I know I just wrote, but something has happened and I can’t stop thinking about it. Perhaps telling someone will help. Will you listen Gentle Penguin? And what will you make of my story? That I’m a mean person who doesn’t understand people. Or a sentimental snob who’s too big for my britches. Or an ignorant idealist who’s read too many fairy tales.

Regardless, this is what happened. Make of it what you will.

It was already dark when I pulled into the hospice parking lot to help them with their remembrance event. I’d arrived earlier than I intended hoping to take care of the orientation for the evening quickly. Then I set about helping people find their loved ones, fetching hot cocoa or coffee, comforting those whose loved one had just died, listening to those whose loved ones would soon die.

Death, I’ve learned, teaches you a lot about life. Especially in the darkest hours before dawn or as night sets in.

The quiet whisper of bells signaled that the event was about to begin, so I grabbed my flashlight, handed out a few more to steady, sturdy people who would be walking with us and helped the group of rememberers out the heavy door into the courtyard where the most silent, peaceful lights of a hundred luminaries lit the way. Then I watched over them.

A tissue here, a bit of extra light there, an ear to hear their story, a hand to hold. Tears began to cloud my vision as I watched a woman—perhaps my age—lose her composure as she sank to the ground in front of a luminary with a man’s name on it. Was it her husband? Her brother? Her father? Her child? It didn’t really matter, her breaking heart shattered the silence with a thousand piercing sobs regardless.

I looked to the heavens wondering why death must happen, but knowing it was a stupid question.

“Look,” I suddenly gasped, tapping the arm of the elderly lady I was helping down the path. Earlier she lamented that the weather had been so dreary of late, that it just made it harder to go on without any natural light.

“The clouds have cleared! I can see the stars!” I know she must have thought me a silly child, but it’s true. I hadn’t seen the stars in almost two weeks…not for not looking. And suddenly, there they were.

She looked up, wobbled a little, then smiled. “Ah, a little light at last,” she whispered.

We clipped her deceased husband’s name to a luminary where it also lit the darkness, and I let my tears fall at the simple, but powerful beauty of it.

This is what I wanted the night to be, Gentle Penguin. But the Fates have an uncanny way of reminding me that what I want isn’t the point.

Back inside, I helped people find their way through the brightly lit corridors to the entrances, then returned to tidy up from our event. Two of the luminaries were gone. So was a flashlight. And one of the reindeer decorations that had been near our post.

I lifted the tablecloths and peeked around the corners.

“Let them go; they’re gone. People have taken them.”

“What do you mean, ‘people have taken them?'” I asked confused.

“It happens all the time,” I was told. “People come to events like these and leave with more than just the memories of the evening. Perhaps they find some solace in the tangible. Perhaps it’s something that reminded them of their loved one. Or perhaps they’re seeking to fill a hole. Or perhaps this is another way for them in their grief.”

“What, to be a thief?” It was only the unintended rhyme that caught the harness of my anger. Feeling it start to slip, I said out loud, “is thieving part of grieving?”

Believe it or not, it seems it is. The stories I heard for the next twenty minutes from people who have worked and volunteered around death shocked, dismayed and amused me. Bibles, water pitchers, bedpans, pillows, clocks and even a telephone were all subject to disappear if a dismayed family member assigned it sentimental value because of the death of their loved one.

My mouth hung open as I listened, and I tried to understand. How could a telephone be sentimental? It was the symbol of the last time a loved one spoke to them. Okay, how about a clock? It was a symbol of the time he last spent alive. Okay, a bedpan?! It held the last bit of their life before they became an empty body.

I walked back toward my car in a fog so that I almost didn’t notice the dark shadow on the other side of the side door. It swung open blocking my path and breaking me out of my daze.

It was the covered casket of the undertaker. I’d seen him many times before, and normally I wished him “hello” with a smile, then said a silent prayer for the freshly freed soul and the family. Tonight, I did neither of those things. Instead I broke down right there and then and cried.

“What’s this?” He asked me looking concerned then put a hand on my shoulder. “Has death gotten to you tonight, Monica?”

“No,” I sobbed wetly. “Life has gotten to me. I think it’s stolen my hope for humanity.”

He looked relieved, straightened up, put his hand back on the casket, began to push, turned, looked me in the eye, winked and said “then take it back.”

