Thursday, January 31, 2008

The truth, so help me God

Marcus is learning to tell stories. It’s pretty amusing.

First, he would tell a story only after he’d been told one. The story he told would sound a lot like the one he’d just heard, although it might have the elements of several different stories all jumbled into one. For example, if Todd told him a fishing story about his brother, and then a couple of made-up stories about talking animals, then by the time it came from Marcus it was an odd mix of all the different tales, and his uncle would be conversing with Ellie the elephant on a train, or something like that.

Then he began retelling things from TV; I first noticed it when we watched his very first feature film, the remake of Charlotte’s Web. He loved it, and sat transfixed for the entire duration. The next day, he wanted to build “Wilbert” out of Duplos, and that led to the building of a Duplo barnyard, some Duplo cows, and the characters re-enacting snippets of the movie. He's retold other shows and movies we’ve since viewed, some of them several times, often with very different details… but hey, there’s a reason we call it storytelling instead of reporting.

It’s begun happening more often with stories we read. No sooner have we finished the book than Marcus looks very intently at me and tells me just what occurred in the story: “Tigger looked and looked and he couldn’t find him! They all looked and looked! He was in a stump!” The cutest thing about all this is the way he gets ultra-serious while relaying the events to you, as if they are of utmost importance. If you don’t understand him, or ask him to repeat a part, he’ll sometimes lean in very close to you, as if he’s speaking a foreign language. There’s his small, pointed face, his gray-blue eyes open wide, and his tiny lips are pronouncing each word for you with absolute care and intention. It’s a crack-up.

And occasionally, just occasionally, he’ll make something up completely, and I won’t recognize a single aspect of the story. Which means, sadly, that we’re likely approaching the fibbing tendency. I’ve only caught him in one actual lie, a rather harmless lie about brushing his teeth with Daddy when, in fact, checking with Daddy revealed that no such hygienic act occurred. It’s a blessing that he usually still reveals his untruths by fidgeting, or wearing an uncomfortable expression, or confirming the lie by simply his being unable to look at me at all. I know that it will not always be that way, but I can pray that he’s never very good at lying, or better yet, that he never comes to see that as an option.

Then again—do I really want him to tell me the whole truth all the time? Do I want that from anyone? Hmmmm. That’s something for each of us to consider in depth; I’ll comment no further here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Almost writing about politics

So, I am a tad out of touch with the big world beyond our walls, and I had no idea that our President was delivering his final State of the Union last evening—until I turned on the TV and managed to catch the last 15 minutes or so. It was about what I’d expected in both topic and tone, and luckily George W. has the sense to keep it short (unlike some of our former, more verbose leaders). The most annoying thing to me, aside from the ridiculous up-and-down clapping performances that have always seemed so cloying and phony, was the fact that Nancy Pelosi was apparently reading something the entire time George was speaking. Not only was she rude enough to read as he delivered this important speech, she wasn’t even subtle about it; she made no effort to hide her boredom.

Now, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that one’s professional demeanor reveals quite a lot about one’s personal behaviors. Her behavior, in very broad view on national (and international) television, tells me a lot about ol’ Nancy, and none of it’s good. I’m slightly embarrassed on behalf of the American people for placing a disrespectful person in a position of such authority—a very visible and vocal position, to boot, and one from which she platforms way more than I’d like.

I hear so many people bemoaning the state of our youth, how they’re rude, how they’re quick to spout their feelings without restraint, how they don’t consider the feelings of others, how they never ponder the future consequences of their actions. Why should they? I’m afraid Nancy is not alone; there are countless adults behaving in ways that they’d never teach their children, not just at work but in their own families and circles of friends. In many cases, young people today are simply modeling what they've been shown.

And sadly, if I step back and recall with truth and honesty, there are plenty of times when I’ve been a bit Nancy myself. I’m not proud of those times. I need to constantly remind myself about that plank in my eye before I go picking at the speck in someone else’s. And I need to remember, too, that any change I desire begins not with my changing someone else, but by my changing myself. A friend of mine reminded me about a great verse (thanks, Cari!) and I think I will write it here to further imprint it on my memory:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:8

Keeping that in mind, I will now put Nancy and her undesirable behavior behind me. She deserves no more of my attention, aside from examining myself in light of my reaction to her—so as to ensure that I don’t behave in a similar fashion.

