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Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Week in Review (16)

Things I have learned:

Sometimes I really don’t know what I am going to write about when I sit down to tend to this blog. Since that goes for each of the four days that I completed this week, I’m allowed to be proud of myself.

Planting annuals a weekend early will guarantee that temperatures will plummet for the next several days.

It’s daunting to consider that someone I encountered as a blip early in life is now the subject of study in my child’s English class.

Graduations and senior proms are evidence of the fluid nature of time. Does anyone know where I could get some liquid nitrogen?

Being home most of the day forces a broader awareness. Curbing curmudgeon-ly characteristics, I’ve refrained from calling the town about the dip in the road just beyond our house that trucks using our street as a cut-through vault over as they exceed the speed limit…

So far.

Maintaining my self-discipline after a dump-truck catapults over at 6:20 on a rainy Saturday morning is proving to be a bit more challenging…

There are few things in life that beat out eating leftover birthday cake with coffee for breakfast.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Point and Shoot

Recently, a new friend introduced me to Wife, Mother, Worker, Spy a weekly column written by Michelle Slatalla that appears in the New York Times. I quickly became a convert, and laughed this week when I caught up on her column. The author discusses her cache of photographs, both of the film and digital variety, stored in boxes, file cabinets and online facilities in and outside of her home. She mentioned that while growing up, photography was limited to special occasions, but with improved technology, our generation takes pictures of everything. She’s right.

Last spring, I bought my husband a new digital camera for his birthday. While less sophisticated then some, it was a step up from the digital versions we’d owned previously, more in line with the two 35 mm film varieties with interchangeable lenses and filters with which we both started our marriage. While we have yet to explore the depth of creativity we can achieve with this instrument, we have determined that it takes good pictures and it takes them fast. Our fifteen-year-old daughter, who has grown up in a digital age, loops the strap around her neck and clicks picture after picture, confident in the thought that any image not worth saving can be deleted. I, on the other hand, try to focus a bit more, choosing and framing a shot before taking the picture, though to my chagrin, her photos invariably come out better. That said I bring the camera with me often and lately am out in the garden weekly, recording macro and landscape images of the next round of blooms. In truth, my husband who wanted the camera has used it the least, and occasionally gets tense when my daughter and I click away. The memory of the cost of wasted film still resides prominently in his mind safe.

In a nod to my old fashioned heritage, I still download all of our pictures to our computer, but then back up the file to a disk. Saving them to Flickr, or Kodak or Snapfish, hasn’t been my game. It feels somehow, that an on-line file managed by someone else has the potential to disappear or worse, as with the New York Times author, to be held for ransom. So a basket on our cupboard desk holds numerous disks containing thousands of photos I dare say, many more than the fifteen or twenty photo albums that fill the cupboards in the family room, the bookcase up above, the secretary in the living room as well as one of the side tables. Most of those books, by the way, are losing the adhesive, the color photos softening to yellow.

Like the New York Times Columnist, when I was young the camera mostly came out for “state occasions.” The photo albums stored around our house contain copies of black and white family shots, six kids posed in age and height order standing on winter dulled grass prior to leaving for Easter Mass, jackets and ties for the boys, hats and white gloves for four girls. Later, color film and Polaroids became affordable, and we have multi-generational Christmas pictures, Mom’s Dad and Dad’s Mom, sitting on the green velvet couch in the silk wallpapered living room surrounded by six grandchildren and their first great granddaughter.

When our daughter arrived via the adoption stork though, any sense of that photographic restraint my husband and I may have experienced early on, disappeared. By the time she was four months old, during the tail end of film photography culture; we had filled an entire photo album. It’s an excuse, and I’m sticking to it, but as a part of our adoption agreement, we are required to send pictures to be forwarded to her to birthparents annually, until she turns eighteen—a small commitment in exchange for a lifetime of joy. A worrier by nature, I always fear that birthday time will come and we won’t have good pictures to send. As a result, all year long, pre and post digital, I clicked away, although now our maturing daughter has developed a normal reluctance to pose for a photo.

So, I stoop to coercion. Each year, about this time, I remind her of our obligation to send photos, and while she complains about driving to the ocean for family shots, or the trip to pose in front of a Memorial Day flag display, or sticks her tongue out at me as I photograph her helping her dad with the boat, she mostly allows it. While presumably all this clicking is so we have pictures to satisfy a heartfelt promise, the upside is that no rule says we can’t save the downloaded photos for ourselves.

Lately though, a bit more than two years before she turns eighteen, I’m becoming concerned as to how I will get away with this repetitive camera pointing then. I don’t mean to be flippant, but how do you think the adoption agency will respond if I request an extension?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Warp Speed

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about our daughter and only child going away on a school retreat for a week. The gist of the piece was that the idea of letting her go left me bereft, and there was a lot of lead up because her cousin who is two years older lives next door to us. I mentally mark every major event this niece experiences, knowing that our girl is only two years behind. When her cousin went on that sixth grade trip and our fourth grader’s time wasn’t scheduled for two more years, I rationalized that it would be eons before our daughter’s turn. All too soon, we wrestled her sleeping bag up the steps of the school bus so she too could take the forty mile trip. I wrote that piece after developing a healthy respect for the shortness of time, having learned as all parents eventually do that what looks like an eternity when it is in front of you ends up passing in a blink.

So yesterday, when I dropped our sophomore off at school and then encountered our niece, grinning and waving as she drove herself to attend the last day of her senior year, I swallowed hard. I do after all; have clear memories of that blonde-haired toddler waddling down the uneven path between our two houses to give me a hug. I know now that it was only minutes later that our own girl arrived and grew big enough to scamper up the path to play with her cousins. Those films featured prominently in my brain at breakfast this morning as our daughter, nostalgic now that the seniors have departed and eager for her own turn, announced that as of today, she has 376 days of school before she graduates. “That’s way too long” she stated. When I commented that if she put the two remaining school years together, they add up to little more than one calendar year, she rolled her eyes. She after all, hasn’t been a mother yet and doesn’t know that time melts away like ice cubes under a blow dryer.

If we optimistically think that our children will live until their eighties, and we let them go at eighteen, we have less than a quarter of their lives on which to make a mark. No wonder some parents have difficulty releasing the reins. In the Op Ed section of today’s Boston Globe, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University wrote an article relating to a recent campus tragedy. He began his piece focusing on “helicopter” parents, who continue to circle over their children long after they should be letting go. But after recent events in which a student was murdered a few blocks from his school, he became a “helicopter” president, present in dining halls and dorm rooms, in regular contact with parents via broadcast email until the perpetrator was caught. Through his management of this crisis, he learned some respect for the angst parents feel when their children grow up. In my mind the entire story offers perspective on how and why some parents simply can’t stop the hovering.

Raising healthy and successful children is the single most important feat that anyone can accomplish and the time in which we have to do so passes in milliseconds. Doing it right means trusting an untrustworthy fate and making hard decisions that result in independence for our children in spite of all we know. So while I worried like crazy the first week our daughter went away I didn’t chaperone that sixth grade trip, even though I could have. Later, she went to camp for a month each summer and while I hated it, I enforced the no cell phone rule that many parents of her peers disregarded. By doing so, she came to know that she could manage without us, and we did too. Her time on her own allowed her to provide, at least in some regard, for herself. The experience solving her own dilemmas ensured that her confidence grew, an added bonus was that her story telling skills did also. More freedom and stories, I daresay, will come along with her pending driver’s license. She’s eligible for that in February, which by my calculations means in approximately a nanosecond.

