Thursday, August 30, 2007

Time for a Prison Break?

Don't we all create our own little prisons that we need to break out of now and then? I certainly do.

In a former life I couldn't say no. That meant anytime someone asked me to do something -- bake cookies for PTA, serve on a committee, take care of their kids, shoulder another project at the office -- I'd smile and cough out, "Yes, of course."

My inability to say no often led me to seek a more hermit like existence, cutting myself off from others who would make demands on me. In essence, creating an even more narrow little jail cell.
These days my prison consists of living my life around work schedules, writing deadlines and the beck and call of loved ones near and far. Illness, aches and pains, demands of the job, chores always needing attention.... I'm afraid I'm the kind of jailbird, that even though the door swings open, I still sit on my little cot behind the bars. It has been so long since I thought about what I wanted to do, I can't consider it any more. Every thought is about 'we'.

Yet, sometimes I have to mentally escape from the realities that surround me.

Lately I've stepped into another world and find myself returning to it, even in the midst of reality. In an earlier post, I mentioned reading the Outlander series. I'm still reading. I can't get enough and yet I worry that I'm running out of books and may soon be forced to return to life without Claire and Jamie, return to the 21st century instead of pre-revolutionary Colonial America.

Without them, I will be forced to concentrate on getting the oil changed in my car, dealing with repairmen, blood tests, trips to the grocery, balancing budgets, cleaning the hot tub, figuring out why our lawn died.

But for now I think of baking bread, chopping wood, clearing fields, snake bite remedies and making a syringe out of a snake fang and some tubing. I think of porcupine quill sewing needles, sitting before a hearth fire with a pot of stew (or laundry) bubbling in a big kettle while knitting stockings for my family.

Perhaps the real thing I embrace about this hard scrabble life is that they can provide for themselves and their loved ones themselves. They make or grow or harvest or invent whatever they need to survive. They have control over this very basic daily life. Of course on the horizon lies war, enemies, disease, death. But then, it is a book, a series. And as long as I know there is another book in the series, I know that Claire and Jamie will continue their lives, survive the hardships, and be free to make the choices that matter to them. No cubicles, no bosses, no timelines or deadlines other than the changing seasons.

I want a life as ordered and reliable as a book with a happy ending. Sometimes, I just need to escape into another world to find it. The best part of escapist reading -- I can always return. Usually I bring a bit of the book back with me. While going about my own list of chores, I recall how the characters coped -- knowing that Jamie could survive the horrors of war, how could I not survive scrubbing showers and toilets and floors?

Funny, too. Although Jamie is this amazing fantasy man -- I see him in my husband. Or perhaps I see my husband in him. While reading about Gabaldon's character, I realize that for almost 36 years, I've been living with a man that many call hero and write books about.

With a refreshed view of my surroundings, I realize that my life, my circumstances are only a prison as long as I view them with the wrong attitude. But in order to find that out -- I must see my life through the pages of a book. Others may find escape in other avenues. But escape we must now and then, just to see more clearly.

P.S. Salon offers an interesting column about the Outlander series and Gabaldon's 'backwards' romance techniques. I highly recommend the series to historic romance lovers, history buffs, mystery buffs, and sci-fi/fantasy audiences. The writing is above the norm, too.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Life Lists -- Not Just for the Young

Turn 50 and your perspective takes a quick 180.

Suddenly you see how much life is behind you, and how little is before you. Between those two views, the realization hits you that you've been spinning your wheels for the last 30 years.

Younger generations seem to find life lists a way to keep their focus, to make their lives count. According to an article in the New York Times:
"Once the province of bird-watchers, mountain climbers and sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the life list has become widely popular with the harried masses, equal parts motivational self-help and escapist fantasy."
But at 50 or 60 or 70 -- can one really make a life list and it means something?

I say, "Yes!"

At 95, Mom just took her first cruise. Granted it was on Lake St. Marys, but still she is finding new experiences and enjoying each one.

Maybe I can't dance all night, but who knows, maybe I could see Mt. Kilimanjaro before I die.
If that is really something I want to do.

The problem of arrested development, something I seem to suffer from, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. So the list I've been contemplating recently includes things I'd like to do -- again.

1. Lay in the grass on a summer night and stare up into the tree, watching the lightning bugs dance.

2. Feel the wind and spray on my face while racing across the surface of water -- lake, river, ocean -- it doesn't matter. I just want to experience that freedom, that giddy feeling of rushing toward something fun that is a bit unnerving like riding in my uncle's boat.

3. Write an essay that makes me giggle with delight.

4. Talk all night with friends....

Maybe if I revisit a few things, I will find some new items to put on a life list. Regardless of old or new experiences, life should not be wasted. And that means realizing that age has nothing to do with quality of life -- you're never too old to live.

Just ask Mom.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Grandma's Sewing Machine

Whether it was nesting instinct, restless boredom, or too much HGTV, I felt the need to rearrange furniture yesterday.

We 'downsized' with our last move, only the house turned out to be smaller and the items we could part with less than we'd hoped. So we have a small house with too much stuff. Periodically I throw something away and reshuffle what is left in hopes that it will fit better.

Yesterday was a reshuffling day.

