Being Present for a Present

In an age where convenience can strip away creativity, I’d like to make a plea for thoughtful presents.  You see, I’m faced with buying a 12-year-old boy a gift, and I’ve been guilty recently of taking the easy way out.  The gift card.   A present is reduced to a strict exchange of dollars.  It feels hollow, in a way, but it does get the job done.  Safeway has a kiosk right by the check-out stand that is 6 feet of colorful gift cards from every retail business around.  Certainly every giftee  – man, woman, child from infantcy to seniorhood – could use something from one of those stores.

Yeah.  But.

I’m here to tell you about a certain salad bowl that I received as a gift.  A woodworker named Lloyd General lovingly turned (literally, he hand turned it on a lathe) a massive chunk of California walnut into a work of functional art.  I just ate a salad out of that gorgeous striated brown bowl.  I have eaten or served items out of that bowl for close to 20 years.  And when I do, a tiny piece of my heart goes out to the woman who thought enough of the importance of gift buying to get it for me:  my mother-in-law Lou Ann.   It is, simply put, a five-star gift that my son will inherit when my salad eating days are done.

Now, I’ve given some wacky presents in my day.  A worm composter to my sister-in-law was an abject failure.  (I mean, who hates worms?)  But to a girlfriend mourning the loss of her husband, I gave a pair of soft-as-a-kitten cashmere socks.  I told her that if everything else was going sideways, at least her feet would feel loved.  And she could think of me, in those dark, cold days of winter, when she pulled them on and felt the warmth from my heart.

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What Pablo Neruda Said

People say things all the time.  Others write a whole hell of a lot of words.  Pablo Neruda, the poet, loves words as much as I do.  Probably more, I’d reckon.  From his Memoir, the last sentence has stayed with me since the moment I read it close to 20 years ago.

Savor this morsel:

“You can say anything you want, yessir, but it’s the words that sing, they soar and descend … I bow to them … I love them, I cling to them, I fun them down, I bite into them, I melt them down … I love words so much … The unexpected ones … The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop … Vowels I love … They glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish, they are foam, thread, metal, dew … I run after certain words … They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem. … I catch them in mid-flight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives… And then I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them, I let them go … I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves … Everything exists in the word …  An idea goes through a compete change because one word shifted its place, or because another settled down like a spoiled little thing inside a phrase that was not expected her but obeys her.”

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The Jagged Path

                                     At 30,000 feet, coming home from St. Louis

You’ve heard the phrase:  going from Point A to Point B.   For humans, the path of choice is always a straight line.  It’s the quickest, after all.  The most efficient.  It expends the least energy, and allows you to move on to the “next thing” on your list.

Right.  The excruciating reality of life is that the straight line between Point A and Point B only happens in geometry homework and highways in Nevada and the Nullarbor Plain in Australia (one stretch of road has no curves for 87 miles).   And so the desire of doing something quickly and effectively is clobbered by the cold hard fact that life doesn’t work that way.

I mean this literally.  The act of life, whether it is manifested in a tree or a river, does not do straight lines.  Life is organic.  It meanders.

I heard a woman the other day say something that really stood out to me.  She said that we can’t force our business into a mold.  Because the marketplace will know we are trying on someone else’s clothes.  That we need to find our own voice, and make our own way in an organic fashion.   True success, she repeated, is organic.

Writing this post is another step in fully believing and processing this fact.  It comes on the heels of having a conversation with the man responsible for starting Camp Okizu, Dr. Mike Amylon.  He is a family friend, and I’ve had many conversations with him over the course of 20 years.  Mike, with the prestige of his position at Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford as a pediatric hem/onc, wanted to start a summer camp for families who were dealing with childhood cancer.  Maybe the child with cancer.  Maybe the sibling.  Maybe the whole family.

What he thought would be an easy sell to the oncology community turned out to be harder than he could ever imagine.  You see, many offices didn’t want to even have Okizu brochures in their waiting rooms, because then they would have to talk to patients about the tricky and poignant issues that arise from a cancer diagnosis in the family.   And precious few oncologists knew what to say on this topic at the time.

His idea, bubbling up organically from the work he did, was new.  He was forging his own path.  And he, like every other entrepreneur with an idea, had to hack his way through the deep brush to get there.

