Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Human Drama and Carpe Diem

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”

Narrated by Jim McKay at the show’s introduction

Like many people around the world, I’ve recently spent my evening hours consumed by the Olympics. I loved watching them on TV as a kid and that thrill hasn’t diminished over the years. It’s hard to pass up the pulse-quickening races, moments of physical grace, Oh!-inducing crashes and of course, the heart-warming stories that are always part of the Winter Games.

This year, I’ve noticed two themes running through the stories of the participants. Sadly, one of them is sudden death. The deaths of the young Georgian luger before opening ceremonies and the mother of one of the Canadian figure skaters a few days before her daughter was to skate on home ice are untimely, to say the least. How ironic that Visa is running a commercial highlighting Dan Jansen’s experience with losing his sister just prior to a race.

I’m guessing that these deaths have had one of two effects on the athletes. Some have perhaps unconsciously held back a bit, all too aware of what the tiniest mistake could lead to, given the great speeds and heights they reach with metal-edged apparatus strapped to their feet. (Except for curling, of course.)

For others, it’s probably helped them calm down in an odd sort of way. After all, they’re still able to compete and still have their support system with them, whether in Vancouver or back at home. That’s better than any medal. And the reminder that life is short so enjoy the days you’re given may help them relax, savor the whole Olympic experience and perhaps achieve a personal best.

The second theme I see threading through the athletes’ stories is how many of them gave up their sport—disappointment and disillusionment seem to be common reasons—and then decided to give the world stage one last try. They went back to their grueling training regimens and competition schedules knowing what they were in for, but also relishing the chance to prove (mostly to themselves) that they still had it. For the most part, these athletes appear to be enjoying their Olympics, whether it includes medals or not.

These stories help remind me that these are not superheroes, but very mortal beings who experience the same ups, downs and emotions as any other person. They may commit their lives and bodies to their sports, but that doesn’t mean their journey is either smooth or easy. Only that they’ve devoted themselves to a goal they believe in.

That makes me feel better about moving forward with my dreams. To be successful, I don’t have to be a superhuman imbued with great power or strength. I only have to have the nerve to try. To seize each day’s opportunity to move forward and push through any obstacle that threatens to keep me from my goal.

And so for a few more days, I’ll watch the Olympians participate in “the human drama of athletic competition” as Jim McKay so aptly described it. I’ll look for those who have overcome their personal demons, doubts and fears to risk it all representing their nation in front of the whole world.

Those who remind and inspire me to carpe diem.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gusto and Gracie

Gusto is from the Latin word “gustus,” meaning a tasting and has come to mean hearty enjoyment. In some Spanish-speaking countries, mucho gusto (much pleasure) is used as a greeting as in “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Last week, we had to say goodbye to our beloved terrier mix, Gracie. Though ten-and-a-half years old, she seemed much younger because of her indomitable spirit and pure enthusiasm for everything life offered.

Unlike our other dogs who at the end had faded into shells of their former selves from old age or illness, Gracie left this world still Gracie. She continued to run around like a puppy, play “Gladiators” and tug-of-war several times a day with our two-year-old pup, Tilly, and race to the yard to chase away any hapless wildlife that wandered onto our property. Even on our way out the door for that final sad trip to the vet, she was pulling on the leash, eager to get to the next adventure.

After finding out just before Christmas that she had an inoperable tumor on her heart, we had to confine her to leash walks. It was abundantly clear that Gracie felt this an unnecessary precaution. She would run to the end of the leash for every tennis ball that came near us and tried her best to join in the wrestling matches Tilly engaged in with other dogs. It was hard to comprehend that she was dying when we saw how much energy she still possessed. But as willing as her spirit was, her flesh was too weak to continue. Still, we got two more months with her instead of the two weeks the doctors thought she had.

Thankfully, she left us with a lifetime of memories. After all, Gracie was not a dog that passed through people’s lives unnoticed.