Reflections of 2014

Gentle Penguin,

I know 2014 isn’t complete yet, but with some rare quiet, uncommitted time I find myself leafing through my planner to see where all my time has gone this year.

Quite frankly, it started out rather rocky.  I didn’t feel like I accomplished 2013’s goals and felt a little lost for what to do.  Then my biggest client completed their project, and I found myself without a professional and financial rudder.  I realized as much as I glorified spontaneity and rued discipline, I had it wrong.  Completely wrong.

Freedom doesn’t come from spontaneity anymore than discipline is a cage.  In order to be the me I want to be I needed discipline, and I needed it fast.  Thus began the first months of the Year of Habits and Rituals.

Now we’re nearing the end, and I’m not quite sure what I think about how the year went.  Whereas in years past I’ve hung my hat on a few amazing accomplishments mixed with smaller changes and notes, this year I couldn’t think of anything amazing for me.  What came to mind, rather, were my daughters’ accomplishments:

  • Kate graduated high school with honors and headed off to my alma mater with a pocketful of scholarships and accolades.
  • Meg graduated elementary school with academic, artistic and athletic awards then sprinted straight into high school as starting goalie for the JV soccer team.

I’m so proud of them both!

And so as they stretched their wings in new ways, I went about faltering through the adjustments to schedule and daily life that these and other changes created.  In fact, that’s how I would describe 2014—faltering through a year of adjustments.

Compared to years past, it was a paltry year for writing—only 51 blog posts (well, this makes 52) and only 13 published articles.  However, there were a few highlights:

  • One short story won the Erma Bombeck humor writer award
  • And professionally, I managed to expand my girth to write about everything from unmanned vehicles to agile software development; new drug delivery options in anesthesia, rheumatoid arthritis and gout to automotive components; round barns to the history of hot cocktails; Ohio wineries to the World Cup; nutrition for weight loss to nutrition for cancer prevention; death and grieving to patient satisfaction; hospital quality metrics to neuroscience; disaster response to intelligence analysis.

Speaking of business:

  • I grew my client base from six to 22 clients
  • Hosted two international conferences
  • Launched three new brands—one of which was a relaunch of my newly renamed business
  • Developed components for patient satisfaction programs
  • Developed physician recruitment and physician retention programs
  • Populated four health blogs
  • Created content for four websites
  • Acted as a simulated patient
  • Helped several international executives relocate to my city and neighboring cities
  • Participated in two coworking ventures
  • Created messaging for a political campaign, and
  • Earned a Green certification for eco-friendliness

Even more surprising, I was delighted to find that I had contributed to my community in fine form with almost 300 volunteer hours total across organizations that included the League of Women Voters, Hospice, my family parish and the Welcome Dayton project.  I also volunteered three weekends in the autumn picking the local vineyard harvest.

I completed four courses through Coursera (three of which changed my entire life’s perspective):

  • The History of Humankind from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Archaeology’s Dirty Secrets from Brown University
  • Understanding Russians from the Higher School of Economics
  • Changing Global Order from the Universiteit Leiden

I also attended and completed training at the:

  • Protocol School of Washington Global Education Summit
  • Interact 2014 Content Marketing
  • local chapter of IABC
  • CCWorld Affairs

Finally, I:

  • Discovered that I really DO believe six impossible things before breakfast
  • Started a business book club with a friend
  • Read 24 books (mostly in the nonfiction genre)
  • Participated in five naturalization programs
  • Taught nine etiquette classes throughout my community
  • Hosted three cocktail parties, two wine tastings and three dinner parties
  • Found that pressing your palms together makes a comforting feeling, (doing it quickly creates a smooth plastic feeling), and opening them face up feels powerful
  • Perfected my breakfast ritual
  • Read at Banned Books week, and
  • Graduated to a 50-pound recurve bow and the 35-yard target

Did I create habits and rituals?  Yes, but nothing like I thought.  Instead of turning my daily life into a well-oiled machine, some minor health issues shifted my focus to habits for mind and body.  Or course, that happened late in the year, so all I can say is I’m on my way.  Instead of cultivating joie de vivre, my attention shifted to savoir vivre, and I found that perhaps what I thought was joy was really unrealistic imaginings.  True joy comes from attitude and perhaps gratitude—one of which I need to work on, the other I need to remind myself of on a daily basis.

But most importantly, instead of constantly staring down the barrel of who I want to be, I found “me” in the moment-by-moment choices I make—the good, the bad and the ugly.

