Saturday, March 07, 2009

Take heart

Although the present economic situation is more devastating, more internationally inclusive, and promises a longer tenure than most of its kind, it is not the first time I have seen dire times drive people back to basics, back to rethinking their values, back to counting costs. Everywhere you look, you can find hints for saving money that can help you withstand what has already happened or will, it seems, most certainly happen before the tide turns - and we're left to wonder, "Will it turn?" Stories abound daily, like this column , which contribute to a vague sense of vertigo, making the future appear to be heading on a forever downward trajectory rather than a heat-seeking rise toward the stars.

In times such as these, there are places that give me comfort. My faith is the most solid grounding upon which I can rely. And then there are the surviving vestiges of past prosperity plunges. Certainly some institutions have not persevered through catastrophe; many more will not. Some people have been so altered by bitter disappointment that they have lost hold on hope and can hardly be called survivers. But there are places and people left quietly standing tall through everything.

Ten miles east of my town is the town, now city, of McKinney, Texas. McKinney was settled in 1841, before the Civil War, and has been the county seat for Collin County ever since. The date 1841 is a youthful number when compared with European history, but for the western United States, this town and others like it are the centers of historical progress in our country. When it was founded , some 40 miles north of Dallas, McKinney was built solidly of brick, stone and marble around a square where sits the imposing court house (which has burned twice and been rebuilt stronger each tme). This proud town was founded by forward-thinking pioneer spirits who established a thriving town offering amenities normally found only in much larger places. They worked to bring the railroad through in 1871 to support agricultural trade for the surrounding area; delivered electricity to the citizens by the 1880s, built a sophisticated streetcar system to carry shoppers to the most sophisticated banks, purveyors of fashion, grocers, druggists, farm supply establishments - on and on. The first picture above of McKinney in glory days is from a 1910 postcard found here.

The town has continued to be forward thinking through the years. When Dallas metropolitan shopping malls began opening in mid-20th century, luring shoppers to their variety and glitz, McKinney countered by incenting specialty outlet stores to fill spaces emptied on the square. The outlet trend was brand new. So, McKinney made itself into a Mecca for North Texas, drawing folks from Dallas and Ft. Worth and beyond who were looking for the "deal" in clothing, fabric, bridal gowns and effects, electronics, etc. When interest flagged, the city leaders wisely ascertained society's turn coveting things from the past, and encouraged development of charming antiques shoppes and malls, reopened lovely old hotels off the square, brought in fine dining establishments and attracted the arts. Many things that were modern accoutrement in the early days of the city returned, where they looked most at home. McKinney's identity was repackaged for broad appeal. Today, it is not unusual at all to run into people who come come from South Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas to shop.

Dallas sprawled northward with waves of suburbs. Fleeing suburbia and inner city, hungry for calm country living, thousands of people began to descend on McKinney in the 90s and past 2000. For several of this century's first years, McKinney was in the top three fastest-growing towns in its size group within the United States. Collin County became the fastest growing county.

Pursuit of relevancy has not waned. Out on Interstate 75 are the ubiquitous modern strip mall tenants like TJMax, Home Depot, SteinMart, Loew's, etc. There is certainly demand for the modern, but the town leadership is doing it with conscience. In July 2005 the city celebrated the opening of “The McKinney Experiment,” Wal-Mart’s new experimental research store. It’s one of only two in the United States and is one of three new “green” projects that have decided to make McKinney home. The world’s 1st LEEDS® certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) car dealership also broke ground in 2005. A new medical complex was well underway that year as well, while restoration projects abounded on the square and beyond. McKinney worked hard to hit the perfect balance between the past and the future. Just like the rest of the country, it suffered through a Civil War, a Great Depression, World Wars that claimed hundreds of its sons, declines in agriculture, the fickle caprice of desire, but has garnered strength to withstand - not unscarred, but undeterred.

