Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Broken Hearts

I find I am still drawn to the photos of grieving people in Newtown.  I tell myself to stop. It feels voyeuristic and masochistic and additionally twisted in a way I can't quite name.  Still... I want to see their faces.

This is not a tragedy we will ever understand...20 children, 6 school personnel, and 1 mother gunned down by a young man who seemed fully ready and armed to do 100 times the damage he did last Friday morning in Connecticut.  But for upper middle class Americans like me, this might be the closest we ever come to "feeling the pain" of completely tragic and utterly senseless death. 

A mother dressed in a burqa in the middle of a cluster of dessert huts in Afghanistan holding the dead body of her child or husband or brother...?  I'm not sure I really get that.

A mother in line at a Kenyan UN food distribution center with three starving children by her side.  I see it.  I know it's real. But it is so far from my reality that...well, my heart forgets to break sometimes. 

My heart forgets to break over the 9+ civilians killed every single day in Afghanistan since the United States and the Taliban pitched that country into violent chaos over ten years ago. 

My heart forgets to break over the 15 people per minute who die in this world of starvation.  Not an unpredictable, uncontrollable act of personal or institutional violence, but an unfair distribution of food resources in the world.

I see it.  I hear it.  I forget to grieve. 

But these people in Newtown...they are suburbanites like I am.  They work, they play, they teach their children, they dream about the future...just like I do. 

And just like they do...

And just like they do...

May our broken hearts bleed compassionately and fiercely toward a real commitment to making all the world a safer and saner and better place for humans to live and love and laugh and dream. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

Crying and Praying

My plan for writing today was to mock the all-consuming consumer frenzy and the accompanying email marketing hilarity we enjoy compliments Christmas. 

Nothing changes a plan for light-hearted self-mockery like a tragedy. So I come to you with one of many, I'm sure, sad reflections on this day at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. 

I thought I might tell you a little bit about Sandy Hook by doing what every good reporter in the country has been doing since about 10 AM this morning - googling the school's webpage.  Here's what I got:

 Newton Public Schools
Due to an extremely high service demand as a result of the events that have occured today, this website is temporarily being redirected to this page rather than the school system's usual home page.
To help deal with the events of today, there will be a memorial mass this evening at 7:00pm at St. Rose Church.
More information will be provided as it becomes available.
So I took a break to pace and cry and pound my fists heavenward with the prayer I sometimes say:  "WTF God?!!"  
I have children.  They attended an elementary school three-quarters of a mile from our front door.  It never occurred to me to imagine they might be victims of a mass murder while they were there.  My sister is an elementary school teacher.  I did not pray for her safety today.  I never do.  My daughter-in-law currently substitutes in elementary school.  She was in a kindergarten class today. I did not petition the Almighty to send angels to surround her and keep her from harm in my quiet moments of conversation with God this morning. 
Twenty children are not supposed to die at school.  Six adults who spend their days sitting on floors reading books aloud and opening milk cartons that confound small fingers and nurturing the wide open minds of little people who adore them should not be killed on the job. 
I was shopping when the news broke this morning.  The NPR reporters who arrived early on the story could not suppress their emotions.  When one of those reporters re-told his conversation with a parent from the school, he started crying as he said, "The father told me the children were lead out of the school one class at a time by police officers.  They were told to hold hands and close their eyes until they got out of the building." 
It was then that I pulled into a parking lot, turned off the radio, and sobbed. Nothing on my list seemed at all worth doing.  I drove directly home.  I parked the car and walked to my children's old elementary school...just to remind myself how completely innocent children and teachers are.
See it? 
The kids who died in Newtown today, we will know by name soon.  Their pictures and their stories and their grieving families will surely be front page news for days and days. I am already starting to imagine's not hard.
There are, quite likely, pictures of them sitting on Santa's knee on the refrigerators in their houses. Wrapped gifts for them are probably already under Christmas trees.  Holiday cards with their smiling faces are being delivered this very day to friends and family far and wide...
All I can do is cry and pray my befuddled prayer. 
Could we all agree on one thing, dang it? 
Our children and our teachers should be safe at school...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas

I could write a book about six days worth of people-watching in Las Vegas.

The place is a literal jackpot of stories being carried around on the weary and wide-eyed faces of travelers, transients, and old-timers.  The tales are told in their strides and their stumbles, in the way they dress and drink and gamble and grouse.  For a person who spends her days creating characters and scenes and motives, it has been stimulating to say the least.

But I have to confess, one of the most interesting characters I found myself watching this week was me.

I have always maintained travel brings out the purest of our natures:  Are you flexible, patient, organized, open to new things?  Easily intimidated, uncomfortable out of a routine, impossibly befuddled with the kind of plan-ahead task that adequately covers packing a bag?  A trip - any trip - will magnify these qualities.

There was nothing new for me on that front this week.  I am still hopelessly lost in front of an open suitcase, barely able to discern up from down in unfamiliar physical surroundings, and fearlessly committed to embracing my own brand of adventure on the road...which never involves daring or danger, but often involves ice cream.

This week, I was taken aback by the evidence that alcohol was top on my tourist's culinary exploration itinerary - not ice cream.  I have had drinks over the last six days made with everything from pear puree to rose water - applejack brandy to red bell pepper.  The beverages have been presented steaming hot, over ice, up, and frozen.  Garnished with a plastic lid, a 1/2 inch diameter straw, a lime, Thai basil, a pepper slice. Some have cost $20...and one was free (yay us for staying at a roulette table long enough to get a drink!).