I tried moving the little love seat in our bedroom closer to the desk. But I liked it centered on the window, so I moved it back. Then I moved the little table that held the computer tower (beside the desk) and returned it to its original intent as a side table by the couch.

Much better.

My husband could just bend down a bit to turn his computer off and on.

The round table that sat beside the bed just wasn't working. It was wobbly at best and the cover I had over it was actually a curtain. So out it went. But what to put in its place?

I almost bumped into my grandmother's old Singer sewing machine as I carried the table out to the dining room where everything I didn't know what to do with landed. My collection of books that had overflowed the five book shelves, the overstuffed chair that I thought I would recover -- and hadn't. And the sewing machine.

We'd adjusted to walking around it. But maybe it could work as a side table in the bedroom. So I wheeled it in and much to my surprise it makes the perfect dressing table. It was intended for someone to sit at it and all of those drawers on either side -- perfect for make up, etc.

I unwrapped a mirror that had remained swaddled in bubble wrap from our move, hidden behind the bedroom door. I propped it atop the sewing machine and it worked. Add my favorite vase of philodendron and Mom's hand mirror, a knit scarf, it looked good.

It didn't hurt that I cleaned up the clutter, dusted and vacuumed, and made the bed.

But I look at that sewing machine that probably hasn't sewn a stitch since Grandma died and wonder. What if I could get it working? What would it be like to sew an heirloom on it? That old treadle sewing machine stitching twenty-first century thread into antique cloth to make something that my Grandmother would have appreciated and that maybe a future generation might treasure.

I've seen a similar machine used. It was in the 1960s, the summer, 4-H sewing projects. My good friend, Regina, sewed her award winning clothes on an old treadle Singer machine. She and her sisters and her mother did all of their sewing on it. Did I mention that there were nine children in that family? I thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. All of those sisters and brothers.

And when she came to stay at my house, she thought I lived in heaven. How could I find anything wrong with being the only kid. Not sharing my room with four sisters and my bed with two of them. Meals were another issue for her. She learned to eat fast and had what Mom called a boarding house reach. At our table she couldn't believe that we actually had leftovers and Mom offered her seconds. No one said, "Don't hog it all."

Funny how looking at that sewing machine reminds me of Regina as much or more than it does my grandmother. I never saw Grandma use it, but I had seen Regina pump the treadle and thread the needle.

The thought won't go away.

So maybe if I make an especially good dinner tonight -- I'm thinking roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy and corn on the cob....maybe my husband will tinker a bit and see if it is possible to resurrect the old machine.

It's only been fifty years since it last took a stitch. It would be like living in two worlds, two eras, at the same time, to sit at that machine and sew. What spirits would surround me....

Friday, August 17, 2007

Useless Information

I'm a fan of trivia and useless information. So when I happened upon Don Voorhees' The Book of Totally Useless Information -- I was fascinated.

Want to know why Scottish Highlanders wear kilts? Why boxing 'rings' are square? Or maybe What is Fahrvergnugen?

Its all in there, including some tidbits maybe I'd rather not know or had never thought to ask. For example, "Why don't you ever see cashews sold in the shell?"


I'd never thought to ask.

Just the mention of cashews takes me rushing through time back to the candy store on the square in Lima, Ohio. They had fresh roasted nuts of all variety and the best -- the very best cashews I've ever tasted. Mom could drag my brother and I out in zero weather, make us stand for hours while she shopped, going in and out of the various shops that lined Main Street. If we got antsy she'd just remind us that our LAST stop was the 'nut shop.'

I have no idea what the name of the establishment was, but the aroma was decadent. A mixture of chocolate and nuts and oil and salt and nougat and salt water taffy and peanut butter. Ohhh I'm drooling on the keyboard as I write this.

But Mr. Voorhees got my attention with the statement: "Cashews are in the same plant family as...."

Are you ready?

"Poison ivy." That would be the family of Anacardiaceae.

No way!


He explains why this nut is never in the shell:

"The oil that surrounds the shell is very irritating to the skin and can cause blisters."

It certainly sounds like poison ivy!

And he continues: "This makes the harvesting of cashews nasty work. Trying to shell these obnoxious little nuts at home would also be a difficult task. Even roasting the shells causes a noxious smoke to be given off."

Ever raked up a big pile of leaves and stuff in your yard and set it on fire (before fire laws of course!) and discovered that you'd burned some poison ivy? Ever had an internal case of poison ivy from breathing those smoky fumes. Ohhhhh not pleasant, not at all. Some have died from such an experience.

"Another interesting thing about cashews is that they can help prevent tooth decay."

Wow, who knew?

"The oil in the nut is so powerful that it inhibits the growth of plaque-producing bacteria."

Maybe toothpaste makers missed the boat and should have made cashew flavored instead of mint flavored tooth paste.

I suppose you still want to know the kilt, boxing ring and Fahrvergnugen answers.

The Scottish kilt started out as a multi-purpose garment out of necessity. Poverty and scarcity of wool made this large rectangular piece of cloth especially popular. About 15x5 foot in size and called a philabeg, the cloth wrapped around the waist and the remainder went up over the shoulder to be pinned in place. It gave unrestricted movement and could also be pulled over the head and shoulders during bad weather or used as a blanket for sleeping outdoors. Mr Voorhees goes into more detail, but this should give you a start into kilt lore.

