Monday, April 22, 2013

When "It's All About Me" is a Positive

UPDATE: This post also appeared on the Huffington Post, and can be read here, as well as in The Summit Daily News, and can be read here


I sat at a local bar the other day, and listened to people talking. There was laughter, clinking of glasses, and happy chatter. There was also an awful lot of "it's all about me".

I was tired, still a bit run down from being sick and having some minor surgery done, so I was more subdued and quiet than usual. Shocking and difficult to imagine, I know. And perhaps that is why it rubbed me the wrong way: No. It is not all about you. It is never all about you.

Or perhaps it was the rawness still of the latest national tragedy, the bombings at the Boston Marathon. As tragedies always seem to end up quickly becoming storylines in each and every single person's life -- no matter how far away they were from the tragedy, and no matter how tenuous or nonexistent their connection to that tragedy.

After 9-11, for example, it seemed like suddenly every one in the entire United States of America was either in New York City or the Washington, DC area on that day, or supposed to have been on one of those doomed flights. The physics of this is amazing, let alone the psychology. Even those who were honest about not being anywhere near the incidents often talked about how traumatized they were -- how traumatized they still are.

People I know in "Flyover Country" -- those mostly flat but beautiful states in the middle of our country -- had to express to me, with tight grips on my arms and wild wide looks, how fearful and stressed they still are. Panicked! I could die at any minute! It could happen to me!

I love "Flyover Country": one side of my family comes from there and we all know how much I adore my dearly-departed mother, who comes from the tiniest of towns in the Northeast corner of Iowa, where the rest of her extended family still resides. But.... I'm very very sorry -- many Americans don't even know where you are, let alone some inspired terrorist, whether here or on the other side of the world.

Don't even get me started on the millions spent on "terrorism protection" for a road connecting two of the small towns near me that happens to cross a water reservoir.... Because yes, small towns high up in the mountains of Colorado show up on a map found internationally -- heck, some of my friends from the city near me can't even find my adopted hometown without help!

I understand the instinct: the need to connect, to empathize, to be a part of an experience. It's why we call them "shared experiences"; why we call them "national tragedies."

In the nitty-gritty though, they are not. They are not shared and they are not national -- they are so very deeply personal. The families that lost loved ones do not see what they are going through as your experience, your tragedy. They see it only as theirs.

I have been on the "periphery" of far too many tragedies, and perhaps because of my connections to these tragedies, I deeply understand the need for people to want to be a part of it -- as bizarre and awful as that sounds. As why? Why would you want to be a part of a tragedy? Why would you want to share or experience that?

I can tell you that my tiny experiences in these tragedies are more than I would want any one else to go through -- let alone the experiences of those directly involved.... And my experiences -- my "all about me" -- were tiny indeed:

Working in the U.S. Capitol and hearing what I think simply must be nothing more than a stack of chairs falling, until a Capitol Police officer runs by with his gun drawn and his radio cackling about "Shots fired, shots fired. Man down." Learning quickly that a gunman had entered the building just down the stairs from our office, two officers were down (and sadly both died), and who knows if there might be another gunman.... And doing nothing more then taking a single deep breath before turning to address the phones that now won't stop ringing as reporters try desperately to get information about the shooting, and we're the only ones "open", the only ones answering. In brief moments, staring up at our bank of televisions -- I worked in the press office of a member of leadership, so we had four televisions on the wall covering all major networks -- and realizing that the information I just gave to a reporter was being read aloud on national television moments after I said it.

Being chaotically evacuated from a U.S. Senate building during 9-11 because the U.S. Capitol and Congressional complex was thought to be a target. Herding frightened young staffers into my home nearby and setting up an orderly "line" to use my landline phone as cell service had crashed completely, and every one needed to call home and reassure frantic family members that they were still alive and well. Dragging every TV in my house into one room so we could Do nothing but watch.... Shocked and horrified. And then finding out in bits and pieces that people I knew, loved, called friends, had died. Showing up at work the next morning knowing that as speechwriter, I now had to try to put into words what words could not express.

Sitting slightly dumbfounded knowing I had just spent hours in the Senate building that they were now announcing had to be evacuated immediately due to anthrax. Wondering if the treatment was worth the risk, or whether the risk was worth the treatment. (And yes, sighing when I heard panicked staffers who had absolutely no connection with that building or fear of exposure fret about possibly dying....)

And, of course, as I just wrote, standing in a store in a mall hearing about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the marathon my sister was running for the first time, the finish line she was due to be crossing at what we thought was any moment. (She was, thankfully, not yet at the finish line and made it home unscathed.)

All of them, periphery. To put it symbolically: I wasn't playing the game. But, I certainly wasn't just watching the game on television, or, even worse, via Twitter or Facebook. I was standing on the sidelines. But -- simply on the sidelines. Close enough in some cases to smell the sweat or see the blood, but never enough to make actual contact.

And you know, that's the funny thing. Being that close, and yet so far, means that panic, trauma, stress, seem meaningless. Perhaps it is just my personality, but I think it is the affect of being "on the sidelines". Panic, trauma, and stress make no sense on the sidelines. At least never initially. It's all about what needs to be done, what information must be gathered, what knowledge must be gained. It is not about panic, trauma, or stress.

It's why I both don't understand and yet also do understand why others -- geographically, physically or relationship-wise not connected -- do. Why people without any actual link to the incident -- whatever the incident is -- panic, feel traumatized, feel stressed. Unconnected, you have nothing you can do. On the sidelines, you still have something you can -- you must -- do.

