Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Franz Klammer in Me

Let me make one thing clear from the get-go: I don't ski. The last time I skied, some thirty years ago, I fell and tore enough ligaments in my knee to have to be rescued by the Ski Patrol. They put me in a small sledge and skied me over to a Sno-Cat operator, who took me on down the mountain to the ski lodge, where I gratefully embraced the warmth and accepted the painkillers proffered to me.

So, I don't ski. But I like the idea of skiing. I like the idea of all that speed as you fly downhill.

(Note: cross-country skiing is not skiing, in my book. Cross-country skiing is just going for a long, awkward hike with boards strapped to your feet.)

My all-time favorite Olympic memory, more so even than the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," is that of Austrian Franz Klammer winning the gold medal in downhill in 1976 in Innsbruck. I still remember sitting on the edge of the couch watching and screaming at the television as he flashed across the finish line. At times he was skiing on the edge of one ski, almost certain to go over on his side. At times he was airborne as he hurtled towards the finish. Ski commentators still call Klammer's gold medal run one of the greatest (and most daring) ever.

It was Franz Klammer whose spirit I invoked today when I posted "standing at the top of the ski run to the end of 2010" as my Facebook status. 

Discussions of the holidays and what to do, or not to do, for Christmas are starting to fill the airwaves. My friend Tonya emailed me about it last night. In answering Tonya this morning, I replied: My Christmas spirit I think this year is quiet - not gone, but very soft-spoken. I am trying to avoid the "one big 'to do' list" feeling and really, really trying hard not to get caught up in expectations (mine or others) of what Christmas "should" be to be "perfect." My friend Sharon blogged about it this morning, asking what readers were doing to simplify Christmas. In answering her, I borrowed from my note to Tonya, then added: And that is where I am trying to stay this year. I am trying to conscientiously weigh what I am doing and why, and making my choices from there.

No matter what I vow to do about Christmas, I know that at some point the collective piles of holly and mistletoe, along with the decked halls and visions of sugarplums, will hit staggering heights.  That's even before I add all of the "wrap up the old year and start the new one" tasks. Before too much longer, I will be poised at top of a dauntingly long run whose end is way, way, way off there. This weekend was just a warm-up run.

It's a slippery slope indeed, this end of the year trickiness, and one on which I don't want to lose my balance. I will check and double-check my bindings and adjust my goggles one more time before I push off from the starting gate. I want to slice down that icy hill at breakneck pace and feel the skis cut through the snow. I want to flash across the finish line, upright and victorious.

I want it to be Innsbruck all over again. I want to be Franz Klammer.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Reflections on Colored Lights

It is Friday evening after Thanksgiving. The day was sunny but chill; I have stayed inside for most of it. Tonight is chillier yet. The furnace has just kicked on.

As I write these words out in longhand, I am sitting in the living room, reading some, writing some, sorting out my thoughts.

Warren is upstairs, putting his study to rights. I hear him rolling back and forth across the floor in his desk chair.

Elizabeth is upstairs, probably sleeping after a sprint to the mall at four a.m. for a day out shopping with girlfriends.

I am alone and this room is quiet.

Although I have pulled most of the curtains shut against the chill night air, I have left open the one directly across from me. The neighbors across the street have hung colored lights - "icicles" - on their house this year.

I like the colors, the little bits of glowing confetti in the dark.

Last year I nattered away about my lack of Christmas spirit. This year, the nattering is quiet. I sense instead the year slowly wheeling towards its close, bringing Christmas and a new year closer in quiet and measured increments.

I miss my children acutely. I want to wrap them and their needs in blankets of care. I feel about them as the poet: "would that I could gather them / This Yuletide, and shower them with coins." But it is a cold night and they are 2500 miles away, all gathered in Portland for the holidays.

I lift up my eyes from these pages and look out again at the bright flecks of color in the dark night.

