Add This

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Hectic flight home

Thanks to Dubya, I didn't get home until after 9 tonight. Well, maybe it wasn't only because of him. There was a little problem in that we were missing a flight attendant for our trip from Pittsburgh to Akron. That was after we were rerouted nearly to Albany because of bad weather in Philadelphia. I had to make my connection in five minutes. Should have known it wouldn't be as simple as walking from one plane to another. As luck would have it, just as we finally managed the necessary crew (about 7:15), we were told to wait because Air Force One was waiting for Bush and would take off immediately. I should have been home by 7. Such is the traveling life.

Got a chuckle out of the guy in front of me who was jones-ing huge for a cigarette. He wouldn't shut up. The good news is that I managed to read most of my latest book to review: "The Wisdom of Forgiveness" with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I'm still revved from my amazing experience. New York is in my blood and I can't wait to return. Decided to pop back into St. Patrick's Cathedral today to pick up religious medals for the boys (St. Patrick for Ryan and Patrick and St. Michael for Mikey) and say a quick prayer. Imagine my delight when I saw a bagpiper standing on the front steps on Fifth Avenue. I walked inside just in time for a wedding to begin. It's odd to imagine being married in such a public place. Wonder how early they had to book the church?

Tourists were crowding against the velvet ropes hoping for a glimpse of the bride. And then the organ began playing and I could feel the bass in my belly. Emotions swept over me and I couldn't help the tears streaming down my face. I decided to sit in a side pew to watch for a few moments and regain my composure. A security guard knelt down and gestured with his hands and face, telling the young flower girl to smile big. The amber flicker and glow of the novena candles at the side altars was a soothing site that adds to the sacredness of the place.

I head across the street afterward to The NBA Store to buy gifts for the boys. Jeez, they would have a field day in that store. I think I'll get some birthday and Christmas gifts when I return in September. And then I make a stop at the drugstore for BandAids because my feet are a mess from walking. I have blisters everywhere but managed to push through the pain until my trip was nearing an end.

Can't believe I had to leave. While waiting in LaGuardia I made a mental list of all the things I didn't see. September's trip will definitely involve a visit to the East Village and the Brooklyn Bridge and who knows what else.

People watching

After my day of walking I was ready to take a nap last night. Instead, I threw on a sleeveless dress and headed out for dinner and to experience more NY energy. I opted to go across the street to Maison Brasserie with a wonderful outdoor café. I was seated near the sidewalk in a spot that faced 7th and 53rd and was ideal for people watching, one of the truly great NY experiences. I ordered a glass of white wine from a waiter who spoke with what sounded like a French accent. I’ll have to ask him about his story.

My meal looks beautiful—seared tuna with mesculin lettuce, some kind of very different petite potato and haricot vers. “Chick food” my hubby would say. The French appreciate the subtle blend of flavors—tuna, gourmet black olives, cherry tomatoes, and hard-boiled egg with just a light hint of vinaigrette. It’s an artful combination.

There’s a flurry of people heading out to Broadway shows. One family walks by with two girls carrying huge American Girl Doll bags. Yikes! I’ve seen those catalogs and that stuff is expensive. Makes me glad I don’t have girls. My friend Lisa Best calls me on the cell and laughs as she hears the familiar taxis honking. Her family just moved back from Ridgewood, N.J.

I saw a mom and her grown daughter dressed in matching black stretch tops revealing major cleavage, mini skirts, bleach-bottle blond hair and giant gold hoop earrings. Oy!

Okay now here’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve been watching these past two days. Experienced New Yorkers really don’t stop and wait for the walk sign to cross the street; they just go as if can’t be troubled by traffic. What I’ve observed is that there’s a rhythm to this and you start to pick up on it if you pay attention.

Women in New York wear some amazing shoes. It defies logic how they can walk the streets of Manhattan in such insensible shoes. Maybe I just wish I could wear them. Alas, I cannot and must accept my limitation.

The guys selling knock-off designer handbags make me laugh and I realize that most of the women I know in Cleveland have probably purchased one of these—Kate Spade, Burberry, Louis Vitton. Thing is, I can’t stand the cheesy labels on these things. I prefer a much subtler style sans label. Give me a fine leather bag with no identifying logos any day and I’m happy.

Thought New York would be more dressed up, but it’s fairly casual. I have to confess that’s disappointing in a way. Lot of flip-flops, bare bellies and hip-huggers, just like home.

I’m fighting a tinge of loneliness this evening, mostly because there are so many people with whom I’d like to share this experience. I keep thinking about what I would show the kids first. I think it has to be Times Square. It’s simply unbelievable and they will be able to relate having seen it on TV. Though I must confess, I’ve had my fill of the mayhem there. I want to show them everything.

There are some great stories here. I considered asking to see Margaret Bourke-White’s photography studio on top of the Chrysler Building, or the home where Edith Wharton grew up or backstage at Carnegie Hall or the finest suite at The Plaza. I want the back story. Instead I ask my waiter where he’s from. Turns out he’s from Switzerland and—surprise—he’s an actor. He’s got a bit part in a Brooklyn production of “Twelfth Night.” I wish him well and head in for the night.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Walking for miles

There aren’t many quiet places in New York City, but Central Park is awesome and enchanting, especially the Shakespeare Garden. I just came from the Delacorte Theater box office trying to score some tickets for tonight’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Much Ado About Nothing.” I simply love the language in that play. Beatrice and Benedict are two of the smartest whips around and their playful banter is great fun.

The performance is sold out, but I may consider getting in line for standby tickets. Just don’t know if I want to waste my first visit standing in a long line. The actors are rehearsing this afternoon so as you walk through the Shakespeare Garden his spoken words permeate the air.

Softball is a serious pastime in Central Park. There are games on every diamond and many fans around to watch.

I tried to grab lunch at Lindy’s, but there were many people waiting in line to be seated and a completely arrogant hostess who acted as if no one was there. I chose not to wait and instead grabbed a hot dog from one of the park vendors.

The glass walls of the Central Park conservatory arise out of the park and I draw in my breath because it reminds me of an Edith Wharton novel in which two lovers escape to the conservatory from the elements and from their real lives while walking in the park. For a 150-year-old park, it looks pretty good. The kids would love the Belvedere Castle and the many grassy areas in which to run. Although it shows some signs of wear and tear, that’s also part of its charm.

While walking over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art I walked through a tunnel and silhouetted at the other end was a man playing saxophone. No doubt he was appreciating the acoustic nuances of the brick tunnel. And a homeless poet tries to sell me a really bad poem. I made him recite it for me and then told him it was a start and gave him a buck for his efforts. He said three times, “Where you from, Brooklyn?”

Artists set up stands along Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue. I bought two silver gelatin prints, one of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and one of Central Park looking toward the Upper West Side in winter. I also bought a larger photo of the Flat Iron building. One of my all-time favorite photos is Alfred Stieglitz’s famous winter photo of that building, so I had to have this one. The trio will look great in my office, a nice memento of my first visit.

The other quiet place I found was walking down Fifth Avenue along the Upper East Side. The din of taxis honking and buses barreling down the street is much less, although the intensity increases as you head closer to Midtown. Let’s face it, there aren’t nearly as many people walking the streets there.

Afterward I headed back to Madison and Lexington. I had to see the Chrysler Building in the daylight, to see the glint of the sun reflected off the chrome gargoyles buttressing out of the building. I paused a moment in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt to rest my legs. I’ve walked so much I’m developing shin splints. As I sat there wishing for a leg massage I contemplated heading in to Grand Central Station next door at 5 p.m. The story goes that if you stand in the middle at rush hour within 10 minutes you’ll run into someone you know. Hmmm. I opted to come back and rest instead. There’s a definite weekend energy and electricity tonight that I didn’t sense last night. Times Square is downright nutty at 5 on a Friday.

I should mention that my room on the 26th floor of the Sheraton New York Hotel and Tower overlooks 53rd Street and 7th Avenue. I can see Times Square out my window. And I’m listening to the staccato whistle of the traffic cops on the street below.

My big decision tonight is where to eat. I did Italian last night, so maybe seafood? Or maybe hit a New York Deli? We shall see.

The Big Apple

The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m., a brutal hour, especially since I only went to bed at midnight. At some point, 3-1/2 hours of sleep will catch up with me. I’m okay now thanks to a steady infusion of coffee.

