One Enchanted Evening

I never really had a desire to go to Vienna.  But there I was, as midnight neared sitting in the middle of a thunderstorm at an alfresco candle-lit cafe near the Stephansplatz sipping champagne and sampling apfelstrudel.

Somehow, it seemed destined to be.

To my right, a couple huddled under their own umbrella despite the cover provided by the cafe’s white square umbrellas overhead.  The couple’s umbrella, with alternating gold and red panels, glowed over the candlelight and filled the cafe with romance.

To my left, two young men drank golden beers while laughing easily about the various characters they had encountered that day.  They drove trolleys in town, one of the men told me, and next week they would vacation in Sarajevo where I had just been.  In Sarajevo, I told them, they have the most worn down, mismatched trolleys, but they move in a nostalgic jauntiness that makes their trek seem so joyful and, more than once, lured me aboard to see what secrets they might share there.

I loved Sarajevo.

Sarajevo had captured my heart in a way no city ever has in my travels.  But that seemed miles away here in Vienna where I found myself lulled into a sense of luxury surrounded by replicas of Klimt and Mozart, white marble and high-heeled fashion staring out from every other window.

Not to mention the bling!  Between the flickering lights of the candles, the lightning and refractions off puddles, sparkles lived everywhere.  And even in the midst of the storm, the gold leaf monuments around us glistened and glowed.



Everyone in the cafe sat back and settled in to let the storm pass.  I sipped more champagne.

The waiters bustled about like white birds picking and pecking here and there, then flitting elsewhere to pick and peck again.  But they called me “darling” and told me I was beautiful with their thick accents.  There was nothing to do then but laugh and relish in being looked after by handsome service professionals.

I practiced my German, and learned a little Hungarian, toasted in Croatian, and listened to an opera playing in Italian.



My champagne glass was refilled. The trolley men ordered another round.  The couple peeked over their umbrella to order an ice cream sundae.  And the candles continued to glow with a warmth that seemed to reach right to the center of my soul.


To be expected.

One of my neighbors died this week.  Cancer.  The kind of cancer that scares you into thinking you’re dying, seems to disappear so you and your loved ones have hope, then rears its deadly face and snatches the light from your eyes before you even know what’s happened.

But this isn’t a sad story…though I admit, I cried when I heard the news.  It’s just that Brad and tears don’t belong in my memory together.

You may or may not know that I settled in my neighborhood after my divorce precisely because it’s where I grew up.  Raising two very young daughters by myself and working full-time, I needed the kind of support that only comes from being around people who know you and who care, even if you don’t have daily proof of it.

And that perfectly described this neighborhood when I moved back in almost 13 years ago.  The now-elderly neighbors on my street sent their kids to school with my parents; they watched my brothers and sisters and me walk by on our way to school every day for a dozen years or more; they watched my daughters received first communion, and confirmation, and graduate from our neighborhood elementary school.

Along they way, they critiqued uniform cleanliness, and complemented singing in the children’s choir, and gave perfumed kisses when my parents, we or my daughters shoveled their sidewalks in the winter.

Brad’s mother is part of that old guard.  And so was Brad for the pure fact that he lived with his mother a few houses down.

Every morning, after my daughters had set off for school and I went racing out the door for work, Brad would walk by, wave and smile.  It became part of our routine so that if I didn’t see Brad walk by, wave and smile, I knew I was either running early or late (aka, late…let’s be clear, I never ran early.)

Likewise, in the evening, I always seemed to be coming home while he walked the block from the bus stop to his house.  Another smile and wave.  If, as it sometimes happened, he was already home, he would usually be sitting on the font-porch swing and he’d stand, smile and wave as I drove by.

My youngest was always on the look out for Brad.  When she spotted him, she would smile brightly, wave and shout “Hi!” Then she would say, “mom, he’s always so happy to see us!”


Or another time, “it’s like we truly belong here now that the neighbors wave.” Truthfully, Brad was really the only neighbor that waved for a long time.  Mostly that was because our neighborhood lost nearly half its residents during the housing crisis.  Even some of the old guard left during that time.  But when new neighbors began moving in, Brad was there with a smile and a wave.  And they smiled and waved.  And we smiled and waved.

I’m proud to say that almost all the neighbors in my half of the block smile and wave daily.  Thanks to Brad.

