making her own personal journey through this which is not the same as the ones the rest of us are making.

My personal journey through this has been strangely accepting. That is not to say that I don't have my moments. I have plenty. Most of it takes place in my head late at night when I can't sleep. That's when the future-thinking starts and sometimes spins out of control. I keep most of this thinking to myself and rarely share it. When there's someone else with a greater need, I focus there and park my own issues for later.

But I feel, at the same time, to be incredibly lucky in many ways. Lucky to have my mom with me still. Lucky to have a family that is so caring and helpful. And lucky, too, to have such a strong support network.

I have a friend who sends me the funniest cards I've ever seen. They don't come on occasions and aren't for any particular event. They come just because. They appear in my mailbox amidst all the bills and are often signed with a simple :-)

My church has two groups called "Healing Conversations". One is for adults; one is for teens. My minister and I co-lead the one for teens and I treasure those times with the youth. The adult group is for me. It's a time to come together and explore grief and support each other. There is crying and laughing, occasionally at the same time.

Throughout my journey, I've had friends from church and outside church speak words that get into my ever-processing brain and cause it to stop its churning. I don't think any of these friends have any clue how much a couple of words, spoken at the right time, can mean to me.

My friend Jack said two words to me the other night that have helped me a lot this week. The words are "Be peaceful." Simple but perfect. To me that means accepting what will be and letting go of the impulse to predict the future.

Jack's advice also reminded me of the power of words. Two words might not seem like much communication in the course of a long day of talking - or typing. I was happy to know that my life-long love of words hasn't been lost in 140-character tweets. 

Words are powerful enough to grab heavy emotion by the scruff of its neck and gently place it where it can do no harm. Magic happens at times like that - when you least expect it but most need it. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

You know you're a dog lover when...

I got to thinking today what a bizarre bunch we dog lovers are and how we have adapted our lives around our dogs. So, I got a conversation going on Twitter today. You can find my and other's comments at #doglover.

Here are some of my tweets to answer the sentence, "You know you're a dog lover when...."
  • You find dog poop on your wedding ring and don't even flinch.
  • You start your day with dog fur floating in your coffee cup.
  • You leave your outdoor winter gear within reach until mid-April.
  • Drool is the new furniture polish.
  • Your rugs have throw rugs on top of them.
  • You introduce your dog to your houseguests before you take their coats.
  • You spend more time grooming the dog than yourself.
  • Friends ask you how "the kids" are doing and you don't have any children.
  • Sleeping in is something you did back in college.
  • Your mother calls and asks how the dogs are doing before she asks about your husband.
  • You say you're taking the dogs on a "W" because the word "walk" makes them crazy.
  • You pass a dog and remember him but have no idea what the dogwalker looked like.
  • You have an email address and/or password with your dog's name or breed in it
  • You drive with the windows rolled down on a 20-degree day.
  • The word "bitch" doesn't phase you.
  • You spend an easy $100 at the pet supply store but cringe when your own food bill comes to $80.
  • You always have paper towels and Resolve Pet Stain carpet cleaner on your weekly shopping list.
  • You are friends with your vets and their employees on Facebook.
  • Your arthritic dog gets a massage every two weeks and you get one once a year.
  • People apologize to you ahead of time if they're going to say something not completely glowing about a dog.
  • Friends call you for advice before they call the vet.
Can you complete this sentence? If so, add your thoughts here or on Twitter under the topic #doglover.

C'mon! Join in!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why vegetarianism?

I get that question fairly often when people find that out about me. It's been about 5 years since I've given up meat and fish (though I do occasionally have shrimp) and I have honestly never regretted the decision.

This week I attended a discussion about vegetarianism at my church. There were a large number of people there who either were vegetarians or vegans, or folks who were thinking about making that switch.

My path to vegetarianism was a fairly long one. I've always been an animal lover and, even as a kid, felt great empathy for living things. When my dad or brother caught a fish when vacationing in Maine, my heart would break when I saw the fish flopping in the bucket.

Back home in the city, I would follow squirrels and try to learn about their family lives. I was able to recognize them individually based on coat coloring, size, and behavior. If I didn't see one of them for a while, I would worry.