I nodded off briefly on the plane, but as soon as I felt it slow for descent, I quickly opened my eyes in delicious anticipation. I realized I’ve never flown to the east coast, only over Middle America. So many more towns and cities here. Managed a window seat but didn’t want to show lack of sophistication by announcing that this was my first trip to the city. The Atlantic coast is a glorious site, but I think I’m on the wrong side of the plane to see the Manhattan skyline. The girl across the aisle points out the Statue of Liberty, which looks so small sitting in the harbor but no less beautiful to these eyes.

Oh my God! It’s huge! Manhattan is huge and so is Central Park. Can’t help feeling that I was meant to be here.

It’s now 6:50 p.m. and I’ve walked everywhere and haven’t even scratched the surface of New York City. My dogs are tired and so I found a little Trattoria near Times Square for dinner. The host and owner of Bella Napoli, Luigi Gennetti, asks me if I’m dining alone. And when I say yes he looks up at me (because he’s very short) and says he would take me out for a fine evening with Cristal and caviar after he put his teeth in. He howled and I chuckled and he thanked me for being a good sport.

It’s very clear that one could spend a year in NYC and still not see it all. How awe inducing that would be. This afternoon I’ve managed to walk between the lions at New York Public Library, say a prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, walk amid the throngs of people in Times Square and take the Subway to Wall Street.

An alabaster (or maybe it’s plaster of Paris) bust of David greets you as you step down into the restaurant. I love how they keep the doors wide open to the streets, inviting you in to sit down with a carafe of Chianti. The obligatory Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra play—“’Cause your lovely, never ever change”—and I’m soaking in the kitschy Italian atmosphere.

What a liberating experience it is to be in this city all alone. Ah, but here comes my tomato and mozzarella salad. I tell myself to eat slowly. I’m in no hurry. I’m getting a kick out of the Divine Ya-Ya’s sitting at the table in front of me. They are very southern and in a big hurry to get to a show. I, however, am savoring my mussels marinara.

My kids asked me what I was going to do tonight and I told them I didn’t know because the possibilities are endless. The best part of this trip is that I don’t have to see it all since I’ll be back in about a month.

I called Charlie to reassure him that I was safely in NYC and enjoying the hell out of myself! He told me how happy he was that I was finally able to see things I’ve always wanted to see. “Did you see Manhattan coming in on the plane?” Oh yeah! I’m going to call Jen later. She and I have to be here together.

Since I haven’t eaten all day, I elect to have tiramisu and cappuccino. No matter because I’ll be walking it all off anyway. Luigi and I talk about fine jazz music as I get ready to leave. He has me sit down in his chair and asks me where in the city I live. I’m flattered that he doesn’t notice I’m a newbie.

As I walk toward Grand Central Station, I call Jen and tell her to get her tush to the city ASAP! The walk toward 42nd and Madison is amazing…Rockefeller Center, Harper Collins, NBC and the Rainbow Room and there—majestically rising from the street—is Grand Central Station. And there’s the Hyatt I’ll be staying in when I come back in September. And next to that is the Chrysler Building. I have an amazing photo of photographer Margaret Bourke-White peeking from one of the chrome gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building to shoot a photo. Unbelievable!

My hubby recommended having a drink at the Oyster Bar on the lower level of Grand Central Station. I would have liked oysters, too, but they were no longer serving. So I settled for a glass of Shiraz and some fun conversation with Marcello, the bartender. He’s every bit a gentleman and I as get up to leave, he kisses my hand and thanks me for stopping in.

I’ve now been up for 20 hours straight and the three glasses of wine and the long hours spent walking are catching up with me. So I head back to the hotel, walking through Times Square at night. It’s crazy around here, lit up as if it were day and bustling with people. I could get used to this…

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage"

Tonight's quote is from author and noted diarist Anais Nin and ample food for thought on the eve of my first trip to NYC. I'm also sending armloads of courage to my Patrick who has been struggling these past weeks with fears that may seem irrational to an adult, but have kept his 9-1/2-year-old mind overly anxious to the point of sleeplessness. Rest easy my little man. Mom is sending lots of love...

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Learning through observing

People are endlessly fascinating to me. That's why I jump at any chance to write a profile. Case in point: I spent yesterday morning (from 8-1) with Thurmond Woodard, chief diversity officer at Dell Inc. The idea behind my visit with him was to get beyond consultant-speak and find out just what a diversity officer at a large corporation does.

I liked him instantly. His office is one of thousands of cubicles in Round Rock 1, one of many buildings on Dell's incredibly vast campus in suburban Austin, Texas. He was somewhat casual, but smartly dressed. One of the first topics was the fact that his son had recently moved back home because he's decided he doesn't like corporate work and wants to get his master's in education. Anyone who starts a get-to-know-you conversation with their children is okay by me.

He is very no-nonsense, asking me what my expectations were for the interview. I told him I wanted to get to know HIM and how he does his job and how he gets buy-in. He was game and so we headed to our first meeting—a conference call with the senior manager of diversity for the Europe, Middle East and Africa. Based in Madrid, Spain, this woman was fairly new to her job and had a huge task ahead of her. Dell is growing exponentially in those areas and she is charged with ensuring it employs a diverse talent base at all levels.

She was feeling overwhelmed by aspects of her job. I watched as Thurmond listened intently, occasionally scribbling notes. And then, as effective leaders often do, he started by saying, "What I'm hearing from you is that you have too much on your plate." The answer, of course, was that she did. So he simply said to her the top two priorities for the company were talent acquisition and work/life issues. And instantly she knew her priorities and how those fit with the business imperatives.

We went on to two other meetings in which his first step was always to listen. Although he offered feedback, he didn't offer answers, preferring to let people find their own solutions. He may have had one in mind, but he says they won't own the solution if it's handed to them.

There was a certain rushed feeling to the day and I didn't want to waste any time getting to know the man. I kept my tape recorder going as we walked from meeting to meeting and building to building. And that's where I found the meat of my story. In these very casual conversations he revealed a deep affection for his lifelong mentor, how his father empowered him to be a leader, why he left the lucrative world of consulting for Dell, how he and his wife are enjoying their lives as empty-nesters. I watched him laugh and joke with the many young people on his staff. I heard of how he spent the first six months on the job simply defending his presence. I saw him coach and nudge people along in such a way as to empower them and I thought--only for a moment--how great it would be to work for him.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Daydreaming at 35,000 feet

Cruising at 35,000 feet feels oddly peaceful, despite the din of a near-full 737. My blocked ears and the whir of the plans engines seem to have drowned out all but the highest pitch voices. The sun to the west is white bright and the sky fades from near white to the deep azure that I imagine you see in the West.

The dreamer in me can see the allure of flying, the freedom of the sky and the steady guide of the horizon always in the distance. Out my window the mass of clouds so far below protrude like chunks of ice in a frozen sea. And then patches of the world below appear like a quilt as we cross the belly of America from Houston to Chicago. Is that the Mississippi River? It must be, judging from its size and muddy meandering across the landscape.

Sometimes on a long journey you are blessed with sights so beautiful they are but evidence of the wonder of God. As our plane taxied down the runway at Chicago’s Midway Airport, exhausted by the last leg of a very long trip, I looked out my window to see a magenta sky, radiating out from the very tip of a the setting sun. It wouldn’t remain long, but it reminded me of the saying the kids and I recite while watching the sunset from the beach:

“Red sky at night
Sailor’s delight”

I was plowing through the last chapter of my book when I glanced out my window again. It’s night and there following me home is the half moon. When I was a child and we would be driving at night, I was the one who never slept, preferring instead to stare out my window and share my dreams with the moon as is seemed to follow us home.

And so tonight I shared my dreams and wishes with the moon, staring at it out my window as it guided me safely home.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

By the time I get to Austin

3:45 p.m. EST
I approached the gate expectantly, happily, nearing the end of a trip that began when I left the house at 9 this morning. But as I got closer, I saw the dreaded sign that read my flight to Austin was delayed.

“Delayed?” I asked. “How long?”
“About an hour, we’re waiting on the aircraft,” replied the bubbly young woman behind the desk. No kidding????

And so instead of a seamless transfer of planes, I’m stuck in Houston’s Hobby Airport, killing time. Other than the obligatory package of peanuts, and assorted water and coffee, I’ve not had anything to eat. And so I figured I’d grab a quick salad. I choked down the wilted lettuce of the Caesar salad and found an empty spot to sit and finish reading the latest New Yorker.

My back against an exterior wall, I glanced around to see a mom playing cards with her young son and two five-year-old girls with blond curly hair racing around in circles in their bare feet as their father attempted to track a lost item via cell phone. Whoever said that boys are more energetic than girls never saw this duo.