Observation: Alcohol is like ice cream to me when it's presented in venues that are bright, glittery, colorful, intriguingly themed, and open 'round the clock. Which is to say, if it's shiny - I'm in. You can count on me to wander into any place and try almost anything if it's sparkly.  And, oh my...the bars are sparkly here.

The most telling adventure of the week, though, has been the gambling. It is not presented in a sparkly way.  In fact, every casino looks like a health class poster on depravity. They are dingy and filled with cigarette smoke and often dotted with barely dressed young girls dancing on tables...although very few patrons bother to notice any of that.

People in these places are all hovering over stacks of chips that are moved to and fro across felted greenscapes.  They are sweating over cards, blowing on dice, or holding their breaths while a little white ball spins around the outer edge of what becomes an actual wheel of fortune - or misfortune.  I made myself stop to observe and play - all in the name of research. Here's what I learned...

I am not a card counter or an odds analyzer.  I'm more of a lucky number, bet large/win large kind of gambler. It's embarrassing when $50 is gone in 5 minutes, but not at all surprising when I think about who I am outside of a casino. 

I live life a little on the woo woo edge.  I embrace the mystery of the universe, the presence of God, the ultimate goodness of people.  Almost every day, for me, is a lucky number.  I am moody and unpredictable and perhaps a bit fickle.  No surprise that I am a person who bets on lucky numbers rather than proven odds.  The outcome is less calculable, but the excitement is more real. 

I am also easily bored.  Small bets and small wins are just not the way I walk through my days.  I support the underdog, almost always. I wait until near calamity is on the line before I look up at a deadline. I try new recipes when company is coming. I buy shoes online without knowing if they are comfortable (c'mon, admit it, shoe shopping is SO boring). 

Observation: I am turning this button from a slot machine into my life's motto.

If you know me, you are nodding your head right now.  Spin/ReBet: The Story of Jan.

Does this make me the most coveted/dangerous/likely addicted gambler in LasVegas? Probably.

Thank God I married the "I'm making a spreadsheet to predict the best roulette wagers" guy.  And thankfully, he rarely leaves my side.

Todo esta bien. 

Leaving Las Vegas.

Now...time to turn toward Bethlehem. 


Thursday, December 6, 2012

What Happens in Vegas

It's called a Love Unit...and I was so taken with it, I didn't even get a photo to share.

It's an $18 martini made with - oh, I don't know - fresh red bell pepper juice and Thai basil?  It was delicious.  I had two.  They were cocktails number 3 and 4 of the day.  And it was only 6 pm.  I think I stopped at drink number 5, which was a 20-ounce rum laced slurpee with a big, fat straw.  Oh, oops...I'm forgetting the shared hot saki nightcap I had over two $20 sushi rolls...

Does it bother me that I spent more money hitting the refresh button on a low Vegas buzz yesterday than many of the world's families have to spend on food for a month?  Well...yes. Did that stop me from convincing myself it was fun anyway? Apparently not.

Nor did I have trouble finding myself a great bargain on a dress that is 100% sequins (can you say 100% frivolous?).  I talked myself into believing the dress was a must-have steal, even though I bought it at a store I would consider a place for unusual indulgence if I'd been at home.

But I'm not home.  I'm walking past stores like Gucci and Chanel and Armani and Fendi.  White House/Black Market and Anthropologie feel a bit like the Walmarts of the strip in Las Vegas.

It appears I have completely surrendered to the insanity of it all.

I also realize today that I have not thought beyond once about turning the thermostat to 60-degrees if my hotel room feels a bit stuffy.  I have not hesitated to drop a towel used only once onto the marble floor as a message to our lovely housekeeper that I require fresh towels every day.  I have not even tried to find a recycling bin for my daily copy of the New York Times.

I am squandering. My personal resources and the world's. I wish I could tell you I am not goofy with delight over it all. Like a 4-year old at an amusement park, I am running from one thing to the next like there will be no tomorrow to reckon if nothing at all is real in this Las Vegas bubble.

The blue skies inside the hotels are not real...

The volcanoes are not real....

The canals are not real...

The architectural wonders of the world are not real...

The promises of riches are not real...

It is all so phony, I found myself scoffing at a couple posed for a photo yesterday under a palm tree while a bird's song just above their heads perfectly enhanced the scene.  As the pair searched the thick foliage overhead for the source of the noise making bird, I thought: "These silly people haven't figured out it's just a speaker and a birdlike thing in that tree."

Imagine my surprise when the fake feathered friend dropped out of the tree and came my way begging for breadcrumbs...

Reality - at the end of these days in Las Vegas - is sure to come begging, and I will not be able to honestly feign surprise. Real people will still be hungry in this world. Real consequences of wastefulness will still be clear. Real work will have to be done to earn real money.  Real bills will need to be paid.

The brighter side?  The martinis will not cost $18.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Only in Wonderland

 I do feel a bit like I fell down a rabbit hole sometime Sunday night. Into a place that is all at once overwhelming and odd, frightening and fascinating.

I am in Las Vegas.

It's my first trip to the place that isn't apologizing when it proclaims itself to be Sin City. There is no need to be sorry.  Sin - or to express it less emotionally and more precisely...overindulgence - sells.  Quite well.

There is something for everyone here.  It's one outlandish amusement after another...

Dancing fountains at Bellagio
one extravagantly decorated bar after another...