If you’re still reading, then thank you.  While this blog is mostly for you, sometimes it’s also for me—a permanent and public record of who I am in an encapsulated timeframe.  For instance, this post will help me see how far I’ve come (or God-forbid, slipped) when I look back on it at some other point in the future.  That said, I want to remind myself, and confess to you Gentle Penguin, that this year was also full of failures, disappointments and mistakes.  I did some really dumb stuff (like that time I tried to pull poison sumac from my fence-line without gloves, or the time I poured smoking-hot bacon grease into a plastic container on top of my stove, or the time I tried to readjust my gate by karate kicking it into place—against a four-by-four posted and cemented into the ground).

I said more than my fair share of stupid, stupid things in public (most likely because I was trying to show off, or flirt, or wasn’t really thinking before my mouth opened).  And I built up some pretty unrealistic expectations which led to some spectacular disappointments (like overestimating my daughters’ need for and want of my help in stretching their wings, my first attempt at romance in six years, and people’s ability to treat other with respect and consideration, among other things).

Gentle Penguin, you see, I think this was by far and away probably one of the most humbling years for me.

So where does that leave me for 2015?

For the first time, I feel like I’m headed into the new year bruised and vulnerable.  And perhaps that’s how it should have always been because I find that for the first time, I feel less like a rock dangling above a precipice and more like a child at a busy street corner waiting and watching for opportunities to cross over.  Cross over to what?  Into my forties, to start.  That’s right, I’ll be forty in 2015, and it seems like an important milestone in my journey—perhaps the midpoint of my life.  And the start of a much-anticipated transformation.

How odd, then, that for the first time I wonder less about what I want in the new year and more about what I need.  And the more I think about it, the more I believe my answer might be connections—with people—friends, family, mentors, confidants, heroes and perhaps even a few villains.  So for 2015, I think instead of focusing on me, I’ll make it the Year of Connections.

What about you, Gentle Penguin?  What have you accomplished this year?  Where do you want to focus in 2015?  I’d always like to know.

Evolving from Rats

Gentle Penguin,

The past two days have been both amazing and insane.  I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and been beaten with a stick. Either way, I only wanted time to write to you, my dear friends about a discovery I’ve made.  And now I have the time.

As I lay still waiting for the nausea and pain of a tension headache to pass, I reflect on the fact that many of the ‘crises’ put before me on a daily basis are merely exercises in futility.  Why?  I wonder…and I believe it’s the only way we have left to prove we’re so very, very important.  I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, to be sure!  I want to feel important, special, unique, sometimes even better-than…instead of like the hunted rat that I fear I behave like.  So how ironic that this moment is usually the moment I’m slapped upside the head with a reminder that I’m part of something bigger—like humanity, a family, a community, a neighborhood, a revolution.

As much as I fear Russia’s President Putin is on the wrong path with his actions, I do believe he had it right when he said “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. … We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Of course, that’s assuming we remember that “equal” does not mean “same.”

Equal means that we are each valuable as a being.  Same means I am exactly like you.  No offense, but part of my quest to be important means I don’t want to be the same as you, or anyone else.  I don’t want to be copied either.  I want to be me, and I want you to be you.  I want to learn from you, and you to be amused by me…or perhaps make you reflect too.

Gentle Penguin, I know you know about me, but I want you to understand what I think makes me different—three secrets that are also key to my value.  You already know the first, and possibly second secrets.

First, I’m a hopeless romantic.  I really do believe there is wonder, beauty and hope in everything around us, even in the darkest moments.  Sure, I complain about them, get angry, whine and cry like a child sometimes.  But invariably I start looking for something…anything…to give me a clue that it’s passing.  Sometimes it’s a random song on the radio.  Sometimes it’s a monarch butterfly flitting by on a cold autumn morning.  Sometimes it’s just a beam of sunlight cutting through the dark suffocating clouds.  Of course, many people think I’m like a Pollyanna; but let me assure you this propensity toward romance often pisses me off because it seems so silly.  Why can’t I just wallow in the depths of despair like some poet or philosopher?  Instead, I’m afraid my fairy godmother cursed me at my christening with an undying measure of hope.  That seems much less silly…and more romantic.