As for the boxing ring: Well, he doesn't answer that question very well. He gives a kick-butt history of boxing in only a few paragraphs, but leaves it you as to why the term ring was used. My guess is that in early days there was no seating except for the fighters. Thus, much like a fight on the playground, the audience gathered around in a circle to watch the fighters go at it.

It is interesting to note that the term boxing has nothing to do with the boxlike ring. "It is derived from the Middle English word for slap or strike -- box. In England, thrashing someone is still referred to as 'boxing their ears.'"

And Fahrvergnugen: remember the old 1980s VW advertisements? Well this word basically means the pleasure of driving from the German words fahr meaning drive and vergnugen meaning pleasure. Sorry, I had hoped it was more exciting than that, too.

Not everything we don't know is all that worth knowing -- but cashews related to poison ivy -- amazing. I wonder who the first person was to discover the cashew, and how he or she survived the experience! Or better yet, after their fingers blistered and swelled, why did they stick the nut in their mouth? Food foragers were wickedly courageous people!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Destination Mars

We've enjoyed the NASA launches and have spent more time looking up into the night sky lately. August is a great month to look up. I hear they have great star parties down here in Florida. Beaches and stars go well together.

NASA just completed a successful launch headed for Mars, but those of us earth-bound are lucky -- Mars is getting closer. Each day the earth is catching up with the red planet. By August 27th, Mars will be the closest to Earth than any time in the past 60,000 years.

On the 27th around midnight, Mars will appear bright and beautiful, but not as big or impressive as the Earth's moon. If you're awake and looking in the right direction -- you will see two orbs in the night sky or early morning sky, depending on how you look at it. According t
o Robert Roy Britt, Mars will be in opposition only 34.65 million miles (55.76 million kilometers) away.

Opposition, I just learned, means that the sun, Mars and Earth will all line up with Mars and Earth on the same side of the sun.

Backyard astronomers should be able to see some detail on the red planet. This happens about every 26 months, but this year Mars is exceptionally close.

The Perseid Meteor Showers, an annual display of 'falling stars' was seen on the 12th (sorry you missed it) and lasted for five nights. According to Jim Christopherson,
"The next best years for the Perseid meteors will be in 2010 and 2013, when again there will be no bright moon."
Never fear, according to Mr. Christopherson, the next meteor shower will be best seen on September 1, just before dawn. The Aurgid Meteor Shower, sadly will only be visible from Hawaii and the West Coast, but keep looking up. You never know what is going on in the skies.

I never fail to be awed and amazed at the beauty above our heads.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Side by Side

We’ve become a couple, my husband and I. Just like that old song from the Depression era --

"Through all kinds of weather...
What if the sky should fall?
As long as we're together,
It doesn't matter at all.

Well we ain't got a barrel of money...
We may look ragged and funny...
But we're travelin' on...
Singing our song...
Side by side.
After several decades together we finish each others sentences and often come up with the exact thoughts, words or expressions simultaneously. I can’t think of a word, he can’t think of a word, but we both absolutely know what word it is we both can’t think of.

Growing up, I would laugh at Mom. She’d be peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink and all of a sudden say, “Ralph. His name was Ralph.”

Sometimes I would know what she was talking about, other times, not a clue, but each time she had an epiphany like this, it was because she had been searching, sometimes for days, for some word or name or image that her brain just could not find in its half-century store house of information. Now I am at that half-century mark and getting more like Mom every day. I’m told it is normal.

When we blurt out something totally out of context, we nod and understand. The old brain finally rummaged around in the right dusty old corner of memory to come up with the answer for which we’d spent days searching.

My husband and I cope as our eye sight fades and our hearing dims. We laugh when our conversations are punctuated with “Huh?” “What did you say?” “I didn’t hear you?”

Of course, we can get away with these types of dysfunctional conversations because it is only us and our cats that hear us. But our son and his wife will be visiting and I can just see his reaction.

He spent a lot of time with my Mom and Dad – his grandparents – and he was their go between. They got to be quite a threesome and it helped my son’s vocabulary in some ways I’d rather it hadn’t, but he got quite good at filling in the blanks for his grandparents.

So when he comes to visit and sees his Mom and Dad behaving like Grandma and Grandpa, we’ll never hear the end of it.

Although, it does have its funny moments. When we mishear, usually it involves my husband mishearing a television commercial. The other night he scrunched up his face and listened then turned to me with this quizzical look on his face, “Did she just say, ‘he has a scaly butt?’”

Aging is so much easier to handle with humor.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Things Converge

By Dawn Goldsmith

Amazing things converge and leave me wondering. Like Sunday, March 5, 2006.

The “In Memoriam” segment of a political TV program included author Octavia E. Butler, an award winning science fiction author.

Her name was new to me. I didn’t know her, had never read her work, barely knew that Nebulas and Hugos are science fiction awards. Yet, as a writer, I mourn the passing of another writer and I watched the clip wishing I knew who she was.

