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Just Keep Swimming

“When nothing goes right…go left.”

Last week I had a day when nothing went right, and everything took way longer than it should.  I tried three times to complete an online insurance form, only to have the website shut down each time. Then I spent half an hour on the phone with the company trying to get an answer, but was cast repeatedly into an automated phone attendant loop, like an escapee from Groundhog Day. Next, I spent an hour, not the 20 minutes I’d allocated, getting a flu shot at a local pharmacy. And on and on the day went, in a series of frustrations large and small to which I responded with neither grace nor equanimity.

At 4:30 I realized that I had not worked for even 10 minutes on what I had gotten out of bed early that morning planning to do. So, I stopped trying. I put away all thoughts of book writing and turned to a photo project that I’ve been working on for a few months. As I looked through the pictures, I recalled the nature drama that had unfolded the day I took them.

I’d been sitting at my desk staring out the window (not all my unproductive days are the result of external misfortune, some just spring from laziness). I saw a hawk land in the yard, and I jumped up and took this photo.

Right afterward, all hell broke loose. With a lightning quick move, the hawk launched into the air, then did an amazing high-speed, almost vertical drop, down to the river. He rose carrying a prize in his claws—a little bird that wriggled and writhed in what seemed to be a doomed escape attempt.

But as I watched, both fascinated and horrified, the bird twisted out of the hawk’s grasp and fell back into the water. I ran to the river’s edge. Just as I reached the bank, I sensed something behind me. I turned to look in time to see an eagle swoop over my head, zeroing in on the little bird that had just escaped from the hawk.

Something–maybe my sudden movement into the line of the eagle’s downward trajectory—threw him off his game. He veered away, leaving his would-be prey to swim another day. And swim she did, with an odd, herky-jerky style, in loopy circles, round and round for several minutes.

Her day had definitely not gone as planned. I stayed on the bank watching her and taking pictures. Several times she attempted to climb up on some rocks, only to slip back into the water and flap about before making another wobbly approach to stable ground. On the fourth attempt, she made it.

I moved in to get another photo, but finally realized that my large human presence was probably even more alarming to her than the two predator birds that had tried to make dinner of her had been. I left her in peace.

As I relived the story yesterday, I thought about that bird, going about her daily business, when out of nowhere a hawk snatched her away from her happy bird life. She didn’t give up, even though the hawk was many times larger and stronger than her. She twisted and turned and gave it her best shot. Wonder of wonders, it worked!

But she didn’t even have time to recover, let alone rejoice, before an even bigger predator zeroed in on her. Now, that’s having a bad day. You slip away from one looming threat, only to be confronted by an even larger one. When the danger unexpectedly passed, she started swimming again. Not in any particular direction at first, but she was moving. And really, if you’re going to stay afloat in life, what else can you do?

Things large and small swoop down on us daily. Sometimes they come so fast they knock us right off course, sometimes they just bump us around a little. The solution for peace of mind is to remember that when things go wrong—and they’re usually of far less consequence than the predator-prey drama I had witnessed—just keep swimming. Sooner or later you’ll get back on course.

This post first appeared in October 2014.



Come in, the door’s open

When my six siblings and I were growing up, our family finances hovered between lower middle class and working poor. We didn’t realize it, though, because many of our neighbors were in the same shaky socio-economic bracket.

But years later, as adults looking through old family photos, laughing at unfortunate clothing choices and epic hairstyle failures, it finally hit us. “Look at this!” One of my sisters was pointing not to the people, but to the background in a photo: TV trays used as end tables. A bedspread thrown over a sagging couch. A television set with a pair of pliers next to it—for use in turning the broken TV dial. “Geez, you guys, we lived in the Sanford & Son house!”

Which made us laugh really hard because it was true, and because it had never occurred to us before, and because we’re fond of a little dark humor in my family. We then recalled other unrecognized-at-the-time signs that our family had lived on the economic edge. Macaroni and butter five nights in a row. We just thought, Yay, no vegetables. Hand-me-down clothes—from people we weren’t even related to. A house furnished entirely with garage sale purchases.

Our lives as adults are different. We all enjoy a more secure financial footing than our parents did. No one is fabulously wealthy—I’m quite disappointed by my siblings in that respect. I’m looking at you, Tricia, Janet, Jim, KK, Barbie, Tim. Because how great would it be to have a younger sibling shower you with financial tokens of affection in return for the loving oversight and guidance you provided during their early years? But, I digress.

