Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What One Thing Do You Do Best?

All day yesterday I was thinking about and composing the content of my "The Best" post.

In the late afternoon (after delivering my tax documents to the accountant's office—Yea!!!), I went to the university music school to accompany my friend's voice lesson.

This is a paying gig that I'm oh-so-thrilled to have snagged, as I believe—er, hope—it can lead to more of the same.

As I sat there, in front of a professor who taught voice to my son fifteen years ago, I knew in my heart, in my bones, in my core, that I'm very, very good at this.

I am a good accompanist. I listen. I pay attention. I intuit what the singer is going to do next.

I have confidence in my ability as an accompanist—greater confidence that in most anything else I do.

Does that make it my "calling"?

I don't have much of an opinion of either "calling" or "soul mate".

But being an accompanist is what I do very well.

And that feels very good!

Are You the Best?

I've heard several conversations in the past week or so on talk radio shows about people wanting to be the best. The very best in their field. The very best of anyone doing whatever it is they do.

When you are a jack-of-many-trades, as I am, that's a tough standard by which to be measured. I have had a multi-faceted career (makes you think of a diamond, huh?). I've been a writer, secretary, bookkeeper, editor, database specialist, office manager, applications developer, blah, blah, blah. I've been a professional singer, professional accompanist, lounge pianist, theatre music director, piano teacher. I've made compelling words to read and beautiful music to shop by. I've had clothing I've made purchased off my back—literally!

But the best? The very best? I'm not.

I have a son who is at the top of his field in Web site development. I have a son who knows the insides and the outsides of powerful network servers for very large companies—who is relied upon night and day to keep their business running. I have a daughter-in-law who is the most amazing wedding and lifestyle photographer. These three talented and skilled adults could easily be measured against that standard and walk away smiling.

As I think about all the things I do in my basement workrooms, as I try to create things that people would want to own, I want to create something that's uniquely mine. I don't want to copy anyone else or do anything mediocre. I guess I actually do want to be the best at something, some small artistic niche that can be mine—all mine.

And in trying to find that niche, I knock myself out trying to learn everything I can about all sorts of art forms. Last week I learned how to make fabric-wrapped rope bowls with Susan Breier's It's a Wrap: Sewing Fabric Purses, Baskets, And Bowls. I made a purple bowl to hold my knitting in the family room when our new couch arrives. I made a plate on which to place this very cool art piece that the Jazzman brought with him. (I'm trying to protect my leather ottoman from being creased by the base.) I'll make a few more of these bags and bowls and plates before I decide that there are plenty of other people who can do this better than I.

<Sidebar On>
Can I be brutally honest here? I don't love that plate. I didn't turn out in either the shape or the look I wanted. I was trying to make a rimmed plate, and it's not. I was trying to make something that simulated the base of the art piece—sorta pewtery-bronzey. And it doesn't. So if you're thinking, "Geez, that's an ugly manipulation of clothesline," that's okay. I'm right there with you. I've got some acrylic metallic paint in the basement that I'm going to experiment with to see if I can get closer to my mental image.
<Sidebar Off>

This week I'm working my way through Ann Johnston's "Color by Accident". I've been dyeing more and enjoying it less lately. My colors are washed-out—not at all what I'm trying to create. So I'm going to see what I can learn in an attempt to perfect my technique.

So I guess I'm trying to find a best in some little niche area.

But I still don't feel like I'm a Best. I don't feel like the things I do really matter. Son #1 keeps an enormous company's servers running. Son #2 helps local businesses manipulate the Web to bring in more business. DIL gives brides and grooms the most incredible images with which to remember their weddings.

I help. I help Son #2 keep his clients' sites current. I help by providing care for my grandchildren to enable Son #2 and DIL to find the time they need to follow their passions. I help the Jazzman get daily errands run while he's working his 12+ hour days. I do what I can to help.

But I'm not the Best, and I wonder if this pressure, this societal frenzy to be the Best isn't doing more harm, contributing to a greater sense of failure, than necessary.