First, there was her unique look. After much observation of other breeds, our best guess is that she was a boxer, pit bull, wired-haired Jack Russell mix. Her brindle fur was a crazy, course blend that went off in wild directions everywhere except at the top of her head and ears, which were soft and smooth. Jamie’s brother dubbed her the “boot scrape.” And that was just one of the innumerable comments she elicited over the years. Wherever she traveled, people were compelled to remark on her looks—some laughing, while others declared her to be “rad.” My all-time favorite observation was “That dog looks like a Dr. Seuss character!”

As wild as her looks were, her personality was even more exceptional. Being a double terrier, her early years were colored by her inability to control her dog desires. As much as she wanted to be a good dog and do what you asked, it was impossible to ignore the devil on her other shoulder. More times than not, she ran with the devil.

There was the time in Cambria when we were at a working farm that sold its own preserves and other goodies. Gracie decided to slip her collar and chase after the resident pets—which happened to be peacocks. I’ve never heard so much squawking and feather flurrying. Peacocks aren’t exactly graceful when they have to lift those big bodies into the air quickly. So it was quite a spectacle watching the females jump-flap their way onto the porch’s tin roof while the males displayed their tails and charged at the frenzied dog. Gracie was not intimidated. Luckily, I grabbed her before any blood was shed. There was, however, a tremendous layer of fertilizer left by the panicked birds, which both Gracie and I were unable to avoid.

I believe that was the same trip where, while we were dining with friends, she eschewed the marrow bones we had provided and instead chewed on every knob in my car. (Years later when we traded that car in, the salesperson politely described its condition as “rough.”)

There are countless other Gracie stories—like her darting past a “We shoot intruders” sign to harass some backyard chickens—but then you’d think she was just a bad dog. And there was so much more to her.

Gracie was a great comedian. She would do anything for a laugh. If shaking her toy a certain way got a laugh out of the crowd, then she’d parade around the room repeating her act. Through the years, she modeled many Halloween costumes or parts of costumes, much to the delight of the partygoers. Perhaps it was her way of expressing thanks for the cheese and meatballs and other morsels from their plates that they had been feeding her all night (sometimes inadvertently).

There was also Dr. Gracie, which had several incarnations. One was the compassionate, doe-eyed girl who tried to console both human and canine sufferers, whether from a mental or physical hurt. There was the Dr. Gracie who took everyone’s temperature by way of a greeting (not her best habit). And of course, the Dr. Gracie who could remove the squeaker from a toy with laser-like precision.

As sad as I am at her passing, I can’t help by smile when I think of Gracie. Her approach to life—relishing every inch and minute of it—is a wonderful lesson in happiness.

While all of my dogs are special in their own way, I don’t believe another one will come along in my lifetime with such a big, unforgettable personality. Gracie will always stand out in my memory. Just like she did in life.

And if we get to meet again on the other side, I will greet her with mucho gusto.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dominoes and Beginnings

Early domino pieces were carved from ivory or animal bone with the pips (dots) made of inset ebony. The name comes from their resemblance to domini, the Venetian carnival masks that were white with black spots. The oldest domino sets discovered are from around 1120 A.D. As part of Domino Day 2002, a record string of 3,847,295 dominos were set up and toppled.

This afternoon, I'm knocking down the first domino. Stay tuned to see what falls into place now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hunter-Gatherers and Moving

Early humans were hunter gatherers, moving from one place to another in search of food. Their shelter had to be found (a cave, for example), built from the materials at hand (such as an igloo) or carried from place to place (like a yurt). When agriculture began around 10,000 years ago, the need to be so mobile diminished and people starting living in more permanent structures.

Tomorrow I’ll be helping a friend pack up her apartment and move into her own condo. This is her first venture into home ownership and she’s understandably nervous. I’m going as much for moral support as to lend a hand putting her belongings into boxes.