Clearly time is fleeting and after the two coming years that will feel like two seconds, following in the footsteps of her cousin, we’ll pack her things and deliver her to college. In the meantime, as she grows and evolves; I’m starting to recognize that her increased independence transforms us all. Where our home used to consist of two adults and one child, relatively recently it has shifted into a house with three individuals that engage each other in humorous conversation at the dinner table, offer informed opinions on current events, and partner in decisions relating to family dynamics.

It’s not fair. Time flies and just when they make the transition from dependent children to something more closely resembling friends, they are off for good. Honestly, I have no interest in hovering in the helicopter. But with a bit of chagrin I admit to wondering wistfully how she’d feel about an additional pair of roommates.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Poetic License

This morning our daughter, a less than passionate English student, groaned while reciting the names of the poets that she has to read between now and Tuesday: Stanley Kunitz, T.S. Elliott, William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Pinksy. “Robert Pinsky,” I asked? At my request this morning, she gladly left her heavy textbook behind.

I confess that I struggle with poetry too, but opened the 4.5 lb Norton Anthology of American Literature, (in case you are wondering, yes, I weighed it) to read three poems by Robert Pinsky, because long before he wrote the specific poems included on those pages, he was a man who went to the beach with his wife and baby daughter, and this is how I know.

Every summer day that weather permitted while growing up, we pedaled our bikes the short miles over sidewalks and winding crisscross paths to a tiny beach on the banks of a small lake, located within a prestigious college campus at the edge of our town. Later, I spent college summers life guarding there; after so many years, I knew all the regulars.

The college offered professors and employees of the school reduced fees to swim at our little club and for several years, an exotic looking man in a Speedo bathing suit visited regularly in the afternoon with his wife and young daughter. I don’t remember ever meeting him so I don’t know how I knew his name, but I watched his daughter grow from an infant, to a toddler, to a pre-teen. Thirty some odd years later, I can still picture him, sitting in a woven vinyl beach chair beside his petite and bikinied wife, to the left of the green painted dock that jutted sideways T-shaped into the lake, his daughter digging in the sand at his feet. I assumed he was a professor at the college and don’t recall thinking of him once my lifeguard days ended.

That is, until what must have been 1997, when I read a newspaper article announcing that Robert Pinsky had been bestowed with the title of United States Poet Laureate. Upon recognizing the name, I viewed the photograph next to the article and confirmed that the statuesque Speedo wearer from my memory was indeed the honored poet. Once I explained to my husband how I recognized our new Poet Laureate, his name faded again until this morning, when my daughter mentioned it in such revered company.

Paging through the text after she left, I read his brief biography and a compelling poem called “The Shirt” then imagined how this man, not exotic at all but raised in New Jersey, must feel to see his name alongside the masters of American Literature. He was a professor and already published it turns out, those summers he walked across the beige sand that we shoveled onto our manmade beach. Three of his later poems however, rest under the same cover as works by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson--his verses included with the likes of Longfellow, Thoreau, and Whitman.

How can it feel to wake each morning, perhaps sliding one foot into a leather slipper then the other, stomach growling and cartilage cracking; the distant noise of city traffic honking and accelerating outside—knowing that your name is printed on tissue thin pages beside chapters along with Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald; your work equal in weight to that of these powerful scribes, many of whom left us so very long before?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Memories

To me, Memorial Day is May 30th, not the last Monday of the month that we celebrate now, even though for the majority of my life the Monday holiday has been the norm.

According to my research, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on May 30, 1868. It was celebrated on that date until Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971, ensuring that all Federal Holidays had a three day weekend.

Not that I mind any three day weekend, it’s just that growing up in my house, May 30th had a special significance. In addition to a day to honor our war heroes, it was also my sister’s birthday and, with a timing that my father convinced us occurred in honor of that momentous occasion, the Memorial Day parade marched right by our house.

In case you picture our home placed strategically along a rock wall lined main road, think again. We lived in a suburban neighborhood created in the mid 1950’s, bulldozed out of woods far below a rise where the town cemetery is located. You couldn’t see the cemetery from our house, but way up over the hill that towered across the street and through the trees beyond, it was there; our road was a logical cut through for the marching bands on their way to a twenty-one gun salute.

As kids, we would jump off the front steps; practice our cartwheels and somersaults; and then run to the street when the pounding of drums announced the parade’s imminent arrival. It wasn’t much in the way of display, a band or two, the measured pace of flag holding veterans, baton twirlers and uniformed scout troops, with an inevitable group of bike riding kids and flowing streamers riding beside. However understated though, at age five or age ten, the event was as big as the world to us. That parade and its route by our house ceased somewhere around the time the Memorial Day date changed; the only thing left is a tale we tell as a part of family lore, of the birthday girl covered in poison ivy the day one of those parades marched by.

I thought of this all yesterday when my husband and I wandered downtown to cheer our daughter as she marched with the high school band during our town Memorial Day celebration. The common was decorated with families dressed in shorts and red and blue, luxuriating in one of the few warm days we’ve had this spring. Kids biked around the pond at the middle; over by the Unitarian Church, the Daughters of the American Revolution stood in the flowing dresses of their period garb. In front of the white painted colonial that houses the Senior Center, volunteers did a brisk business in hot dogs and popcorn, and every where it seemed, American flags rippled in the sea breeze. We found my husband’s sister and her two sons sitting under the umbrella of a shady maple. The boys, ages four and two munched on steamed hot dogs and reached hands deep into paper bags of popcorn. Jiggling in anticipation of the parade, they periodically jumped up to dash about the yard in giggling bursts of excess energy.

I waited in a different kind of anticipation--a blossom of gratitude expanding in my chest for those who serve, for the respect our town displays, and for my daughter who has played the flute since the fourth grade and would demonstrate her own patriotism this day. When the sound of music drifted to us, we ran to the street, the boys waving their tiny American flags. Aging veterans and civic leaders drove by in shiny convertibles, younger veterans marched behind. “The Rusty Skippers,” the town band consisting of local volunteers reprising their high school playing skills marched by; we whooped and hollered as our daughter and her classmates followed. As a contingent of retired marine musicians marched behind the predictable scout troops and bicycles, I looked at the boys, tired now, but holding their flags and still waving. For just a moment I was once again their height, in awe of the bands, clapping at the soldiers, and regardless of the date, experiencing that first dawning loyalty to our country in a way that lives forever.

Yesterday went full circle though. In a delayed celebration of our niece-and-next-door-neighbor’s birthday from the day before, long after the parade but with a tip of the hat to my memories, we joined our extended family for birthday cake and ice cream.

For Tim, Sarah, Phil and Carly who all celebrate Memorial birthdays sometimes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Week in Review (15)

Things I have learned:

When I am engrossed in conversation with someone I like, walking 4.6 miles seems like nothing.

The people that I enjoyed speaking to and learning from when I was working are the same individuals I enjoy speaking to and learning from now that I am not.

It’s hard to fly under the radar when you drive around town in a thirteen-year-old vehicle with squeaky brakes. They will squeal their loudest yet when stopping to turn left in front of a pack of teenage boys, jumping from a bridge to the water below—especially if there is a teenage girl in the car.

Outwardly I chuckle, but inwardly, I’m with the teenager. Time to get the brakes checked.

Foxes and fishers and parrots, oh my.

After three months of unemployment a perspective shift has occurred. Rather than celebrating Memorial Day as a three day weekend, I’m cursing the fact that we can no longer park by the ocean in the town next door without coughing up a $3.00 charge, soon, as local newspapers report, to be raised to $5.00. Wouldn’t you know, of course this coincides with the opening of two seaside ice cream parlors.

