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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The twilight zone

I took one look at my mom today and instantly knew she was operating in the twilight zone that surrounds life in a hospital. You don't know what day it is, whether it's day or night, if you've eaten a meal or which doctor told you what news.

Unfortunately, we know this particular experience at Metro well. My dad received a hip replacement there seven years ago. It was November and I was with my mom during the surgery. When we saw a man wheeled out of the recovery room, she got up to follow. "That's not dad, that's an old man," I said. But it was my dad. His sparse salt-and-pepper hair was swirled in what looked like a bad combover. And his complexion was gray. He had lived with hip pain for so long that it was a near miracle to arrive at their house on Christmas Day (a mere five weeks after surgery) and see Charlie hauling a load of firewood in from the garage with his trademark red sweater and khakis, all robust and grinning.

My mom was operated on for cancer at Metro on Feb. 1, 1999. We received the news from her surgeon saying that her diagnosis was changed from ovarian to lymphoma, and that lymphona was a "better" cancer. (Better meaning there were more treatments available.) When they wheeled her into her room, barely concious, she looked like a child, with her petite frame taking up only about half of the bed. Charlie was crushed as he looked at her, a giant incision running from her breast bone to her lower abdomen. It was all any of us could do to hold ourselves together—for mom and for dad.

Charlie looks at my mom, after 41 years of marriage, and still sees the young women he met in the 8th grade and fell in love with at 19. Until recently, he carried her measurements (circa 1963) to assist in any shopping. Jen and I had to finally break the news that, though his mind's eye had held her at a size 4, she was in fact no longer.

I was scheduled the day after mom's surgery to deliver my Michael at Fairview Hospital. I still have a National Geographic map of Ireland, Scotland and Wales that has written on the back side in my dad's beautiful penmanship, "Michael Charles, 10:23 p.m., 7 lbs., 12 oz." Dad was my only visitor (besides Danny and the boys) in the hospital. He arrived early the morning after I delivered and sat holding Mikey, his fifth grandson and namesake, and soaking up his newborn smell in the quiet of the maternity ward. The nurses knew my mom was in Metro and took many extra Polaroids for my dad to share with her. It was one of the great, peaceful moments in an incredibly harried time.

And now he's back in Metro again, this time in CICU. As I looked at him sleeping today, I remembered how he could make me feel so special, with a squeeze or a comment. We were vacationing in Virginia Beach and had spent the day swimming in the ocean. I was freshly showered and sitting at a picnic table outside our camper by the light of the kerosene lantern. Dad, Chris and I were going to play cards. He looked at me and said, "Wendy Ann, sea water becomes you." What a beautiful thing to say to an awkward teenager. Charlie always was good with words...

Monday, August 30, 2004

Close to his heart

Charlie had a heart attack tonight. My dad is only 62 and has always been a pretty healthy guy. My sister and I always loved the old photo of him doing a back bend while my petite mom stood on his stomach. I can still see his graceful swan dive off the high dive at Berea municipal pool while we stood by the side of the pool cheering him on. And the way he give us whale rides in the ocean, gliding smooth as silk through the water. He still takes meticulous care of his yard and golfs at least once a week. So it was quite a shock to hear my mom's shaky voice on my cell phone telling me that he had been admitted to MetroHealth and was undergoing heart catheterization.

In times of family trouble, I take on the role of sibling-in-charge. My first order of business was to get home, pick up my rosary (because I knew my mom would need it) and head down to the hospital to be by her side.

As I headed downtown I called my Gram for any news. I complained about being stopped by a train and she nearly shouted at me, "Wendy Ann, that's God's way of telling you to slow down!" And so I did, sort of, and then called my brother and sister in Columbus to let them know I would share any news.

After many twists and turns, I found my mom in the waiting room in the cardiac care unit. She had her head against the wall and USA Today in front of her, but she wasn't reading. Her eyes were closed and I'm sure she was praying.

"Mom," I said gently. She jumped up to hug me and told me she felt so bad. Apparently he was feeling ill yesterday, too. Mom works at Metro and today was her first day back from vacation so she wasn't home with my dad when he went to the doctor.

"Did you blow it off, mom?"

"Yes!" she exhaled. "We thought it was heartburn," not an uncommon occurrence with heart attack symptoms.

We sat together, holding hands and comforting each other. I gave her my rosary and she said, "You knew." I did. My mom's faith is awe-inspiring and I knew she would need its comfort. Before long, my younger brother, Scott, arrived—all six feet two inches and 220 pounds of him visibly shaken.

We didn't have to wait long before the cardiologist came to tell us that dad had 80 percent blockage in the main artery on the right side of his heart. They were able to clear the blockage and insert mesh stents to support his weakened arteries. He has 100 percent blockage in a branch artery on the left side of his heart, and the doctor said it would cause more damage to try to remove the blockage. Since it's a branch artery, they weren't as concerned. The good news is that we seem to have dodged open heart surgery.

What is concerning, however, is how my dad, who had a clean bill of health 16 months ago, could suddenly develop coronary artery disease. According to the doctor, it doesn't take much time for blockages to develop (weeks, sometimes days).

I went in to see Charlie once he was in his room. He had to lie flat and had his glasses folded on his chest. Tubes, probes and monitors were attached all over him. But as I walked to the bed he grabbed my hand, squeezed it tightly and said, "Hey, sugar." I kissed his balding head as I've done since I was a little girl. "Dad, what happened?" I teased.