Crystal Bar (3 stories) at Cosmopolitan
one must see variety show after another...

one gigantic 27-foot ceiling-high chocolate waterfall,

At Jean Phillipe inside Bellagio
 or 25-foot tall flower-constructed polar bear,

or spectacular 10-foot high orchid/peony/lily/red rose-laden after another.

It's five sparkly/fountain-adorned/heated/Olympic-sized/cabana-encircled pools per hotel. It's pricey retail malls (inside each hotel) and world-themed restaurants (inside each hotel) and table after table after table of places to toss your money down that rabbit hole (casinos-inside each hotel).

I'm not judging.  People seem to come in swarms to experience the joy of throwing money around in the name of complete sensory overload.  I am one of them this week.  I have already plugged a dollar into a slot machine and lost it in a matter of seconds, as images that I did not understand spun and flashed and clanged in front of me.  I expect to give up another $50-$100 playing my friend's lucky numbers on roulette before I leave town.  I am not going to promise that I won't stop for a cocktail at 7 AM on my way to the cafe for my morning coffee...the bars are open, people are drinking, and I might just want to say I sat down for a $15 morning martini while I was in Vegas.  I have already spent $150 for tickets to a show I know nothing about - just so I can say I went to a show in Las Vegas.

I am caught up in it all - looking for the nearest exit with one eye but at everything my little heart desires with the other.

What's that all about?

I spent most of yesterday wondering if Las Vegas is the snapshot of America people in underdeveloped nations have of our country. The last time my husband was here on business was September 11, 2001. Leaving Las Vegas in a hurry that afternoon, he had a large rear view mirror picture of why someone might think Americans are unfairly squandering the world's resources on wanton self-indulgence.  

I have spent most of today pondering the woman I saw throwing dice at a table this morning as I walked through the casino for my coffee (every destination, it seems, requires a walk through the casino).  She was what I'd call a "church lady"... middle aged, Mary Kay painted, dressed in a Christmas-themed shirt, with a purse hanging over her shoulder.  She was blowing on her dice.  And blowing on her dice.  I got the feeling this was her last throw of luck-or- loss before she got in a cab and went back to her pristine, Jesus-themed life.  I am imagining she was really, really hoping to make the last throw count.  Perhaps to cover her costs in Sin City.

Yep. It's 7 AM in the casino.
Oh, if only it were so easy.  If only our sins of overindulgence against the planet and one another could be erased with a roll of the dice.  If only our eagerness to spend too much and eat too much and live too extravagantly and love too recklessly was always as easy to see and fix and walk away from as it is in Vegas.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...?


Saturday, November 24, 2012


It is my birthday today...the calendar marker for the last year of a decade that has been filled with chaos and heartache, deep joy and great loss.  It seems like a reasonable day to ponder the future.
My thoughts have run me up and down life's path: Have I made the most of the years I've had?  Is there some great excitement I've missed that I need to snatch before I am too old?  What kind of person am I going to be when the body mandates a slower pace?  When is it time to let go of hair coloring and cosmetic hunting and fashion watching? 
I believe clear answers to these questions rarely come.  Fate has too much random access to our hours and days to chisel a list of wishes into granite and feel terribly good about the outcome. The best way to chew on life-my opinion-is one little bite at a time...spitting out what is bitter and savoring what is sweet. That's what I believe. 
Not so, though, for the driver of the pizza delivery truck I sat behind at a stoplight this week.

I have spent almost no time at the website...but I can tell you it appears to be a site full of free downloadable letters from God, transcribed via dreams by a willing contemporary servant named Timothy. I am skeptical.  Check it out if you are interested. 

But these are the words that got to me on this sign:  Are you listening? 

Listening to Creation?  Listening to my heart?  Listening to my body?  Listening to the voice of reason when it is spoken?  Listening to the voice of love when it is raised?  These are the whisperings of  the Lord to me...the gentle unfoldings of the tiniest mysteries that happen every single day. 

And so I sit, this day, pondering the final year of a busy decade and managing some real trepidation about the decade to come.  I have resolved only this:  I will be a better listener. 


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pie Eyed

Let's be honest - it's all about the pie. 

I have made no secret of the long held wish for my final week of life, whenever/however that should come.  I want to be in my kitchen, surrounded by pyrex pie dishes, butter laden crusts, syrupy fillings, a good dark roast coffee...and every person I've ever loved in my life. 

Thanksgiving comes pretty close to the dream. 

There are people I love behind every casserole dish and relish tray.  There is tenderness and joy and a bit of melancholy over the holes in the family fabric left by those who are no longer gathered with us.  We put down our politics and our jealousies and our insecurities for a few hours to blend into the whole that we create with our little piece of self wonderfulness. 

And there is pie. 

Does life get better than this? 

I always wonder, as I stand in my kitchen this week of the year - almost giddy with delight over the flour on my apron and the pile of dishes in my sink...why don't I make pies more often? 

Why don't I stop focusing on my differences with dear people more often?
Why don't I drop my raging insecurities more often?
Why don't I let everyone have a talent, a beauty, a thought, a presence grander than mine more often? 

Why do we stop so infrequently to ponder the goodness in this sweet old world? 

And why is there so little pie?

Be Thanks-Full. 
And enjoy your pie.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

About Last Week

Last Wednesday, 63-million of us Blue Americans were breathing long sighs of relief.  The race to the White House had been far too close for our comfort, and many of us spent several days pinching ourselves with delight over the final count. 

It was over.  Our guy would be sticking around to finish what he started. 