They pause for a moment to look at something on the stained carpet.
“What is that?” they ask.
“Looks like a cockroach,” replies dad, while turning back to his cell phone conversation.
Cockroaches. Yikes. I’m definitely in the south.

It’s raining heavily outside. I can smell the musty scent through the walls just as surely as I can feel the rumble of planes taking off against my back.

At this point, I just want to reach my destination, a hotel room where I can flop on the bed and kick off my shoes.

4:35 EST
I’m seated in the plane at my third airport of the day. The aircraft is painted in the likeness of a giant killer whale, the Shamu plane. It’s pouring outside and the pilot just informed us that the ground crew cannot unload passenger’s luggage from the previous flight and load ours until the lightning stops.

And so we sit at the gate, the re-circulated air screaming in my ears. From my seat above the left wing, it appears as if the lightning has stopped. Let’s hope we can get the show on the road. I call the boys and check in. Mikey answers the phone.

“Where are you on?” he asks (we'll work on his grammar).
“I’m on the plane, but we’re not in the air.”
“Are you in Texas or Manhattan?”
Poor kid. Can’t keep up with mom’s travels this week.
“I’m in Texas, but I’m not Austin yet.”
“Because it’s storming.”
“Oh, we just have drops here,” he says.

I’ve read through my Atlantic and New Yorker magazines already. At this point, I’ll be through my book, too. My laptop battery doesn’t last long otherwise I could do some work, or at least read through old emails for fun.

A hot meal and a glass of wine sound great right about now.

5:15 p.m. EST
The news is…there’s no news. Flight attendants have come around with bags of peanuts and the pilot has informed us that as long as there are lightning strikes within five miles of the airport, the ground crew is not permitted to unload the aircraft. Fair enough, I wouldn’t want to be the one who draws the short straw to pump 3,000 pounds of jet fuel in a rainstorm. And so I look at the baggage carts, which are supposed to be covered with orange tarpaulins, but it looks as if they were thrown haphazardly over the cart in the rush to get out of the rain. I’m straining to see if my suitcase is one on the top, exposing it to the rain. I packed one suit, which is supposed to get me through my meetings tomorrow. I hope it’s not wet.

5:30 p.m. EST
The pilot informs us that those who are flying on to Lubbock are not going to get there tonight. They are stuck in Houston until tomorrow. Bummer. Hope it doesn’t happen to me. I’ll be working a car rental and driving to Austin if that’s the case. I need to be at Dell Inc. by 8 a.m.

The peanuts have been ‘round again. I can’t eat any more or I’ll be sick.

5:42 p.m. EST
Applause greets the ground crew as they appear from wherever it is that they stay when not out in the elements. And then our pilot informs us that as soon as they unload and load and refuel we’ll be on our way. Figures…now the tarp is pulled over the luggage and I just got rolling on the story I’ve been working on all week.

6:10 p.m. EST
Just called the hotel to guarantee my arrival. Still not moving and the rain and lightning have resumed … and my laptop battery is dying.

6:40 p.m. EST
Flight attendants have closed the overhead bins. It appears we may actually be taking off…

7 p.m. EST
We’re in flight.

7:30 p.m. EST
Pilot has informed us that the storm is parked over Austin Airport. We’re in a holding pattern for at least a half-hour. Complimentary cocktails on Southwest greeted with cheers.

8:15 p.m. EST
We’ve landed in Austin, but can’t get to the gate because of the storm. And so we sit on the tarmac … waiting … again.

11 p.m. EST
I’m bushed. The worst part is, I’ll be back on a plane tomorrow afternoon.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Why I love my job

Okay, here's why I love what I do:

In working on my massive Office Depot cover story, I had occasion to speak with some small female-owned companies who do business with the corporate giant. And how nice it was to find myself chatting this afternoon with Betty Maul, president of FrontEnd Graphics in Cherry Hill, N.J. She has one of those bright, cheerful voices that sounds as if she's been awaiting your call with rapture. She was in theater and describes herself as a fiery redhead. I love her already.

And so we chatted about business (the difference between large corporations and small businesses), life (you've got to do what you're passionate about), raising three kids (hers are now grown), owning your own business (an FBI agent once sat in peanut butter when he came to interview her about doing work for Lockheed Martin, and the state tax board rep used to sip lemonade on the front porch with her kids) and New York. She told me to call her next week when I'm in the city and she'd meet me for a drink. And she suggested I eat at Giovanni's, see "Wicked" on Broadway, visit Times Square at night and tour the city on the double-decker bus ("above the throngs of people").

I confessed to her that I was feeling very low before our conversation. Her reply: "Isn't what's great about owning your own business that things can turn on a dime?"


Deflated balloon

Ever have days when you feel as if the wind and the very life has been sucked out of you? Today is one of those days.

My house is filled with yelling and door-slamming. Everyone is overtired and sick of each other. I'm sitting here trying to finish a story I started on Monday, wondering how in God's name I'm going to get it done and tend to the discord with any degree of effectiveness.

The mailman failed, once again, to deliver the much-needed checks I'm waiting on, but of course carried the usual assortment of bills. Do they purposely deliver bills on Friday and Saturday, intending to ruin your weekend? Of course it's not the mailman's fault, but it makes me feel better to blame SOMEone.

What I'd really like to do is go to sleep for a few days (preferrably a dreamless sleep) and wake up on Monday after everyone is well-rested, the laundry is magically finished, the house is spotless and the checks that are past-due have arrived. Since escape is not an option, I'll muscle my way through the rest of the story I'm working on and take the kids to the pool in the hopes that a change of scenery will do us all a little good.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Sometimes they surprise me

My middle son, Patrick, has been suffering with some anxiety of late. It's heartbreaking to see because he holds his heart (out of fear it will cease beating), has trouble breathing and complains of a stomach ache. He told me he was afraid he was dying. He was afraid to go upstairs to take a shower last night because it was dark.

Although my initial reaction was one of impatience with the drama, I took a deep breath and realized that he's probably upset about something and I simply needed to get him to talk.

While he was in the shower, Ryan and I talked about any problems with kids in the neighborhood. I learned that there's a posse of teenagers in Bay who call themselves the Chaos Crew. So far their antics center on vandalism, but one kid at the park the other night suggested they might carry guns. Patrick can't shake the thought. There were a lot of other things that scared him, but mostly he was fearful in general.

I know the feeling well and it saddens me to think my boy is suffering in any way. And so, with Ryan's help because they share a room, we sat on their beds and talked about what makes Patrick happy. He couldn't articulate anything at first. But slowly, he started to talk, starting with, "Spaghetti!" (Leave it to an almost 10-year-old to start with food.) And then he and Ryan talked about how kids in the neighborhood sometimes make up stupid stories, but that they aren't true. Ryan said he would look out for Patrick.

The three of us sat there talking and laughing for two hours. At first Patrick echoed the things that Ryan does well (playing catcher, football, basketball), but then he started adding his own ideas (playing with my friends, swimming, reading, ice cream, Mom). It dawned on me that I couldn't remember the last time we had simply sat and talked. It was revealing in so many small ways, but mostly it revealed that Patrick, the classic middle child, often doesn't get the chance to use his voice. And it's up to me and his dad to figure out how he can best express himself and, more important, be heard. I told him about writing down his feelings. Sometimes they don't look so scary when you write them down.

He wears worry on his face like a favorite old sweater. But as the hours passed, his face visibly lightened, he laughed often and that smile that can melt my heart came easily. And the concern and compassion that Ryan felt for his brother truly touched me. He's nearly 12 and sometimes kids that age can be self-centered. But he was genuinely concerned about his little brother and willing to help. And he did, just by listening.

I looked at my watch and it was 12:30! We may pay the price today with a bit of crankiness, but then again maybe not. Patrick went to sleep with a lighter heart and a smile for the first time in a few weeks. And so did I…

Season is heating up

Election season is nearing and the fun is about to begin. The talk at last night's baseball game was this ditty. You'll love the Clinton cameo near the end.

And this come over the transom from a former magazine publisher, with whom I used to have very heated political debates. He used to send me Wall Street Journal articles to make sure the information I was reading was balanced.

Five surgeons are discussing who makes the best patients to operate on.

The first surgeon says, "I like to see accountants on my operating table because when you open them up, everything inside is numbered."

The second responds, "Yeah, but you should try electricians! Everything inside them is color coded."

The third surgeon says, "No, I really think librarians are the best; everything inside them is in alphabetical order."

The fourth surgeon chimes in: "You know, I like construction workers. Those
guys always understand when you have a few parts left over at the end, and when the job takes longer than you said it would."