But Brad did more than just smile and wave.  Brad worked at the library downtown.  He rode the bus.  He sang in the church choir.  He was a devoted brother…and son.

But it was his cancer that showed me Brad’s true gift.

Several months after I first heard he had cancer and began to see the physical changes that sickness and treatments create, I saw Brad sitting on the porch swing looking glum.  My youngest and I were returning from soccer and Brad did not stand, nor wave, nor smile.

When we had parked, my youngest hopped out of the car and looked back at him a few houses away.  “Maybe he didn’t see us,” she said.  She continued to look at him to see if he would notice her. “Maybe he’s not feeling well today,” I added also continuing to look that way worried.

Then two days later, Brad came walking down the street, just as I was getting out of my car.  “Hi!” he said and smiled and waved through the window like our normal routine.  I jumped out of the car as fast as I could and almost blurted “Hi!  How are you doing?!”  I was so relieved.

“Well, I’m trying to get better every day,” he said beaming sunshine at me.  “I have some bad days, but that’s to be expected.  So I just go on!”  Then he waved again and started walking on.  I yelled after him that we were cheering for him and wished him well.  But I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move as I watched him walk briskly the rest of the way home, up his steps and in his front door.

I stood there for a long time, “to be expected” ringing in my ears.  I don’t know why, but I never thought of cancer like that.  To be quite honest–if not naive–I never thought of life like that.

Nothing is all smiles and sunshine—that’s what makes the smiles and sunshine so valuable.  I know that.  But I guess I never understood it until, there, right in front of me, was the simple acknowledgement–and acceptance–of that truth.  With a smile no less.

I stood there realizing how much I had come to depend on Brad’s smiles to help jump start my own smile at the start or end of a busy day.  To be expected.  So if Brad could accept the suffering of cancer as part of the journey, shouldn’t I take more ownership for the hiccups and obstacles and challenges natural to my journey?

I decided to give it a shot.  For a couple months now I’ve thought of Brad anytime something didn’t go as expected in my day.  My washing machine broke.  An unexpected project risk.  A cranky customer…or teenage daughter.  Strep throat… And each time I’ve asked myself, “is this part of my journey?  Is this to be expected?”  And each time the answer has been “yes.”  (My washing machine was more than 20 years old.  Projects and clients can’t always be sunshine and smiles.  The trash has not yet learned to take itself out.  I’ve been having difficulty sleeping for weeks.  Etc.)

Then came the news.  I hadn’t seen Brad for several weeks by the time my mom, now also one of the old guard, told me. But it wasn’t only the old guard who noticed.  First it was the young couple next door to me, then the boomer couple across the street, then the older Russian man a few houses down, and the young professional guy a couple houses up from that, and the visiting daughter of an elderly neighbor across the way.  These neighbors with whom I share a daily smile and wave have flagged me down wondering at Brad’s disappearance and hopeful that the old guard has passed me some information.

Some didn’t know he had cancer, others had heard he was doing better.  Most didn’t know his cancer was back.  Each time, each person, with a sad look on their face, then told me the same thing, “he always seemed so happy to see me.  He made my day so many times because of it.”

“That’s to be expected,” I gently muse now as I share the news of his death.  “I just wish he knew how happy I was to see him.”


Dear Gentle Penguin,

The sun came out today after nearly seven straight days of dreary gray skies.  And my soul sighed with pure joy.  So my dogs and I climbed our hill to greet the sun and let the wind play with my curls.  And my soul sighed again.

Funny how that sigh is almost identical to the one it made almost five days ago when my dogs and I went walking in the rain and discovered a little blue heron feeding at a hidden vernal pond.

Or how it sighed four days ago at an oh-fortuitous philharmonic performance.

Or three days ago at an exceptionally well-timed cup of hot tea.

Or two days ago after a difficult negotiation done well.

Or yesterday during stimulating conversation about international educational standards and the potential for a universal certification process that would allow anyone’s education to be more marketable for a job anywhere in the world.  Over a glass of beer, of course.

Just a moment,  each a peculiar passing moment.  But treasure none the less.  Don’t let them fool you as whimsical wisps, for they are the stuff life is made of.  True life, the thing that at the end has made it all worth while.

But the sun is now up fully and it’s coming upon work time where a couple dragons await me today.  So I let each moment go, but I won’t forget them for a moment though…while I’m out collecting some more.

