Wednesday, December 28, 2011

John 3:16

For God so loved the world
He gave his one and only son
so that whoever believes in Him
shall not perish
but have eternal life.

I am not one for memorizing Bible verses. I've nothing against it and I tend to remember things easily so it's a bit of a mystery as to why I avoid it. Yet Mom likes Max Lucado and I wanted to leave the book for her when I returned home so I arranged myself on the couch yesterday and began to read his exploration of this verse.

I finished it last night and recalled why I'm fond of Lucado as well - he has an approachable style. A gentle invitation to read and learn and think that I find both informative and soothing somehow. And woven into the hopeful stories and holy lessons were questions about the reader's reaction - my reaction - to this life and what comes after.

I believe in God, though my belief sometimes lacks passion. It's comfortable and cozy and I've ignored it more often than not of late. His love is a given. His mercy and grace absently taken for granted.

When Chienne's nails clicked against the floor in the hallway, my mom called for me to help her. Already awake, I rose and followed her down the hall, opening the sliding doors to the backyard and waiting until she was ready to return to bed. Once there though, I was restless. Unhappy. Afraid not of what comes after death but what comes next in this life.

So I came to the living room and turned on the light by Dad's chair, deciding I'd fill my glass with water before I continued to read the 40 devotionals at the end of Lucado's book. I grabbed a Cutie from the crisper with my glass of filtered water and returned to snuggle into the recliner and finish turning the pages.

While the book is quite focused, the end is a series of snapshots of Jesus life and it seemed somehow Christmas-y to page through them without pause (though I realize that's not the point of a devotional). I'd already made it to Day 20 and decided to eat my citrus fruit before finishing the text.

"Seedless, sweet and easy to peel," I murmured as I removed the rind, recalling the commercial for the tiny treats. Then I wondered why that message resided in memory while tracing my orange-scented fingertips over the embossed title of my book.

Life is seeming long to me lately. Like everything loops in this awful, depressing cycle while we do little but act badly and get frustrated and do more harm than good. Much as I enjoy the seasons of the upper Midwest, their endless rotation has begun to bore me. As blessed as I am to have my job - and I do know that I am - it seems like I'm helping few and spending most of my time spinning my wheels, lacking energy to do much other than watch television or play mindless games when I return home. We age - children grow taller and increasingly skilled, dogs lose their sight or hearing or ability to walk comfortably, my knee crackles sometimes and I've mostly stopped noticing the gray in my hair.

I believe - for me - a shift of focus is necessary. If I ignore the persistent cycles in favor of that which holds meaning, life once again becomes productive. I'm once again powerful - at least in my own sphere of influence - and can feel I'm doing something. My faithful canine hopped out of bed and clicked down the hall once again in search of me while I was writing. And I moved from my chair to the couch so she could curl up behind my knees. And perhaps it's that easy - getting up, taking a couple of steps to find a different spot and think from here rather than there.

If I sit with God - just dwell in His presence - rather than filling my life with noise to drown Him out... If I pray more and fret less... If I hum hymns rather than mutter curses... If I cling to hope rather than languishing in despair...

If I memorize a Bible verse rather than an advertisement...

For God so loved the world He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.

It's small, but it's something. And it soothes me enough to want to sleep again.

Peace be with you.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Update

Dad, who looks not unlike Santa Claus, called to Smallest, mentioning he had placed his presents in his room. I believe this was meant to be one of those 'lead by example' moments.

Smallest, smearing pink polish on her tiny fingernails, glanced up and acknowledged his statement with what I thought was a rather regal nod.

He repeated it, stopping in front of her and blocking her light.

"Good for you," she said simply, looking up with eyebrows raised in challenge and tiny chapped lips curved into a smug smile. And her toys - the piles of boxes and stacks of bags - remained scattered about her feet.