I’m also volunteering my services because I just plain like helping people move. I know it’s odd, but I actually enjoy the whole process—whether it’s my move or someone else’s.

Each stage is like a little game to me. Packing boxes is a three-dimensional puzzle. How do I get all of these elements into this cube? And how do I do it in a way that achieves what I call EAI packing (every available inch)?

Loading the car or truck is another 3D puzzle, though on a grander scale. Here too, I try to adhere to my EAI standards. Over the years, I’ve helped pack many a U-Haul floor-to-roof full. I’ve especially enjoyed the times where at the onset, most everyone believed that it wouldn’t all fit.

When it’s time to bring the belongings into the new place, my brain gets a break and my body a great workout. I experience an endorphin rush after hours of lifting heavy or awkward objects while walking up stairs. (And this being San Francisco, there are always stairs.) By the time everything’s in the new place, my mind and body are happy.

And then I get to have beer.

Some of my packing skills have surely come from the countless hours that I spent as a child watching the professionals move our family’s possessions from one city to another. We went from Baltimore where we were all born, to Richmond, Atlanta, Memphis, and Columbus, Ohio.*

Each move, of course, came with its own stories. I remember being en route to Atlanta when my dad spotted our moving van on the side of the road where it had run out of gas. Needless to say, we ferried back a fuel can to get the moving van moving again. I also remember the packer who asked me to write “Kim’s Bedroom” on all of the boxes in my room. I thought he was being nice and letting me help. Later, I figured out that he was illiterate and, like so many adults who don’t read or write well, had formulated ingenious ways to cover up his limitations.

There’s another memory of my 14-year-old self sitting at the top of the steps in our just-emptied house in Atlanta. I was crying out of sadness at leaving the known and fear of moving to the unknown. My father sat down and put his arm around me and tried to assure me that everything was going to be fine. He draped that same arm around me 12 years later when my nerves got the best of me the night before I moved to San Francisco.

But my absolute favorite moving story has to be about Slim. Slim was one of the workers on the crew packing up our house in Atlanta. He was indeed bone thin. But it definitely wasn’t from working too hard. Rather than be angry about his work ethic, the rest of the crew just joked about his laziness. At one point, he walked around from the back yard and up into the bowels of the massive moving van carrying a single garden rake. One of his co-workers hooted at him, “Slim, you carry that rake all by yourself?” From that day forward, whenever my family sees someone shirking their responsibilities, we’ll say to each other, “Slim, you carry that rake all by yourself?” and then break into peals of laughter.

Moving throughout my childhood wasn’t my choice, but I also didn’t question it that much. Which is good because persistent questioning wouldn’t have changed a thing. I know because my sister tried. My mother’s response to “why do we have to move?” was always the same. “We’re moving,” she’d say, “because that’s where your father’s job is.”

In other words, we moved so we could have food on the table. I guess we’re not so different from our hunter-gatherer ancestors after all.

* Of course, my relocating every few years didn’t stop there. On my own, I moved from college in Oxford, Ohio to Atlanta back to Columbus and then to SF, where I migrated through six apartments before Jamie and I bought our house—the home where I’ve been happily settled since 1993.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Earthquakes and Responsiveness

In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded, struck Chile. Seismographs recorded seismic waves that traveled all around the Earth and shook it for many days. The quake also caused a tsunami that affected Alaska, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines; plus landslides, a flood and the eruption of a nearby volcano.

The recent earthquake in Haiti has me thinking about a number of different things. For starters, I—like most residents of quake-prone areas—have a particular empathy for the victims. Their plight is a reminder that I live on “There But For The Grace Of God, Go I” time, making it particularly important to enjoy the here and now. (It’s also a reminder to update my earthquake kit.)

Then there’s the stark realization that for all of our sophisticated knowledge and technology, we’re no less vulnerable to disasters than our ancestors. We may not consider ourselves playthings of the gods like the ancient Greeks did, but we have to admit that we’re at the mercy of some power (whatever name you apply to it) that can dramatically alter—or end—our lives in mere seconds.