Hmmmm. Maybe parking fees are a good thing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tech Talk Tic Tock

One of the only things (aside from my friends and the veggie roll-ups made by Louis in the cafeteria) I still miss about the old job is the easy access to technology and resources. Just a few weeks before the old heave ho, I was budgeted for a new computer and once installed, I reveled in its speed. In addition to that luxury, strategically placed outside my last office and making quite a bit of noise I will add, was a monster high-speed laser printer, scanner, email combo that created multiple color copies in seconds. At my current “office,” if you discount my laptop, which our teenager has appropriated, we have a five year old, which means antique, computer with a printer that does pretty well as long as you don’t ask it to touch an envelope. A critical function missing here at my house is a “Help Desk.” Heaven forbid if I need help, because the closest thing to a desk in this location is a chair placed in front of an open cupboard, and I am the one sitting in it.

To be truthful, the outplacement group I’m working with offers fully outfitted offices for use, but it’s a 25 minute ride from home and I’m feel more organized in my own space. So I have been managing over the past few months, but felt a little disconcerted this week, when I had an honest-to-gosh-deadline for an honest-to-gosh-article that required honest-to-gosh-pictures that weren’t taken digitally and for which I have no negatives. My printer scans, but poorly and the resulting photos were not good enough quality for the publication.

Easily solved; off I went to the camera store, where after a 24 hour delay, they produced beautiful reproductions, for a price. Then, however, there is the editorial agreement, signed by me, which will take a trip to the post office to mail, along with the three photography releases which had to be signed by the varying parents of the kids in the pictures. All of which could have been emailed back and forth between all parties, were I to have better equipment. The documents must be copied for my records making me envy the deafening machine outside my old office which, with a press of a button, would slurp pages from a feeder and zip them right through. It’s a page by page proposition at my house.

None of this is killing me. It is simply interesting to note that what might have taken an hour or so at best with the proper tools has taken me several, in addition to the cost of the scans, my computer paper, ink, envelopes and gas for all the running around. That’s called overhead, I guess.

Duh! If, at the current moment in time, my not-very-gainful-but-quite-meaningful work is as a self-employed writer (and here’s yet another moment where I wonder, if I write it does it make it so?) at a minimum I can deduct the $15.00 highway robbery charge for the two scans off this year’s income taxes, right?

Awesome--now if I could just locate the receipt.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Growing up in a suburban neighborhood about 10 miles west of the city, the resident four legged creatures we encountered were typically of the dog, cat and squirrel variety. An exception was the day the neighborhood telephone chain warned of a skunk with a Styrofoam cup from the neighbor’s garage stuck on his nose, blindly wandering up the street as we were scheduled to walk to school. The raccoons that later nested in our chimney, whose babies tumbled down the roof outside my sister’s bedroom window at night offered only slightly more entertainment.

Other than that occasional skunk or raccoon, my first experience with less domesticated creatures occurred soon after we moved to our current house. Up a small drumlin a few miles down the road from here, perches a working farm and nature sanctuary that includes a walking path leading to a place called Turkey Hill. Early in our tenure, my husband and I drove up to investigate and as we arrived, I mused: “I wonder why they call it Turkey Hill?” Exactly then, the first two wild turkeys either of us had ever seen strolled in front of our car. Dorothy, we aren’t in suburbia anymore--although, in fact, we are.

Our house backs up to several acres of rock-strewn woodlands owned by our neighbors. The tree line slopes down to a steep precipice, overlooking a swamp area that leaches from our town reservoir--picture three older homes strategically positioned so they can’t see each other, with nothing but Mother Nature for hundreds of yards behind. As development occurs in areas that abut “our” woods though, the animal kingdom's habitat gets closer.

We became used to the flock of turkeys (by the way, they do fly) that began to frequent our yard, but were slightly less comfortable with the large coyote that trotted purposefully up the snow packed street as we shoveled in the predawn light one winter morning. The deer my daughter and I witnessed galloping up the road at midday during an April vacation (Whose dog is that Megs? It’s not a dog mom, it’s a deer) was unexpected though. Even more so, was the one that that stepped daintily down our backyard to gaze inside our family room picture window, locking eyes with me as I held my breath before she wandered off to nibble the Forsythia.

Once, just before my husband was to leave for work, my daughter and I heard noises in the open garage. Remembering the skunk from my childhood, I wasn’t about to explore. My husband carefully approached what we assumed to be a neighborhood cat that had tucked itself up into the dark lower shelf of his work bench. As I gazed from the doorway he grabbed a long handled broom, adopted a fencer’s stance and jokingly called “En Garde.” As he prodded, the fur ball in the corner chose to exit the area and we gasped as a grey fox high tailed it out of our garage.

During the day, our yard belongs to us, but at night we think twice before stepping beyond the patio. More than once I have looked out of our first floor bedroom to see an Opossum walking right below me. A fisher has recently taken up residence; we’ve witnessed it at dusk, jumping from stone to stone on the rock wall dividing our yard from our neighbor’s. We hear life and sadly, many deaths around us at nighttime, becoming so used unidentified noises that last week, when a rasping, yipping and barking woke us we murmured to each other, “That’s a new sound” and rolled back to sleep. A few days later our neighbor reported that it was a mama fox and her cubs, living between our homes.

Nature is certainly all around us, and until the other day I didn’t think there was much more that could surprise me with regard to wildlife in our area. That afternoon though, I was walking with a friend a few miles away, down a twisting portion of road that travels between weathered Victorians and sea marsh. Engrossed in conversation, we didn’t notice the short sleeved man walking toward us, until, as out of context as a dream, we realized he had a green and yellow parrot perched on his shoulder. “Another time in life I wish that I had my camera,” I laughed. The man’s blasé glance clearly said: “There is nothing out of the ordinary about this,” which made more sense once he explained that his parrot, whose name is Shakespeare, is 25 years old and “sometimes flies off to chase the crows but always comes back.” Smiling, we kept on going, admiring the snowy egrets and blue herons we saw along the way. Heretofore they have always fascinated me, but that day they paled somewhat as I thought, “Seventeen years of getting used to wild creatures in the area and who knew our town plays hosts to unfettered exotic birds too?”

I hope we take that route again someday soon, because we forgot to ask the man if Shakespeare talks.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The View From Here

I am six years old and my mother has driven me to the brick and stain-glassed building that serves as our local library to sign up for a library card. Giggling, I stand at the circulation desk, shifting from one foot to the other in my pleated, catholic-school uniform, toothpick thin legs swathed in navy knee socks that wrinkle where my ankles meet red leather oxfords. Conveyance of a library card means a manual process and a two week wait, but I’m allowed to take out my first book—a green cloth covered picture book with a title that starts with the name “Kiki.” Even though I have a book to read, for the next several days I stalk the mailman as he slips letters into the black metal box nailed beside our back door looking for the card which finally appears as a blue and white piece of plastic, with my name printed in raised letters. The card introduces opportunity; in second grade I discover passion.

I am seven years old, tucked into a corner between two bookcases at the Hunnewell School Library, oblivious to my peers or the commanding girth of the teacher, Mrs. Waltermeyer, during our weekly library period. The open book in front of me sits on a waist high counter, warm sunlight streams in the window onto the pages though I’m unaware; for the first time I have drifted away from my physical self and traveled on words to a separate landscape. Who knows how long I actually stand there reading—but finally I look up and gasp. My class is gone. Other than the librarian, the room is empty; immediately my stomach hammers a Bo Jangles tap dance. New to public school, new to the rules, I’m already aware that being anywhere without permission is forbidden. The booming voice, the unrelenting adherence to code that is Mrs. Waltermeyer flat out scares me and I can’t fathom the punishment for returning to class late. Slightly nauseous, I approach the librarian and sign out the book, then sprint on tiptoes down the polished linoleum to my classroom, trembling as I slowly open the half glass door in expectation of the wrath that is eminent. As I slink toward my desk it is snack time—cardboard cartons of milk and cellophane wrapped packages of saltine crackers have been handed out; I slip into my seat and no one notices.