     Romance — A transcendence from the mundane to a perspective of delight, beauty and hope

Second, I really do believe in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  Maybe it’s because I have wildly vivid dreams.  Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many adventure stories, fairy tales and quests.  Maybe it’s because through my hunted rat years I’ve accomplished more, gone farther, done bigger things than I ever thought I could.  I’ve had my fair share of rough periods—just like you have, Gentle Penguin.  Each of us have suffered great pains and losses, disappointments and frustrations.  And I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s important to know that we probably have more to come.  But just as Alice slayed the Jabberwocky, and I have overcome my challenges, and you have overcome yours…it is in these very moments that the most amazing pieces of who we are are born.  They never come from the easy moments.  Your moments are not mine, and mine are not yours, and none of ours are Alice’s.  And so we are not the same.  But you still matter to me, to your community, to humanity.

Third, I’ve started a new quest, I’ve found my revolution.  How can we choose evolution from being the hunted rat?  While I run around busily, stressed and tense, I find I do get things done (some of them impossible things).  I check off “To Do’s” like nobody’s business–that is my business, quite frankly.  But at the end of the day, the week, the month, the year, I often find little to none of it is really important.  Or maybe that’s not quite true either.  While I might be helping someone else move mountains, I’m earning the money I need to give my daughter the best education I can–which is what’s most important to me.  While I help someone else create an event that changes someone’s perspective, I’m also putting money aside for a trip that helps me change my perspective.  While I’m driving my daughter to soccer practices and soccer conditioning and soccer dinners and soccer games, I’m helping someone important to me build their confidence to fight a Jabberwocky in the future.

So how do I remember that when I’m coiling and tightening and building another headache?

Well, my headache helped provide the answer.  In the midst of my pain, I stretched out my arm and felt the warmth and life creeping back into it.  I saw the beauty of the line as it broke the path of the sunshine streaming in my window.  And I remembered the feeling of pure energy that lived that part of my body when I was in the arms of a Viennese Waltz.  While I tried to find a way to divert my attention so I could relax and let the medicine work, I heard my daughter in the other room singing while she did her homework.  I didn’t know the song, but her notes were clear and strong and blended with the wind chimes ringing outside the kitchen window.  She wasn’t always on key, but it was beautiful nonetheless and brought both tears of joy and a thrill akin to listening to a full, professional philharmonic playing a beautiful symphony.

Rats miss both the philharmonic and the child’s song, the ballroom waltz and the stretch of an arm.  I know we’ve been told before, but hearing and believing are as different as equal and same:

     We must believe that humanity is in the moment.

Not the future, nor the past, but right here, right now.  I know this may seem impossible as e-mails ding, phones buzz, bosses holler, children cry, dreams beckon, doors close, and the world keeps on spinning.  But I believe it is the answer.

Does this mean we stop being responsible? No. There is no humanity in running away from our family, our jobs, our community, our commitments, our life.  I admit, I don’t know how to execute this newfound answer, but I believe there is a way to do both.  Perhaps we need to uncover the lies society tells us and we have told ourselves about what being important really means. Perhaps we should seek courage to act out of our own wisdom instead of the collective rules of our culture.  Perhaps we must continue sharing ideas with others, testing theories and championing change.  I don’t know…but that is exactly why I know I am now on a quest.

What about you, Gentle Penguin?  What answers, theories and ideas do you have?  Will you share them with me?

By now you probably know that I love to study people and occasionally have a thought or two on what I observe. But today’s topic is one I’ve been struggling with my entire cognizant existence.  It weighs heavy on my mind, and I will admit upfront that I have no answers…only lots and lots of questions and concerns.

So Gentle Penguin, I ask that you hear me out today.

Last week, I watched a young girl perform a choreographed karate battle with her twin brother.  As the commentator explained what was going on, the crowd watched closely as the two equally able children tussled.  I knew what was coming and started to feel physically angry.  Sure enough, the girl won, the commentator made some comment about “as she should,” and the crowd applauded their approval.

As someone who from the very moment I understood anything about gender knew the cards would be more difficult on my side of the chromosomes, who was refused roles I would have excelled at in high school and college because of my gender, who has long wanted to be free to be my best—how could I be so angry that the girl won the choreographed battle?

It worried me.

Two days later, a friend of mine complimented me on the fact that both my daughters are so focused on their school and extra curricular activities and not distracted by dating or boys as so many of their peers are.  I asked my youngest about it and she said, “well, you’ve told us and told us and told us that boys just get in the way of our goals.” I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.  How could I, the most romantic, ever-searching believer in relationships and love have given my daughters the impression that you should achieve your goals alone?