Sometimes we forget that what we’re putting into our minds and hearts is what comes out; what we’re entertaining in there, mulling over, spending time on, eventually consumes and becomes us. And looking at the world around me, I want to be pretty careful about what I’m letting in and what I'm dwelling on—for my own sake, and for the sake of anyone who may be watching me.

(Since this blog is really just an extension of my mind, I’ll be sincerely trying to keep it true, noble, right, pure, etc., for the very reason quoted above—those are the sorts of things I should be thinking about.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Aw, capitalism

The spelling in the subject line was intentional. Aw, not ah. Ah would imply wonder and delight. I wrote aw, as in aw, shucks, this is overwhelming. And annoying. And crazy.

Our vacuum is dying. It’s ancient, it has a right, it’s worked soooooo hard in this life that I truly don’t begrudge its threats to leave this world and go on to vacuum afterlife. But I had no idea there were so many replacement options out there. My head is spinning. Bags or not? Upright or canister? Splurge on a Dyson (as if I could) or pick up a cheap Hoover? Designer color or plain old black? Should it have hand-help capabilities?

It’s becoming ridiculous, the amount of choices that exist to us in this country and other places like it. This was painfully evident to me while shopping recently, when I actually read the labels on several bottles of water. Now, first and foremost, the idea of bottled water is really pretty stupid, when you think about it. Bottled water. That’s water, in a plastic bottle. Would you have paid for this 25 years ago? Of course not. You’d have scoffed at it as you poured yourself a drink of water from the faucet or fridge. But now? It’s huuuuuuuge business. You can have plain old water, vitamin-fortified water, mineral-fortified water, fruit-flavored water, lightly carbonated water, fruit-flavored carbonated water… And it’s still water. All of it. It was plucked from the earth somewhere, bottled, and overpriced for your consumption. Is there a chance it was ever in your washing machine in a previous life? Of course. Could that lovely, clear beverage have resided in a mine run-off pool some time ago? Possibly. Might it have been used to drain an open sewer in a developing country a few years back, before it evaporated and fell to the ground amidst mountain grandeur? Why, yes—I wouldn’t say it’s a probability, but it certainly isn’t something you can rule out altogether. All above-ground moisture in our atmosphere is recycled over and over and over. Think about it. Then, save yourself some money. (Brita makes a fine filter for your refrigerator pitcher.)

Back to the main point: What does water have to do with capitalism? With vacuum cleaners? Let’s just say I want to make certain that the vacuum I end up purchasing resembles good but plain water from the faucet. I don’t want to get all caught up in the chase to have the newest and best and most hip; I don’t need a vacuum that looks streamlined and matches my décor, but isn’t able to suck up the tiny piece of lint next to the baseboard. I need something to pick up crayon wrappers and cat hair. I need a vacuum; that’s all. I wonder if I can even find a basic model nowadays?

We have too many choices, and a lot of them have been created not because they’re better, but because we can be made to believe they are. Thank goodness most of them are either ludicrous or too expensive to consider. Wading through the hundreds upon thousands of options still takes me too long, but thanks to a budget, my starting list is a lot shorter than some people’s.

On a kind-of related subject, those clear water bottles suck up sickening amounts of space in landfills, plus they require petroleum to produce. Let’s all just invest in sturdy, reusable water bottles. Ditto for your daily Starbuck’s or whatever your coffee pleasure—purchase a spill-proof reusable travel mug. Think of the garbage we can eliminate just by taking those small steps! : )

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two treats in two days

I’ve always tried to embrace simple pleasures. They’re cheaper, I’m more likely to find them, and I feel a little closer to being the person I’m supposed to be when I engage in that type of joy vs. highfalutin joy. And the past two days have delivered in a big way on simple pleasures.