Although I'm sure there are some who think me a Daddy's Girl, I've never been the type to fall into "little girl" mode when I'm with him. He's always appreciated, respected and encouraged the grown woman in me. We have a relationship that is both loving and teasing. He and I are simpatico intellectually, politically and culturally. He taught me early on that I should never let anyone hold me down because I'm a woman. He was my earliest and biggest fan, still is. He laughs louder at the antics of my sister and I than anyone. And he shares our love of reading, history and period films. He introduced us kids to the wit of Benny Hill and the grace and beauty in a perfect drive down the fairway.

He has a passion for Civil War history, never able to pass up a Civil War site or old cemetery. He filled our car rides with what we believed was useless trivia, but which I have found myself repeating to my own children ("What's the geographic center of the state of Ohio? Centerburg!"). And he turned the Sunday Drive into an art form. "Circleville is just over the next hill, kids," he'd say after what seemed like hours of driving "just over the next hill."

He taught me to dream big and that it is okay to be serious about what you love.

During our one tumultuous family fight, my mom proclaimed that she wondered if any of us would miss dad if he died. Well, tonight, my younger brother and I were at his beside. And as I gave the report to my brother and sister in Columbus on my drive home, they both said—without hesitation—"I'm coming up in the morning. I need to see dad."

So I guess you could say we're all holding him close in our heart but, more importantly, we long to be close to his.

Love ya, Charlie. We're praying for ya.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Peeling back the layers

The house is quiet except for the hushed whir of the fan that is always on in my bedroom and the occasional groan from the dog as she stretches and flops position. I’ve conducted my flurry of cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, opening the blinds and hanging up towels (something my boys have great trouble remembering). This is the moment I’ve been craving … the kind of quiet you only get when you’re physically alone.

My desk is a mess since I’ve worked so many nights this week, including a virtual all-nighter on Wednesday, trying to make it through some intense deadlines. Though I still have much to do today, I’ve got to take a moment to straigthen up and refocus my brain. And the quiet, the contemplation, is just what I need.

Finished a book my sister loaned me a while ago called “Bread Alone,” by Judith Ryan Hendricks. I’m not sure how to describe it other than to share this little excerpt near the end of the book:

“If I were writing a story about myself, it would begin: ‘In her thirty-second year, she discovered her Right Livelihood…’ Or as CM would say, I’ve discovered what I am. I’ve peeled off the outer layers one by one—my father’s daughter, David’s wife, a divorcee—and I find, at the core, a baker of bread. A woman who likes working while the rest of the world sleeps. Who enjoys living alone, who doesn’t own a car or a house. Who’s happiest in jeans and a flannel shirt. Who chooses friends for the pleasure of their company, not their usefulness. Who’s open to love. Or would be, if she could learn to recognize it.”

Maybe it's just an awareness that comes with age, but I find myself peeling back the outer layers of all those labels we accumulate over time. It's so easy, particularly for women, to become their labels, to subsume to a culture that says "a wife does this," "a mother does that." What can get lost along the way is a woman's individuality, all those marvelous qualities that made her, her. It's just that loss that causes a woman to wake up one night and say, "But I was going to be and do so much more!"

What I seek is authenticity in life. I believe the authentic me, my "immaterial essence," is still there, she's just swaddled in the many layers of being wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend that all comprise my life. Certainly I am all those things and more, the trick is conveying that I am not just a wife or just a mom or just a daughter. It's becoming increasingly necessary for me to ebmrace all those elements while also remaining true to the woman within.

The journey of life is always full of surprises and opportunities if only we're quiet enough to listen to what is calling. Somtimes it takes courage, other times tremendous strength of will. But the spiritual satisfaction that comes from pursuing what you were called to do holds within a peace unlike any other.

Maybe you knew what you were meant to do, but you weren't listening to its power. You were busy trying to be something else or to fulfill someone else's dreams or expectations for you. If I can teach my sons anything at all about life it would be this: to find something you truly enjoy doing in life, even if it's unconventional, and pursue it faithfully and authentically. We owe the world and ourselves nothing less.

There’s so much static in life, interfering with or mixing up signals trying to reach our hearts and brains. The only way to hear what our heart desires is to build in enough quiet moments to listen. And that's why I'm enjoying the peaceful quiet and solitude of the house.

Call it prayer, call it meditation, call it reflection, but just make sure you take the time … to listen, unclutter your mind and discover what's in your soul.

I don't bake bread, I search for the meaning of life in words. And I find this quote a good recipe for living from one who knew herself so well.

"In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." — Edith Wharton

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Back to kindergarten

Kindergarten teachers are by their very nature a nutty bunch. They have to be in order to spend their days with an average of 40 spirited 5-year-olds day in and day out.

They are the people who wear brightly colored outfits that match the seasons and the holidays, sporting jumpers and cardigans with all manner of appliques depicting apples, chalkboards, letters and numbers. And their effervescent personalities can cause cynical parents to mutter, "sheesh" out of the corner of their mouths.

But the reality is that they are a special breed of loving people who hold in their hands your child's educational future. It's not an exaggeration. The experience your child has in kindergarten can set the tone for his or her love of learning for years to come.

I spent this morning in kindergarten with Michael. We walked into Normandy Elementary and were greeted by so many administrators, board members and teachers bending down to welcome my little guy to his first elementary school. I was touched by their presence because not only was this experience new for Michael, but for me as well.