But my angst reached its peak during a friendly archery challenge with a complete stranger earlier this week.  I had barely arrived at the range when he came up and asked if he could see my longbow.  Sure.  Then he asked if he could shoot it.  Of course, be my guest.  We were at the 30-yard target.  He lined up the arrow, pulled back and shot… straight into the grass.  I handed him another arrow.  He smiled and asked “how do you aim this?” I told him the basics–both eyes open, focus on the tip of the arrow as your point, aim slightly higher to adjust for distance.  He shot again… into the grass.  I handed him another arrow, which also ended in the grass.

Embarrassed, he handed my bow back and asked me to shoot.  I was momentarily torn— part of me wanted to also hit the grass so he’d feel better.  But I didn’t.  I aimed and hit the center mark.  I knew what was next.  He handed me his compound bow and challenged me to try that.  I loaded an arrow, pulled back, aimed and hit the center mark, just left of my longbow arrow.  “I hate goddamm men with boobs,” he said yanking the bow as I offered it back to him.  “No wonder my boy is a wimp.  Y’all have left him no chance as a man.”

I should have kept my mouth shut.  But I didn’t.  “Sir, I’m not a man.  I’m a woman.”

He spat as he said “then act like one.”

“And how’s that,” I said a little loudly, feeling my face flushing and acutely aware that I could feel my heart beating in my chest.

“Let a man be the man,” he yelled stepping closer to me.

“You mean, let you win.” I said it, not asked and didn’t take a step back.

He didn’t answer but he narrowed his eyes.  I counted to nine…”You want to win? Then be better than me.”

He watched me shoot for about five minutes before leaving, and I was thankful that archery is one activity that really does pull my focus off everything else.  But when I returned to my car an hour later, I couldn’t even drive for still shaking with anger.

I never wanted anyone to “let” me win.  I wanted to compete on even terms to see how I measured up.  If I lost—as I did frequently in many of the challenges I accepted–I lost against someone (male or female) who was better and then I knew what I needed to do to be better.  There was no choreography or medals for eleventh place.  And I didn’t compromise my abilities to make someone else feel better about themselves.  Except where romantic relationships were concerned.

Which is probably how we get to my advice to my daughters that boys get in the way of goals…

How do I explain to them, that the right boy will be more like the people they meet on their soccer teams or in their choirs?  He will challenge you to be better while still supporting your efforts.

But doesn’t that feel like those fairy tales I’ve read so long?  I know I’m looking for a king—I don’t want to be the strongest, smartest, toughest person in the relationship.  But I don’t want to have to lie about my ability either.  I don’t want to live in a world that requires me to reduce to the lowest possible level so that we might all be equal.

These are the thoughts that swirl in my head as I hear stories about Muslim radicals wanting women to stay hidden (are men so weak they can’t control themselves?), or listen to mothers complain that men are looking at their daughters luridly at the malls (what about the skin-tight, barely covering clothes with words written on chests and butts designed to attract attention to those areas says “don’t look at me”), or read another e-mail about how the government needs more diverse suppliers and contractors (what happened to choose the best?).

Gentle Penguin, I tend to be an idealist.  I know there are other and smarter answers to these conundrums.  But who has them?  And when are we going to allow people to be their best selves at whatever it is they do best, regardless of gender, race, religion, color, creed, age, sexual preference, marital status, pet ownership, political affiliation, etc.  Those are the people I want to connect with.

Lunch–not luncheon

Lately, I’ve fallen completely off my normal disciplined focus, distracted by seemingly important, but really mundane quests for knowledge.  For example:

  • If it’s yellow, is it still a ladybug?
  • What’s the difference between lunch and luncheon?
  • If Chinese is the most spoken language in the world by population, what do most people eat for breakfast?
  • Why is it called cocoa if it comes from a cacao plant?
  • Is winter (in Ohio) really more gray than other seasons?

I have to admit, I’m delighted and wish I had entire afternoons during which I wish I could learn a hundred other mundane things.

Ladybugs are actually not bugs, nor are they all ladies.  They’re beetles, and they come in pink, red, orange and yellow.  In England, they’re called ladybirds.  In other places that speak English, they’re called lady cows.  Most entomologists call them lady beetles because they already knew they weren’t bugs.  My grandmother used to call them “potato bugs,” and after spending several rainy hours reading about these bugs, I think I know why.  Most ladybugs are considered helpful in the garden because they eat the eggs and young of other bugs that eat the plants.  However, a subfamily of the group (Epilachninae) are known to eat plants like grains and potatoes.  Since we never grew grains, I imagine she must have had a family of the Epilachninae in her garden once.