I learned, as I discussed in my post about the marathon, that until you actually know something -- something concrete, verifiable, real -- there is no point in panic, trauma, or stress. No point in worrying, no point in freaking out, no point in anything but being calm. After all, you need to be able to "find" that something concrete, and you can't do that if you're freaking out.

I also learned that good always outweighs, overcomes, overshadows the evil. From the unfathomable actions of good like the first responders who rushed in to both the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon to the small actions of good like the people who gave their marathon medals to runners unable to finish. From giving blood to donating money to writing cards of support to even posting thoughts and prayers on, yes, Twitter or Facebook -- the good will always eventually outshine and overwhelm the evil.

Finally, I learned that the reason the good ultimately wins over the bad is because of the fact that people do feel connected even if they were not, in any way, shape or form. And, in making it all about them, "all about me", they may actually do something. To help, to make a difference, to actually put weight behind the idea that it is about them. As in helping, they can truthfully say it was about them, "about me", and what they did to help.

And in that -- perhaps selfish, self-centered -- act, the good wins.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


UPDATE: A version of this  post also appeared in the Summit Daily News, and can be read here.


I was the typical impatient customer. Standing in the middle of the Apple store in the mall with my dead lap top, leaning against one of the high counters, actually tapping my foot, and repeatedly checking my wrist watch. I had arrived early, and yet here it was, minutes creeping by my actual appointment time, and still nothing.

My cell phone rang -- my aunt. But with hopes still high that any minute an employee would come up and whisk me off to the actual Genius Bar to save me from the "grey screen of death", I quieted the ring and ignored the call. Time seemed to continue to crawl by, my foot continued to tap, and I shrugged and checked the voice mail message.

It was short, brief. Only 9 seconds: "Hi Jana. It's [your aunt]. It's about 3:15. If you get this message soon, give me a call real quick. Thanks." At first blush, it seemed simple, straightforward. At first blush, it was a "if it were something important, she would have said so." At first blush, it seemed like nothing...

I looked up, glanced around the store, and called back immediately. Rare for me. At first blush, there was something -- quiet, unsure, but something -- nagging me. My aunt started talking, and I was listening, but not hearing. "The marathon. Bombs at the finish line. At last check on the website, your sister should have been near the finish line." I'm nodding, listening, not hearing, hearing.

My friend comes up, shows me her new iPhone, points to her 5 year old and mouths "play ground in mall." I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. The Apple employee finally comes up, starts to introduce himself. I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. I put my hand up: "Wait. Two seconds." I mouth, "I'm sorry."

I try to listen to my aunt, and finally have to give up. "Okay. We don't know anything yet. I'm at a store, I don't have a TV, let me try to find information online, let me try to figure out what is going on, what happened. The employee is here, I have to go. Keep me posted. I'll be in touch soon." I nod. I pretend like anything I just said had meaning.

I turn to the employee. "The Boston Marathon. Apparently bombs at the finish line. My sister was running. This is around the time she might be finishing." He stares at me, starts saying he's sorry. I stare back, hand him my lap top, and say, "I have the grey screen of death. Please fix it. I've done everything recommended in this online Mac blog and nothing worked. It's probably the logicboard. I don't know. Just fix it."

He leads me to the Genius Bar counter, gets me a stool, starts running diagnostics -- I stare at my phone, searching for trending info on twitter, posts on Facebook, articles on Safari. Of course. In a social media age, news is a social media thing. I glance around the Apple store; having worked in politics, specifically in communications where we kept four televisions going at all times to ensure all four major channels were monitored constantly, it feels weird to not see a single television. It seems even weirder that no one else has any idea right now.

Somehow I suddenly feel the need to change that: I post on Facebook and ask for prayers for my sister and every one else. A social media age translates into a need to share -- to not be alone in one's thoughts (even when sometimes that is definitely for the best).

The Apple employee looks at me, says, "I hope this isn't weird or offensive, but I'd like to pray for your sister, you, your family." I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing: he's worried I'd be offended or weirded out that he wanted to pray for her, for us. My brain twists on that as I nod back more vigorously now. "No, not at all. Please do. That would mean a lot." He goes back to the diagnostics.

I notice his name is foreign, Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern looking, and that seems fitting somehow, comforting. I don't know why. Perhaps I knew that immediately accusations would go against "the other" -- and not even ones who were truly "other" but just looked "other", sounded "other", had names that are "other" -- and I liked that the first person to comfort me, to offer to pray for me and my family is "the other".

And I think I took my first real breath then. Yes. I know I did.

The employee looks at me again. "Your hard drive has died, it could be days, we'll have to keep it." I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. I'm starting to find more news reports now, starting to see pictures. I show one to the employee. He shudders, breathes wow. Says, "I don't know how you can be so calm."

I can feel the sad, bitter smile before I know it has made its appearance: "I've been too close to tragedy too many times now, and the only thing I've learned is that there is no point in worrying or freaking out until you have an actual reason to do so...." I pause, searching, wanting to offer something... "more", something even a bit positive, a bit hopeful... Finally: "Oh, and always trust that others will eventually -- even immediately -- restore your faith in humanity." I feel the wry smile linger...and am helpless about it.