Mrs. Eaton greeted us as we walked in the door with her vivacious smile and exuberant personality. "You must be Michael Hoke," she said. She taught with my sister-in-law, Mary Beth, for a number of years so she knew our name. "Michael, would you like to shake hands or hug," she asked. Michael stuck out his hand. Once we put all his supplies away in his cubby, we toured the classroom in all its primary-color, hyper-stimulating glory.

Mrs. Eaton is now in her 36th year of teaching kindergarten and she has as much enthusiasm and energy as a first-year teacher. She talked to parents about summer workshops she attended and her teaching philosophy. And I'm convinced that she's just the kind of first teacher Michael needs.

I'm not sure what he'll learn this year, but I do know that he'll grow to love learning. What better foundation can a parent ask for?

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Mania and mother guilt

So it’s the eve of the first day of school and all is quiet in the house, except for the crazed mom who is still working to meet an insane deadline. It will be worth it since I’ll get to spend the next two days getting my boys off to a good start for the school year.

I owe it to them for a less-than-stellar summer. Tremendous amounts of mother guilt are oozing from every pore as I think of the lengths I’ve taken to balance motherhood and business. I’m not proud of my efforts. In fact, I should be sporting the bag of shame after some marvelously maniacal episodes.

At one point I was in my office on a phone interview and I heard Michael screaming downstairs at his brother. As he started up the stairs I ran to shove my foot against the door so he wouldn’t come in. So there I was on the phone with an EVP from Office Depot, my laptop spun around so I could take notes, the phone cradled between my shoulder and ear and one leg bracing against the door as Michael wailed, “Mom! I want to play Playstation!” with his little fists banging on the floor outside my office door.

Uggh! It was a horror of horrors. And did I get off the phone and give some lovin’ to my little Mikey? No sir. I flung the door open and screamed, “You CAN-NOT do that when I’m the phone.” Mikey wasn’t the only recipient of my wrath that day. I reamed the older two for not appeasing their baby brother by letting him play when they knew I was on the phone.

My house is the prime spot for the neighborhood to congregate. The mom in me enjoys keeping tabs on what’s going on, but the businesswoman in me cringes at the sheer volume of little boys ages 5-12 running around the yard and the house. At one point they were having a fierce game of war and one of the favorite ambush spots was in the hedge just under my office window, which is always open. And so in between screams of, “Joe, you can’t do that I was in the safe zone” and “Mikey you’re out of ammo” and the dog barking and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t optimal for writing, let alone thinking.

So I would sit at my computer with my head in my hands and just feel the tension rising throughout my body. Usually that would be about the time I’d get an e-mail from a client looking for about 20 different things ASAP. Those were the moments when I had to strap on the running shoes and blow off stress and steam with a long run.

Last night as we reviewed the household budget for September, my husband and I had a “spirited” discussion about Michael going to after-school care every day after kindergarten. After my experience of this summer, I think it’s only fair that he be able to play with his friends and have fun without his stressed out mom trying to balance the two. Because the hard, cold reality is that, without the assistance of a babysitter or nanny, it’s impossible. You can’t be both mother and businesswoman at the same time. Something has to give and I’m afraid it’s usually both.

But tonight we’re in a different place. All three boys are so excited about starting school tomorrow. I teased my older two that I haven’t seen them this excited to start since they were in kindergarten. So before I turn to finishing a column that was due on Monday, I decided to take a moment, put on the headphones and listen to my summer soundtrack and remember that the start of the school year is always a new beginning—a chance to do it all better…

Monday, August 23, 2004

1983 Me

While sitting at my parents’ kitchen table yesterday afternoon my older brother, Chris—in town for his 20th high school reunion—and I reminisced about high school. We were only a grade apart and knew so many of the same people. Still we struggled to remember names, until my mom helped out by providing us with my 1983 yearbook, which I didn’t realize she still had.

1983 was my sophomore year, my first year in high school. As I thumbed through the pages, I became the girl who, the day before her class picture was taken, had her braces removed (after 3-1/2 years) and to her horror discovered that her teeth were very large. “They’re beautiful,” my mom assured me. But I was looking in the visor mirror crying, “They’re gargantuan!” What our teenage minds do to us can sometimes last a lifetime. I’m still sensitive about the size of my teeth.

I was on the volleyball team, the track team and band. But pictured in those pages was also my toothy mug lying prone on the floor (complete with topsiders) in front of the Focus staff. The Focus was our high school newspaper, which only managed to produce one or two issues due to lack of funding and interest. The caption under our staff photo reads: “Mr. Keith ‘Where’s My Circulation Money?’ Lare gives Wendy Lewis a lesson on the fine art of lining up type.” We were described as a “small, but fanatical, staff.” As I look at the photo I realized I was one of two underclassman surrounded by a group of highly literary seniors. Wonder whatever happened them?

One of the seniors that year was my first crush, Chris Mustain. He was an incredibly bright guy and always saw something in me that I could never see in myself. I met him when I was in eighth grade and my family gave him a ride home from a camp he attended with my brother, Chris. He was so smart and funny and I remember him giving off the intoxicating aroma of Deep Woods Off.

I was just a kid then, but eventually he and I would become very close. He told me, when I was only 15 years old, that I would grow to become a remarkable woman. I don’t know if that’s true, but that he saw potential in the awkward, unsure me when I was so ill equipped to see it myself said something about his maturity and vision. We kept in touch while I was in college, but I lost track of him during the ’90s.

