Monday, September 17, 2007

Living in the BWA Corridor

Living in the Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis Triangle

We’ve lived in the Severna Park/Arnold area (Anne Arundel County) for 31 years now, and I have to say that we don’t intend to leave. Sure, the prices are high and the traffic is congested, but the Chesapeake Bay is magical. We live in suburbia, but we have three great cities to choose from to enrich our lives.

Annapolis is my favorite of the three – close, historic, warm and friendly. Although not a resident of Annapolis, I know the city as well as my own neighborhood. I read the local paper and I know as many people in Annapolis as I do in Severna Park and Arnold. For practical purposes, those of us who live just outside of Annapolis as tied in with the city as most residents.

I still get a thrill out of being in Annapolis on a mild fall evening, walking along the city dock, going to dinner at a local favorite, then to a play at Colonial Players (our community theatre). There are the tourist and the Mids, but there are friends to be seen everywhere. It is rare that I walk down the street in Annapolis that I don’t see someone I know. A sense of history surrounds you and it feels good.

Driving in downtown Annapolis requires a high comfort level with narrow streets and tight turns. That is just the way it is and I don’t think about it at all anymore. I can whip a Dodge Grand Caravan around State Circle with ease and can even parallel park the beast on the wrong side of the street, on a curve in front of the State House.

Baltimore is an amazing city – a city I feel that I know and understand pretty well. It is sometimes called “Charm City.” And for sure, it has a certain charm and elegance in places like Roland Park and Towson. Thanks to the Inner Harbor, downtown is vibrant and alive and bustles with excitement year-around. At one level, the city is new and fresh and full of hope. The various ethnic neighborhoods give it a richness – a texture that you don’t find in most cities. There are the “hons” – the stereotypical ladies caught in a 50s time-warp – and they are still there in Baltimore. You might not find them in the Inner Harbor, but you will find them in the neighborhoods. Baltimore is bold and brassy at time, but it has the ability to laugh at itself.

I carry a pretty decent road map of Baltimore in my head, and as long as I stay on the main streets I do OK. It is hard to get very lost in Baltimore, as the streets are laid out on a grid. Whenever we go to Baltimore, I drive. That was a deal my husband and I made when we moved here. I would learn Baltimore and he would learn Washington.

Washington, DC, is puzzle in many ways. As our Capital, it is provokes as sense of awe. A drive down Constitution Avenue makes you stop and appreciate our American way of life – the monuments and museums remind us of the grandeur of democracy.

I always feel a bit disoriented in DC. Because the streets are mostly at an angle, it is easy to find oneself totally lost in some parts of town. There are the famous circles, like Dupont Circle and Thomas Circle. Massachusetts Avenue, Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue seem to be where most of my travels take me.

Coming from the east, the best way into town is on New York Avenue – once a “war zone” and now slow gentrification. The other day I saw a panhandler along New York Avenue. He was holding a sign that said “Why Lie, I Want a Beer!” People were rolling down the window of their Mercedes to give him cash. I guess he struck a responsive chord

In order to live here, on the banks for of the Chesapeake in our little suburban enclave, and fully grasp the opportunities – both business and personal – you have to learn to embrace all three cities and to love each of them for its uniqueness.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Solutions to Unnamed Problems

It seems that much of what technology offers us today is solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. But once we know we have a problem, and we see others solving it with some techie tool or another, we are hooked.

In my lifetime I have driven all over the US without a phone in my car. It never occurred to me that I needed one. If the car broke down, I would simply flag down a passing motorist who would NOT necessarily be an ax murderer and that kind motorist would tell the owner of the nearest gas station. In those days, people took care of each other. Now, of course, if I am driving to the grocery store and forget my cell phone, I have to go home to get it.

Of course, the laptop computer is the “must have” tool for daily living. It has been only about ten years since I got my first laptop and I have been hooked ever since. I can work anywhere. If Marshall McLuhan were alive today I am sure he would refer to it as “wheels for the mind,” I must not be alone in this addiction. Just stand in any airport security line for proof.

They call smart phones “crackberries” and I can understand that. I seem to think I can’t live without my Treo. I left at home when I went to Germany and found it peculiarly freeing and continually frustrating not to have it. In a way it was like quitting smoking!

I have not gotten an I-Pod yet. Maybe I will, but I can play music on my Treo if I want to. Problem is I keep forgetting how to transfer the songs in MP-3 format. Maybe one day I’ll get an I-Phone.

I haven’t gotten a GPS either. My husband has one, but I try not to have anything to do with it. It confuses me. But I know someday I will succumb, as no doubt my next car will come with one built into it or maybe it will be built into the I-Phone.

Then there is the whole online directions thing. I love the convenience of being able to type in addresses and get directions. The other day, however, Mapquest led me totally astray and I drove maybe 20 miles out of my way.

Last Saturday, all of my techie addictions came into play and I was driven to taking desperate action. The Internet was down at the house; I had a meeting to go to in Laurel and I couldn’t print out directions. I stopped at the coffee shop nearby and planned to do some work prior to my meeting and to jot down the directions. The Internet was down at the coffee shop also. So, not wanting to appear to be out of sync enough to call for directions, I drove to Laurel. Finally, I realized I had this wonderful tool in the car all along. It was a MAP book. I remembered how to use it and the day was saved!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I found my uncle’s old tennis racket in about 1958. The racket was about a decade older than I was at the time. To me, it seemed like an artifact from another time. But money for tennis rackets didn’t grow on trees, so when I wanted to take up tennis later that year, I started with that old racket. It was a great racket! I hated to part with it, but about 40 years ago I gave it to my cousin. It was his dad’s after-all. Both my uncle and my cousin are gone now. I wonder what happened to that racket.

Anyway, once it became tennis was just a twelve year old’s passing fancy, my parents got me my own racket. It was a brand I had never heard of, which they got from some sort of discounter buying club. I think it was the same place they got my transistor radio and bowling shoes.

The problem with stuff from that discount buying club was that nothing was name brand. And while I was grateful for the tennis racket, the radio and the bowling shoes, I have to admit that I gave myself a complex that I was a generic brand second-class citizen. (That may explain why the other day, when I was coming out of anesthesia from my colonoscopy and my doctor was telling my husband about my new lifetime prescription for acid reflux medicine, I made it clear to my husband that I wanted the brand name – not the generic.)

I still have that old discount buying club racket (also the bowling shoes), plus a few other name brand wooden rackets accumulated over the years. Some have covers; some have wooden racket presses. But, of course, one wouldn’t think of showing up on the tennis court with any of them. Using one of those old rackets would be a dead-give-away to my age and the condition of my game (of course just watching me play for 30 seconds sends the same message.)

I played tennis most afternoons and Saturday mornings all through high school. I loved the game and actually with all that practice I got to be a pretty good player. I had a wicked serve and was pretty good at returning balls. My form was never my best thing, and I envied those folks who just seemed to be able to stand there and hit low, fast balls that skimmed over the top of the net. But I had fun and got exercise.

My tennis partner and I went to different colleges (I wonder where she is now). In college I really was too busy with other things to play tennis and I lacked a partner. Spring semester of my freshman year, I took tennis. I was pretty good; I won the class tournament and even beat the teacher. Since I am not at all into sports, this is my one and only lifetime athletic accomplishment.

During the remaining college years, I played here and there and now and then, with friends, but it was an occasional thing and my game suffered.

When I married in 1969, I tried to get my husband interested in tennis. I bought him a racket and we tried to play once. It didn’t work out; he hated it. But then he is not interested in sports in the slightest, although he loves to scuba dive.

My son got to about ten and I tried to get him interested in tennis. I bought him a racket. He tried it dutifully a few times, but he was more interested in other things. Too bad that didn’t work out, as we had great public courts behind our house.