"You can do that one," Little One directed when I emerged after the family had departed - partially in tears as someone had bossed the only boy who retaliated and all merry-hell broke loose until they put on coats and loaded cars. My eldest niece sobbed from her grandfather's arms - I'd hurt her tender feelings when I said she was being bossy. (But she was!) She'd eventually forgiven me (Mom interceded) and I was allowed to stick tiny gems on stickers.

So there I was - sleepily bedazzling a cupcake sticker - and I glanced up at her across the table, so much like me that my heart warms even as it worries. For all my good qualities - and there are some (really) - I'm bossy and dramatic and impatient and selfish and all those things that leave me wanting to warn Little One even as I cuddle her.

"Uh oh," I told her, my distraction causing a departure from our crafty plan. "I used the clear instead of the blue because I thought the clear were light blue." I let my fretful gaze meet her curious one and she shrugged and smiled, benevolent in her crafty leadership. "We can use the blue instead of clear on this cupcake," she decided.

So when she asked for ice cream - with both chocolate and strawberry syrup - I decided that I'd be a benevolent 'one tall enough to reach the freezer' and fetch it.

Chienne remained excited about opening gifts - she received a squeaky toy and some munchy sticks and tennis balls which she promptly shredded into tiny pieces that I'm still picking from my parents' carpet.

We've been mostly peaceful - apart from the coughing and blowing of noses and occasional squabbles. We played more games - electronic and board - had more food and learned how to use allowances on iTunes (after Little One's last spree cost her Aunt Katie upwards of $300).

And between the requests to fetch this or pick that up, there have been cuddles and kisses and snuggles on laps while reading books. Brother and I danced to Justin Bieber while his girls sang along - all the while helping Mom put together little keychains for a church banquet.

And I read 3:16, a gift from Aunt, that might finally be chipping away at the layer that seems to be keeping me from connecting with the world. Or so I pray.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

No Place Like...

"Merry Christmas," I greeted my former sister-in-law, a woman I've never particularly liked or respected. Still, my laissez-faire (which sounds fancier than 'I just don't care') attitude of late enables me to feel gently, if absently, affectionate toward most people.

"It's a beautiful house," I complemented her, for she's done a lovely job at putting together a home for her and the Ones. Recruiting her parents to do most of the work, she'd put in new floors - shining hardwoods - upon which the two kittens she'd acquired as Christmas gifts pranced about. She gave me a tour, pointing out the colors she'd selected for paint and making me smile at the severe organization of the clothes in closets. I remembered visiting Brother and blinking in surprise at the neat rows and straight seams as they contrasted sharply with our more haphazard 'hang it up and leave it alone' approach.

We scooped up the girls, my mother and I, and drove back to my parents' house, parking next to my Jeep that had arrived - Chienne and I in tow - yesterday mid-morning. I had a sandwich - ham and cheese on Butternut bread - while my faithful canine carefully moved about the house, orienting herself rather rapidly to this once-familiar structure. We've not been home since last Christmas, I think, preferring for the family to come to us (with our many bathrooms and comfortable beds and convenient location next to work and shopping and restaurants). But Chienne quickly made her way around the house and past the maze of toys on the patio into the fenced yard. I was both proud and impressed. For a moment at least. Then I settled back into my 'eh' sort of mood.

We went to church last night (eh) and came home early as Mom coughed and coughed. She settled herself with a breathing treatment while I cinnamon-sugared biscuit pieces for monkey bread. Then we went to bed early and - for the first time in my life - slept past dawn on Christmas Day.

I awakened after 7, petted Chienne and praised her for snuggling with me all night - she normally paces the house to track its occupants - and we padded down the hall just as the phone rang to summon us to gather the girls. Brother had arrived before we returned home and the girls began tearing paper from presents before we had breakfast in the oven and coffee from the pot.

