Any Other Day?

Ground Zero - Nat GeoEvery year I wonder if this is the year I will forget. Every year I wonder if this is the year it stops feeling so fresh. Every year—as September 11th, 2001 slips further into history—I wonder if it’s strange it still haunts me like it does. And every year, as the anniversary of that fateful day approaches, I wonder… Is this the year it starts to feel like any other day?

Yesterday I tried to remember what September 10, 2001 had felt like. What was it like to wake up in a world where September 11th was just another non-descript day on the calendar? What did it feel like before the words nine-eleven lingered bitterly on our lips or hung heavily in the air like an acrid cloud of black smoke?

Try as I might, I can’t recall. I remember the weather was beautiful. People always talk about the weather that day. Have you noticed that? Sunny, warm, and cloudless… Everyone says it was the sort of late-summer day that makes you happy to be alive. In fact, everyone seems to marvel at just how extraordinarily perfect and “normal” that Tuesday was when it began.

As most people do, I still remember the day so clearly. I remember what I wore, what I ate, where I was when it happened, what I said, how I felt and how I didn’t sleep at all later that night. I remember experiencing a sensation that the sky was falling because a nameless, faceless enemy had brought the horror of war to our doorstep. And I remember wondering if anything would ever be the same again.

I don’t know when it will feel like just another day on the calendar, or if it ever will. I hope it never does. I do know that so far every year—like picking a scab off of an old wound—I still remember. I know that so far every year it feels as though it only happened yesterday.

So I guess I have my answer.

Tonight when I turn out the lights to go to sleep… I will close my eyes knowing that this was not the year that I forgot.

We Are Not Boulders

agnes-vaille-falls11Every now and then something profound happens that makes you realize how fleeting life can be. Something reminds you how fragile your existence is and sharpens your awareness of the fact that no one is immune to the fatal flaw that is simply being human…

On an ordinary autumn morning, six family members were hiking along an easy trail in the central Colorado Rockies to bear witness to one of the state’s beautiful natural gems waiting for them at the end. It would truly be a breathtaking reward for such a brief mountain stroll. Except that this excursion would ultimately be anything but rewarding.

Carved into the side of towering 14,000 ft. Mount Princeton and surrounded by sheer rocky cliffs, evergreen trees and quivering golden aspen, the ice-cold waters of the AgnesVailleFalls tumble over the rocks thundering and crashing as they emerge from the mountain. Perhaps the recent rains or dramatic changes in temperature had caused the boulders to shift from their perches high above and the giant monoliths began sliding and falling to the observation area at the bottom of the falls… and onto the family watching below.

Of the six hikers, only a 13 year old girl survived. It is indeed moments like these that make us newly aware how quickly life as we know it can change. However, for me personally, this struck on a whole other level. You see, I did not know the family, but I did know the falls. I used to visit them frequently, hiking that very trail many times while living and working just a few miles down the road. It was a place I went to watch for wildlife, or to sit in quiet meditation and write.

I have stood where they stood—where they perished—and looked up in awe and wonder at this towering, rushing spectacle time and time again and marveled at its strength, endurance and majesty. I have climbed up high amidst the boulders to catch a better glimpse of a mountain goat and eaten my lunch surrounded by the rolling mist coming off the water when first it broke over thrusting rocky ledges. And although I thought I appreciated the power of nature and I’d like to think I respected it too, I felt perfectly safe and secure inside my mortal shell.

We human beings have an incredible knack for thinking of ourselves as boulders. We consider our life, our stature, our “situation” to be immovable and permanently grounded… as though life, like water, should flow around us but never actually MOVE us. We think if we root ourselves in the soil of whatever we deem important that everything else will get out of our way. We believe that illness, death, loss and change cannot happen to us.

How humbling it is to be reminded—in times like these—that we are not boulders. We are breakable and fallible and nothing in this life is certain. I don’t know about you, but it is during circumstances like these that I want to hold my loved ones tighter… keep them closer. Watch what I say and how I treat the people who matter most. Enjoy the beauty of a crisp fall day or the musical sound of pure unadulterated laughter. And I want to bask in thankfulness for all that I have experienced and been given. I want to put away the cares and worries of tomorrow… Living only for today.