Last year, when DIL dropped off Beautiful Grandchildren at school in the mornings, she would say, "Do your best."

Isn't that the point? Shouldn't that be the point?

Do your best. Do your best. If you make potholders to give to elderly house-bound neighbors or if you create an app to help people stay on top of their finances and be better prepared for retirement…. Whatever it is you do, just do your best.

Your best.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How underrated is communication?

I learned with great sadness the other day that a dear friend and his wife have separated and are proceeding to divorce. What I heard about the problems and misunderstandings that precipitated this split indicated a total breakdown of communication. It breaks my heart.

Another friend, whose marriage broke up years ago, told me he didn't even know why his wife wanted out. He had never been able to understand her rationale.

That's just not right.

And yet I have to look at how I have perpetuated communication problems in my own marriage(s).

In my own defense, I grew up in a family that didn't talk. Birds and bees? My mother handed me a book. (She was a nurse and my daddy was a doctor—That's the best you can do? A book?) Relationships? Marriage? Manners? How to get along in the world? Nope. No communication. Politics? Not on your life!

We talked about cars and boats. We told anecdotes of things our friends had done and said. I think that's about all. In my family, on the rare occasions there were five of us around the dinner table, there were five conversations monologues taking place.

When I was in college and wanted to tell my parents something, I would write a letter to Daddy at the office and Mother at home.

It's no wonder I never learned to communicate.

I was so brutally unhappy in my first marriage, but it never occurred to me to say to my husband, "You can't treat me this way. You can't keep tearing me down. I am not the P.O.S. you're trying to convince me I am." When I finally left, after ten years of misery, all I could find to say to him to drive the nail into the coffin was, "I've never loved you."

Brilliant, huh? Nobody learns anything from a statement like that.

So my heart goes out to my friend, who is now separated from his two beautiful young daughters, who has had to turn his life upside down and try to find ground on which to stand again.

All because a man and a woman left meaningful words unsaid.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Folding the Map

Lately my life feels like a map. I've always been very good at map-reading. But that was when I knew where I was and where I wanted to go.

Lately I have no idea what the destination is or should be. My thoughts and plans change daily. "If this, then that" goes through two dozen permutations each day.

If I get a job and can stop accepting social security and let my allotment grow. If the banks would lower my interest rate, I could pay the bills. If I don't get a job, I'll have to declare bankruptcy. If I declare bankruptcy and survive the humiliation, I'll feel much less stress in my life. (And, of course, my favorite: If I win the lottery, I can do all sorts of charitable things AND pay my bills AND take a vacation to South Africa.)

My sons have always called me "The Queen of the Backroads." I love taking circuitous routes and exploring the countryside, memorizing how I got from here to there. My dear IBM buddy in Rochester, who has known me for 30 years now, calls me a survivor. Getting through this stage of my life is requiring both those skills—being a quick learner and hanging in there.

My friend down the street (She's so much more than that, but telling you about all the wonderful new friends who took me right in when the Jazzman fell in love with me is several blog posts in itself!) shot me a quick e-mail yesterday telling me I'd like the Writer's Almanac for that day. So I share it here.

I worked one hour last week. I'll log maybe eight hours this week.

I may not know the destination, but I can still fold the map.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nothin' Could Be Finer . . .

…than to hold a ten-week old baby and watch him sleep.

The Jazzman has a new greatnephew, who (along with Mom and Dad) visited his grandparents and great-grandmother in Columbus over the weekend. As much as it pained me to miss the Grand Opening soirée of my daughter-in-law's beautiful new photography studio in the Ward Bakery Building, the coming out of Riley James [Hagan] Haseley had to take precedence.

Now, I think babies are sweet. And I think my babies were beautiful. And I think my grandbabies were sweet and beautiful. But Riley? Oh.My.Gosh! I think this is, truly, one of the most beautiful babies I've ever seen in my life!