The days from now until year's end unroll in my thoughts. I know they will be full of cookies and concerts and Christmas cards. There will be packages to ship west. Warren will make his father's peanut brittle and I will make my grandmother's popcorn balls. I hope the days will be full, but not hurried. That is my wish as I gaze out into the dark.

I hope they will be full of small moments strung together like the lights across the street - little jeweled votives lighting the night.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Last night I was feeling poor. Dirt poor. Meanly poor. But not because of anything so mundane as money. While rarely flush with funds, I usually have money pay the bills and keep the wolf from the door, and that is enough for me.

No, I was feeling poor because of time. Or, to be more precise, the lack of time.

I recently realized that I feel poorest when my schedule gets blocked up and the demands on my time rise to threatening levels. I can be so broke that I am shaving slivers off of pennies, but still feel wealthy beyond all measure because there is food on the table, a roof overhead, a cadre of wonderful friends, and a warm and loving marriage to sustain me. But squeeze my time - layer too many demands on top of my too few hours - and I am suddenly keeping company with Ma Joad.

Sarah Crewe at her lowest point in the attic garret has nothing on me.

Last night was one of those nights. The holidays are upon us and there are rooms to clean, food to prep. There are plates to wash. There was a press release to write. I'd spent most of my day at the courthouse, each meeting taking far longer than I had budgeted in my head, resulting in my arriving home after 5:00 instead of after 3:00. No one had planned supper. We had to run to the store for fresh vinegar to finish the coleslaw as the old bottle had gone flat.

After the vinegar expedition, I announced loudly (to no one in particular as Warren was upstairs) that I was not washing the plates, and then slammed a package extra hard on the kitchen counter for added emphasis.

It was a perfectly childish gesture that felt wickedly good.

I quickly wrote the press release. Then, in an absolute fit of self-indulgence, I watched "Frontline" on PBS, thus causing my annual rate of television consumption to shoot through the roof for 2010.

I am writing this on Wednesday evening. Today dawned bright and clear in my heart, if not outside the window. Patricia and I went walking; Judy and I had coffee. Then I came home and turned my hand to the household and to Thanksgiving preparations. I have baked pumpkin and apple pies today. The plates, some of which will appear on tomorrow's table, got washed throughout the afternoon as I tended to the pies. Loaves of bread are rising as I finish this post.

There is no less work to do today than there was last night, but today I have set my pace and I have spent my hours as I saw fit.

And for that I am truly thankful.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Boomwhacker to the Side of My Head

Back in 1990, a guy named Roger van Oech wrote a book called A Whack to the Side of the Head, about unleashing one's creativity.

My whack came at PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) last weekend, when I sat in on a whole series of drumming workshops to prepare for an upcoming  Symphony project with the Court.

Warren and I both attend PASIC whenever possible, and this year it was possible. That meant I spent three days in the heart of the Percussion Universe amid the shiny cymbals, amid the tapping and the tinging and the playing of almost every percussion instrument known to mankind.

And there, in the midst of all those shiny cymbals and all the tapping and the tinging and the playing of almost every percussion instrument known to mankind, I got a Boomwhacker to the side of the head. (Figuratively, not literally.)

At the first drumming workshop, I was the only person in the room who raised a hand when the facilitator asked if there was anyone who didn't know what a Boomwhacker was. In response to the shocked gasps when my hand went up, I blurted out that I wasn't a percussionist. They didn't throw me out of the room, but very nicely allowed me to stay and join them in playing. Afterwards, a real live percussionist came up to and said I could never claim not to be a percussionist again in my life. "You've been initiated."

The next day, I went to another drumming workshop. The room had been rearranged so that the chairs were in concentric circles, each chair with a percussion instrument of some sort - drums, shakers, tambourines, cowbells - on or beside each seat. I slipped into a chair with a large floor drum in front of it, looked and listened around the rapidly filling circle, and soon found a rhythm to add to the group.

The guy from the day before was five seats away. He looked over and nodded at me. "I knew you'd be back," his satisfied smile said.