Even as I embraced the high school life there was a side of me that always felt slightly out of place. Though I enjoyed my honors classes, I had to work hard to do well in them. Many of my classmates were so gifted intellectually that it seemed as if they didn’t need to lift a finger. That probably wasn’t the case, but that’s how it felt to me.

In the mid-90s I had written an article in Avenues magazine talking about the impact of favorite teachers on notable Cleveland personalities. Though mine wasn’t published, I wrote and sent a letter to Ms. Strawser, my junior and senior year English teacher, along with a copy of the magazine.

In it I told her how she helped give me the confidence to pursue writing as a career even in the face of some pretty intimidating company. I confessed to pulling all-nighters on my essays, even as I was convinced my piece on Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” would never hold a candle to that of my classmates. I suppose she was the first person to give me permission to pursue my life’s work.

Not long after I sent that letter, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Berea High School watching my sister conduct her choir. As we got up to leave the auditorium, there was Ms. Strawser. Her daughter was singing that night. She told me how much my note had meant to her and that she always knew I would do well since I was more serious than most about writing and because I worked at it so intensely. In a way she validated all those late nights spent agonizing over papers for Senior Honors Seminar and I was grateful to have bumped into her again.

Reunions can be strange animals. I’ve never been to one of mine own and I think, despite my excuses (of which I have many), deep down I didn’t want to be in front of those who could always make me feel so inferior academically, athletically and socially. As I get older, those fears have started to fade and I think it’s primarily a function of knowing myself.

Who knows, maybe I’ll consider attending my 20th high school reunion next year….

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Of Englishwomen and Mozart

Here are two don’t-miss articles in today’s New York Times—one because of its subject matter, the other because of its writing.

It seems the National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition of 60 portraits of women travelers on view through Oct. 31. A small show by exhibition standards, “Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travelers” sounds like a book in the making.

Though their portraits never graced the walls of England’s clubs, the exhibition and catalog show these female travelers all had “a preference for living far from a damp, cloud-covered island where the place of women was clearly defined.

“Their reasons for leaving were, variously, health, curiosity, research, religion, marriage and scandal. Their reasons for staying away were weather, power, freedom, excitement, love - and again, scandal.”

And their contributions in the fields of science, literature and human relations could fill volumes.

How can you tell if a violin is really, really happy? Listen. Or read this review in today’s NYT by reviewer Jeremy Eichler. It’s pure poetry, concise and beautiful. Here’s a sampling:

“The German violinist Christian Tetzlaff may have been exhausted by the end of his two performances at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Tuesday night, but one imagines that his violin was supremely happy. After all, the instrument had scaled two peaks of the literature in a single night: Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and a Sonata and a Partita by Bach. It's hard to speculate about the meaning of bliss for a box of wood with strings, but this combination of music might be pretty close.

“The Mozart work is the kind that draws expressions of knowing delight from connoisseurs and pleasant surprise from newcomers … in one of the loveliest musical dialogues ever written. The two instruments find endless ways of calling and responding, interweaving their gracious lines and exploring disparate worlds, though always in relationship to each other.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Back-to-school jitters

As we walked into Westerly School for new student orientation, the faces were sullen as the group gathered in the lobby shuffled their feet awaiting the principal’s arrival. I’m not talking about the students who will be new to the school this year I’m talking about the parents.

It didn’t hit me until just that moment that not only are Ryan, Patrick and Michael starting over, making new friends and navigating their way around a new school, but so are Danny and I.

Our decision to switch our children from Catholic school to public school this year was an arduous process—rife with plenty of fear, stereotypes and what ifs. Just as we would derive a certain level of comfort with our decision, we would be at an event with parents we knew and comment on how much we enjoy—and would miss—their company. Many of our friends have boys both Ryan and Patrick’s age, so we became a pretty tight-knit group. Since when is our social network more important than the educational success of our children?

And so we’d come back to the fundamental reason for the switch—the desire to see our boys thrive academically and athletically in the Bay Village City Schools. We are fortunate to live in a small town with a small district that has been nationally recognized for student achievement. I know the boys will do well. They have already made a ton of new friends this summer. And Michael will know no other school than the public schools.

That leaves Danny and I. We’re in a no-man’s land this summer, caught between the life we knew at St. Raphael and the life to come at Bay Schools. It’s an odd place and I think it’s caused a bit of stress for everyone.

I drop Ryan off at football practice at St. Raphael and see the cadre of parents I’ve known for seven years. We’ve spent so much time together on the sidelines, in the classroom and at church functions. I hope we can continue that on some level. And here's why: It's not easy to develop friendships as you get older, but we've done just that with some pretty special people.

For example: The wives of Danny’s fellow baseball coaches and I had a good laugh at our husbands’ expense the other night. The trio went out for A beer (Like Lay's potato chips, can you ever really have one?), supposedly to discuss the rankings of their baseball team. We were assured that they would pick up the boys at football practice at 7. But the phone rang right at 7. “Uh, we’re still here. Can you pick up the boys?”

And of course they were there for a few more hours. Rick, Bob and Danny are all big talkers so we should have known. They’ve coached together for a few summers and truly enjoy each other’s company. Gail, Susan and I got a charge out of the three as they developed their own shorthand during the game. You’d see them huddle together for a brief moment and then burst apart laughing hysterically. I don’t even want to know what they said, but I know them well enough to know it wasn’t about baseball.