I felt a strange connection to this woman. She was 58. She and I have shared the world for almost the same amount of time, we’ve seen a lot of the same history. She saw it in black, me in white. Together we might have been able to piece the whole puzzle together. Maybe not.

Later in the day, I decided to empty a couple of boxes filled with office stuff. What caused me to do that, I don’t know. I could have cared less to touch those boxes for the past year. But today I began digging through old notes and Internet printouts and a collection of used data disks. And mixed in with this mass of information was the one Writer’s Digest magazine that I didn’t donate to the library the year before we packed up and moved from the Midwest to the South.

I remember hesitating over this magazine as I cleaned out my old office. The one copy that would least interest me, I thought, as I looked at the cover sporting a Star Wars setting with Luke Skywalker as a child, June 1999. Maybe I saved it for my adult sons who showed a talent for writing and an interest in science fiction and fantasy. It would have been something I would have done, save it in hopes that someday they would also show an interest in using their writing talents for something other than entertaining me with their cynical, acerbic, humorous, and always colorful, original emails.

It was a tough time when I sorted out my office. Our dog of more than 13 years lay dying even as we tore up yet another home to follow my husband’s job to another unfamiliar destination. I let go of most things representing the last thirty years of my life. The rest, I threw into boxes and forgot about.

Now, sitting in the midst of the cluttered closet in our new Florida home, I leafed through the magazine thinking more about the move than what was on the page.

All in all, it was a good move. I had spent almost a decade barely venturing off of our property and living a life that consisted of trips to the grocery, the post office, the various doctors, and an occasional restaurant or movie. It was time to start living again.

My hands stilled. Octavia’s name leapt off of the page at me. I know, it is cliché, but it smacked me in the face and I read her words. They spoke to me and I knew Octavia would have understood my hermit ways.

She described herself as “comfortably asocial – a hermit living in a city; a pessimist if I’m not careful….”

Yes, yes. Me too.

She continued her self-description, “…a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; African-American; a former Baptist; and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.”

Yes! I know exactly what she means. She could have been describing me except for the African-American part, and I am a former Congregationalist instead of former Baptist.

Tears gathered when I read, “Who am I? I’m a 51-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer.”

After this glimpse of Octavia, I googled her name and chuckled when at one website I read “I’m a 57-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer….”

“Caught ya!” I thought. The catch phrase that changed only with her age is just the sort of recycling I would have done if I was forced to reveal myself through interview after interview.

Not that I’ve had an interview. I’ve spent more time hiding out and losing myself in other writers’ words than crafting my own.

But I kept returning to her words “expect someday to be an 80-year-old writer.”

In the New York Times book section, Feb. 27, 2006, John Marshall noted that Octavia died from a fall outside of her Lake Forest Park home, “striking her head Friday on a walkway.”

A shiver went through me.

One moment she was alive, maybe coming home from a trip to the grocery with her favorite ice cream, and then she was gone from this world. Her home stood ready for her return, but she won’t open that door again. I too expect to be an 80-year-old writer. Probably an unknown even then, but I expect to be writing in this world and not the next. But then, so did Octavia. She didn’t expect to die that day.

But she had known forms of death. The first sentence of her article in that synchronistic magazine told me. “Writer’s block is a deadness. …that feeling of dead emptiness and fear, that ‘can’t write!’ feeling that isn’t quite on a par with ‘can’t breathe!’ but is almost as unnerving.”

In this little article about writer’s block, I learned so much about this stranger Octavia E. Butler. She had doubts and fears, made mistakes. She felt that people who wanted power probably shouldn’t have it. Her need to sort out the evils of power vs power as a tool, led to her blockage while writing “Parable of the Sower.”

Although she describes herself as a former Baptist, I don’t think she was anti-religion nor non-religious. She read about all religions while preparing for this book and tailored verses reflecting the main character’s new religion for each chapter head after the Tao Te Ching which she described as “a slender little book of brief, seemingly simple verses.”

I can imagine that she also studied philosophies and knew of synchronicity and life after death and ghosts and spiritualists. I’d like to think that she singled me out for this amazing convergence. It isn’t the first time such diverse things have come together for me, but perhaps it is the one time I’ve paid attention and acted upon it. Perhaps Octavia Butler’s face on the Sunday morning ‘in memoriam’ segment has finally awakened me to the importance of such ‘coincidences.’

But that’s the thing with following one path – you don’t really know how the other would have worked out. I will remember Octavia E. Butler, not only because she was a gifted, imaginative writer, a hermit like myself or because we shared a similar age. But also because she gave me something to write about when my own well was getting mighty dry.

And, not to be melodramatic, but she may have saved my life. I know her unexpected death has made me rethink my lifestyle choices. Plus, simply knowing that someone in the world dealt with similar feelings and fears gives me confidence that I am not alone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Creating a peaceful world

It is a hopeful title for this piece, 'creating a peaceful world.' Yet, I felt hope grow as I surfed the net and saw examples of Eastern art that touched my heart and soul. Art whose beauty made me smile or wistfully wish I could create something so exquisite.

Today I saw ways we can find common ground in this Eastern vs Western civilizations face-off.

The Aga-Kahn, leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Shia Muslims and organizer of this art exhibit, believes that art can become "a medium of discourse that transcends barriers".