That morning-after last week, I decided my writing tone would be far too gleeful to be deemed responsible, so after sending a few texts and changing my Facebook background photo from FORWARD to fireworks and tweeting one or two poignant lines from the President's acceptance speech - I walked away from the 2012 election. 

I did not watch my beloved Daily Show.  I listened only to old Radiolab podcasts when I needed a dose of NPR.  I glanced only briefly at headlines before recycling the newspapers.

I was recovering from PESS - post-election stress syndrome.  The entire country is in the throes of it.  I'm not talking about the mouthy commentators on MSNBC/FOX - I'm talking about the 122,747,434 of us who cared enough to knock on doors, give money, attend rallies, make phone calls, wear buttons, post signs...and vote. 

Whichever candidate(s) you supported, I hope you are taking care of your politically weary soul in some way. For me, it is writing.

Not all my favorite people won last week.  A tirelessly passionate PhD education specialist and friend, Judy Jennings, was making her second run at Texas' infamously arrogant and ignorant State Board of Education.  She earned a respectable 41% of our super conservative district's vote, but she did not triumph over the Executive Director of the TX FFA Association.  How could she?

I met Judy years ago when we were candidates for different seats on our local school board.  She lost that election, too.  But Judy always stands back up, dusts herself off, and reminds herself she is a brilliant woman with a knack for understanding what works in public education and what doesn't. She doesn't seek elected office for the money (none of the positions she has sought are paid), for the notoriety, or to use it as a stepping stone to higher places.  Judy simply believes in the system enough to want to participate at a level that desperately needs her expertise.  She is my hero. And I hope she tries again. 

But she has got to be exhausted...perhaps a bit bitter.  There's a chance she's stopped to think about what she might have done with all that time and money if she hadn't spent it trying to make life better for teachers and students in Texas schools. 

And I figure that's how Mitt Romney feels too. 

Did you catch the compassionately funny way Saturday Night Live depicted post-election Mitt Romney last weekend?  I think it's worth watching, no matter what color you use to paint your politics. Surely we can celebrate good comedy writing together...


I absolutely believe my friend Judy would love a little time to learn how mayonnaise is made.

If you're not chuckling a little bit past the certainty that the future of the country is on the ropes because your guy lost last week, I leave you with the lovely truth that your blue friends (and your country) managed to muddle through a second George W. Bush term. 

And, if this whole piece has just brought on a fresh wave of PESS, I'll respectfully and quietly offer a quote from a wise guy who just became the 17th US President to be elected to a second term (!!): 
"These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty."
Peace, all.

The Bonus Day

This is what happened that day...

We woke up early without an alarm.  Hungry.
We got up slowly and easily, put on clothes from the day before, and left for breakfast at a diner on the corner near our hotel without even brushing our teeth.  We ate too much, studied other bleary-eyed pancake-and-bacon eaters, and did what we like to do - created wild stories to go with the faces of strangers around us.  Somehow, that always makes restaurant dining feel like a party...

Then we went back to our 35th floor room, marveled at the view of the rising sun over San Francisco Bay for another half hour, took our showers, packed our bags, and rolled out onto the sidewalk near Union Square before 10 AM.  We walked the 1.5 miles to the Ferry Building, purchased tickets from a machine, and boarded the day's first boat across the bay to Sausalito. 

Then we paused to celebrate the miracle of it all.
Yes, the day was magnificent - not a cloud in the sky, not too chilly. Our bellies were full and the day before us was wide open for whatever adventure we chose.  But that was not the miracle we realized.  It was this: We were on the first ferry of the day - and we'd gotten there without a plan, a schedule, or a fight

The lack of tension between us was, well, amazing.  It is rare for us - long married and generally reasonable - to make it through so many off-routine tasks without bumping into frustration and erupting into a bit of, "Why are you sooo difficult?"  Just take a look at our morning...

We were awake early.  This is nothing extraordinary for one of us on the team, but for the rock star sleeper of our duo (ahem-me), early is usually not the best time of day to propose anything too far from the comfort of a warm bed. 

We were hungry.  My niece has a word for what happens to people in our family when the blood sugar drops: Hangry. Enough said.

We had to decide whether looking good or venturing out was the priority.  One of us rarely puts looking good behind anything when ordering priorities.  Guess who?

We were not in our town, so we had to navigate options for food.  This is a task that quite often - even in our hometown - leads to a long sigh from one of us, followed by a stiffly surrendered, "Whatever."

The coffee was bad at the diner.  I've said it many times, nothing ruins a day quicker than a bad cup of coffee.

Then there was the packing - ugh.  I dread/fear/incompetently process the task of suitcase packing more than any other activity in life.  Toilet scrubbing included.  My husband, on the other hand, is a professional packer and generally has to bite his tongue in two to keep from telling me what to do every single minute of my suitcase stuffing chaos.  (And I would be dodging if I didn't mention how much like a two year old I can be when someone starts telling me how to do something in a way that is different from the way I'm doing it.)

Sausalito was the day's destination, but we hadn't really done a minute's worth of planning for that beyond finding out where to get on the ferry.  We actually had no idea, when we set out on foot from our hotel, exactly how far it was TO the Ferry Building or exactly what street to take to get there.  This is ultimate folly to me. I am a destination driven person.  I want to know how to get where we're going and exactly how long it takes to get there.  My husband could generally care less about the destination issues.  He's a guy who embraces the journey. be that person.