My husband loves to give people nicknames. To his credit, he’s pretty original in his choices. A few summers ago he started calling our friend Bob (who is nearly 7 feet tall), Zimmer, as in Don Zimmer. Bob is a masterful coach, incredibly well organized. While warming up the kids in the outfield, Danny turned to see Bob’s lanky frame sitting on the dugout bench working on his lineup, something he takes quite seriously and with careful deliberation.

Danny, definitely more of a “wing-it” kind of coach, yelled to him from the outfield, “Hey, Zimmer, how’s the lineup coming?” Over the years that name has evolved into Zimmy, Zimeister, Zim-man, etc. We’ll be driving through Bay and see Zimmy and Mrs. Zimmy walking down the street and Danny can’t wait to roll down the window and scream “Zimmy!” at the top of his lungs. Bob gives him a wave and a big smile. And now Bob has taken to calling our Michael “Little Zimmy.” Helps to keep the kids straight when we’re all together because they also have three boys—Michael, Patrick and Jimmy.

Bob and Danny are like great girlfriends. They can talk on the phone for an hour, recapping a game or the assessment of player talent. Throw Rick into the mix and the storytelling reaches epic proportions. We’re still involved with CYO athletics this year. Danny is working with the fourth-grade boys basketball program at St. Raphael. Maybe that will serve as a nice transition for us.

But that doesn't change the fact that we’re being pushed outside our comfort zone starting not one, but three new schools. I think the boys are going to be fine. They’re very excited about their new schools. Now Danny and I have to step up to the plate to expand our social network. I just hope we can do that and find a way to maintain friendships with the terrific group of parents with whom we've already shared so much.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Remembering the hammock

When my sister and I were growing up, summer meant reading excessively and obsessively. Jen and I would lie on the hammock in the backyard head to foot and gently sway under the shade of the maple trees, heads cocked to opposite sides and simply riveted by our books.

If the weather was bad, we’d hole in up our sunny yellow room with the hum of the window air conditioner and lie on our beds with our legs propped on the wall (I’m not sure why, but sometimes we’d stop reading to compare the size and shape of our legs).

Although we may have been in separate literary and imaginary worlds, we also were in perfect communion in our love of reading. We never stopped to shove a foot in each other’s face (as my boys are apt to do). I’m sure our compulsive reading exasperated my mom. She would shout out the back door, “Girls, please check the laundry!”

“In a minute, just have to finish this chapter,” we would respond. Now as a mother I realize the words “in a minute” can evoke rage, but then we thought it no big deal. It was nothing for us to read into the wee hours, suddenly erupting with laughter or sharing a passage aloud. We could pore through the entire V.C. Andrews collection in a week or two.

Jen and I could spend a part of every day silently perusing the library for our favorite authors or for anything that jumped at us from the shelves. It’s a habit she and I still have today. Any trip to a bookstore involves several hours, lots of quiet contemplation, careful selection and then the chance to share what we’ve found over coffee. I’m nearly through the pile of books I borrowed when I last visited her in April.

I miss her for many reasons, but for companionship above all.

We spent our childhood living together, sharing the same room. I was devastated when I learned that I would have a single room my freshman year in college. I had never had my own room and didn’t know how I felt about being alone in college. Now we live two-and-a-half hours away from each other. The hectic nature of our lives—with husbands, children, homes and jobs—means we don’t often get to see each other. Even when we do, there are myriad distractions keeping us from ever really having the chance to chat.

And so that’s how I found myself thinking about Jen and about summer’s past, while eating my yogurt on the deck, reading a bit of my book (her book, actually) and listening to the wind in the trees. It felt oh-so familiar like a summer day on the backyard hammock, and yet lonely, too. Guess I just need to talk to my sister.

Monday, August 16, 2004

I'm not ready for this…

My oldest son Ryan hasn’t seen his buddy, George, in a while because he’s been away at camp or at his family’s summer lake house. Some day George will either be a politician or he’ll run a company (a very real possibility given his family legacy). I love that he’s incredibly polite, maybe even a bit of a schmoozer. “Hi Mrs. Hoke. How are you? Did you get your haircut?” That’s better than many of the boys who manage to mutter a ‘hey” without even looking in your direction.

Georgie is a charmer, though. I adore the kid even as I sense the mischievous in him. Last fall during football carpool he tried to get Ryan (and by default, me) to host a boy-girl Halloween party. “Come on Mrs. Hoke, it will be a blast. Everyone will be there.” Precisely why I said no way.

This time though, George, who still has the chubby hands and rosy cheeks of a little boy, sat in the van, grinned with his eyebrows raised and said, “So Ryan, how’s your summer been?” Ryan, who is about a head taller, lean and looks two years older than George, replied, “Ah, it’s been okay.”

“Have you talked to Lindsay?”

What??!!! My ears perked up and I nonchalantly turned down the volume on All Things Considered so I could eavesdrop.

“Nope,” said Ryan.

“You haven’t seen her or called her or Instant Messenger-ed her?” asked George.

“Nope,” said Ryan.

“Ah man I met this sweet girl at Culver named Chloe. I’ve got to show you the pictures. She’s beautiful.”

Ryan just nodded.

So it’s Lindsay. I remember him talking about her in the winter when all the kids would go to open skate at Rocky River Ice Rink on Friday nights. Once this summer while I was changing the sheets on his bed I found an adorable picture of Ryan and Lindsay that someone must have taken at school. He was hiding it, but I put it out on his dresser where it remains today along with his mouth guard and jock strap. (Sorry, Lindsay.)