But the fifth surgeon shut them all up when he observed: "You're all wrong.
Politicians are the easiest to operate on. There's no guts, no heart, no balls, no brains and no spine, and the head and the ass are interchangeable.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Turning inward

"Inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that's where you renew your springs that never dry up."
Pearl Buck

Work is intense and time is short today. And so I turn inward...

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

On whom nothing is lost

It’s been a while since I was sitting in a college lecture hall, soaking up the knowledge spewing from the mouths of professors, both good and bad. Even though I no longer identify myself as “student,” I still remain one in my heart of hearts.

I think we have to be lifelong learners to engage in the discourse of our—or any other— time. One of the reasons I’ve talked so much lately about the importance of reading is because I think a college education is only the beginning of learning. At 21 or 22 you can’t possibly know what your future will hold. And that’s okay. There’s plenty of time to work it out, and learning to follow life’s detours can sometimes offer the best path.

I get disheartened when I hear of college graduates going back for advanced degrees when they’ve had no real life experience on which to base that further education. Talk to some people who earned MBAs right after undergraduate school and they will tell you that the education lacked a certain relevance and depth because they didn’t have the practical knowledge and work experiences with which to compare.

William Zinsser wrote in a 1979 article titled “College Pressures” how pressures from parents, finances, peers and those self-imposed caused undergraduates at Yale to become obsessed with high grades. His approach as a professor there was to introduce his students to a number of successful people from different areas—business, politics, arts, journalism—to talk about how they arrived at their current success. The common thread among them is that many got into their present field by way of detours. In other words, they didn’t have a plan.

“They (students) can hardly imagine allowing the hand of God or chance to nudge them down some unforeseen trail,” writes Zinsser in his book, “Writing About Your Life.” Zinsser had hopes that this article, which has been reprinted many times, would no longer be relevant in today’s world. But it is perhaps more relevant today.

“What I want for all young people is a release from the clammy grip of the future. I’d like them to savor each step of their education as a rich experience in itself, not as a preparation for the next step,” he writes.

And so it was with great joy that I read this op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.

Columnist David Brooks writes about some of his Yale students who were engaged in a class known as Grand Strategy. Sounds like something I’d sign up for in a heartbeat.

Brooks writes: “For many students, this yearlong course was not just a class, but a life-altering event. Somehow students in Grand Strategy were applying Thucydides, Kant and Sun Tzu to modern foreign policy crises. They talked excitedly about seeing the connections between big ideas and big events.”

An interesting side note is that one of the team of professors teaching this enlightening course is John Lewis Gaddis, an international expert on the Cold War and one of my history professors at Ohio University. Somewhere among my shelves of books is his groundbreaking, “Strategies of Containment.” He has certainly moved up from “Harvard on the Hocking” to the hallowed halls of Yale. But the person most of Brooks’ students spoke highly of was Charles Hill, a former diplomat and real renaissance man.

One of the students, Molly Worthen, took her education one step further than most when she asked: “ Who is this man I look up to? Where does such an authoritative person come from?”

Rather than simply ask the question, she spent the year after graduation writing a book-length biography of Hill. “I've just seen her manuscript; it's one of the more uplifting documents I've read in a long time,” says Brooks.

He goes on to say that Worthen’s book is about teaching. “It's a book about the complex relationship between an experienced person, offering life's lessons, and a young seeker, hoping to acquire them. By the end of her investigation, Worthen still admires and even reveres Hill, but she has become herself. She has taken the education Hill and Yale and many others have given her and she has applied it in a perceptive and mature way.

“Why can't this happen more often? Why aren't there more scholars, like Hill, Gaddis and (Paul) Kennedy, who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections? Instead, the academy encourages squirrel-like specialization.” I would venture to say there are places for those with specialization, but I also believe that the answers to some of our bigger questions lie in making the “great connections.”

I have no relationship and fewer memories of college professors, save for Don Lambert, my recently retired adviser. And he and I had a somewhat contentious relationship since he declared that I would never get a job in journalism if I didn’t work on the college paper. I responded by telling him that I couldn’t remain at OU if I didn’t work a job that allowed me to earn decent money. So it was with great glee that I relayed that pivotal conversation with him in 1992 when we ran into each other at my first SPJ regional convention. HE underestimated my tenacity. I fear so many university professors underestimate students, maybe sometimes with good reason. Or maybe that’s simply a byproduct of the academic culture. I certainly hope not.

There was a certain celebrity attached to Gaddis. I found his subject matter—Soviet history—fascinating. And he was teaching it at a time when glasnost first emerged. Consequently, he was often on news shows and quoted in magazine articles.

And I’ll never forget the international relations professor (Dr. Gustafson) who allowed me to take my final exam with only 50 minutes remaining in the exam time after I had overslept after pulling an all-nighter. He wouldn’t give me extra time, but I convinced him I knew the material inside out. (I did and got an A in the class.) He also taught constitutional law and could enunciate the word repugnant in such as way as to cause you to recoil in your seat.

The current dean of the OU J-School, Tom Hodson, used to teach reporting public affairs. He was then the Athens County Municipal Judge and had just returned from a yearlong fellowship with the U.S. Supreme Court. Our class met in his courtroom and our assignments were the closest to real-world journalism as you get—cover the Athens City Council meeting on Monday night and turn your story in Tuesday morning. Any misspelled word is an automatic C; any misspelled proper noun is an automatic F.

While I didn’t have those magnetic, dynamic experiences with college professors, I’ve spent most of my professional life seeking connections with others who have helped me make sense of life and my life’s work. And maybe that’s the larger lesson here: That you have to be vigilant in seeking what you desire, in what you hope to experience, in what you bring to this life and in making connections with those who can show you a path.

Those seeds are merely planted in college. You get to spend the rest of your life cultivating your mind and your experiences into being someone, to paraphrase Henry James, on whom nothing is lost.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Ciao, Oprah

Did my usual 10 minutes with the PD this morning while my coffee was brewing and the dog was eating when I paused on the front page of Arts & Life (the one section I read/skim regularly).

Columnist Connie Schulz is always good for a chuckle or a cry, so when I saw something about Oprah magazine, I had to read on. You see I’ve had this love-hate relationship with O, The Oprah Magazine for a few years now.

Here’s the deal. It’s a huge, I mean HUGE, magazine. As editor of magazines, I simply drool over the photo and editorial budgets it must have—simply decadent. The “coffee-table-thunk” factor alone is enviable. Many more editors have to scrimp by on our wits and our resources to produce a good print product.

From time to time, there are articles I find moving, inspirational or helpful. But by and large, it’s disappointing to me as a woman and as a writer. While Oprah always looks smashing (and excessively wealthy) on the covers, there’s an inability to connect the content to her readers and fans. (I will never spend $75 on one single candle no matter how good it smells.)

The magazine relies heavily on articles written by “experts” in finance, relationships, nutrition, etc. The problem is, they read like articles written by experts and not by professional writers (you can see my bias here).

Here’s an example of how that doesn’t work. I was interested in an article titled, “Marriage Repair Kit.” Okay, kit implies there will be some steps to help me strengthen or fix my marriage. I’m game. I read on, only to learn that the article is really some psycho-yada-yada about how we marry our fathers. That’s fine and dandy, but not what the article’s title suggested. It was written by a mental health professional. If a professional writer interviewed that same mental health professional, then I believe the content would be more relevant to everyday readers.

A writer or journalist will ask the logical questions to get to the meat of a story. That’s why I think so many of the articles leave you saying, “Huh?” Or maybe you simply never make it past the second or third column. Oprah always has a Q&A with a celeb or notable personality, but it’s a virtual love fest, doesn’t get to the meat of who an individual is or what shapes their outlook. Plus, there’s too much of Oprah in the interview.

With apologies to all you Dr. Phil fans, I think the guy is a charlatan. His cheesy grin and Texas bravado give me the willies. Plus, I have this anti-facial hair bias wondering, “What are they hiding behind that beard or moustache?”

Suze Orman is certainly a successful woman, but does she even know what the rest of us toil in these days? My guess is no. Probably the most helpful suggestions come from the woman who gets paid to organize people’s homes, closets and offices. The best piece in the magazine is “On the Bookshelf,” a column that talks to celebs and others about the importance of books in their lives and includes a page on their all-time favorites and why they enjoy them.