I am a tween, a teen and a young adult and I stroll through the dappled light of the meandering brook path, over the log railed wooden bridge, across dusty elementary school playing fields to the library, where more often then not, after selecting my books I locate an vinyl cushioned chair in a remote corner and curl my legs under me to spend the afternoon reading. On more than one summer Sunday I stomp my feet in exasperation when I have neglected to recall the seasonal hours, and arrived at the library to discover it dark and locked tight.

I am grown up and then some and our town library, carved out of a portion of an ancient grammar school is smaller than the library of my home town, though it offers the same comfort. Book stacks are surrounded by cool green walls and a red and green oriental patterned carpet. Maple tables and waist high bookshelves line the middle of the room, murmuring voices blend with fingers that tap on public computers and laptops, the floor squeaks each time a patron walks by. In the background the electronic check-out system beeps over the baritone voice of one of the librarians as he speaks on the phone.

Forget a tropical island. If I had to be stuck anywhere for the rest of my life it could be here, perched on this orange and green geometric upholstered chair. Warm sun streams through a palladium window and the muted sound of the commuter rail rackets on the tracks next door. My feet are up on the matching ottoman and the book I am reading is braced on my lap. Looking up, I sigh--forever content with this location; the rewards of this place that I found at such a young stage in my life.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dawn Breaks

The book has resided in various places over the course of the last several weeks--on the desk in the kitchen and then at my bedside after a long stint resting on the family room coffee table; previously it sat tucked on my daughter’s bookshelf. Yesterday, it traveled with me to a dance recital for which I was required to arrive an hour early. It’s the next book that I have promised myself I’d read, yet I keep finding reasons not to. Over the last week, Bon Appetit and Food and Wine offered distractions, as did Yankee Magazine when it arrived in the mail. Then, yesterday was Sunday and in spite of the fact that I had the book with me, The Boston Globe Magazine reigned supreme while I waited for the show to begin.

In my self education quest, you may recall that I’ve been reading books on writing, while keeping a list of manuscripts that the authors of these books recommend. Right now, that inventory includes:

Girl with a Pearl Earring
- Tracey Chevalier
Family History – Dani Shapiro
The Way Home - Allison Johnson
The Memory Room – Mary Rakow
Are you Somebody? - Nuala O’Faolain
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
The Beans of Egypt Maine – Carolyn Chute
And two books by Rebecca McClanahan:
Word Painting: A Guide to Writing more Descriptively and
Write your Heart Out

You will note that this list does not include Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the mega-hit Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, the shiny black hardcover that I have been shifting from location to location through out our house.

I started reading my daughter’s books a few years ago after she discovered a teen romance as a twelve-year-old and was infused with the joy of reading. She reread the book so many times that I figured I better find out what it was all about. That book was innocent, easy to read, and offered exactly enough intrigue to hold a maturing “tween’s” interest. Regardless of the storyline though, what mattered most is that it jump-started her enthusiasm for reading and it got her talking about what she read-—to me.

Since then I’ve read many of her books, including the Ballet Shoes series by Noel Streatfeild, Whatever Happened to Jane and two sequels, by Caroline Cooney; The Penderwicks, by Jean Birdsall and the ever popular Princess Diaries, authored by Meg Cabot. When her summer reading assignments come around, I wait anxiously for her to finish, so I too can read Chinese Cinderella, or A Fairwell to Arms and offer up comments like, “How did you feel about the way that father treated his daughter” or “Weren’t you grossed out when Hemingway described the wound as 'hamburger'?” Our reading gives us a common bond, to some degree allowing me a place on a tilted playing field, when as the mom of a teenager, the not so occasional expectation is that I should roll off into the woods with the other foul balls, remaining lost somewhere in the underbrush.

Then came Stephanie Meyers hit novel: Twilight. Vampires? Not my proverbial cup of tea. But when Megs read the book in about forty-eight hours and immediately started reading it again, I knew she was hooked. Given the story line, it was difficult for me to express enthusiasm, but after she poured through the second and third books in the series, then pooled all of her remaining money to buy the fourth in hardcover, I decided to get reading. Finally and reluctantly, I started Twilight. If we establish that there is nothing in my span of reality that allows me to empathize with the desire to kiss a cold vampire, the book kept me engaged. Note I did not say engrossed. That happened with the second book, New Moon, and by the third, Eclipse, notwithstanding that I prefer the werewolves to the vampires, I was a convert.

Then, I paused, and Breaking Dawn has been waiting for me ever since. During each weekly visit to the library, I’ve checked out books off my “homework” list, or simply tomes that appealed to me, conveniently forgetting that Breaking Dawn sits at home, unread. I even enjoyed the Twilight movie with my daughter, but it failed to convince me to open that fourth book. After many weeks of patiently watching me wade through my own reading agenda, Meghann reminded me not to take any more books out of the library so I could finish the series, and I followed through—well, at least on the withholding-from-checking-out-a-book part anyway. So Breaking Dawn comes with me throughout the house and on my errands, waiting, always waiting, for me to crack the cover.

What it comes down to is this--754 pages of eighteen-year-old Bella Swan dating a vampire while maintaining a complicated best friendship with a werewolf is one thing. The fact that she manages all this without the knowledge of her single parent, police chief and, pardon my expression but thick as a brick father, well, that’s another. It’s all just a bit difficult to swallow, yet as I write this it’s sinking in that it’s not the vampires per se that get to me-- it’s Bella’s continual misrepresentation to her father of the role they play in her life, that does.

Here I am reading my daughter’s books in an effort to stay connected to her, and the heroine in the series that she loves habitually fabricates the details of her unconventional love life and vampire-associated injuries to her dad. While I’m pretty sure there aren’t any ghosts or goblins in our girl’s life, this book is a cue that even good teens frequently withhold important facts from their parents.

That a father, fictional or real can be blind to the billowing red flags that his off-spring regularly flies in front of him makes me crazy though, and slightly worried. Like all parents, I think the best of my daughter. Perhaps though, my uneasiness in continuing the series is its constant reminder that as with every teenager, there are probably an awful lot of things in our daughter’s life that we aren’t aware of. While we can’t know everything, reading her books is one way of keeping me in touch; a way to hold the doors open to continued conversation so perhaps some of those things we don't know, find their way out.

When all is said and done, if there is anything I can do to stop from turning into a Chief Swan, I’ll do it. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to finish up this blog entry and edit it, because it’s time for me to start reading.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Week in Review (14)

Things I have learned:

In a world where you can scarcely trust anyone, it’s hard to find a more pure display of optimism than plants for sale next to an untended cash box requesting “the honor system.” “Small print” offering to take plants in trade compounds the hopefulness.

A bird singing “chirill, chirill” outside your bedroom window at 6:17 on a Saturday morning is infinitely more palatable then waking to an alarm at 5:45 on a Friday.

When you finally make it to this week’s yard sale and purchase purple and yellow daylilies, Lysimachia and Valerian at a third of the nursery price, you may consider yourself victorious. By reluctantly leaving the homemade strawberry rhubarb pies for others to purchase, you get to call yourself virtuous too.

Trustful commerce may be disguised as art. A third swing by to investigate last weekend’s “pocketbook totem pole” that leads to the discovery that it is empty because there is also an “honor system” box placed below, is enough to make one practically swoon with joy at the faith in humanity it demonstrates.