Me advocating for Springer Spaniel Rescue at one of our
many outdoor events

We didn't get a family pet until my uncle brought a Springer Spaniel puppy to us when I was in high school. That was one of those life moments that I will never forget. It was such a surprise and a joy to see that little wiggling blur running toward us as we all instinctively dropped to the living room floor.

Through years of dogs that were either my parents or mine, I found myself becoming an animal rights activist. Seeing and reading about the abuse and neglect that so many sweet souls endure led me to volunteer with Springer Spaniel Rescue where Ron and I had adopted our first dog together, the amazing Miss Brittany.

While volunteering with Rescue, I became involved with the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition (MARC) when a call went out to protest a rather nasty pet store. All of the puppies came from puppy mills in the South. While holding signs and being sworn at by ignorant passers-by, I started to chat up the president of MARC.

She was a confirmed vegetarian and told me that her group wasn't just about advocating for pets but for all animals, especially those in the factory meat processing plants. She told me, "Pigs are as smart and as in-tune emotionally as dogs. But the calls for action against pet abuse are the only ones that get people holding signs."

The seed was planted.

Over the course of a few years, I started paying more attention to the way animals were treated if the end result was food. The systematic "processing" of the living really started to gnaw its way into my gut.

I lost a lot of sleep thinking about how I was contributing to the process. Thoughts of animals and birds crowded into pens while awaiting a frightening and stressful end got me thinking about how my own dogs would feel if they were in those pens -- and in the line of terrified animals headed for the slaughter.

But then, how would I function without meat and fish? And not just the food, but the traditions surrounding it? The hot dogs on July 4th, the turkey at Thanksgiving, the ham at Easter. What could I order in a favorite restaurant that catered to meat eaters?

Conflicting thoughts flooded my nighttime conciousness and I just couldn't decide. Then, one day... it happened. I stumbled upon an online video of a puppy mill taken by an animal rights activist who posed as a worker and brought a hidden camera with her.

The images were heartbreaking. Dogs were kept in cages too small for them. They were emaciated, covered in sores, and acting crazily from years of being used as money-making products and not living creatures.

It was then I had an epiphany. I realized it was easier for me to become a vegetarian than it was for me to agonize over it.

The result is a happier, healthier body and soul. Traditions haven't changed that much - I just eat the vegetables instead of the meat. Restaurants are more than happy to adjust menu items to fit my life choice. And veggie burgers are a fine replacement for hot dogs on Independence Day.

My husband has learned to prepare his own meat dishes with some guidance from me. I've found some amazingly tasty vegetarian meals that we both love. And my family and friends have adjusted and accepted the change, often ensuring that they have a vegetarian option for me when I come for dinner -- though I honestly don't expect it.

What I find the most interesting is others' approach to my spiritual and ethical decision, one that I don't push on anyone. As some offer me a meat or fish dish out of pure hospitality, they immediately catch themselves and say, "Oh. I'm sorry! You can't have this!"

My answer is always the same: "Actually, I can have it. I choose not to."

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's a Lowell thing

The Boston Globe listed new DVD releases this weekend and The Fighter was one of them. Ever since I saw the movie last year, I've been meaning to write about it.

The movie was a huge draw for me, and still is. I not only grew up in the area of Lowell that was depicted in the film (The Highlands), I also was an unpaid extra in the early fight scenes. Could you see me? No. Although I plan to buy the DVD and slow-mo the part where I thought I'd appear on camera (in the background) and doublecheck.

Still, my voice and energy were in those scenes and I consider myself part of the film. An Oscar award winning film, at that. Check that one off the bucket list.

It was fascinating to be part of the filming for one day. I knew when I walked into the Tsongas Arena and was faced with Marky Mark in boxing trunks and gloves (and not much else) that this was all the payment I needed. It was a long day sitting in an arena with a bunch of extras doing the same take over and over and over. I think that the entire 7 hours I spent on the set resulted in 30 seconds of the movie playing time.

Watching the actors and all the supporting professionals like the makeup crew and even the guys who operated the smoke machines that got that 1980s boxing arena feel was awe-inspiring. I didn't miss a detail. And, although it now helps me understand the process while I watch a movie, I have to admit that it also took away the magic.