The difference between lunch and luncheon is far less stimulating.  Lunch is simply a casual meal eaten in the middle of the day.  Luncheon, on the other hand, is a formal midday meal taken as part of a business meeting or entertaining.  Turns out, I eat lunch approximately 90 percent of the year.  It makes me think that the next luncheon I attend, I should be more formal.  Usually, I am though–already dressed in a business suit armed with business cards and a lipstick smile.  The few luncheons I have attended taught me something else extraordinarily interesting.  Assigned table seating is a God-send!

Like most of my endeavors, I usually attend luncheons alone.  The past few have been in celebration of or education about international diplomacy…and in a different city than my own.  So I know no-one and the networking half-hour prior to mealtime is frightening.  I would have left the first one except just as my fear was nudging me to the door, a very kind gentleman with a clipboard asked my name and escorted me to my assigned table.  Then, checking his clipboard, he introduced me to my tablemates.  There was a student, a retired former-ambassador to the Ukraine and Norway, his wife, the treasurer of the hosting group, and a shy member of the city’s Somalian delegation.  Whew!  I immediately wanted a clipboard for myself someday…but now I realize it was actually the table assignment that saved me.

I don’t yet know what most people eat for breakfast, but I do know that it varies greatly around the world.  I guess I’d hoped it would settle the question about what I should eat for breakfast once and for all.  However, I find lots of reasons to like and dislike lots of these options.  A croissant or left-over dinner tart or toast is so classy with my tea, but leaves me hungry early.  Eggs and bacon leaves me too full and my entire meal regimen is undone for the day.  Cereal—well, I just can’t bring myself to eat it knowing it’s pure propaganda from Misters William Kellogg and later Charles Post and filled with all sorts of chemicals to make it practically glow.  Rice has been an interesting option.  Porridge, not so much.  And I haven’t even yet explored the African, Indian or Russian traditions.  I’ll have to continue my research, Gentle Penguin, and get back with you on this one…

But it was in my quest to understand where the heck oats came from that I came across a reference to the definition of “oats” in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (circa 1775).  In it he defined oats as: “A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”  As you might imagine, the Scots were not amused.  (Perhaps this one of the underlying pains that gave cause for wanting to separate?)  Anyway, which writer in their right mind wouldn’t be TOTALLY taken in by the idea of a dictionary written with personality?  I kind of want to write my own dictionary now!

So, in reading more, I learned that in this same dictionary, Mr. Johnson accidentally left off the definition of the word “coco” and instead placed the definition of the word “cocoa.”  Coco, by the way is a palm tree that produces bowling-ball sized “nuts” that have holes in them often resembling a smiling face.  The word “coco” is Spanish for “grinning face” and has no relation to an animated cuckoo bird who likes puffs made from a different cereal conglomerate.  Meanwhile, “cocoa” is the English bastardization of the Spanish word “cacao,” which is a tree that produces small nut-like seeds that when fermented, dried, smashed and crushed produce cacao paste from which chocolate is made (with heaps of sugar, of course).  Before the addition of sugar, Mesoamericans considered anything made from cacao to be the most manly of all foods or beverages and were forbidden to eat or drink them unless you were willing to serve in battle.

With sugar added, the drink and food are now the purvey of doting grandmothers, women looking for love, and little children who will later make you want to drink.

But sugar isn’t the important differentiator–it’s butter.  When the butter is removed from the crushed nibs, it becomes a dried powder cake—called cocoa.  This bastardization of the plant is relatively new, dating back to 1828 and a Dutch chemist.  Hence the difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate is that one is made from the powder and one is made from the paste–or solid bar made from the paste.

Something I will also have to look into (or rather, I already have begun, but once begun is not quite done) is this recurrence of chemists in our food history…breakfasts, chocolate, wine…

But first, I must discover whether Ohio is really more gray in the winter than any other season.  I don’t want to believe it’s true, but all indications point otherwise.  So, like I did once in grade school, I will spend the next five (or six) months charting the weather.  Today, by the way, has been both sunny and gray.  I’m not sure how I will mark that.  But, I figure, I’ll figure it out…after I try to do some work.

