Monthly Archives: February 2010

Dust to Dust

When I was about four or five, my older sister Erin was a cheerleader for her elementary school.  Like any little sister, I wanted nothing more than to be like her, so I made her teach me all of the cheers complete with hip thrusts and jumps involving legs pointing to opposing ends of the room.

One of my favorite cheers went like this:

“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
You’ve got to be (swing hips) a Blacknight (stomp),
To jam with us (jump).”

Totally fun, totally cute.  It’s only now that I read that and go, really?  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust?  Is this a funeral?  Do they realize they’re making a football cheer out of a Bible verse (“…for dust you are and to dust you will return”)?  Do they know “dust” doesn’t even rhyme with “us?”

I’m recalling all of this because last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and mine was certainly dustier than most.  After hearing that a close relative may have cancer, I entered into a fragile state, the kind where the slightest offense threatened to call forth a hundred tears.

It was in this state that I realized we needed food for dinner, and I headed out to the grocery store.  Is there a worse place to be than Safeway at 6PM when you’re about as stable as Winona Ryder in “Girl, Interrupted?”

Usually I am in and out of the grocery store in 15 minutes.  This was not the case last Wednesday.  I wandered the aisles for no less than 90 minutes in a stupor, in a fog.  I couldn’t think of one single meal, much less the ingredients required to make one.  I stopped in the middle of the produce section, staring at rows of vegetables, wondering what I could make with them.  Thirty minutes later all I had was a frozen pizza and a bunch of bananas.

I think that’s what I should refer to last Wednesday as:  Frozen Pizza and Banana Day.  Illogical, and almost entirely unhealthy.

Somehow I made it home with a full cart of food, though if you asked me now I probably couldn’t tell you one item I bought.  That evening is like a blank chalkboard.

Thankfully, my church was holding a service for Ash Wednesday.  I’ve always been a little on-the-fence about services like Ash Wednesday, because they strike me as ritualistic with no obvious Biblical references.  Never-the-less, I decided a little meditation and getting outside of myself couldn’t hurt my mental state.

I entered the sanctuary five minutes late, and everyone was finishing a song.  I joined in, knowing the words by heart, and then took my seat.

The pastor read a short verse, and then my favorite pastor stood before us.  She has cerebral palsy, and she trembles as she holds the lecture in front of her.  There is something so brave about speaking to hundreds of people about something as personal as faith, and to do so with such an unmasked condition is remarkable.  She stuns me every time.

She didn’t just stun me this time, she shamed me.  She shared about her journey with her husband who is dying of cancer; his death is imminent.  She said she has been reduced to the very dust from whence she came, because nothing in her life is guaranteed except Christ’s love for her and her husband.  She didn’t use religious jargon, she didn’t read Bible verses, and she didn’t beam an unshakable smile to the masses.  She spoke as someone who is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and she’s not out yet.

I couldn’t even begin to identify with her.  Here I was with a similar ailment in my family and I reacted ten different ways — anger, sadness, hopelessness, bitterness… but humility?  No.  The thought of human frailty never crossed my mind.  I was indignant and in denial about the loss of someone I love.  Here stood my pastor, about to lose the person closest to her, and she had come to a place of knowing that this was always our destiny.  We’re not immortal.

Her message wasn’t about powering through our obstacles with a mixture of ambition, blind hope and strength.  It was about remembering that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return.  It is the opposite of the message we are told every day:  You are important!  You are exceptional!  Your potential is limitless!

No, it’s not, not really.

In comparison to the Lord (and His immortality) I am a wisp of dust.

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”  (Isaiah 40: 6-8)

Later that evening I went to my girls group, the ladies who gather together every other week to process life, laugh, cry, talk about faith, and just be there for each other.

I told them my pathetic Frozen Pizza and Banana story.  They told me the pastor probably had her own share of frozen pizza moments in the two years of her husband’s illness.  They told me this mindfulness of how small we are in comparison to God does not happen in one Ash Wednesday service.

So back in my seat at church, after listening to her offer a closing prayer, I approached the gentleman at the back of the sanctuary who was dipping his thumb into a bowl of ash and oil and marking each person with a cross on their forehead.   Each time he touched their foreheads he whispered, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We exited the church silently, hundreds of people with tiny ash smudges on their faces, like muddy grass blades drying in the sun.

