Archive for September, 2009

Man Bites Dog

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

There are rules to live by concerning dogs.

First and foremost is to let sleeping dogs lie.

Second, no matter how nice and friendly a dog is, never get between it and its food bowl.

The third rule I just learned: never turn your back on a nervous dog.

I helped my friend move last weekend, and he brought his dog with him.

On a scale of dog types, from lovable furball to vicious guard dog, my friend’s dog tends toward the latter. She’s not easygoing, and she was especially disoriented and cranky after a 15-hour, 800-mile car trip. (Now that I think on it, the humans were kind of disoriented and cranky, too.)

We were taking my buddy’s mattress off the truck at midnight. It was the last thing we had to do before turning in. (My sleeping bag was already rolled out, waiting for me in the spare bedroom.)

My friend had the back of the mattress, I had the front, and we were maneuvering it between his new, blue Camry and my vintage purple truck.

The only problem: I had my back to a nervous, tired, cranky, disoriented, alpha-wannabe dog.

I guess she saw her chance. She bit me on the ankle while my back was turned.

I screamed, my buddy yelled, and the dog scooted away as quickly as she could.

There was no blood; it didn’t hurt for long; all’s well that ends well. And, I learned my lesson: never turn your back on a nervous dog. I think that rule applies to people, too. (At least, I seem to remember that from my brush with office politics.)

In any event, if she does it again, I might bite her.

When Do You Think of Your Own Death?

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I don’t think about death often, and I certainly don’t think about my own death very much.

I find, though, that there are certain times when I think about it more: when someone I know or know of dies, when someone brings up the topic of death in a meaningful way, or, occasionally, when I prepare to travel.

This week, all three happened.

First, a high school classmate of my friend’s children died last week in a car accident. He and his girlfriend, days away from starting college, were on one last road trip for the summer. They had both been drinking, she was driving, and they crashed. She walked away; he died. My friend, her family, and the community at large are all shaken by the loss.

Second, this past Wednesday I attended a workshop on creating a personal and a business vision. The facilitator led us through an exercise in which we contemplated our own deaths. If we were to attend our funeral, what would we hear people saying about us and our lives? What would the significance of our lives be?

Third, I am about to travel. I am helping a friend drive to his new, out-of-state job. It’ll be a 1500-mile roundtrip, which is a lot of driving. Sometimes as I prepare to embark on long trips such as this, I think about the fact that I could die, that this trip could be my last.

At these times, I wonder about end-of-life issues:

  • Should I update my will? (Probably, but it’s close enough.)
  • Are my affairs in clear enough order that someone could sort them out fairly easily? (Well, not so much. I have about a year’s worth of filing to do.)
  • Do my loved ones know what I would want with respect to life support? (I’m not sure–we haven’t talked about it recently. Pull the plug, always.)
  • What about burial? (Cremation.)
  • What kind of funeral? (Ideally, one where people tell stories and remember the meaningful and fun moments.)
  • And so on.

In addition to the organizational aspects of contemplating my death, there are the emotional ones. I generally am of two minds.

On the one hand, I am so very grateful for my life. I have been extremely lucky and blessed.

On the other hand, every time I come to one of these moments of contemplating leaving this life, I think, “But wait–not yet! I want to know how it all turns out.” Dying now would be like leaving a play at intermission. There are too many things I have yet to do, too many things I have yet to experience.

It’s not likely that I’ll die in the immediate future. But I will die some day. Which brings me to the question, how does one prepare for death?

I have a fair idea of the paperwork involved and the conversations that are necessary in preparing for death from an organizational standpoint. But I don’t really know how to prepare for death emotionally.

I heard a meditation teacher say once that dying well is an art, and the way to learn the art of dying is to study the art of living.

What then, is the art of living? What makes a good life?

My grandmother used to tell me that the two saddest words in the English language were “if only…”

Perhaps because of my grandmother’s influence, but the one thing I have been sure of is to live my life so that it would never even occur to me to say “if only”.

