Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm a Millionaire

Want to hear something crazy? I love CHANGE. In fact, I’m thankful for it.

Of course, I am most thankful for my family, health, faith, and the tremendous gift of being born into a part of the world in which access to food, shelter, healthcare, gainful employment, opportunity, creature comforts, and freedom are so common that I often forget that there are others who would be happy to have just one of those blessings for even one moment.

But as I reflect on what—beyond the obvious—is something I am grateful to have in my world, I keep coming back to change.

A classic film called The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart (as Alfred Kralik), contains one of my all-time-favorite movie quotes:

Kralik: Pirovitch, did you ever get a bonus?

Pirovitch: Yes, once.

Kralik: Yeah. The boss hands you the envelope. You wonder how much is in it, and you don't want to open it. As long as the envelope's closed, you're a millionaire.

That’s change for me—being on the verge of possibility. It’s why we are all moved by weddings, births, new jobs or projects, commencements, elections, the start of a school or fiscal year, and other first moments and beginnings—they are all so ripe with fresh hope and promise. Anything, ANYTHING, could happen if we just can figure out how to seize the opportunity.

As we move into the busy holiday season and 2009 draws to a close, there’s change in the wind once more. Although I appreciate and respect what and who have brought me to this point, I look forward to what comes next: new projects, new ideas, new chances, and a new year. It is thrilling to open that envelope. I do it with confidence because, with all the blessings in my life, I already am “a millionaire.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

(If you are thankful for something, too, why not join in the global celebration of TweetsGiving? Thanks to Jay Baer and his his post on TweetsGiving for bringing it to my attention.)

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Social Media and the Art Thing

Thanks to this post by Dave Rowley, a pencil smudge has reappeared on the side of my hand for 4 days straight now. {Giggle.} I haven’t had that smudge in 25 years.

From my earliest memories, I enjoyed art. The absolute standout Christmas gift of my early childhood was The Big Box. The Box contained every imaginable child-friendly art supply and craft kit. It was rapture…and kept me busy until the following Christmas.

When I was 5, I won a coloring contest sponsored by a local (but famous) department store. This was the first of many, many coloring and art contests in which I would snag prizes during my childhood. Usually, I didn’t win first prize, but I earned enough gift certificates and event passes to keep me (and my family, who got fringe) very happy. When I was 12-ish, I won first prize in the National Kellogg’s Stick Up for Breakfast Contest. The magnitude of this win was apparent to me when my mom and I visited a lawyer to help me complete the paperwork to receive my prize. Among other things, I had to sign an affidavit confirming that the entry was really my own work and allowing Kellogg’s the full rights to further use of the drawing. I began to realize that perhaps I had talent beyond the norm.

(Kellogg’s sent me a coveted prize for the 1970s: an Atari video game system. We hooked it up to our TV and played Pong in all its first generation glory. Dad—my regular Pong opponent—and I still love video games. This will be another blog post.)

When I was little (6 or 7?), my older sister had a summer job as a playground director. A guy would come to our house every other weekend and teach her how to do the playground crafts for the upcoming weeks. After he'd left, I’d try all the projects he'd demonstrated. Sometimes, someone would teach a short art class at the playground. I remember being instructed to close my eyes and feel a mystery object. Then I had to draw it from this tactile memory. I drew a bumpy vase and a basket with some fringe at the ends of the handle, which I can still see in my mind’s eye. My drawings were very accurate, to the general astonishment of everyone except my sister.

When I was a bit older (maybe 10 or so), an elderly neighbor liked to sit on his front porch and sketch. Emboldened by the natural curiosity of childhood, a friend and I trotted up to him one day and asked to see his picture. After that, he’d regularly teach me drawing basics. He gave me his sketches, often a portrait or an animal, and I’d take them home to copy. When I returned with my attempts, he’d coach me on how to improve them. I learned a lot from Mr. Chiara.

In high school, I took history in summer school so that I could fit two years of art into my schedule. I took my art very seriously, even selling some paintings (for about $20 each—imagine). I fancied myself to be part of the artsy circle at school, hanging out in the art room during free periods, trekking to the art museum on weekends with the hipster art teacher, and celebrating when my work placed in the Scholastic Art Awards. I was art editor for our award-winning school newspaper, made sports team banners and posters advertising the drama club’s plays, and designed covers for our yearbooks and other publications. Years after I’d graduated, a logo I’d designed was still gracing the school newspaper’s literary page.