In honor of simplicity, I’ll try to be brief:

• In a freakish and miraculous occurrence, my son slept until nearly 11:00 am yesterday. This is absolutely unprecedented. It is the latest he’s ever slept, and probably one of only 4 or 5 times this year that he’s slept past 8:00 am. He just doesn’t sleep late. But he did. I had time to watch the "Today" show, drink my coffee while it was still hot, get online for more than 2 minutes at a time, and do chores. Ah, blessed chores. I first scurried, then slowed a tad, and finally savored the laundry, the bed-making, the loading of the dishwasher, all performed at a leisurely pace and without guilt. Why would I normally feel guilt? Because typically, as I complete these daily tasks, there’s a small voice near me saying, “Mama, come play! Mama, let’s read this. Mama, come build a tower with me! Mama, come ON!” And I hurry to do the minimum amount of duties as quickly as possible so as to sooner satisfy that insistent little voice. As I meandered about the house in silence, I kept thinking, “This is how the other half lives. All those parents with sleepy children, this is what they get to do every day.” I was momentarily irked, but it was such a blissful time that I couldn’t stay irked for long. Then the little guy awoke, and my quiet retreat ended. However, we were both truly refreshed.

• In the midst of summer, when you’re overrun with tomatoes, you forget that a day will come when the tomatoes are gone. We had several grape tomato plants that flourished last summer, and for weeks, perhaps months, we had lovely little grape-sized fruits on them every day. We cooked them, sliced them, ate them like grapes (hence the name), put them in salad, grilled them on sticks, even shared some. But we wearied of them. We took them for granted. They were so plentiful, you see—we couldn’t imagine a world where the wonderful little red and yellow gems would be a distant memory. Still, I did organize myself on some less than stifling days, and I gathered large amounts of them and cooked them down for several hours to freeze. I stashed them in the freezer and thought no more of them. Until today. Today, I pulled a bag and thawed it. I mixed it with little bay scallops and garlic and a sprinkling of Romano cheese, and I plunked a large amount of it over some thin spaghetti. And you know what? It was divine. The rich, sweet, thick tomato blobs were not of this world—they made my mouth sing. They brought back all those hot days, standing in the son with my little boy, both of us picking from the prolific plants and tossing our loot in a big tin bucket. Those dear tomatoes honestly made me forget, if for a moment, that I’d shivered my way across a windy, snow-covered parking lot earlier this morning. I’m so, so thankful that I made the boiling effort last summer.

Go find some simple pleasures, people. They’re out there for the taking! Well, they are if your early riser sleeps in, or if you took the time to boil last August. Maybe you’ve had some of your own simple pleasures of late. If you can share them here (tee hee—family friendly pleasures only, please!), then feel free to do so.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Drugs, and the nice, well-dressed people who ply them

Okay, just a quick little spout here, because I was reminded of my ire about this issue when I spoke to my parents earlier this evening. (Did you know that Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart, has never actually practiced medicine? Has never even taken an internship to do so? Boy, when you see him on TV, touting the benefits of Lipitor in his spiffy white coat, it certainly would be easy to make that assumption. Got a boatload of money for making that ad, though. [See the story here: don't miss the last three paragraphs.] Thanks, Dad and Mom, for telling me this so I can have yet another reason to distrust the big drug companies; now they’re misleading me as well as trying to make a sale off of my unhealthy back.)

Anyway. Back to my ire, the root of which you may have guessed by now. I’m reminded of it each time I go to the doctor’s office, and depending on the season in our home, that can be pretty often. Lately, we’ve been able to steer clear—but Halloween and Thanksgiving were not nearly so kind, and during those weeks, we spent many dull hours waiting in lobbies and sterile (so they say) rooms for doctors and nurses.

And each time, each and every stinkin’ time we were there, I saw at least one—but usually more than one—well-dressed youngish person, carrying a briefcase or laptop case or both. Who were these attractive professionals hanging out at doc’s place, sweet-talking the receptionist? How did these suits manage to get through the magic door before my sniffly, fevered little kid? Why, they were prescription drug representatives, of course. Were they sick, you ask? Of course not. They were there primarily, I'd guess, to introduce the doctors to their employer's newest available drugs.

That’s right, they were there to push drugs. I’m starting to see very little difference between these folks and the corner crack dealer. At least the crack dealer doesn’t present himself as a respectable and responsible member of society.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. I know that many, many people have benefited from prescription drugs, be it on a daily basis or in a one-time emergency situation. Drugs save lives. They improve lives. They are valuable in health maintenance; for some people, they are absolutely imperative. And I even know a fellow who became a drug company representative, and he was a very nice guy, amicable, admirable—not a dealer at all.

And yet. Why is it that I see more prescription drug advertisements than any other type of ad, both on television and in print? How is it right that, as has been reported, the companies that produce these drugs spend more money telling people to ask their doctor for a substance than they spend on researching said substance? That’s messed up.