We drummed for a long time. The first circle of chairs (15 of us? 20?) filled and the second started filling (another 30?). Each player wove his or her beat into the other ones filling the room. Sometimes a player would listen and start a new pattern to fit in a different way with the others.

There is a concept in physics known as entrainment. Entrainment is the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony. It was first noted back in the 1660s by a Dutch scientist, Christian Huygens, who noticed that when he placed two pendulum clocks on a wall near each other and swung the pendulums at different rates, they would eventually end up swinging at the same rate due to their mutual influence on one another.

In Percussion Universe, entrainment means that 60 people all playing their own free-form rhythms in a drumming circle, without a conductor or "leader," will naturally fall into a "locked" pattern where each player's patterns harmonize rhythmically with everyone else in the circle.

In that room, our rhythms continued, swelling and receding, while the facilitator smiled and invited more people to join the circle.  We were locked. We were entrained. We drummed on for a long time, lost in the rhythms of our own making. We drummed on long enough that my hands became bruised. Long enough that many of us in the circle bonded without saying a word.

Coming out of the drumming workshops at PASIC, but especially out of that particular workshop, I felt energized. Ideas - about drumming, about instrument making, about projects back home, about writing - flew through my head. I all but skipped and cavorted down the hall each time I left a workshop.

The drumming workshops were a Boomwhacker to the side of my head. They dislodged preconceptions and misconceptions I had about drumming, starting with "I can't do this." They turned on lots of lights in my head: Whooaaaa - I can do this! Whooaaaa - we can do this! Whooaaaa - we can launch that project without a lot of $$! Whooaaaa  - this is WAY COOL!

Sometimes you have to step outside of yourself to see where you are and where you are going. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone and stick your hand up (even if you are the only one doing so) to jumpstart your brain and your energy.

Sometimes you need a Boomwhacker to the side of your head.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rainy Day Notes on Hard Times

As I start writing this post longhand, I am sitting at the window counter of the coffee shop at the corner of William and Sandusky Streets in downtown Delaware. It is a chill day and a cold rain is just starting to fall.

A gray, cold day. Cold and gray enough that headlights are on and the neon lights in the coffee shop's window glow into the gloom.

The Great Recession is weighing heavily on my mind today. I know a family - more than one, in fact - who cannot put a Thanksgiving meal on their table this year without other family members stepping up to help.

The Great Recession continues to chew away at this community. Before coming here to meet up with a friend, I was home baking for tonight's legal clinic. Back home it smells like cinnamon and warm baked goods. We'll exceed 200 clients tonight, with one more month yet to go in 2010. Our previous high was 178 clients in 12 months; with a canceled clinic in February, we will far exceed that number in only 11 months this year.

A story today in The Columbus Dispatch reported that one in seven Ohio families is now without adequate means to feed themselves. Our state just broke into the "top 10" states for hunger.

Now there's something to brag about.

Another story in the same edition reports that the incoming Republican Ohio senate leader has told the public schools to "expect deep cuts" in the upcoming budget. (This is the same party that, when ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court to fix the school funding system after the Court found it to be unconstitutional, refused to comply.)

Great. Now we will have hungry children who won't be able to read.

All over Ohio, demands on social welfare agencies - homeless shelters, food banks, free clinics, community mental health centers - are rising. In Columbus, the shelters were full by early November and winter hasn't even started in earnest here yet.

My good friend Judy and I traded thoughts earlier today about these hard times. In talking about the grassroots programs that are trying to desperately patch the holes in the social fabric of this town, Judy wrote, "I think we are on the right track with IFLS, Grace clinic, U.M.W. blanket fund, P.I.N., etc."

I replied, "I think we're going to need a whole lot more IFLS, Grace Clinic, UMW Blanket fund, PIN, etc. in the months and years to come."

Judy responded, "sign me up," then quoted Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

(Did I mention that Judy is a really good person as well as a really good friend?)

