Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Forgiveness Divine

So far, I've done a lot of writing about my former home state of Florida and of my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. So, I thought today I'd address my newly adopted state of Pennsylvania. The Keystone State sits in a truly beautiful part of the country and has a lot to brag about. Besides being the birthplace of my beloved Grandma Simmons, it's rich history spans from the American Revolution in Valley Forge, through the Civil War battles of Gettysburg, to the current Super Bowl Champs of Pittsburgh and World Series Champs of Philadelphia.

Perhaps one of Pennsylvania's most popular tourist attractions, however, lies just thirty minutes from our home here in York. People come from all over the country to converge on the little county of Lancaster, to see the Amish. Lancaster was one of the first places Alan and I visited when we were thinking of moving up here. It's just beautiful country, with rolling hills and winding roads. Everywhere you look, you'll see horse-drawn carriages pulling straw-hatted, suspender-wearing men with long beards. As you drive along Route 30, you pass farm after farm of these men sitting behind huge plows being pulled by a team of horses. Just outside their wrap-around porched homes stand clotheslines displaying black pants, blue shirts, simple hand-sewn dresses and white bonnets.

There are painted signs in their yards reading "Fresh Asparagus," "Home made Root Beer," or "Corn for Sale." The tiny shops along the road display handcrafted quilts and plaques with bible verses etched into them, reading, "Be still and know that I am God," and "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I've been to Lancaster several times since we've moved here, and the more I go there, the more amazed I am that this little town is so popular. Although most cities across America are having a tough time trying to survive in today's economy, this is not the case in Lancaster. Even the non-Amish sector is thriving. The Best Westerns and Holiday Inns that boast "Just minutes from Amish Country!" are booked solid. The Amish museum and the local venders on the outskirts of the farmland are all showing profits.

Why the huge attraction, do you think? When it comes down to it, we're spending our tourist dollars to visit a tiny town and watch people in simple clothing, with simple means of transportation and farm equipment, do without. Why are we so fascinated by this? When Alan's parents visited recently, they brought along Alan's Aunt Sherry and Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul runs his own (modern) farm in Boaz, Alabama, so naturally, the first place he wanted to go was Amish Country. We all piled into the car and drove the thirty minutes to the "Simple Life." Uncle Paul watched the straw-hatted man behind the horse-drawn plow for a few seconds, then said, "You have to respect a people who shed off all the distractions of modern day and just simplify everything. But I gotta tell you, I LOVE my tractor!!"

I think that's pretty much the gist of Amish Country. It puts on display for us a whole community of people that are "doing without," "stripping away distractions," and focusing on God and family. We say, "Wow, that's awesome!" then happily climb into our gas-guzzling SUV's and hurry home to our dishwashers and Ipods and declare, "I could never live like that!" Then something happened that brought to the forefront not only the Amish way of life, but also the Amish heart, soul and immense faith.

This Friday, October 2nd, will mark the three year anniversary of the day that a thirty-two year old gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst through the doors of West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County. Roberts took female hostages ranging in age from six to thirteen, bound their hands and feet, and eventually shot and killed five of them execution-style before turning the gun on himself. Five other shooting victims survived, although one does not have full vision in her left eye. The youngest victim, six at the time of the shooting , suffered severe brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair. Family members say she frequently smiles.

Like any school shooting, Nickel Mines School attracted intense media attention and the Amish community was immediately swarming with news vans and dramatic journalists wanting to scoop each other. None of them were prepared for what happened next.

That was when the Amish community shocked the entire world with three simple words: "We forgive him." They didn't just say the words, either, they put them into action. A Roberts family spokesperson said an Amish neighbor visited the stunned relatives just hours after the shooting and offered forgiveness. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for an hour, comforting him. They also set up a charitable fund for the shooter's family.

I'll never forget watching the coverage of that tragedy, sitting in my living room in Orlando. I remember particularly watching Matt Lauer on the Today Show doing an extended piece about the amazing "forgiveness" that occurred. Since the Amish don't do interviews, Matt had as his guests several different religious scholars. One was a rabbi, another a religion professor, the third a Christian pastor. Matt began with an exasperated shrug, and with palms up, arms out, beseeched his panel, "How are they able to forgive?" Matt told them he had children of his own, and that if that man had done this to any of THEM, he'd be wanting severe vengeance.

I'll always remember the pastor's response: "Jesus commands us to forgive, no matter what. In this case, it's very, very hard. It takes PRACTICE. This level of forgiveness requires practice. The Amish PRACTICE forgiveness very diligently." That struck such a chord with me. The Amish, despite their long beards, straw hats and while bonnets, are human, just like me. They get angry over injustice and grieve the loss of their loved ones, just like me. But they PRACTICE being what they know God wants them to be. How many times have I lost my temper and just shrugged it off, saying, "Hey, I'm Irish! We have short fuses!" It's just so easy to justify our bad behavior with excuses we claim are beyond our control. The Amish show us what frauds we all are.

And don't tell me they didn't feel intense anger and grief over the way their sweet girls were brutally taken from them. Google the press releases from that day and take a look at the grieving faces of that community. They had that entire school house completely demolished a week after the incident, they couldn't stand to have the slightest reminder of what occurred there.

There were also many "experts" who criticized the Amish for their forgiveness. They cited that to forgive when no remorse has been expressed denies the existence of evil. My response to them would be this: Apparently, at the scene of the crime that day, police reported there wasn't a chair, desk, or floorboard that wasn't splattered with the blood of those children. I don't believe anyone who saw that room that day has any doubt about the reality of evil.

So, today, in honor of the anniversary of that horrible day in my newly-adopted state, I'm re-affirming the pledge I made after watching that Matt Lauer interview in 2006. I'm going to practice being better. I'm going to practice being less selfish and more caring. I'm going to loosen my grip a little on the "hating of my enemies" I've been enjoying so much. It's going to take work, I know. But, the truth is, the Amish have called my bluff. They look at me with five little child-sized white bonnets in their hands and say, "It can be done."

Thanks for reading!!

Monday, September 28, 2009


I've been doing some thinking about luck this morning. It's actually been on my mind since the second quarter of yesterday's soul-crushing Browns game in which they got pummeled by Satan's team, the Baltimore Ravens. I've finally decided to come out today and officially declare the following: it's all because of ME. I'm tremendous bad luck.

Now, here me out before you roll your eyes and hit the "back" button on your laptop. The last time the Browns won a championship was the year of my birth, 1964. Coincidence? Perhaps. But consider this: I've been a serious Browns fan since the early 80's. Many of those years, particularly in the 80's, the Browns actually had some good seasons. They even won enough games to make it to the play-offs a few times. Those were ALL the years when I wasn't living in Cleveland and was unable to watch the games live. Guess what happened when I went home for Christmas and was able to catch those play-offs? You guessed it...HEART-ACHE!!! Same goes for my college team. Syracuse actually had a decent football program the years before I attended there. They've been dreadful ever since. But my talent for certain doom is not limited to football alone. Alan and I were enormous fans and season ticket holders for the Orlando Magic, the city's professional basketball team. They were historically pretty bad, making it to the play-offs only once or twice, always being eliminated in the first round. Always, that is, until just three short months after I moved out of town. What happened then, you ask? THEY WENT TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP!! See a pattern forming here?

So, as I wallow in self-pity today, I've been thinking a lot about luck and superstition. You always hear in show business that success has very little to do with talent and everything to do with chance. Right place, right time equals fame and fortune. Whenever I actually booked a gig, I'd always wear the same outfit and go through the same routine in preparation for the next audition, trying to recreate the magic that had allowed the previous achievement. It never worked the second time. The theater world is dripping with superstition. Whistling in the dressing room is completely forbidden, as is mentioning the name "Macbeth" in any area of the theater. If you make the mistake of committing either one of these offenses, you must immediately run outside, twirl around three times, spit through your fingers, curse, and ask for permission to re-enter. Everybody knows it's bad luck to wish someone good luck before a show, instead we say, "Break a leg," apparently hoping we will somehow confuse the Theater Gods and success will prevail! Weird, huh?

The sporting world has it's own idiosyncrasies when it comes to reversing luck. Baseball players frequently don "rally caps" when they are attempting a come-from-behind victory. This is when the players on the bench turn their caps inside out, wear them backwards, wear them so the bill sticks up like a shark fin, and even stick their gum (with blown-bubble still intact!) on the outside of them. They'll do whatever works to ensure runs on the board!!

I decided to look on-line at some other sport superstitions. Here's some real doozies I found: In fishing, the fish may not bite if a barefoot woman passes you on the way to the dock. In golf, you should start only with odd-numbered clubs. Players in ice-hockey must put their pads and skates on in exactly the same order every day, otherwise bad luck will follow. Participants in tennis must avoid wearing the color yellow, and in the rodeo, you must always put your right foot into the stirrup first. Otherwise you are doomed.

