Saturday, October 30, 2004

More New York

It is my habit to reread my posts before I send them to prevent hurt feelings. I read them again the next morning, and today I can almost see my New York readers’ necks stiffen and fingers reach for the keyboards to reply, “What! Surely you don’t mean to imply that those grasping, overanxious seekers of Trump’s attention are representative of New Yorkers?”

Of course not. If that were the case, I certainly would not have stayed in the city for close to two decades. On the contrary, there is so very much of New York that is attractive, even seductive. The closest I have ever come to explaining New York’s appeal is that it is an addiction.

On first experiencing New York, you just can’t take it in. There is so much. Different neighborhoods, different communities of all descriptions stretching across neighborhoods. While there are pockets of quality in arts and other endeavors elsewhere, for sheer quantity of very, very good work, it is hard to match New York. This concentration of excellence creates communities that feed on themselves, organisms that spiral into efforts than any one participant could never have dreamed.

The more you become aware of how much is happening in New York, the more you realize the necessity of taking it in baby steps. It is easier to live in New York than to visit, because you know how to pace yourself. New Yorkers have the skills to do an errand, then take a break—really rest and occupy a public space—and move on to the next errand.

Another way to deal with New York is systematic analysis, getting to know it neighborhood by neighborhood. Going to Chinatown for dancing shoes, to Sixth Street for cheap dinner. Shopping for fabric on lower Broadway and plants further north. Each little trip is a revelation. Hardly ever is an errand simply routine.

I lived in Manhattan only a few months one summer. I could never imagine living with all that creative/destructive buzz outside my windows, much less the rumble of traffic or the sirens. Not even to be walking distance from Lincoln Center or the Metropolitan Museum. The outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island were quieter, psychically safer, close enough to “the city” to take small bites. I was very, very happy for a very long time.

Then one day it no longer worked for me. Obviously, people grow old in New York, many of them very happily. Many women live out their later years in apartments in New York, but I couldn’t see myself in that life. From an analytical point of view, it ought to have been very appealing to me—living someplace with so much intellectual and sensory stimulation. But instead I saw myself someplace like here, and here I am.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Shadows of a Former Life

From my vantage point safe in Vermont, I faithfully watch The Apprentice. It reminds me of my old life on Wall Street, not that I was ever in the leagues of Trump or his lieutenants. No, I was one of thousands of bank vice presidents, neither very successful nor very unsuccessful. Eventually, like thousands of others, I was laid off—twice actually, an overachiever to the end.

During the many years I lived in New York, I took a lot of ribbing from family, friends and acquaintances. Please read the following with a heavy Southern accent in mind: “Why, I could never live in such a place.” These days I get the same comment with a Vermont accent.

But I loved New York. I still do. New York needs no defense from me.

And I left to save my life. Someone I respect—I don’t remember who—told me that we humans never change until we have no other choice. That observation is consistent with my experience. So when I packed all my belongings into a truck two years ago and moved to Vermont, it was not because I was brave; it was because I had no choice but to make a change. I can analyze the career insecurity of the financial services industry, the toll its long hours were taking on my health, the numbing difficulting of doing even the smallest task in New York, but all those factors had existed for decades. Ultimately the decision to move was intuitive.

Where to go was also intuitive. There were other places I could have gone, but I came to Vermont.

Now I watch the aspiring Trumps and Trumpettes, and the intellectual part of me enjoys seeing them execute strategy and learn people management. I appreciate the clarity of the bottom line orientation. I have opinions about who does a good job and who doesn’t. I appreciate many of the show’s lessons about business. But I don’t like these people much. And I’m glad I don’t live among them any more, although of course there are lots of more congenial people in New York as well.

On the other hand, one of the unexpected pleasures of Vermont has been finding some of the brightest, savviest business people I have ever worked with. And I have worked with the best.

