Monday, August 31, 2009

Bird brain

A strange bird has been watching me all day through my deck door. I believe this bird is the cause of my ineffectiveness today. I believe this because I’ve spent most of my afternoon watching this bird instead of writing, which isn’t a great way to spend a Monday.
Overall, it was a good Monday. I was excused from jury duty. (It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing my civic duty, but I have a very busy week ahead of me.) I went grocery shopping and scored some great big juicy ears of Olathe sweet corn. I walked my dog our usual three miles. I thought about a story I’m about to begin to write.
And, I watched the bird, photographed the bird, and researched the bird in a pile of birding guides I keep on my desk.
I’ve determined the bird is an evening grosbeak, a largish bird that one of my guides say is seen mostly in the winter. I remember this bird and a pal showed up at my feeder about this time last year, or was it later? This thought makes me pause and wonder if summer is over. I think about all the things I planned for the summer that I haven’t accomplished yet. I think I have fall fever. Is there such a thing?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Working for a living

He strapped on his guitar, shook his head, swept his hair from his eyes, and said, “It’s been years since I’ve played the blues.”
This road-weary musician had just turned 13. Did he mean he had put away the blues with other childish things, when he was, I don’t know, maybe six years old?
A 20-something woman I know who has two small children sent out a Christmas letter last year. “I’m taking a much-needed break from the workplace,” she explained. She had worked for two years.
To the 13-year-old veteran player and the worn-out 27-year-old, I have to say, “Are you kidding me?”
Maybe it’s a sign of my age or my frustration with the workplace, but I just don’t have the patience for people who don’t seem to have earned the right to be world-weary yet: the pint-sized 10-year-old dancer on “America’s Got Talent,” who is voted off and says in a burst of tears, “I’ve wanted to do this my whole life;” the fame-weary movie star who “retires” before the age of 30.
But maybe there’s something to this life fatigue thing. My daughter and I were talking the other day about the first fall after her college graduation. She was feeling wistful about the first day of classes, and a little sad that part of her life was behind her.
“Now I have, like, 60 years of work ahead of me,” she said. I thought back to when I was just out of college. Did I feel that way about my life? I don’t think so. We were excited to have taken the next step in what was a predictable life – work in our chosen fields.
Today, life is less predictable. My daughter’s friends with new degrees in English or communications are all working. One is at Home Depot. Another is a bookkeeper. And another joined the Air Force. My daughter manages a gift shop at a local tourist attraction.
They are all in their 20s; all doing something different than they dreamt as they toiled over Shakespeare and technical writing assignments in college.
I try to assure my daughter that life will get better. That she will find her “dream job.” That she won’t have to work until she’s 75 because there won’t be any Social Security. But it gets harder to be convincing when she looks at my own life, shaken up by the economy.
I’ve had to reinvent myself and take on jobs that have nothing to do with my profession. I’ve embraced them all, believing that a variety of experiences make for an interesting life. But I hold that belief because I had the chance to follow my dream for more than three decades.
It’s more difficult for a 22-year-old with $45,000 in college loans and no hindsight to believe she will go further than Home Depot. I guess I see why she already feels like she needs a break.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A scent, and a memory

I never particularly liked petunias. They don’t have much of a perfume, and they never really fit into the overall design of my barely tamed rock garden filled with plants that don’t need watering and have the decency to come back every year on their own anyway.
My grandmother loved petunias. Each summer, she would fill spare planters and flower beds with their bright blooms. She died several years ago, and I never thought much about petunias after that.
But one day, when I was in a garden shop checking out the newest perennials, I happened upon a petunia riot of pinks and purples and reds and a soft blueish color. Their scent – really just the faintly spicy aroma of their leaves – instantly transported me to my grandmother’s patio.
In her honor, I bought several petunia plants, transplanted them into a pot and set them on my deck. Loving the hot morning sun and cool nights, they thrived. Ever since then, I’ve decorated my deck with petunias each summer.
They are cheerful flowers that bloom over and over, and they’ve weathered hailstorms and windstorms. On rare days when the sun doesn’t shine, they glow in the gloom.
I admit they have won me over with their brilliant display. But I most appreciate the way their scent sparks a memory. Scientists say that the sense of smell – the very first to develop in our bodies – is the strongest sense and can trigger strong, almost photographic, memories.
The acrid smell of wood smoke in the air reminds my family of the first days of the Hayman fire that roared through the forest a quarter mile from our house in 2002. The smell of baking bread takes me back to my mother’s kitchen, where homemade cinnamon rolls were on the menu every Saturday. The scent of a newly mowed soccer field in the park near our house (the only refined grass around) conjures up memories of a backyard hide-and-seek game when I was growing up in Iowa. The aroma of pipe tobacco transports me to a time years ago when my father was a pipe smoker.
My dad lost his sense of smell decades ago. Several studies have linked that loss to Alzheimer's, with which he was recently diagnosed. For years, he has missed out on the good - and bad - smells that have surrounded him. Now, other forms of his memory are leaving him. But when I told him about the petunias, planted in honor of his mother, he smiled, and remembered.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A word