There is no Fairy Godmother

Change is the only constant, but rarely is it so visible as this time of year.  The crickets still chirp in the morning, but not when I awake and make my tea.  Rather, they serenade me now after my breakfast dishes are put away, my daughter dropped off at school, the dogs walked and my work begun.  And every time I glance up to see where the dogs are in the yard, I see a leaf falling from my Grandfather Maple which is slowly turning yellow.

It’s apropo today as one of my years slips quietly away and a new one takes its place.

I celebrate in a usual way—intellectual stimulation seems to be the most available gift I can give myself.  So rather than digging into the unending pile of work on my desk, I watch the Roosevelts documentary one more time before PBS expires the online viewing.  Can you imagine living with the vivacity and drive of Theodore!  Since I saw the documentary the first time, I’m still in awe of him.  Standing in front of thousands of angry German immigrants as if he supported their cause rather than being the one whom they single-mindedly opposed.  Shaking a fellow politician in public and shouting at him that the Constitution is for the people not the other way around (I mean, wow!  When did we decide alternatively…because we certainly have adopted that view).  Being shot and still delivering his campaign speech because he believed his message was so important it couldn’t wait.

If I had a fairy godmother, I’d ask for TR’s conviction and courage for my birthday.

I’d also ask for a pen pal–a real life, pen-on-paper-lick-an-envelope-and-slap-a-stamp-on-it pen pal.  I had one, but like many things this year, technology intervened and now I receive only sporadic texts that don’t make sense or requests to join Facebook.  I don’t want to interact with my friends on facebook!  I want to have dinner, drinks, coffee, and conversation!  I don’t want to lol, I want to laugh out loud!  And when they’re feeling low, I want to know so I can do everything in my power to remind them of how joyful life is, that people care about them and that hope is just around the corner.  Because it always is.

Did you watch the Roosevelts?  More than anything, I was struck by the importance of letters and diaries in all seven parts of the series.  Perhaps it’s that they had something to tell rather than my boring diary entry which typically reads like, “Dear Diary, Today I stared at my computer for eight hours, played the role of taxi driver and errand girl for my daughters and can’t remember what I ate at any meal except breakfast because I wasn’t paying attention.”  There are no bear hunts or diplomatic negotiations with troubled nations or tender romantic stirrings for a beloved…or anything that I might find important or meaningful.  Although, sometimes I add a note about how my dogs are so snuggly and cute.

Right now–for example–they’re both laying at my feet, ears flopped back and someone’s foot raised and wobbling.  Maybe they’re confused as the crickets still chirp their serenade that we’ve come to associate with sleeping.  Or maybe they’re tired from racing around, sniffing and pooping so much at the dog park earlier this morning.  (I mean, how much can a dog really poop in one hour!)  Or maybe they’re just waiting for something exciting to happen–like I am.

Why don’t we live like the Roosevelts any more?  I understand they had money, but what about their convictions, their connection to something larger than themselves, their desire to bring out the best in people?  Why don’t we live like that?  I have my suspicions…

But one of Eleanor’s many thought-provoking quotes stops me now.  “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Gentle Penguin, I curse the darkness my fair share.  In fact, I sometimes curse a lot.  They’re both habits I’m trying to break.   So what light can I leave you with now?

How about your own light…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwKBxabn4QY

Social Experiment

It started many months ago as a hypothetical question posed over coffee, as many hypothetical questions are ought.  “If you knew someone was struggling–really having a tough go at it–what would you do?”

There was a quiet pause as everyone’s eyes shifted to a different location—the wall, our coffee, the corner of the table, our shoes.  Then the babble began.

“Take them to a funny movie.”  “Kings Island, baby!”  “Have them over for dinner.”  “Take them dancing.”  “Girls’ night out.”  “Send them a balloon bouquet.”  …

Unfortunately, the data our questioner shared with us shows that most of us—almost 90 percent of us—will ignore them.  We didn’t believe it.  So our questioner asked us to try a little experiment.  “The next time you feel down, confide in a few people and see what happens.”

I guess I’m lucky that it took so long for me to feel “down,” but “down” is exactly how I felt for about a week here recently.  I’m not talking suicidal.  I’m talking about depression—probably even only low-level depression at that.