We cooed over presents and promised to play later and tossed wrapping paper away from piles of boxes and toys. I loaded my new belongings into the Jeep to help clear a corner as sun streamed through the front window. Little One read me books (So Cool - I love kids who read) and, having left my iPad at home, I helped myself to her Judy B Jones collection and - once I adapted to the style - quite enjoyed 3 of them in short order. (Little One - age 7 - was quite impressed with my reading speed. I also beat her at Connect 4. I think this means that I - age 32 - am awesome.)

Smallest and I made crayons - looking at each other in disappointment when the melted pieces failed to dump into the waiting molds.

"I put it together wrong," I said apologetically. "And now it's locked so I have to wait for it to cool and unlock before I fix it."

"Why?" she asked, frowning at me darkly. The crayon maker is a bit slow for a 4 year old Smallest. So I tried to explain that the crayon melter needed to be a bit forward - it wasn't meeting the tilting device. And I told her I was sorry.

"It's this thing," she decided and I nodded in understanding.

"So we blame Crayola?" I asked, smiling at her and she nodded before we both stared at the ticking timer on the new toy. (We did finally make them and they were pretty cool. Just time-consuming.)

Smallest joined me for a nap with Chienne and then we played Old McDonald before helping Mom make corn pudding. Little One and I played a variant of dominos and she finally won at Connect 4 and we read another story together (I liked Inside Your Outside - it's a Dr. Seuss series, apparently).

We had dinner, watched television and played more games. It was pleasant. It is pleasant - even as poor Smallest is struggling with a fever (which explains why she's been so calm and sleepy today). But I keep recalling the comment as I waited for my massage at the spa.

"Your heart chakra is blocked," my therapist noted after I'd selected some cards and then a scent. "You're struggling to connect."

"True story," I said. But the massage, facial, manicure and haircut failed to cure me. As did Christmas. I feel like I'm in a bubble - not painful or bad. Just distant.

Still, from my distant state, I'm wishing you much merriness as you celebrate Christmas (or simply yearn for the end of the holiday season).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Speeches for Elevators

I have a variety of items displayed in my office. I'm a cluttered person by nature and enjoy looking up at a framed scribble by the Ones or a family photo or an amusing cartoon Friend sent me with her living will. (I do not display the latter. Just to be clear.) I have sketches and notes attached to metal with magnets. Printed cover sheets from published papers pinned on a board.

One of these papers is a printed slide - we rarely have paper copies of presentations but when revising the important messages, we each bring copies and scrawl notes in the margins for consistency across colleagues.

Sometimes the printer gets overwhelmed - all the pretty colors and large images confuse the poor thing - and I blinked with moderately hurt feelings when Adam laughed out loud at one of my pages.

"Your summary could use some work," he offered with a wink, handing me a paper neatly entitled Summary and containing the following message:




"Well," I decided, "at least it's emphatic. If you're going to go with a crappy message, you might as well be passionate about it."

But as I listened to yet another bad presentation for yet another hour, I sighed and thought that persuading people to do what you want shouldn't be as hard as people make it. And though it still shocks me, I'm in a position to judge people's work based on how much they want Industry money. And - not infrequently - I can't figure out what you're trying to sell me because your pitch is so awful.

If people would answer these questions for me, we'd be all set. Possibly with extra time for hugs and kisses!
  1. Why do I care? Seriously - what problem are you trying to solve?
  2. How is your solution different (and better) than others available?
  3. How confident are you in your value and differentiating characteristics?
Point 1
I'm sure you're very cool and smart. Awesome and brilliant. But this isn't like those homemade caramels near the cash register. (Though I do like those.) Tell me that I'm behind a competitor. That people are dying. That I can make lots and lots of money. Then - and this is important as well - connect what you're doing to that problem.

If you can't do this, you're wasting everyone's time. And I will spend the hour I've promised you wondering what color your mane would be if you were a unicorn. Because otherwise, I'll want to throw my shoe at you.