I wonder if my grandson or granddaughter would like to play. Eventually, maybe a family member will actually like the game.

So that was the end of tennis for me until the early 90s when a friend and I played on Saturday mornings for 5 or 6 weeks, but then the snows came and we never picked up where we left off. But during that particular phase I bought myself a new Prince metal racket. I liked it because it had a much bigger area to hit with and was lighter than my old wooden racket.

Just recently, I got it in my head that I wanted to start playing again. I found a friend who was about as rusty as I was. Through a mutual friend, we were treated to a tennis lesson. We played for about 1 ½ hours. We were not as awful as we could have been. Actually, we managed to hit the ball at least a fair portion of the time. Control and form – well those are other matters.

During that game, the instructor was continually reminding me not to crowd the ball and to hit from the side. Of course, I know that is what you are supposed to do, but it is easier said than done – especially when one doesn’t move too fast. But whenever I hit the ball properly, it felt great! That feeling is really powerful!

Then I got to thinking about how I lead my life and I began to see an analogy between the way I approach life and the way I play tennis. During the game my friend said that some of the balls that came her way she opted not to try to hit because she knew if she did her form would be off and she didn’t want to reinforce bad form. That thought never occurred to me! But maybe she is onto something.

My approach is to try to hit every ball except those that are clearly out of bounds or just ridiculous to get to. Otherwise, I go for it. I hit balls overhead or with the racket in front of me; many of my shots have that “thunk” that you get when you hit outside of the racket’s sweet spot. Sometimes those off shots go over the net; sometimes they don’t. But when they do go over, they are usually high or poorly placed.


In life. I really do try to “hit every ball” the best way I can. Opportunities come my way and I try to take advantage of them unless they are clearly “out of bounds” or really not a good fit. That is just like my tennis game – whether it is today or 45 years ago.

Sometimes in business I get that same feeling I get when I hit the tennis ball in the sweet spot. In business, this feeling might be defined as having all my preparation work prior to a meeting, arriving on time, and walking out the door with a contract in hand. Other times, the job gets done, but I am overcoming obstacles every step of the way. I would say this is the equivalent to a hit outside of the sweet spot. Then there are those misses and bad hits – true in both business and in life.

What if I could, through practice, hit in the sweet spot more and more often. What if I could learn not to run to try to hit every ball that comes over the net, but to evaluate the odds and make a decision? What if all of my hits were low and fast?

Then, I wonder, if I could train myself to approach life and business this way? Would it make sense to start with tennis and wire those circuits in my brain to work that way? Interesting! It might work, and just think of the good exercise and the fun of playing tennis instead of sitting at my computer.

Of course, while I am playing tennis I am not working and if I am not working, I am reducing my odds of hitting the sweet spot in business. Or would my brain, fully rewired and refreshed, be able something make me just that much more efficiently? Hmmh…

Then on TV they say 1one hour of exercise increases your life by two hours. That sounds promising. I wonder if it would be possible to have those extra hours in the form of 26 hour day for next ten years instead of having them added on at the end. That way I would have time to play tennis, train my brain to hit in the sweet spot, and still get all of my work done?

Guess not!

But before I play tennis again I have to deal with the matter of my racket. The grip is disintegrating. My right hand was totally black after the game last week. The racket says it is a graphite volley. I think I have found where they store the graphite. I need a new grip; but it is probably cheaper to buy a new racket. Maybe I can pick one up at Costco – discount buying clubs have come a long way!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Coming Home to Birmingham

I cried the night before I got married. I cried because I was leaving Birmingham, Alabama – this time for good. Of course I knew that things would not stay the same, and that I could never recapture the feeling of home. Leaving for college is one thing, but leaving with a husband with a military career ahead of him was quite another.

Over the years I came home a few times each year. When my mother was dying, I came more often, and two years later, when my father was dying I stayed for several weeks at a time. Gradually most friends and relatives moved away or passed away.

This past week I came home to Birmingham for a family reunion I had arranged for my father’s family. It was great fun to see everyone, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

We had a little time to drive around town, so I loaded by husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren into a rented van and I gave them a guided tour on the old roads.

Driving down the street in Birmingham I see what “is” with my eyes and with my memory I see what “was.” Nothing much has stayed the same and there are memories everywhere I turn.

See that building that says Dialysis Center; we used to go there every Sunday afternoon for ice cream.

See that boarded up apartment building that looks like a castle; my aunt used to live there.

See that flat area over there beside the freeway; my high school was there. They built a new one and I have no idea where.

There’s our old house where my parents lived for 1958 until 1989; it looks great! What is that music? Oh, it is a mariachi band in the carport across the street.

There’s the 16th Street Baptist Church; that Easter Sunday bombing changed everything. That was the deep wound, after which the city knew it had to heal.

That is the house where we lived until 1958. See where that carport is; that was where I had my swing set. My grandmother had a beautiful garden in the backyard. They have torn off the brick railing and replaced it with wrought iron.

That’s my old elementary school. I wonder why they have a giant antenna in the front of it. Strange! See they cut down the one tree on the playground.

See that boarded up department store; that is where we used to shop. Yes, we used to get all dressed up to go downtown to shop. It was an all day thing.

See that shopping center. I remember when it opened with just a few stores in 1958. No, all of the others are new. Yes, the Shell station has always been there on the corner.

The list goes on and on. Memories pile onto memories. I can’t stop the flow!

I love Birmingham, but I know I can never go home again. The people who defined my life are mostly gone; the places have all changed. I will find excuses to come back to visit from time to time. There is a compulsion to watch the changes.

My life is in Maryland now. In the 31 years we have lived there I have seen many changes, but I have had a chance to internalize them. I don’t have to relive the memories every time I drive down the road. I can live in the moment, and that has to have some value!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bluetooth Headset

I finally broke down and got a Bluetooth headset. A few years ago, I tried a borrowed one, and it drove me nuts, so I returned it. But Friday afternoon I decided I had to have one. Why? I don’t know!

There has to be something to it. If there wasn’t why would all sorts of people being wearing the things? I have to admit that driving and holding a cell phone is not a good thing. I also have to admit that rummaging through my purse or grabbing at my waist to answer a call is not much fun either. So maybe with this little device I will have less aggravation in my life and be safer on the road.

Of course, the units, especially the one that I bought, resemble a giant cockroach with a blue light (which is sometimes red or purple) embedded in its head. What’s not to love?

I bought a small, very lightweight and too expensive model. The instructions had to be located online (no small feat) and downloaded and printed out. I followed them to the letter and nothing happened, so I took it back to the store. Actually, I thought it wouldn’t work with my cellular phone, and wanted to return it. But it was non-returnable because it sticks in your ear. The sales manager quickly got it operational and I was good to go. I still wasn't sure why I was doing this, but...

A key thing about Bluetooth is that it has to “pair” with another Bluetooth device. My cell-phone and the headset have to find one another. In this particular electronic device mating ritual, the cell phone first has to have its Bluetooth turned on. And very quickly, it is necessary to get the headset to get in the mood for mating. You know it is ready when it flashes red, then blue. The boom, they are connected! Now for most phones and headsets, that is the end of it. But, of course, I would have some compatibility issues, and my headset has to be rebooted following pairing --every time. I wonder if a Bluetooth counselor could help them work out their differences?

I wore the headset Saturday night while cooking dinner. Not that I was expecting any important calls, but it was my new toy and I wanted to try it out. My husband chuckled as he asked me if I was going to be wearing it all the time. He said that he always had a compulsion to ask headset wearers how are things on the mothership. Clearly he did not share my excitement!

It supposedly can handle voice dialing – that is if I buy a program for my phone and teach the phone how to understand my speech. I am not sure I up to tutoring my cell phone and trying to get it to come to terms with my southern accent. But it certainly would be cool not to have to dial the phone in the car. Pulling over to the side is a drag! We’ll see!