What are your treasured moments?  I’d really like to know…

With love,


All we need is love

My parents—that dynamic duo who impressed upon me in my childhood that life was not meant to be spent in front of a television—FORCED me to become a regular viewer of a prime time TV series this year.  Yes, forced.  Not one of their typical intellectual PBS series either, but a network show.

And so Monday night while struggling with the guilt of sitting absorbed by the “boob tube,” I found redemption when one of my favorite characters cut through all the noise of the show, of society, of my life by pointing out simply, “the most important thing in life is love.”

I’ve heard this before. And I have, of course, thought it through thoroughly. I do accept this as truth.

So why did it make such an impression?

Because, Gentle Penguin, I suddenly realized I’m not sure I know what love actually is. 

I flip through the Rolodex of possible explanations stored in my monkey mind while glued to the couch still.

Romance. Sex. Desperate dependency. Necessary dependency. Ethereal whisperings of the cosmos. Desire. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love bears all things. Yadda yadda yadda…

None of it seems to really stick out as what I’m seeking, and most of it seems repulsive or depressing.

So I get up and pull out my good friend Merriam Webster to see what he says:

An unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.

  • Loyal=complete and constant support for someone or something.
  • Benevolent=to do good, especially for another, in a purposeful organized way.

That’s it!

Except I suddenly wonder “have I really loved my children, my dogs, my parents, my others in this way…ever?”

I flip through another Rolodex of memories, images, feelings, moments.  Yes, I believe I have and do still, but there’s definitely room for improvement.

I suddenly want to wake up my youngest and tell her I DO support her and want what’s good for her and that’s why I’m often so hard on her. But she’s a teenager, and no good ever came from waking a teenager in the middle of the night—nor would that be in her best good.  Maybe I could text that same message to my oldest who’s a college student and a night owl, but I hear the birds chirping so it’s probably too late for that because it’s early now. Maybe I could send an email to my parents…but that might raise suspicion and cause them to worry about me more than they already do. 

I settle for rubbing the belly of my most loyal companion, Ollie the Doberman who’s wondering if I’ll ever turn off that blasted light and put down that stupid black box in my hand.

But there is one more thing I resolve to do.  Tomorrow (or rather today), I will spend the morning in my quarterly “master mind” meeting for my business. I will examine goals, explore tough questions aimed at making my life—and work, and business—better, then make commitments based on those mental machinations. But if the most important thing in life is love, shouldn’t I just quit while I’m ahead and give myself over to it?

No, or course not! I should do something even riskier. I should build my life—and my work, and my business—around love.  Instead of money.

Why does this thought feel so uncomfortable?  I know the discomfort comes from the angst that the word “love” drives because of all the other definitions that exist, nebulous, fluffy, dependent or irresponsible as they seem.  So I race back to Webster’s definition:

An unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another.

  • Loyal=complete and constant support for someone or something.
  • Benevolent=to do good, especially for another, in a purposeful organized way.

Whew! In rereading I kinda feel like maybe I already do this for my work and my business with my unwavering focus on diplomacy: the art of dealing with people in a sensitive (aware of and understanding the feelings of people) and effective (having an intended effect) way and  purposeful change: to make different

Still I probably won’t go shouting this new bedrock of my business to the mountains or even my clients.  But maybe it will give me a better opportunity to explain what I do to my kids, my dogs and my parents.  And maybe it will lead me to success: to turn out well.

Irrational Fear

I’m not brave.  

Gentle Penguin, I’m ashamed to admit last week the smell of a dead mouse began spreading in my house.  Naturally, I decided I probably needed to sell the house. Why? Because I’m sensitive to smells, and I’m not brave enough to go looking for the dead mouse because I might find it…then what would I have to do?  I’d have to dispose of it. And let’s be clear, that’s just not in my repertoire.

But the smell kept getting worse, and selling a house is a long venture.  So I went looking for the dead mouse today, sure that I could rationalize my fear away.

Except the minute I spotted the mouse laying in the coils of my refrigerator, all rational thought abandoned me.  

I screamed (several times), cried (a lot), gagged (and gagged) and entered the world of my amygdala.  It didn’t matter that the mouse was only a small fraction of my size, unable to move and there was no danger.  My body seemed seized with the certainty of danger, and my brain was not about to convince it otherwise. In fact my brain seemed to be shut down.  “What should I do?” I asked it.    