Written in honor of the Johnson Family of Buena Vista, Colorado. And dedicated to some dear friends of mine who’ve recently found themselves in battle against forces beyond our comprehension.  

You Look Richer / Prettier / Happier / More Interesting on Facebook

Wealthy Woman Served Champagne in Bubble BathWhile at a concert the other night I saw a balding, middle-aged man wearing a white t-shirt that simply read: “You look richer on Facebook.” My first instinct was to internally ridicule the man for wearing such a dumb shirt and elbow Lee who was sitting right next to me. Which I DID do… I know, I can be rather catty and shallow at times. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true the statement on this guy’s shirt actually was.

We really do put our best digital foot forward when it comes to social media. ALL social media… This isn’t exclusive to Facebook. It extends to Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. etc. Why do we do this? Because we can. And thanks to the Orwellian world in which we now live, it has NEVER been easier. Most of us, I believe, use the platform of social media to carefully craft the image of ourselves that we wish to project to the outside world. Am I wrong?

The “Class Reunion” used to be the vehicle by which we attempted to show off our “best” selves for one night. We’d diet, buy a new figure-flattering outfit and color our hair. We’d fluff up our job titles and descriptions. Brush up on our awareness of current events or the latest juicy bits of gossip. And season our conversations with snippets from the family highlight reel. But now we need not limit our narcissistic indulgences to once every five or ten years.

Now we are out there 24/7, baby! And in tandem with the convenience of the “24/7 All Me, All the Time” channel comes the convenience of “hiding” behind glowing screens day and night. Sorting, cropping and color-correcting our photos until they show nothing but our best sides. Our darkest secrets now cloaked in our ability to choose whether or not to click that “Share” button. C’mon. Admit that you do it.

OK… I’ll go first with the confessions… As far as “negative” things go, I might post that I am getting a migraine or slammed with a sinus infection but that is all fairly innocuous “above the neck” stuff, if you will. Not to mention, there is some cyber sympathy that comes with that sort of suffering minus the need for embarrassment. But no one, I repeat NO ONE puts the crappy, nitty-gritty stuff of life that really goes on out there for the world to see.

For instance, we don’t mention the fight we had with our spouse or kids the day before. You know the one that ended with the slamming of doors and muttering of expletives? There is nary a word about the gas station burrito we gobbled in haste that later kept us up all night, chained to the bathroom fixtures, experiencing the sorts of digestive horrors nightmares are made of. We’re mums on the “mysterious rash” some new medication is giving us. And there isn’t a peep about what you suspect the weirdo next door may or may NOT be doing with a chainsaw in his garage at 3 a.m.

I mean, sure, there are always going to be a few of “those” people who are willing to hang ALL of their dirty laundry out there… Lamenting the choices they’ve made in life… Or the number of times they’ve been rejected, how much they hate their friends or social life, feel lonely or have suffered financial ruin. I, for one, stand in curious awe of these individuals. One can only assume that these perverse pixel people are sadists, masochists or hypochondriacs in search of some commiseration, pity or affirmation.

However, it is their right and freedom to do so. Personally, I would rather hide my shame. I prefer (as I suspect most people are likewise doing) to disguise the less-than-stellar-stuff-of-life in the fanciful façade of a funny picture or clever observation… My life… According to me… made up of millions of pixels… arranged precisely the way that I want YOU to see them.

Debt Free(dom)

cutting up cardLike a recovering alcoholic sampling the taboo taste of a beloved beverage, I handed the cashier my plastic. The ease with which I did so, accompanied by my effortless smile gave absolutely no hint to the hesitation lurking just beneath the surface. Though the purchase was justified and the actual money in the bank, there was a tiny place inside of me that still remained uneasy.