So, yesterday, when I felt myself on a slippery slide away from hope, I got in the car and went to McKinney. I took my camera, but forgot it for the first two hours of my wanderings - in and out of shops and restaurants who, like the town, are in a constant state of reinvention. One store I entered was in the location of an antiques mall I had become very fond of while collecting serving pieces for Bethany's wedding. I was puzzled. because the name on the front, crisp, black awning was totally different, the windows completely redesigned, the inside painted in the lightest grey, displaying high-quality new and antique linens and decorative home goods in mostly shades of white and pale. It welcomed my heart instantly. Beyond the counter were shining faces I recognized. The owners had taken all the old elements, put them in a box and shaken vigorously. Out came the most precious store (which I will photograph next time). The contents appeal to who we are now, not what we might have been a decade ago, and the atmosphere soothes the soul.

My inspirations from McKinney are to stand firm, to be willing to change if change is needed, to recognize when change is required and inevitable and to accept. I made these observations while nibbling tappas and drinking a glass of sparkling Spanish sanghria. Yes! Tappas in a 150-year-old storefront in McKinney, Texas, and because I was so becalmed, I didn't even think of pictures. But I'll be back!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

You must read this

A preface: this is not my real post today. I have more to say, but I HAVE to call attention to something I just found. A couple of posts back, I mused about blogging, asked questions, got some appreciated, thoughtful responses. But I just found the following while bouncing to some sites recommended by bloggers I seem to have clicked with. Don't you love it?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lady in Waiting

I'm adopting a challenge from Sunday School Rebel, Sam, because, like her, I don't seem to have a burning topic to write about today - probably because I don't have the strength to burn, except with fever. I'm sick at home with the general malaise going around, which means I cannot see Baby Boy this weekend. I wouldn't expose him to a bug for anything, but I can pout, can't I???

The challenge goes like this: go to your downloaded photos, go to the 6th folder, choose the 6th
photograph and write about it. So, here it is (6th and 7th photos actually. I'm not good at the picture thing; I need a lesson!). Bethany was still playful at her very most pregnant and she was luminous like most pregnant women. That is a statement she might dispute, because by the end, it was hot (June) and she said the luminescence was really light reflecting off sweat on her face. By then, just about all she could do was shuffle around in flipflops and try not to get stuck in the depths of a soft chair or sofa unless someone was around to hoist her out. Her little nest was all fluffed up and ready when these pictures were taken.

That was eight months ago, and what she has accomplished is phenomenal. She gave birth by C-section after two inductions that led to two 24-hour stretches of hard labor; struggled with figuring out how to make Eli agree to breast feed (which he finally did and has been a model of success since); went through the normal emotions and insecurities of young motherhood, often exacerbated by unsolicited advice from well-meaning peripheral acquaintances who felt completely at ease lecturing her about what she should and shouldn't do with her new infant; and has now settled like a queen into the role for which she was born! Run-on sentence notwithstanding, that pretty much sums up the past months.

The pregnancy seemed to last forever - we were so anxious - but she did it with flare - don't you agree? The waiting time had its benefits for me. It was a time to adjust, to shop a lot and to try to get my head around her new role and my new grandmere role - which I think I also was born to fulfill!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is it a matter of integrity or something else entirely?

(Two views; same place; more details; greater insight.)

There are a few bloggers who consistently throw out thoughts that become airborne for us to breathe in and out over the next minutes or hours or days. I often find I must respond to them if only internally. I must decide what I think about certain topics I may have never considered or I might even determine they will alter some of my life choices. Sometimes they send me searching, reading, ruminating, talking to other people. Don't you just love it when that happens?

Tara at Paris Parfait often does that. Her perspective on the world is very enlightening as opposed to much of the canned and sanitized news we receive from American media, so I cock my head and go hmmmmmmm. She is very well read and credits quotes from authors I have not encountered, sending me to lickety split.

A couple of days ago, her entry entitled "Reflections" included a quote she shared from Madeleine L'Engle's book (I already love Madeleine L'Engle; she's not a new introduction) Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life.

"As a writer, I try to make what I am not too far from what I say. What I say is far more than I am. My work knows far more than I know, but I try to make my own life not incompatible with what the work knows and what the work says."

Tara also referenced Susannah Conway's Unravelling e-course, subtitled "Ways of Seeing Myself." (Don't you find those words - reflection, unravel, seeing myself - itchy intriguing?)