I never saw the director though I heard his booming voice all day instructing both the actors and the extras. Mark Wahlberg was incredibly gracious and thanked and joked around with the extras as much as he could to keep us from dying of boredom.

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo were there the entire day too but never acknowledged us. Which I thought was pretty classless. Sugar Ray Leonard had a cameo (that ended on the cutting room floor) and he got in the ring and chatted us up during a break. Micky Ward and Mickey O'Keefe also took to the ring and did some chatting with the crowd.

Maybe Bale and Leo were trying to stay in character. Or maybe that sort of pandering was beneath them. Either way, I left with a bad taste in my mouth for both of them, especially Bale who was and is a big name. Wahlberg seemed to be the regular, never-forgot-his-roots kind of guy that journalists love.

When I saw the movie, I was expecting really bad Lowell accents. The Highlands section of Lowell has a very unusual accent. Somehow, my siblings and I have managed to escape it (or maybe we have some of it but don't notice it). The accent is more pronounced than a Boston accent. It's not a Kennedy accent but is close. [Note to Martin Sheen: It's time to ditch the Kennedy accent when doing characters from Boston. No one in the world talks like that except the Kennedys.]

I remember once when I was in 6th grade, a classmate invited me to her house for a play date. It turned into a hot day and I told her I needed to bike back home and change into shorts. And I pronounced "shorts" exactly like that.

She and another playmate laughed and laughed and told me I was saying the word that means "men's underwear." Not knowing what they were talking about I asked what the difference was.

"It's pronounced 'shaahts'! Don't you know how to <taahk>?" So, I relearned the pronunciation and was very careful not to say it wrong for fear of being laughed at. Eventually, when I moved away from Lowell, someone asked why the heck I pronounced "shorts" so funny at which point I had to unlearn the wrong way and relearn the correct way. To this day, I have to remind myself to pronounce it the non-Highlands way.

I think Amy Adams did the best job with the accent. They all came very close but she nailed it. It's those sorts of details that can make or break a movie. Even Wahlberg didn't just go with his native Dorchestah accent. He understood that a well-executed local accent makes a character more believable and sets the stage for some deep character work.

Dicky Eklund went to school with me in 7th and 8th grade. I don't remember him and I moved to Andover (another accent for another day) before 9th grade. A friend told me Dicky dropped out after 8th.

I finally spent the time watching High on Crack Street after I saw The Fighter. One of the filmmakers is a distant cousin of mine. But then, I think all Irishmen in Lowell are cousins somehow with most of them coming over from County Cork around the same time.

If you've seen both movies, you know that some poetic license was taken with Dicky's story. The addict in Crack Street that they focused on was nicknamed "Boo" but his character morphed into Dicky's story in The Fighter. Boo was actually born and raised across the street from my grandparents and his family was very good to mine. I remembered that they had a son who was "trouble", as my grandparents put it, but we never held that against Boo's family.

So, there was a lot of familiarity in the movie that made me feel even more a part of it than just my being there for the fight scenes. They filmed on the street where I grew up. And they filmed in front of the house where my aunt and cousins lived. The opening scene starts in Cupples Square--the closest shopping area to my house when I was young.

The bar that appears in that first scene (The Highland Tap) was the bar I hung out at with my boyfriend when we were in college at UMass Lowell which happened to be around the time the story unfolded. Who knows, we may have even played pool or sat at the bar with Ward or Eklund. God knows we spent enough time there.

I hope Lowell can host another film crew. It's a great city with a big heart. Sure, it has its problems. What city doesn't? I'd be an extra again--paid or unpaid. Sitting in the darkened theatre with friends who survived that long day of filming with you as you watch for each other on the big screen is priceless.

And clapping with all the other Lowellians as the credits roll is a proud moment. After all, the city of Lowell was a character too.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When the muse strikes

I've been spending more time in the hospital with my mom than writing. But today, while waiting for my husband to stumble out of some pretty nasty oral surgery, I was overcome by the feeling that I would explode if I didn't put pen to paper - immediately.

I have a journal that always sits on my dresser awaiting some revelation. The journal comes with me on trips and sometimes when I know I will have a long wait. You never know when an idea will pop into your head and you best be ready before it leaves your post-menopause, foggy brain.