One night I told him it was a cute picture, but Ryan just shrugged his shoulders. And then tonight, after I dropped him off at practice, Lindsay called. Girls have never called our house before (except for the neighborhood tormenter calling to tell me that Patrick ignored her—AGAIN!).

When Ryan got home from practice I told him Lindsay called. I was very cool, very nonchalant. He nearly ripped his football helmet from his head and yelled, “What?”

“Lindsay called. I told her you’d call her back.”

“Mom! Why did you say that?” he barked.

“Um, I don’t know, because it’s the polite thing to do. And besides, I thought you liked her.”

“I do, but I don’t want to talk to her.”

Ohhhhh, I get it. We’re at that I-like-you-therefore-I’ll-ignore-you phase. Phew! For a minute I thought I was gearing up for evenings filled with the phone ringing and little girl giggles as they hang up upon losing their nerve. (Not that I EVER played that game.)

Lindsay did call back probably because I told her Ryan would be home after 7:30. Danny answered the phone and handed it off to Ryan, who was chomping on a burger. “Yeah, huh, okay. I gotta go.” That’s it. End of discussion.

When I asked what she wanted, Ryan’s eyes filled with tears, he lowered his head into his arms and said, “Mom, I don’t know how to talk to girls.”

“But you talk to me and I’m a girl.” A lame response, I know, but I was trying to lighten the mood.

“Yeah, but you’re my mom and you’re cool.” Okay, let me just stop right there and say THAT made my day, probably my week and maybe even my month. My pre-teen son thinks I’m cool. But I digress.

I realized at that moment—thankfully—that my son is not yet ready for all this boy-girl stuff. And I’m okay with that. I just want him to be okay with it. Ryan turns 12 in November and in many ways he has always been mature for his age. He has no problem conversing with adults (male or female), handles responsibility very well and is capable of grasping some pretty intellectual topics. But girls? Unless they could throw a football or shoot a hoop, they never before entered Ryan's radar.

However, many of his buddies, a good portion of whom have older brothers, are a little too girl crazy if you ask me. Ryan, with his red-rimmed eyes, nose running and milk moustache just looked at me and said with such sincerity, “Mom, I’m not ready for this.”

The mother bear in me wanted to reach over and grab him and hold him and tell him that it’s okay because I’m not ready for this either. Instead I looked at him and said, “Ryan, don’t feel pressured just because some of your friends are talking to girls. I’ll teach you a bit about small talk and you’ll be just fine.”

He nodded and smiled, we pumped knuckles (“gimme some love”) and then he let me give him that big mama bear hug (along with a few Oreos). And I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we’re safe and secure in the land of little boys for just a little while longer…

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Stretching your writing muscles

“She was a woman who, between courses, could be graceful with her elbows on the table.” — Henry James

I happened upon this Henry James line from his book, ‘The Ambassadors” and I’ve been letting it marinate as I pull together some thoughts about descriptive language. I think it’s a fine example of how you can be simultaneously descriptive and concise by stretching your writing muscles.

Reminds me of how we as parents always encourage our children to “use your words” when they are having trouble expressing a feeling or a need. It’s the same principle at work. Just as we ask them to reach down into their limited vocabulary to tell us if they are hungry or angry or sad, successful writers need to reach even deeper to create a sense of mood, tone and description without blathering on. It's mentally more challenging—and far more satisfying.

James’ line instantly conjures a woman of elegance and refinement. In my mind, she is slim, beautiful, engaging and quiet in her voice, yet very present through her simple actions. James is a master of creating such imagery. And one of the few writers who could casually—and successfully—throw the word epistolary into his character’s dialogue.

Learning to write descriptively comes from being a great observer of life. Here are a few good examples I pulled from the mish-mash of magazines piling up on my desk.

“Thus the garden evolved, devoting ample space for purple basil beside all the sweet, jalapeno and paprika peppers necessary to quench Linda’s penchant for roasting. The result is mouthwatering.” — Tovah Martin, writing about a garden in Country Living, August 2004

“Standing on warm sand under a cerulean sky, I attempt to lasso the wind. A few gentle shifts of a control bar and the practice kite sketches infinity in the air. It darts, dips and gains momentum—propelling my body into the surf and my heart into my throat.” — Sarah Brueggemann, writing about kiteboarding in Coastal Living, July/August 2004

“And so the quest for the Holy Infant begins: the tests, the doctors, the sex with all the spontaneity of a military drill.” — Judith Newman on becoming a first-time mother of twins at 40, Health, July/August 2004

“The wreck might have been just a minor bump in my travels through a land where inhabitants display a whoopsy-daisy attitude toward fatal accidents and killings.” — Alan Cullison, “Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2004

“Obama has mastered the art of appearing to take reporters into his confidence by dispensing the sort of forthright political chatter that causes them to swoon.” — Ryan Lizza, associate editor of The New Republic, writing about Barack Obama in
The Atlantic Monthly, September 2004

"Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience." M. Scott Peck in O Magazine, February 2004

And finally from the blogosphere:
“As I finished the story, I envisioned Sandy (Woodthorpe) reacting like some latter-day Civil War general, studying the intelligence from the field before repositioning her big guns, oratorical and otherwise, to blast away in the direction of this latest perceived injustice. May she keep firing away in support of scribes, building creative community and reminding everyone of the importance of good writing.” — John Ettorre, Working With Words, Aug. 10. 2004

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Feeling restless

I’m not into astrology, but I like to see if my horoscope has any relevance to my life. Just so happens that today, in the Washington Post, it does:

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Some of your progress has stalled, so you are inclined to adopt an innovative approach where money or work is concerned. Try something different to make headway.