By college, my drawing skills were relegated to poster making and a couple of class assignments, pushed aside in favor of other distractions (like physical chemistry and differential equations). My parents had encouraged my art, but strictly as a spare-time, stand-alone hobby rather than a gift to be channeled into my future pursuits. (In retrospect, my nose-to-the-grindstone parents had strong objections to all of the arts—seemed to view them as livelihood-threatening potential addictions. Since they lived through the Great Depression, I can see why pushing their offspring into more stable, practical, predictable pursuits was so important to them.) So, when life and career got busier, I stopped making art, except occasionally on vacation or by special request (“Hey, Shell, design a tee shirt for our alumni clambake!”). It seemed like the adult thing to do.

In all the years that I designed databases and web pages, I was able to sneak a little of my artistic eye into my work. It also is evident in my home décor and even in the way I dress my kids. But after years of creative neglect and a lifetime of hearing the message that art is for lightweights, I have trouble grasping that art is something I must do if I am to show gratitude for my God-given gifts, not something wickedly stealing time from worthier pursuits.

Now, after a year of seeing the worthwhile work of artists, authors, creativity coaches, and others I’ve “met” through social media, I’m finally waking up to the point that becoming who I was born to be means I must take 15 minutes a day to sketch. When I look at a finished sketch, flaws and all, I am 15 years old again and the world is full of possibilities. I can go forth and do good work in other areas of my life with renewed creativity.

Also because of social media, I not only have a ready-made venue to learn and receive constructive criticism about my artistic attempts from seasoned professionals, I also have encouragement and support from the same wonderful friends who fed my artsy side when I was 15. We had a particularly rebellious high school class and, although we’ve all grown up and gladly shoulder our responsibilities, my inner creative rebel is sparked by my fellow rebel sisterhood. (Love you guys!)

Who knows, maybe if I start to revive my heretofore shunted-aside talents, I may even find that there is a joyful living somewhere within them. In any case, it makes me giggle to see the smudge on the side of my hand—that alone does my heart good.

Thanks, social media.

Addendum: Gotta add the sketch for day 5:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eleven, eleven, eleven, and one more eleven

Today is Veterans Day. On Veterans Day I always remember my grandmother.

Not that Grandma was an actual veteran if you use the primary definition: a former member of the armed forces. But in some ways, she was a special kind of veteran if you consider the secondary definition: someone of long experience. And she certainly was a fighter.

November 11 was first to become Armistice Day in 1918, later to become Veterans Day. Armistice Day was the day World War I ended on the Western Front. In a railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest in France, the Allies signed an Armistice with Germany to ceasefire at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" (Paris time).

To add to the stream of elevens, my grandmother turned eleven years old on that day in history. It was a defining moment for her generation, and my grandmother felt a special connection to it.

World War I was simply called The Great War before World War II. I’m sure that until World War II, those that had gone through the First World War thought they had seen the worst hostility and suffering the errors of man could produce. More than 16 million people died in the war, which had to seem unthinkable until World War II shattered that gruesome record with 60+ million deaths.

My grandmother lived most of her life struggling. She was near the top of the birth order in a Sicilian-American family of 11 (there's that number, again) children, 10 of whom were girls. She only completed her education through the eighth grade because she was needed at home. Too young to really enjoy the roaring twenties before the stock market crash of 1929, by the time the Great Depression started, she was a young wife and grieving mother who had already tragically lost her first-born child to an unknown heart defect before the child was 2. Two more children came along quickly, but there was no work, no money, and no prospects for my grandparents. Life was about survival.