I’ve always credited our successes in life to our parents. Not because they inspired us with the exhortations and expectations of “tiger” parents, or subscribed to the interventionist guidance of “helicopter” parents. If anything, their parenting style might best be described as laissez faire. Their goals for us were modest: do your best, be honest, be kind, don’t kill each other. They stepped in when we strayed too far from those basic standards, but it was primarily by their example that we learned what kind of people we wanted to be.

But I think there was another factor, too, that tipped fortune in our favor. Although we lived in a rundown house, in a middling neighborhood, on the raggedy residential edge of a street that at its other end boasted a scrap metal junkyard, we also lived only two blocks from Alma College. The small liberal arts school was very friendly to neighborhood children. Perhaps because liability and child safety worries didn’t loom large in those days, the college was part of the landscape of our everyday lives. We rode through campus on our bicycles, cut through the wooded area behind the president’s house, played on the bleachers at the football field, trick or treated at the fraternities and sororities and sold Girl Scout cookies in the dorms.

And we saw students, not all that much older than we were, walking back and forth to class, studying in the library, playing Frisbee on the grass. We came to view attending college as the natural progression of things—like going from junior high to high school. Our proximity to the college, and its easy acceptance of our presence, gave us the expectation that we had a place in the world that Alma College represented.

I believe that success in life is about hard work and developing your talents, but it’s also about opportunity. A lucky accident of geography helped the children of a man who didn’t graduate from high school, and a woman who dreamed of nursing school but had to go to work instead, believe that other doors were open to them.

In an era of reduced opportunities and narrowing choices for children from families like the one I grew up in, I was happy to read that Alma College will be offering 10 full-tuition scholarships annually to area students. Good fences, as the saying goes, may make good neighbors. But open doors make even better ones.



In a Sinister Fashion

Insidious Chic

On Wednesdays, I usually have dinner and a movie night with one of my sisters. Recently the movie we watched involved a scene in which a character’s attempt to trounce some villains was thwarted by the pocket of his pants catching on a doorknob, causing him to take a pratfall instead of leap on the bad guy.

We both found this funny, not because we’re particular fans of slapstick, but because we’ve both been hurt, or at least seriously let down, by our clothing on multiple occasions. And I’m not talking about the outfit that is just a bad idea from the get-go—the one that causes your waitress to inquire if you’re a member of a religious organization, or random strangers to ask you what aisle the pet food is in. I’m talking about actively malevolent clothing that puts you in some very bad situations.

After we finished the movie, my sister and I played a treacherous fashion game of “Can You Top This?” and I believe I emerged the winner.

I opened the bidding with my tale of the time I was at work, seated at my desk and wearing a dress with a long, full skirt. I scooted on my chair to the filing cabinet near my desk to retrieve a file. But on my return scoot, the chair came to an abrupt halt. My skirt was caught in the casters. Not only could I not propel myself forward, I couldn’t even stand up. My dress, with its billowy swath of material, had become so entangled it forced me into a half-crouch, from which I tried to lift the chair to free the hem, which the wheels held in a death grip.

It was even more awkward and harder than it sounds. I managed to extricate enough fabric to allow me to sit down beside the chair to work the rest of it out. I didn’t manage a dignified response when a colleague spotted me through my half-open office door and asked what I was doing. Just before she started laughing uncontrollably.

My sister countered with an insidious garment story of her own. One day, alone at work and wearing a very slim pencil skirt, she pushed back from her desk—which was located in an open office configuration, separated from visitors only by a counter. Her chair flipped backward, leaving her staring at the ceiling with her lower limbs straight up in the air, imprisoned by the taut grip of her skirt. Urgently trying to right herself before anyone came in, she discovered that her straight skirt gave her no mobility. She couldn’t lower her legs. Only by bracing her arms, heaving her hips and flinging her body to the side was she able to get out of the dead bug position. From there she emerged upright but shaken. And no one was the wiser. Until now.

But I had the winning entry with my tale of a city commission candidate, a pair of slippery shoes and again, a desk. (Perhaps it’s not the clothing, but the combination of office fashions and office furniture that lies at the heart of our tales of woe.)