I shrug hard, focus momentarily, return to the subject at hand: my dead computer. Explain I live in the mountains and am heading back the next day, so if it could either be finished then, or I would be back in 10 days. He nods, talks to a manager, makes a note, says they will do what they can to finish it by the next morning. I'm already back on my phone, scanning, clicking; still hearing around me the constant happy hum of technology talk among employees and customers, background noise as in the foreground I'm staring at blood on my little screen.

I stand up, and the employee touches my shoulder, puts his hand out to shake mine, says: "I won't stop praying for your sister. I hope she is okay." Yes.


It's been maybe 30 minutes since that first call with my aunt. I walk out of the store, stand in the middle of the mall, staring down at the children's playground. I call her back. Tell her I'm done with the store, and will find a television. Tell her I'll start trying to track down my sister via every means I have. I'll talk to family. We agree we shouldn't talk to my father until we know if we had any reason to worry. I say I'll be in touch soon.

I find my sister's cell phone number. Can't imagine she would run with that extra weight, but I have to try. I dial, listen, hear, not hearing: one ring, two rings, five rings. Dead. No voice mail, just a crackling sound, and the phone is disconnected.

At first blush, this is worrisome. At first blush, a heart jars. But there was something -- quiet, unsure, but something -- nagging at me. Oh yes. Cell phone service always gets overwhelmed in tragedies. It crashes. It is why I have always insisted upon a landline. Just in case. Of course. I go to messaging, and compose two text messages: "Obviously seen news so worried & sending love & prayers. If you can touch base with us. Love." "Phone wouldnt even go to vm so thot I'd try text."

It's laughable now: I had to explain why I was worried? Why I was texting? Why I wasn't calling? And it is laughable. And it's not. As it's so me: so "particular", so careful to be concise and yet thorough. Yeah, also known as anal retentive, finicky, fastidious, nit-picky, exacting.... Heaven forbid a tragedy change my modus operandi, my personality, my special baggage.

Of course, it was mostly about me, but truth be told, it was also about the relationship between my sister and me. We've never been exactly close. Especially not growing up, where we were just such different personalities that we seemed to have nothing in common. Unlike my brother and me, who have personalities that are too similar. Of course, it's not like we ever really fought -- unlike my brother and me who fought constantly -- but we never really connected either. Sometimes I feel like we just stared at each other as if zoo animals in opposite exhibits.

After many years, recently we've been trying to forge those connections again. Sometimes the connections are highways, sometimes paths bushwhacked through jungle territory; sometimes silken scarves, sometimes threads. Yet connections they are -- as any one knows who loses touch with someone, sometimes all that matters is that a connection is made. It doesn't matter how small, how big, how weak, how strong -- it just matters that the connection is made.

And, after fielding multiple calls from family and friends, and so many wonderful wishes of love and prayers from far and near, I was starting to get that sickening feeling... The one I knew all too well, the one that only seemed to make the day seem more real, more awful, less surreal -- seemed to make it more possible that I could lose my sister; the one that this was not some weird movie, but life.

I remember when I was working in the U.S. Capitol and a gunman broke in, killing two. (You can read more here.) Our press office, located just above all of this, stayed "open" when every one else had to shut down. So for hours, all we did was listen to phones ringing off the hook, every line blinking, trying our best to field every call we could, provide any information we could to every reporter desperate for information. It was so busy, so nonstop, that there was no moment to comprehend. All we could do was nod, listen, hear, not hear. No time to think, reflect, feel. Nod, listen, hear, not hear.

And for most of the day, that is what I had done: field calls, texts, not think, not reflect, not feel. Nod, listen, hear, not hear. And it was only in one sudden moment of quiet that I started to reflect. I could lose my sister. I wasn't even sure what that meant right then, wasn't sure what to do more than say that to myself. Had we connected enough yet? Didn't we still have so much unfinished business? Doesn't every one? What do connections even mean? Are any connections ever enough? One moment of quiet.... And all I could do in response was nod, listen, hear, not hear.

And in that moment, my phone finally buzzed, and this time the text was actually from my sister: "Just got home safely."

Sometimes the smallest connections are indeed enough.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


As many of you know, I have this dog who is, well, a bit of a personality. Okay, okay, that's an understatement: he is all personality. And, as usual, he is better known than I am.

Yeah, yeah, I know: I'm surly. So of course people would like a friendly happy dog better. But for once, this is actually not a personality contest. Apparently it is a task oriented contest. And on that, hands down, my dog wins.


Honest to God, cross my heart and hope to die, hands down. Rilke for the W. Always.

This is probably best illustrated, rather than explained. So....

Without further ado, I give you Rilke:

Yes. That is a whole fish. In fact, it's frozen solid. So, not exactly much sport or skill needed, but still. Fish Rilke did, and fish Rilke caught.

And hey, in my book, this is a step up. After all, usually he is all about the bones -- not something that still has flesh still on it. This was thoroughly illustrated in a past post, "Ribs...It's What's for Dinner!" In fact, I usually joke that if there is a bone within a mile, he will find it.

Apparently though, now that we've moved into town, his tastes have gotten a bit more "sophisticated". Well, if one can call beer in a can sophisticated.....

I don't know whether he has a drinking problem, or he's being a good citizen, but...... Good times....

Oooh! Look at that.... Apparently he's so sophisticated these days, he now drinks coffee too.... Sigh.