His nose! His profile! Ballads are going to be written about this young man's face. You know how most babies have cute little button noses, rounded on the end, perfect for nuzzling and cuddling. Not Riley. His gene pool grabbed the best aspects of his gorgeous mother's nose and those of his handsome dad's nose and swirled them into a thing of beauty! During the twenty-four hours we spent in Columbus, I must have said at least ten times what a beautiful baby he is.

His parents did a great job of conjuring him up, and are doing a great job of parenting him—surrounding him with love and security.

I'm lucky to have melded my way into this family that is filled with love, caring and acceptance.

Friday, March 18, 2011

97 Across: A tool for keeping your brain nimble

Some of my clearest memories of my precious daddy are from my college years when I was still living at home. He was working shorter days then (7a-7p, instead of 6a-11p). He and Mother were living in a lovely home in Spring Valley, and his "man cave" included a Duncan Phyfe couch upholstered in an antiqued red velvet, a ceiling painted red, and a wall of bookcases. It was in this room that he would unwind after an intense day in surgery. He would sink into his black leather recliner. Jazz would be playing on the stereo system. He'd be wearing earphones to avoid disturbing Mother. He had two antique train lanterns wired so they would light up whenever the phone rang—he didn't need to hear the phone's ringer because the lanterns would alert him. On a TV stand he had made (which today hold's the Jazzman's TV in our upstairs family room), the TV was on showing some sort of ball game. And in his lap was the crossword puzzle from the Orlando Sentinel. He was a multitasker before the word came into being. He quieted his mind from work by overloading it with alternate thoughts.

Sometimes I would sit at his feet, watching but not paying attention to the television, waiting for him to ask me some crossword clue that he couldn't figure out. I was 18 or 19 or 20. I adored him—he was probably the only person in the first 20 years of my life that allowed me to feel I had value, I belonged.

Throughout my life, I've done crossword puzzles. Many of the words I use nowadays were learned at my daddy's feet. During the years John and I were together, we would start the Washington Post Magazine Sunday puzzle and work on it throughout the week. Each night as we were falling asleep, we'd collaborate on a few more words. The following Sunday, before starting the next puzzle, we'd turn to the solution and figure out what we had missed.

Today I do the New York Times crossword every day on my iPhone. Sometimes I begin the night before—it's posted at 10:00 p.m., and I get a few words in before falling asleep. I always wake before my bedmate, and lie there working on the puzzle while waiting for him to stir. It's a calm, predictable way to start my day.

Somehow I have passed my love of puzzles along to my younger son. In his spirit of philanthropy for the community, he decided late last year that he wanted to organize a crossword puzzle tournament that would benefit the Mahoning County Public Library system. He set up a schedule, amassed a group of volunteers, contacted New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, and brought this project to fruition last Saturday.

Sixteen competitors turned out for the event, one having driven three hours from outside of Columbus. There were alphabet cookies, Oreos (black and white, doncha know), and a fabulous cake decorated with a puzzle. There were volunteers: judges, graders, data entry (me, of course), runners, servers, ….

But the person who caught my attention the most was 97-year-old Clara Keltz. She arrived in a wheelchair. She didn't expect to do very well in the tournament, but just wanted to participate.

When I heard her speak on one of the videos that was shot during the event, I was astonished at how clearly she spoke, how well she organized her thoughts. I was astonished that, at 97, she was so lucid.

When I spoke with my mother earlier this week, she couldn't remember a very important medical fact I had given her two weeks ago. She doesn't communicate well. She doesn't keep track of thoughts. I have merely assumed that all 97-year-olds have brains who work in that manner.

But listening to Mrs. Clara Keltz speak has changed my understanding.

I do crossword puzzles and Sudoku puzzles and jigsaw puzzles and word games because I've heard it will help keep my brain in good working order.

Maybe Clara Keltz is living proof of that!