Today was one of those days. The past week has been emotional and exhausting. Mom is back in the hospital and I've been doing a lot of waiting, hand holding, and broad-shoulder work. They're my parents and I love them so it is my honor and privilege to walk with them during times of crisis.

I brought my journal with me the first full day my mom was in the hospital and we awaited a procedure for her. But the muse did not strike. I think if it had, I would have hit it back. "No time! No energy! Come back another day!", I would have told it.

It takes a while for me to process an emotional event. I know there is always a lesson in there somewhere. It often comes to me in the middle of the night when I'm too tired to get out of bed and shuffle over to my journal. And so, the thought will often disappear with the morning light.

Magazines and a book were to be my distractions today as I awaited a peaceful resolution to Ron's gum warfare. I brought a coffee with me and finished that. Poked through the horrible, uninspiring magazines in the office waiting room and decided that a woman's magazine called "More" would be More useful as kindling.

Then, it hit. That muse! And it would not go away. I looked at the magazine and book I brought to see if there was enough blank space on the pages for me to scribble my ideas. Nothing.

I went to the service desk and, with my eyes certainly darting back and forth, asked breathlessly for a pad of paper. The clerk held up a medium-sized note pad with the doctor's name on the top and asked, "Will this do?"

"Yes. Yes. Thanks." I said as I snatched it out of her hand. A wad of gently-used toilet paper would have sufficed at that point. I fumbled for a pen in my purse as I reached my seat. Repeating over and over to myself the words that were streaming through my head at a speed faster than any toboggan I had ridden as a child.

Can't forget a single one. Must write quickly. I scribbled and tore pages away at lightning speed until there was a pile of papers (double-sided) on the table next to me. I somehow remembered to number the pages so that I wouldn't lose the flow.

I feared my pen would run out. Could I go to the service desk again and ask for a pen? Would I be pushing it if I asked to use one of their computers? No time to think about that. Just keep writing.

My husband emerged out of the treatment room and I looked up with glassy eyes. "Oh," I said, "Right on time! It took exactly one and half hours as they predicted!". "Actually, dear," he replied, "I was only in there for an hour."

I looked at my watch for a long time and did the math. Yup. One hour on the nose. Did the muse take away my sense of time while I scribbled madly? Or maybe it just took my sense. Period.

On our way back home, I tried to shake the muse from my brain as I listened to Ron's post-procedure instructions and stuffed his prescriptions in my purse to fill for him after I nudged him onto the sofa to rest. As I prepared to make the drugstore run, I grabbed at some scrap paper I have by the phone and headed back out.

I scribbled as I waited for the 'scripts to be filled and felt the piece had been somewhat fleshed out. At least enough for me to put it to bed and work on later.

Songwriters must feel this way. Do they bring their guitars with them everywhere? Or their music-lined notebooks? Or maybe a small recorder to sing into?

I don't know if their muse is the same as mine. All I know is that I will never be caught again without my journal in my voracious writer's reach.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Change I can believe in

I've never met an extremist that
I didn't distrust
Remember the last line of The Who song, "Won't get fooled again"? It's one of the biggest political statements ever made in a song, as far as I'm concerned. And a great reminder that pride does goeth before the fall.

"Meet the new boss; same as the old boss."

I might be a bit of a Pollyanna and I admit that. I have this crazy idea that political and social change can happen without violence and rage. Would it have happened in Egypt without the loss of life and military intervention? In a history wrought with war and political oppression, probably not.

However, I would like to think that the US is different. It took a war for the US to become its own country. It was a war for independence from a country whose interest was purely financial.

And it took another war to keep the country together. Though the Civil War was also fueled by financial interests, the government fought to keep the country whole.

When I listen to the Tea Partiers say that they are like the founding fathers, I shake my head. If the founding fathers were here today, they would disagree with groups who use their words to dismantle the very infrastructure they fought so hard to create. Jefferson's slave-owning notwithstanding, the founding fathers were much more liberal for their times than the Tea Partiers are in today's times.