Point 2
I'm of the opinion that there are no original ideas. If I do have a problem, and if you can solve it, let's hear why you're the best solution. Why shouldn't we work devise our own solution for cheaper? I don't care about your publications yet - let's just pretend I'm buying a snowblower and we're putting your brand against everyone else. Give me the check boxes in those parallel columns. Are you faster? More accurate? More reproducible? More sophisticated?

How are you different? And why does that matter?

Point 3
So you can solve my problem. And do so better than others. Yay for you! Now - and only now - you can tell me about your awesome thing. I'll look at figures from your publications. We can chat about how Very Important People think yours is a game-changing idea. And I'll ooh and ahh and tell you you're pretty. And Brilliant. Incandescent with joy and brightness.

But if you're starting here - showing me publications from 1977 onward and describing how everyone else is Sick and Wrong in their approaches that have become common practice and how the rest of the funding agencies just don't get you? I'm back to pondering if your mane would be blue with green sparkles or purple with pink stripes and whether you'd trot or prance if you were a unicorn.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Lesson One

I used to play school in my parents' basement. I shuffle along the tiled floor in Mom's heels and write on my little chalkboard and grade papers I'd completed for all the students in my imaginary class. I would take attendance and record scores in my grade book.

I assisted with labs in undergrad as an overly permissive grader, wanting more to be liked by the silly freshmen than to have them learn much of anything. By that point - in my very early 20s - I'd realized I had no desire to teach. I wasn't all that crazy about people and it seemed much more efficient to think about topics on my own rather than to tell others what I'd already learned.

My graduate department didn't have TAs - we were all funded by our respective research groups - so I had neither the opportunity nor desire to lecture or grade or deal with plagiarism. Same goes for my post-doctoral research, leaving me to read blogs with an absent interest but no personal understanding of having stacks of grading or early classes or extraordinary students.

"So you want recommendations?" I asked several months ago when a friend of a colleague called. I replied when she asked about my background and was flattered when she said I'd be perfect. (I'm rarely perfect so when people are silly enough to believe I am, I tend to go with it pretty happily.)

Which lead to me saying hello to a group of people younger than me this morning as we prepared for my first of 4 lectures. And by 'prepared' I pretty much mean we stared at each other for a moment.

"So," I croaked, throat sore from a miserable cold I've picked up. "Hi." I shifted from foot to foot, decided I was incapable of standing in the front of a room for 2 hours and took a seat, demanding that we form a circle so we could chat.

I was positively exhausted after an hour.

"You're killing me here," I finally told them. "Listen, I don't do this. And I don't feel well. But ask some questions. Don't sit there with your eyes closed, though I do forgive yawns. Give me something to work with, folks."

I realized, near the end of my presentation, that there was a reason I felt like teachers often lectured directly to me. I have a habit of making eye contact and an inability to sleep sitting up. So - if my behavior today with the 2 semi-engaged individuals is any indication - that I may have been one of the few people who was 1) conscious and 2) not looking down at her desk. Because I just started talking to the people who looked at me.

Anyway, I did not enjoy it.

But at least I have no papers to grade.

Monday, December 05, 2011


"I'm sorry," I interrupted after taking a sip of the water that demanded my attention after I'd finished a sparkling little bellini. "Did you say you got laid? Because that would, I suppose, be a good experience with an airline."

"No," she replied, shaking her head for emphasis. "It's not that kind of story."

A chorus of disappointed sounds met her announcement and I innocently asked if she was sure it couldn't be made into that kind of story. Instead we heard about early boarding and free drinks and quick connections as I debated (and decided against) more sparkling wine.

In the midst of giggles and sips and snacks, there was a dark cloud hovering about one of our companions. I finally stood and slipped into another seat so that I was closer to her.

"So," I said with a gentle smile. "How're things?" And I listened while she talked about how good they were, how important she was, how much better it could be if people would simply listen to her.

I bit back advice - it's in my nature to boss people around - and cocked my head and asked about her ideas. And they're good ideas - not terribly original as all have been tried and failed, but they're reasonable and well-intentioned.