Once you’ve climbed out of the deep, dark hole of credit card debt—finding yourself back in the black—the former aches and pains of actually digging that hole occasionally come back to haunt you. I am not proud to admit that I was in debt — having only recently brushed the remainder of that dirt off my less-than-stellar credit report. But I am relieved to say that those days are behind me.

Sifting through stacks and stacks of old mail over the weekend reminded me of those darker days. Except that while I was living them, I technically didn’t know they were “darker.” It would be awhile before I actually realized how deep I had dug. I was in fact, living it up back then! I was happily buying new furniture, clothes and shoes, paying for manicures, pedicures, salon visits, gym memberships and housekeeping services.

A close friend did occasionally ask me whether or not I should be spending so freely. But I brushed it off as them being too “conservative” with their own money and “fearful” of bad things that would “never happen.” I was gainfully employed, single with no dependents and the proud owner of a seemingly endless supply of credit. It never occurred to me to be concerned because I was always able to keep up with the payments. If I could pay the bills every month, then this was all stuff that I could afford. Until it wasn’t.

Being young and stupid, I never gave much thought to all of the uncertainties out there. I’d done my homework, gotten a degree and been blissfully employed since graduation. Things like personal illness and the company you work for going under weren’t even on my radar. Until they were.

Back then—during this hedonistic time of living like some kind of entitled Hilton or Kardashian—I fell ill with a serious case of pneumonia. On top of that, just prior to the pneumonia, I’d left the security of a lower paying government job to accept an exciting new position at a rapidly-growing publishing company and had zero sick leave in the bank. On doctor’s orders, I missed an entire month of work and wages. Suddenly making those bills was a little bit harder.

And then the “rapidly-growing” company folded. Making paying those bills all but impossible. I managed. I didn’t file for bankruptcy or anything, but I did have to move 2,000 whole miles back east to live with mom and dad, working a minimum wage job until I could find a better one. Going through the ancient mail was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. First there were the bank statements, bills and invoices… a.k.a. Evidence of All the Fun. Followed by a trickle and later a heavy stream of medical bills, debt consolidation packages and various hand-written notes of lists I’d made inventorying all of my debts and monthly bills.

But it was good for me to see how the entire ordeal had actually unfolded. What started out as a simple housekeeping exercise wound up being a true moment of reckoning. I’d often wondered, through the years, as I struggled to pay down the balances on these debts: How did this happen? How did I rack up all of this debt? And now I know. I can see it all from a distance. It was as though it had happened to someone else… because in a way, it did happen to someone else. I am no longer that person.

Thanks to the support of my parents, a couple of really good friends and an extremely fiscally responsible soon-to-be husband, I am learning the value of having money IN the bank before I have any fun with it. I still love furniture, clothes, shoes, salon visits and travel and I would LOVE to pay someone to do all of the unpleasant, laborious tasks that accompany adulthood. But since I’m neither a Hilton nor a Kardashian, I’ve lain to rest my Visa Gold & Mastercard shovel and am enjoying the freedom that comes with “living it up” — within my means.

Our Barbies, Ourselves

Barbie125thCareerRetroWe’ve come a long way, baby. Or should I say Barbie has come a long way from the ill-proportioned, frighteningly well-endowed, bleach-blond beach bimbo she once was to her latest occupation: Engineer. You go girl!! You show the world that you can be ANYTHING you want to be! Plastic can be molded in a million different ways and clothes can be sewn to suit any proportions these days—real or imaginary. I, for one, find it refreshing to see that Barbie is made of stern enough stuff to conquer yet another male-dominated field.

I’ve long had a theory about Barbies and the girls who play with them. That being that who we are (or aspire to be)… was probably foreshadowed in our Barbie play. The notion grew out of a simple conversation I was having one day with two of my female co-workers. Somehow the topic of Barbie came up and all of us confirmed that we’d had at least one of them growing up. Naturally, the conversation turned to what we liked to do with our Barbies when we played with them…

JOANNA
I proudly admitted to the fact that all my Barbie wanted to do was HAVE FUN! She partied, she LOVED working on her tan and swimming in her pool (which was actually just our kitchen sink magically converted into a sparkling oasis in which Barbie could dive and swim… naked). MY Barbie would not be confined to the pre-determined dwellings crafted for her by Matel.