Are you getting the big picture?  The morning had been a mine field of triggers to emotional melt-down, but we walked onto that ferry as it pushed away from the dock just like we'd planned the thing down to the very minute. 

The miracle:  We'd not spoken one angry word or broken even the slightest sweat. 

The fact of it begged to be explored.  How had that happened? 

The miracle explained:  It was the end of a lovely weekend in a city we absolutely adore.  My flight didn't leave until 11:45 PM, though, so we had the whole day to play.  Usually leaving days are all about the departure.  This one didn't have to be. 

It was a bonus day.  We knew it.  We delighted in it.  From dawn's earliest light until nodding off in the middle seat of flight 1299 sometime after midnight the next day - the day was embraced as a gift. 

And that changed everything.  Everything.

So, here's the secret. You've heard it from sages and poets and singers and preachers all your lives. I'm telling you, it's a rich and wonderful way to live...

Carpe diem. Seize the day. -John Keats
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. -Robert Herrick
Wake up and live. -Bob Marley
Happiness, not in another place but this place...not for another hour, but this hour. -Walt Whitman

And my favorite: 

Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart. 
-Erma Bombeck

No promises for a tomorrow have been given to any of us. 
Every day is a day in the bonus round. Even this very one. Lean into it. Discover the miracle.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Still Hoping

Four years ago today, I was packing a suitcase, loading the car with bicycles and bottled water, delivering dog medicines to the neighbor, and making a new sign for my yard that read:  "You can steal my sign, but you can't steal my vote!"

I was on my way to the doorsteps of voters in New Mexico, one of the purple states in 2008. We were determined to be moving parts in the machinery working tirelessly to elect Barack Obama.  New Mexico was the closest place to go to make a difference.

We spent four days walking and talking and bicycling up and down the industrial side streets of Clovis. We worked feverishly until the polls closed at 7 PM on Tuesday, November 4...our youngest son's birthday. When the state was declared for Obama shortly before 8 PM in New Mexico, the tiny abandoned insurance office that was packed to the window sills with Obama workers erupted in a kind of joy I had never experienced in my life, and never expect to experience again. 

The 2008 election was big.  Very big. 

Today, four years later, I visited my local Obama office to pick up some buttons and t-shirts and smile and wave guiltily at the people sitting at telephones talking to voters in Florida. 

I straightened my yard sign, which has not been tampered with even once this year. 

I will make a pot of chili and light the jack-o-lantern on the front porch.

I will wait for trick-or-treaters.

And then I will wait for Tuesday. 

The 2012 election is big.  It is very big. 

I cannot imagine changing partners in our dance of hope and change right now. I believe it would be disastrous for the country. Here's how I see it...
Barack Obama has not failed to deliver - he has delivered and delivered and delivered.
His list of promises in 2008 was long. It seems reasonable that 8 years might be needed.

His assumptions about bi-partisan comraderie in Congress were inexperienced.
As my husband is fond of saying, Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want.
Who can doubt the President has experience now?

I have taken a donor's seat this election season.  I have left the door-knocking and phone-calling tasks that stretch me waaaay beyond my comfort zone to others.  But I have not given up hoping and believing in change that really will make this nation lead in the ways of integrity and compassion and peace. 

Four more years.  That's what we need. 
Obama Pumpkin


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ode to McGovern

I can say nothing about George McGovern you might not read elsewhere,  more elegantly and informatively stated.  I will only summarize here by saying  the man was an old school politician and a decorated World War II pilot - a  US Senator of considerable influence for many years who knew the real cost of war. 

He thought the price was too high. 

In November of 1972, I was one of the brand-spanking-new 18-year old voters lining up to exercise my recently ratified right under the 26th amendment to the US Constitution.  I was a sophomore in college.  I had been too young in the late 60s, really, to have understood fully - much less participated in - the Vietnam War, the work of Students for a Democratic Society, or Woodstock

My primary concern in the fall of 1972 was whether or not I had a date on a Saturday night. 

But, I was fired up about voting. 

A new precinct had been added to my college campus.  We enthusiastic 18-year old voters were feeling quite santicmonious.  After all, we spouted with indignation whenever anyone would listen, "If we're old enough to fight - we should be able to vote."   

But there was no 24-hour news cycle or Twitter or online access to the New York Times.  These were the days of the Yellow Dog Democrat majority in Texas - which made me slightly wary of any candidate on that ticket. 

So here's how I decided who to vote for.  I asked my dad.  He told me to vote for Nixon or expect the end of the material world I'd come to know and depend upon. 

And that's what I did.  I voted for Nixon.  Along with 61% of America.  George McGovern won only one state on November 7, 1972. Massachusettes. 

Less than two years later, I sat on a stool in a dark television studio control room, watching the place counter on a two-inch video tape machine.  I was looking for a sound bite to air on the 10 o'clock newscast I produced. Richard Nixon was resigning, in shame, from office.

I decided on that night I would never rely on anyone else to tell me who to vote for.  Ever. 

Are you listening to your own hearts and voices young voters of America?  
It's a secret ballot.
Choose your own candidate. 

Today - 40 years later - I celebrate the man who really spoke my mind in 1972: George McGovern.  May he rest in...


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What a Debate Is...And Isn't

I received an email this afternoon that began like this:

Dear Jan,

Tonight's debate could determine the future of our country.

(Sigh.  Heavy, depressed, exhausted sigh.)  Here's what I'd like to say about that.
Dear Writer of Fear Engaging Email,

I am not worried about my candidate tonight.  Nor am I worried the future of our country is going into the tank in 90-minutes this evening while every political wonk in the USA is watching, tweeting, and analyzing.  I am worried about an intellectual economy that places so much currency in the bank of Prime Time Entertainment and Twittered Instant Replays and Pundit Score Cards. 