I left New York to save my life and to get a life. I’m still working on it but the early returns are excellent. When I watch The Apprentice, I remember how far I have traveled.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Head on Lap

It’s hard to type with a German Shepherd head on your lap. Even steadfast Max is sometimes in need of a little extra care. It’s that visiting girl. She takes up my attention, she steals his toys, she growls. How much worse can it get? Puppies, hmph. Don’t care for ‘em.

Max will be fine. I bought him the extra special whitefish and sweet potato cookies that are his favorite. And I have discovered, sadly, that his recall improves dramatically if I use the word “cookie” rather than “come” or my most authoritative “come now,” which used to work. This is not a good development in dog training, but the fact that Max has been able to train me to buy whitefish and sweet potato cookies is even more threatening to my pack position.

Can I extend the pack metaphor to come up with ways to entice other board members into more thoughtful, engaged involvement in our work? I have three active board members. While I am grateful to have so many, I worry that I become—professionally and on a very personal, emotional level—too dependent on the few. My role as director of a tiny non-profit is surprisingly lonely.

The structure is an upside down pyramid: hundreds of potential members, dozens of members, about a dozen board members, and at the vortex there’s just me and my half time assistant. Is there any doubt what flows downhill and where it stops?

Managing the board as pack. That has possibilities. At home I am working on subtle signals to reinforce our new, temporary pack structure. In the evenings, Max and Toby get to sit next to me, while Nell is on the floor. They get extra invitations to come upstairs at the end of the evening. If Nell growls at them, she gets a gentle reprimand. Max and Toby get human food treats and special cookies; Nell is not allowed to have anything but her puppy food. Overall message to everyone: Nell is welcome, but Max and Toby are top dogs. Between the two of them they have worked it out: Toby is top dog, and Max allows it to be so.

With the board, it would be a matter of actively trying to build up the ones who might be willing to be more involved. It’s not an area where I can bend them to my will. Hardly! These are bright, motivated, capable people. Maybe more a matter of (1) being aware of subtle signals and creating positive reinforcement for increased involvement, and (2) keeping communication flowing so that nobody feels left out or overlooked.

As tiring as it is, I believe in over-communication. The end game is that working together, we can do far more than any of us individually. Of course, the more people that need explicit communications…well, the effort grows exponentially. Maybe it’s that forecast weariness that is getting me down.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading lots of blogs, and I have some to recommend to you.

I adore and especially the hungry tiger: "Then why don't you eat something?" she asked. "It's no use," said the Tiger sadly. "I've tried that, but I always get hungry again." Too true, but this recipe archive has lots of good, easy, very tasty options. Funny food.

I really like It ‘s beyond the recipes, it’s the whole thing, but the recipes themselves are tested and engineered to make it easy to replicate good results time and time again. Lots of people seem to like the innovative recipe format, which apparently does actually work for engineers.

I like the weekly photo challenge in I like the concept of “hoarded ordinaries.” I think the writer would get along with Toby, who is huddled on the other sofa with his tennis ball, his apple (same apple, sometimes they last a week), his bone, and his water bottle.

There is a lot I like about –overall feel, content, ideas for add-ons, nice list of links. Besides, ya hafta like a guy who gives you a good pre-launch review!

Then there’s who writes better about New England than any of the rest of us. Nice, very nice actually, to experience Thoreau’s journals as they unfold daily.

Visiting Miss Nell has now displaced Max. A smaller, more insistent head is pressed to my chest with a gentle woof and vigorous wag. “I’m cute, you know. So I insist you pet me!” Retriever temperament!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Don’t be surprised

“Don't be surprised if life in general seems a bit confusing…”

That’s how my horoscope starts today, then it goes on to explain planetary positions and the impact of the full moon. The analytical part doesn’t mean much to me, but that simple charge does: “Don’t be surprised.”

Don’t be surprised if today is different from yesterday. Other people whirling in their own orbits collide with you in ways that are different from mere hours before. They exist separate from you after all. Don’t be surprised.