I was furious last time this happened at the doctor’s office. I was thinking, why can’t the doctor just say “No, thank you”? Why must he or she continue to sacrifice already-at-a-premium time and energy to these reps? And then, even as I was spewing fire, I pictured that little case that the reps carry. Oh, yeah. Free samples. Have I ever received any of those? Yep. Have you? Likely. If the doctors don’t “visit” with the reps regularly, could it jeopardize the free sample supply? Maybe. I won’t pretend to know the answer to that question, but it certainly gave me pause.

However, I STILL think it’s messed up. Drugs that save lives should not be advertised to the consumer public as just another purchasable product. It’s just wrong, and it wasn’t always that way. When I was a kid, no one ever suggested to my family that we ask the doctor about a specific drug. We’d never even heard the names of the drugs. I can remember knowing, as a little kid, that antibiotics saved the life of my sister, who’d had complications from appendicitis...but I don’t remember the specific name of the antibiotic. We didn’t need to know because the doctor knew. Remember the doctor? Our health advisor? The trusted and knowledgeable professional who studied this stuff so we didn’t have to?

I liked those days better. We got to see the doctor sooner, and we didn’t have to ask him anything about mysterious drugs we couldn't pronounce. The doctor asked us questions, and then he did his job and treated us. Remember that?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dream, dream dream dream

(Thanks to Chris H for causing me to ponder this subject.)

I don’t dream very often. Or, since every dream expert out there insists that we’re always dreaming while in deep sleep states, I suppose I should say that upon waking, I usually don’t recall my dreams. I don’t care, really—the dreams that I do remember are often unhappy ones. It’s sort of like my early childhood memories—the very earliest all center around injuries (that’s a subject for another blog post); similarly, the dreams that stick the most are the ones that frighten and occasionally disturb me.

You could look at a dream diary, if I kept one, and by many of the scary dream entries you’d be able to gauge pretty closely what was going on in my life. Not all—some of the dreams are just bizarre repeats—but some of them offer clues to my concerns at the time.

In childhood, I usually dreamed nonsensical stuff, probably trying to sort through all the strange, new thoughts and experiences one has a kid—except when I was sick. Then, I always dreamed the same odd thing: I was standing in a huge room, like a monstrous gymnasium, and it was completely empty except for me. And then, I’d become aware—not through any typical means like hearing footsteps or a door open or close, just through some innate sense—that there was someone else in the room. And then I’d see her; a tall woman, nondescript because she was so far away, standing all the way across the room on the opposite side. And she was just standing there, looking over at me. She wasn’t approaching me, or speaking, or gesticulating, or anything…just standing there. And I was always terrified. Why? What could be so frightening about that? But it was. I haven’t dreamed about that woman for many years now, and I don’t miss her.

No particular school-age dreams come to mind; I figure they were predictable and forgettable, the sorts of dreams you’d expect to spring from an immature, self-absorbed mind such as mine. My college dreams weren’t very memorable either, although that was the first time I lived alone, and I recall one repeat nightmare from that time span: I dreamt that I heard someone fumbling with the doorknob on my apartment, and when I went to see who it was, a rough-looking character I didn’t recognize was trying to force the lock. He asked if he could come in, and when I said no, he smiled evilly at me through the door’s window—and then punched through the glass, reached in, and admitted himself. That’s usually where I would wake up, heart thumping, gasping for breath, kicking myself once alert because the me in my dream had behaved like such a born victim, helpless, frozen, utterly astounded at his audacity. That dream came back again and again, on and off, depending on how safe I felt in my rented dwelling.

Once I began teaching school, that became the bad dream of the day—and the dream did not go away as years of teaching experience mounted under my belt. In every episode, my classroom was absolutely out of control, kids were running everywhere, screaming, talking, and not a soul was paying one whit of attention to me. That was mostly an annoying dream, not a nightmare, and thank God my real classroom never looked so chaotic (not quite…!) But it did leave me with a heavy, defeated feeling—especially when waking necessitated preparations for a day of school.

Working in an office caused the dreams to shift to “I didn’t get my project done and the client is coming!” scenarios. They had the same kind of theme as the teaching nightmares, but with a slightly different flavor of panic. I’m sure you can imagine them, my rushing to complete work, the resulting stammering conversations with my boss, the livid client, all in my own head, of course. But they certainly felt real.