Something I've contemplated on other occasions floated to the surface to intersect Tara's thoughts. The act of blogging is an alluring opportunity to reveal and examine (unravel) parts of myself before unseen faces, mostly people I don't know, who can send me comment or conjecture. One danger of that course might be that the examination may become stilted or contrived or edited in order to impress my audience, my partners in examination. In one hand the act of sharing deep revelations in my blog holds possibility of intimacy. In the other hand, the act of blogging holds the possibility of artificially securing validation by shaping others' opinions, withholding the less-appealing characteristics of my nature or my life in general and presenting only the more attractive commentary.

I think I'm coming to the conclusion that blogging is a hybrid of both. Complete intimacy can only be achieved over the long haul as I unfold myself to someone else who sees me clearly, not as a reflection in my created gazing ball. But, moments of intimacy, moments of revelation that are answered by revelations from strangers, can be very surprising, delightful and edifying. I think it may be fine, just fine, to submit some half truths. Here's an example:

I love to watch cooking shows and competitions on television. I also love cookbooks. I love to read them and plan with them. And I could leave it at that. You might surmise from what I say and the pictures above of a corner of my kitchen (because I can't figure out how to put pictures WITHIN the text) that I am a great cook - witness the collection of cookbooks. And there are more in other bookcases in my home - truly. But, what I am not doing is panning to the right, to the counter, where a Sonic sack sits that just held the salad I picked up on the way home from work. When I cook, I am a very good cook. It just happens relatively rarely these days, although I always think I will rededicate myself to doing more. Silly example, but it represents many others, potential takeaways from small snippets.

How honest do you think we should be in our blogs? Is "should" implied? Or is there a big King's X over this place we play? My motive for writing is certainly not the same as another blogger's motivation. Is it okay that we reflect what makes us feel good about ourselves or should we only discuss what we can fully, honestly reveal? Is this medium completely different from others where there are established rules? Should we differentiate between autobiography and memoir?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Shake It Up, Baby

I have scattered several old pocket watches across the top of a small table in my living room. Most show some sort of wear, like the one at the bottom of the photograph, whose cracked crystal allowed humidity to create serendipitous art on its face. But the other one here is pristeen in appearance, though its function ceased years ago. It belonged to Don's grandfather who inherited it from his own father.

The watch had been sitting quietly on the other side of the table until yesterday morning, when Don picked it up, looked it over like he has a hundred times, and absentmindedly replaced it on the table - on top of the beautiful, tiny, 1866 French volume I received last week from
Tara (because I was a winner in her third anniversary drawing!). Somehow, turning it over several times caused the clock to snap back into the service of telling time. It has happened before; it usually lasts for five or six minutes. But ... something about the jostling, something about setting it where he did seemed to re-invigorate the clock's purpose. Strong ticktock has continued for more than 24 hours, accurately moving the hands forward. It's a resonate marking of time's passing (How someone walked around with this sound coming from his pocket is beyond me. And when others also carrying watches came together - what a din it must have been!).

Two years ago this month, I received a call from a recruiter who had been hired by a large corporation to find someone qualified to fill a need. I had registered with this recruiter years before and not spoken to her in almost the entire time, but she called to ask if I would consider meeting with the management looking to fill the position. I balked at first, recalling the pain of a long commute and the stress, but I had very recently come to the hard conclusion that I needed to re-enter the full time work force, reluctant though I was. We were fine, marching in place, but we needed to make some major financial advancement to save for the future! I agreed to the appointment.

My meeting with the corporation was scheduled for the next day, and I arrived in a relaxed state, having taken back roads rather than crazed freeways. There had not been time to become anxious or to anticipate the interview questions. Having worked at home, part time, for four years, relaxed was pretty much my constant condition.

The interviewer was a bright, funny, clearly very intelligent young woman. Generally this process is protracted, so I thought this would either be the first of several interviews or the last time I would be in her office, but after an hour, I heard her asking me to come back on the following Monday to begin working as a consultant until the paperwork (and all that entails) could be completed! Vertigo set in. Was this what I wanted? I did a quick mental assessment. The skill requirements matched mine. Although I hadn't worked in this field, communication and management skills translate across many lines, so I wasn't worried about being qualified. The atmosphere was pleasant; the pay was good; the benefits were attractive; I wouldn't have to dive into the onerous process of "looking" for a job; this seemed to be God sent. And although the commute was one hour each way, there were those lovely back roads. I took the job, and breathed a thankful prayer. The only catch in my throat and stomach-clenching thought was: did I still have it in me? Was I too rusty? Was I too OLD?