"The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is a clash of ignorance," he said in a recent speech.

He has allowed the The Spirit & Life exhibition, Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, to be displayed at London's Ismaili Centre until August 31.

Once Westerners see the beauty of Islamic art, we realize that our love of beauty and nature draws us close together. We see that we don't create art so differently. We draw on the same forms, icons, and skills. Many of the materials we use in the West, originated in the East. Textile artists realize that the very fabrics they enjoy -- cotton, organza, mohair, seersucker-- have names that come from Arabic and Persian languages.

has played a vital part in Islamic sacred circles since it is used to recreate copies of the Qur'an. Our Western history tells of monks sequestered in small rooms painstakingly creating illuminated texts of the Christian Bible.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Ar
t has a collection of Islamic art, textiles, and architecture where you can enter this complex culture in a comfortable zone of beauty and familiar images. Both East and West embrace poetry, words, color, harmony and beauty. These form a sturdy foundation to build upon.

We can create peace, one art object at a time. Understanding will come if we let it, if we look for common ties.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bridge to nowhere

Crisis are becoming almost commonplace. A few years ago, a bridge collapse or steam explosion, would have kept me glued to the television while sending emails to everyone I know in the area, making sure they all were safe.

Somehow the steam vented before I became totally aware of the problem. And the bridge collapse just didn't compute. Maybe I'm overloaded with my own pressures and problems or maybe I'm getting immune to all of this because it is happening so often.

Today a co-worker and I had a chance to talk and she said, "You know, my brother-in-law lives in Minneapolis...."

Evidently they don't keep in touch regularly with him, but she added. "He was really shook up. He travels that bridge to and from work."

And then she paused. Swallowed. And said, "He had crossed that bridge at six, the collapse happened at 6:05."

We stared at each other. I thought about my decision this morning to use five more minutes to write to my son, putting me on the road to work five minutes later than usual. If that had been her brother-in-law, he would quite possibly be dead.

My friend's philosophy is to shrug and say, "It wasn't his time."

When these events happen, I find it difficult to believe that people die because it is their time. Disasters seem like an intrusion, a foreign, unexpected element that sweeps people out of their lives, rather than 'their time.'

The defects in that bridge. Someone choosing perhaps to cut costs, eliminate a step in the process, take the lowest bid on construction and materials. Those might have been the culprits that determined whether it was 'someone's time' to die or not.

Somehow being raised by independent, hard working blue-collar parents, I came to realize that my life is in my hands and for the most part, I like being responsible for it. But more and more we must trust and depend on others to make decisions that literally mean life or death for us.

People building bridges, cars, or even growing vegetables for mass consumption seem to forget at times their responsibility to the common good, to their fellow man, to god as good stewards. Instead they focus on profit or achieving some arbitrary goal like finishing by a certain date.

Civic duty doesn't just happen at soup kitchens and Habit for Humanity. It happens everyday, with every decision, big or small, that affects more than yourself. What we do and don't do actually makes a difference.

My brother-in-law, an engineer, sent photos of the bridge collapse. Somehow I hadn't seen many of these snapshots of disaster. The one included above strikes me as someone whose time should not have come. Somehow a Good Samaritan arrived to ensure that she lived to return to her family.

Sometimes Good Samaritans are the only ones standing between us and all of the elements of the world. Perhaps we're seeing an angel in a yellow shirt.

It may be a bit late to finally realize the immensity of the latest disasters, but its sinking in. I wonder if our leaders are getting it?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

History's Minor Moments

Whenever my brain freezes and I can't break a creative thought free of that ice flow, I turn to 'Moments in History. ' It amazes me how many diverse things happen through history on one particular date. Today I found the History Channel's "This Day in History."

On August 7, the dollar shrank. Literally got smaller. The treasury redesigned and issued the new currency that features many icons we recognize today. George Washington creates the first purple heart medal, Teddy Roosevelt is nominated by the Bull Moose Party, and keeping with a presidential theme -- tomorrow is the date Nixon resigned.

This is also the date in 1947, that the Kon-Tiki, a wooden raft captained by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, completed its 4,300 mile journey from Peru to Raroia, near Tahiti.

I've had fantasies about becoming a travel writer. Exploring the world and writing about it. But never did I think that riding a wooden raft on the open ocean would be a fun thing.

I remember the hype and excitement when Heyerdahl built a second Kon-Tiki. Even then, it didn't make much sense to me. Obviously I was a minority in this attitude because the subsequent book became a best seller and Heyerdahl's documentary about the voyage became an Academy Award winning documentary in 1951. Little boys played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and raft riding on the ocean in Kon-Tiki.

The raft was a copy of a an ancient Egyptian papyrus vessel and in 1969 Heyerdahl recreated the raft once again. I was a junior in high school. Truthfully I was much more interested in dating and boys, than in some old guy working with a Burundi tribe from Chad in Central Africa to build a replica of an even older raft. Sailing across the ocean to prove some theory about how people might have migrated from the main continent to the small islands. And, I couldn't comit to much more than a Saturday night date, let alone 101 days with six guys on a raft.

Of course if everyone felt as I did about safety and security and staying in familiar territory, we'd all still be living in the Garden of Eden....well, that doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing. My point being that no one would have set out to find new lands, meet foreign cultures, or learn new ways of living.