At a "casual dress" band performance, the music teacher's requirement that the attire be uniform in color (white tops and kaki bottoms) makes a high school band look more professional. Upon discovering that the host school has an everyday dress code, (black tops and kaki bottoms), parent- chaperones and teachers will all sigh in envy. White shirted kids though, will be horrified.

As a mom, you’ll secretly thank God when the most frightening ride at a theme park is closed for repairs, but riding home down traffic filled major highways in an open windowed school bus next to a steady stream of tractor-trailers rigs might be the scariest ride yet.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

In the Details

Yesterday I wrote that good writing is in the nuance and detail. Here’s a detail that has been intriguing me for several days.

Last Saturday my goal was to explore plant sales. Over the previous week yellow and pink poster boards advertising two sales for last weekend began appearing on telephone poles around the neighboring town. Considering my soon to be reduced circumstances, my plan was to go this inexpensive route to supplement my needy gardens this season. Every time I approached the signs though, there were enough cars around me to render it impossible to slow down to read them.

About two miles from our house, a juncture with the peculiar name of Itchy’s Corner situated at the center of an intersection of four merging roadways, contains a landscaped island surrounding a telephone pole, and there were signs for both sales nailed to it. When Saturday dawned, I took a detour there to note the times and locations in an effort gain an early choice of plant sale offerings. Doesn’t it figure that one sale was actually scheduled for this weekend, and the current time was 8:10; the remaining sale started at 8:00 a.m. and was on the other side of town.

Departing Itchy’s Corner, I drove down rock-lined country roads, past leaning stone cemeteries and homes hosting historical plaques and bulging lilacs, heading toward the white steepled church hosting the plant sale. As I turned left past a paint-peeling cape, a splash of color caught my eye.

At first I assumed it was one of the many blooming bushes that riot the area this time of year, but soon realized my error. In front of a white farmhouse, embedded in the lawn at the edge of the street, a four-sided wooden post covered in coat hooks was planted, and a wooden clothespin attached to each of the hooks supported a patchwork quilted handbag. There must have been twenty, maybe twenty-five in total, artfully arranged in a colorful stack—a pocketbook totem pole, if you will. Due to our proximity to the sea, we occasionally encounter vivid displays like this created from lobster buoys, but ladies purses, well, that was a first.

It says something about me that while laughing, my thought on viewing the display was concern about the gray sky that had recently begun spitting on my windshield. What would happen to the purses if they got wet? I wondered if the occupant of the house was a designer; the display a clever method to market the artist’s particular wares. In the end, I kept driving, smiling a bit, and the plant sale, once I got there, ended up being a bust. I didn’t mind though, because I’m not sure anything there would have offered me the same joy as that vibrant out-of-context display that I encountered that overcast day, on a country road just a few miles west of my house.

It gets a bit better though. Unable to forget that amusing exhibit, I drove back there today thinking I’d photograph it, but the pole was empty. As I circled my way back toward Itchy’s corner, I passed the end of a dirt driveway where tilting wooden shelves filled with an assortment of potted plants leaned under a crudely lettered sign stating: Perennials for Sale.

I pulled over and selected two healthy looking Echinaceas, feeding my four dollars through the opening in an unmanned cashbox.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Early Passages

There is a fifteen-year-old living in my closet and head's up, it's not my daughter. There's a nineteen-year-old and a twenty-two-year-old in there too. I hadn’t thought of them in a while, skinny, pimpled and pig-tailed. Paula’s comment on Middle Passages last week comparing blogging to journaling reminded me of them, stacked on the shelf behind my hanging blouses, the subject matter experts residing inside the ten notebook diaries that I scribbled in for years. Curled on my yellow-checked bedspread under a matching half canopy, I filled those books with the notable details of my young-adult joys and angst, and I promise you the topics recorded on their pages will not be reported here. I do however, take them out occasionally to peruse, unfolding them like maps directing me back to who I was then—the person I believe I am returning to, in no small way as a result of writing this blog.

I haven’t meant for Middle Passages to be a journal although perhaps that is how it is perceived, but it serves as many things I am beginning to see. In February, of course it functioned as a release. There was no way I would have successfully navigated those first shell-shocked days of unemployment if I didn’t uncover the guideposts it offered. Today, as I plot a course though a tough job search environment, Middle Passages contains proof, evidence that I can hold to self-imposed deadlines and that I possess, I hope, a modicum of writing ability.

In addition to that though, I’m using it as a tool to exploit the snippets of life that, if not recorded, would fade to oblivion. One of my favorite writers (Seven Hundred Fifty Words) advised me once that good stories come from the small details that others overlook, and I’m trying to push myself in that regard. Fine writing uncovers the nuances, the unexpected actions that crop up, the twists to every day occurrences. With the general subject matter relating to my job loss and personal re-creation as a guide, those pieces are what I am trying to train myself to write, rather than recording the bla-by-bla of my days, which would; I’m sure, eliminate the few readers I have, P.D.Q.

For sure, those young ladies in the closet testify that I believe in personal writing. So much so that when we were required to keep a journal in Mrs. Rosenberg’s 11th grade Creative Writing course, aware that the teacher would be reading, I used discretion related to what I recorded in the red spiral notebook dedicated to the class. Rather than giving up my own diary for the two terms though, I wrote in both for the entire semester. During my senior year of college, our English seminar professor asked how many of us kept diaries and I was the only one who raised my hand. Professor Kaplan asked me “Why?” and I responded: “Because when I am ninety years old I’ll want to know who I was back then.”

To others, I suppose there is no difference between a journal and a diary, but here are my personal guidelines: Those ancient diaries hold the whirling thoughts and emotions that I needed to get out. This “journal”—A.K.A. Middle Passages--if that’s what it is, contains what I’d like you to read--a subtle but important difference that reminds me that when we repainted our bedroom a few years ago my diaries were liberated from their hiding place. My daughter, who innocently picked up one to read was shocked at my adamant denial. That ancient sixteen-year-old who wrote down everything is not ready for full disclosure; until my daughter is a lot older, the books in my closet are staying there.

This blog however, is part of the public domain. My daughter reads it, the rest of my family reads it, and strangers read it too. It is I guess, one way to generate an audience without winding my way through the challenging and complex aspects related to the publishing world, giving credence to Paula’s blogging comment: “It's a way to catch the writings of others we may otherwise not have available to read.”

I treasure those girls residing in my crowded closet. They were a means to grow my way through turbulent teenage and young adult years; they are sweet and naïve and I love visiting with them and remembering their lives. At this point though, I’m not worried about what I’ll think when I’m ninety. It simply seems that Middle Passages is an affective method to turn me into who I’m aiming to be right now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hardly Working or Heartily Working?

I bumped into someone I hold dear yesterday, and she asked me an operative question: “What have you been doing lately?” Let me clarify that while we haven’t seen each other in weeks she is aware of my employment status. The question was harmless, but as it wasn’t the time or place for specifics I responded, “Not much.” Then I sat on the grass at the softball game we were attending, where I enjoyed the warm sun but otherwise squirmed throughout the remainder of the game.

My discomfort arose from the fact that back in the not-very-long-ago day, if you will, an answer of “not much” would have been construed as: working forty some odd hours a week then driving home to prepare a good dinner and organize us for the next day, chauffeuring and otherwise tending to our daughter, running errands, picking up the house, working in the yard on weekends, finally sitting down to take a breath sometime late on Sunday. Now the phrase “not much” could possibly be interpreted as not much and I didn’t like it. While tracking pop flies and doubles, I conducted my own internal coaching; practicing how to answer that innocuous question the next time. My “I’m working hard at finding work,” or “Gosh, I don’t know how I got everything done when I had a full time job,” and even “Last week I had two networking interviews and an outplacement meeting,” all fell flat.