As a managing editor, I had invited all the candidates for the local city commission to interviews in my office at the newspaper. I was newly in the position and eager to project professionalism, confidence and tough-minded journalism. I chose a business-like outfit with practical pumps, no frivolous shoes for me. When the first candidate arrived, I ushered him into my office, seated him and stepped behind my desk to start the interview. It was then that my cruel shoes let me down. Abruptly and literally.

The soles of the shoes were unexpectedly slippery on the hard plastic mat beneath my chair. In a nanosecond, I was lying on my back, gazing at the underside of my desk. I don’t know who was more astonished at my sudden disappearance from view, me, or the would-be commissioner. I scrambled out from under as quickly as I could, but I’d lost both my dignity and my ability to conduct a serious interview. Plus my toe really hurt. He was kind enough never to speak of it again.

There are, sadly, more such stories involving car doors slamming on trench coat belts, scarves caught in drawers and swing coats causing unfortunate accidents on stairs. I will not go into them here. I will, however, say that I am seriously considering titling my next book Dangerous Clothing. Not compelling at first glance perhaps, but it would be a darker tale than one might think.

This blog first appeared in 2016.

Eight Million Stories

Life is a story…

My husband Gary is a man of many stories. He’s served in the U.S. Army, taught high school business classes, coached a winning football team, worked as a school administrator, a firefighter, business manager at a university, traveled extensively and he’s never met a person he didn’t enjoy talking to.

Gary often doesn’t recall the exact details, but it never stops him from telling the tale. Not so long ago, we watched a movie from the 1940s, called The Farmer’s Daughter. He suddenly said, “I sat next to that woman on a plane once.”

“You sat next to Loretta Young?!” He hesitated for just a fraction of a second before saying yes. But it was long enough for me to flash on other confidently told Gary stories that have a fact-based core, but often dubious supporting details.

Upon repeated questioning, he gradually acknowledged that it might not have been Loretta Young, it may not have been on a flight to Michigan, but he stuck to his assertion that it was definitely someone famous. That I believe. But whether it was Loretta Young, Loretta Lynn or Coretta Scott King, is lost to the ages.

What got me started on this train of thought was a visit with my dad’s favorite cousin. Lois is lovely and kind and at 90-plus, she has many stories to tell. Her husband was in the Air Force and during that time she and her children traveled with him to many parts of the world.

“I fell madly in love with John when I was in high school, and I was lucky enough to have him for more than 50 years. I don’t watch much television, but when I see a travel show sometimes I think, ‘Oh, we walked on that street,’ or ‘Oh, I’ve been to that spot before.’ We danced on the beach at Ipanema once. We had so much fun that night.”

Everybody has a story; I learned that when I was a young reporter. When Lois told me hers, I had a glimpse of the giddy young girl she once was. She’s still a favorite relative from another generation, but now she’ll also always be the girl who fell madly in love and the happy wife who spent a romantic evening dancing on the beach.

Our stories embody and enrich our lives, and when we share them they can enrich the lives of others as well. The Naked City was a long ago television show that I was deemed too young to watch. But I can remember hearing its iconic closing lines wafting up to my bedroom through the registers from the living room below.

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.

This week I hope to learn some new stories. I hope you do, too.




Not In Cursf, Please

I’ve read several articles lately on the debate over teaching cursive writing in schools or tossing it out. Those in favor of ditching it argue that with texting, tablets and computer keyboards, there’s no need for cluttering up the curriculum with a skill whose time has passed.

On the other hand, advocates of teaching “longhand” point to studies that show students retain more when they take notes in cursive, because cursive writing engages more areas of the brain. In addition, people who don’t learn to write cursive have a hard time reading it. That means personal family journals and letters, as well as historical documents, could be indecipherable to future generations without assistance.

The last argument resonates with me because of something that happened years ago, when my children were young. I was frantically trying to finish a writing project with a firm deadline. As the due date approached and true panic set in, I figuratively barricaded myself in my office – as much to keep me in, as to keep others out. I gave instructions to my daughters, then 7 and 11, along the following lines.

“Do NOT come into the office. Do not knock on the door. Do not shout through the door. Do not even approach the door unless someone is bleeding, or the house is on fire.”

“But what if—?”

“No what ifs. I have to get this done. Today. If you hear me open the door, you can talk to me then. Otherwise, I don’t exist. I mean it.”