Superstition has actually produced belief in some pretty juicy curses in the sporting world. Everyone with a television set has heard of the Boston Red Sox's "Curse of the Bambino." It all began in 1919 when the five-time championship-winning Red Sox traded all-star Babe Ruth (aka The Bambino) to a hapless, losing New York Yankees team. The Red Sox never won another championship, but The Babe led the Yankees to dozens of World Series victories, thereby making fan attendance multiply so greatly that a new stadium was erected and quickly nicknamed "The House That Ruth Built." Poor Boston tried everything to "Reverse the Curse" over the years, but the elusive championship was never a reality. Not, that is, until 2004, when Boston finally won their first World Series in eight-six years. How did they do it? Many site the appearance of the lunar eclipse that evening, something that had never happened before in the championship's history. Others say it was because Edgar Renteria, the Cardinals player who hit into the final out of the game, wore the #3 jersey, same as The Bambino. Most people believe that it was because 2004 was the year the Yankee organization announced plans to tear down "The House That Ruth Built" and erect a brand new stadium, thus angering the Baseball Gods.

Chicago Cubs fans have never witnessed a championship. They are convinced that this is all because in 1945, Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley Field because his pet goat's odor was bothering other fans. Outraged, Billy left, but on the way out he declared, "Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more." They've been terrible ever since. The fans have tried everything, from bringing live goats into the stadium to leaving the corpses of dead goats hanging from statues outside the stadium (not sure how that last one is supposed to help!) to help remove the jinx, all to no avail.

I'm willing to believe that in addition to my own bad luck, there may also be a curse that the Cleveland Browns are enduring. In 1962, new owner Art Modell (see afore-mentioned Satan reference) fired coach Paul Brown, the frigging NAMESAKE of the team. Paul was more popular in Cleveland than Art was, and he couldn't have this. Paul left heartbroken and drove a little ways south to form the Cincinnati Bengals, who later participated in two Super Bowls. Ask me how many Cleveland's been to...

Cleveland's dripping in bad luck. Our players are plagued with injuries while other teams seem to thrive. A few years back Pittsburgh's awesome QB Ben Roethlisberger was in a horrific motorcycle accident when he crashed while not wearing a helmet. He was terribly hurt, but managed a full recovery and never missed a game of the upcoming season. That same year, on the first play of the first day of training camp, Cleveland's all-pro star center, LeCharles Bentley, stepped into a small hole in the field, tore his patellar tendon and was placed on the disabled list for two seasons. All the sports doctors agreed it was an extremely rare, freak injury, but a devastating one nonetheless. The Browns eventually dropped Bentley from the roster.

Everybody loves to talk about the brilliant coach Bill Belichick, the multiple Super Bowl-winning coach of the New England Patriots. He's been called a genius, the best coach of the decade, possibly our lifetime. Everyone forgets that before he signed with New England, Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns. He was terrible. We won very few games and was just an overall unpleasant, surly man. We eventually fired him. What happened? I believe it's solely because Joan Donnelly-Emery is not a New England fan, she roots for the Browns. Bill never stood a chance in Cleveland.

So, as I was ruminating about all of this during half time of that depressing game yesterday, Alan sat down next to me on the couch. He grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes and told me that he didn't know about the Browns, but that I had been a tremendous good luck charm for HIM. He told me that since he's been with me, he's acquired jobs that have allowed him to pursue his dream of traveling the world and he's been the recipient of several promotions that have earned him more money than he ever thought he'd make. He told me that because of the luck I've brought him, he's been able to share his days with the love of his life and the girl of his dreams, and he wouldn't trade any of it for anything. (Sigh!)

With that, I grasped my sweet husband's head between both my hands and placed a soft kiss on his handsome face. Then, in a gentle, tender voice, I said to my Beloved, "Knock it off with the luck-siphoning, already!! My team needs me!!"

So, what do YOU think? I've decided I honestly don't know. Is our fate wrapped-up in some kind of unseen force that can control who succeeds and who fails? Was I simply not talented enough to fulfill my dream of performing on Broadway, or did I completely jinx myself for life that day I accidentally whistled in my college dressing room? Is Babe Ruth and an odiferous goat really responsible for a team's multi-decade long losing streak, or were the players just not skilled enough to get the job done?

As a Christian, I'm told to believe that fate is in God's hands, and that He controls the outcome. But, I'm not so sure this belief can be applied in sports. I mean, players on both sides of the ball are kneeling down in the locker room before each game praying for their team to reign victorious that day. I figure it's a wash. Except, of course in the case of my team. I don't know why, but for some reason, God, Babe Ruth, a goat, Macbeth, a black cat, spilled salt, and broken mirrors all REALLY hate the Cleveland Browns.

Thanks for reading!!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Falsie Advertising

I have an enormous pet peeve I'd like to rant about today. It involves all (I mean ALL) mascara commercials. The one I saw today featured the timelessly beautiful Eva Longoria. She is just a gorgeous human being isn't she? Perfect hair, face and skin. When I look at a picture of Eva, I'm at a complete loss to find anything I'd try to improve about her. So, why is it that Loreal had her wearing FALSE EYELASHES to promote their "lash-thickening, super volume" mascara? Loreal would like us to believe that their mascara, not the FALSIES glued to Eva's eyelids, is what makes her lashes so full and lush. Is it just me? This is ridiculously deceptive, right? Why doesn't someone put a stop to this false advertising? It's not just poor Eva, either. I've seen the exact same mascara commercials featuring Vanessa Williams, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Alba, even Queen Latifah. Ladies....why?

Here's another enormous product lie. It's been recently revealed that many of those "miracle diet pill" manufacturers pay buff, six-packed models to eat and gain a ton of weight. When they've reached the appropriate "tubby" status, they take a picture and label it "Before." Then, they use one of the same model's earlier buff shots and mark it "After." Clever, no?

This will really make your blood boil. I have a male actor friend who's done several commercial shoots. If you saw him, you'd know why. The man is gorgeous. He looks like JFK, Jr. with his perfect white teeth and thick, dark curly hair. HANDSOME, ladies!! Recently he was paid a truck-load of money to lounge on a sailboat flanked by two gorgeous, bikini-clad blondes and talk to the camera about this great new hair replacement product. Now mind you, my friend never mentions that he himself has actually USED said product (he hasn't!). But all indications are, if you use this hair miracle product, you too will look like my friend, own an enormous yacht, and date multiple scantily-clad blonde women.

Can you handle one more? My girlfriend was recently chosen to be the hair model for an informercial selling a new shampoo. It claimed to make your hair shinier after just ONE use. Before they took my friend's "Before" picture, they doused her (gorgeous) hair with powder, making it appear dry, dull and frizzy. Guess what happened when they applied the new "miracle" shampoo? You got it...MAGIC!!!

I guess I'm a huge hypocrite when it comes to commercials, however, because there are many that I love so much that I press "rewind" on the DVR to watch them over and over. I'm especially a sucker for anything with animals in it. We actually got our dog Trixie as a result of an RCA commercial. Remember the ones that have the dog peering into the old victrola? I took one look at that tiny black and white puppy and exclaimed, "I must have that adorable dog!" I actually called the RCA home office to inquire what exact breed that dog was. They told me she was a Jack Russell Terrier.

The Jack Russell was a popular breed in show business at the time. In addition to "Chipper" the RCA puppy, there was Max from the movie "The Mask," Wishbone from the PBS kid series of the same name, and, of course, Eddie from "Frasier." The breed is a great fit for show biz because they're smart, energetic, and pick up tricks very quickly. Trixie was no exception. She could sit, lay down, roll-over, shake, high-five, play dead, and shake her head "no" on command before she was even house-broken.

So, you can imagine my delight when the popular dog food, "Kibbles 'n Bits" hosted a huge "Put Your Dog In Our Commercial" audition at the local fairground. Each dog would have two minutes in front of a panel of auditioners to show their stuff! To say I became "Crazy Stage Mother From Hell" would've been putting it very nicely, but I was SURE America would soon love my dog as much as I did. We rehearsed our audition for hours. I would ask Trixie:

"Would you rather go without your Kibbles 'n Bits, or be dead?"
(she plays dead)
"Really, Trixie? That's crazy! Are you stupid?"
(she shakes her head "no")
"OK, I guess we'll just say good-bye to your old dog food!"
(she waves bye-bye)

Our big finish was to be when I would tap my chest and she would jump into my arms in one leap, then we'd wave to the audience's thunderous applause. I was sure our trip to Hollywood was in the BAG!

The big day arrived and Alan drove a freshly coiffed Trixie and I to the fairgrounds. It was chaos: dogs barking, pooping and yelping EVERYWHERE!! Trixie remained stoic and unaffected by the pandemonium. While in line for our turn onstage, we went over our act once more. She performed it flawlessly. We watched our competition take the stage. I laughed condescendingly as dog after dog caved-in to the pressure, nervously peed and ran off. Then it was our turn.