And.... Apparently he has also taken to helping himself to toys.... No, he's no longer stealing them from poor innocent (unknown) children as in the past. As yes, that is a dog toy, a dog toy he found somewhere on one of our walks, and, yes, it actually does still have tags on!

But fear not! "Town life" hasn't changed him completely: He can still find a bone within a mile. And, no, please, do not ask what kind of bone that is. Please.

So yes. My dog is a scavenger. Pure and simple. Okay, maybe he's an alcoholic too. And maybe he's also just a good little citizen.

Sure. I'll take that. I'll take all of the above. Sure. Yup. Done. As it makes sense to put labels on a dog too, doesn't it? About as much sense as it makes to put labels on kids, especially, but people in general. So sure, my dog is a scavenger. There.

But you know what? He's also a damn happy dog and doesn't give a damn about a thing! And yes, I envy my dog....



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Wildlife to Human

First, I'd like to point out that the title is "wildlife" -- not "wild". I'd like to think I'm a wild child, but as any one who has ever met me even once can attest, that's laughable.

Am a drinker? Am I loud and obnoxious? Am I a stalker (to make friends -- and yes, it appears to actually work, but don't try this at home kids...)? Am I a party girl? A pontificator? A know-it-all? Sure. All of the above at one time or another. Not all the time, mind you, but certainly at times I am one or all of those things.

But wild? No, never. And I do not use "never" lightly, as I have mentioned before. But the simple truth is that I have control issues. Huge, blinking lights on a marquee, control issues. The kind where I am a pretty much permanently tightly wound up, and do not like doing things -- going places mentally or physically -- where I am not in control.

As a further aside: It may be hard to believe that I would let myself drink if this is the case -- but if you think about it, it actually makes perfect sense. After all, what is drinking but a controlled loss of control? A strictly regimented bit of freedom?

Now, after that (ridiculous) digression, back to the point at hand (yeah, yeah, as usual, my love of tangents -- sometimes irrelevant, sometimes not): moving into town to have neighbors that are not wildlife solely, but human. At least mostly.

I discussed some of this in my initial "back to blogging" post, but ever since I've been on a bit of a philosophical and pontificating bender. Shocking, I know! And it seemed like I should get back a bit more to the personal. So. Here I go....


Or not.

Let's face it, it's actually pretty hard to "start over" some place. True, I wasn't starting completely over. I had been living in the same county, just in a more isolated place. I did have a book club, and did have a few friends. But it is entirely different to go from being "one of two" to "one of one" -- and to go from being out in the middle of nowhere to the middle of somewhere.

It's pretty hard to piss off wildlife neighbors, especially when you go out of your way to do things for them: I ensured the salt block for the deer was accessible, no matter how deep the snow. I ensured the bird feeders were kept full of seed, and, during the spring and summer, the hummingbird feeder was full of nectar. I minimized my footprint as best I could, respected them when I saw them (well, except for the pictures; I, of course, always had to take photos!), and lived peaceably, even happily, with them.

Well, except for the "incident" with the mountain lion. That was not happy, nor even peaceful, at least to me.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to piss off human neighbors. Shocking that, eh? Apparently, doing such simple things as having friends park awkwardly in the parking lot can piss people off. And there is no simple way to do things like putting out a salt block or keeping a bird feeder full when it comes to humans.

Although I am starting to think this town runs on alcohol, so perhaps I should have tried putting out bottles of beer or wine....? 

Seriously, I live in a small town, in a small townhouse development (6 units total), and it felt like Word War III was started over parking!

All I did was host book club, and tell people they could park in the lot directly in front of my unit. I'm the end unit, so all of the parking spaces in front of my unit belong to my unit. Of course, I usually don't need all the spaces, so regularly allow every one else in the development to park there. Unfortunately, the night of book club, other units were using a couple of the spaces that belonged to me -- so a couple of my friends parked in the lot, just not directly in front of my unit.

Apparently, this (somewhat) blocked the car of another neighbor -- and apparently this called for war.

Because war is the appropriate response to parking. Right? Right. Especially in a small town, in a small development, over book club guests. Ahhh... Good times.

The long and the short of it is that said neighbor got very very upset. Left nasty notes on windshields, called her landlord, who proceeded to call every one else in the development (mind you, said landlord lives in another state), and after much confusion and back and forth, I finally figured out that, yes, two of my guests were parked "inappropriately".

Of course, by this time, now my guests had declared war. Because war is the appropriate response to parking. Right? Right. Especially in a small town, in a small development, over book club guests. Ahhh.... Good times.

Needless to say, it all got straightened out finally -- and book club ended, and all guests left. I never did see nor meet the "inconvenienced neighbor" (and have not to this day!), but I did get to spend lots of time with other neighbors who were inconvenienced by war being declared (the ones who were nice enough to go door to door to figure out who the cars belonged to, etc). But.....

Let's just say it was a lesson.....

Maybe I didn't move "from wildlife to human" -- or maybe I did, and this is the way the world works now.

Who knows! What I do know, is....

My wildlife neighbors were a lot less wild!


Monday, April 8, 2013

How to Live and Die

I got to thinking recently about one of my favorite quotes in life, as, yes, it is one of the few quotes that I have loved since I was a young child up until today. It was and is that powerful and meaningful to me.