Really?  The future of our country is going to be determined by one pre-election debate?  Really? 

Is there a nuclear bomb at the ready if Governor Romney out smart-asses the President tonight?  Is Wall Street going dark in the morning if President Obama rips the Governor a new one?  Will our clean water stop running in our sinks, our debit cards fail to work at the grocery store, our schools turn our children away at the door if one man out wits another?  

Surely not. 

Surely the people who care to exercise their constitutional right to cast a vote for the presidential candidate of their choice in 21-days have cared enough to weigh in/read up/pay attention before tonight.  Surely we recognize this Debate Extravaganza as the free advertising it is - for both candidates - and the blood sport that it is for people who make their livings telling us all how we should feel and think and vote. 

Really?  A 90-minute debate is going to turn this election? 
Political scientists don't think so.
I don't think so.
I'm betting TV executives do.

What I think is this: 15-seconds standing alone in a room with a ballot and a pencil sometime between now and November 6 will decide this election...and it will, perhaps, determine the way the breeze blows across the fields that are the future of our country. 

Tonight, the sky is not falling...

No matter who wins or loses.

Let's all pour ourselves a glass of wine, breathe, and enjoy this televised event for what it is: An opportunity to cheer for our candidate. 

It is not the beginning of the end of our future. 


Friday, October 12, 2012

Altered Realities

Mornings have changed at my house. 

I noticed it Monday.  The light and shadows had changed in the kitchen.  For some reason, it reminded me of a winter day, which was odd because here in Texas we are easily three months away from anything that resembles a winter day.  I didn't give it a second thought until Tuesday...which was when I began to wonder if my senses were unusually heightened for some reason, beckoning me to notice a change of seasonal light earlier than I ever had before.  You know...a new superpower or something. 

By Wednesday I had it figured out.

The neighbor behind us had removed two gigantic trees from his yard.  I listened to the chain saws and watched men swing from ropes for three or four days last week.  The next door neighbor and I had puzzled over the work, in fact, wondering together if a pool or sport court might be on the drawing board behind us. Why else would you take out perfectly good trees?  It certainly didn't occur to me to consider the absence of my neighbor's trees as having any noticeable impact on me. 

Until Wednesday.

It felt like winter in my kitchen because those trees that had filtered the day's early light were gone. I was being treated to an early and permanent version of the 6-8 weeks of the year when the trees were leafless. There is now a gaping hole in my morning world.  I would be lying if I said that didn't unsettle me a bit.  I had a real urge to ring my neighbor's doorbell and talk at length about the change his actions had made in my house. I really wanted, no, I needed to know what was behind the decision to fell two beautiful trees and rearrange my morning light. 

I managed to breathe through the urge to impose my tiny whining misery on a perfectly nice neighbor.

Of course this neighbor did not consult me before moving forward on the tree removal is, after all, his yard and they were his trees.  We exchange occasional pleasantries across the back fence, but never discuss much more than the weather.  The tree operation was not my business, really - it was simply an opportunity to adjust my expectations. 

Realizing the powerlessness of my role in this mostly insignificant attack on daily reality took me directly from my cozy, safe, light-altered kitchen to Afghanistan...

Can you imagine waking up in Afghanistan 11 years ago (this week) to find American armies in your backyard for reasons you knew nothing about?  Rather than adjusting to a change in morning light over the years that have passed, you likely would have had to adjust to fewer men and boys in your house, or one less cow to milk for your family's daily sustenance, or the loss of crop fields trampled by boots of marching troops. You might not even have a village anymore.

That's how it's happened for most of the people of Afghanistan, you know. A war they knew nothing about showed up in their morning light one day, and it has stayed eleven years. It is none of their business, really...just an opportunity for them to adjust to a new and lingering reality. 

I'm betting it's been unsettling. 

I'm guessing they'd like to know what was behind the decision to bring so many years of violence and unrest to their country. 

I'm thinking it's time to build them a pool or a sport court...a hospital or a school...and leave. 



Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Pertinent Question

Today I have come up with the perfect, define-the-candidate question for the next presidential debate. 

Have you ever painted a floor? 

Well.  Have YOU? 

If you have painted a floor, you likely understand the seriousness of the question. 

I have just painted my first floor. Today. And I feel pretty certain a successfully painted floor is no less a feat for a thoughtful, critical thinking, problem solving, patient person than whatever work it takes to earn a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bear with me.

For starters, if you've painted a floor it's likely because you were stuck with a mostly unbearable situation, coupled with some limits on what you could do to make it better.  I mean, why else would a person paint a floor?  Really.  There are contractors who happily come into your home and tear up an ugly floor to replace it with a new one.  But the limits are an issue. A significant one.

So you decide to paint.  The next step is research and advice.  You must plug the factors of your existing floor situation into the DIY equation.  What's the existing surface?  Can it be prepped without unrealistic expense and labor?  Is one solvent/sandpaper/paint/polyurethane better than another?  Is the woman who works the paint counter at the local hardware store as knowledgeable as you are?  When she says, "Well, I can't guarantee the results," do you abandon the project entirely or push on? 

 Once pushing on is chosen, there's the terribly un-fun work of preparation.  First, patching.  Yes, there are holes in the old floor that need to be filled.  Ugh.  Boring.  Perhaps, if you are me, this work is slightly outside your skill set.  But you are determined. 