My grandfather, a gifted artist and draftsman, did any job that would pay the bills, including digging ditches for the WPA. He often spent hours en route to and from a job, navigating buses with a book in his pocket to help him pass the time. My mother remembers a childhood of living in scruffy apartments over stores and eating nothing but pasta with nearly rotten vegetables no longer suitable for sale on her grandfather’s vegetable cart, while listening to the panic in her parents’ voices as they argued under the enormous stress of poverty and uncertainty. As a small girl, my mother would walk her younger sister home from school and manage the household until her parents came home, including handling the damper on the old coal furnace—a very risky duty for a child—because her parents were off working at whatever odd jobs they could find. Life became even more gloomy as my grandmother’s mother fell terminally ill and, for 3 years, my grandparents, mother, and aunt lived in my great-grandparents’ house so that my grandmother could care for her dying mother and manage the house for her father. My mother says that it was a terrible time: stressful, depressing, and lean, with a grim specter of impending death haunting each day.

World War II allowed my grandparents to finally earn a steady income. Having no sons, the war did not intrude on their immediate family unit, but their extended family had the same devastating losses and after-effects of war as nearly every American family during that time. My grandmother worked in a factory during the war and lost a thumb on the job.

Finally, things began to look up for my grandparents, who, not long before becoming empty-nesters, fulfilled their fondest dream and became homeowners. They bought a tiny house outside of the city,what we’d now call a “starter home.” They thought they were the richest people in the world.

They endured more worry as a grandson nearly died after being hit by a car and went through years of surgery and recovery. A son-in-law died of a heart attack in his thirties, leaving their daughter to raise 5 small children. Just before retirement, my grandfather suffered a fatal third heart attack.

By that time, my grandmother was solidly a veteran—a veteran of adversity and survival, a veteran of shattered dreams and keeping dreams alive, a veteran of cruel losses and unbreakable family ties, a veteran of poverty and unthinkable stress and hardship and duty.

She fought many health battles of her own in the following years, losing both legs and, eventually, her mind to diabetes. But, still, she was an incredible fighter. We were called to her deathbed time and time again, yet she pulled through many times before finally succumbing. I think, perhaps, because she had spent her entire life fighting for life and happiness,she just didn’t know how to stop fighting. She was a member of a generation of fighters, survivors, veterans.

Today, I first and foremost remember and appreciate veterans of armed services. But I also remember all veterans and those in service, past and present, military and civilian, who fought—and continue to fight—for a better world amid hardships and obstacles that I can’t even imagine.

And, with special fondness, I remember a strong and courageous woman whom I loved very much; who showered me with little grandmotherly gifts and my favorite cookies; who gave me treasures like my first Christmas stocking and a cherished Minnie Mouse handkerchief; who always worked hard; who faced heartache after heartache with indomitable strength; who made wonderful Sunday dinners; who drove 1000 miles with a turtle in a coffee can because she thought I would like it as a pet; who made the world’s best Sicilian pastries; who wrote me letters and made me feel important for receiving real mail; who had a beautiful face, a beautiful smile, and an infectious laugh; who had a quick temper, a fierce spirit, and a ton of love for her family; who was a fighter and a role model; and who was always proud to say that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month she turned eleven years old.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009


In the early 1970s, I was a little girl growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood of Cleveland. None of the moms worked outside the home (except maybe to volunteer in the school cafeteria twice a week) and a summer day meant playing outside with the neighborhood kids from late morning until dusk with breaks only for meals. Everyone in my neighborhood was white, Christian, and spoke with a Midwestern accent.

Once or twice, a family with a slight European accent might move in, and after months of covert scrutiny, the neighborhood consensus would be something like, “They’re good neighbors. They have a well-tended yard. They seem very clean.” I’m pretty sure that—given the rampant “people like us” thinking of the time—the earth would have shifted off its axis if a non-white family had ever moved in. Those precious few European accents were about the limit of difference the neighborhood seemed to be able to sustain.

The social climate in Cleveland back then was characterized by intolerance. I still have lots of issues with the belief systems under which I was raised and which surrounded me in all aspects of my childhood universe. I knew that there were people whose skin was different than mine because my parents would make us cross the street and walk faster or lock the car doors whenever we saw them. I was probably a teenager before fully grasping that there were people who weren’t Christian. I had no knowledge of the world outside of the U.S. except that there was something called an Iron Curtain behind which the godless, evil communists in Russia lived; we prayed daily for their conversion (presumably—in my youthful understanding—to our correct way of thinking and worshipping).