The Barbie mansion could not hold her. The Barbie RV was too cramped and not NEARLY luxurious enough… and so I constantly commandeered entire rooms in our house and created elaborate living spaces for her to inhabit. Thankfully my mother put up with this. I do seem to remember my poor dad trying to get to his office in our basement and having to ever-so-gingerly tip-toe around all the precariously placed pink and orange inflatable furniture.

My Barbie also did not do any work. Don’t ask me how she had any money… but she managed. She had A LOT of boyfriends. Perhaps they sponsored her. If she DID work, it was in a fashion boutique where she spent most of the time trying on the clothes instead of helping customers. In fact, looking back on it now, my Barbie was a little bitchy, somewhat lazy, completely self-absorbed and truth be told, probably a bit of a tramp.

AMANDA
One of my co-workers—let’s call her Amanda (names have been changed to protect the innocent)—had a much different interaction with her Barbie. Amanda’s Barbie was what I would call a little Worker Bee. Amanda dressed her in gray business suits and sent her to work in an office. All Amanda’s Barbie did was work. Amanda even cut up Barbie-sized squares of paper that she would feed into a miniature typewriter!! And all I could think of while she was telling me this was: She thought THIS was fun!?!?! How in the #@$% could this be fun??? But it was what Amanda liked to do with her Barbie.

When I inquired about possible boyfriends for her Barbie (I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Ken) she said that she didn’t have any Ken dolls. But she WOULD occasionally borrow her brother’s G.I. Joe doll and Joe, as if on a covert mission, would quote: “infiltrate the Barbie mansion.” Nice. It’s good to know that even Worker Bees like Amanda like to have fun. Even if it IS on the down-low, after a long, hard day at the office.

LISA
The other co-worker, let’s call her Lisa, technically HAD a Barbie to play with. But she didn’t really LIKE her Barbie all that much. Rather she tortured her Barbie from time to time. She would cut off all her hair, strip off all of her clothes, grab her by her teensy plastic foot and swing her around and around the room until she went flying into the wall.

———————————————————————

The most fascinating part of this colorful dialogue was the concept of our “Barbie play” amazingly hinting at the kind of women we’d each grown up to be. Thus my theory was born: What little girls do with their Barbies can offer a fairly accurate glimpse into the personalities of the women-in-waiting.

Now, I am NOT admitting to being a grown-up “bitchy, lazy, self-absorbed tramp”… though some may beg to differ. But I definitely DO like to have FUN above anything else. To me, work is a necessary evil and a means to much more important aspirations like partying, vacationing, shopping and working on my tan.

Some people, like Amanda, LIVE to work. And Amanda, to this day, remains one of the most devoted, hard-working employees I know. She put herself through school while working full time, earning not one but two degrees and has climbed the ladder in her organization. Most importantly, she is completely happy and fulfilled as that person.

Though I’ve lost track of Lisa over the years, when I knew her she was a dedicated athlete constantly railing against typical female stereotypes. She believed that women can do ANYTHING that men can do and to indicate otherwise got under her skin like nothing else. She valued fairness and equality in all walks of life and her work and leisure remained consistent with those beliefs. I doubt that she’s changed.

So perhaps it is a stretch, my theory. But I believe I’m on to something. If only I could find a generous benefactor to grant me the financial resources for the necessary research. I could quit my job and travel the globe interviewing women everywhere to obtain their stories. Naturally, this endeavor would require me to do quite a bit of socializing and patronizing lavish resorts along the way. I’d then publish my findings, resulting in a best-selling book, thus allowing me to fully retire before the age of 40… making way for nothing but F-U-N.

Clearing the Cobwebs

cobwebThis blog is collecting dust, I know. And the time has come for me to address it. There are cobwebs in the corners and dust bunnies burrowing beneath the banner. Never have I been away for so long. Never have I neglected my own little slice of cyber real estate for such an extended period. And it’s beginning to show. And I feel terrible about it! And I miss it! I miss writing and I miss interacting with those of you who visit.