So yesterday’s moment was lost, and in order to feel better, last night I mentally catalogued my activity over the last several weeks. You my dear readers, get to view the list version:

1) Blog, blog, blogging, for several hours, five days a week, with a shortened version on Saturday.
2) The physical job search. Not to bore you with details, but there are networking meetings most weeks. Each involves emails and or phone calls ahead of time, research related to the person I am meeting, preparation for what I hope to come out of the meeting, and follow up correspondence. There is also the upkeep of an Excel spreadsheet that documents these contacts so that I don’t forget to follow up. Not to mention driving to and from the appointments, which for some reason, all seem to take place a fair bit from home.
3) On line job search: Indeed.com and I are best friends. Well, maybe we are only good buddies, because as much as that wonderful job consolidator shares with me, it has yet to conjure up the perfect match.
4) Meetings with my outplacement consultant which never end without other suggestions related to follow-up actions.
5) Volunteer time with the Senior Center Café, which includes pre-baking.
6) One library day a week where I research information pertaining to job opportunities, or find and read books that will help me write better, or work on other writing projects, two of which have been accepted for publication and which, other than this blog, are my most meaningful accomplishments over the last few months.
7) Chauffeuring: Dropping off and picking up my daughter from school, her appointments, meetings and social obligations, etcetera. This week etcetera means chaperoning a class trip to a band competition two hours from here, followed by an all day visit to a Six Flags amusement park--rides unlikely, for me anyway since the vision of a 50-year-old-mama on “The Twister” has large scale potential to humiliate a certain fifteen-year-old.
8) All of the aforementioned running of errands, picking up of the house, working in the yard and sitting down to take a breath sometime late on Sunday.

So that, my friends, in a proverbial nutshell is that--documentation of diligence in action—or then again, perhaps it’s validation. Because while I purportedly typed this list for you, we all know that this one is for me right? As I continue to adjust to the fact that I am not working, I'm hoping this little treatise will help to convince the old ego that in some regard I still am.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Mothers' Day Highlight

Fort Revere sits on Telegraph Hill, a promontory in Hull, Massachusetts over looking the Brewster Islands which populate Boston Harbor. I knew there was an old fort in Hull currently doing business as a park, but had never been there until yesterday when we discovered what we have been missing. We arrived by a circuitous route, both figuratively and literally. Our ultimate goal was not to investigate the Fort, but to catch a glimpse of the high tech sailing machines taking part in the nine-month, across the world Volvo Ocean Race, the most recent leg of which arrived in Boston last week.

The boats were scheduled for a Boston Harbor race yesterday afternoon. After viewing news stories about the event we were intrigued, but none too keen on driving into Boston to confront masses of likewise interested humanity; we opted for creativity instead.

Packing up binoculars, the camera and telephoto lenses we followed Nantasket Avenue in Hull, snaking our way toward Hull High School at the “Gut” (where Hull peninsula sticks out into Boston Harbor). Winding over twisting roads through Hull village onto the slim causeway that is the only thing between the ocean and Hull Bay, we noted a stone tower up a steep hill and headed toward it. Climbing up past ranches and condos, we turned up Farina Road and detected a sign marking the entrance to Fort Revere.

Telegraph Hill contains the remains of two military installations, Fort Independence, a Revolutionary War installation, and Fort Revere which, according to the information booth located at the park, was built in the late 19th century and used primarily as a training facility for solders that were later sent overseas. The Fort was decommissioned in the 1940’s but resurrected by the town of Hull in 1976 for America’s Bicentennial. The tower opens on a limited schedule for viewing (the first Saturday of the month); the grounds also include a military museum and picnic facilities.

As we exited the car, we gasped at the outstanding views toward Boston and Graves Lights, the Brewster Islands in the foreground and beyond to the North Shore. Turning our heads, we saw expansive views south back toward Nantasket and Cohasset as well as Hull Bay which in the spring sunshine yesterday appeared tropical green. The park contains several picnic tables, fields for picnic blankets and an information board with postings of summer activities (yoga and outdoor movies) offered by the Trustees of the Parks.

Alas, we were at the wrong angle behind greening trees and could not see sailing action out of the city. We made the best of our visit though, treading carefully down steep steps to explore the crumbling remains of gun embankments and cement bunkers built into the side of the hill. Unfortunately, vandals appear to visit this location regularly; the bunkers are covered with art deco graffiti and evidence of parties lay in the beer cans and wrappers tucked into dark corners. The brick rooms are eerie and intimidating; the park closes at sunset, and I’d find no reason to remain behind.

On such a glorious day though, it was easy to shake off the gloom of the bunkers as we climbed back up to the earth rooftops and strolled through the knee high grass. There amid brilliant sunshine we braced ourselves against gusty breezes and in awe of the extensive views took photo after photo of Massachusetts Bay. It was clear that this location offers some of the best views south of Boston. We left knowing that in spite of the graffiti and the fact that we didn’t see what we came for, this would be the first of many visits.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Week in Review (13)

Things I have Learned:

Inspiration can be found anywhere. You just have to keep looking.

If I ever recruit again, I will be (even) more attuned to the structure of the application process.

The idea of networking is all well and good, but if you don’t speak up, you are merely an observer.

I always follow through when I call my own bluff.

Regardless of whether or not I am ever published again, I get to call myself a writer, because I am.

Although it required a painful push, I stepped out on a proverbial limb three months ago. Even though the branch jiggles, I'm not walking back in.

Fritos and coffee before running out to an early-morning church plant sale may be a guilty pleasure, but oh, what a satisfactory one.

A second helping though, is over the top.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I Say it Therefore I am

I finish this week with a few quotes of note, to me anyway. The first comes from a blog called Orangette written by a talented writer named Molly Wizenberg. Molly, who needs no plug from me because she is doing so well on her own, was a Ph.D. candidate when she changed course and started a food blog five years ago. Today, she has a book published, A Homemade Life: Life Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, a monthly column in Bon Appetit Magazine where I first encountered her, and she and her husband are opening a restaurant in Seattle. Give her a try, because she is phenomenal, and, if you want to know who I aspire to be, (other than the Ph.D part and the fact that she’s on a different coast); I think she’s my next generation dream alter ego.

In the FAQ section of Orangette, Molly addresses her decision to change her career and writes:
“I decided, I would just get a job doing whatever, and then write after hours. I told a journalist friend of mine about my decision, and being very wise, he suggested that I start a blog. It would help hold me accountable, he said: having a blog would force me to sit down and write regularly, even when it felt difficult.”

While we all know I came to this blog with a little less planning than Molly, as I was reading this quote a wave of recognition flowed through me. This week it has been extraordinarily hard for me to come up with subjects for Middle Passages. Yet, I kept plugging, surprising myself really (especially on Monday). Last night at dinner I patted myself on the back, telling my husband and daughter how proud I was that every day, when I thought I couldn’t do it, I forced myself to sit down and write, because just as Molly’s friend suggested, I was “holding myself accountable.” That dinner comment though, came out before I found the quote on Orangette.

The next reference, which Molly also led me to, is: “Be bold, be daring, and be willing to fail and you will succeed.” This comes from a blog she links to: The Amateur Gourmet, written by Adam Roberts, another “foody” who has also written a book for sale: The Amateur Gourmet. The quote speaks to me because here I am, three months later, typing at the computer when on the surface, you’d think I'd be out chasing another recruiting job. There is, I suppose, some risk inherent in attempting to move forward in a way not related to what appears on my resume. Instead, I’m submitting articles hoping for publication and applying to writing jobs on the strength of four whopping writing credits. Another smart person, although I don’t know who, said something like “The only thing worse than failure is the failure to try.” So thanks Adam for reminding me of that. I’m putting your phrase in my back pocket so I can take it out to read once in a while.