We need risk takers, explorers, questioners, and planners, and what-if askers. It is a good thing, this diversity. If we were all jumping into the ocean on tiny rafts -- we'd look like a world of Lemings. And we all know what happened to them.

Maybe it was this little wooden raft that gave men the feeling of possibility. The possibility that led us to the moon and this past week to launch yet another exploration of Mars expedition. Although 'manned' by robotic type machines, this exploration isn't so much different than Heyerdahl's adventure. What else could we learn from past adventurers' and their explorations? It doesn't hurt to look backwards now and then. It thaws the brain and fills it with possibilities. What a great way to spend a hot August day. Almost as good as being there....

Monday, August 6, 2007

While Bush Fiddles and Iraq burns

It came to me in a flash. I know Al Qaeda's plan for taking over and controlling the United States. Simple, really.

It is the old diversion tactic. While we funnel billions of dollars into Iraq, send our youth there to either get killed, maimed, or forever changed, and argue about weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaeda will wait.


Why not? Our money is not being used to keep our country safe. It is not being used to repair what is needed. It is not paying for health care or feeding the hungry. And it most certainly is not being used to educate.

So while Bush fiddles and Iraq burns, the United States falls apart at the seams for want of leadership and funds.

Do you really need evidence of this cagey plan? Repairs -- Manhattan's steam pipe break and the Minneapolis bridge disaster. We have two of those each month and we won't even think about Al Qaeda. We'll be lying awake nights wondering if it is safe to drive to work or drink the water. (And don't forget oil prices and supply and demand....)

Here in Florida some employees at the Orlando airport have been caught running guns. They were part of the 'homeland security' system. I'm not sure that too many of our leaders and CEOs are any less guilty of crimes committed against the country. But that aside, how do we deal with additional demands for security and infrastructure repairs? Our beloved governor reduced property taxes. That means $100 more in my pocket each year. For the wealthy landowners, business owners, and developers -- it means a great deal more money in their pockets.

For our county and city governments it reflects millions of dollars no longer trickling into their budgets each year. Just how much will they be able to spend on homeland security? They're still trying to deal with the polluted FEMA trailers in some parts of the state. At least the blue tarps are gone from most of the roofs damaged in the 2004 hurricane season. When we visited that year, we thought Florida had adopted a new flag.

At least with the budget cuts, we are seeing quite plainly which counties and cities were good stewards of the money paid to them and which were not. Fortunately I live in a county with responsible oversight. Each department is quickly trimming their budgets by about 20 percent. Not much fat to trim, but a lot of hopes and plans are being scrapped. The museum addition -- forget it. Offices will probably close one extra day a week. The county issued a hiring freeze months ago, and they are pushing a green campaign to run each department with a more environmentally friendly attitude that should also cut costs. But, the millions missing from the budget means less amenities for the citizens.

Come January we are to vote on another tax break. I can't seem to find out the specifics or the targeted portion of the population it will most benefit. If, like this past tax break, it goes to help the wealthiest 10 percent, then I can only dread life in Florida with yet more millions removed from our county and city budgets. What about roads, infrastructure, security, sanitation, street lights, disaster relief, jobs.... What about disaster centers, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, special needs homes.... The first to lose their services are those with the least resources, and the least power.

Yup, a right smart plan those terrorists have in mind. Just wave a few guns now and then, plant a bomb here and there in Iraq, kill a few more U.S. soldiers and keep us running around like ants whose hill has been stepped on. By the time we realize we've been hoodwinked....

It seems like our own leadership has terrorized us as much or more than any foreign terrorist ever has. But with political greed at such an all time high, the gap between the wealthy few and the middle class widens while the ranks of the middle class dwindles. Poverty increases, quality of life falls and expenses raise. Healthcare has turned into a vicious, evil joke, and job opportunities continue to decline.

Is there a bright spot in all of this? Americans are beginning to open their eyes and realize that all of those promises to 'take care of you' are empty and it is up to us to ensure our own care. We must teach and train up our children, we must be stewards of our own money, property and investments. We must save for our future and spend wisely. We must be conscious of environmental problems and do our part to fix them. And, if we see our leaders proceeding with plans that will fill their pockets and empty ours, then we must speak up. We must question. We still have our right to speak out -- thanks to a courageous few who spoke up against the government's plans when our media stood mum. And hopefully we will all start asking questions:

1. What aren't they saying?
2. What does it mean to me?
3. What is the long term consequences?
4. Why aren't we getting good leadership?
5. What can we do to make a difference?

We must fight for our country with our voices and our votes. One may seem like a lonely number. Yet each one of us can make a difference.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Take a break from summer, enjoy the snow

Last winter I received an email from my son that set my fingers tapping out a Snow Day essay. On this hot, hot, humid, did I mention HOT, August day in Florida, I'm taking a break from hot. I'm calling an official SNOW DAY!!!

Snow Day by Dawn Goldsmith

In my sunny Florida address I relax and forget about snow and cold, reminded only be my son’s emails. He lives in Illinois and sat right in the midst of a recent snow storm.