But here’s where I’m in communion with Connie. When the buzz about O first started, I was hopeful that the magazine would tackle issues of importance to women like me. Serious issues. But I’m afraid that hasn’t been the case. We’re still hand wringing over how we can lose weight forever, how to find time to exercise for 90 minutes a day and where that perfect man is found. When they interview women (such as the stay-at-home mother of nine, who is a size 4 and lives in a HUGE home and is a deeply spiritual human, flawless in every way) there’s a huge disconnect between those of us who scream at our kids at times, live in average homes and question our faith on a regular basis. I’d like to think (and personal experience proves this to be true) that there are many more of us struggling with it all, but those stories apparently aren't what sell.

Most women have a pretty crappy relationship with their bodies, probably due in some part to what we see held up as images of beauty. I’ll be 37 soon. I've had three kids and, like Connie, I’ve never owned a bathroom scale, preferring to gauge my weight by how my clothes fit. In the past six months, I’ve managed to construct a healthier relationship toward food, which has led to weight loss.

I love to eat, but I’ve found a way to eat a lot less of everything and to get exercise into my life four or five times a week. As a result, I have a lot more energy (which I need these days) and a much better self-image.

I’ve not followed any prescribed regimen—Atkins, South Beach, etc.—I’ve only reduced my intake. I’m not saying I don’t have weak moments (this weekend, for example). But I’m not going to agonize, because I know what I need to do. And I know I’m not alone in my quest. Just talking to fellow moms keeps it all real.

And I quit reading magazines like Oprah. I find the New Yorker far more inspiring.

Friday, July 16, 2004

‘Training wheels for the imagination’

Need to come back to the issue of reading for pleasure. Why? Because it’s so important! One of the most frequent things I hear today from contemporaries is: “I don’t read for pleasure, I have too much I HAVE to read for work.”

I say, “Hogwash.” So do I. As a writer, I read (or at least skim) through the New York Times and Washington Post online daily. I have stacks of business magazines that I need to get through some day. I always manage to find time for The Atlantic and New Yorker. I read a book a week about spirituality for review and still manage time for fiction. Fiction nourishes my creative soul, takes me out of the place I'm in and introduces me to characters I may or may not recognize. In other words, to envision other worlds, other places in time.

“Invention and ingenuity not only require the ability to see what exists, but also to envision possibilities that have yet to be realized,” according to Poynter’s Book Babes in their piece, “Why Johnny and Jane Need the Novel: A new NEA report says lit is lagging. Here's why media orgs should step up to help save it.”

They ask the question: Do the media have some responsibility to help keep fiction and poetry alive?

“The NEA report suggests we might. For one thing, literary reading continues to be a popular pastime in the United States. In spite of the bad news about reading's decline, in 2002, only TV watching, movie-going, and exercising attracted significantly more people than reading literary works, according to the NEA.

“Think of journalism as the building block for understanding the world. Think of literature as training wheels for the imagination,” say the Book Babes.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

When your loves collide

Michael was so sad yesterday. His brothers had friends over and there was just no one for him to play with. The big boys didn’t want him around. We dialed for friends, alas unsuccessfully. And since I wasn’t remotely going to be able to work with him in such a state, I closed the laptop and packed him up for the pool.

There comes a time when you realize that Mom needs to be more than just physically present. Yesterday was one of those days. As consolation we picked up a DVD for him to watch last night. Remember how I wrote earlier this week about messages bombarding me? Well, “Cheaper By the Dozen” was full of them.

Most people have probably already seen this movie. We had not, largely because it’s very difficult to get three boys ages 12, 10 and 5 to agree on a family movie. And so we shipped the big guys to the basement and cuddled on the couch with Mikey.

The story follows two parents who are struggling (though in the beginning, happily) to raise their 12 children. The mom has been working on a book about raising such a big family; the dad is a college football coach who has been offered his dream job in Chicago.

And so they pack up the kids and the dog and the frog and move to the Big City for better things ahead. Problem is, dad’s new job is all consuming and mom just found out that her book is going to be published. She flies to New York and learns that she must partake of a book tour, thus leaving the family behind for several weeks. Dad assures her he can handle the home front, even as a meat cleaver comes through the closet door where he is hiding from the four-year-old twins.

It’s an interesting look at how two parents try to live their professional dreams. Unfortunately, those dreams clash with the many needs—emotional and physical—of their children.

The movie got me to thinking: Why is it that your two loves may be in great conflict with each other? Writing for me, and I suspect for many others, is a calling. In the end, there really isn't any alternative to doing what we were meant to do and called to do. And that gets clearer as we get older. To not do so is a slow, painful form of spiritual death.

At the same time, I simply adore my boys. And I want them to learn to pursue their life’s work, whatever that may be, like a calling. But I have to temper my enthusiasm for my work with their needs and that's been a major struggle this summer. My work happened to kick into high gear just as they were getting out of school. Balancing it all is leaving me pretty frazzled. But I have to remember, as Jackie Kennedy said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” My kids make me want to be better at everything I do—mom, wife, writer, friend.

I’m sure this is also true of many others who pursue different vocations. The truth is that being married to a journalist is tough. It is one of the professions with the highest rate of marital failures. But I have to believe there’s a way to make it all work somehow. And that’s what I found interesting about the movie, the soul-searching (albeit in a mad-cap Steve Martin kind of way) that each parent went through to determine what’s most important.

Are there models for making this hectic career as a mom work? Certainly Anna Quindlen reigns supreme on that front. But here’s another view I found in Catholic Online. In it Inmaculada Álvarez, director of Veritas Agency, a Spanish Catholic news agency says:

“It is essential for a journalist’s spouse to understand the nature of the other’s profession: Journalism is a vocation, a passion. It is not, and never will be, an office job, but something that occupies one 24 hours a day. And if one’s spouse does not understand this, living together may be very difficult. If one shares the other’s passion it is wonderful. Everything else can be overcome.”

She goes on to say that what children need, indeed what educates them on being happy, mature adults is to see that their parents love each other.

“Problems of a practical nature always have a solution, by delegating, giving up, or postponing what is accidental and assuming what is essential. When one is a journalist and, in addition, a mother, as in my case, when one has a family, and a large one at that, it can be mad.”

You got it sister! Mad is a good word for it. My sister told me once that my mom was concerned about the hectic nature of my life. Jen replied, “Mom, I think that’s how Wendy likes it. She’s always been like that.” It’s true. I do thrive on the activity. And here’s why, as so elegantly stated by mi hermana Español:

“But today, I would not change places with anybody. To have married and to have had four children has made me a better person and, thanks to that, I think I am a better professional than I was before. Because when I come home and four little pygmies fight to give me a kiss, everything falls into place.”

We’re all trying to navigate our way through this notion of a modern family. Here’s hoping we can do it better tomorrow than we did today…

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

My golden one

My Patrick is a golden child. I don't mean that he's exceptional (though, of course, I believe he is). I mean that literally he is golden. Last night he was sitting on the patio telling me a story, which he does quite well incidentally, and I found myself unable to concentrate on his story because his countenance was illuminated by the setting sun.

Objectively speaking, he really is a beautiful child. Some have suggested we get him into modeling, but I have no desire to expose him to that world. At nearly 10, he's already garnered the attention of the neighborhood girls who ride their bikes past our house repeatedly asking, "Is Patrick home?" His eyes are big and wide and are almost indescribable in color. People often remark on their beauty. They are green with streaks of gold, but rimmed with black lashes and brows that force you to look right at them. His hair is thick and course, but poker straight. He's got the same cowlick as his father and younger brother. And now that it's summer, the edges of his hair are sun-kissed golden, a beautiful compliment to his tanned skin

But it's his smile that can brighten my darkest days. He has the wide toothy grin of his mom and older brother, only his teeth are widely spaced, as if there's plenty of room to grow in there. When he smiles, his entire face is beatific.

Of my three boys, he's the most serious, concerned about the world and endlessly, infuriatingly curious. I keep his four-year-old preschool photo in my office. He has a wisftul, almost melancholy expression on his face that can bring me to tears. When I look at the little boy in that photo it's as if there's something about him that I will never know and that's heartbreaking for a mother.

I will never forget tucking him in on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. I tried hard to keep the images of the day away from him. He was only in first grade. But he asked me if he had to forgive the terrorists. I couldn't respond in part because I didn't know how and in part because the beauty of his six-year-old soul forced a lump in my throat, rendering me incapable of speech.

I feel ever so protective of him. When Patrick was five months old, he was hopsitalized with RSV, a cold to you and me, but potentially fatal to young infants. I spent four nights in Fairview Hospital while my little baby slept in a tent that pumped in albuterol to clear his little lungs. His tiny body endured a chest x-ray in a contraption that looked like a form of Medieval torture and he endured a spinal tap to rule out meningitis.