A few times while pregnant, I dreamed I had the baby. I never knew the baby's sex, though, never even took a stab at guessing in my unconscious state. And I don’t consider those dreams to be nightmares, really—especially not in comparison to the reality of giving birth. (Don’t worry; that’s a post you’ll never see.)

And now, early yesterday morning, the dream that woke me with a start, heart pounding? What was it, you ask? I couldn’t find my little boy. In the dream, Todd was driving and made the decision to stop by at a picnic or party or something that we knew was going on. It was night, there were lots of people, I didn’t know most of them, and we all got separated. And I was running from group to group, first saying, “Marcus?” And then, when I didn’t find him, shouting frantically, “Marcus! Marcus, where are you?” When I did finally find him, a stranger called back to me, “He’s fine, he’s over here.” And I was so flooded with absolute relief. And frustration with myself that I’d allowed him out of my sight for even a second. Then, I was suddenly in the present, still feeling the physical effects of the absolute terror the dream had caused. And it was all better, for that moment at least; I listened carefully and I could hear my son breathing his nasally little breaths in the next room. He was safe.

I've dreamed of losing my child several times already; I’m sad to tell you that I suspect I’ll be having this nightmare for a long, long time. And it is, by far, the most frightening of all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Toys, and what they tell

These (pictured at left) are the sorts of toys that kids used to treasure. Long before Bratz, Transformers and Wii topped Christmas lists, plain old handmade playthings were the cherished items in a child’s world. I re-read some sections from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wonderful Little House series of books, and was astounded to be reminded of that little girl’s joy upon receiving a little tin cup, a cake baked with white sugar, and a penny. Her very own penny.

It made me more than nostalgic; it made me ill. Not because she lacked so much, not that at all—but because we take so much for granted, and squander what we’re given. And it’s not just the thanklessness and wastefulness that’s horrible: we also don’t cherish much of anything at all, including each other. The toys were simple back then, and if one were lost (Laura’s rag doll disappeared for months after she was forced to give it away—she mourned ceaselessly until rediscovering it in a frozen puddle) then the kid simply went without, made her own toys, borrowed a sibling’s for a moment. Children didn’t have 25 other things to choose from. Perhaps the well-to-do kids had plenty of toys back in the day, but I’m fairly certain they weren’t electronic robots or dogs and cats that you plugged into a computer to care for.

Our modern grown-up toys aren’t much better. How many grownups with too much spending money stood in line for days, awaiting the release of the newest PlayStation? Or scrambled among other crazed shoppers, trying to secure the latest iPhone? Aren’t foolish amounts of money spent on boats, ATVs, snowmobiles? And those are just expensive toys, for most of us—I don’t know a single person who uses one of those items for income purposes or to assist in the management of a business. Sony is releasing a 120-inch television; hello, did anyone else out there read Fahrenheit 451? Remember the huge TV screens that made up a wall of one’s home? Sound familiar? And how many idiots will join a waiting list to buy one for their home theater systems?

After Christmas passed recently, I had to step away from the entire subject for a few weeks because this year, it went beyond reminding me of how materialistic and commercialized Christmas has become: I became inextricably immersed in the understanding that our entire culture is backwards. I hear this at church, and I know in my head it’s true…but when my heart truly grasps it, I just need to sit down and let the queasiness pass.

We’re seriously screwed up. Most of the time, in most households, our priorities are very misplaced.

And I’m no better. Here I sit, typing this pointless entry in an online journal that I don’t need, which does not support me and does nothing to forward the betterment of humanity. It helps me a little, helps me to organize thoughts, to rid myself of frustrations, but honestly, it’s no different from any of the other useless pursuits, toys or otherwise, that my fellow modern civilized folks are chasing. Being online? All it does is permit me to avoid people while still laboring under the delusion that I’m reaching out. Why are kids so into texting? MySpace? iPods? Those tools allow them to avoid each other, to stay somewhat removed from messy, risky personal involvement with anyone. We grownups are no different.

Back in frontier days, toys were simpler and life was simpler. Most time was spent surviving, so free time for adults was minimal, and toys for adults were likely unheard of, at least until the past century. Very few people made it on their own—teamwork was a must. Life spans were shorter; kids became adults much sooner. No one had time to try to create “time-saving” technology. Families waited for the children to become old enough to help, and then put them to work; no one was agonizing about whether or not they’d find an Elmo like Junior wanted, or whether the DVD they’d picked up for Little Miss had the extra features on it.

