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Monthly Archives: May 2012

I Ate The Marshmallow

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I remember life before cell phones, smart phones, even before computers, Iming, texting, iPods and podcasts. It was a slower paced existence, I think. The workday had clearer boundaries; work at home was paperwork and was limited by its weight in the briefcase. My accessibility was ample and more than adequate, but had healthy limitations.

The issue of techo-infringement came alive when we bought our summer home twenty-five years ago; we purposely got an unlisted land phone number. One of our clients had the habit of calling at all hours of the day, but most especially at 6 pm on a Friday to discuss long term planning for his shopping center. This happened regularly, and he wasn’t the only client who loved to call during “family time” on the home line. The unlisted number was a major coup; I did so ever so hesitantly and with fear. “What if he asks for the summer home phone? What will I say?”  He did ask, and I just requested that he leave a message on the office phone that we checked often enough. That worked for a while.

Our next techno-quandry was “To get a fax machine or not to get a fax machine.” At that time, urgent documents and packages were being sent by FedEx or courier. There was usually time to read and react before getting a phone call from the sender who wanted to discuss details. There also was always the excuse, “I can’t do it now, FedEx hasn’t delivered yet today” or “The courier must be stuck in traffic.” The one client who was outright pushy about our getting a fax machine was the one who used to call for answers before he even sent the documents to be discussed. He also called twice on our 25th wedding anniversary (a Saturday), said he felt bad, and had his assistant call twice more to get the address in order to send flowers. Ugh! He also added that he would be sending a fax machine for an anniversary present.

So, we adjusted to the fax, even the thermal paper, and the pace at work quickened a bit. I learned to say “Let’s talk about this fax that just arrived in 45 minutes,” instead of dropping everything and running to the machine and then the phone.

We held out on the cell phone for quite awhile. My reason was that I really like to sing loud and off key in the car without the thought of anyone interrupting me on my drive to and from work or while scoping commercial sites. I also loved that time in the car was time when no one could bother me. It was alone time that I was most reluctant to lose. I worried about the threatening infringement of the outside world that would inevitably happen because I would be unable to turn it off. I’m like the kid in the science experiment who has a marshmallow in front of her and is told not to eat it until later ( Yes, it is possible to delay the encounter, but it’s more likely that I would fail this test. The cell phone would be an un-detachable umbilical cord connecting me to the outside world always, every minute, every second, every day of the week. But like the marshmallow, I caved. At first I said I’d use it only for emergencies and family calls. Before long, it created Grand Central Station in my brain. I finally did discover the silent switch, but was never able to fully disengage from the little bugger.

Switching to computers was not much of a decision. It was a user experience delight. My beautiful Macs transformed drudgery into quick easy tasks. I loved the efficiency and the accessibility to information. It was a toy to enjoy at work and home. No regrets—no misgivings… and maybe that’s why I so easily slipped into the iPod, iChat, iPhone and now iCloud. Perhaps the fact that my daughters used these tools so effectively and with such gusto influenced me. In short, I got more from these “advancements” than I lost—and I liked that. Having all of my music downloaded into a gadget that delivers all music, all the time right into my ears is a gift. Being able to listen to my tunes and podcasts actually motivates me to get on the elliptical, take a walk, to survive a trip through the grocery store in my “swell,” affluent suburban neighborhood. The camera on my iPhone takes better pictures than my other cameras. Because I have it with me most of the time, I tend to take more shots and better pix happen. As a professor, I really appreciated having all of my materials for class available on line. I saved a lot of time and numerous trees by avoiding the copier machine and all of those handouts.

I’m not sure what the next techno-option will be and whether or not I’ll indulge. I am cautious about being too connected. Too many connections make mayhem and stress in my head; it becomes “more” without creating something “better.” I need alone time, quiet time, as much as I need information and communication. One can’t dominate the other. There is something absolutely wonderful about sitting on the deck at night with nothing to do except look at the night sky and hear the frogs, not my gadgets, peep.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

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For the past three days, I’ve been preparing to merge two homes: the suburban one where the kids went to school and the Cape house where we all played. There is just soooooo much stuff to deal with; it’s pretty overwhelming. I don’t qualify for those hoarding shows on television, but I am amazed at how much I have amassed.