“Please help me!” I begged.  “You promised we’d do this together.”

But I heard nothing. I just stood shaking sobbing and fearful.

It’s little tail and claw-like feet stared at me making me gag like I was a toddler faced with a fork full of broccoli.  I called my parents. “What should I do?”  They laughed and laughed confused how I could be so afraid I couldn’t figure out what to do.  “Just get it out, and throw it outside,” they said between laughing fits.  Finally they decided to come over and do it for me.
Except, it was like heaven opening a phone line directly to my brain, and both my grandmothers were on the other end of the lineyelling at me. “Your going to make your parents go out into these freezing temperatures on these icy roads to take care of that mouse right there?!”  “Just get a stick and wipe it out onto your dustpan, then throw it outside in the field behind your house! It will only take a minute to do that. You call your parents back right now and tell them you can do it.” “You can do it!”

My grandmothers were made from stronger stock, obviously.  I don’t think they were afraid of anything.

So I called my parents back and went to find a stick.

I prod its little body to make sure it’s truly dead and not going to jump out at me.  And I scream and gag.  I steady my hand and the stick and push it toward the waiting dustpan. And shake and sob.  One of its little feet gets stuck in the coil, and I gag again.  It won’t move, and when I try, its little leg twists at such an angle I nearly pass out from disgust.

I have to go find another stick to use like chopsticks to loosen the foot. Shaking the entire time I’m trying to be skillful, wracked with sobs, coughing and gagging, I loosen the foot.  The tail emerges fully and so do its pointy little feet. I gag again. And scream.

Theo stands by me the entire time as if his cute wolfness will protect and guide me.  Ollie cowers in the other room like I wish I could.

Then it’s done.  The mouse lays like a lump of fluff in my dustpan, and I only have to walk it outside to the back of my yard where I can toss it into the snowy field. Except, the mouse is in my dustpan and I have to walk it outside to the back of my yard where I will have to toss it into the snowy field.

Theo prods me as if to say “I’m here. It’s okay. Let’s do it together.”  My grandmothers in my head roll their eyes and frown and make tsk-tsking noises. 

When I get back inside, I feel exhausted and beaten.  But my rationale brain has finally kicked back in.  It tells me all about what a fool I am, and how there was no danger, and judges me rather harshly.  I ignore it and sit holding my puppies close while I cry out all the rest of my fear and anxiety. 

Why can’t I be braver? I mean I deal with all sorts of big impact decisions, much more threatening scenarios every day and don’t blink an eye. But a dead mouse tips me over the edge?  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Maybe it will when I’m older. Like in my 80’s—my perpetual grandmothers’ ages.  And maybe I’ll laugh about it then too. Actually I’ll probably be laughing about it later today.  

But for now, I’m frightened like a little girl and disgusted and angry.  And worried I’ll be haunted by the mouse tonight in my dreams.  

But at least I’m reminded that I’m not completely hardened, military, robotic, or invincible. Not yet anyway. And somehow there’s an irrational comfort in that. 

I went to an event last night on the Geopolitics on Water and Climate Change.  It was fascinating, but I left feeling quite frustrated.  The argument about the importance and increasing rarity of fresh groundwater was very compelling.  But after half an hour of growing fear about the future my daughters and their future children will face, there was no action suggested.  There were no ideas for things I could do, or habits I could instill in my daughters, or proposed changes for which I might advocate.

So I went home worried and continued to worry all night.

Well, that’s not quite true.  Around midnight when I still couldn’t sleep, I surfed the internet for ways that an individual can help conserve water, like:

  • Harvesting rain water and keeping your gray water to water your plants
  • Checking your water lines, faucets, toilet and meter for leaks
  • Installing water-saving shower heads and faucet aerators, as well as using creating or buying a toilet tank bank (I just use a couple bricks); take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, running your dishwasher and washing machine only when full
  • Replacing water-needy plants with drought tolerant plants
  • Growing your own food, knowing and choosing food with water in mind (that is food that doesn’t require excessive irrigation or watering to grow), reducing food waste (by buying and/or eating less food so you don’t end up throwing away food — according to our speaker last night a LOT of our fresh groundwater goes to industrial-sized crops, and nearly 50% of our food in the USA is thrown away instead of eaten)
  • And a 100 other ideas

But knowing is only half the battle.  Now I need to implement these ideas–to DO something.