I am, of course, always surprised. We each live as outside observers of the lives of people we know. I experience my own life as an amazing, oversized, romantic, even excessive story…and why not? And each of the dozen or so people I encounter on the average day lives on a separately defined planet, populated by the people they know and playing out stories that are just as amazing and wonderful. From time to time, worlds collide, in ways large or small. You shouldn’t be surprised.

Don’t be surprised if Monday is a difficult day. It happens every week. Sunday is a tough day; Monday I tackle the tough projects; Tuesday is better, and I am always surprised.

Don’t be surprised if the dogs who got along yesterday are growling and snarling over a water bottle or an apple today. Toby loves apples beyond all measure, and Nell is a little closer to motherhood today than she was yesterday. Max knows you bought cookies yesterday, so yesterday’s generalized mourning has morphed into a series of pointed, barky reminders that you are most certainly neglecting him.

Impossible not to be surprised all over again by the landscape. Early morning fog in the valleys and fields faded to sage green by frost. Bright (really bright!) yellow maple leaves in relief against tree limbs more prominent every day. Italy is like this, they tell me, not in the details but in that the light is different every day. Almost daily, there is something that leaves me staring, slack jawed and glassy eyed, at this place where I live.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Old Dogs

This feedback from one of my e-corrrespondents: One of the things I think about from time to time is an article to tell owners of aging dogs not to worry so much. It's something I am very
conscious of as my Spot is 13+ and Ollie died of cancer at 11. Cloudy eyes, not so bad, stiff joints, keep the weight off and exercise, sleeps too much (me, too) but also need new interests to keep them going. Lucy the cat has proved a rejuvenating irritation for little Spot. Also get rid of the fatty tumors as they can really slow these guys down even through the vets say they are benign. At work, so got to run. Nell sounds like my kind of dog, but we're a little over run at the mo.

Hostages to Fortune

My life is simple. I live alone, with two large dogs. I have nobody to please or fuss over. Yes, it is sometimes lonely, but that is not the point of this piece. The point is that even the simplest life gets complicated in the twitch of an eyelash.

“He who hath a wife and children has given hostages to fortune.” That’s Sir Francis Bacon. If we care, we open ourselves up to hurt, disappointment, and grief.

I already dread losing my dogs to old age. I fuss too much. Although they are nine (Toby) and eleven (Max), they are active, sometimes too active when it comes to porcupines and manure.

Back when I was married, I felt the same way about my husband, and you know, my fussing and solicitude didn’t change anything in the course of events. I lost him anyway. Not in the sense of doing something terrible that made him move away from me. Not in the casual sense of having mislaid him somewhere. No, the truth is that we lost each other, and twenty years later, I don’t know if it had to be that way or not. But that’s how it was.

And whatever else it was, it was a loss. I have no children, only dogs and foster dog and foster puppies on the way. I can’t even imagine how parents live with fear for their children. I can’t. Life must seem like one huge continuous falling off a log into open space.

Living alone, moving every few years, traveling light would seem to be a prescription for avoiding the frightening prospect of misfortune. Misguided solicitude sometimes leads people to feel sorry for me, living alone as I do.

I am here to tell you that while solitude has its attractions, safety is not among them. In a heartbeat, I am drawn into the lives of others, whether my friends, my family, my staff, my colleagues, or little Miss Nell, who needs a place other than the shelter to be pregnant. On the contrary, I am working hard to learn how to have good boundaries, to let in only those I want to let in. When it comes to entanglements, there is no place of safety other than steadfastly shutting others out. As a temporary measure for regaining equilibrium, that might work, but it’s no long term formula for happiness.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to choose who we let in and on what terms—then once they are close by, all argument and reasoning is meaningless.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Cleanup Day in the Garden

Contrary to all forecasts, we had a spectacular sunny weekend, and I managed to get some trim painted as well as cleaning up the garden. Even Miss Nell enjoyed being out in the sunshine, although she continues to find it unfair that she has to be tied up while the boys romp. She continues well behaved, although the boys—predictably—are acting out a bit. Max, the German Shepherd, came over a few minutes ago and insisted on sitting in the armchair with me. So I am perched on the edge, attempting my first blog-by-email.