I don’t buy everything I see. However, if I find something I like, I notice that I buy multiples. Yes, there were four boxes of instant oatmeal (the big ones that you could use as a drum) and eight boxes of red quinoa. There’s a knitwear designer that I like, and you guessed it, I’ve purchased all of her books; ditto for my favorite fiction author, Mark Helprin. And if something was ever once “scarce” in my history, you can bet I have it stockpiled: 17 Bean Soup Mix, tahini, and discontinued yarn fit the bill. There were twenty wooden cigar boxes patiently waiting for me to decoupage in my studio; they ARE hard to find, you know. I was not alive during the Great Depression and don’t have it to blame for this behavior.

I read somewhere that some folks work on the premise that whatever they need, will be available when they need it. I’m not one of those people, but I’m thinking I might want to become one. I have stockpiles and stashes so that everything is at my fingertips when I want it. It was not until we decided to move that the full implications of all this came into focus. I guess it’s never too late for this old dog to learn a new trick.

As I fill up boxes of goodies to be delivered to shelters, food pantries, recycling centers and the dump, I’m determined to live lean and mean, well, maybe just lean. After I finish reading a book, I’ll pass it on to some else. Knitting projects will be created with yarn from my stash, likewise for quilts and fiber art. We’ll eat up “stuff” from our pantry and look forward to some empty shelves. Isn’t it weird to be looking forward to empty shelves?! I’m reminded of a former boss telling me that I’d do well to remember that life was very much like Chinese checkers: you need empty space to jump to. Empty space gives you freedom.

WIPS: Works in Progress or Works Involving Procrastination?

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Here is a very incomplete list of my current WIPS:

  1. We’re selling the main house and attempting to get rid of everything we don’t want to move to the Cape. Joy, joy, joy… noticing how much I have amassed over the years.
  2. Goodwill, Big Brother/Big Sister, Father Bill’s/Mainspring, Cape Housing and a host of others are coming to the Cape house to pick up more stuff we no longer need. Is there a message here? Anyone need an upright piano?
  3. I’m finishing a quilt I started more than fifteen years ago. It was in my UFO (unfinished objects) box. About twenty more await my attention. I’m not kidding.
  4. Finally got rid of wine glasses that hold less than an ounce of wine… we got them as engagement presents 42 years ago and have moved them three times. Never used them once.
  5.  Mama and Papa bird started building a new nest from scratch, in the original location, in preparation for a second  brood. These little creatures (with bird brains, right?) finished the new nest in three days and completely recycled the old one. No muss, no fuss, no movers, no tears, all done. I am thoroughly enjoying them while feeling completely inadequate with my own progress.

Empty Nesters

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The family of birds is gone, gone, gone. It happened so suddenly. They adjusted to their new location after the first one crashed; the babies continued to grow quickly and started flapping their wings while still in the nest. And then they were gone.

The mama and papa still fly around the general area, with insects and seeds in their mouths. The parents sit on the stone sculptures and bushes, but they don’t go into the nest. They look as shocked as we do about the kids having left home.

Our cat, Bella, looks out the slider door with the most forlorn look on her face. She’ll whimper, then glance towards us for an answer: Where’d they go?

I did take a walk around the yard to see if I could make any astute observations about their whereabouts. No luck. My lack of success with Louis Agassiz’s principle, “Study nature, not books.” led me straight to Google. I learned that the young flyers do not return to the nest, but are still fed by mom and dad in nearby trees. And I also read that the female starts to lay a second clutch of eggs within a few days after the first brood leaves. So much for enjoying or converting the spare room. The young eventually become more independent, find food and feed themselves, but continue to live within the parents’ territory, but not the nest.

I enjoyed being part of this whole process and until today didn’t even know what kind of birds these are. Labeling and pigeon holing are not my forte. Thanks to Mass Audubon (, I think they’re Eastern Phoebe, maybe, kinda, sorta. This is the third or fourth year that they’ve returned to the same spot. Fingers crossed for a second brood. Maybe I’ll even be able to take some pictures without disturbing them. I do want them back.