I brought Trixie onstage and place her on the "X" in front of the camera. She sat up tall and confident. I began loudly, facing the audience and smiling broadly, "Trixie, would you rather go without your Kibbles and Bits, or be dead?" Now, here's what I believe went on in my brilliant Jack Russell Terrier's head at that instant: Trixie knew that if she succeeded at this, there was never going to be another moment of peace in her lifetime. Her crazy mommy would be forever dragging her to every dog food, pet store and RCA commercial on the planet. This was going to seriously cut-into her toilet flushing/pool swimming/ball chasing agenda. The whole thing needed to be nipped in the bud.

So my dog let me ask that beginning question, then proceeded to calmly ICE me! She did absolutely NOTHING! I repeated the question, more loudly this time. She actually turned and looked at the audience, as if to say, "Do you have ANY idea what she's talking about?" I began yelling her cue, "Dead Trixie, DEAD, DEAD, DEAD!!!" She didn't even flinch! We left the stage, defeated. The emcee grabbed the microphone and said, "Well, at least Trixie's OWNER showed a lot of energy!" I didn't speak to Trixie for several hours after that. But later that day she brought me her ball and let me throw it for her 500 times. All was forgiven.

Here's the clincher: We had to buy a bag of Kibbles 'n Bits to get the audition entry form, so Trixie actually HAD a full bag of it. It's TERRIBLE!!! It's like the McDonald's of all dog food, full of preservatives and loaded with fat. Trixie actually gained weight after just one bag. But I'll tell you this in all sincerity, if she had actually booked that commercial, I'd have gone on camera and SWORN it was The Best Dog Food...EVER!!!

So, what's the moral of this rant? I guess it's that we should never believe everything we see in commercial or print ads. We're never going to look as gorgeous as Eva Longoria, no matter how much mascara we use, false eyelashes or not. Also, more importantly, never force your dog to do something she doesn't want to, particularly if that dog is way, way smarter than YOU!!

Thanks for reading!!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gardening Angel

The last house Alan and I owned in Orlando, Florida was in a beautiful community called Avalon Park. Avalon Parks sits to the east of the city and has it's own self-contained town center, grocery store, restaurants, schools, parks and town festivals. The community contains thousands of new homes, condos, townhomes and apartments. There are strict rules for keeping your house and yard up to community standards. They encourage this by presenting the prestigious "Yard of the Month" award, given to the one home with the most exceptional lawn and landscaping. Besides being an enormous honor, the recipient of the award also receives a gift certificate to one of the town's eating establishments and, most importantly, gets a really cool "YARD OF THE MONTH" sign stuck in their yard for a full thirty days!

So, you can imagine my extreme delight the day I opened the door to see a man standing on my porch holding the coveted sign. He said in a monotoned mumble "Ah...yeah. You won yard of the month. Where do you want me to put the sign?" OK, have you ever watched The Price is Right when one of those really large women wins at Plinko and then proceeds to maul poor Bob Barker in a jumping, hugging, shouting, screaming frenzy? Multiply that by TEN, and you will have my reaction to this unlucky man's inquiry!! If there had been TV cameras pointed in my direction (come to think of it, I'm a little shocked there were NONE!!), I would have cradled that sign in my arms like an Oscar and made a long, orchestra-playing-to-hurry-me-to-finish speech. In it, I would've said that this award is not mine alone. I share it with my teacher and silent friend, Farmer Man. Here is his story...

It all started when Alan and I moved into our first home in Orlando. We purchased a tiny plot in a burgeoning new community, picked out our floor plans and counter tops and moved into our little suburban heaven. I loved it! I loved the trick-or-treaters, the grilling on the back porch, the pool we eventually added, all the things that were unimaginable when I lived in a tiny apartment on thirtieth street in NYC.

The only element I didn't quite grasp in our new suburban life was the yard. The home builders had planted a variety of shrubs and ornamental grasses around the place, I thought they looked fine. I didn't know the names of any of them, but I wasn't too worried about it. I figured I'd get the hose out every week or so and give them a good squirt. Piece of cake. It's not like everything was just going to die on me if I neglected it.

So, shortly after everything died on me, I realized I had no idea what I was doing yard-wise. I perused a few books at Barnes and Noble pertaining to Florida gardening, but right at about paragraph two where they went into intense detail about soil PH levels and frost zones, my brain would cramp-up and I'd return the book to it's shelf. But I knew I had to do something.

That's about the time I started noticing my neighbor's yard. To say his landscape was lush would be like calling The Grand Canyon a large pothole. It was Eden. There were three large Bougainvillea bushes in the middle of the yard that each sported blooms of varying shades of crimson and fuschia. Every time a breeze passed by it would send those electric pink and red blooms cascading lazily across my driveway. Closer to the house were his rose bushes, with multi-colored blooms the size of small children. Even his boring old shrubs were green and perfect, trimmed to manicured perfection.

All this was under the gentle, loving care of one man. Picture a slight, fit, blue-jeaned Puerto Rican man in his early sixties with a face the texture of worn leather. He had bright, kind, blue eyes that were always squinting as he went about his landscaping work. And he always, always wore a straw, amish-style hat on his head. We didn't know his name right away, so his hat inspired us to give him the clever, clever name of "Farmer Man." He didn't speak a word of english, so it wasn't until a bilingual neighbor eventually introduced us that we learned his real name, Angel.

Farmer Man spent hours in that yard. It wasn't at all unusual for us to leave the house early in the morning, wave to him as he sat hunched over one of his plants, then return late that night and still see him out there, pulling weeds or trimming hedges. He didn't use any electric equipment, only his hands and simple garden tools. He did his edging on his hands and knees, hacking away at the thick St. Augustine grass with a two foot machete!

I became Farmer Man's stalker! I started paying close attention to the things he was doing in the yard, reading the writing on the bags he pulled out of his trunk and emptied onto his flower beds. There were things like "Top soil," "Manure," and "Compost." I raced out and got the same stuff. When he applied it, so did I. When he determined that it was late February and time to trim the crepe myrtle, so did I. And guess what? My yard slowly came to life! Guess what else? So did I! With each new bloom that sprung open in my yard, I was discovering a brand new passion growing inside ME!! I was really enjoying myself! What had once been a chore was now a real joy. I couldn't wait to get outside on my days off and nurture my plants. I'd look over at Farmer Man and think, "I get it!!"

It wasn't long before I was joining Farmer Man in his marathon landscaping days. We never played the radio or attached an Ipod to our ears. We preferred the sweet sound of all the singing birds around us. Then I discovered other things that were happening: when you spend hours in your front yard, you meet all the neighborhood children who eventually ride by on their bikes, and have great conversations with neighbors walking by with their dogs, all the things you completely miss if you're inside watching TV.

I eventually extended my flower beds and added more shepherd's hooks and potted plants. Hey, it was no Angel's Eden, but I was really proud of it! Farmer man and I never spoke, but we had a fantastic silent relationship. I'd step outside with my watering can and gardening gloves and see him already bent over one of his precious rose bushes. I'd wait until he looked up and we'd give each other a friendly smile, nod and wave, then get to work. Sometimes there'd be a little game of charades consisting of pointing at the sky, then throwing the head back and arms out as if to say, "What a gorgeous day!" The other would nod and agree, but that was all we had time for, the flowers were waiting! Once, on my only day off that week, I was on the side of the house planting some impatiens when the sky opened up and sent down an enormous amount of rain. I knew this was my only chance to get those flowers in the ground, so I kept working. I finished about a half an hour later, soaked to the skin, and was walking around to the front when I saw him. There was Farmer man, water pouring down off the rim of his straw hat, pruning his rose bush. We looked at one other, pointed, and laughed, comrades in our insane passion!!

After eight years, Alan and I left that house and moved to our new home in Avalon Park. The first thing I did once the boxes were unpacked was grab my compost and topsoil and head out front. But I have to admit, it wasn't the same. I missed seeing my Gardening Angel in his blue jeans and straw hat. I hate that I never thanked him properly for teaching me so much and introducing me to a world I love so completely.

Then a weird thing started happening after we'd been in our new home for a few months. Every time I went out to spray Miracle-Gro on my flowers, there was my neighbor, George, doing the same. When it was late February and time to trim the crepe myrtles, there was George, trimming away, same as me. One day, George came across the street and said, exasperated, "OK, I've done EVERYTHING you've done for the past several months, why doesn't my yard look like YOURS?" I laughed, gave him a few suggestions, then turned and walked inside. I found Alan in his office in front of his computer. He looked up at me as I stood in the doorway, huge smile plastered across my face. "Hey, Honey," I told him happily, "Guess what? I'm FARMER MAN!!"

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Worm Food

At the risk of being accused of turning this blog into a giant travel log, today I'd like to write about another favorite yearly trip that Alan and I love to take. Every July for the past ten years or so, we point the car south and drive until the road meets the ocean, in Key West. We love to go in July because this is when the town hosts their annual Hemingway Days, in honor of their famous one-time resident, Ernest Hemingway. It's AWESOME!!