During angry town hall meetings that allow citizens to listen to and talk with US representatives, I am always amused by the way the radical right uses these opportunities to talk (or rather, yell) more than listen. A professor of mine said once, "No one ever learned anything by talking." And that is so true.

What is so scary about listening when you disagree with someone? Is it fear that your opinion might be changed? Is changing your opinion based on fact or thoughtful discourse a bad thing?

The most volatile people on the planet are those whose opinions are cast in stone. Do they view consistency of opinion as a strength? Emerson said: "The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them."

Personally, I reserve the right to change my opinion on a strongly-held belief every day. I have been reasoned out of a stance but only through thoughtful discussion. Never with rage. Once the volume rises, I stop listening.

That volume works sometimes as we witnessed recently in Egypt. Their government was (and will likely be) based upon controlling the masses more than instituting civil and human rights. For me, the jury is still out on the type of change the protesters will end up with. I would like to think of my own country as an environment that welcomes change provided it is achieved with civility and democracy.

If the Tea Partiers have their way, I worry about the loss of civility and reason. I don't want to live in a country that makes its decisions and drives change through rage, closed minds, closed ears, and revisionist history.

I guess I always look at change with an eye on the slippery slope of political movements and how power changes what might have started as a noble vision.

Are we about to meet that "new boss" with the Tea Party movement? And, more importantly, is anyone in that movement paying attention to history?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Spring starts with Spring Training

With Spring Training around the corner, I've been thinking about my beloved Red Sox a lot. My first published column ran in the Lowell Sun on October 31st, 2007 -- a day or two after the Sox won the 2007 World Series. It isn't in their online archives so I share it here. GO SOX!

Okay, I admit it. I once thought that Red Sox fans were as clueless as the game they love.

I grew up with a football coach for a grandfather, so that sport was in my DNA. My ideal athlete was the quarterback, connecting with a receiver under real threat of death. To me, other sports seemed like games, and I thought baseball players were wimps. In football, they don't let a broken neck slow them down, yet baseball players are out for eight games with a “muscle pull”. I thought the game moved at the pace of underwater square dancing, its only excitement easily encapsulated in 30 seconds’ worth of highlights on the news.

My poor family and friends had to endure my rolling eyes every time they talked about the Sox. Then there were my usual snide comments about baseball being a game about who could wear the most gold chains and still hit a ball. They persisted and preached but to no avail.

Then it happened. My husband was watching the game where Clay Buchholz was going for a no-hitter while I was reading the paper. I looked up occasionally to hear what all the cheering was about and asked a couple of questions about baseball stats before returning to my paper. The next night this kid Jacoby Ellsbury hit a ball out of the park and I thought, hmmm, there’s that game again. I guess I could watch just a few plays. That won’t mean I’m a baseball fan. It’s just curiosity.

Something clicked and I started watching every game. In no time I went from being a naysayer to trying to convert other non-baseball fans with the same sort of fanaticism normally reserved for ex-smokers. I realized that jumping off the couch to scream “No, not Gagne!” is no different from fourth and goal when you’re yelling at the quarterback to pass.

I still think that football is the greatest sport of all time. But after watching Josh Beckett for the last two months, I now realize what amazing athletes baseball players are. Could Tom Brady throw a football 97 mph? If he did, could anyone catch it? And could those two skills converge almost every play of the game?

Then there’s the psychology of baseball. The daunting stare of Dice-K to a nervous batter just before he swings at the night air. Or a fastball that’s hit out of the park that the pitcher never thought anyone could touch. If that’s not like playing head games with your opponent on fourth and goal, I don’t know what is.

So there I was, staying up way too late at night to watch the World Series. I was wrong about baseball and can’t wait to tell old friends that I have seen the light. I think how wonderful it is that I don’t have to go without sports for seven months after the Super Bowl. And there’s another plus. Family members who complain that they never know what to give me now have a plethora of ideas. Let’s see. Do I want Pedroia’s or Beckett’s Red Sox jersey for Christmas? How about a bobblehead Manny for my car? Irish jig lessons?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Birthdays and Boston cream pie

Today's my birthday. Most people my age are already dreading the next number. As if dread makes getting older easier.