It took a while for my body to adjust to routine, for my energy level to ramp back up, for my brain to creak into gear. To be honest, I drug home like a whipped animal at the end of every day for months. I drank lots and lots of coffee to stay alert in all the meetings. Boy, does the corporate world ever love its meetings! I read and read and read more to learn all I could about a whole new industry and a whole new demographic target audience. I pushed and pushed to meet deadlines, the ever-looming deadlines. I delved into technology that hadn't even existed four years prior when I slogged into my home cave.

In general, I woke up. It was hard, and the times I wanted to retreat to my cave were many, but here I am, like that old clock, back in service. My own loud ticktock is valued as experienced wisdom. That is a gift, a gift to me, to be able to contribute to younger people who haven't walked all the places I have walked. The greater, amazing gift to me is to walk behind this fearless generation into places I would never have ventured. We are using social networking - like Twitter and Face Book for instance, to communicate on levels we never dreamed possible in my past jobs. Then we were always trying to shrink our target audience segments by understanding them better and better so we could communicate more effectively. Our ultimate dream was to market one-on-one. And here we are! I'm challenged every day and it's FUN.

I don't know when that old pocket watch will wind down again and go back into slumber, but I'm going to try to keep jostling it so it won't give up completely. I don't know how long this old girl will have the umph to keep up the pace. But sometimes you have more in you than you think. You may just need to Shake It Up, Baby ...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Everyone Needs Someone

The three-year-old bounces along beside me, while I hold her slippery hand in a clinched grip. She chatters constantly, giggling, sing-song, trying with great fruitless effort to extricate herself. If she is successful, I know those fat little legs will dart away with speed that my legs could not possibly match. She is fearless in this big mall, in a sea of strangers' knees, in a country not hers, although the language is the same.

People stop to gaze at her and comment frequently. Her eyes occupy an inordinate portion of her face, like those cartoon characters that you love instantaneously. She flashes a quick smile that makes her countenance transfigure magically into luminescence, rendering descriptors useless. I know I have a magnetic child, so I hold tightly lest someone entice her away with smiles and pretties. Strangers try to engage her with questions, and one comes up often. "Do you have a brother or sister?" She has tired of that game. Tired of the question. Tired of the "no" answer. We are in a greeting card store. I hear a new answer in the back of my consciousness, as my attention is focused on searching for a card. I listen a bit more attentively, my eyes widened. This time she says yes, confidently, clearly.

The interrogator pursues, "So do you have a sister or a brother?"

She says, "Sister." (She is an only child, you understand.)

"What is her name?"

Without hesitation, "Sister."

The questions are then directed to me, "Where is your other child? How old is she?"
Evasively I say, "Oh, we're just visiting here." And we back away, right out of the store.

That was the day Sister arrived. Unseen Sister who became a definite presence in our home. My three-year-old had to relay Sister's words, and Sister sometimes said things that were inappropriate, that Bethany would dare not say in her own voice. Sister's words and actions were faithfully reported by the one of this twosome we could see. Sister lived with us for years, until my baby was no longer a baby and went off to school. Sister accompanied her that day into the unknown, and the next and next, but slowly Sister's presence faded away. And we missed her. We missed the tiniest lost innocence.

A companion for a lonely little girl - that's what Sister was. She filled a need, a void and brought joy. Often I talked with my child about pretend versus real, and she had the concepts down cold, except as pertaining to Sister, whom she always claimed as REAL. My friend says Sister was this little one's true Guardian Angel, and my child's pure heart knew her and felt her as very real.

I see my sweet daughter now with her own baby boy and wonder what he will need as he grows. Maybe he will have siblings who will be life-long companions. But, in the solitary moments, when little people first encounter fears and insecurity, will he need his own personal Brother to be his constant, trusted ally? I wonder.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Temporary Permanence

We have a Mazda that will not die. It is the most intrepid, dependable, gutsy automobile we have ever had. In its new state, it was quite beautiful – classy and black with grey-blue leather interior (and we thought we were very cool with our first ever leather interior). The lease company let us pretty much write the description of the car we coveted, and they went out and found it. Wahoo!