It does work – provided I cater to its rebooting needs. Tomorrow is Monday. I should be getting lots of calls. I will try it out again –this time for real! I could try wearing it into the grocery store. It is, after all, a very cool fashion accessory. I admit it would look better with the long hair, huge hooprs, hip-huggers and a athletic shoes favored by the younger generation. But maybe it will look OK with my short hair, old lady cropped pants, clip on earrings and clogs. And if it doesn’t – who cares!

I finally figured out why i had to have one. And this is a REALLY, REALLY good reason!

This is really all about being able to type on my laptop with two hands while talking on the phone. Life’s too short to do one thing at a time! You know you are truly multi-taking when you are having an email conversation (unrelated to the call) with someone who is on the same group conference call you are on. So bring on those calls and simultaneous emails!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Berlin

My husband and I went to Berlin for a week at the invitation of our son and his family, who have rented an apartment there for the summer. Although we have been to Germany many times, we had never been to Berlin. While I had suggested it in the past, it was not a practical thing to do before the wall fell.

When the Berlin wall came down, my father commented that he never thought he would live to see it happen. Frankly, neither did I – much less think that I would spend a week of my life living in what had been East Berlin.

I guess I expected to see dramatic differences, even today. I imagined East Berlin in shades of gray – the dismal colors of the communist regime. But this is 2007, and East Berlin is in many ways like every other city, alive with a Technicolor vibrancy.

There one thing in particular that struck me about the city, whether it be East Berlin or West Berlin, and that was its youth and energy. I looked around and saw few people older than myself. Most of the people I saw seemed to be 50 or younger. Everyone was in motion – whether walking, riding bicycles or sitting on the train or bus.

At 61, with little tolerance for walking and hot weather, I found myself constantly seeking out places to rest. There were plenty of street cafes, with a cold beer the price of admission. A few times I succumbed to the pain in my feet and ordered a beer.

I lost ten pounds in one week, and I think it was a combination of walking and heat that did it. Though the first few days were cold and rainy, we were soon in the midst of a heat-wave, with the thermometer topping 90 degrees. Not something that I notice at home in my little sedentary, air-conditioned world, but something that really got my attention in Berlin. Without air-conditioning and relying on my two feet and public transportation, I was quickly the victim of heat exhaustion. But, I felt good – alive in a way I don’t at home.

They left some of the wall standing. It was thinner concrete than I had imagined – not much more in some ways that an extra tall Jersey barrier. The course of the wall is marked in stones on city streets. It amazed me just how easily we could cross from one side or the other. I could only imagine what it was like before.

While we were there the Brandenburg Gate was mostly blocked off with a series of elaborate white tents. Turns out this was fashion week in Berlin, and fashionable people were there from all over the world, presumably to find out what was hot. Contrast this to scenes from the Third Reich.

When we go to Germany, we enjoy eating traditional German food. Our son had warned us, however, that Berlin was very cosmopolitan and real German food was not that common. But we did enjoy several excellent German meals, mostly at beer gardens. We also enjoyed fabulous pizza, as well as delightful French and Russian food.

We toured a museum (in a shopping mall) that focused on the history of Berlin. A commercial venture, it was indeed worthy of the Smithsonian. It was a great way to spend a cold and rainy day.

At the conclusion of the tour, there was an optional tour of a fallout shelter under the mall. I guess of everything I saw, this shelter shocked me the most. Built in 1974, it could accommodate 3,500 people – first come, first served. There are four of these in Berlin. According to our tour guide, two weeks notice would be required to stock the shelter with food, and after the 3,500 people had stayed there for only two weeks, they would have exhausted all the supplies and air, and would have to leave. I remember 1974; we were living in Southern California. By then I already had come to terms with the reality that if the bomb dropped, it was all over for us. We were told that the shelter could still be used. Amazing!

The scars of Nazi Germany were visible, intertwined with modern life. Walking down the street, one can see small brass markers that show where the Jewish families lived. It made the Holocaust seem all too real.

We visited a small museum focusing on the life of Anne Frank. The museum was in the attic of a small building. This venue made it easy to envision how Anne Frank must have suffered in a sweltering attic in hiding with her family in Amsterdam.

Clearly, Berlin is a city that has endured a lot of pain, and it shows. There is as much graffiti per square mile probably as Queens. But what impresses me is the city’s resilience – the way it embraces life. Its focus is clearly on the future, and there is an energy that is electric. Late at night young men and women, some drawn together by the Internet and a shared language, are gathering in cafes and beer gardens and talking of things that matter. Something powerful is bubbling just beneath the surface.

For our son, his wife, and most especially for our grandchildren, living in Berlin for the summer has to be a grand adventure. For us, it was a glimpse into another world.

We are home now; back to our cars and our air-conditioned, comfortable suburban world. There is no walking up the street for a gelato or catching a subway to go to a museum. Everything is easier here, but what is missing is creative tension and energy that happens when you get outside of your comfort zone.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Holidays Mark the Speed of Life

You know how with reel-to-reel tape recorders, the closer to the end of the reel, the faster it spins. At 61, my life feels like it is spinning ever so fast, almost out of control. I guess that is normal, but it is disorienting, and it just keeps getting faster and faster. Ironically, this phenomenon coincides with the intellectual knowledge that one’s life is coming to a close, sooner rather than later. My mother died at 69; her mother at 67. I wonder how much time I have left.

I can tell you what songs were popular in the 1960s or even the 1950s or 1940s, and even usually what year and who the artist was. But I am hard-pressed to make a distinction for all the other more recent decades, much less know the artist. It all just sort of runs together in a blur. And the bottom line is – I really don’t care, so I don’t focus on it.

When you are young, everything is an adventure. There are new things to experience; new foods to try; new places to visit. And, of course, when I was younger those new experiences and places to visit were more diverse and intense than they are now. The world is quickly getting to be all the same. One has to look for differences, and they are more subtle than in the past.

At the same time I am discovering that cultural distinctions are harder to find, I am also discovering that I really do enjoy being set in my ways and the comforts of home. I love my home, and travel is harder than it used to be. Suitcases seem to be heavier and my feet have less tolerance. I don’t like to be too cold or too hot, and I like an extra firm mattress and bottled water. If I can’t hook up to the Internet or there is bad cell phone reception, I am totally out of sorts.

The Fourth of July was yesterday. For the 30 years, we have done essentially the same thing. We have participated in the local parade in one form or another, then had lunch with family and dinner at a friend’s potluck. While there was a disquieting sameness to this ritual, there was comfort in it as well. Then this year, everything was different. Our son and his family are away in Germany; we borrowed our son’s convertible to use for the parade, but it wouldn’t start and the top wouldn’t go down; there was no potluck. Steve is having a colonoscopy today, so he was on clear liquids. So no parade, no family, no potluck, not even any food for Steve. It didn’t feel right, but I seized the time and, you guessed it, worked! This is a Fourth I will remember because it was different. But next year, it will come around again. Maybe my family will be in town; maybe the car will be fixed and we can be in the parade; maybe the potluck will be back on, and surely Steve won’t have to have another colonoscopy. Or maybe we will try something totally different and get out of town or start a whole new ritual.

I remember Christmas of 1985. We were making our annual trek to Birmingham to be with my family. I knew it would be a long and exhausting trip, and I somehow envied those who didn’t have to leave their homes over the holidays – the people who had Christmas trees, had parties and cooked Christmas dinner. But it was a passing thought, and one I now wish I had never had. Being with my family at Christmas was always very special. My mother had big holiday parties, and the house sparkled with holiday cheer. We all felt loved and past of something bigger than ourselves. It was worth the grueling 15 hour drive.

