Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Now that’s what I call customer service

The puppy loves the vacuum cleaner. She likes to chase it, barking her fool head off. And she absolutely loves to chew on the hose. She chewed the hose so completely that she severed it from the connection into the main compartment.

Sighing, not even daring to think about how expensive it might be, I placed a call to the source, Jeff Campbell’s Clean Team online catalog. Teresa called me back. Imagine that, she called me back. And then today, she called me back again, and she left a detailed message including instructions on how to salvage my vacuum cleaner hose.

It turns out that it is designed to have a chunk of the hose cut away, then it simply screws back into the fitting. I tried it. The repair works, way better than my last repair which relied on duct tape. And I no longer need a new vacuum cleaner hose.

Now that’s what I call customer service. Teresa could easily have sold me a new hose, but I am much happier to spend money on other products from the Clean Team. And yes, the Swedish Big Vac vacuum cleaner works great—I have had mine for at least four years.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Why I write

The most annoying thing about therapy—yes, therapy, I spent a lot of time in New York and learned the value of therapy—is when the therapist tells you something and you say, “No, that’s wrong,” only to realize an hour later that it is right. Humph.

“You use your writing as therapy,” she said. “Yes, I agreed,” while inwardly thinking “It’s soooo much more than that.” Outlet for the rant of the day. Communication with family and far-flung friends in a kind of overarching, ongoing holiday letter. Platform for discussing issues that are important to me at work or in human interactions. Artful rearrangement of the events of my life in a way that might speak to my readers. A way to play with words or ideas, a rollicking gambol through my interior world.

“Doesn’t it bother you that it is so public?” Sometimes it does, but mostly it intrigues me, this border between private life and public, writing for self and writing for reader. There are issues that are not suitable for blogdom, either because they impinge on someone else’s privacy or are not adequately respectful of my reader or myself.

I try to write as if anyone might be reading, particularly the person that I least want to have read my writing—say the person I most annoyed lately, or the person who most annoyed me. I try not to be flippant, which I view as disrespectful, or to fall into the trap of ranting “Ain’t it awful!” which I view as lazy and irrelevant. I try very hard not to use cheap tricks to be amusing at someone’s expense, not to dine out on anyone’s distress. I fail in these goals from time to time, but I try to keep the overall thrust of my writing is respectful and thoughtful.

In the end, maybe the best reason I write is to cultivate that attitude of thoughtful consideration and respect. I’m as quick-tempered as anyone, but when I sit down to write about someone or some situation that is at the top of my consciousness, I am often amazed at what comes flowing out of that process. Many, many times, I have sat down thinking I knew exactly what the issue is—“that so-and-so is a jerk!"—only to have the writing process change my opinion, while I look on helplessly. Or I start writing about one subject that I think is top-of-mind, only to find that I need to change my title at the end. Humph.

Words are treacherous. We keep grasping for the right ones, falling back as we realize that we don’t have anywhere near enough common meanings to be able to communicate, and then in a flash, we do. It is a kind of magic, that moment of insight, just like that scene in The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller first understands what a word is.

Writing, for me, is like that, over and over again.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Interior life

You may have the power to force through the changes you want to see but with Mars and Jupiter at a rather dangerous angle to one another you will encourage opposition and, later on, those you have forced to do your bidding will in some way or other hit back at you. Persuasion is always better than compulsion. Remind yourself of that fact today.

Oh, dear. I am weary of persuasion. I recognize the need for a gentle touch, and I do respect my fellow creatures. But it can be such very hard work.

Communications is hard work for everyone. I keep reminding impatient colleagues that research shows that feckless, inattentive humans (that is all of us) do not hear a message the first time, the third, or sometimes even the tenth time. So we are not allowed to give up on our chosen audience until we have said the same thing ten times. Boring? Yes. We can’t invest in crafting, strategizing and multiple delivery of every message, but we must do the work to achieve the goal for the ones that are important enough.

Those of us who are introverts have so little desire to venture outside our own heads that we must learn technique to make those forays as fruitful as possible. We learn superior communication techniques in self-defense, so that we can spend as little time and energy as possible getting our messages across, with the reward of retreat back to the interior life.

Introverts are not exactly rare, but we are in the minority, some 20% of the population by most estimates. Why should we be surprised if people think us odd? And why should we care? For all the discomforts of standing on the sidelines while others are picked for teams or of being the wallflower at dances or of being the one in the office that people forget to invite out for drinks—for all that, we have the amazing gift that we are happy in our own company.