Is this progress, really? Yeah, people live longer. Yeah, I saw on PBS where they’re using stem cells to regenerate a dead rat’s heart in some lab in Missouri. Yeah, that’s amazing. But is it progress? Should we be proud of a civilization that has advanced itself enough to support people in need, but chooses instead to upgrade versions once again? Or even worse, agonizes over which scripted reality star is targeted this week? I have a hard time imagining life in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s time; I have an even harder time trying to imagine how disappointed she’d be if she saw what we’ve become in such a short time.

Is it only me? Or are some of you concerned, too?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A little vision of summer

Here’s the latest finished work. (Sis up north, does this fowl look familiar to you? It should!) From a not-so-great photo I took on a visit: a wandering chicken on a lovely summer day, the kind of day when verdant grass begs you to lie on it (don’t do it! Beware chicken droppings!) The sort of balmy day that, when recalled, can make January and February almost bearable.

I am trying to not “overdo” my paintings of late. I can’t call myself an impressionist by any means, but I am leaning more and more in that direction. This is partly due to very real constraints on my time and availability for silly artistic endeavors, and it’s partly because if I try to paint when the boy is near, he really wants to “help” me with my work…but it’s also because I’m trying to force my hand to catch up to my brain. I’m becoming a lazy thinker—these days, I’m not interested in deep thoughts about pretty much anything—and I need to keep my eye roving in order to maintain a painting philosophy that’s consistent with the new, unfettered mindset.

I had an artist neighbor as a kid, and she commented more than once that a painting was never finished; you just had to know when to leave it alone. Claude Monet said something similar: “Whoever claims to have finished a canvas is terribly arrogant.” Both those folks were extremely talented artists, and I’ve come to realize that what they said is quite true. Not just about creating art, though.

You can say that, in a way, a big ol’ chunk of true wisdom consists of knowing when to leave something alone. A situation, a job, a neighborhood, a relationship that’s floundering, a chocolate cake that’s calling like a siren from your kitchen… Think how many headaches and heartaches you could have saved yourself if you’d known when to walk away. I know I can think of countless times I caused my own suffering. I wonder how many of us are flooded with examples of times when we overworked, overstayed, over-tried.

And because he has so many gems, here's a sprinkling of more great Monet quotes:

“A true painter can never be pleased with himself.”

“Each time I begin a canvas I hope to produce a masterpiece. I have every intention of it, and nothing comes out that way.”

“One day I am satisfied; the next day I find it all bad; still I hope that some day I will find some of them good.”

Pretty humble guy, for an artistic genius. At least that's my humble opinion. Einstein had some great quotes, too. I’ll try to dig those up for a future post.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A real, true melmoir

Every now and again, I look back through my days on this spinning orb, and a few of them emerge as formative, special, treasured days. I named this site melmoirs; I suppose that occasionally, I should include an actual memoir. Re: the subject matter, please believe me, I have many stories of childhood, family, my husband, my kiddo—and they are precious. But this memory has been begging me to write it for years.

In my mind, I've christened the events to be detailed as a “found” weekend; you always read about lost weekends, in the lives of substance abusers or depressed people or famous people who happen to be both depressed AND abuse substances. But mine was a found weekend, a weekend that unexpectedly reminded me of all the possibilities in humanity, in the world, of the many people I can choose to become.

It was about a year and a half after I’d relocated to Pittsburgh. I had started working at a design firm, doing a job I actually half-enjoyed, had met lots of nice people there, and had made some friends. And to top off the upturn I’d recently experienced in my life, this particular weekend was great—the entire weekend. Now, seriously, how often does that happen in any life? It began early, on Thursday evening, when I went to see a performance of an August Wilson classic play with some friends from work. That was awesome. Then, Friday, met a gal pal for dancing silliness at a club—Metropol, before it had metamorphosed into a creepy place with semi-nude dancers hanging out on high platforms (yuck). Lots of limb-flailing fun was had. Saturday? I rang in St. Patrick’s Day with more buddies, partaking of some green beer in proper Irish fashion.