That was our last real Christmas together. A few weeks later, my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. By January 13, 1987, she was dead – a year to day after her diagnosis. We were all together for Christmas of 1986. There was no party; everyone was depressed; Christmas dinner was prepared by myself and a family friend, under my mother’s none too patient supervision. We are Chinese take-out Christmas Eve. We exchanged meaningless gifts. I got a camcorder, but my mother wouldn’t let me take her picture. She did not want to be remembered looking the way she did. We left tired, discouraged, and profoundly sad.

It is strange about holidays; they are the same for decades, then suddenly everything changes. Old rituals give rise to new rituals, and we find comfort in the sameness as the years go spinning by, faster and faster. But without holidays, the days and nights would totally spin out of control with no anchors to hold us our past.

Friday, June 08, 2007

New York

I first visited New York City when I was about twelve. I looked forward to the trip with great anticipation. At last I would see all those places I had heard about. We drove in through the Lincoln Tunnel. We were low on gas; my father has been looking for gas station and now we were heading in Manhattan and he speculated that there would be no gas there either. But worse than that, he worried about running out in the tunnel. I sat in the backseat and ate soda crackers and drank a Coke. My mother and father shared worried looks.

We did make to into the city and to our hotel, without running out of gas. The hotel was the Commodore. Wow! It is am impressive city, and just a little bit scary for a 12 year old.

We had lunch at an “Automat.” We had never seen anything quite like it. The food wasn’t very good, and people we didn’t even know sat down at the table with us.

One meal, we ate a Jewish deli, but we didn’t know it was a Jewish deli. We got what we thought was ham, but it was very rare roast beef. They gave us seltzer water to drink. The only thing I ever remember anyone doing previously with seltzer water was when Clarabell (the clown on Howdy Dowdy) sprayed it. As Southerners, we thought the whole thing rather strange. We had Jewish friends, back in Birmingham, but they pretty much ate what we did, except for no pork or shrimp.

We went to the top of the Empire State Building. For some reason, I felt compelled to have hot chocolate there. I burned my tongue. While I have burned my tongue a few times in my life, this one was by far the most painful.

To get an overview of the City, we took a Circle Line Tour. I had a small camera with black and white film. I took pictures of absolutely everything I saw, most things being totally not worth film. I still have those photos.

We walked along 5th Avenue on a Sunday morning. My mother had dressed me up in one of the outfits she made for me-- a linen suit I believe. I had a matching purse and hat. My mother said I turned heads of 5th Avenue – this was always one of her favorite stories. I just remember being overdressed and self-conscious.

The next time I went to New York was 1964. I had gone to a conference with my parents in Atlantic City. I remember I had a really great nylon windbreaker with burgundy and navy flowers on it. I wonder what happened to it?

Anyway, we went to New York City for the day on a bus and we were going to the New York World’s Fair. By then I was 18 and this would be one of the last trips with my parents. But I was VERY excited to be going to the World’s Fair.

The bus went through the Bronx on one of the freeways. Traffic was all backed up, and I just remember looking out the bus window and seeing a man lying in the road; he looked dead. I can still picture the scene.
The World’s Fair lived up to its hype. I remember the Unisphere and all of its promise was a united world. I marveled at the house of the future and the cars of the future, and came away feeling that I had been given a glimpse into my adult life. For sure, it would be easier than my parents’ life.

The next time I went back to New York was December 1968. I was then 22, and going to meet my future husband’s family in Queens. My mother made me a beautiful green plaid wool suit with leather buttons, and I brought my best clothes. I wore my best black pumps and my camel hair coat.

His family was great, if not a bit overwhelming. He is the oldest of eight children, and I am an only child. “Nuff said. But they are wonderful people and welcomed me warmly – and still do.

Christmas was coming soon and we went on a shopping expedition. First, he needed some sort of electronic part in Jamaica. We rode the subway there, if we didn’t walk the whole way back to the shopping area at Queens Blvd., we came close. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a record store where I bought at Glenn Yaborough album. We stopped a Macey’s and bought matching flannel nighgowns and hats for his two youngest sisters. (Steve’s Dad took photos of them in those nightgowns Christmas morning, and those photos are always source of amusement today). My feet have never been the same – so much for the black pumps.

Steve took me to meet both grandmothers, and I got to meet some aunts as well. Clearly, their culture and lives were very different from mine. The differences between suburban Alabama and Queens were hard to absorb.

But I guess we all passed our respective tests and we were married in summer of 1969.

We visited New York frequently over the years. It took a day and half to drive from Illinois and nearly a week from California. It was just about five hours away by car from Maryland.

In the decade of the ‘70s, we saw the city grow pretty dismal. Mostly we spent our time in Queens, but once each visit we would go to Manhattan. We would eat out and go to a play. I remember stepping over drunks, once being offered drugs while standing in a ticket line in Times Square, and being appalled by the filth and graffiti.

But the years passed by and the city started to change. The changes were gradual and they were subtle, but eh city did get cleaner; there was less graffiti. I began to appreciate the beauty of the city and its energy.

On September 11, I grieved for the city, as I knew life would never be the same. The bravado and brashness of the city with a big ego was gone. It was humbled and wounded, but it was still the Big Apple. There was still graffiti on the subway: there were still drunks on radiator grates. But there was still 5th Avenue and Central Park, and somehow both extremes of modern culture co-existing. But the brashness of gone!

As I write this, I sit on train going between Penn Station and BWI Airport. We are headed home. Actually, Steve and I have had a lovely weekend in the New York City. We had lunch with representatives of my printer from Hong Kong,. They are delightful people and it was so much fun to meet them in person. Steve suggested Fraunces Tavern so they could get some sense of US history. It was a great choice, as the food was well prepared and typically American.

We sat in the bar of the Waldorf Astoria and pretended we were rich enough to stay there without even thinking about the price.

We had another drink in the bar of our hotel, The Barclay. This is a very lovely, traditional hotel. Fortunately for us, we were able to trade my husband’s Priority Club points for a free night,

We had dinner at a small Italian restaurant near the theatre. No place special – just a small restaurant with good food and drink.

We went to a Broadway show, The Year of Magical Thinking, with Vaneesa Redgrave. It was an amazing performance!

By the time we got to the theatre my feet were hurting – not just a little bit, a lot! I thought the low-heeded black pumps would be comfortable. But candidly, they were no more comfortable than those black pumps for 39 years ago, except they do have lower heels.

New York is an exhausting place to visit. It is the relentless walking that wears me down. You would think after all these years I would know to wear comfortable shoes. Problem is -- I think I AM wearing comfortable shoes, but when put to the NYC test they turn lethal.

When I get home tonight, I am going to order some nice comfortable shoes --- forget if they are pretty or not. We’ll see. I’ll be back to New York in July.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Seasons

Each season in the South I grew up in was vastly different -- not only in terms of temperature, but in terms of how we lived, what we ate, and how we spent our time. When I reflect on those childhood days, I find myself longing to return. While I could go back to Birmingham, I can never go back and recapture those times.

In spring, the weather was restless and the vegetation amazing. Tornadoes were a frequent occurence in the Birmingham area, and we learned to just live with the possiblity that one day our lives would be totally disrupted by a tornado. But, for us, it never happened! The dogwoods and the azaleas provided a colorful backdrop for our lives in the spring. My grandmother planted flowers. We ate fresh strawberries from the curb market and slept with all the windows open at night. My grandmother wore housedresses, and we cleaned the house from top to bottom. The days were filled with the promise of new life.