Being resourceful, independent, and insightful enough to detect when their mother was on the edge of a nervous break down, they took my words to heart and left me to my work. Occasionally, a thud, door slam, cry of outrage or shout of laughter penetrated my fortress of solitude, but I heard nothing that sounded like an in-person intervention was warranted.

After about four hours I had made real progress. As I leaned back in my chair for a good stretch, I heard the sound of hushed debate coming from the hallway. I was about to investigate, when a sheet of lined paper fluttered in under the door and across my office floor.

I stooped to pick it up, and this is the message I read, written by my seven-year-old.

Sorry to buther you. Alex [our dog] has a sore spot on his back. It is bleding. We think it is bad. Sara says, should we call the vet? Please answer.

P.S. Not in cursf

It made me laugh and feel guilty at the same time — both responses my children remain skilled at invoking. I felt bad that I had been so forceful in my demand for peace that they only dared breach it with a note. Though in my defense, I did specify ‘bleding’ as a reason to knock on the door. And I laughed because my daughter feared that even if her negligent mother responded, she might do so in the indecipherable code of cursive writing.

I understand that technology may make cursive writing seem obsolete, but I’ll always favor it, because the thrill of mastering the secret language of ‘cursf’ seems like a rite of passage to me. And yes, pun intended.

Some readers may notice this post has appeared before – in September 2014, to be specific. But a recent conversation brought it to mind again, and as I’m truly, madly, deeply involved in trying to make the publication deadline for my fourth Leah Nash book, Dangerous Secrets, I turned to the archives for today’s blog.  

The lightning or the lightning bug

Grandma Jenny

Grandma Jenny

I’m at the 2/3 mark in writing my 4th as yet unnamed Leah Nash Mystery. To keep the momentum going, instead of pausing to write a new post today, I’m offering a reader favorite from 2015. The focus is on my husband Gary’s unique approach to using his words. 

 I like words, some just for the way they sound, rolling off your tongue. I like others for the nuances and delicate layers of meaning they convey. And I love to hunt for just the right word to convey what I mean in writing and in speaking. 

So, it’s one of those little jokes of the universe that I fell in love with a man who not only doesn’t search for the right word, he blithely makes up his own in order to get his sentences out as quickly as he can. At least that is the only reason I can find for the unintentionally hilarious way he pulls words out of thin air.

Sometimes the word he chooses is a close approximation of the actual one he needs. For example, we attended a Kirtan practice — which is a kind of Hindu devotional singing with chant and response. It wasn’t exactly in Gary’s wheelhouse, but he went because our daughter invited us. The next day he said, “I don’t really think croutons are my thing.” Some might have thought he was saying he didn’t like toasted bread cubes. I knew immediately he meant Kirtan.

Just recently when I was struggling with the ending of the book I’m working on, he offered these encouraging words. “Don’t worry. I know a Tiffany will come, and it will all work out.” I waited all day, and Tiffany did not show up to help me. Neither did an epiphany.

Occasionally, the word he chooses is vaguely related to the one a regular person would choose, but it takes some puzzle solving skills to get it.  Awhile ago we were watching a horse race on television, and I asked him who owned the winner. He said he wasn’t sure, it might be a combine. I told him I was pretty sure a combine was a large piece of farm equipment and then proceeded to try to unravel his meaning. It took a few minutes, but I finally realized he meant syndicate — which is a group of individuals or organizations who combine for some purpose. Hence combine, and then it made sense — in a Gary kind of way.

One of my favorite Garyisms fell from his lips years ago, when a friend said he was going to Las Vegas and wanted to see some shows. “Oh, you should see Sigmund & Freud, they’re really good.” Yes, that’s right. He meant Siegfried and Roy.

He presented a tougher word challenge when he told me about a TV show featuring high-end automobiles, and how expensive and amazing they were. He was most impressed by the Grandma Jenny. I said, “Gary, stop it. There can’t be a sports car called a Grandma Jenny.” He insisted it was that, or something very close, and then it hit me. A Lamborghini. When I offered that as a possibility, he readily agreed and didn’t really see how what he’d said was that far off.

One of my editors from my newspaper days frequently shared this Mark Twain quote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

But honestly, if he were always on top of the right word, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to talk to him. And a conversation with Gary is always entertaining.

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