Truthfully, the reason for my obscenely excessive absenteeism is simple. I have not had the brain cells to spare. Or at least it feels that way. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been working at a new job since January while taking evening classes and it is consuming every ounce of energy that I have. I love the job. And I’m learning so much in my class, and I am ever-so-grateful for all of it. But lately—when it comes to sitting down and writing—I have found myself tapped out creatively.

A few of you have been so kind as to send emails telling me that you miss me and asking where I’ve been… checking my vital signs and encouraging me to continue writing. I hope you know that I’m not abandoning this effort by any means. I plan to keep writing for as long as I have things to say that people might enjoy reading. But I do hope those of you who like stopping by, will indulge me this brief hiatus… for now. I hope to be back at it this week or the next, but I promise I WILL be back.

Virtually Divided

brain-piechartIt’s difficult to remember a time when the only thing that could distract you from work or dinner or your favorite TV show was the phone. And I mean the kind that plugged into the wall and only made one sound. Ever. It didn’t play the theme from Django, or the latest from Kanye, Beyonce or LMFAO. It just rang. And the only way to determine who was calling was to pick it up.

Getting things done is much more complicated now that in addition to your antiquated landline phone, your mobile phone with its endless news alerts, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter notifications, email alerts, software updates and game requests acts as a HUGE distraction. Add that to your desktop computer (if you are chained to one like I am) with its email alerts, IMs, meeting requests, software updates, etc., etc. and you may start to feel the urge to reach for the Xanax. Or a hammer.

It’s cool that we are able to do SO many things at once now. It really is. I can today—sitting in the Eastern Standard Time Zone—work simultaneously on a project with someone on the Pacific coast. I can grab the laptop to attend a meeting or escape to anywhere where there is wireless internet and access network files from the office.

But with all of the good that it brings, I can’t help but wonder: What harm is it doing? Are our brains going in so many different directions that no ONE thing gets the full attention that it deserves? Are we multitasking so often that we are going to forget how to sit still for as long as it takes to see ONE thing through to completion? Or is everything destined to be divided and done in pixel parts from here to eternity? Because obviously the virtual world is not only here to stay… but to go… with US anywhere we wish to take it.

I don’t know about you, but my personal time has become severely fractured too. I no longer just watch TV or eat dinner or have a conversation or look at Facebook or write. In a typical evening I might do all of the above at once. If I have a favorite show, I might push everything else to the side… laundry, dishes, conversation… to block off that 30 minutes or an hour to “relax and focus” on the entertaining dialog between some beloved characters, only to discover that I can’t keep my hands off my iPhone.

I used to only pick it up at commercials to play a game, return an email or troll Facebook for juicy gossip. But I’ve noticed that increasingly so, I am fiddling with it during the very show that I once tried so religiously to protect. I cannot stop multitasking. Last night I must have gotten OUT of bed six times (I am not kidding) to do something just because it “occurred to me” to do so. Well, that, and I feared I might forget. That is a real fear now. That I’ll forget.

Gee, I wonder why the risk of forgetfulness is so much higher now. We all like to joke around and attribute it to aging… but I myself, think the more likely culprit is a divided mind. After sliding back INTO bed for the sixth time, I finally told myself to JUST STOP. Crawl under the covers and STAY there. Do not pick up the phone. Do not surf the channels. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Just freaking SLEEP! OK!?! That is at least ONE time when I am doing only ONE thing at a time.

Deep Freeze

ice-crystals
Like armies taking to the fields in battle, the ice marched steadily onward. Starting at the edges and meeting in the middle, its frozen grip grew briskly downward crystallizing all movement and solidifying that which was fluid mere hours ago.

Once again I stand in awe of nature and the uncanny way it has of taking over. It gains control of everything without ever having checked with us.