Then comes mopping with a chemical that requires goggles and gloves, mopping again with water, scraping with a wire brush, mopping again.  (An aside for your amusement:  My bathroom floor has now been mopped more times in 24 hours than it has been in 24 years. I'm pretty sure of this.)  Once the tedious, unglamorous, back breaking work of mopping is finished, some real change begins.


I can't tell you what lengths I usually go to to avoid primer when I'm painting.  It just seems like a completely useless step in the process of changing something from one color to another.  I like quick results.  Primer just delays that satisfaction.  Right?

But this is a floor, for pity's sake.  That means it will endure human foot traffic and human droppage, and perhaps an occasional human mopping.  Primer seems like a reasonable - albeit unsatisfying - step in the process.  Some change is noticeable...but it's not mind blowing.  At priming, we are a long way from the finished product. 

And then, primer must dry.  Completely.  Does the phrase, "as exciting as watching paint dry" conjure up anything for you?  Still, this is a necessary step, I am told, if you want the cure to your previously mentioned unbearable floor situation to stick.  So you open the windows and wait.

The next day is the fun day.  New color on the floor.  You're excited as you pour the beautiful terra cotta paint out of the can and get brushes and rollers ready.  Oh, oops, except it's probably a good idea to tape the edges around the floor so your adjoining almost-new carpet doesn't also end up terra cotta.

Then - finally - the starter's pistol - "Woman, start your painting!"

If you have painted a floor, I'm sure you are laughing now.  You are thinking..."This nut is going to paint herself into a corner, sure as the world." 

Ha!  In fact, the phrase "painting yourself into a corner" is a very recurrent one for a writer of fiction, and I had a plan to avoid it.  My "absolute essentials" had been spirited from this bathroom to another and I had mapped out (during primer phase) the place to start the work and end it so I would not be trapped. 

But execution of the plan is not as easy as you might think.  First, there is paint involved, and paint always has a way of being the boss of the application situation.  There are also doors to consider. should paint behind them before you paint in front of them.  And toilets (if you're painting a bathroom floor). Painting around a toilet requires a generous helping of ambidextrous and head-standing talent when the floor around you is fresh, wet terra cotta.

Then there's the whole squatting/standing thing. Trust me when I tell to beware of getting caught in a tightly painted circle with nothing to grab onto to help yourself stand. Ouch. Who knew yoga would come through so amazingly in the middle of a painting project?

The ultimate goal, of course, is to paint yourself OUT of the room without stepping into anything.  Anything meaning, you know...paint.  Because if you do that, well...everyone will be able to follow your trail of failure for years to come. 

And then there's more waiting for paint to dry.  Which gives you waaaay too much time to think:

What if it doesn't dry?
What if it comes up with the tape?
What if it really can't stand up to the dripping water from the shower door?
What if my husband hates it?
Is painting a floor the stupidest thing anyone has ever done?
What if the woman at Lowes was right?
Yikes! How do I get to my clothes in the closet on the other side of the sticky floor? 

If you have painted a floor successfully - I applaud you and bow to your ingenuity and celebrate your genius.  You used limited resources to solve an unbearable problem.  I will assume you are walking on the floor, spilling things and mopping them up, and receiving lovely comments about your artistry, your industriousness, your patience. 

The jury is still out on mine. 

What about Governor Romney?  President Obama?  Do you think either man has tested his problem solving skills with a brush, a roller, and a gallon of thick, sticky goo?

Hmmmm.  Surely being President for three and a half years gives a person some floor painting cred. 

Still...a good question.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Extra Innings

Okay. I won't hide today. I won't throw you a tender piece about my growing children, or wax on about the lovely locally grown produce in my fridge, or jump across continents and oceans to Syria to ponder a revolution in trouble.  I'll sit right here and say it:  Our guy did not shine last night. 

He was given opportunity upon opportunity to lean onto his elbows, look across the gap that was designated-debate-space and say, "Really?" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Bullshit!"  Instead he smiled and scanned his notes, which I am imagining had big highlighted red letters that said: DON'T REACT or STAY CALM or DON'T SWING AT THOSE PITCHES. 

Which, of course, didn't make it much of a ballgame. 

It was not a runaway game, to say the least...but Governor Romney definitely managed some base hits.  And he threw at least one of his curve ball zingers across the plate: 

Mr. can have your own house.  You can have your own plane.  But you cannot have your own facts. 

Couldn't the President have managed a simple back atcha! on that one?

(My other fave was, I have five sons, so I'm used to dealing with liars. Oh. My. Awful.)

I console myself today with yesterday when we were all saying: It is Obama's to lose...All he has to do is not mess up.

He did not mess up.  He didn't stutter or swear or sweat.  He didn't insult Christians or Muslims or his own children. 

What he did do was miss closing the game with a fastball thrown undeniably in the strike zone. 

I'm not much of a baseball fan, but I am an American.  I know the meaning of a full count in the bottom of the 9th with a runner on 3rd ready to head for home plate and extra innings.

My team's pitcher walked the batter last night. What we have today is an extra inning.

Romney kept his team in the game, somehow...and that's just the truth. 

So, President Obama, have no fear.  We have not left the ballfield.  We're still here cheering you on and we'll stay for as many innings as you play.  But please don't miss the ump's next call your direction...

Batter up!

Political Cartoon by R. J. Matson, The New York Observer.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sweet Debate Treats

Round 1.  It's ON. 