Summer was heralded by the arrival of the lightening bugs. I used to catch them in a jar with holes punched in the top. That is what all the kids did without the vaguest regard for lightening bug life or death issues. Once at week we went to the curb market and bought corn, butterbeans, gren beans, black-eyed peas, yellow squash, okra, watermelon and cantalooupe. The farmers drove in all over the area and the food was fresh and luscioius. Summer afternoons were spent snapping beans and shelling peas, and they let me help. Sunday dinner was a feast with fried chicken, fried corn, butterbeans, and rice, along with peach pie. The grownups had iced tea with dinner. My mother punctuated each of her many accomplishments with consuming a Coca Cola and I got part of each one. The attic fan ran night and day and a gentle breeze swept through the house. My grandmother tended to her garden, and we would water it every night when no rain was forecast. Summer storms were powerful, with thunder and lightening and sometmes hail and high winds. The gutters running down our street (we were on a hill) became raging torrents. Then after each storm there was a period of extreme calm that resonated deep into your soul. Even the grownups seemed at peace.

Fall meant falling leaves, new school shoes, and new notebooks and pencils. I loved the fall! The colored leaves, the rich smell of woodsmoke, fresh apples, and the sense that I was a year older and wiser. My favorite fall memories are of cookouts with my parents and their friends. We used to go to the top of Shades Mountain and build a campfire in a small park overlooking the valley. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and the grownups told stories of before "the war." Fall meant Halloween and trick-or-treating. I always went as gypsy in a costume my mother had made me. It was a great costume by any objective skeleton, but there was a side of me who would have preferred to be a devil and wear a stiff (and tacky, according to my mother) store bought costume.

Winter was cold -- sometimes even below zero. We had a big metal therometer with the sole of shoe as a baskdrop for the the glass tube (my grandfather worked for a leather company). It was always a guess to see just HOW cold it was going to get! Birmingham is in the South, but it is colder than many places nearby because it is in the foothills of the Appalchians. Sometimes it would snow. Once I remember my parents sliding down the sidewalk in front of our house on garbage can lids and coal shovels. I was three and sick. I lined up my dolls in the living room window. When I did finally get to go out in the snow I had to wear a snowsuit. It was hard to get me in it, and harder to get me out of it. In winter we ate canned vegetables and fruits and potatoes and rice. On Saturday nights we had spaghetti and my parents invited their friends over. We had country fried steak, chicken pie, chili and potroast. We felt warm and cozy and stayed indoors.

Now I live in Maryland. After five years in southern California, I was ready to return to seasons in 1976. On the surface, one would think the seasons here are the same as in Alabama. The seasons here in Maryland seem less vibrant. We have azaleas and dogwoods in spring, bright colored leaves in the fall, snow in the winter, and storms in the summer, but it doesn't feel the same. Maybe it is because I don't actually interact with the seasons the way I did when I was a kid. The culprits are air conditioning, supermarkets with fresh produce year-around, no reason to be outside, and the changing perspective of old age. And now each season goes by so fast!!!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Values

When I was a child, I recall the dinner table was the place where ethics were discussed. There was the man my father knew who cheated on his wife whenever he traveled on business. There was the vendor and neighbor who tried to bribe my father with amazing gifts. There was the neighbor woman who set fire to piles of leaves under my parents’ guests’ cars and who shouted profanity to their dinner guests when they went to move their cars. There were all women my parents knew who fell prey to a World War II era con man. My parents spoke with disdain about those unfortunate incidents and with good cause. I took it all in!

My own values got tested as a high school senior when the “friend” who sat behind me kept trying to hand me her chemistry final exam paper while the teacher was out of the room. She knew I had trouble with the questions, and she had a gift for chemistry calculations. I rejected her paper repeatedly and we never spoke after that. Graduation was the next day and we went our separate ways.

In college I watched other girls sneak in and out of the dorm, drive around town drinking beer, be promiscuous, cheat on tests, and break the drinking laws routinely. I never did any of that. I considered trying to buy beer one night, but ended up with a banana popsicle instead. I just don’t have it in me to break the rules (except for a bit of a lead foot on the accelerator which I don’t quite understand for an otherwise “goody-two-shoes.”)

Over the years I have encountered people without integrity here and there along the way. One woman stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from a nonprofit I helped found. We were devastated. A cleaning woman stole hundreds of dollars from my frail father. Someone walked into my office and took credit cards out of my wallet and once someone removed a credit card from my desk drawer. Just yesterday, I discovered thousands of dollars of fraudulent credit card charges on one of my business cards.

In business, there are always opportunities for kick-backs. Some are legally called commissions and disclosed. Others are under the table referral fees. This whole business is messy and very gray. But even so, I prefer the moral higher ground and only do what is legal and disclosed and what feels to me. If it doesn’t pass the “smell test” I won’t do it.

I guess we all have our own standards and mine are the result of a strict Southern upbringing. I can’t change it, nor do I want to! But the one thing I have learned is that my values are what they are, but I can't impose them on others -- nor do I want to. And that is the most important thing.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Memory Matters

I think it is great that just as my own personal memory is starting to fade, I was able to buy a new external hard drive with 250 GB of memory. I am sure everything in my brain would probably fit on that hard drive. Maybe I should start backing up before the real thing goes altogether. Interesting thought…

If I were to back-up my personal brain, what would I want to include? I would start with where I left my car keys and the TV remote, as well as my shopping list. But I could record all of that easily enough on my cell phone. Of course, sometimes I misplace my cell phone. More often than not it is lost in my purse, along with the car keys and the shopping list. I don’t, however, put the TV remote in my purse – except when I mistake it for the cell phone.

But wait a minute--- what about the rest of my past life? The childhood memories, my parents, my grandparents, teenage angst, college and grad school, the early years of marriage, our son, his family, my professional life. Yeah… I guess really need to keep all of that stuff as well. Without it, what meaning would my life have?

Of course, I could never “back-up” all of these memories successfully unless I wrote about them and then added video clips, audio clips, and a musical soundtrack. Sounds like a movie, doesn’t it? Or maybe a PBS special? But then what about smell? And who would care but me, making it all financially unrealistic.

But as I think about my life, I start to realize that it is all about interaction and synergy, not to mention context. Everything I do, I do within the framework of my life. Memory is not just as simple as pulling up a file on the computer. On the contrary, depending on the circumstances, I call up my memories in different ways. Sometimes I recall one thing, and others, another – different tidbits for different circumstances. So when I make a decision, I rely on my memory– it is just not the memory itself, but the conclusions I have drawn based on what happened and how I remember it. Sure, that makes sense, right?

Perhaps this is what truly distinguishes us from the machine we create. Computers, at least not the ones real people like us have, are not programmed for this kind of analysis. They won’t go back for us and look for files related to my current project and make a recommendation. Maybe the next version of MS Office will include something called Concluder. Well, I take that back, Amazon.com is coming close when it recommends books for me to order. Problem is – another program kicks in from the depths of my brain and that program says – you have already bought one book about that, do you really want another? It is not often that I totally immerse myself in a subject, but maybe I am odd. Imagine, however, what kind of program Amazon would need to figure out just what is going to tickle my fancy next!

I bought a new little hand-held video camera. The last video camera we bought was VHS recorder that traveled in a small suitcase and weighed down my shoulder when I used it to record. Then there was the little Super 8 camera from the early ‘70s.

Now I am the proud owner of this new little video camera gizmo. It shoots great quality video that it will record either on a small tape or a card. (the same kind of card used by my phone and my still camera—that has to be a good thing). Although I have a masters degree in instructional technology, I have to admit I am intimidated by the digital world. So I carefully read the directions and did exactly what they told me to do. Truth to tell, this little video camera works a lot like the VHS monster camera from the ‘80s and the Super 8 camera from the ‘70s. Once I understood that simple truth, I could follow all of the instructions. Basically, you have to take the lens cap off (that never seems to change), put the tape in, hit record and a red button comes on. There really are similarities.