I offered up a quote from Deborah Stone, who wrote a very powerful book, The Samaritan's Dilemma, about the shift in our national culture from "what can we as a people do to conquer social ills" to "I have mine and it's not my responsibility that you don't have yours." Stone wrote:

When government permits such devastating conditions [such as hunger and homelessness] to persist, when it doesn't use every means at its disposal to help, when it models callousness and counsels its citizens not to feel badly about the suffering of others, it destroys the two most important qualities of a democratic citizenry: the desire to make life better for everyone and the will to take action.

The rain has picked up. The wind is chiller. I am sitting with my feet at the window and I can feel the cold radiate through the thick glass.

There are people in this town - my town - who are going without and doing without. There are people in my life - people I know - who are hungry and about to be homeless. There are others in my life - real people, not faceless statistics - who are stretching hard to keep the lights on and food on their tables.

We are about to enter the holiday season. While I dislike the commercial excesses of this time of year, I nonetheless concur with Fred, the nephew in A Christmas Carol:

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Poverty in nineteenth century England ate at Charles Dickens and he frequently wrote about the debilitating social cost of hunger and homelessness and callousness. A Christmas Carol is particularly appropriate this year as the Great Recession grinds on and more and more analysts, even those of a more conservative bent, are starting to recognize that it is not just a "market correction" and that these hard times may well be the "new normal" for the next decade or more. As our government at state and national levels turns it back on the great need in this country, the words of the ghost of Jacob Marley may come to haunt us. Replying to Scrooge's comment that Marley always was good at business, the ghost wailed:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  "Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

After the recent election, I wrote "and after all the shouting stops, then what? For those of us who serve (paid or unpaid) those without voices - the homeless, the hungry, the ill, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the young, the old, our friends and neighbors - the people of this country whom both parties have abandoned - the results this week just mean we go right on trying to mend the torn social fabric of our communities."

That's what so many of us do, including many who have less than I do and yet feel compelled to do everything they can. Regardless of religious beliefs, so many of us have taken to heart the words of John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

(Thank you, Judy, for reminding me.)

It's a cold, gray day out there. It's colder and grayer if your hours have been cut at work. It's colder and grayer if the foreclosure notice is taped to the door. It's colder and grayer if you're hungry and you need to save the only food in the house for when everyone is gathered around the supper table.

Tuesday Postscript

Our free monthly legal clinic was last night. It was a cold, rainy night as the weather from earlier in the afternoon continued on into the evening. Our numbers were down. All the same, we quietly passed the 200 mark for 2010 clients.

Today, the sun is shining, the air is gentler. Walking to a late morning appointment, I realize I have dressed too warmly.

This morning there was an article in The Columbus Dispatch about suburban school districts in the greater Columbus area seeing a sharp increase in students qualifying for reduced or free lunches. One commentator noted "this information is really striking to them. It shows that this is a shared issue."

A shared issue? I'll say.

I worry about being a one-note band in this blog, that note being the horrific impact of the Great Recession on our communities. On the other hand, I cannot pretend there aren't those in my town, in my circle of friends, who are increasingly in need of help. Oh, I have other post topics lined up, some even half written, but this one moved to the front of the line by virtue of yesterday's and today's newspaper.

The only reason I have not experienced hunger or homelessness is because of the network of family and friends who have helped me. I have gone through many low spots in my life, but those are not two of them, and for that I am grateful.

As long as elected officials on both sides of the aisle refuse to support the least of us, the burden falls all the more heavily on the rest of us to make sure there are blankets and food and warmth and shelter for all.

Marley had it right: the common welfare is the business of us all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Stars Overhead

 *Milky Way image courtesy of NOVA (PBS). 

Six years ago today, at about 2:45 in the afternoon, I learned I had myeloma, which is an incurable bone marrow cancer. My amazing friend and doctor, Pat Hubbell, had been honing in on what was "wrong" with me, and she called to say that, from everything she saw, the diagnosis had just changed from "might be" cancer to "it looks definitely like" myeloma.