"I understand," I said. "They're good ideas - I've had some that are similar. And it's a frustrating problem." I paused, wondering what I wished someone would say to me as I struggled against the misery that sometimes becomes overwhelming. What might have made life better when it seemed so painful and difficult and unfair.

I wanted to tell her she was hurting her career. That getting hysterical in meetings was ill-advised. That one doesn't interrupt constantly and grow increasingly shrill when corrected by those higher in the food chain we call Industry. That criticizing one's peers in large meetings simply isn't done unless you want them to appear reasonable and sympathetic and you to appear picky and mean. "Take a breath," I wanted to say. "Think before you speak because you're self-destructing and doing so in a way that makes few people want to rescue you."

But looking into her sad eyes and the pinched way she was holding her mouth, seeing the anger and frustration and hopelessness, I said a quick prayer and wished we were close enough that I could have reached to hold her hand or offer a hug.

"I've been where you are," I told her softly. "If you want to talk or if I can offer suggestions or there's any way I can help, please let me know."

Upon her insistence that she was fine, I nodded and patted her shoulder before returning to my seat and my water to sip.

"She has mental issues," the woman beside me whispered, almost too softly to hear.

"So do I," I replied easily, smiling sadly and thinking of the large prescription bottle full of orange and gray capsules I faithfully swallow each night.

"Why so sad?" Sibling asked from my other side and I shook my head, saying it was a momentary lapse. Someone asked if I had a favorite airplane story and I wrinkled my nose thoughtfully before leaning forward to begin.

"On one flight, I saw a man I'd met before but didn't know well. I touched his arm and said hello and before I knew it, he'd arranged for his seatmate to trade me spots so we could sit together. We flirted through the flight - leaning into each other and when we landed, there was a hotel right in the airport..."

"Are you making this up?" PrettyHair asked suspiciously.

"Obviously," I replied, laughing when the waiter winked at me while refilling my water and wishing the girl at the end of the table had at least smiled.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When Time (and a shoe) Gets Away

"I get very flustered when I'm finishing something but know someone is waiting for me. I can't focus on the first thing without worrying about the second thing. It takes my fondness for being prompt and turns it into a nightmare of being rude to all people - by being inattentive and late, respectively."

So - when I was finishing one meeting and late for another and my phone rang to alert me to a third that wanted to start ASAP but couldn't do so without me - I was walking backward while wrapping up with my first group with the phone to my ear so I could - in just a second! - assure my admin that I would be there in 15 minutes. Upon finishing my 'great to see you/thanks so much'-es, I pivoted on one foot with the intent of propelling myself into an extremely brisk walk.

Instead, my shoe - an adorable black flat - slipped off my pivoting foot as it left the ground, going behind me in a graceful arc while I stumbled forward like an inelegant elephant. After three running steps - wherein my hands almost touched the ground as the hem of my skirt likely exposed my bottom - I managed to find my balance and get upright.

In the middle of a long corridor.

Across campus.

Where no less than 10 strangers looked at me with expressions that varied between sympathy and amusement.

I nodded at them, smoothed my dress and tried to walk with meager dignity back to where my shoe remained - upside down - on the carpeted floor.

"You lost your shoe," one woman offered as I moved back toward the erstwhile footwear and I turned to look at her - cheeks still wearing the stain of embarrassment - and blinked in surprise that she'd say something so obvious.

"No kidding," I replied, voice edgy and sarcastic. "You know, I believe I noticed that."

A woman standing next to her choked on laughter and complimented my recovery. "I would have fallen down," she said and I smiled my thanks at the better comment.

Deciding not to speak the "I hope you did not see my underwear" comment on the tip of my tongue to the crowd of men in suits, I put on my shoe, took a deep breath and walked away.

I just hope it's not prologue for December - the month of achieving goals and finishing projects and - with some luck - staying upright.