Throughout my professional life, I’ve worked hard to avoid using clichés in my writing (except in headlines!) and have tried to be careful with my use of idioms.
After three decades, I must say it’s been an emotional roller coaster.
I don’t know if my attention to the words I choose even amounts to a hill of beans.
Still, the English language, and our use and abuse of it, fascinates me. In his town hall meeting this morning, President Obama made a reference to “bean counters.”
I cringed. Does anyone under the age of, say, 40, even know what a bean counter is? That in this case, in the health-care debate (a debate that has also included many references to "reinventing the wheel"), it has nothing to do with beans?
The way we use language can break down barriers or form new ones. And clichés and idioms don’t help. They are, by their nature, old-fashioned. After all, the definition of “cliché” is “an overused expression” and it has to be used for a while before it wears out.
So many times, calling on clichés announces to the reader or listener that the writer or speaker is just plain old.
My 21-year-old daughter recently asked for my advice about how to handle a situation at work. Should she talk to her boss or leave it alone? “It won’t hurt to put in your two cents worth,” I told her. She stared at me blankly. “What does that mean?” she asked.
The expression (which hearkens back to a time long ago when postage was really two cents, and you could send a letter stating your opinion) really dated me.
Just as dangerous: cultural references writer Ralph Keyes calls “retrotalk.” Comparing someone to Eddie Haskell? Sure to confuse almost anyone under the age of 50 – the iconic show, “Leave It to Beaver,” the TV sitcom where Eddie lived, went off the air in 1963. In an article about this alarming trend, Keyes calls out media types who throw out references to Jimmy the Greek, Howard Beale, Joe Friday, and Rod McKuen.
Is there anyone under the age of 30 or even 40 who can tell me what any of those names signify (other than, maybe, Trivial Pursuit fanatics or journalists)?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to be a party pooper about this language thing; just trying to do the right thing. And let me tell you, it’s no walk in the park.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Goodbye, Buster

For years, Buster played a supporting role in our pet menagerie; a tiny Yorkie mix with Benji fur and eyes that looked like black marbles.
Months ago, he began to grow more detached, patiently enduring the loss of his sight and hearing.
And in recent weeks, he had become a ghost; pacing the house in the same pattern, curling up in a dark corner and only coming out for a bite or two of food and the uncomfortable force-feeding of medicine that kept him alive.
Buster had lived with epilepsy for 15 years and a heart murmur for almost that long. And in the end, he was on medication that helped the inflammation around his heart but gave him an insatiable thirst. But still he survived.
He was comfortable with the place he chose for himself amongst our cats and dogs. When we got him, our goofy yellow Lab Waldo was two years old and we jokingly called the tiny terrier “Waldo’s dog.”
Buster worshiped Waldo, and was a patient partner in our young daughter’s play. When she dressed up the dogs, Waldo would frantically race until he was free of the confining costumes. Buster would sit quietly, wearing the frilly doll hats and dresses happily.
When we went camping, Waldo chased around the campsite and Buster went to his favorite place – burrowed into the bottom of one of our sleeping bags. He was a great camping dog, we would brag, and if he got tired on our longer backpacking trips, we just carried him.
Epilepsy was like a cruel shadow that followed him everywhere. For several years, he suffered seizures almost every month. One weekend, he had dozens of seizures, each one leaving him weak and temporarily blind.
But he always recovered, and we thought he deserved our support. And as the years went on, his epilepsy diminished, replaced by heart disease.
Waldo died two and a half years ago, and after that, Buster withdrew, seeming lost and old. He coexisted with our new dog, Hunter the beagle, but never really interacted with him. He wandered our house, peeing in any available corner. We stopped taking him for walks because he would gasp for breath. He had congestive heart failure, our longtime vet told us. With a new medication, he could last maybe a couple more years. We were going to give him that.
But in the past few weeks, Buster became afraid. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him or pet him. He whimpered all night and wandered the house all day.
He was miserable and so were we, so I called our vet. Lisa, his assistant, listened while I told her our decision about Buster. “You did a great job,” she said softly.
We took him in. Afterward, my husband and I talked about how hard it is to take that step, to make a decision we shouldn't have to make. “That’s part of owning pets,” he said. “It’s the hardest part.”
And it’s a part we are willing to accept, again and again.