Last but not least, a quote from yours truly, from Tuesday’s blog: “Could the mere act of identifying myself as a writer in print make it true?” Those who read on Tuesday will know that during an outplacement seminar my subconscious presented me with a “professional title” that my conscious mind desperately wants to believe. So, after calling my own little bluff here in this blog that day, I changed my Middle Passages Profile on Thursday morning to: “Writer and business professional…” Last evening (Thursday night) I checked email, and found a note from an editor from my favorite niche magazine, accepting my latest essay for publication in their next issue. Imagine that.

Do you think if I tell you about the creamy risotto I made last night using the leftover drumsticks and sausage from earlier in the week, with chopped green peppers, fennel and beef stock because I didn’t have chicken, it will make me a food blogger too?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Difficult Dish

Sometimes I think I’m way behind as it pertains to technology, after all, I’m still trying to figure out Twitter. Then again, perhaps not. In a phone call this morning, a friend directed me to a commentary that appeared in The Boston Globe today. The topic of Christopher Muther’s essay; “Antisocial Status” was whether Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have “turned us into a nation of…narcissists,” and focused on his temporary decision to withdraw from what he called “self absorbed,” Facebook updates.

Now, we all know that my Facebook membership is in its infancy and I’m in test-drive mode. But although my three “friends” and one trivial comment have dangled out there with no response for almost a week now, I’ve had a little more experience through my daughter, who like every teenager, is a Facebook addict. Occasionally, and I mean occasionally least I become a “Facebook Stalker” she lets me look at some of the comments and pictures on her friends’ “walls.” And I get it. It’s nice to stay in touch, to keep up, to feel involved with what is going on.

I hadn’t, however, read The Globe article before leaving the too quiet house this morning to develop a little interaction of my own. After taking a long walk, I treated myself to a cup of coffee at the French café located in our town center. There I plunked myself down at a wrought iron, marble-topped table, unfolded the paper and read Mr. Muther, who notes: "If I thought my friends were interesting, Facebook has taught me otherwise.” His cynicism was ultimately reined in during a conversation with Hal Neidzviecki, author of “The Peep Diaries; How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors,” who counters that tedious updates on Facebook are not authored by self absorbed people, but by people looking for a “human connection.” Mr. Neidzviecki says:

“There’s a certain charm to [Facebook] status updates of ‘I’m making soup.’ These things have a beauty to them because they’re little domestic details of our lives. Once upon a time we lived in villages and everybody knew that someone was making soup. Now we live in isolation…In certain ways you could say that these are…gestures that bring us together.”

So the intriguing part of all of this is that as I was reading, the six professional looking women crowded at the table beside me started discussing Facebook and LinkedIn. The café was packed today; there were a lot of dialogues going on and I couldn’t catch every word. But as I stared intently at Mr. Muther’s article so it wasn’t obvious that I was listening, it became clear that they were trying to understand the use and effectiveness of on-line social and professional networking.

Here is a confession. Any time I am sitting alone in a public place, I am thirteen again, too shy to intrude upon conversations with people I assume are better, smarter and more important than me. On top of that, there’s that darned good manners thing with which I was raised. Had I though, mustered up some nerve, this is what I would have said: “Hey guys, I’m new to Facebook, but I’m sold on LinkedIn. After three clicks yesterday in a networking capacity, I found a job to apply for that I would never have remembered if it weren’t for a visit to the on-line network. As for Facebook, well, I’m feeling a bit more reserved, but know that I could go home right now and reach out to high school and college friends if I wanted to advertise the fact that I’m looking for support in a career search.”

In this world where we are disjointed, too busy, secular, withdrawn and removed from each other, any method used to engage other humans is probably a good one. Of course, it might have resulted in a step ahead in the networking game if I’d had the courage to make my point in person. Maybe I would have done better if the topic had been Minestrone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Real Thing

Had I known what was in store for this morning, I would have reserved the name of last Friday’s post, because after today I know the real meaning of “On-Line Angst.” Which is to say that a writing job for which I have questionable qualifications but have seen several times in the last month, popped up on my screen this morning via a circuitous route that started with a stranger’s LinkedIn profile. I’m all for listening when life presents a less than understated hint and when I decided to apply, an on-line application was the only method accepted. Almost two hours and several eternities later, I pressed “Application Complete.”

As one of the principal project managers involved in implementing the on-line applicant tracking system in my old job, I am respectful of employment processes and recognize the need in this click-to-send world for screening out non-qualified candidates. After filling out the on-line application form in addition to attaching a resume and a cover letter, I was perfectly satisfied with the request to attach three on-line writing samples, except that the few samples I was able to retrieve before hastily departing my old office are not in the software applications requested. After cutting, pasting, submitting and failing multiple times, at the end it was less about applying and more about playing a game to see how tenacious (a word I use on my professional biography) I could be.

The answer is “tenacious enough.” Ultimately, after submitting the one writing sample that I had in Microsoft Word, then creating and attaching two Microsoft Word documents containing hyperlinks to my other two samples, I was allowed to press send. While not in the style or format requested, I’m feeling a bit cynical here. That job has been up for well over a month, and as a former recruitment professional I’m thinking I know why. A cumbersome on-line application process is scaring candidates away--it is a fine line between screening unqualified applicants out, and screening everyone else out too. So I’ll go for some optimism here. Considering a possible dearth of candidates, perhaps someone will click on my links.

It’s a stretch though. I have plenty of experience being inundated by candidates, and I know, at least from a recruiter’s point of view, how important it is for job applicants to play by the rules. The networking gurus will tell me that I need to find someone other than an HR person to send my resume to. And I hear them. Until I do though, I don’t expect anything to come from this foray into on-line exasperation. When all was said and finally done however, I awarded myself a victory medal. After all, job or no job, tenacity ruled and an inflexible system failed to beat me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Am I?

Today’s subject relating to the job search is “Professional Branding.” If you look at my profile on Middle Passages (down at the bottom of the left column) you will find the following: “I am a professional with strengths in writing, communication, leadership and talent acquisition.”

That “brand” if you will, is a broad-based description of my professional persona that I developed a few weeks into unemployment via coaching from my outplacement consultant. The goal is to repeat that little blurb until I can say it with confidence, because the statement is how I should be introducing myself in networking conversations. Were I a bit more specific in my career goals, or better said, when I become a bit more specific with regard to my career goals, the statement should become less ambiguous too.

This topic sits at the forefront because I just returned from a seminar on professional branding at the outplacement firm, presented by the same career counselor who works with me. While he has reviewed the information covered in the seminar during our weekly one-on-one appointments, my theory was that extra attention to the matter wouldn’t hurt and the meeting presented an opportunity for networking.

To no surprise, as a class exercise we were each asked to pull together a short statement reflective of our professional brand, just as I had two months ago. The idea of this phrase is not to focus on what you were, as in “I was a Senior Recruitment Manager for a billion dollar retailer” but to define who you are, including the talents, attributes and skills that you want to market in seeking your next position. Notwithstanding that I had already developed the statement above; apparently I need a bit more practice, as my message didn’t roll off my tongue today or out of my pen for that matter. During the brief time offered, I scrambled to recreate my professional brand statement and wrote the following: “I am a writer and business professional with skills in project management, leadership and talent acquisition...” Coming home, I compared today’s statement to my previous words, noting the subtle variation from two months ago when I was “a professional with strengths in writing…”

Perhaps, a slight aha is called for here.