It is not typical of me to find beauty in death and decay, but tomatoes in every shade of red, orange, yellow and green were even more lovely for having been frozen into translucence. Add clearest yellow leaves drifting down from the sugarbush, and the day could only be seen as pure celebration of the moment.

I’m not big on existential nothingness, either, but attempts to pull mint out of the garden come as close to futility as anything I know. If I were of a cynical turn of mind, Toby’s helpful actions in fetching back green tomatoes that I threw out of the vegetable plot would be symbolic. For me, Toby is just goofy, another instance of pure joy.

Don’t even think of lecturing me about throwing out green tomatoes. Have you any idea how many I have in the kitchen? I also have about 8 pounds of carrots and 12 pounds of turnips and a surprising quantity of daikon, not to mention their nifty little seed pods. I am so going to be overrun by daikon next summer. Worse things have happened. Did I mention the mint?

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Routine and Puppies

I am getting back into my routine after the disruptive shortening of days. I resent it that it is too dark in the mornings now to walk outside before time to go to work. But eventually, I get over fighting with myself and with nature’s forward plunge, and I go back to the Nordictrak indoors along with therapy light. Maybe I should just mark the calendar that once the annual meeting is past, it is time to declare the winter schedule in operation.

After a few stressful weeks with the annual meeting and visitors and changing bosses, I have also reverted to my usual healthy diet. How funny it is that I sometimes only know I am stressed by what I am eating. I never eat fried foods. I never eat ice cream. When I start eating unhealthy things, it is a sign that I must be stressed, so I can go and look for the cause. Or I can just consciously revert to my preferred routine and watch stress fall away. Cool.

Routine, huh? How do puppies fit into routine? If there is anything the opposite of routine, it is puppies. I knew it was risky to go to the Animal League for a Chamber of Commerce mixer. There are dogs there. Cats, too, but we are not allowed to have cats. Max thinks cats are snacks.
I’m in that vulnerable place where I know my dogs are getting old. Toby is nine and Max is eleven. I like having three dogs, and I know that once you have four dogs, you suddenly have way too many. So soon, maybe, it will be time for a new dog. But I’m not quite ready. I recognize this state of mind from the times when my dogs have found me. It is the state of mind that attracts dogs.

But all they really wanted was someone to foster Nell. The shelter is a tough place to be pregnant. So here Miss Nell is, with her head on my foot, and she seems very grateful to be out of the shelter’s noise. The boys don’t mind her, except when she steals their bones. We will work out a new routine for eating separately, exercise, and sleeping spots that incorporate the inevitability of puppies.

P wants to know if I am raising them for meat. No, P. They all go back to the shelter for new homes, Mother Nell included. She is a nice dog—sweet and pretty. She looks like a black flat coat retriever, with one white paw. I suppose she might grow on me, but she has that retriever neediness, not the quiet reserve punctuated by occasional goofiness that German shepherd owners are accustomed to. T is simply appalled. She had trouble even giving the shelter a reference for me, concerned as she was about my sanity.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Light and Not-Light

These days I think a lot about light. On a literal level, there is less of it each day. My indoor therapy lamp seems to help with mood, but sitting under the lamp for an hour is a poor substitute for a two-mile walk complete with foliage approaching peak. This morning I couldn’t help myself. Late to work or not, I craved time outdoors and happily tramped up to the corner and back.

As I walked, I thought of my friends. I have become unabashedly Vermont-centric. When out of town visitors come, they tend to think we are excessive in our love for this place where we live. But everywhere I looked this morning, I waxed enthusiastic: the frosty fields, the foliage (well, really, it is exceptional), the composition of scenes of lake with cows and mountain backdrop. Is it boring when I go on like this?