Within the last week I purchased also purchased an exercycle. It is a nice one, like the ones they have at the gym (where I don’t go anymore because I don’t have time – i.e. too lazy). [This one came cheap through a friend who knew somebody with 600 of them in New Jersey in a warehouse ready of fast liquidation.] I am determined not to make it into a clothes rack –like I did with the treadmill (now banished to another room because it is too big, too ugly and too noisy, and too broken to live). This particular excercyle is a lot smarter than the one I got rid of last fall. That one I had for 30+ years and put a mere 25 miles on its odometer. Why? Because the thing was an instrument of torture. I tried three different seats and a sheepskin seatcover. Nothing helped! Finally it got relegated to the basement and last fall to Salvation Army. Of course, it was a gift from my husband, so he was not thrilled when I produced yet another exercycle for him to assemble a mere 30+ years later. I bring this exercycle up in the context of memory, because this is a “smart” exercycle. The last one, the cheapest Montgomery Ward had at the time, was not only uncomfortable, it was dumb. It only knew how far I had gone (not far) and how fast I was going (not very). This new one, on the other hand, has all sorts of sophisticated electronics. It has exercise programs built into it and it monitors my heartbeat (fast).. Of course, all of this has to be deciphered and an instruction book translated from some other language. What it comes down to is the same thing as with camera – you push buttons up and down and left and right and different things happen, depending on the phase of moon. Of, as long as I understand that I am fine.

I remember a time when things had a dial or two and maybe an on-off button. Today everything has buttons that change meaning, digital displays that only the 22 year olds who designed them have vision good enough to read, and more capacity than I want or need – or for that matter will ever figure out how to use.

But this 61 year-old is in there trying to take advantage of the digital world. I have a Treo, a digital camera, VOIP, a CD boom box, a digital iron, a DVD player, laptop and desktop computers, a card scanner, an all-in-one, a laser printer and now a digital exercycle and a video camera. I may not use them to capacity, but I use them! The problem really is with my personal internal memory. I just can’t remember how to push all of those tiny buttons in the right sequence to reveal all the possibilities, and once I do push them I can’t tell read the print. Oh well…

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bedspreads

For the last twenty years or so I have been having a bedspread issue. You see, I am accustomed to bedspreads that are big enough to fold over the bed pillows. That is the way bedspreads are supposed to be.

The newer bedspreads aren’t really bedspreads at all; they come in fancy sets for ridiculous prices and include pillow shams. I don’t understand the whole pillow sham thing. Does anyone really expect me to either sleep with my head on some fancy decorative fabric that matches the bedspread (or short imitation of a bedspread)? Or perhaps I am supposed to remove the pillow from the sham every night and then tuck it back into it the next morning. Yeah right! And imagine training a husband to do that!

For our king-sized bed I use a quilt-like comforter that is really very nice. It is white, light and feels good in any temperature. But, nice as it is, it won’t stretch over the pillows. I am one of those people who actually uses normal pillow cases on the pillows. They are made of the same fabric as the sheets. In frustration, I have given up and simply throw the pillows on the bed in their regular pillow cases. Then I have two throw pillows that get thrown into the crack between the two pillows. Does it look great? Absolutely not! On the other hand, it is simple enough. Of course, the first thing my husband does every night is throw the pillows on the floor with a sigh.

I have some really nice quilts that sometimes I put on the guest beds, but for regular every day guests (like my son and his wife and the grandkids) I opt for a chenille bedspreads. I have managed to hang onto a few of them in double and twin sizes. True they are a bit old and pulled here and there, but they feel just great on a summer night and fold over to cover the pillows the way they are supposed to.

I have been bothered by this situation for some time. I would love some new bedspreads – you know real bedspreads like the kind I grew up with. I tried to track down the manufacturer of some of my old bedspreads to no avail. Meanwhile, every morning when I make the king size bed I curse the fact that I just can’t handle the pillow sham thing.

Whenever I see a bed with pillow shams, I wonder --- do the people sleep on them or spend time every morning and every night stuffing and unstuffing the things? Maybe I am missing something, but for me life to too short to spend it trying to stuff or unstuff a pillow from something marginally big enough to hold it.

Hotels are a different thing altogether. They actually seem to find bedspreads that are long enough to cover the pillows. Could it be they are able to do that through mass purchasing? I guess if I came in with an order for 50,000 bedspreads I could get them any size I wanted.

But hotels these days also seem to have a fascination with pillows. Mercifully, most do manage to have regular bed pillows with regular pillow cases buried down under all the throw pillows and pillows in shams.

I do recall one Las Vegas hotel with only one regular pillow stuffed on the top shelf of the closet. Strange – but then Vegas IS strange. That hotel had some rawhide pillows too and rawhide fringe hanging from the bed. This room was part of a suite on the concierge floor. As we walked the door I was getting excited. They would put me in it for only one night because it was VERY special and they had no other rooms. The room was odd in many ways, including lights that would only dim - -not turn off and a phone outlet that sent my laptop into fits or error messages about high voltage. The next morning I was at the desk begging for normal room! I wish I could have seen the “rest of the suite.”

A few weeks ago we stayed at a rather nice hotel on Hilton Head. I have seen hotels with lots of pillows, especially in the last year, but this one took the prize. I didn’t count them, but I would estimate at least baker’s dozen on each bed. We threw them in a large pile in the corner of the room. I feel sorry for the poor maids who have to rearrange all these silly pillows daily.

At any rate, my problems are solved. I was thumbing through my copy of the Vermont Company Store catalog and they have bedspreads – real bedspreads that fold over to cover the pillows. They even have the chenille kind I grew up with, and also some lightweight summer bedspreads that don’t need ironing (not that I would ever want to iron a bedspread). I am getting my order together now!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Vacations

Vacations

Lately there has been a lot of buzz about whether vacations are best spent unplugged from work or connected. Of course, it would not have occurred to me 40 years ago when I entered the work force that one could really work while on vacation. It simply wasn’t possible, so we didn’t.

But somehow it has come to be that I actually don’t want to take a vacation without taking my work along. Somehow that seems like a contradiction -- a vacation with work. But I am not by myself. More and more people are taking recreational travel with cell phones and laptops.

There are those who, probably with some wisdom, say that it isn’t really a vacation unless you can totally disconnect and that you really do need a week or even more to truly feel refreshed. That makes sense in principle, but…

What good is it to try to relax for a couple of weeks while simultaneously worrying about what opportunities you are missing out on? This isn’t about trusting or not trusting staff. I’d trust my life with my staff members, but they can’t do what they can’t access or don’t know about and they can’t read my mind (though we often work on – “how Pat thinks.”)

As they say on TV, “life comes at you fast.” Absolutely! Every day of my life I must filter through tons of information from all sorts of places – much of it email. A jewel of an opportunity is likely to be buried in my Spam box with unlikely bedfellows. And if it is lost, it is lost. Ditto for phone calls.

Our offices are now virtual, so there is not a lot of difference between my home office and a hotel room in Chicago or New Orleans or Hilton Head – provided there is good phone reception and a working Internet connection.

And there’s the rub --- not every hotel has good phone reception and some don’t even have an Internet connection. And the more remote the location, the more likely this is going to be case.

The last two trips I have taken I have had to have my room moved due to either bad phone reception or bad WIFI. These aren’t options. They are necessities.

But I think it is important when traveling on vacation, or even when traveling on business, to keep the work load in perspective. My rule is simple – when I am on vacation, I am in reactive mode. I respond to other people, but I don’t start anything unless it is a rainy day and I have nothing better to do. Realistically, this means that much of what I need to do daily can be done on my Treo cell phone, and that includes email. For a short trip, I sometimes only take my Treo. With just the laptop and no Treo, I can count on about an hour each morning and about an hour each evening being spent on email. With the Treo, I can get by with only about half hour spent each evening on the laptop because I can handle all the email traffic in bits and pieces here and there.