Which brings me to my real point (not that water conservation isn’t important; it is both important and urgent)—if we continue to hear about important and urgent matters that don’t contain action items, how many of us are likely to even KNOW what to do?  Which means we’re even more likely to NOT do anything about it.  Which means change isn’t likely.  However, if you share a problem, take the additional step to help people know what they can do to help.

So what action items do I want you to know from this post?

  • If you are creating content, tell people how they can help.
  • Provide a range of actions (for instance, some may find putting a brick in their toilet to reduce water flow to be all they can manage, while others may go out and order that rain barrel and calculate their food-water consumption then change their shopping habits starting today).
  • Create a way for people to join the conversation (not comments, because those aren’t a conversation) to find solutions if solutions aren’t readily available.
  • Go DO some of the suggestions yourself!  (Karma doesn’t hurt to get the ball rolling.)

Think about the possibilities if every time there was a story on climate change you had options you could adopt.  Or if every time there was a story about terrorism you also read about easy ways you could help make the world safer and more peaceful.  Or when they announce the time on the Doomsday Clock today, you knew what you could (and should) do to help turn the clock backwards.

Dancing with Putin

Did I tell you 2016 is the year I’m going to quit being lonely?  I decided it sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Some would say that since then I’ve behaved oddly.  I’ve put away my cell phone while trying out new Irish pubs around my little spot on Earth.  I’ve flirted just for the practice.  I’ve laughed and smiled instead of worried.  And I’ve even accepted invitations to events I wouldn’t normally attend and discussed Russian politics with people I wouldn’t normally talk with.

Last night, I did all of these things.

And guess what I’ve discovered.  I’m not the only one who cares about Russian politics, men often enjoy flirting just for the practice too, laughing is good for my complexion and, probably most surprising, I’m not the only one who still enjoys dancing.  In fact, in the last 24 hours, I’ve met at least half a dozen people who go dancing around my little spot on Earth.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then by what happened next.  I went home in high spirits, let the dogs out, drank some chamomile tea and went to bed…and dreamt I was dancing with Putin.

It started out charmingly enough.  He is, afterall, someone I admire–don’t get me wrong, I think he is dangerous and not to be trusted–but from my intellectual interest in strategy, diplomacy and human behavior, I find him to be brilliant.  And he is a smart, but manly Russian man–perhaps my favorite kind of man.  So when he approached me at a networking event and bowed deeply asking me to dance with him, I was flattered.  And excited.

A Viennese waltz was playing–odd, I admit, but appropo too.  We started out slowly like the music, taking baby steps to learn each other’s rhythm and testing out our physical communication skills.  The room gradually became more quiet as the hundred conversations about business quieted.  The room also seemed to expand as we moved more quickly with larger steps around the room taking up more space–as any powerful person ought (Putin, not me).

Once we had established our space on the floor, the music changed.  But the dance did not.  And our steps, which had at first been tentative, then a trying parallel smoothed right into unaided synchronicity.

However, when the strains of that song faded, I was surprised to find that Putin had no intention of leaving the floor.  Even when the next song meant the dance would change.  He was a surprisingly agile swing dancer.  Smooth might be the word I would use to describe him.

And so we danced the night away–literally, in my dreams.

Unfortunately, as the night turned to dawn, the dancing would cease.  He danced me home and left me at my door.

I guess when you dream of dancing with Putin, you should expect the unexpected. But I was just thrilled with the dance.  So imagine my surprise when I went to let my dogs out (in my dream) and I found him picking the lock to the back door trying to break in with a mask meant to use to change and smother me

I was to become Darth Vader, it seems.

I woke up with a start sweating and cold at the same time. I woke up frightened.  So I threw myself into my morning routine hoping it would soothe the images and feelings and calm me.  But it hasn’t worked…until just now.  I collapsed into my favorite chair exhausted from the effort of trying to forget the dream.  There in front of me, on the ledge by the TV sat two movies that haven’t been put away.

Frustrated (for I like to keep an uncluttered house) I get up to put away the clutter and note rather bemusedly that the two movies are Hello Dolly and Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith.

Perhaps it’s Kismet.  Or a lesson.  But I think it’s a sign.  A sign that I should take better care of which movies I mix in my mind.