But race, religion, or ethnic origin weren’t the only focal points of intolerance in my neighborhood. There were also whisperings about families who had—or were suspected of having—lives that didn’t quite resemble that of the Cleaver family. (The Brady Bunch and Partridge Family would have been considered way too progressive to live in my neighborhood, despite their squeaky-clean images by today’s standards.) There were meaningful looks exchanged by the adults about the young people in the neighborhood who were suspected of using drugs (despite no real evidence, I’m sure), became pregnant before marriage, got into trouble at school or with the police, looked too much like hippies (no shoes and long hair = lay-about drug addict), or in any other way didn’t fit the model of approved behavior.

Our parents never gave us information other than orders to stay away from so-and-so, as if whatever perceived imperfection—too shameful to talk about—might infect us. These were the days when children didn’t ask questions if not invited to do so, and we weren’t ever invited. And, being kids, we blindly accepted everything, sometimes drawing crazy conclusions from the snippets we overheard, while trying to emulate our parents’ behavior.

There was one particular neighborhood girl, a few years older than I was, who was different. The neighborhood line was that Bethany was “slow.” As a kid, I thought that had to do with speed in the literal sense. Bethany walked slowly, sort of dragging her legs from the hip with her toes pointing inward. She talked slowly, with a kind of slurred drawl. She stared a lot. She came uncomfortably close to you when she talked. She seemed to have an endless amount of time and no expectations on what she should be doing. Even as a very young girl, I found dealing with her to be trying.

She seemed to have a lot of freedom that the rest of us didn’t have. She never seemed to have to go home for lunch or dinner; she’d sit on one of our porches and eat something from her pocket. She was out on her bike hours earlier than the rest of us were allowed to go out in the morning and hours later than the rest of us were allowed to stay out in the evening. I always assumed that the hours she kept were allowed because she was older than I was.

Bethany never seemed to mind waiting. She would often wait on someone’s porch or in the yard until the child who lived there came out to play. This irked the neighborhood moms. After watching for a while through the kitchen window and realizing that Bethany had no intention of leaving, my mother would firmly tell her that she couldn’t hang out on our back porch while I ate lunch or all through the early morning until I was allowed out to play. Bethany would argue a bit (which was shocking in our neighborhood, where talking back to a parent was a capital offense), but would eventually say, “Okay,” pick up her bike, and cycle off to someone else’s porch. I suspect she just went from porch to porch, biding her time, day in and day out.

Bethany always seemed to have an extraordinary number of scrapes and bumps that she attributed to falls from her bike. I believed her—she always had her bike with her and I saw her wipe out on it now and then. She’d often ask for band-aids. I remember thinking it was strange that she never went home to get one like the rest of us would have done.

Bethany sometimes joined in our games, though she’d lose interest quickly and try to distract us. Sometimes she’d watch us play, which always felt kind of creepy. She had endless questions and often I couldn’t figure out what she meant. I tried to be polite, but my stomach clenched whenever I saw her coming. Sometimes my best friend and I just wanted to be left alone to our own secrets and games, so we’d pretend our mothers were calling us and hide inside until she went away. As it became harder to cope with Bethany's constant presence, we developed increasingly elaborate schemes to ditch her. Sometimes she’d catch on to what we were doing to exclude her and start berating us. One of our moms would overhear her angry shouts and tell her to go home. All of the moms would shake their heads and whisper.

I don’t know what ever happened to Bethany. Eventually, she stopped hanging around. Maybe her family moved away. I don’t remember. Nobody missed her when she’d gone. We forgot all about her—easily.

Looking back, I wish my parents had known how to teach me to be more compassionate toward Bethany. I wish they had explained why she behaved the way she did and helped me to develop appropriate skills for helping her to feel included while not feeling confused and irritated by her myself. Although I did try to play with her more than some of the children in my neighborhood, I wish I had tried to understand her rather than merely endure her. I wish an adult had tried to help her. I guess those were the times.

My kids recently told me about a child they know. Based on their description, I suspect the child has developmental challenges. Their irritation was apparent, and I heard echoes of my childhood in the intolerant things they told me they and the other children were starting to say and do. From my deeply buried memories came the recollection of Bethany.

We had a serious talk that day on the drive home. We’ve had a few follow-up discussions since. I hope I advised my children well. I hope they will be more inclusive than I was. I hope that the child they described won’t be easily forgotten the way I forgot Bethany...until now.

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