Fear was resting on my shoulder, but I couldn't turn to face it because I had to be strong for my baby. I was sending all of my positive energy to him. Ultimately, he was fine as were so many other babies during that winter of 1995. But he would eventually develop asthma that I'm sure was a result of that early illness.

While visiting my sister in Columbus one year, he was struck by an asthma attack and we took him to a local urgicenter. My sister couldn't believe how calm he was, considering he couldn't breathe. With a nebulizer mask strapped to his face he started singing "Oompah, oompah, dee, dee, dee, dee. I've got another story for you" from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Although it's somewhat troubling to me, Patrick is fascinated with the military and events in Iraq. During the school year he would bring home library books about the Navy Seals, U.S. military weapons, special forces, etc. He asked me if I knew of anyone in Iraq. I do. Ayad Rahim is from Cleveland and has been visiting relatives and writing about Iraq on his blog since late March. With his serious little face he asked, "Would you ask him what it's really like over there?" I think I may have Patrick ask Ayad himself when he returns.

I worry sometimes that Patrick is the middle child behind his incredibly athletic older brother. I don't want him to feel as if he has to do everything Ryan does. I want him to find his own way. To a degree, he has but that doesn't keep me from worrying nonetheless. There are times when he seems so vulnerable since he is so sensitive and hard on himself (again, like his mom). And yet there are times when his strength of character, compassion and courage surprise even me. I pray that continues.

"O glorious to be a human boy!
O running stream of sparkling joy
To be a soaring human boy"
—Charles Dickens, "Bleak House"

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Making modern marriages work

My horoscope in today’s Washington Post reads:
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Partners could be in the mood for love, but analysis and logic can chill a romantic atmosphere. Companions want to escape into a dream world, so avoid pricking tender balloons of love.

Analysis and logic … Hmmm. Doesn’t quite fit with my romantic notions. Then again, I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of modern marriages.

Next month Danny and I will celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. There’s no question that we’ve reached a difficult passage. But as I talk to more and more friends and colleagues at about the same juncture, I’m learning we are NOT the exception. And I’m beginning to formulate a theory on why.

Back in June I read an op-ed by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman discussing the new version of the movie “The Stepford Wives.” But what I found interesting, and what has been marinating ever since, is how she drew the link to the challenges in today’s marriages.

Goodman begins by reminding readers that the original movie was a horror flick. “Well, somewhere along the last decades, the Stepford wife became an archetype. She was Mrs. Perfect, Martha Stewart without the CEO title, the cookie-cutter cookie maker … The Stepford wife wasn't a victim but a conformist,” Goodman writes.

But in today’s world, the reality is that so many couples are drifting along, improvising their way through modern marriage. Husbands and wives are filled with uncertainty about our roles. Rather than loving exchange and tenderness, there’s an edginess that pervades our tone with one another.

Want proof? Just look at the popularity of the books The Bitch in the House and The Bastard on the Couch, the first written by a woman, the latter a response from her husband. I’ve not read these books, though perhaps I should.

So here’s my theory. Many of us in our late 30s and early 40s grew up with moms who were largely at home. No matter how modern we may think we are, we still harbor old-fashioned notions of what a husband and wife should be. The problem is that model doesn't work when both husband and wife expect to come home to a hot dinner. WE are the generation that is setting the model for the dual-income family. It’s unfamiliar territory to be sure. And try as we might to be enlightened individuals, we can’t help but slip back into traditional gender stereotypes. And it's not just the men. We women also conform to those stereotypes, somehow feeling that we have to manage it all in addition to a career. Some of us are pretty lousy at asking for help, until we've reached near-breaking point and erupt like Mt. Vesuvius, scattering our ashes of discontent and disappointment throughout the household.

Our husband's still want to come home to a clean house and still hope to find something in the pantry other than a jar of peanuts and a can of tomato sauce. But you know what? I'd like to come home to a clean house, too. Fortunately, my husband does a lot of the cooking. It's the cleaning, the homework help, the mental responsibility (not even the physical act) of ensuring all kids get where they need to go, when they need to go, permission slips are signed, lunches are packed, sports registrations are in, physicals are scheduled, etc. that can overwhelm.

The challenge to families today is: How do we find a way to balance our needs, those of our children and—gasp—somehow find time to nurture and cherish each other?

And for those of us who are struggling to communicate with one another, I think the latter is the biggest issue. Somehow, some way, we still have to carve out time for each other. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in another five years, looking at one another saying, “Who the hell are you?”

Monday, July 12, 2004

Bits and pieces of inspiration

I sometimes wonder if we read, hear and see things in some kind of code, as if certain combinations of words and images and thoughts are desperately thrusting themselves in our face to make sure we don’t miss the intended message.

It can be lyrics, poetry, movie lines, phrases in books, you name it, but I feel as if I’m being bombarded by messages that are pushing my levels of self-awareness. I’m not sure what it means and what those messages are saying exactly, but I sense there are some larger life issues looming.

So many of life’s big questions remain unanswered and I’m beginning to think that maybe the answers aren’t what I need. Maybe it’s the process of inquiry, discovery, exploration that fulfills. Maybe it’s the journey and not the destination that holds life’s meaning. I’m not saying I’m obsessing about these questions, only that my awareness of how they play out in my life and my work is expanding.

I’ve been reviewing books about spirituality for The Plain Dealer for the past month or so. I nearly dismissed this project out of hand believing that self-help books were not of interest to me. But a wise person counseled me to think again and I’m so glad I did.

The words “self-help book” always conjured the scene from the movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” when Sally’s friend, Marie, says, “Sally, there’s a man staring at you in personal growth.”

Two years ago, I found myself standing in front of the self-help section at Borders with that scene playing in my head, laughing and then nearly crying at the absurdity of finding myself there. I had just come from my first visit with a counselor after suffering panic attacks and near-paralyzing fear. “How did this happen to me?” I wondered as I searched the shelves for the book, “The Anxiety Cure.” I found the book and quickly made for the exit, having set a record for shortest time in a bookstore.

The book didn’t reveal any magical cure for anxiety. In fact, it was not very inspiring at all. It had just a bit of common sense that allowed me to begin putting my fears into perspective. And it urged me to write down my feelings, something I had done faithfully for years in a journal, but had let fall by the wayside in recent years.

Now that I reflect on it, I’m not even sure my counseling sessions helped, short of giving me someone to whom I could vent my fears and insecurities. And yet I only revealed those fears that were at the surface of my anxiety. I never really tapped my deeper issues. With each session, however, I gained back a little more of my self-confidence and the belief that I could make my life better. My counselor didn’t tell me I could make my life better. In fact, she said very little. But then, maybe that’s the point of counseling, letting us discover on our own how we can make positive changes. If that’s the case, it worked well.

But now I’m finding inspiration in those self-help books that I mocked. I’m not saying there aren’t a number of charlatans out there. I remain skeptical at the beginning of most books. But in my searching, I’m finding bits and pieces of inspiration and wisdom that I can apply to my life. For example:

• Idealism and realism depend on each other. (That’s good news all around.)
• Peace is made in our own hearts and nowhere else. (I’m beginning to see that.)
• “In all thy getting, get understanding” (A Proverbial gem.)
• Joy is at the core of sustainable life. (This is my favorite.)
• True maturity is relational and involves our capacity to know and love others. (We need human connection to grow.)
• Loving relationships have a healing power that no one can measure or truly understand. (Yep!)

And that the practice of listening “is the soil out of which all the fruits of our human relationships grow” and will always raise more questions than it answers. But that’s okay because I’m also discovering how fluid life can be and that the best we can do while it’s in our grasp is to practice simple human kindness and then pass it on.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

When The Boss was king

Had a most unexepected gift handed to me yesterday morning in the form of a DVD. My son Ryan's baseball coach is a huge music junky and was telling us one night at the local watering hole about his collection of concert DVDs. I've never been a big concertgoer, but there was one that made me sit up and take note.

When I was in high school and college, there simply was no greater musician and band on this earth than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. His 4-1/2-hour 1985 concert at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a highlight of my young life. And Rich was telling me that he had a bootleg DVD of his Born in the USA concert from Toronto that year. That was the gift in the DVD box.

I popped it in last night and was instantly not-quite-18 again. My husband laughed at me a bit and then made some inane remarks about my high school boyfriend's dorkiness quotient, but I think he missed the larger point of my reminiscing.