It was actually one of my Grandfather Novak's favorite sayings:
Prepare every day as if you are going to live forever;
Live every day as if you are going to die tomorrow. 
It has a lovely lyricism to it -- and yes, for those of you who think it sounds vaguely familiar, it is very like one of Mahatma Gandhi's famous sayings:
Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever. 
That said, and with all due respect to Mr. Gandhi, I prefer my grandfather's version. Not just because I'm related to him, but I find the sense of "preparation" very practical, down-to-earth, grounded. And I am nothing but practical.

Interestingly enough though, it has taken me years to truly understand and decipher this saying. It seems obvious, doesn't it? What it means, what it's preaching, what it's encouraging. Yet I only just recently realized that I had been misinterpreting it my entire life.

As to me, the saying had always been straightforward: it was just another way to say "Carpe Diem!" "Sieze the Day!"

Just another way to emphasize that while one can't be foolish and fritter (what a great word "fritter" is -- seriously, it ought to be used more often in every day language) one's life away, one also can't spend all of one's life doing nothing but thinking of the future. One must plan ahead, but one must also live life to it's fullest.

Every. Single. Day.

Frankly, that interpretation rather exhausted me -- stressed me out even. As I wasn't so sure I was "seizing" every day "fully". God knows I wasn't saving the world, or traveling like a vagabond, or even cheerful and embracing life -- Every. Single. Day.

Hell no. And for emphasis: H. E. L. L. No.

Many days, I am actually hiding under a blanket on my couch, ignoring my cell phone and home phone and emails and, yes, even ignoring life passing me by. And I am happy as a clam. Seriously.

Assuming clams are happy or even can be happy. As really -- has any one ever had interaction with a clam? Interviewed it about it's emotional state? But I digress.... 

So, by any application of my original definition of this delightful -- nay, profound -- saying, I was a failure. No making excuses, no going back, no crossing the finish line triumphant. Epic fail, indeed.


But that's the amazing thing about getting older -- that is, if there actually is anything amazing about getting older. Truth is though, I will admit -- publicly even! -- that there are a few things pretty darn cool about getting older, and one of the most important is getting wiser. It's shocking what a few years of experience and maturity can produce. Sometimes something very close to wisdom. But shhhh. Don't let any one else know.

Getting back to my point -- yeah, yeah, I like irrelevant tangents; mostly because at least I find them relevant -- what does all this mean? It means I realized that this saying must not only be interpreted individually by each person as they see it, but also each day individually.

Certainly living each day as if you're going to die tomorrow means living each day to its fullest, seizing the day, carpe whatever! But how you live the day to its fullest, how you "seize" it, is entirely up to you.

It does not mean you have to jump on a plane to Timbuktu today, or even jump out of plane. It doesn't mean you have to hit the slopes or the road or your best friend (who may have serious problems with you hitting them, just sayin'...). It doesn't even mean you need to read a good book or watch a good movie or do anything at all. In fact, sometimes it could mean doing absolutely nothing at all.

What I have come to realize -- in my ever so humble (snicker, snort) opinion -- is that living every day as if you're going to die tomorrow means living each day so that you do not regret it.

Since the reasons and definitions and causes of regret are so varied, that means that how to live each day is also correspondingly varied. Some days it may mean booking that plane to Timbuktu; some days it may mean hiding under a blanket and doing nothing at all. I've done the equivalent of both recently, and I promise you, I have no regrets. (Which, as my brother will attest, is shocking, shocking I tell ya.)

In my mother's eulogy that I re-printed yesterday, I talked about life "lived well and well lived". My mother was not unique, special or different. She had her good days and her bad days. She was frustrating, annoying, loveable, funny. Like all the rest of us. But she hit the goal that I think my grandfather's saying encapsulates: she had a life lived well and well lived.

Now that's not a bad way for the world to end, is it? Though it does seem awfully more like a bang than a whimper under those circumstances, eh?

And that's not a bad lesson: that if you prepare each day as if you're going to live forever, than you'll live life well, and if you live each day as if you're going to die tomorrow, then your life will be well lived. Oh, and of course your life will end with a bang, not a whimper. Figuratively that is.

"Figuratively", I would like to be a princess in a Disney fairy tale.... But that would just be another irrelevant tangent again....

What is not "figuratively" -- nor an irrelevant tangent, for that matter -- is that it is up to me -- to you, to all of us: To live, to prepare, to decide how. How to live and die is up to us. It is no one's business, choice, or dominion, but our own. And that most certainly is control, and most certainly is a bang.

As Grandpa said, many a time:
Prepare every day as if you are going to live forever;
Live every day as if you are going to die tomorrow. 
And I continue to try to do exactly that....

Sunday, April 7, 2013

On Wearing Orange....And on Mom

Sadly, the Orangmen lost yesterday, and since we're on the topic of loss, I thought that today I would actually provide the text of the eulogy I gave at my mother's funeral. I mentioned the eulogy in yesterday's blog post, and it seemed only fair to not make any of you have to spend time searching for it.

So, in all it's glory, as reprinted on National Review Online, here are my thoughts on my mother. And on bright orange.


Kathryn Jean Lopez
August 18, 2009 8:52 A.M.

Karen Laub-Novak was laid to rest yesterday after her long fight with cancer. Her youngest child, Jana, delivered the eulogy during Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington:
(Photos below include scenes from the recent National Review cruise and Karen Novak’s artwork.)

Hi. My name is Jana, Karen and Michael’s youngest.