No kidding! Been feeling kind of restless as if there are so many opportunities I’m missing. Suppose it’s because the bulk of my time of late has been spent on one project. Not altogether a bad thing; I’ve had some amazing experiences and the steady pay is nice. But I’ve lacked the time to pursue more creative work and that’s frustrating me.

And I’ve been fairly isolated in my Bay bubble for most of the summer, also not a bad thing because I’ve had some great times with the kids. But I keep telling myself that once the kids are in school I’ll have the whole day—week even—to better organize my time so that pitching, researching and writing stories becomes a part of my day and less of my night.

It will be nice to reconnect with other professionals, something I put off in large part this summer to be home. The reality is that as much as I enjoy the boys, I recognize (as do they) that it’s time for everyone to be engaged in their own thing. The never-ending doorbell ringing, home phone ringing, kids shouting and dog barking aren’t really conducive to the quiet, solitary task of writing. Thank God for the peace of the early morning hours or I’d never get anything done.

Working strictly in isolation with no outside professional contact is hazardous to one’s morale. Humans need to feed off of each other’s energy in order to feel engaged and connected.
Thank God for my two neighbors—Patty and Mary. We’ve been the three musketeers this summer, rescuing each other from the frenzy of skateboards, practices, manhunt, endless laundry and Popsicle sticks scattered throughout the lawn.

It’s the natural order of life for everyone to be engaged in his or her own activities. We all come together more peaceably to share our days and there’s a greater sense of harmony in the household. Think I’ll go grab Patty and Mary and drink a toast to peace and harmony!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

13 years on

Found this poem on the back of a Marriage Encounter brochure. I have no idea who wrote it, but it is certainly poignant and something to which we all aspire. I still find cards incapable of capturing what’s in my heart.

Happy anniversary, toots, from your little tomato.

I love you
Not only for what you are
But for what I am
When I am with you.

I love you
Not only for what you have made of yourself
But for what you are making of me.

I love you
For the part of me that you bring out.

I love you
for putting your hand into my heaped up heart
And passing over all the foolish weak things—
That you can’t help dimly seeing there.
And drawing out into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
quite far enough to find.

I love you because you are helping me to make
Of the lumber of my life
Not a tavern, but a temple;
Out of my works, of my every day
Not a reproach, but a song.

I love you
Because you have done
More than any creed could have done
To make me feel my goodness.
You have done it
With your touch,
With your words,
With yourself.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Signs that summer’s ending

• The Hall of Fame football game kicks off Monday Night Football season tonight. And there’s talk in the house of how the beloved Wolverines (don’t ask) will fare this season.

• Camps are finished and we’ve passed that precious week or two with no sporting commitments. Boys are naturally hyper, a state that is intensified when left with no routine and only their imaginations to occupy their time. They do much better when following a routine, a habit that follows them into manhood, so we’re always thankful when routine returns.

• We’ve amassed a rather spectacular collection of new hardware in the form of trophies. Time to build another trophy shelf in the basement. Ryan’s 3-on-3 hoops team won the championship; Patrick’s baseball team won the tournament and league championships. Michael got trophies as the team’s able-bodied batboy (though his role was more akin to Slider).

• CYO tackle football practice begins tonight. Through the end of October, we are now committed to this seven-day-a-week activity. In preparation for securing his starting running back position, Ryan has been running and doing wind sprints with Danny and I. Today’s task is to carve out a spot in his locker for the influx of equipment.

• There are certain movies that inspire young boys and we’ve moved on to “Remember the Titans,” which Michael has watched about 25 times in the past two weeks while running back and forth through the family room, kitchen and dining room with a football tucked under his arm. His only opponent is the dog. She seems okay playing the role of defensive lineman and has learned to weave when Michael throws an arm her way. The only blocker able to stop him is the refrigerator door.

• For all my good intentions at the beginning of every growing season, my perennial garden once again resembles a jungle of towering weeds. I have managed to water my many flowerpots (ably assisted by the rainy summer weather) and so the yard looks as if someone cares. The lawn is impeccable as always because Danny never seems to lose his passion for mowing.

• Danny and I have taken to "walking the grounds" and making grand plans we can't afford for improving the house.

• The boys are losing interest in going to the pool, opting instead to play some rather ferocious games of touch football in the yard.

• The stacks of assorted baseball pants, socks, baseball hats, beach towels, goggles and T-shirts belonging to friends is beginning to dwindle as these items slowly find their proper owners.

• I have an overwhelming need to organize things—closets, dressers, kitchen cabinets, the basement. Some people do this in the spring, but I prefer fall cleaning to spring cleaning. Tackled the refrigerator yesterday. Best time to do it is when it’s empty.

• Fall catalogs have arrived and I’ve already marked the things I’d love to buy but probably never will because the boys also are clamoring for new sneakers, football cleats, etc. “Are you sure you can’t just jam your foot into those cleats for this week?” May have to sign the house over to Dick’s Sporting Goods.

• I've finished a pile of light summer reading and will turn my attention to meatier works.

• Danny is talking about making his famous chili, a college football classic in our house.

• In spite of themselves, the boys are actually talking about (and, I would venture to say, excited about) school starting, although the older two wanted nothing to do with school supply shopping this year. Came home with bags of supplies yesterday. “Boys, this is your mother’s favorite time of year. She just LOVES buying school supplies,” says Danny, as the ogranizational freak in me begins sorting them into piles.