Today, 30 years later, Okizu stands ready to welcome yet another summer filled with humans trying to wend their way from Point A to Point B and have some fun while doing it.

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Words I Love: Fourth in a Series

Wobble.  It’s what happens when you attempt to move too quickly laterally with luggage on wheels stuffed to the brim with children’s books.  Similar woobles happen to skateboarders when they hit a certain velocity whilst traveling downhill.   Thankfully this wonderful word is not just used to describe a physical sensation, but a state of mind sometimes.  Like when you have to talk about something hard, you feel wobbly about the conversation.  To tell you the truth, this words sounds mildly Elizabethan to me.  The Forest of Wobble.

The opposite of wobble seems to be slit.  This is a word that doesn’t fool around.  It does what it needs to do.  Quickly.  It’s red hot and sizzles with intensity.  When a newscaster describes a throat being slit (or more likely on some CSI re-run), my stomach always does a little turn.

For those brutes who go can’t for for something as subtle and cloaked as slit, why not pull out a wad of clobber?  Thump someone real good with clobber.  It’s big and bumbling, and very WWF.  Oh, and effective.

Clobber someone today with a really really great idea.  I dare you!

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Goodbye My Lovely

It’s not often that you part ways with a member of your family after 22 years.

After graduating from college, my husband and his father traveled to an oversized patch of asphalt outside of San Francsico and spent a full day haggling with a car salesman over a certain new grey Jeep Cherokee.

Anders is an environmentalist of the first order.  Not only has he made it his living, studying environmental issues at Yale and then working for a succession of wind power renewable energy providers, but he also embraces the principles at home.  He simply doesn’t endorse in what has become known as the classic American throw-away mentality.

He uses file folders until the tabs fall off from overuse.  His affection for certain items of clothing is legendary.  One pair of shorts I purchased for him 20 years ago just last week was donated to the rag bag.  There were holes in the holes, but they still worked to cover his important bits while doing sit-ups and push-ups at home, so they stayed.

And then there was his Jeep.  The perfect car for an outdoorsy young man and his dog sidekick, the Jeep faithfully drove us both around town, and around the country.  We’ve taken epic American road trips, driving back roads cross-country from California to Connecticut, our dog Guinness resting his head on the black glove box nestled between the two front seats.  We’ve 4-wheeled through Wyoming and Montana.  We’ve driven to California’s Tahoe for skiing (gleefully shifting to 4-wheel without having to endure the elements), easily powered to the top of Old Smokey for our 7th wedding anniversary, and down to a tiny blues festival in Mississippi.  We endured decades of summer temperatures without air-conditioning, just the strong hot air blasting through the open windows and silly little triangle windows that never seemed to shut fully once they were originally opened.

We pulled people out of ditches with that car.  Slept in the back when the rains finally seeped through our tent.  And much to my utter horror, were discovered by a police officer in  … ahem … a compromising position outside of Kettleman’s City, California during a particularly lusty road trip.

The Jeep hauled treasures of every size and manner without complaint:  our 9-foot-long dining room table home from the auction house in Connecticut, lashed to the top and held up there by hope and twine.  The ridiculously heavy air-hockey table we gave Nils and Grace.  Anders’ trusty kayak.  Countless pieces of furniture lodged in the surprisingly roomy back.  Load after bloody load of yard debris destined for the dump.

The paint went somewhere in the 90s.  The seatbelt on the driver was used so many times that it lost the will to bite and hold.  An errant nail eventually slit the sagging headliner and the thin material started to hang down like the interior of a Morrocan casbah.  Ultimately Anders ripped out the fabric, leaving behind creepy stalagtite remnants of the once sticky adhesive used to hold it up.  We went through alternators and radiators and tires that my mother purchased for us when we were broke and first married.  The locks broke.  Hoses split.  Windshield wipers slowed, as if needing a nap, and after hard rains, the floor mat on the passenger side would be wet.  And yet.  Mechanics kept putting the Jeep back together, and we kept driving Hank, the name we eventually gave our big, boxy, trusted driving companion.

Friends started questioning our sanity.  After all, the average length of time of car ownership in this country is 5.5 years.  Anders saw no need.  Just as long as it would get us up the mountains in winter, we would keep it.  It was paid off, after all.