I thought that perhaps I ought to start by explaining why I’m wearing such a bright colored dress. No  – much to my brother’s disappointment as well  – it is not in honor of Syracuse University. Instead, I wanted to wear bright colors to honor my mother.
It’s not just about her art  – though you can’t forget her love of bright reds and oranges in her paintings  – nor about her personality  – though you also can’t forget her bold and sunny personality  – but also about her own fashion.
Honestly, did you ever spot her when she did not have on at least a splash of bright color?
Even when she wore more black in recent years, it was never without a bright scarf, large bold jewelry, etc. And certainly when she was younger…. The colors then were beyond, well… Let’s just say she had her own unique sense.
As a math and science chairman was quoted saying in a 1971 article about my mom: “Who’s the girl in the purple tights?”
So I found I simply could not wear black today. Her life was too bright, too “blazingly brilliant” as a friend of hers put it, to think about black.

And that is the point: We are not here today to mourn my mother  – though we do do that  – but instead to celebrate her. For hers was a life lived well   –  and well lived.
You can see that in the faces of each of you here today, in the passion in her artwork, and in the peace in which she left us. She did not fear death, she did not fear leaving this world to meet her God. She had always embraced struggle, even made peace with it  – with chaos; with tension.
Hers was a life filled with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, happiness, and yes, even mistakes. She had her flaws of course.
After all, did you ever know any one who worried so much?  ….
… Well… besides my father that is?

But most of all, she had her strengths.
Like her unfailing good humor and spirit  – which not only saw her through these last years, but, even more important, saw all of us through them:
* Her declaration that going bald was just her attempt to finally look like the avant garde “chic” artist she always was?
* Her insistence, till the end, that “dammit! She was picking the paint color!”
* Her impish suggestion that our cruise was a grand idea, because that way, if she died we could simply just throw her body overboard and not worry about the expense and logistics of a funeral.
* How about when I asked her what the top things were she wanted to do if she only had months to live? Spend time with your family, I guess? Her reply: “Oh, I think I’ve dealt with all of you long enough haven’t I?”
* Or perhaps my personal favorite, which is her reply whenever I told her I loved her. I was looking for an “I love you too” or some such affirmation. Instead, I’d say “Mom, I love you” and she’d say ….. “Thank you.”
    But the truth is, that is what I needed, and need, to say to her: “Thank you.”For she is who made me the woman, the person, I am today.
    And I have spent  – and will spend  – my life trying to follow her example.

    Well, except that I do know how to throw things away….
    Her example is so powerful: Her lessons are simple, yet profound, seemingly inconsequential, yet so incredibly significant…
    For me as a child, she taught me creativity, encouraged me to think outside of the box  – and perhaps most important to her  – pushed me to draw outside of the lines.
    For me as a teen, she taught me independence, encouraged me to think of the other side of every issue and person, and pushed me to conduct myself with dignity.
    (Something she did so clearly during her first struggle with cancer, and this last one.)
    For me as a young adult, she taught me perseverance, encouraged me to make blind leaps of faith, and pushed me to find my own path.
    For me as a married woman, she taught me loyalty, encouraged me to be compassionate, and pushed me to be patient.
    For me as an adult, in these recent days and weeks, she taught me strength, encouraged me to embrace suffering and darkness, and pushed me to look inwardly and reflect.
    In that article I mentioned earlier (about the purple tights), a 1971 review of an art show and lecture by her in Florida, there were some wonderful comments about mom, and her art  – for they cannot be separated.
    In this article, they referred to her as a “Catholic mystic”,
    … a painter who cherishes her midwestern Roman Catholic roots while seeking self-discovery in reading, domestic routine, Zen discipline and her own work.
    They then discussed her artwork:
    In looking over the body of her work she finds a few themes which are constant. She is fascinated with tensions in Western society  – tensions between creativity and the disordered psycho, between verbal and nonverbal expression, action and reflection, inspiration and the discipline of one’s particular work, to name a few.
    The tension is translated in the sinewy line, dramatic positions and charged color relationships in her subjects, nearly always based on the human figure.
    You may look in vain for a figure in repose. Rather, they stretch out in fitful sleep, struggle to rise, lie moribund, huddle against each other or strive to fly on broken or incomplete wings.
    How fascinating to think that was written about my mother and her art nearly 40 years ago  – even before I was born. And it’s true. You can look for it at the reception, as we have a selection of her art displayed in the Auditorium.
    But most of all, it is the description of dying and of death. Fitful sleep, huddling against each other, flying on broken wings. It is her own imagination  – and it is her own reality…
    Back in ’71, mom also gave a lecture to the students, emphasizing the critical points she wished them to take away from her, from her art, and from life. She spoke:
    … about the importance of the final willingness to sit in the darkness; to live, if necessary, without resolution of tensions, without reconciliation, with death rather than resurrection inevitably ahead. She ask[ed] if in America we cheat ourselves of some of life’s richest, deepest experiences by turning away from the unpleasant.
    Think about that. Then think about her art  – bring an image to mind. And then think again about what she’s really proposing here:
    … to sit in the darkness … to live with tensions … with death  – to truly experience the negative …
    So let us look at today as mom’s final gift to us  – her final act to keep us from “cheating ourselves”….
    … To wake us to the darkness….
    … To assure us of tensions…
    …. To emphasize the inevitable death ahead…
    We are here to celebrate her life, her art, her self, her example, her inspiration.
    So now let us honor her by embracing that darkness ….
     – but also by lighting it through humor and good spirit, as she did.
    Through that, we can tell her today, and every day, that …. “we love you.”
    And I know that somewhere up there, in heaven, she’ll reply: “Thank you.”
    So mom…. “I love you…”

    Saturday, April 6, 2013

    This is the way the world ends....