But more than any of this, I keep thinking about why we have the same problem disaster after disaster. Why can’t we get help to the victims faster and more efficiently?

I understand that in the immediate aftermath, the only assistance is from survivors and any local first-responder agencies that can reach the area. But real help always seems to take days to arrive—days during which air pockets are depleted, collapsed lungs give out, and entombed initial survivors succumb to dehydration or their injuries. By the time the saws, jackhammers and jaws of life finally arrive, they’re used for recovery more than rescue.

I’m sure this delay is due to the overwhelming logistics that are needed to mobilize massive amounts of supplies and personnel. Still, I think we can—and need to—do better. To perhaps change our thinking and develop innovative ways to move resources from Point A to Point B.

One idea is to have UN strike teams stationed all over the world. They would have equipment and training customized to what was needed for the disasters most likely to befall that part of the world.

And much like firefighters, the strike teams would be ready to go at a moment’s notice. When a disaster occurred in their region, they would load into transport helicopters and drop into a safe zone identified by Google Earth or some other satellite photos. They could begin rescue work just hours after the catastrophe and serve as a bridge to larger relief efforts that would arrive in the coming days.

Of course creating strike teams and outposts would take money. I’m guessing that there aren’t too many countries willing to cut their defense budgets to fund a humanitarian one. We’d also need to have political will—a position difficult to find these days when political won’t is the norm.

So I doubt I’ll ever see such a seismic change in disaster responsiveness in my lifetime. But let’s hope it doesn’t take another Great Chilean Earthquake to shake up the world and remind us that we all in this together.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sailboats and Panicking

One ship sails East, another West

By the self-same wind that blows.

‘Tis the set of the sails and not the gales

That tells the way we go.

— Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Years ago, my mother made a cross-stitch sampler of this poem that still hangs in a bedroom in my parents’ house. It reminds me of one of the great life lessons I learned when my father purchased a sailboat.

We were living in Atlanta at the time, so I was probably around 10 or 11. My dad and a co-worker bought the boat together. Neither of them had ever really sailed before, but they were determined to learn. They read books, took sailing lessons and practiced their skills at a nearby lake. When they felt confident enough in their ability, they invited me, my brother and the other man’s daughter (a year or so younger than me) to join them.

It was a cold, autumn day when the five of us set sail in Lake Lanier. Like most kids, I had complete faith in the adults’ ability. To me, this was just a great adventure where the only possible danger was not getting out of the way of the boom when it swung my way.

At one point, the wind changed direction and the “sailors” needed to adjust to it. My father’s friend was at the rudder and when he went to move it, the handle got caught in a seat cushion. Before we had time to think, the boat lurched dangerously to one side (it was a keel-less model).

Seconds later, all five people and everything in the hull that wasn’t attached ended up in the water. The shock—from the unexpected occurrence, as well as the chill in the water—was immediate.

I’m not a particularly strong swimmer, but I was able to easily get myself over to where the boat rested on its side. The dads quickly made sure that all of us were accounted for and okay.

Not wanting us to be in the water any longer than necessary, they decided to try to right the boat in the middle of the lake. All five of us got on the high side of the hull and pulled it toward us. Instead of the desired outcome, the boat completely flipped over and the water-logged sail pressed us underwater.

That’s when I panicked.

With my air supply gone and nothing but murky water surrounding me, I froze. Seconds later, I felt myself being pulled by the seat of my pants underneath the boat and to the other side away from the sail. I’m sure my eyes were wide with fear as my head popped out of the water and I once again clung to what was now the high side of the boat. My dad calmly explained that if that ever happened again, I should simply push up on the sail to create an air pocket, fill my lungs and then swim out from under the canvas.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to test out his advice again that day. A nearby houseboat witnessed the whole scene and raced over to our rescue. With the three kids safely on the houseboat, my dad and his friend tried again to right the boat, which simply flipped back over to the other side. I watched as they created air pockets under the sail before swimming to safety. (They later found out that the boat couldn’t be righted in the water, but had to be towed to shore to get it upright again.)