And Sunday. Oh, Sunday. I had been planning loosely to pick up nosebleed tickets to a symphonic performance in town that day, a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony—the “Rach 3” to those in the know. I happened to be in the know simply because I’d recently listened to some wise critics who recommended the movie “Shine” (which I, also, recommend—a rare and wonderful film from Australia, detailing the real life of piano genius David Helfgott. Rent it if you love classical piano music and/or quirky protagonists). The actor who portrays David performs the Rach 3 in the film. It made quite an impression on me.

The girlfriend who’d promised to accompany me to the symphony’s performance found herself stranded at her parents’ home, an hour away, in a mountain snowstorm. She called me Sunday morning, all apologies, but she could not get out of the driveway. I was doggedly determined to see this symphony, so I dressed myself reasonably well, complete with clunky snow-sturdy boots (my own fair city had also received some of the white stuff), and I drove down through tall drifts to the big city, parked the car in a nearby messy lot, and hiked through more sooty snow to Heinz Hall.

I won’t pretend to be a regular at that lovely venue. I can count on one hand the times I’ve ventured inside, but each one has been a magical experience. I headed toward the ticket windows, took my place in a line, wondered if I’d come for nothing, if all that remained were ridiculously pricey seats. The will call line was moving quickly, and the purchase lines weren’t so bad… but as it turns out, I waited only a moment for my ticket.

A well-heeled, elderly woman in fur suddenly strode among us line-dwellers. She spoke clearly: “Does anyone need just one?” I waited a beat, but no one else spoke up—most folks looked longingly at her, and then not-so-longingly at the companions standing next to them. I stepped toward her, leaving my place in line, and mustered the nerve to say, “I need just one.”

The woman turned to me and handed me a ticket: “Here, honey.”

“How much do you want for it?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Take it, enjoy it.” She pressed it into my hand and turned, not before I’d snapped to my senses and called a surprised thank you after her. She was gone in a moment. I stood in disbelief, and a few folks who’d watched the exchange smiled encouragingly at me, happy to witness such an act of kindness.

I stared at the ticket I clutched, then shook myself and made my way inside—I’d only had about 15 minutes to spare when I parked my car, so it was likely the show would begin soon. The polished crowd was moving toward the inside of the hall, finishing drinks, locating seats. I had no idea where my seat was located; I immediately found an usher on the ground level entrance and asked for assistance in locating my gift seat.

The young woman looked at my ticket, then at me in my second-hand coat and sodden snow boots. “This is an excellent seat,” she said.

I smiled with heartfelt gratitude and told her, “A woman just gave it to me in the lobby.”

The usher raised her eyebrows and said, in equally heartfelt fashion, “Well, I’m jealous.” She led me forward, down onto the main floor, further down, and yet further.

“Where is this seat?” I asked. She smiled a Mona Lisa smile at me and walked on, and on.

And on. To the front row. Yes, the gift seat was in the front row. Positioned almost smack dab before the huge grand piano on stage. By now, my naïve face must have revealed my absolute shock and delight. “You were not kidding,” I said. “This is a great seat.”

Once I sat down, I actually had to let my head drop back a bit to see the piano. I tried to look casual and accustomed to such luxury, and leafed through my program, barely able to focus on the words within. What a sweet woman! Did she know how much this meant to me? Could she fathom, in her furs and expensive clothes? I had envisioned myself crouching in peanut heaven for this show, if I was even still able to purchase a ticket. Now here I sat, in row one, for free. Free. I wished I had followed her, thanked her properly, hugged her even. Had I known about the seat's location, my vociferous thanks would likely have frightened that sweet woman.

And then, lights dimmed and the symphony members made their way onto stage, did a quick tuning, and lastly the star pianist stepped out and was greeted with a wave of applause. I think he was German, at least his name sounded German, but his name was not important.

He played the hell out of that piano. I’m speaking figuratively, because there was nothing hellish about the music that erupted from his fingertips. I reclined in my amazing seat, gazing up in disbelief at his feverish hands dancing over the keyboard, and I wondered at such beauty. The music that leapt from that piano, from the symphony behind it, was heavenly. Not in a simpering, sweet, choirs-of-angels way—no, no. This was Rachmaninoff, remember? It thundered, clambered, swept over me, murmured, then thundered again. It washed away everything bad that had happened in months. It poured over me like blessings, like a massage, like sunshine on the first spring-like day in April. It emptied me of ugliness, at least for the moment; it warmed my soul with loveliness that I could never even imagine on my own. My God, what a feast for my hungry, hopeful ears.