    Being sick, and having my not-that-old main computer give me the grey screen of death, has made me a bit reflective.

    Oddly enough, so has thinking about Syracuse play tonight. As at my mother's funeral, I wore a bright orange dress, and in her eulogy, I made a joke about the fact that I was not wearing orange on behalf of my brother and his beloved 'Cuse, but on behalf of my mother's love of bright colors.

    I'll post the entire text of the eulogy at a different time, as today I felt like reflecting on T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Most likely because a friend earlier today sent me a few lines from the song "God Save Irelend" this morning:
    But they met him face to face, with the courage of their race,
    And they went with souls undaunted to their doom.
    I don't know why exactly, but the phrase "souls undaunted" immediately brought to mind "The Hollow Men." It is one of my favorite poems -- and was one of my mother's as well.

    In fact, she loved all of Eliot's oeuvre, and did a series of prints based upon his "Ash Wednesday" poem. You may see all of her prints here, and the specific "Ash Wednesday" series is collected on her Facebook fan page here.

    I'm no English teacher, so I won't presume to analyze Eliot's poem in any profound, professional way. All I can comment on is why it resonates so much with me.

    And frankly, it resonates because I discovered this poem in high school. As for many people, high school was difficult for me. I struggled with who I was, how I fit in, what life meant, whether life even had meaning. It didn't help that I also struggled with undiagnosed depression, and couldn't figure out what was happening. But even without depression, high school is simply a difficult time.

    As my earlier post about the movie "The Breakfast Club" pointed out, high school is when labels get applied -- and not just by adults, but your peers as well, and for that matter, yourself -- and they can seem difficult to escape. If you're the loser or rebel or brain or princess or basketcase, well, that's just who you are. That's that. Wash your hands of the matter, and don't bother arguing back. It is what it is. Period. Full stop. Done.


    Certainly that is how I felt -- and I will be the first to admit that I am still struggling against some of those labels to this day. But not all, thankfully. There are certainly some small mercies in life.

    But it was during this turbulent and sometimes unhappy time that I stumbled across "The Hollow Men." How perfectly, to me, it encapsulated how I felt: hollow men, headpiece filled with nothing more than straw, dried voices whispering together, quiet and meaningless as wind through dry grass or rats' feet (rats for chrissake!) over broken glass. What powerful imagery to a teenage mind; what powerful imagery at any age in my opinion.

    Truly I was nothing more than a hollow man filled with straw, with a dried, quiet and meaningless voice that was nothing more than wind or broken glass. But perhaps most odd of all? That imagery gave me hope. Somehow the thought of being that meaningless, that hopeless -- and yet inspiring poetry -- inspired me.

    After all, as Eliot points out, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, falls the shadow. Now that I can relate to. Both the shadow in general, and the concept of the gap, of the dread between idea and reality, motion and act, conception and creation, emotion and response. Not just in high school, but to this day. It is something that I think any person can relate to.

    That gap is, yes it's true, dread, but it is also hope: it is the empty space, the emptiness, that can either remain nothing more than empty -- or be filled with so much. It can be filled with joy, expectation, anything. It is, therefore, so much more than emptiness, so much more than dread, so much more than a shadow -- it is, truly, hope. And I can relate to how the flip side of emptiness is fullness, of dread is hope, of shadow is light.

    And relate to it I did. And be inspired by it I was. My writing from those years certainly reflect Eliot's prose here, and certainly reflect the pain, sorrow and confusion I was feeling during that period. And, like Eliot's Hollow Men, they are certainly depressing, but strangely hopeful and inspiring too. Odd that.

    I guess it's because under any circumstances, the world ending not with a bang but a whimper is not such a bad thing.... Is it?


    The Hollow Men
    by T. S. Eliot

    Mistah Kurtz—he dead. 

          A penny for the Old Guy 


    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw.
    Alas! Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us—if at all—not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.


    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death’s dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.
    Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer—

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom


    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.


    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.


    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
    Life is very long
    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
    For Thine is the Kingdom
    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

    --- From The Hollow Men | 1925

    Friday, April 5, 2013

    'Fraid Not

    I am, simply put, a scaredy-cat. Shivering, whimpering in a corner, scared ass wuss.

    Yup. I just said that. I just called myself a wuss. And I am. Truth is, I can't escape it anymore. Can't pretend that I'm just trying to be rational, practical, reasonable, logical, possible -- when, in fact, I am merely making excuses to not do something, not try something.

    I didn't used to be this way.

    Truly. I was fearless. The first to try anything. The first to take a dare. The first to even propose a dare and do it. Carefree, cautionless, courageous. I am lion, hear me roar.

    Just one example? When I used to ski, it was all about the faster, the better. I was the epitome of the "Better Off Dead " line: "Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."

    As an aside, "Better off Dead" is a fantastic movie. Call in sick to life today, as recommended in my last blog post, and watch it. Seriously. 

    And.... My how life has changed. Before? ROAR!!!!!!!! Seriously: This was me.

    Now? Meow......

    Fear. It's all fear. I can't escape the fact any more that I now have fear. Of a lot of things. And not just concrete things -- in fact, more likely than not, abstract things.