I tried, and failed, to explain this to my dental hygienist. “Please don’t keep asking if I am okay,” I pleaded. “I need to zone out. There is a lot going on inside my head, and if you talk to me, it spikes my anxiety—not what you were trying to do, I know.” She didn’t understand, but never mind. I will keep trying. Nine times to go, then I give up and change dentists. Well, not really. Why on earth would I accept care from a person who didn’t hear me after three or four times?

Analytical to a fault, I can divide the world into people who think I do too much to explain and communicate, and those who think I do too little. As I age and become more comfortable in my own skin, I am less patient with those who think that I need to do more and more and more to explain who I am or to be different. I have communications skills that are above average, skills in which I have invested to a significant degree—I know that. So I need to accept that people who do not hear my message simply may not agree with me—that’s really okay. And if they disagree angrily, it usually has nothing to do with me.

There were times in my life when I did not like myself much, although others preferred the more placid, people-pleasing version, and I changed. After a lifetime of being put in the wrong, I now take the Popeye position: I yam what I yam. Or more elegantly put, I am as God made me—introvert and all—and I like how I am.

All this self-knowledge does not change the fact that sometimes I just get tired. I have had a few weeks of a lot of demands from clients and colleagues for interaction—it wears on anyone, but especially on an introvert. I need a break.

As I write this, there is a flash of rust color at my vision’s edge. Robins—two of them, a whole flock of little grayish brown birds, and a stunning black and white striped woodpecker with a red head. The birds are back, so is the mud, and it is spring. Can flowers be far behind?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Conflict and stress and tears, oh my!

There may be a great deal of conflict in your life today, dear Leo, and different people and situations seem to be pulling you in all directions. Your sanity is being put to the test. Try not to be too stubborn, for this will only cause more tension among you and the situations that you encounter. You have the potential of stressing out over the smallest things. Try to avoid this scenario if you can.

Sometimes it seems that the world is all too ready to chew me up and spit me out. It has been a week—or more—of days like that. Honestly, where do people get the idea that I need to think and be exactly like them?

I have clients who want more, more, more. I have colleagues who want to second guess my decisions and pile their work on my plate, then other colleagues who are franticly trying to regroup after losing key team members. I have issues to track in the legislature, where they seem to be making a lot of sausage this year (don’t we say that every year?). I have a eight-month-old smart puppy who wants to test every single limit placed on her, working—as we say in the South—on my last nerve. I have an assistant who is home with a sick child. Everybody has their reasons for being where and how they are, and I don’t really think they are conspiring to make my life miserable. Not really.

On the contrary, when life seems altogether too, too much, it is often…well….me. It is time for a change of direction. Time to say no and dance away. Time to let projects slide. Time to disarm attacks with, “You may be right.” Time to do something entirely different. Likely my change of approach will cause yet more anger. Never mind. I can’t control all of them or any of them, but I can get out of reach.

None of this is worth tears.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Frost heaves

First day of spring. Big, long, wavy icicles vote otherwise. New snow last night tempted us out for a round of snowshoeing, just me and puppies old and new. It was a beautiful morning, but springlike? No.

Still, the roads think it is springtime. They have metamorphosed into washboards. Frost, as they say, heaves the pavement up, but not in any uniformity. Just here and there. Others rate the winter’s rigors. My friend over on Stagecoach Road rates spring’s rambunctious turn by how many cars bounce right off the road and into his sugarbush. Four, this year. So far.

It is one of those repetitive, seasonal events that is almost a commentary. Frost heaves. Both noun and sentence whole, the relentless slowing of molecules somehow causes the road’s surface to move further than you would think possible. Frost heaves, causing frost heaves, causing cars to bounce and shimmy.

Careful readers of my blog will have noted that I love a duplicitous title, a name that works two ways or even more. Frost heaves. And when the frost heaves most heartily, spring isn’t far behind.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Life with pictures

Had to replace the umbilical cord for my digital camera. Here as promised is Miss Cassie watching the Westminster Dog Show. She only likes shows with dogs.

And here is what a tired puppy looks like. Tired puppy equals good puppy.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Quiet friendship

The dogs and I had a nice visit with Robert of Beginner’s Mind and his family yesterday. We got a little lost trying to find their house, but once there Cassie and Toby were delighted to meet Cain. They romped and played, then snoozed while we ate lunch and spent hours at the local library’s annual book sale. Baby Ethan watched dog antics and human browsing with equanimity—a cheerful baby, the kind that lures young parents into having more.