In 1996, when we leased the car, we expected to trade it in three years and move on to a bigger and better mode of transportation. When the lease expiration rolled round three years later, we gasped when we realized how far over the mileage limitation we had taken that car. It had a couple of long family vacation trips under its belt and it had to take one or the other of us to work every day. Both of us had lengthy commutes. Accumulated miles are the kind of things you can get complacent about and oblivious to how fast the ticker is ticking. It was Beth’s last year of high school. If you’ve been there, you know how much that year costs! We didn’t have the ready cash to pay the thousands owed to turn the car back in, so we just signed a handy note and commenced paying toward ownership. A couple of years later, in the novel position of having a paid-off car, we decided that trendy was not worth a new car payment, so we just kept driving the Mazda, and watched the miles click by with smug smiles.

I must admit that now, lo these 13 years into the relationship, there are a few nicks on the doors. There is a small smudge of mysterious yellow paint on the back left fender – the approximate color of parking garage pylons (neither of us remembers the event that planted that color indelibly on our car). Some of the rubber stuff around the back window came loose, and when the slight flutter flap began to annoy me, I just cut it off. There was no apparent leakage. Oh, the worst thing is that the air conditioner began a low groan , which led to a definite cough, which led to hot air emitting even when the dial was turned to the coldest setting. This came closest to being a deal-breaker. But, even in Texas, hot air blowing on my face is small payment when the alternate payment would be cash going to some financial institution. Recently, I began hearing a new hard-to-isolate sound that to my non-mechanical ears sounds a bit alarming, and upon stopping at a light or stop sign, the body shudders a bit until you let it relax in neutral. Then it purrs happily. Though it fell from the lofty position of being the family's major automobile, I have developed real affection for this enduring member of our crew.

Sharing this little car story is prelude to sharing a realization. Often things that I thought were temporary, that I considered stand ins for the real thing, have become permanent fixtures in my life. Much of what we own, I bought thinking I would one day rid myself of the used stuff and buy better new stuff. There are occasional chairs all over the house that don’t match; a desk from the 30s in our bedroom that came with dust so far embedded in cracks, it will never come out; a rough pine box/trunk at the end of the bed that some might even call wretched; a barrister’s bookcase that will no longer relinquish what resides on the bottom shelf, so very stuck is the door; an elderly table missing about two inches of carved edging from the day I bought it (hence the significant markdown), a colorful pottery lamp snatched at a New Jersey swap sale with the single word “Italy” on the bottom; and a kitchen table which is a butcher block balanced without nails on a sewing machine bottom with its original wheel and treadle system that is very tempting to move with your feet. (Creaking and whirring often accompany a lingering conversation after a meal.) These are just a few examples. There are certainly more throughout our house.

Over the years, many of the things acquired for temporary service have turned out to form the context of my life. I have no disdain for them. I’m not looking to replace them now. They've become our history markers. Actually, the process of scrounging developed in me a love for the scars of life on almost anything I buy. I now always gravitate toward something that displays its experience.

This doesn’t mean I never replace anything – like the pots and pans we got when we were married that burned and scalded most everything I cooked for many years. It didn’t hurt my feelings to get rid of them. But, they taught me something while they were around for those 20-odd years. I kinda got used to cooking on low heat rather than high like my Type A personality might lead me to do (I’m a Type B in training!). They slowed me down a bit.

The surprise in all this is that life just rolls right along. You are almost never able to develop a linear plan that doesn’t take jigs and jags on its way toward things being just like you want them. Purchases are delayed and change deferred until, well, you can't remember why you wanted the change in the first place. If you're lucky, you will learn to relax right where you are, with whatever you have at the time. The day may come when you can move into a bigger house, buy more expensive stuff, acquire higher quality (antiques vs junk) – or it may not. You instead may find one day that you have acquired quite a taste for the imperfections that give depth to those things surrounding you and by association lend depth to your life.