    I'm told it's part of growing up -- part of being an adult. Well then, it's one of the negative things of being a grown up. As fear is paralyzing.... I know all too well.

    And of course, one of our nation's favorite quotes -- one usually misquoted actually -- is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's quote on fear, from his First Inaugural Address:
    "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
    Well, he was right. Fear is a nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes. I know all too well.

    Just one example? Now when skiing, I stand at the top of the hill, stare down in to what feels like a fathomless abyss, and shiver. I have to psyche myself in to actually pushing off. There is no "go that way, really fast." There is no "don't worry, be happy."

    Nope. No Bobby McFerrin and especially no Bob Marley.

    Caution does not -- never ever -- get thrown to the wind. In fact, nothing gets thrown to the wind any more. It's all held tightly to my chest. Tightly. Ever so tightly. 

     It makes me miss being a kid again. Not having any sense of logic, rationality, what's possible and impossible. 

    As the Queen pointed out in "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There":
    "I daresay you haven't had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

    Well, the Queen was right: it is a shame that we lose our ability to believe in impossible things as we get older. It is a shame that we gain fear in return. It is a shame, therefore, that we don't practice believing in impossible things at all. Not just as adults, but as kids.

    True, as kids, believing in impossible things comes more naturally. But by getting rid of "play" -- by insisting that our kids have every minute scheduled and filled -- we are removing even their chance of not just practicing but actually believing in impossible things.

    And if we want to move beyond fear -- if we want to realize that all we truly have to fear is fear itself -- then we have to start practicing AND believing in impossible things. As I don't know about you, but for myself, I want to be... 'fraid not.

    Thursday, April 4, 2013

    Calling in sick to life...

    After three weeks straight of nonstop -- well, stuff. I called in sick to life today.

    No, not to work. I work from home, so it's kind of hard to call in sick to work -- what do I do? Call in to myself and make up excuses while faking coughing? No, to life.

    What does that mean? It meant sleeping in late. In fact, not getting out of bed until nearly noon. And the only reason I got out of bed then? The damn doorbell button got stuck after the UPS guy rang it to alert me to a package. Again. So I had to not just get up, but go downstairs and outside (and yes, in my nightgown with just a sweatshirt thrown on top), to unstick the button and stop the damn bell from ding donging.

    And yes, ding donging is in fact a real phrase. Infernal ding donging would be more appropriate though.

    What else does it mean? That once up, I merely moved to my couch. Made some breakfast, and then settled in for a "Without a Trace" marathon on ionTelevision. God bless ion and crime shows. Seriously. I could be without any human companionship and potentially everything else (I do, after all, have an emergency alcohol supply, so that's not an issue), as long as I had ionTelevision. Seriously.

    Hmmm. And what else does calling in sick to life mean? It means rest and more rest. It means not thinking, not focusing, not doing anything but lazing around. And yes, lazing is in fact a word. It is the "present participle of the verb laze". After all, they can't print anything on the internet that isn't true, can they? 

    As I will admit that days and weeks straight of nonstop activities, guests, fun, and cheer -- truly lovely days of amazing and wonderful times -- were also exhausting, physically and mentally. Nonstop is fun! Except when it reaches more than 20 days straight. Activities are fun! Except when they can be physically demanding and ongoing for days on end. Guests are fun! Except when you're the type of person to really need your "alone time" to recharge, and there's no break to get a chance to plug in.

    On that note, apologies to any of my guests if I was impatient or pissy at any time -- while surly is a usual state for me, I do try to avoid impatient or pissy. I swear. Seriously. No laughing people, I did -- thankyouverymuch -- admit the surliness. And that has to count for something. Right? Right!

    In other words, I was on the verge of exhaustion; on the verge of potential illness; on the verge of frustration; on the verge of losing my mind even. I was, as they say, a woman on the verge. And despite the recommendations to change the name of my blog to that phrase, I decided instead to call in sick to life. 

    Something our American culture not only frowns upon and most certainly does not embrace, but actively criticizes. Nothing like societal disapproval and shame to create a nation of workaholics -- workaholics who are all on the verge.... 

    I could go on and on about how the Mediterranean culture, with its big midday meals and siestas, is so much healthier and better, for body and soul -- but that would make this another rant, and, well, I've called in sick today, so no rants for me. (Ahem!)

    Instead, I'll sing the praise of "Mental Health Days." As it is not just our body that needs health care sometimes, but also our soul. And it's not just about using a sick day, but about acknowleding how important our soul is. 

    I used to regularly schedule "Dottie Parker Days" for this purpose -- in honor of my heroine, the poet Dorothy Parker. She of the Algonquin Round Table and the Vicious Circle. She of the "I will sip whiskey neat, constantly, in order to never be drunk and never be sober, and never have to be hungover again." So. We would drink. Constantly. Slowly, but constantly. Good times!

    But -- and I know this is shocking! -- I did come to the realization that Dottie Parker Days are not exactly restful. Fun, entertaining, fantastic -- but not restful. At all.  

    So now there are "Mental Health Days" -- ie, calling in sick to life. And they keep me well-rested and sane. You know, fat and happy. Sharp as a tack. Happy as a lark. Or something like that.

    All I know is that I called in sick to life today -- obviously not sick into work or I wouldn't be writing -- and despite losing the entirety of this original blog post, I am happy as a lark right now. Seriously.

    Tweet. Tweet. Warble. Warble.

    Or something like that.