Safely back at home and around the dinner table that night, my father suddenly excused himself and went upstairs. I later found out from my mother that he had broken down in tears thinking about how easily our outing’s outcome could have been tragic.

It probably took me years to process all of this, but I learned a very valuable lesson that day. When in the midst of a dangerous situation, don’t waste your limited time being afraid. Instead, spend your energy thinking about how to get yourself out of harm’s way. There’s time enough later once you’re safe to let the panic set in and ruminate on what could have gone wrong.

After all, the same imagination that causes us to freeze with fear of the unknown also gives us the means to figure out a solution. It all depends on which way we set our sails.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Zen and Point of View

This parable illustrates the Zen teaching to accept life as it is without judging whether things are good or bad: A farmer’s horse runs away and his neighbors say, “Such bad luck,” to which the farmer replies, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returns with two wild horses. The neighbors say, “Such good luck,” to which the farmer replies, “Maybe.” The farmer’s son tries to ride one of the horses, but falls and breaks a leg. “Such bad luck,” the neighbors respond, which again meets with a reply of “Maybe.” The next day, soldiers come through the village and draft all of the healthy young men, except the farmer’s son with his broken leg.*

I can’t say that I was sorry to send 2009 packing and usher in 2010. Last year will not rank as one of my best. Yet when I reflect on the past 12 months, I find that what stands out for me is something rather nice. During 2009, I reconnected with quite a few friends and family members, some of whom I had not been in contact with for decades.

In many cases, we were brought back together by Facebook. The simple act of “friending” through social media has put me on their radar once again, allowed me to catch glimpses of their daily life and provided a fast and easy way to communicate with each other.

One of the main reasons I’m even on Facebook is because of something it’s hard not to view as negative. My work is drying up as traditional advertising vehicles are being abandoned for new media outlets. I need to become intimately familiar with social media to convince potential employers that I’m not a dinosaur in my field. So I’ve been dragged (just short of kicking and screaming) into the world of Facebook and Twitter, and yes, this blog.

Now that I’m here, I’m seeing not only how I can use social media to advertise my clients’ products and services, but also how I can use it to promote my own book. For example, I’m looking at using Craig’s List to advertise a promotional video on Facebook and You Tube that gets parents to see the value of my online novel so they’ll introduce it to their kids. And that’s just the beginning.

As much as I don’t like being drastically underemployed, it is forcing me to explore new avenues that will potentially benefit me down the road. So my situation is both a curse and a blessing, depending on how I choose to look at it.

This idea that everything in life has both its good side and bad side is central to my children’s novel, The Magic Hair. In the book, the heroine Nici has a mishap that causes her hair to grow to an unwieldy 20-foot length. Whenever she cuts off her tresses, they grow right back. Her unnaturally long locks provoke ridicule and fear, as well as making moving around terribly inconvenient.

When her hair becomes tangled in a horse’s hooves, Nici is sent flying into a river where she’s washed downstream and into a series of adventures. As she tries to find her way back home, she discovers the extraordinary power of her long locks and their ability to regenerate. At the end, Nici and her hair thwart a plot to overthrow the kingdom. So she becomes celebrated for the very thing that has caused her so much pain and turmoil along the way.

My hope is that children—or even adults—reading my story will learn to look at the negative things happening in their life (their parents’ divorce for example) and see that it also yields positive things (such as more attention from both parents).

It’s a view I’m trying to adopt myself. Because a healthier, more balanced take on life could help me enjoy the journey more.


*The story is sometimes called “The Farmer’s Luck” in the Western world. There’s a great children’s book titled Zen Shorts by John J. Muth that includes this and two other thought-provoking tales.