The highlight of the festival takes place at Papa Hemingway's favorite drinking establishment, Sloppy Joe's Tavern. This is where they hold the extremely popular Hemingway look-a-like contest. Believe me when I tell you these men are SERIOUS about this competition! Picture a bunch of burley men with grey hair and beard, dressed head to toe in safari-wear. The contest lasts several days and includes a key-lime pie eating contest, talent show, and the "running with the bulls" race (the latter is performed using shopping carts dressed to resemble the livestock of Pamplona. It's a MUST see!!).

We love Key West and the flavor of that eclectic city. One year we decided to really explore the history of the place and took several tours of the old homes there. Key West boasts a rich history, particularly during the nineteenth century. This was an era when shipwrecks occurred daily on the island's off-shore reef. It was a time of pirates and yellow fever, slave ships and Indian wars. There are many huge mansions there built solely from the spoils of treasure found off of those wrecked ships.

There's a fantastic old cemetery there where you can wander amongst the crypts of the town's most famous citizens. The engraving on some of the headstones gives you an idea of the true character of Key West and it's inhabitants: "I Told You I Was Sick," "Devoted Fan of Julio Inglesias," "Good Citizen for 65 of his 108 Years," and "At Least I Know Where He's Sleeping Tonight."

That same year we decided to take a boat ride on the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas National Park, located seventy miles west of Key West. Here you can find Fort Jefferson, one of the largest coastal forts ever built. It became a prison during the civil war, and even housed the famous inmate Dr. Samuel Mudd. He's the doctor that was charged with conspiracy for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. It was a fascinating, beautiful trip, but one that soon became extraordinary when we boarded the boat to return back to the Keys.

Apparently, some Cuban refugees, trying to make their way on a make-shift raft to Miami, had drifted west and landed on the shores of the Dry Tortugas. Our country has a "dry foot" law regarding Cuba, in that if a refugee makes it to land, they are allowed to stay (after being processed by our government). Since transportation to and from the Tortugas is limited, they announced to us passengers that park officials would be escorting the Cubans back to the Processing Center on Key West by way of our boat. I'll tell you this, it was hard not to stare at the faces of those tired, relieved men. I thought hard about the intensity of the journey they had just endured.

But our surreal trip was not over. About a half an hour into our boat ride back, the captain again made an announcement. He said we'd notice that the boat was going to slow to a stop for a moment while they paused and performed a brief, two-minute ceremony off the back of the ship. I tore myself away from the exhausted refugees to see what was going on. Apparently, the parents of a long-time Key West fisherman were onboard. Their son had recently lost his battle with cancer, and they had with them an urn that contained his ashes, along with the gold medallion he always wore. The father held in his hand a paper with the exact latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of where his son requested his ashes to be scattered.

The boat stopped and a crew member helped the elderly couple onto a small platform nearest the water. They both bowed their heads, then cast the contents of the urn out onto the crystal clear, windex-blue water. The last thing they tossed overboard was that gold medallion. As they both turned back, tears streaming down their faces, I struggled for something to say. There was nothing. So as the woman passed, I grabbed her arm, looked her in the eye, and gave her hand a squeeze. She patted my hand and said, "I'm just glad it's finally over." Indeed.

I returned from that trip to Key West with a different attitude. I kept
thinking about how brief the time is that we get on this earth. Seriously, how long before they're giving museum tours of OUR homes, saying, "Here's the kitchen where they typically prepared the family meals. Notice the archaic microwave oven and twenty-first century juicer."

I love the movie Dead Poet's Society, the movie in which Robin Williams portrays John Keating, the eccentric prep-school professor who challenges his young male students to live life to the fullest. My favorite scene is at the very beginning, where he takes his class out to the school hallway where a row of trophy cases stand. In them are old photos of students from many years before. Mr Keating tells the boys to lean in and get a good look at them. "Peruse the faces from the past," he says. He points out that the boys in those photos are just like they are now, "Same haircuts...full of hormones...invincible...eyes full of hope." But the only difference, he tells them, is that all the boys featured in those photos are now "fertilizing daffodils." They are all dead, and someday everyone standing there in that hallway would be joining them. "We are food for worms, lads." With that in mind, he asks his class to lean in and listen to what those boys want them to know. "If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you...'Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your life extraordinary.'"

My Dad's sisters kid him that he still has the money he received for his First Communion stashed away in a drawer somewhere. He is ridiculously reluctant to spend his hard earned money. My mother suggested recently they spend some of their vast savings and take a cruise. My seventy-five year old father refused, citing that they needed to save that money FOR THEIR OLD AGE!

I know times are hard out there, and I'm certainly not suggesting we all blow our savings and rush off to invest in an Alpaca farm somewhere (unless that's what you really, really want to do!). But since that trip I've decided to focus more intently on making minutes count. Before they sprinkle my ashes or create my hilarious tombstone (I'm still working on my inscription!), I want to make sure I've left no stone unturned. I can assure you, those five Cubans on a makeshift raft decided they'd had enough of living under a cruel dictatorship and did something about it. Talk about seizing the day...

I'd like to think that starting this blog was a version of applying this practice. I was terrified to do it. When I initially created the blog, I didn't provide a space for comments, I was convinced I was making a large fool of myself. Now I love the feeling of accomplishment it brings me. I'm so grateful for the way old friends whom I haven't seen in decades have rushed to offer encouragement and support for this endeavor. Seize the Day. I love how the interpretation isn't "Gently grasp the edges of the day and give it a little tug." No! Seize it! Grab it like a shoplifter at Best Buy and RUN!!

Need some encouragement? See if this helps, it did for me: My sister Jennifer is a West Point graduate and veteran of the first Gulf War. After marrying and giving birth to two children, she gave the army a few more good years, then retired and decided to move on to something else. With her huge brain and immense toughness, we thought for sure her new career would involve politics or something high-pressured. She wanted to teach. She ignored her critics, went back to school to get her masters degree and teaching certificate, and is now a very happy, awesome teacher of the 3rd and 4th grade at an elementary school in Washington. She says she truly loves her job and the young minds she gets to mold every day (although the kids are growing a little weary of "dropping and giving her twenty" when they provide low test scores!).

My sister Kathy, an expert quilter, attended a class at a national quilt show. When she realized she knew more about the subject than her teacher that day, she approached the woman at the end of the class and asked her about her job and how she obtained it. Kathy now travels the country representing Pfaff sewing machines, teaching classes at quilt shows. Her expertise and knowledge are in huge demand. Lastly, there's my mom, Sandy Donnelly, who successfully convinced her tight-wad of a husband that if they didn't start spending their savings, they'd soon die and the money would all just go to their children. They left for their Alaskan cruise a few short months later.

The worms await us, dear friends. I challenge you to make this brief journey worthwhile. Do the thing that you fear the most. Book the trip you've been meaning to take. And while you're making travel arrangements, may I suggest the sunny, eclectic island of Key West? You won't regret it!

Thanks for reading!!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Next Year

So, my dog Trixie has a toilet obsession. Actually, it's more the flushing of the toilet she craves every minute of every day. We have no idea why. We never brought her to the bathroom as a puppy and introduced the toilet to her as a potential toy. She pretty much discovered it on her own. If you happen to be visiting and wonder where Trixie could be, we'll tell you to check the bathroom. Nine times out of ten, there she'll be, staring at her porcelain fixation and begging you to push down on the handle. When you do, she gets up on her back legs and peers down into the circling water, growling and barking at it. She'll chase her tail frantically, then begin to whine for you to do it all over again.

Alan has made a fantastic game out of flushing toilets for Trixie. He teases her mercilessly by running from room to room, waiving his arms wildly and shouting as Trixie runs excitedly behind him. Sometimes he flushes, other times he quickly reverses direction and runs to the OTHER bathroom, flushing THAT toilet instead, sending our dog into a barking, panting, happy MESS! My job during the "toilet teasing" escapade is to sit on the couch, clap my hands, and giggle like an infant playing peek-a-boo! I challenge ANY three-ring circus to provide better entertainment!

The problem that has developed as a result of all of this, however, is that now anytime either one of us laughs loudly, stands up quickly, or raises our arms in the air, Trixie believes it's "game-on" and begins a barking-frenzied sprint to the bathroom. It's especially frequent while we're watching football on TV. Alan and I are very vocal spectators when it comes to watching our beloved Cleveland Browns. We yell, scream and gasp our way through every Sunday afternoon. You can imagine how confused this makes our terrier. So we've decided to compromise with Trixie and award her a "victory flush" every time the Browns score a touchdown. When a player gloriously makes it to the end zone, Alan and I jump up, scream, high-five, then head for the bathroom, where Trixie is anxiously waiting, paws up on the seat.