The first presidential debate: The defining moment. The separating of a sheep from a goat...a man from a Superman....a professor/business professional from a president.

For Republicans, it is the hoped for reenactment of October 28, 1980, when Ronald Reagan snatched victory from the pollsters, who had incumbent Jimmy Carter cruising to re-election.

It's the day Mitt Romney hopes the big, leaky ship that is his transportation to the White House will right itself and head full steam ahead. 

And here's how he plans to do that:
Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.

Really? I am so embarrassed for the GOP.  The party's language has been course, its strategy has been weak, the in-fighting all too entertaining.  If Mitt Romney CAN pull this campaign out of the circular path around the drain - well, maybe he can also work some kind of unknowable magic from the oval office. 

He is on his own tonight.  Thank God. 

I am so weary of the machine that works the hands and mouths from the backs of Republican candidates, I could cry.  Perhaps Mitt Romney will come to the stage tonight with a resolve to be Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  It would serve him well.  He will be nose to nose with the President of the United States...a man who stands before the people packaged in a four year record with a focused resolve to move forward, not as someone dressed in the pokings and proddings of small thinkers with big checkbooks. 

Honestly, Mr. Romney has to be hoping for an Obama fumble.  Which, of course, only works in his favor if he's quick enough to recover the ball and dart in the direction of the end zone. 

Sadly, for the GOP candidate, the folks standing along the sidelines cheering him on seem to point every direction but the right one.  For all they know, the way to score is to run the ball to the concession stand. 

I can hardly wait to see what happens.

Meanwhile, I'm off to find some Hostess treats to offer up tonight over debate watching. 
Serving Zingers, re-election style.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Fears Not Years

“It's paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn't appeal to anyone.”  - Andy Rooney
My mother says it often.  Aging is not for sissies.  She is 81 - still lives a lovely life in her own beautifully decorated home, still remembers the name and birthday of everyone in the whole wide world...including her favorite cashier at the grocery store, and still makes the most coveted pan of brownies in the entire state of Texas.  I keep telling her she has set the bar fairly high for growing old with style.  She keeps reminding me that all I need to know is that aging is not for the faint of heart. 
In our beauty-obsessed culture, most of us hear complaints about growing old in the context of a fading brilliance in front of the mirror:  Oh, the graying hairs, the wrinkling brows, the sagging chins, the blocky mid-sections.  If we think much beyond that point in our 50s and 60s, it is probably to fear for our ability to remember people and places and important words, because we believe it is already happening to us. 
But I have seen the true late afternoon of life this weekend, in the home of our beautiful friends Bruce and Anna Marie, and I am here to report there is something important to be said about going into the last of life's day with no fear. 
Bruce is 97, Anna Marie is 95.  When we met this beautiful pair in 1983 they were 68 and 66, the oldest but most vibrant members of the circle of friends who became like family to a couple of brand new parents wandering the near soullessness that is/was suburban Dallas.  Our oldest son latched onto them, and they to him...we really had no choice in the matter. Never doubt a 2-year old's assessment of a person's character...that's what we learned from that experience. 
Bruce & Anna Marie with our young son.  1986
These are two of the most magnificent humans who have ever walked the planet.  Their stories are inspiring to the point of celebration - which I am happy to say has recently happened in their Dallas faith community, and also with a story in The Dallas Voice.  (It would not waste your time to hear/read the tales of this lovely couple.)  But our visit with them yesterday, in the home they have lived in for 49 years, may be the most critical piece of their work in the Circle of Life for me. 
They have been fearlessly ageless for so long.  Never afraid to befriend someone outside their own generation, always eager to change if change was called for, open to new ideas (four years ago, Anna Marie insisted we buy her her first margarita!) and cultures, music and thoughts. But now the simple accumulation of calendar years seems to be eclipsing Bruce and Anna Marie's will to stay young.  They are mostly home bound, somewhat confused about who and what and where, and dependent upon others for nearly every human need. 
Even so - they seem completely fearless. 
Bruce, who just 18 months ago was still articulating with eloquence and great clarity his enormous disappointment with the way the Church has excluded homosexuals from full fellowship was - yesterday - almost completely mute during our visit.  He spoke a short prayer over our lunch, but that was it.  There was never any real recognition on his face while we were there - strangers is what we were.  But somehow he welcomed us with a conveyed grace that was unafraid, even as he sat in the company of strangers.
Anna Marie was ebullient and very present, but quick to admit that she didn't really remember much of anything anymore - not her years in Louisiana, not her trips to Japan, not even her broken hip two years ago.  "I know those things happened," she told me while we filled glasses with ice and set the table for lunch, "But I don't remember any of it." 
"What about Bruce?" I asked.  "Do you miss the old Bruce?" 
"Oh," she said, laughing. "He seems the same to me." 
Bruce & Anna Marie in their home.  2012
 As the Day of our Lives begins to fade to night, isn't it wonderful to picture it as a time of stillness and ease and appreciation for the moment that is.  It is as if Anna Marie and Bruce are sitting on the shore of an expansive lake watching the sunset.  The memory of the day's brilliant sun and busy activities seems unimportant in the gentleness and quiet wonder that is the magic of reflected colors on water, slight breezes, cooling temperatures. 
In such a moment, all you need is someone to turn to to say "Wow!" 
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”  - Robert Frost

We may as well, then, live by the words of my old boss, R. B. McAlister...television station owner, state representative, sage:
Fears, not years, make men (& women) old.


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