He normally sends me emails from his work space, but on this day it came from his home computer. He wrote: ““I didn't make it to work this morning. Officially you no longer are allowed to complain about any weather you have down there. We’re supposed to get about 12 inches of snow and high winds with high temperatures in the teens.”

With sunshine on my shoulder and temperatures in the 70s, I shivered and grinned before shouting to my computer screen, “Snow day!”

My son and his wife were safe inside their cozy little house, warm and protected and free from their normally scheduled activities.

The North was blessed with a glorious unexpected day off. A snow day, a reason to forget commitments, homework, jobs, responsibilities and turn to Plan B – hot chocolate and serious snowman construction. Many of my fondest memories swirl around snow days.

These days off should have come with an announcer: “We interrupt your regular programming for a special report.” Actually there was an announcer of sorts. I remember lying as still as could be in a warm, quilt-covered bed with ears strained to hear the weather forecast coming from Mom’s radio in the kitchen below. As soon as I heard my school’s name and the word “closed,” I jumped out of bed and streaked across the room, pulling on warm clothes, imbued with the energy unleashed by those words.

It was a get out of jail card. And best of all, my friends had received the same release.

We couldn’t make it to school for class, but somehow friends and classmates managed to get together. We made plans by phone then hitched rides with our parents and neighbors to congregate at each others houses. We dragged our sleds to Thayer Hill just west of town or took the snow shovels and ice skates to the creek north of town. We would never have willingly worked that hard to clean sidewalks or driveways, but we shoveled the snow off of the ice, dusted off the old tree trunk lying on the creek bank where we sat to pull skates on over two or three pairs of thick socks. We looked more like the Michelin Man in our layers of warm clothes instead of skating divas Dorothy Hamill or Peggy Fleming. Our skates lumbered rather than flew across the ice, but it wasn’t the skating that made us smile. It was the freedom, the spontaneity of the moment.

Excitement snapped in the brisk air on snow days. All of my senses were alive. The clean smell of new snow mingled with anticipation of the unexpected waiting for me. Even my blue collar parents who put work before everything else caught the spirit.

I remember making a snowman with Dad on one of those days when he couldn’t get to the steel mill and schools were closed because twenty foot snow drifts blocked the highways. Mom would tell how she remembered a winter when her father tunneled through the snow from the house to the barn. Then she’d pull out the ingredients for sugar or cowboy cookies and together we’d fill the kitchen with their lush fragrance. As quick as they came from the oven, my brother and I devoured cookies with a cup of hot chocolate or cold milk before heading outside for a snowball fight.

Upon return, Mom made us stand outside while she swept us with a broom from head to knees. We would leave mushy snow trails on the kitchen floor when we came in and took off our boots. We stacked our gloves on the heat register hoping they’d be somewhat dry by the time we warmed up enough to head back outside. Even digging out the sidewalk and driveway turned into fun with snowballs and friendly banter flying through the air.

My son’s email reminded me of the year of his birth. He was safe in my womb when my husband and I traveled to Ohio. Our trip coincided with one of the worst snowstorms of our lives. It was 1978. We were stranded at my parent’s home for a week. Mom welcomed in another young family. They had been snowed in at their mobile home without heat or food. She turned her couch into a bed and a drawer into a crib for their four-month old daughter. Then we all pitched in to fix comfort foods and cookies, taking turns holding the baby and shoveling sidewalks.

The rural mail carrier renewed his title of hero that year. He had served during World War II in the European theater, and during this blizzard he turned his daily route into one act of mercy after another. True to the postman’s motto nothing kept him from his duties. Even when the mail didn’t arrive for him to deliver, he drove those rural roads and checked on each family along his route, rescuing more than a few in his four-wheel drive vehicle.

Volunteer firemen and good Samaritans with snow mobiles visited every member of the township. They delivered food and medicine, fuel and firewood, and some they transported to warmer, safer locations. A few they hurried to the hospital. A neighbor heading to the grocery store would stop to see what we needed or we would do the same for someone else. Gangs of neighbors gathered to dig each others’ cars out and clear sidewalks and driveways. In the midst of fighting for survival, we found time for snowmen, snowballs and snow angels.

A few years later I was the Mom. Another generation of escapees enjoyed unexpected days off and instinctively knew just what to do. I bundled up my two sons for their own snow days and mixed up cookie batter. Their faces glowed with anticipation.

Their generation discovered a sledding location -- Peanut Butter Hill near the fire station. And kids living near the school dragged snow shovels to the playground where they cleared off a space big enough for basketball games. They built snowmen, snow forts, held snow wars with the neighbor kids, each building bigger and better forts and stockpiling snowball ammunition.

Another email arrived a few hours later.

“Maya [their dog] ran around like an idiot already this morning. She loves the snow…. Forecasters predict a really white winter….We had pancakes and Canadian bacon for breakfast, so we're ready to face the day. Once the snow stops, I think we're going to start digging out. We're going to get to work now. But that really only means watching the snow fall.”

Friday, August 3, 2007

Have you heard the latest joke?

Customer Service. That is the joke. And it is on me because I actually believed such a thing still exists. Maybe a small Mom and Pop business offers and stands behind their customer service, but where I live, the term gets a laugh.