Is going on wired vacation as much fun as going on an wired vacation? Probably not, but there is more peace of mind knowing what really IS going on rather than imagining what COULD BE going on. And the good part is that when you get back you don’t have to spend a week digging out and making explaining you were away.

I honestly prefer shorter trips to long ones. I love a Thursday through Sunday or Monday vacation and the recovery period when home is brief if I have kept up while away. I have learned that I can enjoy 8 or 10 little mini-vacations (sometimes just an overnight in a close-by city with my husband) in a year and really never miss a beat. At my age I don’t think that is too bad!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Aging

I don’t like to think about dying, but I guess at age 60 it is something worth contemplating. First we have aging, then dying. For most of our lives, we tend to think of ourselves as immortal.

I realize my body will simply cease to be one day. Maybe it will be car accident, or maybe cancer. Most likely it will be a heart attack. I guess a massive heart attack would be my preference. It is quick and in my genes to go that way! I would rather go quickly that to fight a long-drawn out battle with cancer. But, no matter how I go, I know the world will go right on spinning around without me. Those who care for me will grieve, but they will get over it and get on with their lives.

But in the meanwhile, I am dealing with aging. Like most boomers, I really don’t feel all that old. I certainly don’t feel like I am as old as my grandmother or even my own mother at my age. In fact, I don’t even feel like I am as old as some of my friends. Part of it I think is in the head. I look in the mirror and I don’t see a 60 year-old.

What I do see is the same person I have been seeing all these years. My face is a bit puffier and hair is gray (I prefer to think of it as naturally frosted), but who cares. Basically, I am the same teenage girl, minus the pimples and teased hair. I have never been one to spend a lot of time in the sun, so my skin is in decent shape and I don’t have a lot of wrinkles.

Despite the youthful way I feel, others can tell I am 60. Why else would they offer to help me to my car with two meager bags of groceries? Why else would they offer me the senior discount? Hmmmn… I guess it IS noticeable.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Winter Power Failure

The power didn’t seem to go out very often when I was a child in Birmingham, Alabama. We had candles on hand for emergencies, but I honestly can’t recall more than two or three times when we used them for light, and that was in the summertime. I can’t recall a single winter power failure when I was a child.

But when I was a teenager, we moved to the suburbs. About that time, Birmingham started experiencing ice storms. The roads would close, the power would go out and the schools would close. We used the free days to go sledding, drink hot chocolate and tromp to the shopping center.

One power failure, I remember vividly. It was a New Year’s Day. Our next door neighbors were having a party, but they had no electricity and were unable to cook. We, of course (because my dad worked for the gas company) had the ability to cook (both on the stove and on the grill). We cooked everything and took it next door. All the neighbors, most of them cold and hungry, came to the party. I don’t think I have ever felt closer to neighbors in my life. We were all there, young and old, trapped in our own little world, and enjoying each others’ company, with a raging fire in the fireplace and hot food and drink.

I left for college and left the ice storms behind with my parents in Birmingham. The storms continued and they finally bought a generator. I was never there when they used it. Summer power failures were tolerable, but the winter ones were different and as they aged I think they reached the point where they couldn’t stand the cold nights. But I think what pushed them over the edge was the time that they used the burners on their new gas stove with the built in microwave oven above it to keep warm. The heat (because there was no exhaust fan) melted all the controls on the microwave oven.

But I went on with my life many miles away in places where ice storms didn’t happen or were rare. My parents had their generator and gas for the stove and coped the best they could.

We were in Birmingham with my parents for our last Christmas together. We all knew it would be our last Christmas and it was so strange. My mother was dying with lung cancer and had days left. The weather was strangely warm. An azalea bloomed by the back steps, despite the season. My mother loved azaleas in bloom. I sometimes think this one bloomed just for her.

Days after I had returned to Maryland from this dismal holiday visit, I got the call to come home. My mother was fading away quickly and I needed to get there. The weather was terrible in Maryland, but it was worse in Birmingham. I arrived in Birmingham in the midst of an ice storm. Power was out all over town, including my parents’ house. The roads had just been cleared and I was able to get to the hospital. Within two hours, another ice storm hit and the roads were once again impassable.

My mother clung to life and my father and I stayed with her at the hospital, taking turns sleeping on a recliner in her room.

Two days passed by; the roads were clear. We needed some things from the house, and my father asked me to go there and get them. We knew there was still no power, but it didn’t matter; I was only going to be there for few minutes.

The house was horribly cold. Even in my coat and gloves I shivered my way through the house picking up needed items. But what really got to me was that I felt like I was walking through a grave. Everything I touched was cold. Nothing seemed the same. And I knew nothing would ever be the same again. It hurt at a very deep level. I saw my mother’s things sitting there, knowing she would never see them again. And she never did and life was never the same. The power came back on before the funeral, but the life never came back to the house.

In Maryland, from time to time, we have lost power over the years in the winter, but usually not for very long. We have learned to live with it and expect it. I have a cupboard with kerosene lanterns, flashlights, and radios. There is a stash of firewood always on hand. And for most short failures, this is enough. In retrospect we should have kept my father’s generator, but we gave it to his brother.

But this power failure was different. Steve was away. The power went out early on Wednesday morning. It was no wonder, as all the trees and power lines were coated with ice, just like the roads.

That first day wasn’t so bad. I stayed busy chopping ice on the driveway and shoveling it away. I could read my paper by my new fluorescent lantern. I was able to check my email on my Treo. The roads were cleared and I could keep my business obligations.

The local coffee shop offered a warm refuge in the afternooon and a place to plug in my laptop and use the WIFI. I was one of about 30 people who set up shop there that afternoon. We were each alone with our laptops, dressed ever-so-casually, working diligently on whatever couldn’t be put aside, while sipping coffee to pay moral rent on our seats.

Steve got home safely and finished off the driveway and sidewalk. I brought chili home from the coffee shop and heated it up for dinner on the gas stove. We ate by the firelight and went to bed early, under layers of blankets and comforters. And we awoke to a VERY cold house. Steve dressed and left for work.

I dressed quickly and realized that I could not stay at the house and accomplish anything. It was just too cold. The thermometer in the bedroom read 42 degrees. By 8 a.m. I was back at the coffee shop with my laptop. I quickly realized that the cold, dark house brought back all those painful memories of my mother’s death. The pain of those memories was almost as bitter as the penetrating cold.

Throughout the day on Thursday, I checked to see if we had power at the house. The test was easy --- if I got a tone when dialing the fax machine I would know the power was back. But I got no tone – the phone just rang and rang. So I sat at the coffee shop working – breakfast, lunch and mid-afternoon snack and water along the way. I was once again trying to pay rent on my seat.

Various friends emailed me offering us a guest room and a shower. I thanked all. If it really got bad we could go to our son and his family’s house nearby. But I nurtured the firm belief that our power would be back before sunset and all would be well.

Steve called from the house about the time the coffee shop was closing (6 p.m.) and told me that the power was still out. He had called the Navy Lodge at the local Naval Station (near the Academy) and had us on the standby list for a room. It would be less disruptive for all if we went there than if we stayed with family or friends.

I came home and found that Steve had a fire raging in the fireplace and the lanterns lit. It didn’t matter. The house was still bone-chilling cold. The fire made little difference. Everything I touched was frigid. The horrible feeling associated with my mother’s death came back. I had to get out of the house. There was no way I could spend the night there – the physical and mental discomfort was too much!

We did succeed in getting the last room at the Navy Lodge. It was a nice room, just like a motel, and we had lights, heat and hot water. But I was determined that we should not just sit in the motel room and work. Instead we went to a movie and then out to dinner afterwards. During dinner I checked the power at the house and found it was on. We stayed the night anyway, and while we could have gone home and cooked breakfast, we chose to go to a downtown Annapolis favorite, Chick ‘n Ruth’s deli, and get a hot breakfast. Our evacuation actually turned into a bit of a mini-vacation.