There's been quite a drought in the Flushes of Victory recently, however, because our cherished Browns are terrible. Last season, they played the last six games without scoring a touchdown. We had to start throwing flushing celebrations over first downs instead. I must confess, it felt wrong, hollow, and cheap.

There's a terrific saying I heard once that refers to the two most famous words spoken by Cleveland sports fans: "Next Year." Our basketball, baseball, and football teams have all been notoriously bad, and the few years we've gotten close to a championship, it's always been yanked away in some heart-wrenching, last second miracle by a player on the opposing team. If you're ever in Cleveland, sitting around at a bar and talking to the locals, just mention the words, "The Drive" and watch what happens. I guarantee you, every person in that bar will sigh heavily and shake their heads in still-wounded disbelief. Their eyes will glaze over as they remember that day in 1987 at the ACF Championship game, when John Elway of the Denver Broncos broke the collective hearts of an entire city in a spectacular come-from-behind, last minute, title-winning victory. Then wait a few seconds, and I promise the conversation will quickly turn to the upcoming season, and the definite potential the new draft picks might bring. "Next year," they say hopefully, "could be our year!"

The Browns became a team in 1946. Their coach and part owner was a meticulous, hard-nosed disciplinarian named Paul Brown. My father talks about how easy it was to be a fan back then, because they never lost a game. Ever. The local paper held a contest to name the team. The overwhelming choice was simply "The Browns" after their beloved coach. Paul was embarrassed by the idea and declined the offer, but the city had spoken. Cleveland is a blue-collar town. The majority of the Browns fan base consists of steel mill workers and factory assemblers. This is a no-frills bunch. They take great pride in the fact that there is no logo on our helmets, no mascot. There are no scantily-clad cheerleaders performing high kicks on our sidelines. Back in the 70's when other cities were building domed stadiums with astroturf, Cleveland still played on muddy, soggy grass in an old, drafty stadium. This suited everyone perfectly. The Browns are about FOOTBALL, we said, no other distractions are necessary.

I don't remember being a Browns fan when I was growing up. My father definitely was. I remember many a Sunday dinner, one that my mother had lovingly and tirelessly prepared, when Dad would check his watch, grab his plate and glass and excuse himself to the family room to catch the opening kick-off. The rest of us would finish our dinner to the serenade of, "Throw it, you Jackass!" or "Where's the god-dammed DEFENSE for Christ's sake?!!"

Ironically, it wasn't until I left home that I became a fan. I guess it had never occurred to me that the rest of the country didn't watch the Browns play every Sunday. In Syracuse, the Bills game was usually televised, and in NYC, the Giants or Jets. I was terribly homesick, so I'd watch those New York games and wait for the ticker on the bottom of the screen to show the Cleveland score. I never quite understood the NY fans. They're teams were really good, yet they booed and whined about their own players who made the tiniest errors. This didn't really happen in Cleveland, and we usually sucked!

In 1995, Browns owner Art Modell (also known as Satan) threw a tantrum because the city wouldn't build him a shiny new stadium fast enough and threatened to move the team to Baltimore. Never mind that our old stadium was still selling-out every week despite the lackluster performance of the players he employed, he wanted his way. League rules state that an owner may only move a team if the fan base is weak and stadium attendance is way down. This obviously wasn't the case in Cleveland. Lucifer met with the Owners Organization and they let him do it anyway. The city was crushed. The fans organized enormous protests and rallies and were successfully able to keep the "Browns" name. The Dark Lord's new Baltimore Ravens team went on to win the Super Bowl in 2000, but Cleveland got to keep it's Browns heritage, and got a new team in 1999. There was a bright side to all of that mess, however. We Cleveland fans can truthfully state that in the years '96, '97, and '98, the Browns were UNDEFEATED!!!

With the lovely invention of the satellite, I was able to go to sports bars and once again watch my team. There are Browns Backers groups all over the country, I believe it's the largest fan-based organization in America. In Orlando, Alan and I were members of a fantastic backers group that met every Sunday at J.B.'s Sports Bar. We were by far the largest fan group in the whole place, even though our team probably had the absolute worst record of any other team being broadcast on all of those TVs!

I guess that's what I love about being a Browns fan. You take a lot of ribbing rooting for a team that is historically bad, representing a city that is frequently the brunt of some pretty cruel jokes. I think that's why we're so strong. We love our city. We love the hard-working people who live here and the no-frills, logo-free team that represents us. No matter what. So, like my crazy Jack Russell Terrier perched and ready, staring into the waters of her favorite porcelain bowl, we Browns fans sit and wait for Fate to decide it's OUR turn and finally push-down on the Handle of Victory. In the meantime, we'll take all the joking and watch as some other team grabs the elusive Super Bowl trophy. But at the close of the season, we'll take a deep breath, clasp our hands together, nod at each other hopefully and say, "Next year..."

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Three Wise Men and Monty

My husband is quite a seasoned traveler. He's been everywhere! For a few years, he held the title of International Franchise Consultant for Bennigan's Restaurants. In that position, he opened several franchises in Great Britain, Korea, Panama, Dubai and the Philippines. He's also been all over Europe, Prague, Russia and the Czech Republic. When visiting a foreign country, Alan's favorite thing to do is to skip the typical tourist attractions and find the local hang outs. He feels this is the best way to get to know the true flavor of the country and it's people. In Korea, for example, this required eating in a tiny, no frills restaurant where a small woman walked by holding a half-dead octopus and a pair of scissors. She'd snip you off a wiggly, suction-cuppy tentacle on your plate, then proceed to the next table. He swears he loves this!!

So it was five years ago, in preparation for my upcoming fortieth birthday, that Alan suggested we take a celebratory trip. He told me to pick anywhere I'd like, he'd make it happen (did I mention I really love this man?). I quickly formed a short list in my head: An Alaskan cruise, a beach resort in the Caribbean, a trip to Ireland, the possibilities were endless! I began to recite my mental list to Alan, "Well, we could go to Ireland, or..." That's as far as I got. Alan jumped-up from the couch excitedly, shouted, "Ireland!" then ran into his office and called Air Lingus. "Or, a cruise..." I shouted after him. It was too late, Alan had Ireland on the brain. I confess, I wasn't complaining.

With all his travel experience, Alan is fantastic at planning trips. I told him I trusted his judgement completely and to just surprise me with the itinerary. He knows I'm not much of a city girl, so Alan decided to skip the Dublin/urban scene and focus instead on the southern countryside towns of Killarney, Dingle, Doolin, Adare, and Tralee, among others. The highlight was to be on the eve of my birthday when he had booked us a room at Ballyseede Castle near Tralee. He told me he wanted me to wake up on my fortieth birthday feeling like royalty. (Seriously, ladies, how in the WORLD did I get so lucky?)

So, we arrived without incident at the Shannon Airport and picked-up our rental car. The drive to our first hotel was a short one, but brilliantly scenic. How can I put this into words? You know how, when you see a postcard or a calendar of "The Beaches of Florida" and they have these beautiful, sandy paradises with setting suns reflecting off calm, glassy waters? You know it's just beautiful and breathtaking, but you also know that just two miles away sits a horrific strip mall with nineteen tacky souvenir shops, all selling the same "Who Farted?" t-shirts and coffee mugs. That beautiful ocean scenery is surrounded by a whole bunch of ugly.

Not so in Ireland. We were just a few feet from the rental car place when we turned the corner and audibly gasped at the scene that greeted us: Rolling green hills, greener than anything I'd ever seen, divided by miles and miles of gray stone walls. We spotted white, long-haired sheep grazing next to cozy, thatched-roof homes. The remains of gorgeous stone castles were everywhere. I took out my camera and started snapping pictures like the paparazzi competing to catch the latest Britney Spears meltdown. "How lucky we are to have captured this beautiful scene," I thought. Then we rounded another bend, and the view was even more awe-inspiring than the previous one. Same went for the next bend, and the next and the next. I put my camera down. I wasn't "capturing" anything. This was actually what Ireland looked like EVERYWHERE! You know that calendar that has twelve months of Irish countryside, castles, cathedrals, and sheep? That's the REAL Ireland! Even Alan, the seasoned traveler, looked around and admitted, "This is the most beautiful place I have ever been!"

We had a fantastic time! Alan planned everything perfectly. We hiked the green hills and gazed at tiny little lambs that were only minutes old, drank Guinness and Harp and listened to hours and hours of jigs and reels played expertly on fiddles, accordions, harps, and flute whistles. It was truly magical.

Then came the eve of my highly-anticipated birthday. We arrived at Ballyseede Castle in the late afternoon and discovered that it was filled with suits of armor and giant crests on the wall. It was everything we had hoped it would be! When we checked-in, a friendly woman handed us our room key and informed us that dinner was served in the dining hall between six and eight o'clock every evening. We made our way up to our room "fit for a king," noticing that there didn't appear to be a whole lot of other guests in the hallways or lobby. In fact, there weren't any at all. No matter, we found our room and, after a brief rest, got ready for my Birthday Castle Celebratory Dinner. We even got dressed-up for the occasion!