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Filed under The WORD (Faith)

As the World Turns…Around the East Coast

I am one of many long-suffering West Coast residents who has to deal with the inconvenient and at times infuriating East Coast bias that plagues our great nation.

Usually I handle this with a calm demeanor befitting a Victorian socialite attending afternoon tea.  This week, however, I am handling it with the anger and bitterness of a scorned lover who just found out her ex won the lottery.

What brought this fury to the surface?  The Olympics, of course.

Instead of watching the Opening Ceremonies in real time, in my time zone where they’re taking place, I have to be on nytimes.com getting the play-by-play from commentators watching it in New York.  Yes, the ceremony is actually occurring 141 miles north of my city, yet I’m forced to wait three hours so people 3,000 miles away can watch it first.

Here is a helpful visual to explain the situation:

Of course, many would say that in the age of DVRs these issues are irrelevant.  To those scoffers, I offer this: DVRs were invented to record something that was on earlier that you want to watch later.  A DVR isn’t going to help much when the show doesn’t come on for three more hours.

When it suits them, the media moguls curse us with the opposite problem.  Consider the awards ceremonies: the Oscars, Emmy’s and Golden Globes all take place in L.A., yet start at 5PM PST — so that the East Coast can watch at the more appropriate 8PM hour.  While we’re racing to get through Sunday dinner or afternoon plans, East Coasters are settled in on their couches with popcorn ready to take in the show.

Another illustrative slide:

I can’t place all of the blame on the the men at NBC, CBS and ABC.  I’m happy to bring ESPN into the conversation.  How about a little coverage of our teams, gentlemen?  Does the word “Mariner” or “Seahawk” ring any bells with you?  The only reason anyone in Pittsburgh has heard of Seattle is because they remember paying refs to throw our Superbowl game.  And while East Coasters may bemoan Angels games starting at their 10PM, at least they aren’t sitting in church while the Yankee games start at 10AM.

This bias is pervasive enough to be found outside of programming.  My brother-in-law’s former clients are all in Alabama, and they used to insist he be available from the moment they arrive in the office.  So he would show up every day for work at 6AM and leave at 3PM to accommodate them.  My company headquarters is located in New Jersey, and while not required, I feel the same pressure.

To be fair, the population comparison isn’t even close.  There are approximately 111 million people in the states lining the Atlantic, and only about 46 million on the three states lining the Pacific.  But still.

A less obvious bias occurs in the collegiate arena.  The Ivy League is clustered in the Northeast, and it would seem anywhere outside of that region is irrelevant.  I went to the University of Washington, and I can imagine the laughs I would get applying for jobs in Boston.  Despite my school being ranked 16th in the world, it’s as if we don’t exist.

Speaking of schools, consider this bone-chilling encounter from junior high.  In 8th grade, when I found out I was moving from Pennsylvania to Seattle (the “other” Washington, according to East Coasters), a student in my class came up to me and said, “Seattle.  Hmm.  That’s just west of Chicago, right?”

Maintain composure.  Channel the Victorian tea lady.

“Yes, tech…ni…cal…ly, it is west of Chicago,” I replied, attempting to be kind.  “About 2,000 miles west,” I added under my breath.

In case you’re tempted to blame that tiny error on youth, consider the exchange I had with a fellow junior in college I met in Washington, D.C. while I was in town for a leadership conference.  In what I can only assume was a mild attempt at flirting with me, he said, “Oh, I meant to tell you I’ll be in San Francisco in a couple of months!”

“Great!” I replied, not understanding why he was sharing this information.

“We could do lunch!” he exclaimed.  “I’d love to get together again, and you live in Seattle so we could meet up for a meal.”

I stood there debating which would be more painful — taking a cheese grater to my face or explaining to this person that San Francisco and Seattle are not one but TWO states apart, separated by more than 800 miles.  I wanted to scream, “Would you tell a friend in Philadelphia to meet you for lunch in Jacksonville?!”  Instead I stared at him blankly until a friend listening in (thank you, Annie!) yanked me out of the conversation.

Is it obvious yet that I’m a former East Coaster?  Friends tell me I’m like a child who’s been spoiled; having lived in the center of the US universe, I’m sour now about orbiting my former planet.  Any armchair psychologist can see that all of my sputtering really means that I miss it.  I miss being in the eye of the hurricane, I miss feeling like I could pop into NYC at a moment’s notice (even if I rarely did).  I miss the what-does-your-daddy do elitism, the four-generations-and-we’ve-never-left-town families.  While living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Washington, D.C. I loved knowing I was in the historical heart of our country.