I worshipped Springsteen. My angst-ridden teenage heart listened to his albums for hours, as much for what he had to say as for the music. When he sang:
"The screen door slams
Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again"

My dreamy self became Mary, waiting for my boyfriend and yet terrified and trembling at the same time. His songs were always about rebels, which many girls whether they chose to admit it or not found attractive. But they weren't gearheads or blockheads, they were rebels with soul. Could there be anything more seductive?

Just recently, some moms and I were at the pool laughing about how our kids are into some of the music we grew up with (in large part thanks to actor Jack Black and the movie "School of Rock"). We talked about albums we had and I said I'd gotten rid of them all—except my Springsteen. Just can't seem to part with them, nevermind that I don't even have a turntable on which to play them.

Ironically, the only one I bought on CD was "Born to Run." I had to, its title track is one of the only songs that contains my name:

"Wendy, let me in, I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions"
"Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul"

The Boss could write. He wrote anthems. Hell, "Born to Run" used to kick off every weekend in Cleveland when Kid Leo would play it at 5 every Friday on WMMS. (I taped Kid Leo's Friday show before I left for college my freshman year.) He wrote dramas "Jungleland, The River," he wrote humor, "Sherry Darling" and he wrote bluesy grooves "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, Pink Cadillac."

I can still recall the surreal feeling of driving home in my boyfriend's Vega listening to Springsteen's music echoing back. (WMMS was playing every song from his concert that night.) We hardly spoke because we witnessed something spectacular—beyond description. And we were moving on, heading to college in a few weeks. During the fall quarter at OU, I would tutor a guy in my poli sci class in exchange for a program from the Boss's concert at the Meadowlands. It was well worth the trade.

As we drove up through our town in the middle of the night, the road leading to my house was a little foggy in the late-night air. I tried to catch the screen door before it slammed in the darkness, hoping not to wake my parents. It was the moment before everything changed...

"They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win"
—Thunder Road

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Just READ!

From today's New York Times:
Author Andrew Solomon opines on a study released Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts claiming that fewer than half of Americans over age 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, AND that the downward trend holds true in virtually ALL demographic areas. This is a tragedy.

The survey, called "Reading at Risk," (a truly frightening title) is based on data from "The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts," conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002. It confirms that the consumer pool for books of all kinds has diminished; and that the pace at which the nation is losing readers, especially young readers, is quickening.

Author Solomon writes:
"The role of literature is to illuminate, to strengthen, to explain why some aspect of life is moving or beautiful or terrible or sad or important or insignificant for people who might otherwise not understand so much or so well. Reading is experience, but it also enriches other experience.

"What is the point of having a population that can read, but doesn't? We need to teach people not only how, but also why to read. The struggle is not to make people read more, but to make them WANT to read more."

Reading has educated me, enlightened me and empowered me as both an individual and as a writer. And so you'll have to excuse me now because I'm going back to reading "Gaglow" by Esther Freud.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Almost forgot...

...How do you like the new look of Creative Ink? Bit more clean and contemporary. Now if only I could figure out how to get my links posted...

Coming up for air

This week feels like a blur. I've been in head-down mode all week. It's dangerous to stay that way for too long because I risk suffocating. And that's not good for my creativity or my mental health. Nonetheless, every so often I just need to burrow through to get ahead. Now that it's Friday, it's time to catch my breath because next week is more of the same.

Feeling a little revved because I'll be hitting the road the last week of July, in Austin on July 25-26 and in New York on July 29-30. I'll be spending the morning of the 26th with Thurmond Woodard, chief diversity officer of Dell. And I'll be spending the 30th with Ana Mollinedo, diversity officer at Starwood Hotels. Although I'm looking forward to chatting with two interesting business leaders, I'm disappointed that I won't have time to explore the cities I'll be visiting. New York can wait until September.

Received some exciting news this week from the world of golf. I'll be covering the NEC Invitational Golf Tourney for NOGA Fairways magazine. My father (affectionately known to my sister and I as "Charlie")—the avid golfer, PGA member and volunteer at this annual event at Firestone Country Club—is thrilled! A friend had sent me this story and I forwarded it on to dad. His response: "Hey – the lady had a point then which is still valid today! I have always said that America wasted a lot of talent along the way to equality of the sexes! Remember when you and Jen were kids I told you both there was nothing you couldn’t do if you really wanted it badly enough. Being a female shouldn’t keep brain power, desire and talent hidden behind a history of male chest pounding and ego! Love Ya, Dad." (My family has this affinity for the word, ya, as in "love ya" and "how ya been?")

And speaking of women in nontraditional roles, I received this comment from the publisher of Fairways: "Wendy, In the application I am making myself your assistant. You gotta love equality in the workplace.DC." Very cool...

Bay Village is getting some press this week thanks to Kate Voegele. She's a senior at Bay High School and is getting gobs of local press as a singer/songwriter. You can listen to her acoustic-style music on her Web site. I plugged in last night and found her sound had a nice groove. There's an article in today's Plain Dealer about her.

I picked up on her story through the viral e-mail that circulated through Bay Village yesterday. Jim Cahoon, Bay High's principal, was encouraging residents to visit her site and vote for her in the Pantene Pro-Voice competition. Kate is a national finalist along with two other singers. MTV will begin airing 60-second commercials beginning today on each candidate. You can vote for your favorite through July 25.

She'll be performing tomorrow night at the Local Artist Showcase at Scene Pavilion in the Flats. Although she's being compared to teen troubadour, Michelle Branch, Kate identifies more with Joni Mitchell. She seems to be clear about her future and is planning to study visual arts in college, despite the hype from record label execs. "I don't think you can major in trying to get on 'TRL' in college," she says, laughing. Smart girl.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Writers, memory and a firefly's glow

Check out Chip Scanlon’s column in Poynter today about Dan Barry's new memoir, "Pull Me Up." The NYT’s “About New York” columnist's comments are a perfect illustration to Monday's post about writing about your life. I've not read Dan's book and I'm not a regular reader of his columns. I plan to, though, after reading this interview because I like the person I find here.

Scanlon asks, "What was the biggest surprise about writing the book?" And Barry responds, "That I managed to get over that bog Irish inner voice asking me who the hell do I think I am, writing a memoir. At 46 what have I done that's so important for all the world to know. The answer, of course, is nothing in particular.

"But that bog Irish voice never left me as I wrote, forcing me time and again to try and nudge the stories up to a level of telling that would make them stand alone AND have universal engagement. So that was a surprise, and I thank my Irish ghosts," he said.

His gave himself permission to write his stories, then sought a way to make them connect universally with readers. I'm curious to see how he succeeds. And he makes an important point about the value of this kind of writing to the creative spirit:

"I found that writing the memoir recharged my batteries. For a couple of years I wrote without any certainty that the manuscript would ever get published. Nevertheless, I looked forward to getting up early every morning, before work, and writing stories that had no specific deadline or urgency. I found myself being more daring with the language, and less concerned with having a nut graph. I took more attempts at humor, more attempts at describing people and places with unexpected images. I used voices in the first person, second person, and third person. Writing free-style, I threw images down on the page as fast as they came to me, then took my time separating the good writing from the bad writing. It was liberating; it was fun.

"After 20 years as a daily newspaper reporter, I needed the reminder to notice the little things. I swear, I hadn't thought about the wonder of fireflies since I was a boy. Then, during the treatment for my illness (cancer), I remembered fireflies. And while writing this book, I thought of the childhood habit of catching fireflies in glass jars and watching their luminescence for a moment or two. And it struck me: that's what we do as writers. We try to capture the firefly's glow before it fades from memory." Well said, Dan.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Managing (gracefully) under pressure

When I was a weekly newspaper reporter, I had to share a computer with one of the more colorful characters (literally and figuratively) in the newsroom. He was a sports reporter and was known for showing up on Monday and Tuesday and vanishing for the rest of the week. Covering sporting events, no doubt. He would churn out stories—features and news—in two days (and often it showed in his writing). I remember him apologizing to the assistant editor for "power-slamming" captions or sidebars, riddled with words running together and mispellings.

I've never been been someone who can crank out the material in short order. Although I "write" fast, I spend hours and days agonizing through the editing stage. The biggest challenge to independent writers is finding the balance between doing the work well and not spending more time than the project is worth. That's a very subjective thing. One could argue that all assignments are worth spending the time, regardless of pay.

When I was working at Custom Publishing Group , I would often feel the rush to get the story done. After all, the client is waiting to review and the designers are waiting to design. I suffered a goodly amount of stress in that job, but I realize now that much of it was my own doing. Although my husband had repeatedly urged me to "just put your time in," I found myself unable to do so.