When Asked, Don’t Tell

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I have many memories from Catholic elementary school, some good and more than a few bad ones. In fourth grade Sister Del Rey taught the class that only people who were baptized Catholics would earn the right to get into heaven. No non-Catholics would pass through the pearly gates; they would have to wait in Limbo, with the others and stay “on hold” for an indefinite amount of time, maybe forever. I remember raising my hand and asking if there ever were any exceptions to this rule; she firmly answered, “NO, never”. We were also told not to tell our parents about this. Hmmmm…

This posed a problem for me because my dad was baptized Episcopalian and converted to Catholicism when he was in his twenties. He was an active church member, played Santa every Christmas, and was a pillar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. According to the Sister’s understanding of “the rules”, my mom, sister and I would be in heaven, but my dad wouldn’t be admitted. By the way, fat chance that my mom and sister would make it there—but that’s another blog entry… Excluding my dad bothered me to no end. He was a foster child and had a really tough childhood. He was alone a lot of the time and made the best of it. The thought of him being alone again while the rest of us were with good-ole God upset me. I remember the anger and tears as if it were yesterday.

When I got home, every time I looked at him, I cried. He sat me down and asked me what was wrong. I told him the whole story, despite Sister’s “When Asked, Don’t Tell” policy. His reaction is one of the many reasons why I loved him so much. He looked me right in the eye and said: “Oh, don’t worry about that. I took care of it. I had a long conversation with God, and we made a deal. As long as I am a good dad, he will let me into heaven. No problems”. I was so relieved. He certainly would hold up his end of the bargain. Then he added, “God also said not to tell Sister Del Rey.”

Baby Birds, Angry Birds

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We’ve had this cute little bird’s nest filled with a momma and daddy, then four eggs, then four baby birds here at the Cape. They built the nest under the deck for protection and on top of a spotlight fixture for stability—or maybe it was the first place they found with a vacancy. Who knows?

Every day David and I check them out; I think they check us out too. We see the parents sit with the kids, run out to get food, cart it back, and we watch the little beaks open up to be fed. The parents fly, but the babies are big feathery fur balls with fluffy wings that don’t do much. Our cat, Bella, watches through the glass slider, in awe. She doesn’t go outside, and the birds don’t come inside; both make noise at each other.

This afternoon when I went to my studio, which is right near the nest, I noticed something was different. The nest was upside down on the ground; the mama and papa birds were squawking and all a flutter. I ended up yelling to David, “Bird Nest Down”—he must have thought I’d been drinking. In the meantime, I’m trying to remember what I learned in Girl Scouts fifty three years ago about fallen bird nests and bird babies on the ground. All I could remember is that we weren’t supposed to touch them with our hands because then they get “human cooties” and the bird mama won’t like the babies any more. Oh my god, that would be so horrible!

We grabbed clean garden gloves, David picked up the nest and placed it in a spot that was more stable and yet still close to the original home. Then he picked up the little fur ball babies and cuddled them together in their nest. The mama and papa bird buzz bombed him and created quite a whirlwind. David was super quiet and very calm; I was inside, bouncing off the walls. He gently kept his gloved hands (no Michael Jackson imagery, please) over the nest to calm them down. Then he walked away, and we watched from the window trying not to distract the birds in any way.

Would the parents return to the newly relocated nest with their babies, or would they take off for Provincetown or Foxwoods? We waited. I kept wanting to feed them; David said food was not the answer. I replied in earnest, “Shit, that’s the only answer I have right now.” We let them be; it almost killed me to do nothing but watch and let nature take its course. Within minutes both parents did fly-bys of the new location but didn’t stop to console or rescue the chicks. A few minutes later, they got closer and closer until they eventually visited the nest and checked in with the traumatized kids. Soon they were ferrying food to the little ones. Three little heads are now popping up, the fourth one is underneath, still cuddling. I don’t know if I can stand so much excitement in one afternoon. There are lessons to be learned here, but I’m too riled up right now to figure out what they are.

Bye, Bye TV

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We got rid of TV cable service several weeks ago and hardly knew it was absent. This weekend we got rid of the television. As I write, the recycling truck is driving down our road, and I hope he takes it. In any case, it’s gone, baby, gone from my den. I feel like I’ve lost 25 pounds and recovered three hours a day in my life. Weight loss and recovery without Twelve Steps.

I’ve never thought of myself as a TV addict—and three hours is much less than the national average, I add quite defensively. The local and national news ate up two hours and then there was House, Madmen, Downton Abbey, Nurse Jackie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boardwalk Empire, Project Runway, Top Chef, Bethany (oh, I’m so embarrassed!), Game of Thrones, Rescue Me, Breaking Bad, Discovery Channel specials about far away places with wild animals, and the Sunday news shows.