But one day mid-span on the Golden Gate Bridge, the shifter abruptly ended up in Anders’ hand, as if the gearbox had simply threw it up.  Not just the top ball, but the entire stick.

For the first time in my life, I was scared to drive the car.

So with 232,895 miles, we did what any self-respecting environmentalist would do.

We sold it to our long-time friend Agustin for $1.  He is delighted to be only the second owner of Hank, and undaunted by fixing the issues that come up with an aged vehicle.

So may the road stay firmly under you, Hank.  Ride on!

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What is Wrong With America

Need I say more?

First in the back seat of every mini-van driving up to Tahoe (because what kid could possibly just stare out the window and dream), then at the gas pump, then in my local Wells Fargo bank, and now in my bathroom.

True, it’s the Simpsons, but no.  No no no.

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C4YW Final Thoughts

This blog appeared on the Living Beyond Breast Cancer site today.

 

As with most things, the anxiety around something new never quite plays out and the unexpected benefits delight.  Such was my experience at C4YW this year in Orlando.  Unequivocally, it was a great conference for me to attend.

Why?

These young women were brave.  Honest.  Open.   Grateful.  Healing.  I met women smack in the middle of treatment, who had climbed aboard a plane to come to Orlando, because this conference was that important to them.  They wanted to be surrounded by other young women who understood, and learn about issues that affect them specifically.

They let me into their lives, these women, sharing their stories, the names of their children (sometimes with halting voices and tears), and their worries.  As someone just starting out selling my book, this was as real as it gets.

I was able to press 45 books into the hands of women with children at home, nurses who treat those women, and representatives of cancer support groups and national (and international) organizations who make it their business and passion to help these women.

Being an exhibitor on your own is a vigorous experience. For a total of 19 hours over 3 days, I stood up and talked to those who came by and expressed interest in my book. Gravity takes hold, and my toes, after being embraced by stylish yet slightly unforgiving footwear, swelled like ballpark franks. The second morning, instead of manning my table at an unforgivable 7:30 am until 6 pm (that’s 4:30 am for us west coast bodies!), I opted instead to get some fresh air and a run outside and slide in at 9 am.

I had hoped to go see a few of the speakers. But I learned that an exhibitor is not necessarily a participant, unless you sign up to be a participant.  Now I know.   And second, the exhibit hall, open during almost all the hours of the conference, never really quieted down.  When most participants were in sessions, there were always a few others wandering in there, and that was also the best time to talk with other exhibitors.  As business is about making contacts, this was a priceless opportunity to either meet face-to-face some of the people I’ve been emailing or talking to on the phone, or introduce myself to new organizations.  When things got slow, I introduced myself, handed over a book, and encouraged them to read my work at their leisure.

I was struck by how many of us there on the exhibit side had a cancer diagnosis behind us.  To wit:  Josh at Lymphedivas, whose sister started the company because she couldn’t stand the ugly compression sleeves offered to her.  Danielle and Angelle started Chemo Beanies because these two sisters couldn’t find something stylish and comfortable to wear when they lost their hair. Susan from the BeauBeau started a company to offer fashionable turbans to women with medical hair loss.  Although she came from  a family of women diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis of Alopecia Areata motivated her. Countless non-profit organizations have been started to offer support and advice, from KC at Families Who Support Breast Cancer Survivors to Sarah at Project3One to a metastatic disease group represented by a mom and her young daughter.  Next door to me  Susan mixed personal experience with love and tenderness as she fitted women with a very beautiful (and sexy) double-arm compression garment she found manufactured in Italy.  When I introduced myself to the three ladies at the Anita booth behind me, helping fit beautiful bras and swimsuits for women who have had a mastectomy surgery, I learned that Twila was a 19-year survivor, Merri was closing in on 10 years, and Colleen, diagnosed more recently, was 7 months out.

If any participant wanted to see “life after cancer” in full, glorious view, she had to look no further than the exhibit hall and at the other participants. It pains me that there are so many young women who need a breast cancer related conference, but  there is comfort in  knowing that by offering targeted programming in a supportive environment, people will gratefully gather to see that they are not alone.

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