It’s true. I love the start of school. In fact, fall is my absolute favorite time of year. I always think of September as a time of renewal and it fills me with a sense of invigoration. The dog days of summer are behind us and it’s time to jump into projects again—whether it’s work, the house or school. Makes me want to shout, “Happy New Year!” Or maybe I’m just giddy at the thought of having the house to myself again.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Blown away

So I've got this book to review for the PD called "Living Your Strenghs." I'm not sure what it's about yet, but before reading it suggests visiting StrengthsFinder and gives me an ID to logon. I go through and answer an incredibly long series of questions developed by The Gallup Organization. You're given two statements and have to decide which one "strongly describes me." There's also a neutral option. At the end, it compiles these "strength themes" in a short description that didn't mean all that much to me. Then I clicked on the longer descriptions. This is what I found and I'm blown away by how closely it reflects me. Stop back to find out if the book also blows the mind.

You like to think. You like mental activity. You like exercising the "muscles" of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions. This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person's feelings. The exact focus will depend on your other strengths. On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus. The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.

You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information-words, facts, books, and quotations-or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don't feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and compiling and filing stuff away. It's interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable.

You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered-this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences-yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the "getting there."

Things happen for a reason. You are sure of it. You are sure of it because in your soul you know that we are all connected. Yes, we are individuals, responsible for our own judgments and in possession of our own free will, but nonetheless we are part of something larger. Some may call it the collective unconscious. Others may label it spirit or life force. But whatever your word of choice, you gain confidence from knowing that we are not isolated from one another or from the earth and the life on it. This feeling of Connectedness implies certain responsibilities. If we are all part of a larger picture, then we must not harm others because we will be harming ourselves. We must not exploit because we will be exploiting ourselves. Your awareness of these responsibilities creates your value system. You are considerate, caring, and accepting. Certain of the unity of humankind, you are a bridge builder for people of different cultures. Sensitive to the invisible hand, you can give others comfort that there is a purpose beyond our humdrum lives. The exact articles of your faith will depend on your upbringing and your culture, but your faith is strong. It sustains you and your close friends in the face of life's mysteries.

You are generous with praise, quick to smile, and always on the lookout for the positive in the situation. Some call you lighthearted. Others just wish that their glass were as full as yours seems to be. But either way, people want to be around you. Their world looks better around you because your enthusiasm is contagious. Lacking your energy and optimism, some find their world drab with repetition or, worse, heavy with pressure. You seem to find a way to lighten their spirit. You inject drama into every project. You celebrate every achievement. You find ways to make everything more exciting and more vital. Some cynics may reject your energy, but you are rarely dragged down. Your Positivity won't allow it. Somehow you can't quite escape your conviction that it is good to be alive, that work can be fun, and that no matter what the setbacks, one must never lose one's sense of humor.

Other lives

Received this beautiful thought from Mom this morning:

Good Morning My Daughters,
The beautiful breeze and sunshine felt while walking briefly across the street from the MHMC (MetroHealth) parking garage to the Rammelkamp made me think it would be a perfect day to hang clothes on the line. It brought back pleasant memories of those times on West Bridge Dr. That was my other life and it made me feel good to think about it. Just wanted to share this with you both.


Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Head down this week

"Drive thy business or it will drive thee."
Benjamin Franklin

Monday, August 02, 2004

Learning from leaders

Leadership is definitely one of my pet topics these days. I’m fascinated by how it works, what makes it effective and how it empowers others. Part of my job as editor of Profiles in Diversity Journal is to interview leaders about how they do their job, what teams of people they bring together and how they empower the rank and file of an organization.

I’ve always looked at my job as a great center for learning. I get to pick the brains of some amazing people to pull together a story. With each interview I learn more about leading, about what it takes to be successful in business and how to balance what you’re called to do with the rest of your life.

Here’s what I picked up after spending time in New York with 39-year-old Cuban American, Ana Mollinedo, VP of Diversity, Communications and Community Affairs for Starwood Hotels:

• Each leader brings not only skills and experience to a job, but also a complete network of people with whom they’ve partnered in the past. Being able to leverage that network for your business can lead to previously unimaginable opportunity.

• The first job of every leader is to assess who is on the team, who wants to remain on the team, where the strengths and weaknesses of the team lie and how to bring new team members together.

• Good leaders delegate, but I would go one step further and say that good leaders empower. Empowering others to make positive changes—both large and small—is critical to an organization’s growth.

• Mentoring is the obligation of every good leader. Did someone take time to help you in your career? If so, you owe it to yourself and to others to give back. Developing future leaders is critical in any organization. It may be simply some positive coaching, recognizing raw talent or making an introduction on someone’s behalf.

• Most leaders can trace their influences back to a family member who gave them permission to be. Many times it’s a parent or teacher (often both). Regardless, they were told early on that imagination, drive, integrity, balance, willingness to learn and work ethic all matter.

• Recognizing your own faults and limitations and having your team members understand that it’s okay to point them out to you is important. Sometimes leaders can be impatient or focused to the point of missing certain things. Leadership is a two-way street and team members should feel empowered to constructively address those weaknesses when they affect them in a negative way.

• 90 percent of good leadership is execution. It’s very easy to have a vision in your mind and heart for how you would like things to appear. It’s turning that vision into reality that remains the muscle—the heavy lifting—of leadership.