We descended the stairs at about seven-ish and found the door marked "Dining Hall" locked. Hmm. There must be another entrance. The door next to it was marked, "Pub." We opened it to a scene that was warm and cozy. We later learned that this room had once been the library/study, but now was serving as a small, intimate bar. We approached the bartender, a middle aged woman with short hair and a kind face. We asked her, "Where's the Dining Hall?" Her warm face dropped as she said, "Oh, dear!"

Apparently, we WERE the only tenants staying at the castle that night, and when the clock hit seven the cook got tired of waiting and just closed-up shop! The bartender, her name was Bernadette, was mortified and apologized profusely. But, this was to be my birthday dinner! We talked about driving into town and eating there, but it was a long ways, and besides, we really wanted to enjoy our one night of royalty! Bernadette graciously offered to heat-up some of their famous mushroom barley soup served with classic Irish brown bread, we reluctantly accepted. I tried to hide my disappointment.

We took our seats at the bar and got our first good look around. The walls sported a bright, wooden paneling that was polished to a brilliant shine. The warm, glowing fireplace was framed with a beautiful hand-carved wooden design, rivaled only by the same handiwork displayed on the large, wooden bar.

At that moment, we also realized we were not alone. At the far end of the L-shaped counter sat three older men, the youngest appearing to be in his late sixties. One sported a navy-blue blazer with a crest on the pocket, the other two wore classic brown wool cable sweaters. All three adorned tweed caps covering tufts of white, curly hair. Two seats down sat a middle-aged man with a hard, pock-marked face and a thick mustache. They stared blankly at us. Clearly, these were local folk and clearly, we had just crashed their weekly private gathering at this peaceful spot. They nodded politely and smiled, we did the same.

Bernadette returned with our soup and bread. Perhaps it was the warm, Celtic atmosphere, but Alan and I took one spoonful of that ambrosia and moaned with pleasure -- it was FANTASTIC! I wonder what dinner would've been like! Sweet Bernadette tried to involve us in the conversation and introduced us to our fellow bar mates. Monty was the name of the mustached chap, she said, and then pointed to the older customers and added, "I just call these gents The Three Wise Men!"

One of The Three Wise Men's brogue was very thick, so Bernadette had to do a lot of interpreting, but apparently the castle was once owned by his very own ancestors. They owned it, that is, until the British took over and kicked his family out! He seemed resigned to it, though, and said he just liked to come back and visit once a week!

As the Guiness flowed, the tension in the room began to melt away. They asked where we were from, we told them we were visiting from Orlando, Florida to celebrate my fortieth birthday. "Your birthday? When's your birthday?" they asked. "In about three hours!" I replied. They raised their pints and drank a toast to my forty years. Then they began asking about our country's politics. This was 2004, and they wanted to know how we planned to vote in the upcoming presidential election. I was floored by how much they knew about our American candidates and their platforms. They proceeded to tell us where JFK's ancestors originated in Ireland, along with several other past U.S. presidents. "You really ARE the Three Wise Men!" I exclaimed! The trio collectively blushed, then beamed with pride!

The hours melted away. At some point, Monty's wife called the bar and wanted to know where he was. He told her we were all having a "grand" time at the pub and she needed to come and join us. She did! We told them all we thought their country was the most beautiful place we had ever been. They waived-away our compliment and told us with sad faces that Ireland was changing. They grieved that it was slowly becoming too commercial and too civilized over the last few years. "The worst thing to happen to Ireland ," Monty proclaimed, "is the Breathalyzer! Used to be a man and his mates could finish off twelve pints and drive thirty miles to Dingle and drink some more. The only worry was remembering where in the hell you parked your car come morning!"

Alan and I eventually grew very tired and reluctantly announced we needed to call it a night and head up to our room. We thanked our bar mates for a lovely, unforgettable evening and headed for the door. Just then, Monty looked at his watch and shouted, "Wait! It's after midnight!" With that, Monty, his wife, Bernadette, and all Three Wise men threw their arms over each other's shoulders and sang "Happy Birthday" in the prettiest, sweetest Irish brogue I've ever heard!

Since returning home, Alan and I have become Irish pub junkies. We can't get enough of cozy, Celtic-themed bars with Guinness on tap and live Irish music. It's not the same as actually being in Ireland, but it helps stir up our memories of that tremendous trip. It's been five years now, and Alan intermittently brings up the idea of returning to that magical Emerald Isle. I must confess, I hesitate to go. I'm worried we've been spoiled. It couldn't possibly be that amazing the second time around. No return trip would ever provide an evening as exceptional as that night I spent in a castle, being serenaded by The Three Wise Men and Monty!

Thanks for reading!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Looking Back

While living in Orlando, FL, Alan and I became members of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. The head pastor there, William Barnes, is an immensely gifted speaker and an overall amazing human being. I'd leave his sermons feeling like an empty cup that had just been filled to the brim. One of my favorite Pastor Bill sermons involved an instance where God had helped him through a difficult time. He was so distracted, it wasn't until years later that, when looking back, he saw God's hand in every aspect of that dark season of his life. As he was speaking that day, I kept nodding my head up and down vigorously. I knew exactly what he meant, because it happened to me, too.

The day my ex-husband walked out the door, my intense shock and grief were quickly joined by my panic over how I was going to get by financially. I had left NYC just a few months earlier to follow my husband to Syracuse so he could teach. I had only been employed doing temporary secretary work since the move. Now, I was living by myself in an apartment I wasn't sure I could afford with no friends, no husband, no insurance, and most importantly, no job. I was a mess. I kept breaking into tears at my temp jobs, I looked like hell because sleep was pretty much out of the question, and I worried. Constantly. My loving family supported me the best they could from long distance. My parents suggested I come back home to Ohio to kind of "heal-up" and re-group. But I wanted to stay nearby in case my husband had a change of heart. I thought this was a distinct possibility, because it was what I had been praying for every single day. "God hates divorce," I assured myself, "He'll supply this miracle for me." Never mind that my husband was already seeing someone else and loving his new life. I had prayed for reconciliation, surely God would provide, wouldn't he?

Once again, running was my refuge. It was really the only outlet that brought me comfort. I could work-out all my frustration and anger and doubt and worry with each stride. It also helped me to sleep better. One day I was walking across campus and spotted my husband strolling happily, hand-in-hand with his new love. I turned around, made a beeline for home and laced-up my running shoes. I ran for miles and miles, trying to erase that image from my head. I was distracted enough that I never saw the giant pothole in the street and was soon falling, my ankle twisting at a bad angle.

So there I was, sweaty and spent, miles from home, holding my ankle and cringing in pain. I remember physically shaking my fist in the air at The Heavens. "REALLY?" I shouted. "This is all I have left and now you're taking THAT, too?" That was the moment I decided to break up with God. I told Him He had ignored all my prayers, I didn't believe that He loved me and to just forget the whole thing. I wasn't going to waste my time praying anymore to a God that was just going to do his own thing anyway. I would take it from here, own my own. Thanks for nothing.

My ankle was pretty bad. I finally conceded and went to the ER. They referred me to an orthopedic surgeon. I almost didn't go, I was so broke. But I wanted to be able to run again, so I went. I was sitting in the examining room when Dr. Timothy Izant entered with my x-ray in one hand and an air cast in another. "You've just got a really bad sprain," he assured me, "You'll be fine. Just stay off it for two weeks and wear this. By the way, do you need a job?" Apparently, his assistant noticed the "temporary secretary" line I had filled-in under "occupation" on my chart. They had a medical transcriptionist who was going on maternity leave and might not be returning. "But, I don't know any medical terms," I confessed to him. "That's OK, we'll teach you. I'll send in Judie, the office manager, to talk to you." So, in Judie walked, and she interviewed me there in the exam room as I sat on the table with my foot propped-up and air-casted. Funny, I didn't notice her halo and wings at the time. She kept them well-hidden.

I had a full time job!! I arrived my first day focused and ready to learn quickly. My desk was placed very near Judie's so she could answer my numerous questions. Then she had one for me, "So, Joan, are you married?" I wanted so desperately to appear professional. I tried very, very hard to answer as calmly as I could. I think I smiled and got about as far as, "Actually, I'm separated right now..." before the inevitable frustrated tears started flowing. As I was trying to regain my composure, Judie went into action. She stood up, smiled warmly, said, "Come with me," and gently led me to the empty ladies room off a nearby hallway. She handed me a roll of toilet paper, leaned-up against the sinks and said, "Tell me all about it." I remind you, this was my first day. I'd been working a total of two hours. Judie was a very busy woman. I'm positive her phone was ringing off the hook. None of this mattered, she wanted to hear my story. So I told her. Everything. I told her about my husband's "I don't love you anymore" announcement and the student he was now involved with. Judie listened intently, then as I wound down, she placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, looked me square in the eyes and said, "You are going to get through this, I promise you. Not only that, you're going to be happy again." I told her I didn't believe her. She proceeded to tell me how she had lost two children, both when they were infants, and how she was sure that she'd die from the grief of it all. "But I didn't," she said, "And neither will you. I'll make sure of it." Let me assure you--Judie kept her promise.