Why give it up? I just became increasingly disinterested in it all and found I had more to criticize than to celebrate after watching. Ironically, I gave up going to church for the same reasons. There was a “so what” response—or “more of the same” again. Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky or maybe I’ve moved on.

Life after TV is good. We have dinner at the kitchen table, and I’m reading, writing and doing more “stuff” than before. I actually like getting my news via reading versus the television; I can compare/contrast coverage and have the option of digging deeper into an issue. I can also ignore it all and sit on the deck listening to the birds and the frogs make noise…not a bad alternative.

I probably will watch Breaking Bad and/or Boardwalk Empire on line when they return, but I wonder if I think I miss it because it’s not available now. We’ll see. In the meantime, I like that there’s no background noise, nothing interfering with my view of the fireplace, and less clutter in my brain.

DeLillo Messes With My Head

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Don DeLillo’s book, White Noise, has been on the bottom bookshelf, collecting dust bunnies for ages. I’d pick it up, dust it off, and put it down. DeLillo re-entered my life as this past month’s book group selection: Falling Man. It’s a book that focuses on a family that is significantly dysfunctional before September 11 in NYC and massively sad and broken post 9/11. It was not a fun read and several times I thought about putting it back on the shelf with the dust bunnies.

Falling Man hit three of my emotionally fragile hot spots: 9/11, Alzheimer’s, and suicide. One of these would have been almost more than I could have handled, but all three of them really pushed buttons.  The primary characters were separated and emotionally disconnected before the planes hit the World Trade Towers. Afterwards, they spent time together, but it was painful as a reader to see them be so inadequate, loveless, and alienated to themselves, each other and their son, who is called “the kid” most of the novel. Empty and hurting and it doesn’t stop—that’s the pace of the novel.

The wife’s compassion is revealed only with her work at a local Alzheimer’s day care center, but it is likewise measured and hopeless. It is her effort to stave off the inevitable loss. The patients lose their memories, their love of life and gradually slip away. In contrast to this slow death, we see the shock of the traumatizing 9/11 deaths and her father’s suicide when he discovers he has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t want to live long enough to forget who his daughter is. It’s an alternative plan that seems selfish and selfless at the same time. His disease is, likewise, a random event… and he chooses to jump.

Amidst all of this gloom and doom is a performance artist, called “Falling Man” who dresses in street clothes and then rigs himself so that it looks like he is falling out of a window or off of a bridge. It’s a creepy reminder of tower victims who jumped from windows to their death in order to escape a fiery death. He performs by taunting death and raising fears—but does so for entertainment and art—much like DeLillio. Ironically, this is one character that I want to know more about. What makes him tick? Who is he? What’s his story? All we learn is that he dies young, and it is because of natural causes. He does toy with chaos and randomness instead of succumbing to it. It’s a scary game.

There is no relief from grief, guilt, lovelessness, and alienation in this book. The husband ends up playing poker professionally, sometimes cheats, and is living a shell of a life. He’s fighting randomness on the poker table. Everyone else is broken and doesn’t heal, and the droning beat goes on.

Why write this story? What’s the purpose? It can’t be just to make me sad. Perhaps this is the miserable underbelly of living through struggles. It shows what it’s like to survive short term and long term disappointments and failures. “Survive” is the canonical verb, not thrive. These are the folks that find a way to put one foot in front of the other when their lives suck. They survive their despondency and cope the best they can. Each does so by entering into one’s own cocoon, where the character has the opportunity to control what little can be controlled. It’s not optimal, but it’s safe, and they found a way to go on.

“Eat It, Mills.”

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At the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, Jimmy Kimmel made a remark that resonated amongst many. It was not about the President—not about politics—but about his tenth grade history teacher who told Kimmel that “he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t stop screwing around.” Apparently Kimmel was not a cookie cutter, goodie two shoes student; he pushed boundaries, and his teacher, Mr. Mills, responded with the big guns— the “you’re going to be a loser” label. It seems like Kimmel was a challenging student, and his teacher failed to meet the challenge.