And then the song was over, we were permitted to clap, and the audience roared, jumped to its feet, roared louder. It went on and on, and I was part of it, also roaring, clapping, smiling so widely my face risked cracks. There were two more pieces played after the intermission, and they were beautiful. But they stood no chance; they couldn’t begin to top the majesty of that Rach 3.

I stayed for the whole thing, drank it in, felt regal and rich, and then wandered dreamily out of Heinz Hall with a renewed vigor, with head held high. I had tasted splendor; I was changed forever.

See what I mean? A “found” weekend, truly—one through which I was able to rediscover the best things around me and in myself, wonders that I’d neglected for too long.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reality setting in

I gaze in disbelief at the yard behind my house; can it be the same welcoming spot where the kid and I played just months ago? Is that his little plastic cottage, sitting forlorn by the fence? It seems a separate world now, an uninviting and muddy spot where snow and dead grass intermingle like grim, grumpy colleagues.

I cannot believe that we ever sat at that cold, sodden picnic table and ate sunny meals. Nor can I fathom that the same patio is, indeed, attached to our home. My wonderful covered patio, where so many hours were passed drinking cold drinks, eating grilled food, and watching the boy splash, play with cars, sketch with sidewalk chalk. Now the concrete slab sits, chilly, barren, stony. Its cushion-less seats are piled high atop the old metal glider in storage mode; they create an awkward tower commemorating summer and its glistening joys—joys now lost in frigid breezes.

It can’t be the same place. Somehow, in some inexplicable way, our home has been transported to a cruel and unforgiving climate, a place where all that was green is brown, and even sunshine passes through a warmth-sucking filter.

I have a friend who moved to Phoenix. When she did, I quietly questioned her sanity. Now, I ponder her decision with some envy. Dry, sunny world, with deserts and cacti: you are calling to me, enticing me in a way that frozen puddles never will.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fewer than 5 minutes invested—and lives made better

Here are some things to consider doing in 2008—just in case you hadn’t gotten around to doing the whole new year’s resolutions thing yet… (And remember: The life you better may be your own.)

I’ll let you decide which of these things I already do, and which ones are my resolutions for 2008.

• Floss your teeth if you’ve got ‘em. Yes, daily. You won’t regret it. You’ll find things hidden in those tight spaces that make you shudder—and that absolutely confirm your decision to take the time.

• Give away something valuable that you don’t use. Better yet, think hard and give it directly to someone who really can use it. You’ll bless them, and you’ll be blessed, both by the giving and by the free space that results.

• Stretch your muscles. (I could be a complete hypocrite here and tout the benefits of exercise… but any of you who know me well would know it was lies, all lies. Stretching would be a “stretch” for me at this point.)

• Take some time each day to turn off all electronic devices, sit alone, and listen to quiet. As Margaret Wise Brown said, “For when it is quiet, first there are no sounds, and then there are some…” You’ll never hear many auditory treats of this world if you don’t listen.

• Speak about one-third as often as you’d like to. Or less. Keeping this blog has shown me, in so many ways, that most of my thoughts are not fit for public consumption. If you’re anything like me (human, thereby flawed), most of what’s spinning in your head is opinion-driven and self-absorbed. I’m rarely sorry for holding my tongue; on the flip side, I’m often regretful when I spew every thought, even those that seemed quite worthy of sharing at the time.

• Next time you think about calling someone or writing a note or card, for whatever reason, do it right at that moment. Don’t wait, or it likely won’t happen, and that would be a shame.

• Eat a serving of raw vegetables every day. No excuses! It’s good for you, helps your body metabolize more efficiently, and with the plethora of choices in our global culture, you’re sure to find at least one veggie you can stomach. Baby carrots dipped in light creamy salad dressing are my favorites. In light of E. coli madness of late, wash your veggies first to be safe. And remember—the just-trimmed heads of greens are better than the pre-cut, pre-bagged stuff.

• Read a little bit of the Bible. It's still the best self-help book out there; that author really knows what He’s talking about!

• Leave a comment here or send an email to a blogger you know, just to let him/her know that you actually read this nonsense. It’ll make his/her day!