I really loved working in that office, largely because of Judie. Here was an office of three doctors and two nurse practitioners. She was in charge of them along with receptionists, transcriptionists, secretaries, x-ray techs, and medical billing specialists. There were about nine or ten of us, all in our twenties. Judie, although older, was a friend, a mother, a counselor, and, when needed, a mediator for all. She was an awesome boss. She was fun and friendly and personable, but she also knew when to tell us all to cut the chatter and get back to work. We did, too. She made work fun. I never believed in luck until I met Judie. She was overflowing with it! We all had clock radios on our desks, all tuned into the same radio station. Whenever the DJ would announce, "OK, we're giving out a prize to the lucky eighty-seventh caller," we'd all grab our phones and dial furiously. Guess who ALWAYS (I mean ALWAYS!) won? Judie raked-in cash, concert tickets, and even a night of free beer and karaoke at a local bar for her and her co-workers! We never did figure out her dialing secret, but we were always pleased when she shared her winnings!

We'd do anything for Judie. She had one grandson whom she adored (more grandkids would follow in later years). When he was a baby she spent hours trying to get him to say "GRAND-MA." All he could manage was "BOOMA!" So, Booma it was. She preferred everyone call her this. She would also accept the shorter, more casual version, "Boom." We gladly obliged.

Because of my financial situation and the reality of needing two jobs, I wasn't always able to make it home for Thanksgiving. Booma didn't hesitate and made a place at her table. She knew I missed my family, she adopted me into hers. I assure you, there were many tearful trips back to that hallway restroom over the next few years, and every time Judie listened patiently to my rants, then threw her reassuring arm around me and convinced me it was all going to be OK. Guess what? Booma was right.

Looking back, I know what God was trying to say to me that day as I hugged my knee and cried into that stupid pothole: "I need you to go through this so you can meet Judie." Pastor Bill was right. Now that I'm through it all, looking back, it seems so clear. Looking back, that was such a raw, hard time in my life. Yet I have so many fond, sweet memories of working in that office. I know that this is all thanks to kind, sweet Booma. For this, I thank God every day.

I hope I can be "Booma" to someone someday. I hope God will place someone in my path who's broken and sad and unbelieving that it's ever going to be any better. I will gently grab their hand, look straight into their eyes and say, "You will get through this. You will be happy again. I know, I was there." I hope I'm half the angel that Judie was for me.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 14, 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird

Everyone who knows me is aware of my great love of birds. The backyard of my home is a veritable sanctuary for them, complete with houses, baths, and several feeders. I love to watch as a cardinal male feeds his female in a sweet act of courtship. I love when the tiny golden finches take a bath, then sit on the edge of the fence, puffy and clean, waiting to dry. I love the way the momma birds bring their groundlings to the feeder and "show" them how to get the seed, even though the babies still flap their wings and crane their necks, wanting HER to feed them. I can observe them for hours.

I have to admit, though, there was one particular bird that I can genuinely say I truly hated with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. I still wonder to this day what happened to him, though. Here's that story:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm a runner. My favorite time to run is first thing in the morning. I like to get it done and not have to think about it for the rest of the day. Back then, in order to accomplish this and still get to work on time, my runs usually occurred just as the sun was coming up. It was always a quiet time of day, even the school kids weren't at the bus stop yet. The sidewalks were clear with the the possible exception of a few older hispanic women out on their morning strolls, saying their rosaries and walking briskly. They always seemed pretty pre-occupied with their "Hail Marys," so I'd just smile and nod and continue on my solitary way. Because I am an intense creature of habit, I always took the same route. I liked seeing how my effort changed day to day, and this was the perfect way to gauge my progress.

So one particular morning as I was heading into mile two, I passed a mockingbird sitting on a fence very near the sidewalk, singing and trilling sweetly. Mockingbirds, though not very pretty in their simple gray and white, are beautiful singers. They have a capacity to trill many different types of songs, and can actually imitate those of other birds and creatures. There was a mockingbird in the employee parking lot at Universal Studios that could expertly sing the tune of each car alarm he heard every day. It was a terrific show!

But back to my singer on the fence. I slowed a tiny bit to enjoy his warbling, then checked my heart rate watch and continued on. That's when I heard the bird again. Only this time it wasn't
singing, it was SCREECHING. As I turned to see if he was hurt, I realized his screeching was at me. He was also DIVE BOMBING my head like a Kamikaze pilot over Pearl Harbor. I felt his flapping wings graze my head, then he was gone again. I checked my heart rate, it was off the charts! Just then, I saw him coming back from the other direction for a second pass, all the while screeching, flapping and pecking. Now, I'm a pretty touch chick when it comes to being around bees, wasps and other flying attackers. But I must tell you, that satanic bird was TERRIFYING!!

When I returned home from the run, I told Alan about my assailant. We decided it must be a momma protecting her nest, then laughed and soon forgot about the whole ordeal. Well, skip ahead THREE months when that little bastard was STILL buzzing my head in that same portion of the sidewalk. This was no momma, this was just an indignant bird with a giant CHIP on his shoulder!

He was a MASTER at it, too. Some days, he'd allow me to pass. He'd just sit there on his fence throne, trilling away, lulling me into a false sense of security. Then, a few days later, I'd be lost in some thought or calibrating my miles when I'd look up. There he'd be, sitting with an evil look in his eye (I don't know how a stupid bird could pull-off a Vincent Price eyebrow curl so expertly, but I SWEAR to you, this one DID!). "Go ahead," his look said, "I'll give you a head start..." Then the wicked screeching and swooping would ensue. Looking back, I think I actually became a better runner during that time because of the full-on sprinting I was doing each morning at that dreaded fence!

Here's the funny part, he left all the rosary women alone. I'd warn them when I passed, "There's a dangerous bird up ahead, be careful!" They'd give me a confused stare, then continue on, completely unharmed by the mockingbird. Apparently, it was just me he didn't like. This hurt my avian-loving heart immensely. Didn't he get the word that I offered a freaking bird NIRVANA in my backyard, for crying out loud? I wanted to hold a meeting with the sparrows and morning doves at my feeders and say, "Fellas, go tell him I'm cool!!"

I got all kinds of advice from friends and co-workers. They suggested everything from running with a tennis racket and "going Billie Jean King on his ass," to holstering a beebee gun to my thigh and "taking him out" the easy way. I couldn't do either of those things. So, my chosen brilliant method was to take my work-out towel and swat at my assailant when he swooped me. At the very least, the air current it created served to screw up his flight pattern a bit and throw him off course. It worked briefly. I considered it a small victory. Sometimes, when I was approaching his Fence of Terror, I'd hold up the towel and give it a good swing, showing him what he was up against.

But one day I was lost in thought again, working out some problem I was feeling stressed about, not paying attention. He seized the moment, giving me a classic terrifying buzz, then flew to the nearest tree. I'd had it. I promise you I am not making this next part up: I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, swung my towel wildly over my head and screamed at the tree, "Come on, let's DO this!!" Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a figure. I turned and looked. There was a tiny hispanic woman, also stopped on the sidewalk, staring at me, her mouth gaping open. I pointed at the tree, stammering, "There's a bird...he keeps buzzing my head..." I trailed off as the woman performed the sign of the cross, did an abrupt about-face, and walked briskly in the other direction.

I never saw my mockingbird again after that day. He probably tried to pick a fight with a ferrel cat or a bald eagle or something and lost. But I'd like to think that I won the battle of the territory that day by standing up to him, and he respectfully conceded. Sometimes you just have to declare to your bullies that enough is enough and swing your towel with wild abandon. But I'll tell you a secret: I'm not as tough as I appear. To this day, every time I hear the sweet trill of a mockingbird, I run for cover.

Thanks for reading!!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dancing Lily

Last March, Alan and I took advantage of the low travel rates and booked a flight to Las Vegas. We LOVE Vegas. We love how each hotel casino is like it's own free-standing theme park, and the caliber of performers in the shows there would rival anything on the Broadway stage. Very shortly after we unpacked our suitcases, Alan and I gave each other a quick kiss for luck, then went our separate ways. Alan always likes to go to the casino sportsbook, where he expertly picks the winners of baseball and basketball parlays. I make a beeline to join the polyester-wearing, cigarette-smoking, sixty year-old women at the penny slots. I LOVE penny slots!! I play for hours and hours and am rarely out more than $10. I'm frequently up! The ladies and I have a blast, pumping our fists in the air and high-fiving when our spins turn triumphant!!