In my years of teaching, I have heard many versions of this story told by far too many students whose dreams were dashed by a thoughtless teacher. I taught writing, reading and literature from grade six through college. These students had been told that they would never be a good writer or reader, or they always got the “wrong” meaning from literature. I am a firm believer in making things happen. Everybody can learn to do these skills, but they don’t all learn it the same way. One size does not fit all in the classroom. A teacher who tells a student that he will never amount to anything is WRONG. The teacher’s responsibility is to encourage growth, not to thwart it.

I still don’t understand how any adult could find it reasonable or responsible to tell a kid that he is hopeless. It must be pathetic egotism or incredibly weak teaching skills. I find that it is possible to reach these students who had been told that they don’t conform and won’t succeed. The first step is to try to eradicate the damage done by the demeaning teacher; the second is to find a strategy to enable the student to tackle these tasks and appreciate the work that goes into success. The last part is practice and conference repeatedly until the goal is accomplished. It’s hard work for both the teacher and student, but it’s effective and always amounts to something.

When I taught eighth grade in an affluent Boston suburb, achievement awards were given at a year-end assembly. Each English teacher was asked to submit the names of the students in his/her class that deserved the writing awards. I had two students who finally found their voices as writers after being told they were mediocre. I submitted their names only to be told by the department head that she taught them earlier, and they weren’t good writers. She was WRONG when she failed to teach them, and she was wrong to deny them the recognition they deserved by succeeding in spite of her failings. I had to go to the principal and fight for these two kids. I won that battle. The department head recommended that I not be rehired; I left for a better job, and she is now on the School Committee. She ran unopposed. Scary thought.

As a professor at a local university, I was overwhelmed by the number of students who defined themselves as non-writers, not good readers, and horrible at analyzing literature. These students got the negative label in middle or high school; it stuck and significantly limited how they thought about themselves. I made it clear immediately that I never wanted to hear those words again. Stop the negative talk, and let’s start working on the problems. The process is time intensive and worth every second. It’s what good teachers do.

Standards need to be met, skills need to be learned, and there are multiple options. One person’s “screwing around” is another person’s creative process. Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Robin Williams, and John Lennon are non-traditional successes. They did what we should be encouraging all students to do: think critically, use imagination, question authority, push beyond expectations, and push back those who want to suppress, depress or oppress.  We want creative, individual thinkers, not compliant, obedient puppets. It’s the teacher’s role to capture the student’s energy, help him harness it and sometimes redirect it. Redirect, not rebuke. Teach, not judge and label.

Mr. Mill’s jab caused a deep wound with significant scarring. So much damage that this successful entertainer needed to clear the air in public, on TV, in front of the President of the United States. How’s that for vindication! Kimmel remained feisty, smart, and strong. He didn’t succumb to belittling. He gives students a battle cry and hope.

I’ve been in a similar, but non-academic, situation to Kimmel’s. In the 25 year hiatus between my teaching jobs, I was a commercial real estate consultant.  When I was introduced to the guru of industry, he commented: “Diane, you’ll never make it in this business. You’re not blond. You’re not thin.” Thank God I had the strength to reply, “You won’t make it in long term because you’re short, bald, and have really bad people skills”. I fought fire with fire and didn’t get burned. I not only survived in this cutthroat industry, but also thrived for more than 25 years before I returned to teaching. He crashed and burned.

Like Kimmel, it’s the passionate ones who take calculated risks, color outside the lines, and dare to be different that achieve success. Eat that, Mr. Mills and your minions.

Ants Make Me Say “Uncle”

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This past week has brought two encounters with the species that is going to take over the world, according to my old high school biology teacher. The ants have arrived a bit early, I’m told, because of the warm weather. They’re in their glory in one small section of my basement and perhaps under some shingles on the east side of the house.

When I was a kid, the ants arrived in my mother’s living room one season. I got yelled at because I was apparently to blame. “Apparently” I ate sugared gummy candies and left some sweet stuff behind for the insects. I’m not admitting to anything… but the cure, back then, was rather simple. My mother made me spray Raid until I choked. That killed everything, she said. Hmmmm…I said gagging.

Today, however, we have spoken to four specialists at a “pest control” company. Actually, I wanted the company that had the big cockroach on its van to show up in Swellesley, but my husband nixed that idea. I don’t want to offend PITA or Green People, but I want these ants dead, and I’d like to not choke in the process.

So on Monday, the games will begin: Pest Controllers VS Ants. Who are you rooting for?