This crisis is over now. The house is warm again and I am back on schedule with my work. But I am changed. I don’t want this to happen again. We aren’t as young as we used to be. They have a new kind of whole-house generator that you put in place permanently and hook up to the propane tank. I think that is what I want for my birthday this year!

Monday, February 05, 2007

New Orleans and Mississippi Coast Revisited

I went back to New Orleans after Katrina. We had been told there were two ways to help –come and help with the re-building or come and spend a few days and help out the local economy. Given my carpentry skills, the latter seemed more practical.

As our flight landed, the signs of damage did not seem to be immediately obvious – just an occasional blue tarp here and there. But in retrospect I realize that it must have been our flight path coupled with the fact that I didn’t know what to look for. On the flight home I noticed white FEMA trailers and blue tarps and swimming pools that without the usual blue shimmer dotting the landscape.

We stayed at a small time-share condo in the French Quarter. It was on Burgundy Street (pronounced Bur-GUN-dy by the locals). Our location was a good one in terms of overall convenience to things within the quarter. We made our usual rounds to our usual favorites, plus added some new destinations. On the surface, everything seemed normal. But the people who ran the businesses all seemed just a bit friendlier – eager to welcome us and thanked us for coming. This was most noticeable at the Palm Court jazz club and the Commander’s Palace (in the garden district). There were some tell-tale signs of damage and small things that showed that the Quarter had lost some of it sparkle. A walk down Bourbon Street was the same as always, though this time there were no big crowds. There were people there, all right, but they were not shoulder to shoulder.

Just listening to the nightly news or reading the Times Picayune it was clear that there was an underlying tension in the city. The murder rate is very high and people are still living in trailers while sorting through their ruined belonging and destroyed homes. Insurance companies aren’t paying and there is lots of misery that is not evident in the French Quarter or Garden District. Several nights of our visit were marred by extremely loud music and noise coming from a nearby bar. At times it seemed as though the crowd in the street outside the small bar must have totaled hundreds and the cars cruising the street in front of the hotel made a statement with their loud music and un-muffled engines. There was a tension in the air.

We rented a car for a few days and one destination was to see the home where my father lived in the 1920s and see what, if anything of it, has survived. The neighborhood, formerly quiet and well-groomed, was filled with the ravages of the storm, though 18 months had passed. The streets were stacked with debris and the houses still bore the giant X’s marked by rescuers. I was particularly drawn to one home that had scrawled in spray paint – “Owner took pets.” My family’s former home was there and still standing. It was one of the lucky few that obviously had been covered by insurance. A nice new fa├žade was going up on the front porch and the house was being rebuilt.

Our travels took us along the coast to visit friends in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. While the damage in New Orleans had been heart-breaking, the damage in Mississippi was just appalling. In many cases, there was literally nothing left. We drove along US 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi. What had been a vibrant business area was just totally devastated. Churches were turned to twisted beams. I recall having once visiting Jefferson Davis’ home there. It was still there, but barely standing. There was a sign saying that locals were raising money to restore the home. We passed what had once been a nice seafood restaurant that I had particularly enjoyed – a place called McElroy’s. All that was left was a sign that said “McElroy’s will return.”

While the monster casinos (new since my last visit to the area) were heavily damaged, they seem to have all been rebuilt good or better than new and the parking lots are full of cars. This was one of the great contrasts.

Our friends on Ocean Springs took us to lunch at lovely little restaurant along the bayou. It has just re-opened and we were the ONLY people in the restaurant. Our friends drove us through the town of Ocean Springs (fortunately spared), and also through their old neighborhood. Their house was totally GONE. Their home had been on a nice piece of land overlooking the bayou. What I admire about my friends is that they didn’t let it get to them; they found another house, bought new clothes and furniture and got on with their lives. Clearly not everyone has been able to do that.

On our way back we drove through Bay St. Louis, a lovely little village where we had once had dinner with the same friends who live in Ocean Springs. The restaurant was gone – the town was gone. A wall remained with a mural on it, but most of what had been downtown was just concrete slabs and rubble.

The road along the coast was in pretty bad shape, but OK for driving. We repeated a drive we took about six years ago. Then there were majestic homes lining the non-water side of the road. They were surrounded by majestic trees. At the time I wondered how much a house like that would cost. Now those lovely homes are now simply gone! Often there is a FEMA trailer where a home once stood. Occasionally you will see something like a Quonset hut made out of inflatable plastic. Those are churches. Between Bay St. Louis and Waveland the destruction was unimaginable.

Rather than face rush hour traffic on I-10, we opted to stay with US-90 all the way back to New Orleans. We went through rural areas with homes with blue tarps and FEMA trailers; we saw large boats just sitting alongside the road with no water in sight; we saw piles and piles of rubble.

Our route took us back through St. Bernard Parish – one of the areas very badly hit. It was like driving through suburbia anywhere, but here everything is boarded up – the big box stores, the gas stations, the apartment complexes, the supermarkets. Here and there are signs of recovery, but the damage was clearly catastrophic.

This whole area was devastated, but the human spirit is very strong and the desire to rebuild is definitely alive and well. Will New Orleans and the Mississippi coast ever be the same? I doubt it, but it is clear that the soul of New Orleans, while battered and bruised, is still there and the music is still alive. It is also clear that the people of Mississippi will control their destiny and re-build their lives.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Day

Here it is New Year’s Day and I am ready for it. The Christmas decorations are down. Being a southerner by birth and upbringing, I subscribe to the tradition and superstition that it is bad luck to have a tree up on New Year’s Day. The last few years I have not been steadfast to this tradition, and have found myself with some lousy luck! So this year, I am playing by the rules. We may be the only house in the neighborhood without even a wreath on the door, but when Christmas is over, it is over. Never-mind that the reason for the tradition was probably that if you left your live tree up too long, it would turn into a brittle, fire-hazard of a dead tree and spontaneously engulf you and your house in flames just because you were stupid enough to attach a lighted candle to the tree.

As a child, we always had pork roast to eat on New Year’s Day, along with black-eyed peas. We really were supposed to eat hog jowl and it was ever present. Being a small child with no appreciation for yucky things, I only had the merest taste of hog jowl each year – just enough to ensure my good luck.

Over the years, this family feast has evolved to be almost there with Christmas in terms of the specifics of the meal. The pork roast is still there; the hog jowl is long ago dismissed as being silly and besides – where on earth would I find hog jowl in the state of Maryland? Certainly not in my local grocery store. We still have black-eyed peas, although they come from a can, rather than dried and in a bag. I have added my mother’s macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, and waldorf salad. Strangely enough, this same menu works for the 4th of July as well.

I come from a family of non-sports lovers. My parents would go to an occasional football game – well, in Birmingham, Alabama, that was what you did – a social thing, but not a passion – at least not for them. Of course, everybody knows that New Year’s Day features football. We made a point of never watching football on TV – especially not on New Year’s Day. Instead we gathered with family and friends (only those rare few for whom football has no special place on New Year’s Day).

Fortunately, I married a man without an interest in sports. So he indulges my little New Year’s Day ritual meal. It is, after all, a homecooked meal and he approves of the menu. My son and his family aren’t big on sports either, so it appears to be no great sacrifice for them to join us for this traditional meal.

Each year I make the same resolutions. Each year, within a few weeks, I have broken the same resolutions. It does get a little boring! Life comes along and sabotages all my good intentions. This year WILL be different….really it will! This will be the year I lose weight, make a lot of money, keep an immaculate house, spend ½ hour a day in quiet contemplation, and keep up with the ironing! And I really, really mean it!