A friend said once, "The only option to growing old is dying young. And I like that option a whole lot less." To which I add, "Any day with cake is a good day." My favorite cake (if you can call it that) is Boston cream pie and my husband has one in the refrigerator just waiting for an after-dinner seranade of "Happy Birthday to you."

I wanted to be a grown up since I was about 8 years old. Couldn't wait to be part of every conversation because I was old enough to hear it all. When I was in my 20s I longed for my independence.

There is still something special about having my own kitchen where only my husband and I know what's hidden behind each cabinet door. I love standing on my deck in the summer and looking out at our wooded property knowing that this is our own private piece of the planet.

The 50th danceathon
When I turned 50 two years ago, I threw myself a huge dance party and invited a zillion people. It was a simple affair -- pretzels on the table and enough birthday cake to feed an army. I danced to every single song for four hours. I couldn't even get out of bed the next day because I was so achy. 

A lot of my friends who turned 50 that year mostly hid from the number. Some had small gatherings but I believe I was the only one with a blowout party. 

I felt like celebrating life with my loved ones and used my birthday as an excuse. The DJ played all of my favorite music that I find myself dancing to in the driver's seat. I don't believe I've ever had that much fun -- except for maybe my wedding day. And I was able to have so many special people there in one place. Introducing people and seeing them chat is the best part of a big party. We talk about our friends and families to others but they rarely get a chance to meet. What a treat it was for me to see folks mingle.

My mom turned 80 last week and we had the greatest celebration. It was "just" the immediate family but it was a special event at her favorite restaurant. With last August's cancer diagnosis we didn't think she'd be with us for her 80th. So there was an abundance of joy that overflowed and created a special evening. After my brother made a toast, my mom raised her glass again and said, "Here's to 81!".

Mom and I obviously share the same attitude about age. Every year is a gift. And every birthday is a reason to celebrate being here.

And let's not forget that Boston cream pie in the refrigerator.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Is it possible to communicate too much?

The Springer Rescue group which does most
of its communicating over the internet.
There are times that I'm a bit of a social reactionary. I like to have some peace and quiet and miss the Westford I moved to 13 years ago. Even though the area around my property hasn't changed, the traffic on my street has certainly increased. I also miss simple things like the sound of a rake and a push mower, and the slow hissing of steam radiators on a blustery night.

When I poke around consignment shops, I see reminders of a simpler time--rotary phones that needed half as many numbers dialed to connect but took twice as long to dial; typewriters with well-worn keys and a broken carriage return; Super 8 film projectors that made a hypnotic clack-clack-clack sound as the family watched home movies projected on the wall with the lights turned off.

We replaced those clunky old devices with slick, mostly-quiet electronic masterpieces. We lost the familiar and replaced it with something better--speed. I spend a fair amount of time with teens because of the youth group I co-lead and also my "aging" niece and nephews. I'm hip to all the new gadgets and use a lot of them.

Some of my friends and family members roll their eyes when I check my email from my phone, some even roll their eyes when I talk about email. Those folks say that the world has gotten too complicated and we can only communicate over the airwaves now.

Okay. I can live with some of that. I can sometimes use my phone to get lost in my own world. When I'm waiting for an appointment, I play with my phone instead of chatting up the person next to me. I can see that, at times, I reach out less to strangers.

However, I also have to consider the other side of the coin. Because of email and social networking apps, I find that I have more friends and connect with them more frequently.

I'm not a talking-on-the-phone person. Most of my friends know that. If you want to connect with me and it's not an emergency, use the computer. I like that I can correspond when it's convenient and use language that is maybe more carefully chosen than it would be if I'm rushing out the door. I get together with people quite a bit but almost always arrange that over email.

To those who say that the internet is impersonal and takes us away from making meaningful connections, I say, "Try it."

Thanks to social networking sites, I have connected with long-lost friends and rekindled friendships that would have been gone forever otherwise. I've gotten closer to cousins that I would only see at weddings and funerals. I can see pictures of friends and family who live out of state and feel like I'm there.

I have also formed friendships because of email. For example, over four years ago, I sent an email to a local political analyst whose work I always admired. That email turned into a friendship that has seen us reach out to each other at times of great sadness, tease each other about our idiosyncrasies, and meet up at a concert of a favorite band. He has been a mentor and supporter of my writing since I first began my publishing journey. We have met in person only twice but that doesn't change the fact that we call each other "friend."