But no matter what we do for those few hours apart, Alan and I always meet later in the day at our favorite bar at the New York, New York casino. It's called Nine Fine Irishmen and it's a terrific place to throw back a pint of Guinness and listen to authentic Irish music. The decor makes you believe you just stepped into a pub in Dublin. It's small, intimate and homey. The bar's name refers to nine Irish revolutionaries who spoke out against the British Crown oppressing Ireland back in the 1800's. There are ceramic busts of all of them on the wall, and an insert in the menu describing each one's journey. It's quite a story. So as Alan and I clinked our glasses and lifted them in salute to the fallen Nine, I turned to Alan and said, "Remember that dancing lady we saw when we were here last year?" He nodded his head and laughed.

How could he forget? The dancer was a short, middle aged Asian woman dressed to the nines. I'm sorry to say, I never learned her name, so for the purpose of this story I'm going to call her Lily. Lily's clothing was not what you'd normally see in a Vegas casino bar. Her dress would've looked more appropriate at a Sunday church service. She donned a crisp, bright purple skirt and matching blazer, white hose, and cute, flat pumps. On her head she wore a purple, netted, pillbox hat that Jackie O would've coveted. Her outfit alone would've made her stand out in this crowd, but that's not what made everyone stare at her. Lily danced. By herself. Not good, choreographed dancing either, no clogging "Lord of the Dance" stuff. Lily kind of did this glorified "marching." She'd march, twirl, then back up and start over again. And she smiled. Big. Lily was a carefree, non-inebriated, joyful dancer. We couldn't take our eyes off of her. When people stared, she'd take that as an invitation and grab their hand, pull them onto the floor and swing their arm in some weird Irish/Asian square dance. I remember my embarrassment for her quickly evolved into admiration.

So there we were, one year later, listening to that same band and thinking about the bizarre little, church clothes-wearing Lily. Guess what? That's right. In she marched, in a variation of the same themed clothing, twirling away, smiling and nodding at her gawkers. Just then, something odd happened. A middle aged woman (I detected a distinct British accent) approached Lily excitedly. "Remember me? I was here two years ago and you danced with me!!" Lily kindly nodded her head in recognition, even though it was clear she hadn't a clue. The woman continued, "My sister is here, I want you to meet her!" They visited for a few short minutes, then Lily got back to her dancing. That's when it hit me: Lily is the freaking ROCK STAR of Nine Fine Irishmen. Forget the fiddle music and brave martyrs adorning the walls, there was a happy Asian lady on the dance floor that wanted to do-si-do with you!

There's a great saying I saw on a plaque recently. It read, "Dance like no one is watching." Lily would beg to differ. Lily dances like EVERYONE is watching, and she'd love nothing more than for you to join her on the floor.

I've decided I want to be more like Lily. I'm 45 years old, I'm pretty sure the title of One Of The Cool Kids is out of my reach. I can give up the fight, I lost that battle long, long ago! A month after we returned from Vegas, I joined my sister Kathy on a visit to see our sister Laura at her home in Chicago. The city was throwing their big Germanfest that weekend, complete with polka bands, bratwurst, and beer. It was packed. We made our way to the tent where the band was playing. We spotted this old man who must have been in his seventies, making his way through the crowd, asking girls to dance with him. Some obliged for a bit. Most declined, turning away and laughing. I thought of Lily. I took a cleansing breath, handed my beer stein to Kathy, walked up to the man and extended my hand. He was a FANTASTIC polka dancer. He twirled me around and skipped until I was out of breath. I'm sure I looked ridiculous, I'm sure people stared. I assure you, I didn't care one bit. The song ended, I shook his hand and thanked him for a wonderful time. I also told him that if he was ever in Vegas, I knew of a great bar he needed to visit.

So, here's your challenge for today: Next time you're on the sidelines of the dance floor at a family wedding or town festival, be like Lily. Pass your drink to someone, shake off your nerves and dance like EVERYONE is watching. You'll be amazed at how good it feels!

Thanks for reading!!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

All My Skorts

I thought I'd lighten up a bit today and talk about my thighs. Actually, there's nothing at all "light" about my thighs. They're enormous. They're like two majestic oak tree trunks. Always have been. My dear friends who love me will tell you they are large because there is so much muscle there (I really adore my friends!). There is a little truth to this, I guess. I exercise. A lot. For the last twenty-five years, I run an average of four miles a day, then jump on my Nordic Track ski machine or elliptical for thirty minutes. I've read a lot of training articles and have incorporated every work-out tip imaginable. I've applied sprint intervals, alternate hard/easy days, long and slow vs. short and fast, all of it. Still, my mighty oaks remain.

For as long as I can remember, my thighs have rubbed together when I walk. Corduroy doesn't stand a chance after just one mile with me. I've learned to adapt. Instead of wearing cute jean skirts or flowing gauzy sundresses, I adorn myself with a skort. That's right. A skort is basically a skirt with a pair of shorts sewn underneath (hence the clever, clever name). I own dozens of them. In Florida, summer lasts about ten months, so I've acquired many skorts over the years in varying colors and lengths. They keep my thighs from chaffing and, more importantly, setting off small fires from the sparking friction their rubbing creates.

There have been only two times in my whole adult life that there was some actual space above my knees. Once was just after my divorce when my stress level reached above ten and the mere THOUGHT of eating made me nauseous. The other was when I upped the intensity and length of my runs and cut my calorie intake so drastically that the simple act of standing made me dizzy. The problem is that during both of these instances, in order for me to be thin enough for my thighs to look normal, the rest of me resembled something out of a concentration camp. Good times...

Still, I've always figured that the reason why I look this way is because I'm doing something wrong. Never mind that I come from both Irish and Croatian heritages. Ever look closely at a photo of Eastern European women? Picture babooshka-wearing, potato-eating, pear-shaped fish wives. These are my ancestors. Actually, all I needed to do to glimpse my future was attend one of our extended family reunions. Talk about a FOREST! I walked in, looked around the room at my great aunts, turned defeatedly to my husband and said, "I am beating a dead horse." Still, the next morning I got up at 5 a.m. and laced up the old Nikes.

Then I met my dear friend Sara. I'm using her real name because I have nothing but glorious things to say about this wonderfully fantastic woman. She plays Sarah Connor at the Terminator 2/3D show at Universal. If you go to an encyclopedia and look up the term "cheerful giver," you will see Sara's picture there. She loves her friends with all of her being. I know for a fact that she'd walk through fire for me in a heartbeat if I asked, never questioning why. She's my hero. She's also got a killer body. I mean, it's just perfect. She's tall and thin with breasts that are full, perky and REAL! She's in terrific shape, she's a stunt woman who's jumped out of helicopters and off high towers. At Terminator, she rapells daily from a 40 foot ceiling carrying an AR15 rifle on her back. Chick is TOUGH!

Here's the thing, Sara works out very little. At the Terminator show, all the stunt people have to undergo an intense, physically-challenging agility test in order to get their yearly contracts renewed. The test includes push-ups, sit-ups, cardio, and pull-ups, among other things. She's ROCKED that test every time. During one period, she told me she wanted to get in better shape, so she was going for a run. She came back after thirty minutes or so, looking perfect in her tiny running shorts and tank top. She said to me, "Wow, that was hard. I don't know how you do that everyday!" I looked at my sweet, beautiful friend, and punched her smack in her flat, hard gut.

Sara's eating habits would rival a hot-dog eating champ at Coney Island. She LOVES cheeseburgers drenched in mayo and ketchup. One day she told me she was going to eat healthier and got a salad. The "salad" consisted of a mound of iceberg lettuce, two cucumber slices and a tomato, which she quickly discarded ("I don't like tomatoes," she said). Of course, it was hard to see these salad ingredients, because they were buried under two inches of shredded cheddar cheese, croutons and two packets of ranch dressing. I gave her a "thumbs-up" and bit into my raw carrot stick.

So here's what Sara taught me: we come by our bodies pretty honestly. Sure, you can help out a bit by eating right and exercising. But the truth is, mine's going to do it's own thing, no matter what. I seriously believe that at this stage of my life, my body is slowly steering itself towards that dangerous ancestoral, pear-shaped, plus-sized, babooshka territory. My daily workouts and veggi-soy burgers are only serving to pull back on the reigns a tiny bit. Forget the thin thighs, I'm in a battle to keep from needing a piano case for my coffin!

So, will I continue to beat this dead horse? Probably. But I was also thinking today that I'd like to try to start cutting myself a little slack, release the grip on my diet articles, and stop flipping the bird at my bathroom scale. I read a fantastic quote today from the great, hilarious Erma Bombeck. She wrote, "Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waived-off the dessert cart."

Football season is fast approaching. I think I'll order a pizza at game time and enjoy it with a nice cold beer, instead of crunching on celery sticks and cucumber slices. I know that Sara would be so proud!

This Fall, I challenge you to do the same. Shelve the diet books and have some cheesecake, for crying out loud! If you gain some weight, who cares? I can refer you to a great place that sells the CUTEST skorts....

Thanks for reading!