It's not a joyful sound, that laughter. It is cynical, frustrated, edging on hysteria and anger, choking sound.

According to Wikipedia customers enter a value proposition when we sign up for service. A customer value proposition is what the customer gets for what the customer pays. Therefore a company's value proposition is evaluated on two broad dimensions with multiple subsets.

(I) Relative Performance - what a customer gets relative to competitors

(II) Price - which consist of the payment he/she makes to acquire the product or service and the access cost

A customer value proposition is being promised by a company's marketing and sales efforts and then fulfilled by its delivery and customer service processes.

It isn't about good customer service -- it is about what they can get away with in their sphere of competition and doesn't infringe on profits.

I so miss that adage: "The customer is always right."

Now it seems that the customer has turned into the pigeon -- a rat with wings -- a patsy, a stooge, a victim. A company can say whatever it wants. Making service providers pony up and do what's right -- that takes a lawyer and that wonderfully terrible word: Lawsuit.

I think consumers are all in the same jar. You know the one. It is a lab experiment where someone puts a frog in a beaker that has water in it. Water at a comfortable temperature. The frog sits in its pleasant environment enjoying the view, thinking "how lovely, they're taking such good care of me." And the next thing you know the little lab technician has inched up the heat until the frog is cooking in its own juices and the techie is about to enjoy some frog legs.

As long as we all sit here placidly, letting companies treat us like 'dinner' -- maybe we deserve what we get. Yet what can we do?

I looked online for examples of good customer service or how to get them. At Freakonomics, I found just what I was looking for -- unless you read the comments the June 2007 blog generated.

Then I stumbled across The Ten Commandments of Customer Service including "Know the Power of Yes!"

It was heartening to know that at least someone can define good customer service, can even show that it is profitable to practice such service. Then I realized that I live in a world where demand out distances supply. If I threaten to take my business elsewhere, they know their competitor offers the same dismal service or perhaps a bit worse. So if I leave, what have I gained?

And I would be remiss if I did not add that businesses operate under price constraints. The one area where consumers have the edge is in price control -- to a certain extent. We shop for the least expensive. So perhaps our spend thrift ways have cut our customer service options. The first expense to be shoved overboard -- customer service. I think this kind of thinking undermines profits, but everyone is doing it. Replace much needed human jobs with robot voiced answering systems, give your customer service staff a script and no authority to correct a problem. And make the customer wait, and wait, and WAIT, reminding us all the while that 'we are one of many.'

Its tough being a customer. I may 'always be right', but who cares -- take it or leave it is the byword these days.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Have you seen the car commercial based on "Duh"? Innovative use of a word that usually takes a negative connotation. Still, it is a car commercial.

On, Duh is defined as an interjection used to display annoyance at banality, stupidity and the obvious. Like duh, who was surprised at Brittany, Paris or Lindsey's behaviors?

Or duh, people treat their pets like they are their children. Yet, today I saw a new high or maybe it is low that demonstrates the divide that leads me to believe Americans have lost touch with reality.

For a mere $50, dog owners can buy a 1.7 ounce bottle of doggy perfume so that their ummm DOG won't smell like a well, DOG! Sexy Beast offers a whole host of pricey and unnecessary indulgences that are meant to turn animals into family members, more human family members, it seems. And, best of all it is non-allergenic.

Another writer put it in perspective with her comment, "meanwhile babies are dying for lack of clean water...."

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and blogger, writes about the giant leaps in pet care that veterinary medicine has taken. She wrote,
This year, Americans will spend about $9.8 billion on health care for their pets, up from $7.2 billion five years ago. According to the New York Times, New York’s leading pet hospitals offer CT scans, MRI’s, dialysis units, and even a rehab clinic featuring an underwater treadmill, perhaps for the amphibians in one’s household.
She proposes that if a family can not afford health care for their children, perhaps they could afford to take them to the local veterinarian who is now equipped to provide care that otherwise a family cannot afford. Children die for lack of basic health care -- as simple a 'duh' process as taking a child to the dentist to treat an abscessed tooth.

And who doesn't get outraged when the nightly news tells of dog fights, cock fights, starving animals chained in cages and abandoned or abused? I grew up with the Bambi and Lassie syndrome. I was petrified that something would happen to the animals. It didn't matter that humans died, were hurt, lost, mutilated. Don't hurt the animal. Do we feel as much outrage when abused children make the nightly news lineup? Have you noticed that less stories about kids see air time than those of animals?

Ehrenreich goes on to say,
The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill that would expand state health insurance cover for children (S-CHIP) to include 3.2 million kids who are not now covered (but leaving about 6 million still uncovered.) Bush has promised to veto this bill, on the grounds that government should not be involved in health coverage. If does veto the bill, the fallback demand should be: Open up pet health insurance to all American children now!

Kids have fallen out of favor. True they can be annoying, vexing, frustrating, and costly. They aren't as well house-trained nor as easily taught tricks as most dogs. And when they run to greet us at the door it is more about 'what did you bring me' than being happy to see us.

Perhaps kids would benefit from a good PR firm like the car commercial Duh guys.

But in the meantime, I wonder how many children would benefit if that $50 for dog perfume was used instead to help pay for children's health care.