Now, 12.5 years into living in Seattle, I can say that I was blind to how good I had it — but I wouldn’t trade where I am for where I was.

Please don’t mistake my missing the East Coast as preferring to live there.  What that coast has in history, numbers of people, and bustling cities, this coast has in geographic splendor.  It’s no mystery why the Winter Olympics weren’t held on that side of North America: where would they find respectable mountains?  Skiing in the Appalachians?  Please.  New Hampshire? Those aren’t mountains;  they’re hillsWhistler and Blackcomb belly laugh and high five each other when they make jokes about the slopes in Maine.

So this week as you West Coasters nestle into the couch to watch the women’s slalom, and you look at your watch and it’s 12:30AM, you’ll know exactly which region of the country to blame.

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Filed under One WORD (Current Events)

Excuse Me, Mr. President: An Etiquette Special Edition

See if you can spot the numerous faux pas committed by both me and the patrons I encountered.  The following is a true story.

Last Friday evening Mike and I were having dinner at Sostanza Trattoria in Madison Park with our friend Meredith.  As we ordered wine, the restaurant was just filling up for the night.

I happened to glance over to the table next to us and see a nice-looking couple seated next to the fireplace.  I stared for a second at the gentleman before realizing he looked familiar.

“Doesn’t that look just like Phil Eaton?” I asked Meredith.  We both attended Seattle Pacific University (me for only a year) of which he was president.

“Eh, kind of, I suppose,” she replied, not finding this the least bit interesting.  I considered how to redeem the topic.

“Remember how he used to invite students to his home once a year, to make us feel connected to him or whatever, but we were all just annoyed because he lived in this fabulous house while we’re all killing ourselves to pay $25,000 a year in tuition?” I ventured.

Then we were off and running.

“Yes!” she said.  “It was criminal what they paid him, and remember how he would drive to the school in his A6 and it made all of us cringe?  University presidents are so overpaid.  They’re just glorified speech-makers,” she concluded.

“Oh Eaton can’t hold a candle to UW’s president,” I added.  “He’s ranked among the highest paid in the US.  It’s absurd.  I read he makes $900,000 a year.”

Having fully vented our grievances on university presidents, we moved on to happier topics.  Soon we were laughing, enjoying our meal and our bottle of local Washington red.

“Excuse me, you all really need to be quiet,” a stout woman in her fifties was suddenly standing over us, speaking to us like we were in second grade. “This is a public restaurant and people are trying to eat in peace and you’re laughing so the whole place can hear you.  You need to speak quietly to each other so only those at your own table can hear you.”

We were all so stunned by her pretentious speech that we simply stared at her, mouths agape.

She returned to her seat without another word, and none of us could recover the conversation for the next two minutes because of the offense.  Gradually, because we couldn’t help it, we giggled about the absurdity of someone speaking to us like children, especially in the context of any place outside of a library.

A few minutes later we heard a woman sitting across from the Phil-Eaton-look-alike laughing happily.  Mike couldn’t help himself so he leaned over and said, “Hey, keep it down; this is a public place.”  We just about died, this was so funny, but we weren’t sure if she would agree.

“Oh you’re such a party pooper!” she laughed back at him.  Fearing that she would think he was serious, I leaned over to her with one hand covering my mouth and explained, “We just got scolded in those exact words by that woman over there.”

Suddenly, she was totally intrigued.  “Really?” she said with enthusiasm.  “Oh you must be joking.  It’s Friday night!  This is a restaurant!  We can be as loud as we want!” she said, swinging her glass of red wine around to face us.  “Who is that woman?  I mean, honestly!”

The relief!  The balm to our souls!  Despite being the same age as the crotchety “party pooper” who rained on our parade, this woman was fabulous.  I especially liked her purple-framed glasses.

After another hearty exchange, she returned her focus to her table.  Meredith and I immediately agreed to name her Viv.  There was no other name for a Madison Park socialite who loved red wine and young people with equal fervor.  However, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that her husband was familiar, so I turned to Mike and Meredith and resumed my earlier verse of, “He looks so familiar!  I can’t shake that he’s someone I know or someone famous or something.”  They both rolled their eyes.

“If you really want me to, I can just try to find him on my iPhone,” Meredith offered in a last-ditch effort to shut me up.  “We’ll just start Googling Seattle celebrities.”