I took two things away from the meeting today. The first was a reminder that in networking, it is not who I was, but branding who I am that’s important. The second thing is that three months, a whole lot of self-analysis and seventy-five Middle Passages posts after I lost my job, I may be almost confident enough to change the order of my words. Could the mere act of identifying myself as a writer in print make it true?

Oh to be Jean-Luc Picard in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series so that I could simply say: “Make it so, Number One.” What’s life though, without a bit of risk? So, if you are interested, you better look at my Middle Passages profile quickly, because it’s possible that it’s about to change.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Squeaking this One Out

After volunteering with the seniors which is the scheduled activity that gets me up and out on Mondays; I returned home knowing that at the top of the to-do list was this blog for which, over the weekend not a single idea percolated. In hopes that it would resurrect my absent creativity, I opened up Pen on Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and leafed through the pages, sure that one of her writing prompts would generate an idea. Per her suggestion, I researched a topic on the Internet, choosing the town owned Lightkeeper’s house which happens to be the location where we hold the Monday senior coffee cafes. Perched upon a hill over which daffodils planted by the garden club currently bloom, high above lobster boats swaying slowly at their moorings, the location is a frequent site for receptions and parties. On Google though, I found little related to it (hence my picture above). There must be no town supported marketing for the hall because there is no dedicated website explaining how the house (to my knowledge, the former home for the keepers of the Minot Ledge Lighthouse) came to its current incarnation.

It felt like a dead end to me (or at least involved more research than I had time for today), so I looked to Barbara for another exercise and discovered a suggestion to create lists on various topics in order to spawn writing ideas. The only list in my brain at that moment was called: “All of the things the cat does that annoy me.” Hmmm, not relevant to this blog, I’m thinking. So, again at the suggestion of Barbara, I wound up the timer for fifteen minutes and started free writing—typing whatever came to my brain. Oh dear. For the most part, you don’t want to know. But then, I did get this:

“Today is May 4th and I just realized that this is my brother-in-law’s birthday. He is forty-nine and that sounds young. Someone asked me today how I feel about being fifty. My answer was that it wasn’t worrying me until I lost my job and other than in that context, it still doesn’t. I do fret though when I think of people looking at my resume and instead of reading my name, seeing the word “Dinosaur” printed on top. In that regard I feel like I’ve already inhaled a huge portion of the pizza-pie that is life, and swallowed a lot without chewing.

The woman who asked me the question happens to have two years on me and four almost grown children. She remarked that she finds her age “liberating” which I understand. As moms of “getting-to-be grown” children, life becomes less about providing for our offspring, driving them places, focusing on their educations or simply fixating on them. As our kids gain independence, the time we spend with them becomes more give and take and conversational; the fact of being a parent and in charge takes a backseat to the development of a mature relationship with our children. Unexpectedly, in addition to being mothers we find ourselves traveling back to that almost forgotten time before we started raising families. I don’t know if I’m saying this right, because there is nothing in my life I love more than helping my daughter grow. The reality though is that being in active parenting mode is so far in importance beyond anything else in the world, that other things tend to fade away. Perhaps the next stage is that some of those things that have traveled off to the shadows will find their way back into view.

I may be fifty, but age is so much less about years and more about perspective. One of the women at the senior coffee this morning came in ramrod straight, smiling and greeting everyone with warm eyes, her white hair meticulously combed page boy style. At these coffees, as I shake hands with seniors I don’t know, I try to soften the “professional recruiter” grip that has been my trademark for so many years. This woman though, stepped over to me in her spring yellow jacket and white tailored pants, reached for my hand and gave it a robust pump as strong as my own. When we commented about her lovely coat, she chuckled and confessed: “You know what? This coat is thirty years old.” It turns out she’s ninety and among other things, still models clothes for a charity fashion show. As I watched her greeting her friends and pouring her own coffee from the linen covered refreshment table, I was relieved to see how much more there may be yet to come."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Week in Review (12)

Things I have Learned:

This line, which I stole from the Facebook wall of one of my (now) three on-line friends made me chuckle (Thank you JJ). “If your glass is half full, you need a smaller glass.”

Even though there are critical comments that will last forever attached to the online version of “His and Her Unemployment,” they cannot mitigate the many phone calls, letters, emails, comments and Linkedin messages that have been positive, encouraging and supportive. I’m holding a big glass on this one, and the liquid measures well beyond three quarters.

Even a traffic jam is a joy on the first hot day of the year.

Every comment on this blog is cause for a mini-celebration.

If your garden needs water, wash your windows, because without exception it will rain the next day.

When the blueberry coffee cake that was the cause of so much angst two weeks ago shows up in a picture in the local paper looking delicious, any lingering frustration fades away. Now, if I could only remember to wipe up the dregs of icing, still congealed on the front passenger car floor…

Friday, May 1, 2009

On-line Angst

I laughed out loud after my daughter created a Facebook account for me on Wednesday and about thirty people from my high school class popped up. I’ve dragged my feet about social networking and when two of my dearest friends/college roommates joined Facebook and suggested I do so too, even though the thought of regular contact with them appealed I still paused. After all, we have email.

However, in addition to the encouragement of these friends, in my recent networking activities, the pervasive theme with regard to finding either success as a writer or a job (or with any luck some combination of the two) is that it’s all about exposure. Therefore I’ve embraced LinkedIn and have plenty of contacts there, and Lord knows I’ve opened myself up to anyone who can find me via Middle Passages. I’ve even included a link to Middle Passages on LinkedIn. (How’s that for techno-doublespeak?) On top of this, I’m a Google maniac, searching everything and everyone, including myself, and I’m out there in some pretty direct ways. If you Google me right now you’ll find my LinkedIn profile, an on-line story with regard to our daughter’s adoption, and the recent Boston Globe Magazine article that highlights the fact that I am unemployed. Given that all that intelligence on yours truly is already public, what more is there to make me cautious about Facebook, other than my fear that it could become obsessive (which judging from the time I’ve already spent looking up people, is legitimate)?

Even though I’m smart enough to withhold unflattering pictures or comments, I am aware that with membership a certain loss of control arises, so the openness of Facebook continues to worry me. But on Wednesday, after one more person told me that from a career networking and writing point of view, Facebook could be an additional asset, I gave in.

Once registered though and scrolling through profiles of my high school and college classmates, I suddenly understood my anxiety. Before I logged onto Facebook, the “world” that discovered me on the Internet was either professional (via LinkedIn) or for the most part, anonymous. For example, there is a comment on-line related to one of my articles in Adoptive Families from a stranger, which in an odd way felt safe to me, at a time when most of my family didn’t know I had written it. A little harder to swallow were the seven comments on-line from the recent Boston Globe Magazine article, a few of whom didn’t appreciate my take; and one that was particularly nasty. I inhaled deeply on discovering those, but could move on with limited alarm because I didn’t know the authors. After all, these are the sort of “one time hits” for which I have to develop a tough hide if I’m going to continue writing. By joining Facebook though, I’m opening myself up to people I know with opinions that matter to me and whose criticism, if received, will sting. I guess it behooves me to ensure that in what ever way I appear on the Web, I can stand up to any scrutiny my on-line persona may encounter.

So as of two days ago, you can find me there in social network-land with my two friends and another link to Middle Passages. I think though, that rather than industriously “friending” old acquaintances, I will just sit back for a while and see what happens. The “on” line between my personal and professional selves is feeling pretty blurry these days. God knows how I will cope when I figure out Twitter.