Article in Business Journal

Video from WFMJ

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Hell Week, Again

This week is COChorus hell week for the Dvořák Te Deum, which we will perform with the orchestra on Thursday and Saturday nights this week. Our normal rehearsal night is Monday, but in preparation for this performance, we had a Sunday night rehearsal. I drove for 75 minutes, rehearsed for 90 minutes, and drove another 75 minutes. And worth every minute of the drive!

But that switch in rehearsal days has left me wondering what day it is all week long.

Monday night's rehearsal with Maestro Welser-Möst was short and sweet, and he loved us! He was almost verbose with his praise. What a nice position to be in. Last night's rehearsal found him a little less in love. He said something about sounding like toy ducks—ugh! It was our first opportunity to hear the soloists, and was an open rehearsal, so many family and friends were seated in the audience.

Tonight will be dress rehearsal. Then we perform for real on Thursday and Saturday.

It is always such an honor to sing with the Cleveland Orchestra!

I consider myself very lucky!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Finishing the Story

Woke at 4:30 with a headache. Nurse came in at 5:00 to prick Mother's finger and inject her.

Got up at 7:00, showered and dressed, to breakfast at 7:30.

Back from breakfast. Mother laid down and napped. I cleaned my knitting bag, found a partial ball of yarn, and started an experimental project. Mother got up around 11:30 and we walked down at 11:45 for lunch.

After lunch we walked to the in-house beauty salon to make a haircut appointment. The stylist said, "I went down last month and she said she didn't need a haircut." I asked her to just please schedule an appointment and cut her hair every month. Can't these helpers understand Mother can't hear a damned word they're saying? She just nods and smiles.

I actually jumped on her about her communication skills this visit - I told her she never responds with words, so we never know if she understands us. She nodded, then laughed and said, "Yes, Dear." At least her sense of humor is intact!

After lunch, we sat for half an hour, then got in the car to go across the street to her opthamology appointment.

We walked in and I signed her in. In a few minutes, a staff member came to the front desk and motioned me over. "Why is she here?" she asked. "To have her stitches removed." I was told she didn't have an appointment and, in fact, had just been there on Monday! After double-checking with various other staff members, we determined that they were, indeed, not ready to remove the stitches and that she had another assessment appointment scheduled for April 25. I watched while they removed her phone number from the record and added a note to only call the Assisted Living facility staff or the patient's son and daughter-in-law on issues regarding this patient.

Bundled Mother back in the car and took her back across the street.

After settling her in her room, I went back out to speak to the patient care representative about bathroom cleaning, haircuts, and hair washing. My bottom line: just do it!

This is why Molly and I (but mostly Molly) find it necessary to make every-six-weeks visits. No one who is not related to a patient/elderly person is going to examine the situation with as critical an eye.

I find Mother's deterioration over the past year to be both sad and frustrating. A year ago she got on an airplane and flew to Tampa for Easter. Now - she sleeps and eats, eats and sleeps.

The cycle of life.
Left at 2:00. Stopped three or four tiles. Got home at 11:00. The Jazzman was waiting up for me. Boy, was he a sight for sore eyes!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Day in the Life

Nurse came in around 5:30 to prick Mother's finger and give her injection

Got up around 6:30, showered, dressed.

Went with Mother to the dining room. The staff were wearing scrubs, the residents were wearing jammies and robes. I was the only person in real clothes.

Had scrambled eggs and bacon. Have never eaten bacon in front of her before. My place in hell is now secure.

Came back from breakfast. Mother sat in her recliner. I got my tweezers and spent 10 minute pulling all the bristley whiskers from her chin and throat. Then removed months-old polish from her toes and gently tended to dead skin, gunk under toenails, and overgrowth for almost half an hour. Then she dozed for two hours. I knitted.

Sat for half an hour, then went to lunch.

Made the mistake of ordering the mashed potatoes. Mother couldn't keep her eyes off my mashed potatoes. Had to divide my portion in half and spoon it onto her plate. Ate the pork stew. My ticket to hell is in the mail. (Is pork so much less expensive than other meats? Why pig for every meal?)