For one thing, it's not in my nature to half-ass my way through anything. I take great pride in what I do. My name is attached to everything I send out into the world, so it has a very public face. I can't afford not to send out my best work. It's a self-imposed pressure, but no less taxing.

I've had a number of people, particularly women a generation ahead of me, who have marveled at my ability to juggle so many things at one time. I'm glad it appears easy to outsiders because inside I sometimes feel as if I'm struggling to stay afloat. I'm learning to say no to certain projects that don't cause me to flex my creative muscles or that lie outside my interests or expertise. Rather than flatly refusing work, though, I'm developing a network of fellow creatives to whom I will happily refer projects. And slowly, I'm better managing my time with current projects. It's a continuous struggle for balance. Sometimes my equilibrium is fine and sometimes it's way off.

But here's the beauty of being on my own: When the pressure begins to bubble over as it has for the past couple of weeks, I can walk away from my office, turn on some soothing classical music and lie on the couch with eyes closed and feel the strands of tension release from my body. I can thumb through "Coastal Living" magazine and pretend I'm at the beach, or sit on the rockers on my porch and feel the breeze in my face and rock away the tension. During the summer, I can tell the kids, "Let's hit the pool," and come back to the project later that night feeling a bit more relaxed. And when it's really bad, I can strap on my running shoes and head for a run or take my dog for a walk.

Sadly, those were things I felt I couldn't enjoy while working in a downtown office, the things I needed to rejuvenate my mind, soothe my soul and replenish my creative spirit. So even with the stress of multiple projects and deadlines looming, I feel better able to manage the pressure. Plus I have this wonderful new outlet known as Creative Ink.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Another Zinsser gem

Writers are the custodians of memory, according to William Zinsser, one of the foremost writers and teachers of writing. But the best advice given when writing about your life is to think small—as in self-contained little incidents that are vivid in your memory. You're likely to remember those incidents because they contain a larger truth that readers will recognize in their own lives.

Now isn't that just the most practical piece of writing advice? Zinsser's new book, "Writing About Your Life" is filled with all kinds of gems. But what makes it so inspiring is that he takes the reader on his own journey, using his own writing to illustrate how to write about your life.

"Who gave you permission to think your story will interest the rest of us? Well, I give you permission. All writers are embarked on a quest of some kind, and you're entitled to go on yours," he writes. Amen! The only thing you have to do, and this has been a recurring theme on Creative Ink, is to be true to yourself.

Of course there is much more involved in writing, including constructing narrative, observing, reporting, but also making the personal connection and resonance. His advice: select, focus and reduce.

My first encounter with William Zinsser was in Journalism School at Ohio University. In my senior year, one wise professor gave us a reading list of books that would help in our career. Zinsser's "On Writing Well" was on top of that list. I didn't buy it right away, but instead purchased it a year later out of desperation when I felt I was stagnating in my job as a reporter at Sun Newspapers.

It was winter 1990 and I had holed up in my little two-room efficiency apartment in Lakewood. (Wasn't much of a place, but it was mine.) I had stopped to pick up Zinsser's book from the old Doubleday bookstore at the Galleria. Since I didn't have a couch (nor the room for one), I climbed into my bed and, with the rattling and clanging of the radiator kicking on, I cracked open the book.

Zinsser opens with the story of being on a panel with a surgeon who also wrote for magazines. The doctor talked about how much fun it was to be a writer. At that point I was thinking I may have been steered wrong by my professors. But then Zinsser said the words that hooked me then and ever since: "I then said that writing wasn't easy and it wasn't fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed."

At last! I had found the person who could speak to ME! I proceeded to read throughout the night until I finished the book. I strolled into the newsroom the next morning a tad weary, but thoroughly convinced that I could make a difference in my writing. I had been tossing around an idea about a series of articles on integration in the suburbs I covered. It was clearly outside the scope of my regular beat, but was something I felt compelled to pursue. Armed with the belief that I could handle the extra work, I went into my editor's office and pitched my idea. He bought it, I wrote it and it won an award from the Suburban Newspapers of America.

My copy of "On Writing Well" is now yellowed and dog-eared, with post-it notes marking some of my favorite passages. But when I need a jolt of sound advice and the affirmation that my chosen profession is not a hopeless cause for me, I pick up the book and remember that writing IS hard work, but it's so worth the effort. In the end, it's the only profession I've ever wanted to pursue.

I realized that again this weekend. What resonated for me in "On Writing Well" was Zinsser's willingness to share his own struggles and decisions about his writing. He made himself available as he also did in "Writing About Your Life." Zinsser is in his early 80s now, but age is really about how you feel. He's still creating and writing and—if you read his book—you'll learn he's also a jazz musician (jazz music is another of my great loves). "If you can do something that gives people pleasure, you ought to do it," he advises.

As much as his book is a guide about writing, it's also a book about living.
"It's a privilege to write for one other person. Do it with gratitude and with pleasure," he says.

I'm putting together a panel for freelancers at the SPJ National Convention in September. And I'm thinking we should create an opportunity for Zinsser. He's the godfather of so many writers, and we'll be in his beloved New York City. Maybe I'll give him a call.

"To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life." Poet Pablo Neruda

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Magic amid the mayhem

Holiday weekends can be brutal. So many obligations and so little time to find little moments of peace. I came home Friday afternoon to 11 messages on our answering machine, all with lovely offers of picnics and various other festivities.

We were long ago committed this weekend and so we just stuck to our original plan. Only it wasn't the traditional Fourth of July plan. Two of my husband's brothers came in to town for the first time in three years. And our friends, the Bests, were back in Bay Village, having lived in New Jersey for the past year.

After a day of too much sun at the pool on Saturday with Hokes too numerous to count, we headed to the Bests to "get it going" as my boys (all four of them) like to say.

The Bests moved into a lovely brick home on the south side of Lake Road, just across the street from what used to be the Sam Sheppard house. (The original clapboard house was torn down in the mid 1990s and replaced with a large stucco home that looks more at home in Arizona than on the southern shores of Lake Erie.) When dusk fell and it was time to head to the fireworks, Dan Best told us he had the perfect spot. Our traditional fireworks festivities involved scads of Hokes amid blankets and coolers at Cahoon Park.

Dan Best halted traffic on Lake Road, a cigar clenched in his mouth, so our clan of kids (mostly boys!) could cross the street and head toward the lake. We cut through the driveway and surprisingly large backyard of what is now a vacant home just west of Huntington Beach. (Apparently the owners dabbled a little into their company's pension funds, put a backhoe into the lake while reinforcing their breakwall and have found themselves in a mess of financial and legal trouble.) As our crew traipsed through the grass I heard the oldest Best boy tell the rest of the crew that the house was empty—and haunted! As we walked between two homes, a motion-activated light clicked on causing some of the younger kids to shriek in terror. "There's no such thing as ghosts," we moms reassured them, looking around to see if the ghost of Marilyn Sheppard was lurking on the 50th anniversary of her brutal murder.

We wound our way, single-file, down a path mowed through knee-high weeds, making hairpin turns as we descended to the beach, constantly counting heads: "Who's got Matty B? Nick, are you holding someone's hand? Patrick and Jake, don't run too far ahead! Dan, did you bring the cooler?"

Once we were down on the beach, we spread our blankets and kicked off our shoes to enjoy the display. I was glad for the darkness, because I was able to sit in my spot and take in the beach at night, which is one of my favorite places.

There was a small-craft advisory during the day, so the foot-high waves were rolling in pretty fast. Although the rocking may incite nausea in a boat on the lake, the sound on the shore is mesmerizing. I would sleep so well if I knew I could fall asleep to that sound every night. To the east the orange lights of downtown spread across the horizon like a large ocean liner. And bobbing along the lake were the lights of dozens of small boats, anchored to watch the fireworks display.

Huntington Beach rests at the bottom of tall cliffs, filled with large trees and overgrown shrubs and weeds. But in the darkness that filled the sky we were treated to the twinkling display of fireflies amid the darkness and greenery. The phosphorescent glow looked like a million stars in the sky and gave the little ones a rare treat.

Of course Dan was right. It was a great spot to watch the fireworks display since they were shot out over the lake. The kids lined up on the giant sandstone rocks that form a makeshift pier and watched in quiet delight.

In the end, that's where I found my peace amid this hectic weekend, in the quiet darkness of the beach, with the rolling sound of the waves, the twinkling lights and fireflies and the colorful bursts of fireworks. After a few moments, my husband turned my way and said, "How you doing back there?" Just taking it all in...