I was sitting in my law office when we talked. I remember watching with a sort of shocked detachment my hands shake as I hung up the phone.

My life changed irrevocably in one phone call. It has never been the same.

I've blogged some about how cancer changed my life and what it's like to live with one that will never go away. Just look at the labels on the right: "cancer" pops up 20 times (and that's just all the times I remembered to tag it).
Ham and eggs, salt and pepper, April and myeloma.

I continue to be grateful and amazed for the support and care my friends and the community immediately, unhesitatingly, and freely gave me from that moment on, starting with Pat. Family, friends, and even strangers stepped forward, wrapped their arms around me, and never let go.

Six years ago today, I wasn't sure I would even make it to the first anniversary, let alone any more beyond that. It has been an amazing journey.

I just today started corresponding electronically with a young woman who just a few weeks ago received a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage 2. We were connected through a mutual friend. In my reply to her initial email to me, I told her: You are at the start of a long journey, Loise. I'm here on the path too. We can travel it together.

Thank you to all of you who have kept me company on my own travels in Cancerland. Whether you dropped off a meal, sent me a note, gave me a hug, made me laugh, slipped me some money, commented in support on my blog, or even went so far as to marry me (thank you, dear Warren), you are the stars in the heavens overhead, lighting the path over which I still journey.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Early November Note

While I type these words, it is Sunday morning after the time change. The day seems to be ridiculously early - what do you mean, it is not yet 11 o'clock?

Warren is packing up retuned and refinished xylophone bars for a customer. He is taking a few minutes to play scales and patterns on the Deagan Imperial he just restored and the rich tones roll through the house.

We are spending the weekend tending to the homefront: mowing the lawn one last time, winding up the hoses and toting them to the shed until spring. I volunteered to put down the kitchen garden for the winter and spent an hour or so yesterday pulling up the frost-dead peppers and tomato vines. The brown basil stalks gave off their last pungent whiffs as I yanked them up and threw them onto the growing pile.

Bunches of sage and rosemary hang drying in the basement. I pulled the onions - stunted from the tomatoes and peppers shading them all summer - and they are heaped to dry on top of the freezer. When we walk down the basement stairs, rich earthy smells rise up to greet us.

The day ahead holds the promise of more outdoor work. In the evening, all the earlier now because of the time change, we will join Margo and Gerald at their place for supper and what promises to be the last outdoor fire of the year.

Outside fires are particularly compelling this time of year, with the chill air and the early dark. There is something primal about gathering around a fire with friends, about keeping the inky, chill night at bay with the crackling light and heat.

My friend Linda recently sent me an e-card celebrating Samhain, the Gaelic New Year that falls at the end of October. The card's lines evoked images of bonfires and dancing around the fire until the new year broke, of friends coming to the gathering with their candles and lanterns bobbing in the darkness. I wrote her back: "where along the way did we lose our connection to nature and our reverence for the earth's life cycle?"

I live in the modern world and I neither regret nor apologize for it. But I do regret my disconnect from the ancient rhythms and patterns of the earth. During our trip home from Montana this August, Warren and I pulled over on an empty Iowa road and stepped outside the car to stare upwards at the Milky Way. It was sprawled across the sky in all its brilliance - brilliance that we who live in urbanized areas cannot see because of light pollution. We aped Walt Whitman for several long moments, standing in the mystical moist night-air, looking up in silence at the stars.

It had been so long since I had seen the Milky Way.

When I look at my own life and ponder the need to reset my priorities and schedule, it occurs to me a little more awareness of the earth's ancient tunes and a little less static from modern America would serve me well.

Tonight Margo, Gerald, Warren, and I will sit around the fire, talking as it crackles and pops. There should be a clear sky, so from time to time, one of us will comment on the stars. We will gather around the fire like humans have done for thousands of years, sharing the night, sharing ourselves, warming our bodies, warming our souls.