Getting out of bed was a major feat that felt like it sucked out every bit of energy I had.  I skipped taking showers if I didn’t have client meetings, and I only put makeup on once that week.  I took—on average—two naps per day and couldn’t even manage to walk my dogs around the block.  I cried—on average—90 minutes out of every day.  I checked facebook –on average—every 20 minutes instead of the once-every-three-days plan I had been checking; and I posted drunk messages, promptly deleting them the next day when there was only one or no responses.  I bought and ate an entire box of double-stuffed oreos and then promptly threw them up.  I counted every dumb thing I’d ever done, ever said, ever thought.

And then I remembered the challenge.  “Tell someone.”

I mentioned it in casual conversation with a confidant.  I wrote a brief post on facebook and left it up there for four days.  I told my daughter.  I told my dogs.  I told a few friends that I see regularly…I summed it up in an e-mail to my long-time pen pal:

Help! I’ve been feeling the sucking, draining onset of depression pulling at me. I’ve lost every bit of energy I own, and I can’t stop crying or feeling sorry for myself! Why?  There’s nothing really wrong with me—I know that.  But, I don’t even have the energy to go shower right now. I’m so lonely. I feel truly and completely alone, uncared for, unloved and worthless for anything but work—which makes me feel even more tired.  I don’t see any joy in living.  All I see is work and responsibilities and more work.  Don’t worry—I’m not suicidal.  But I feel like there’s no hope!

Did you ever read a short story called The Electric Ant in which a man is in a car accident only to find out he’s a robot, so he pulls his “tape” to find out how much of his life has been programmed? I read it years ago in philosophy class and somehow it’s stuck with me. The question being…was the accident programmed? Was his finding out he was programmed programmed? Anyway, I bring it up because I feel like I’ve discovered I’m a robot—programmed only to work and do what other people want—raise kids, make money, clean house, take care of parents and family. No fun, no emotions, no affection, no attention, no warmth, no rest, no reward—just work, work, work. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve laughed? Or felt worthwhile…

My e-mail pen pal never responded to my e-mail, but several days later sent me a book recommendation about a technology book he’s reading.

My confidant told me to focus on work.  One person—a person I only met once for about an hour, who lives across the country—commented on my facebook post.  One of my regular friends offered to buy me a glass of wine and talk about it, but never responded to my text about meeting up.  Most of the rest of my friends still haven’t responded.  My dogs snuggled up with me for a nap the afternoon I told them, then promptly left me to go chase a squirrel in the yard.  I admit, I did blow off one friend who didn’t know I was feeling low, but who invited me to go out…mostly because I didn’t have the energy to shower and get out of my pjs.

I must admit, Gentle Penguin, the experiment made my depression worse.

By the way—I’m feeling better now.  To start with, I’m delighted to tell you that when I told my daughter I was feeling really alone and low, she dropped everything, pulled me over to the couch, put her arms around me, told me she loved me, then asked me why I felt that way.  She didn’t argue with me about it, or try to be logical.  She just listened.  She reminded me of many people who love me.  And suggested that I talk to a professional or go see my doctor.  Then she told me it would be okay and hugged me again.  The next day, she asked me if I had made an appointment, and told me she was glad when I said I had.  “You’ll feel better soon, mom.” She hugged me again…and kept a close eye on me for the next few days.

Soon, I was feeling better.  I’m fortunately to have such a wonderful girl.  And that my depression is (and has always been) mild and manageable.

Now, the POINT of this isn’t to berate my friends or make anyone feel badly.  The point is that the experiment was my first-hand awareness that discomfort leads to avoidance.  And that is frightening.

Why is this frightening?  Because research now shows that when women hear someone they work with has been diagnosed with breast cancer, they’re LESS likely to get screened themselves.  College students were willing to PAY MONEY to not have blood that was already drawn tested for herpes.  And according to various statistics, when an overweight person loses weight, they also lose—on average—two friends for every 14 pounds.  When people break up after a relationship, they lose—on average—eight friends.  When a person gets divorced, they lose—on average—twelve friends.  When a person’s parents die, they lose—on average—four friends.  When a person’s spouse or child dies, they lose—on average—almost 80 percent of their friends.

This is really simple to fix.

Don’t avoid discomfort.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said President F.D. Roosevelt.  Have your mammograms and take the health tests you dread if you’re at risk.  Find people you trust to talk to for support.  And when you know someone is struggling, listen, respond when they ask for help, remind them you care.

I care.  And I’m here if you need my help.


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