“OH MY GOSH!!  OH MY GOSH OH MY GOSH!!”  Suddenly I knew exactly who it was.

“IT’S MARK EMMERT.  It’s the freaking UW PRESIDENT,” I explained.  “I am a COMPLETE IDIOT.”

“WHAT?!” Mike exclaimed.  “How could you not recognize him when you went to that school?  Do you realize we were just talking so loudly about his salary that we got ‘shushed!?'”  We all looked at each other in the face-draining panic that accompanies such realizations.  We had just criticized the husband of our darling Viv, the one we wanted to be our friend and take us around to cocktail parties.  Had they heard?  Could they have?

I reasoned with them.  “Why would she have spoken to us if she heard us chastising her for being wealthy?” I asked.  “Come on, Viv loves us!”

By this time Meredith had pulled up an image of them on her iPhone.  Granted, the image was at least five years old, but we held up the phone, looked over at them:  confirmed.

“She’s not Viv,” Meredith read from Wikipedia.  “She’s DeLaine.”  Of course — even more of a president’s wife’s name than the one we gave her.

“Oh and you were almost right,” she continued reading from her phone.  “He’s not just one of the top-paid presidents.  It’s even better: he’s ranked second.  SECOND.  Bested only by Ohio State’s president.  Emmert makes $906,500 per year.”

Of course he does; our Viv/DeLaine deserves it.

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Designing Woman

I’ve always assumed that I have great taste, that picking out paint and a decent piece of furniture would be as natural to me as choosing something appetizing to eat.

It turns out that I can make a previously established space better, but when handed a blank slate I can only think of one statement and one question:  I want to cry.  Would the fetal position be too dramatic?

Perhaps it is this exact reaction that caused the previous owner of our home to do absolutely nothing with the place.  When we took over there was not one speck of paint, not one modification or change from the way the home was built.  It was just endless walls of cream.  In fact, in the three years she owned it, she only lived it in for one and a half years and then it sat empty.  Perhaps she just couldn’t face her own design failure.

It looked like this:

So much white.  I can’t explain the gold star, either.  Perhaps it was a realtor’s attempt to distract from the white-ness of it all.

Endless white.  It’s like one continual yawn.

A year and a half she went to sleep looking at these blank walls.

Before we even moved one piece of furniture in, we painted.  We couldn’t stand the thought of setting up residence with Mr. White-Bread Walls and his wife Mrs. Milk Carton Carpet.

So we painted the fireplace: instant warmth.

We splashed a rusty, reddish brown onto one wall in the entry way to help people make the right choice when they are deciding, “DO I want to come in?”

Finally, after literally nine swatches were painted on the wall for comparison, we painted the dining room.  This is where my commitment-phobia caused Mike to want to have me committed.  Nine swatches?  Of course.  It has to be the right green, after all.

Bye-bye, swatches!

Hello, gorgeous green.  Thank you for giving my guests back their appetite.

After those victories, everything came to a screeching halt.  Christmas, New Years, this excuse, that excuse…and now we’re facing The Den.  The den of wolves.  The den that threatens to be my undoing.

I am the type of person who only wants two choices.  I can (nearly) always make a two-choice decision; anything more than that and I’m immobilized.  For instance, when I’m at the grocery store and I see seventeen brands of toilet paper, the person on the intercom has to call out, “Clean up on aisle four.  We’ve got a commitment-phobe down.  I repeat, commitment-phobe down.”   They always come running with defibrillators.

So here is The Den now:

It’s acting as storage until we make it into a workable space.  And the white, orb-like cone plugged into the wall?  That’s a vacuum cleaner my sweet mother-in-law gave us that I use far more than I ever thought I would.

The idea is for this to be my writing room; the place where my creativity flows and words spill out of my fingertips.

It’s also where I’ll pay the bills.  But that’s not as glamorous as creativity.

I’m dreaming of taking everything out, wallpapering one wall, hanging a cool chandelier, adding an extra chair and an attractive houseplant to liven the place.

But that’s where you come in.  Send me your ideas.  Give me your insight.  Tell me your genius design plan.  I promise to put it all to work and show you the results in a future post.

We’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and what causes me an anxiety attack.  Mostly, we’ll just see if the medics can restart my heart in time for me to make a decision.

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Filed under UpWORD (Beauty)