When you think of your own death, what do you think about?

Invisible Car

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

22-year-old art student Sara Watson made a car “invisible” through trompe l’oeil painting.

In case you haven’t seen it, check out this article from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

(It was published last May, but I just saw it recently.)


The Fortune of Misfortune

Monday, September 21st, 2009

My parents fell upon hard times when my father got chronically ill. My mother’s income didn’t allow for them to pay for day-to-day items and save for a down payment on a house. For a time, they were caught in the treadmill of making rent and paying bills, but not getting ahead.

Fortunately, my mother had many cousins, and one of them had a little-used house in the town my parents lived in. My mother’s cousin and her husband offered my parents use of their home, rent-free, to help my parents get back on their feet.

My parents were very grateful to my mother’s cousins. However, I imagine, too, that they were upset to find themselves in such a position at midlife. Both my parents were white-collar professionals, two of their three children had left the nest, and, other than not investing in disability income protection insurance, they had “done everything right”. Yet, here they were, living on the kindness of others.

Over the years I’ve thought about this time in my parents’ lives, and I’ve thought about how generous my mother’s cousins were. I’ve thought, too, how wise my parents were to ask for and accept help. But since I wasn’t living with my parents at the time, I hadn’t thought about how their experience affected me.

I recently realized that my life has been fuller because of what they went through. At the moment, I am not referring to the profound experience of watching one’s parents struggle and then persevere, although that is a powerful experience.

I benefited from my parents’ experience in another way, through the friendships I developed as a direct result of my parents’ living at my mother’s cousin’s house.

During the time my parents were living there, my mother’s cousin’s son got married. Since I happened to be visiting from out of state, my parents asked if I would attend the wedding with my mother. (My father was too ill to go.)

If it hadn’t been for the fact that my parents were living in this cousin’s house, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the wedding. My family generally kept to itself while I was growing up, and we weren’t in the habit of going to weddings.

However, if you are living in someone’s house, it’s probably in good taste to go to their family wedding! Because I wanted to support my parents, I decided to go to the wedding with my mother.

So far as I can recall, I hadn’t ever met my (second) cousin, who was getting married. At this wedding, I met my cousin, his fiancee, and their friends. We became friends and have kept in touch over the last sixteen years. In fact, we spent a few days together this summer with our children, which was delightful (and active!).

In addition to meeting and befriending my second cousin and his wife, I also met a woman who became one of my closest friends. With this woman, I traveled places I might never have visited, met people I never would have met, and had experiences I never would have had otherwise. My life is much the richer for it.

The irony is that if my parents hadn’t had the financial difficulties they did, I never would have gone to that wedding. If I hadn’t gone to that wedding, I wouldn’t have met the people I did. And if I hadn’t met those people, I would be a very different person today.

I’ve been musing over this story for the last several weeks. I am sorry my parents had a hard time. I wouldn’t wish difficulties of any kind on anyone.

Yet, I also draw hope from this experience.

Wise people often say life is unpredictable. In this instance, my parents had a difficult time financially and healthwise, but it was also a time that turned out to be extremely enriching for me.

Who would have guessed that a time of struggle could also be the genesis of a time of joy?

All’s Well That Ends Well

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Compare these:

  • All’s well that ends well.
  • ‘Tis an ill wind that blows no good.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.

With these:

  • When it rains, it pours.
  • If anything can go wrong, it will.
  • It never fails, whenever I wash my car, it rains.

Dr. Martin Seligman was recently on NPR along with Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum discussing a new program to teach soldiers emotional resilience.

According to Seligman, the key to resilience is first learning how to recognize catastrophic thoughts (e.g., “why do bad things always happen to me?”) and learning how to dispute them (e.g., “well, almost everyone gets a flat tire at some point in their driving careers, and this is my first one”). Seligman cites studies that show that becoming adept at emotional resilience can halve the incidence of depression.