In large part, what makes the view always breathtaking is the difference in light. The quality of the light changes with the different angles in different seasons, and the backdrop colors vary so dramatically from spring and summer’s myriad greens to splashy foliage to winter white that the view is—quite literally—always new. As the foliage approaches peak, light bounces off the yellows, not so much off the reds, and the very contours of the hills are transformed. With my visitor last week, I found myself saying again and again, “Look, just look at that.” While she appreciated the views, I don’t think she felt the awe that comes with repeated experience of the same vista in different lights. There is so much to look at here.

Light and shadow have long been themes for writers more accomplished than I. My old favorite, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita springs to mind. If I tell you that it is about the devil’s visit to Moscow, the crucifixion, and the story of a novelist imprisoned by Stalin, that probably doesn’t do much to make it sound readable, but it is. Bulgakov’s use of plot is surpassed only by his use of imagery, with light and darkness predominant.

The image at the end of Pontius Pilate, his sins forgiven, being led up a beam of moonlight has staying power long after the book is closed. You remember Pontius Pilate. He washed his hands of making the decision to crucify Yeshua, the name for Bulgakov’s distinctly human Jesus figure. Pilate’s sin was to fail to choose between fighting for light or fighting on the side of darkness.

Let’s get one thing straight. This is not about being on the winning side—right can lose, often does lose. It is also not about finding the silver lining, a wimpy way of saying “Oh well, I didn’t really care,” handwashing after the fact. Most important, it is about recognizing that the light does not exist without the darkness and that both are within us. It is about trying to find where the light leads us, but looking hard at shadow and contour.

In Vermont, in this season of not-light and changing contours, we get new angles on the world. But in any season and from any latitude, we have the obligation to choose between fighting for light or fighting on the side of darkness.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Slow down

"Put off taking action for a while and turn inward. You're in touch with your deepest feelings right now, so it's a golden opportunity to figure out what you're really looking for."

Another horoscope that works, if not every day, then for many days. These days drive frantic activity, the pursuit of the last rays of sunshine, the last few ergs of warmth, the last foot candles of light before the sun goes away. We talk about the weather every day, but in these crisp, bright autumn days, it is with reverence. We soak up the good days, and as for the bad days, there really are few.

But the calendar is relentless. First frost varies depending on microclimate. People on the mountains have had theirs long since, and last night we had our first real frost. Much of last night, they were haying the field across the road. The radio station is phasing out the lawn and garden report. And yesterday if you looked over toward Mount Mansfield, you could see the first snow sparkling on the peak.

“It’s comin’!” exclaimed my friend in the auto shop. The light in her eyes spoke of even crisper days working the snowmobiles. A few more months, and she will be weary of too many cars sliding off roads, fuel bills that are too high, and all the shadow side of winter. For now, there is excitement, anticipation and joy.

This time of year is treacherous for me. I get a new boss every year, and no matter how congenial, there is always a transition. The retreat of sunlight appears to affect me badly, so I am trying light therapy. Stay tuned…I just got the lamp yesterday. Meanwhile, I have enjoyed obeying my doctor’s prescription that I get outdoors at midday. It is an odd sensation, leaving behind pressing projects to go outdoors and walk.

What happens? I get perspective on the pressing projects, or on my attitude toward them. I stretch both muscles and worldview. I come back rested and richer. Why do I have to relearn this every single day? Wouldn’t you think I would get it after some large number of repetitions of the very same experience?

I have friends—mostly men—who are dedicated to routine exercise. I envy their ability to make a priority of storing up reserves. By taking care of themselves, they create a strength and focus that they can bring to bear on whatever other priorities they choose. There is a lesson there for all the rest of us, if we could only choose to learn it.

This time of year, it is easy to get out in the sunshine, to enjoy nature’s colorful display. Maybe I can learn the lesson this week that slowing down is the right way to figure out what I’m really looking for and to strategize how to get there. Or at least, in the name of complying with doctor’s orders, I can delight in these spectacular days.