Walked back to Mother's room, where she immediately climbed up onto her bed and slept until 4:30. I knitted. Finished the bag I was working on - to be felted when I get home.

She got up - half an hour 'til dinner. Walked outside, walked around side of building and back, then sat in porch rockers for 5 minutes, then time for dinner.

Hot dogs and baked beans for dinner. Ate the bacon in the beans. The hell monitors are on their way to get me!

Back to the room. Sat at the table outside her room and played two games of Scrabble, where she made up a couple of words and I let it ride. I won the first game; she won the second. (Okay, so I played like I do with Boston and Ridley.)

Back in the room, she went wordlessly into her bedroom, brushed her teeth, changed her clothes and got into bed. Not a word. Not even, "Good night, Jan." Ba-boom. Sound asleep. Nurse came in 20 minutes later with night meds. Took them, rolled over and went right back to sleep. I sat on couch and watched TV programs I've never seen and wished I had packed a second knitting project.

Went to sleep on the couch at 10:15. Woke at 4:30 with headache.
I have looked at the weather forecast and decided to leave this afternoon to head back home. I don't want to drive in rain all day tomorrow. If I can get at least four hours under my tires tonight, that's four fewer hours I have to drive in rain tomorrow.

Today we go to the eye doctor to have the rest of the stitches (put in during last summer's Bell's Palsy episode when she couldn't close her eye) removed. She's dreading the appointment, as they inject her around the eyebrow and it's painful. When we're back from the doctor, I'll load my things in the car and leave.

I think I've spoken more to the nursing staff on this visit than to her.
Last night at dinner, she said "This [might be/is probably] the last time I see you." I was shocked. So shocked I couldn't remember her exact choice of words, but I'm pretty sure it was "is probably".

I laughed it off and said, "Oh, we think you're going to live to 105."
During dinner I asked if she missed Florida. She said no. "I told Daddy I'd marry him if I didn't have to live in Florida. I always wanted to live in North Carolina." I said, "But then you wouldn't have gotten me." No response. :) (My birthmother traveled from Gloucester, MA, to Orlando to give birth to me.)
I am the mother and she is the child.
I simply can't imagine living life this way.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Just a quick note this morning with no theme-suggestive images.

My mother was always an immaculate housekeeper. You know the phrase "you could eat off the floor"? Her house was always so clean you truly could eat off the floor.

Over the past couple of years while she was still living on her own, my sister-in-law and I started noticing changes. There was dust where dust would never have been allowed to live in the past. Foodstuffs were left in cupboards and refrigerators long after their proposed date-of-death. Clothes would be worn and rework multiple times—with stains in plain view—before being added to the laundry basket.

So we finally made the hard decision to help her move to assisted living.

When I arrived last night and walked into the bathroom, I thought I would die. The toilet was grotesquely dirty. The floor around the toilet made me want to wash my shoes after exiting. (and this is no lowrent facility!) There were tissues on the floor. There was a general feeling of I can't see it/I don't care about her apartment.

Mother will be 98 at the end of May. In many ways she's three or four again

And it hurts me to watch this deterioration.

Now let's be clear. I don't adore her. But I respect her for the life she gave me.

Life should not come to this!

(There's no need here for lectures about getting the cleanliness problem fixed, Friends. We're on it. I just needed to share. Thanks.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Pace of Walking - Toward Meals

When my two-months-short-of-98yo mother heads to her Assisted Living dining room for meals, she races like a three-year-old. However, when we're having a conversation about something that it's somewhat important for her to remember, she remembers like a three-year-old.

For the next few days, I'll be south of Asheville, NC, getting some face time with my mother. I'm the Designated Visiting Child for March.

It's agony. It's agony to try to communicate something to her and have her nod and smile—the universal Elderly Parent sign that she didn't hear a word you said. It's agony watching her become like a toddler in her ability to communicate.

I'm sure I didn't bring enough knitting projects to keep me sane for the next few days!