Seligman argues that there are two systems at play: the negative system (which can lead to depression) and the positive one (characterized by optimism). He posits that traditional clinical psychology has focused on the treatment of depression and has erroneously assumed that an absence of depression would lead to a positive life. What the psychological community has found, according to Seligman, is that an absence of depression, while extremely valuable in and of itself, does nothing for making one’s life better in terms of happiness. Seligman suggests that living a happy life requires specific skills and strengths.

Seligman describes more of the process of becoming happy in his book Authentic Happiness. In a 2002 NPR interview with Dr. Seligman, the good doctor explains that we each have several of 24 signature strengths that help us live a positive life. These strengths allow us to navigate life’s unfortunate events in a way that is better for us. In fact, according to Seligman, over 1,000 articles in medical and scientific journals note that pessimism produces two to eight times more depression than optimism, less productivity at work, and worse physical health. By contrast, optimism has been shown to extend one’s life by ten years on average.

To discover your signature strengths, you can go to Seligman’s website to take the quiz: You can take the quiz for free, but you will need to register first. The quiz is called the “Brief Strengths Test”. I can tell you, though, that I liked the quizzes in the book better than the “Brief Strengths Test”. The website is worth a look, however.


Wednesday, September 16th, 2009
The greatest wealth I know–
man-made wealth I mean,
not the wealth of the sun on my skin or
the scent of an infant’s hair or
the vista of mountains carelessly humbling you into dust–
The greatest man-made wealth I know
is the public library (on Maple Street
across from the Oasis Cafe)
filled with books where, when I pay my
ten dollar, fifty-five cent hoarding fee,
I can borrow another one.
In the meantime
I sit in the green- and gold-leafed upholstered
armchair, dozing among my treasures.

Saving Kittens With a Positive Vision

Monday, September 14th, 2009

One day this summer a friend of mine was walking around her house and found a mother cat who had just given birth to six kittens. My friend was torn when she saw the cat. On the one hand, she wanted to walk away and “let nature take its course”. On the other hand, she wanted to help the mother cat and kittens, who looked to be in a sad state.

But, six kittens? What if at the end of the day she got stuck with seven cats? And had to care for them, feed them, spay and neuter them, etc.? Seven cats in all? She winced.

My friend decided to take the cats in hand.

When she told others of her decision, many people were quick to tell her it was folly. No one would want a cat in this economy, they said. No one wants kittens these days. She’d be stuck with all the cats, feeding them, caring for them, having them underfoot. There was no shortage of naysayers, apparently.

My friend was faced with a choice, she could let the naysayers get in her head and get her down, or she could create a vision of a different future. Her vision was that there were homes out there waiting for and wanting her kittens. All she had to do was find them.

It became a matter of marketing. The people waiting for her kittens existed, she just needed to let them know where to go. To that end, she did several things. She made and wore a button that said “Free Kittens” everywhere she went. That took care of two kittens.

Her partner put up a notice at his work, where three thousand people work. That took care of three kittens.

Finally, she decided to take an ad out in the paper. (She reckoned that the cost of advertising was far less than the cost of feeding and caring for three cats.) That took care of the remaining two kittens and the mama cat.

For my friend, it was an experience with several lessons. She helped fellow creatures in need (the cats). She helped fellow humans in need of a cat. And, she experienced the difference it makes to have a vision. With her vision that there were seven homes waiting for a cat, she was able to move from fear (what will I do with all these cats?) to action (how will I let people know about their future cat?).

I have a friend who coaches business people in work-life balance. He has something to say about living in fear that I find especially enlightening: fear is not actionable. When someone lives in fear, that person is unable to do anything about it so long as they stay in that place of fear. Once they create a vision, then they can take steps to make the vision a reality.

That’s what my friend did with the cats she rescued. And now seven families are happy with their new cats.

Prayer for a Father

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

My father died ten years ago today.

I miss him.

He had sparkly blue eyes and a sqaurish face and dark brown hair that my brothers and I called black when we were kids.