So too, life goes on without regard for our plans, our ideas, our dreams, our schemes. Time advances on us, like a freeze to unsuspecting open water, and we have no choice but to withdraw… to surrender… to survive… and to wait.

We wait—with overwhelming anticipation—for the sweet, sweet mercy of the thaw.

Belonging

three swansThree white swans inhabit the waters of the quarry stretching beneath and beyond my new office window. The other morning, the aqua expanse awash in the warm, bright sunlight of a new day, I watched the trio glide across the water just as they did the very first time I saw them.

They swim in a unique formation and always the same. Two of them remain close together while one trails slightly behind. They are graceful and lovely and a welcome distraction from the busy computer screens blinking and beeping at me with email and meeting alerts for the majority of the day.

Normally, I would think very little of the fact that there are only three. But a co-worker pointed out to me that a year ago there were four. Two pairs, consistently swimming together and doing whatever it is swans do. Over the course of time, however, the group had lost a member.

For an animal lover like me, it’s sad enough as it is without the regard for one important detail… Apparently swans mate for life. And this was a tiny bit of avian intel that I did not know. It wasn’t just that the “group” had lost a member, but one of these creatures—the one who trails roughly a swan’s length behind—had lost its partner for life.

For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve found myself obsessed with them. I look for them every day, hoping they will grace me with their silent presence. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that one of them has lost its partner, often causing me to wonder if perhaps he or she is sorrowful or lonely? Or whether or not it’s the fascinating fact that the other pair allows the lone swan to remain a part of the group? But something about this unconventional bird bunch intrigues and inspires me.

Such has been my preoccupation with them that I have tried to figure out the source of my quite-possibly-borderline-unusual curiosity. And I think (after some excessive reflection) I’ve nailed it down. I think it’s because the behavior is so human. Their bond reminds me so much of us with our innate desire to connect with others and to forge relationships that will stand the test of time.

The mating for life thing is cool… Don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of critters in nature who do this. But I think what has captivated me most is how consistently they stick together. The three of them… The odd number of them.

I don’t know about you, but I take great comfort in knowing that the need to belong stretches far beyond me… far beyond my peers, family, friends and fellow human beings… and farther still beyond the edges of the quarry outside my window… and infinitely beyond any of the natural world that I can touch, feel and see.

…and to the Republic for which it stands…

TitleI was driving to work yesterday saying hateful things to my uncooperative hair, getting stopped at every, single red light and growing increasingly impatient as I secretly cursed the slow-moving guy in front of me for consulting his dashboard GPS on his EVERY move because he was clearly LOST… when I looked out my driver’s side window toward the shopping plaza across the street. On the corner I noticed the flag flying at half-staff and thought to myself with a lump suddenly lodged in my throat: “Oh. Yeah. That’s right.” And just like that, I remembered Sandy Hook. Suddenly none of my petty “issues” mattered AT ALL.

I remembered that somewhere, not too far from here… people are deeply hurting. They are grieving instead of baking cookies and shopping and considering what to stuff inside the stockings. On the week before Christmas—a child’s most cherished holiday—parents are burying their babies instead of reading them stories and tucking them in for a brief winter’s nap. I remembered that somewhere, not too far from here… a community is drowning in devastation as they grapple with the largest, most difficult questions anyone will ever ask.

The flag, flapping silently from it’s revised position only half-way up the pole, was a solid slap in the face forcing me to gain the proper perspective about something as minor as slow-moving traffic. Yet it was an even harsher reminder that so much of what I worry about on a regular basis is utterly futile. But there won’t always be a flag flying at half-staff to serve as such a wake-up call. Eventually the flag will be raised again as we attempt to move forward and the evening news will begin to cover something else.

And while we ought not remain mired in the darkness that so often spreads from unspeakable tragedy, it IS worth pausing to remember that whether we see the flag raised high with pride or lowered with respect in mourning… it’s fabric wraps all the way around us… All of usEvery day. And well, if we can remember that we’re collectively covered by the same cloth… maybe we can remember that this life is about so much more than ourselves. And maybe that’s a start.