If I had to guess, I would have to say that those people would not be in my life now had there been no internet. My circle of treasured humans has expanded. And anytime I need a laugh or a pick-me-up, I look back at old emails they've sent to me just as I would a letter I saved. The difference is, there are more emails than there would have been letters.

Every generation has its form of communication. Before the computer, there was the telephone. Before the telephone, there was the mail. Before the mail, there were smoke signals.

I'd like to think that we improve our communication as we evolve. Our ways to communicate have expanded even though our civility in communication hasn't always followed. But that's a blog post for another day. And you can find it right here, on the internet.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dog gone love

In remembrance of Alex who we sent to the bridge one year ago today, I share the column I wrote that was published in the Boston Globe Magazine on 4/11/2010.

We made the decision to put our beloved springer spaniel Alex to sleep on a Wednesday. It was a decision we knew we had to make at some point, and that Wednesday morning it became clear it was time. My husband, Ron, and I process grief differently. He reacts immediately with tears and retreats to a quiet space in his inner self. I, on the other hand, go into what-needs-to-be-done mode.

Alex was our first foster dog when I volunteered for a local springer rescue group, and we failed Fostering 101 horribly, or, rather, fortunately: We kept him. Alex bonded with our younger rescued springer spaniel as if they had been friends in another life. They were good for each other. Alex was the calming, reassuring peer that Brittany needed. She was the anxious one, always afraid she would be ditched again. But Brit had much to give Alex as well. Alex came from a home where he was the only dog of an elderly owner with no time to exercise him. Brit loves to play, and after just one day together, I found them bouncing around the living room in a joyous dance with a stuffed animal in their mouths.

They saw each other through some tough times in their eight years together - a lifetime for some dogs. Other foster dogs came and went; various health issues arose for both of them. Each time, the healthier one would comfort the other with snuggles and kisses. Ron and I always exchanged knowing smiles during these times. Alex and Brit were soul mates.

So when Alex's health started the long, slow decline, our thoughts often turned to how Brit would handle the loss. We had taken in an older cocker spaniel in the past two years when her owner, our friend, had passed away. But as sweet as she is, Shawna didn't bond with Alex and Brit the way they had with each other.

On that Wednesday, Ron and I asked our vet when she could come to the house to put Alex, then 15 years old, to sleep. She could either come that day or Friday. Since he was not in pain or in crisis, and we needed time to say goodbye, we decided on Friday.

The next two days were both horrible and wonderful. Ron and I took turns being "the strong one," and I tried to focus on making Alex's last days happy. Ron's grief was almost overwhelming at times as he struggled to cope with the reality that he would lose his friend. They had a special relationship that I had only begun to understand in those last two days. I started to see similarities in their character that I hadn't noticed before.

Ron and I met at a time in our lives when we were both convinced that we would be alone forever. He was the quiet, loyal, bighearted oldest son who was both dependable and sensitive. I was an outgoing middle child who always worried about pleasing others and thought she had to be perfect to be loved. We were both easily hurt because we expected so much of ourselves and, by extension, others. So relationships never seemed to work. Until we met each other on a blind date. We had both sworn off these fix-ups because they always ended in disaster. But for some reason we allowed ourselves to be talked into it by a mutual friend.

Ron was different from the others. He was kind and sweet. A calming presence in my life who embraced me and all the anxiety that came with me. Eventually, a funny thing happened - my anxiety disappeared. I was accepted and safe now. And Ron? Well, Ron let his guard down and even started fast-dancing. One day he asked me to show him some moves so we could dance together.

Years later, when I asked him if we could adopt a rescued dog, he said yes. And when I asked him a year after that if we could take in a foster dog, he said yes. Having dogs was an emotional release for Ron that I hadn't seen until that Friday.

That Friday. The day that Brittany said goodbye to the transforming partner in her life. The partner who helped her feel safe and accepted. The partner who calmed her when she was anxious and danced with her when she was filled with joy.

That Friday . . . when I saw for the first time that Alex was meant to be Brittany's partner, like Ron was meant to be mine. Rescued - all four of us.