He was the type of person who knew the answer to lots of different questions. For years after my father’s death, I’d wonder about something, perhaps a date or time in history, why a politician might have said or done something, what to think about a person’s actions, and I’d want to call to ask his opinion. But I couldn’t anymore.

My father was well read, especially in history and politics. He’d studied Latin in high school and could identify the etymology of a good many words in French and English. He took up German as an adult because he’d decided as a teenager that it’d be a useful language to know.

I remember him telling me about the German word for immediate: unmittelbar. He told me that initially he had thought it a silly word, because if you translate unmittelbar directly into English, it means “without a middle”. What an awkward way to say “immediately”, he thought. He thought again when he realized the word “immediate” means the very same thing, “without a middle”.

My father was renowned for making puns. (I was going to say awful puns, but that would have been redundant.) Wordplay was a favorite pastime of his. So was being somewhat pedantic. Perhaps it was his lawyer’s training, but he was so thorough in his answer to questions, when a simple yes or no would have sufficed. It’s a trait my entire family has, much to the despair of our friends I think.

When he died, he had been chronically ill with kidney disease for a number of years. He died quite suddenly, though, from an infection. He was fine Friday night. Saturday morning he felt unwell. Sunday morning he was dead.

My younger brother called to tell me the news. I have since learned that in some cultures, the deliverer of bad news will drag out the process and slowly bring you around to the information that your loved one has died. We didn’t have that tradition in our family. “Sis, Dad’s dead,” was what I heard after the initial hello’s.

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay,” I kept saying over and over after the phone call. I thought I was fine. I wasn’t, of course.

One of the things I remember most from that time was my inability to dial a phone number correctly. I’ve always had a head for numbers, and I can usually remember a phone number after hearing it then repeating it once. But I couldn’t remember anything during that time. Instead of calling Texas, I’d call Tennessee. For weeks and weeks after my father’s death, I couldn’t dial a number correctly the first, the second, or the third time.

I dreamt about my father after he died. I remember one dream in particular, months after his death. He and I were talking in the kitchen, and he hugged me. Even when I woke up, I could feel the remnants of my father’s hug, like the last echoes of a tune as the song fades. It comforted me then and comforts me still.

May he rest in peace.

Market Day

Friday, September 11th, 2009

There’s a farmers’ market in my town on Saturday mornings. We must have reached a critical mass this year, because all of a sudden there are twice as many vendors this year as there were last year.

Most Saturdays, there’s music. The local bakery has a stand, and there are several people who sell their own bread as well. Farmers, bee keepers with honey, celtic pot pie sellers, flower sellers (beautiful bouquets!), two (2!) vegan treat sellers, home-made ice cream vendors, and so on.

It’s a pleasure going there every week, seeing people I know, looking at the colors, listening to the sounds, feeling the happiness of folks being outdoors at a market.

In the city where I lived in France there are flower markets, farmer’s markets, cheese markets, booksellers’ markets, antique/knickknack markets, and I don’t remember what else, in different places throughout the city. My favorite market was the flower market. In the square in front of the jail the flower vendors line up their stands, and it is so beautiful.

I remember meeting a friend early one morning for coffee–our schedules were so busy we only had time to get together at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesdays–and watching the farmers set up their stands. The town was just waking up–I felt as if I had come upon the city just as it was rising from its night’s sleep.

Markets create a special rhythm to the day and to the week. I’m lucky my town has one.

Things I Like: Radiolab

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Radiolab is a fantastic program that picks a topic and approaches, observes, admires, and dissects it, all in a thoughtful and engaging way.

Produced in New York City, Radiolab is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Each episode of Radiolab explores a topic in-depth. The first episode I heard, on musical language, remains one of my favorites. Other episodes include explorations of sleep, sperm, laughter, choice, placebos, etc.

As one friend–to whom I had just introduced Radiolab–said, it’s perfect to listen to while sorting through papers or doing the ironing. It also may be on your local public radio station, so you can listen to it while driving.

Go ahead and give it a listen–you may enjoy it.