Blowout extravaganza of cookbooks and gardening books and crafty guides: total price eight dollars. Who says entertainment has to be expensive?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I meant what I said and I said what I meant

Jola writes,

But do you really believe what you wrote, and what the horoscope said? For example, I think that life here on earth is to be taken very seriously (whether there's nothingness or a form of heaven afterwards or not). Unfortunately, it all too often it doesn't "come right in the end." (I just realized that there's an offcolor interpretation to the latter phrase - and that indeed does happen, figuratively speaking.) I don't view life as a country dance. Collaborative teamwork can be like that, yes, but not my life. I don't experience my own life as a passing through before I become disconnected atoms and "swirling spirit." (Sorry, I don't even buy the swirling spirit part!) I'm sure I'm taking your post too literally, but it started me thinking about what I DO believe.

Karen - you're kidding about Bush, right? You must be aware that he's led the nation on a "glorious adventure" in Iraq and despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, and many slipping into thoughts of doom and gloom, he continues to insist it will all come right in the end...

I do believe what I wrote, although I take no responsibility for the horoscope. I do view life as a contra dance. I do believe this life on earth is only one stage in a much broader existence. While this may be the only part of existence of which I (this particular configuration of atoms) am conscious, it is not all there is.

I agree it does not all come right in the end, that there is pain, heartache and darkness in the world. From a theological point of view, I even believe that darkness is necessary if we are to see the light. That does not mean that I think any individual evil (death, illness, injury, mold and mildew) is sent from God. When evil intrudes into our lives, I believe we should take time to grieve, but that the end of grief is acceptance and return to the dance—which can take a very, very long time.

As you may have figured out by now, I am a card-carrying Christian. I believe that God wants us happy, and I believe that in the end (whereever you measure the end) it often comes out beautiful. I believe that heartache can bring lessons to a listening heart. This is, however, a matter of faith, which is a gift from God, not something that the most talented preacher can convey.

Is life serious? In the sense that we owe ourselves and others respect, yes. In the sense that we have any control over the ultimate outcome—death—no. We might as well dance.

Re Bush, I am not particularly a fan of trashing either political party. It is all our representatives in Washington working together who made the choices that led to the Iraq war, and it is all of us who put them there. I am a registered voter, but with no party affiliation, because I don’t see much to choose from—no leadership on right or left. In fact, I am not—in general—a fan of the “ain’t it awful?” school of conversation. It bores me. I would rather dance.

Yes, I am serious. This is what I believe. Opinions will vary, and many, many people disagree with me. Next!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Glorious adventure

Your naturally optimistic nature will come to your rescue today. As others slip into thoughts of doom and gloom because of what's going on in the world you will go right the other way and see it all as a glorious adventure. And you're right - it is. Nothing in life is to be taken too seriously. Rest assured it will all come right in the end.

There is no question that how we greet the world shapes our reality. Perhaps the most powerful little word I ever learned is “Next!”

When colleagues fail to live up to their part of the bargain, there’s a time to renegotiate and a time to move on. I have been talking to several colleagues who just don’t see the point of collaborating. They would rather moan about how bad things are than get excited about what could be. I think they have given up too easily, missing the dance by sitting it out. But I can only encourage them to play, then move on myself. "Next!"

When family members berate or ignore you, “Next!”

When plans don’t turn out as expected, take a breath, then “Next!”

If this sounds suspiciously like turning the other cheek, it is that and more. It is recognizing that in the long term, our physical bodies return to dust and mold, and our swirling spirit can only brush the cheeks of those other physical bodies we once loved, counseling joy.

Meanwhile, this short time as overly serious, dumpy, earthly physical beings should not get us down. This life is a glorious adventure, a dance. Sometimes we clasp hands, sometimes we let go. Holding on too hard or letting go too soon spoils the dance. Getting it right, using our bodily weight and our clasped hands to counter momentum and free us from gravity’s earthly bonds is a foretaste of heaven.

If I can keep this attitude in my daily practice and in my interactions with other creatures, perhaps when it is time to give up this glorious adventure, I will accept willingly the return to a state of being as disconnected atoms, swirling spirit. Meanwhile, I am called to the dance. Next!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

First Tuesday in March

Five Town Meetings today. I work for one of those nonprofits that derive funding in part from a line item in the budget or a specific article. Not surprising, then, that from time to time questions arise at Town Meeting about what we do and why the voters should support us. I am happy to oblige, because I am truly grateful, but even I could only manage five Town Meetings today representing half of of the Towns that support us.

Johnson is the most polite and orderly. Cambridge is civilized enough to take a break at mid-day for chicken and biscuits. Morristown has the biggest turnout in person, but strangely almost no food--dry muffins and watery coffee. Stowe has the best food (chicken pie and carrot cake, yum!)

But Hyde Park is home. I see the same neighbors on the same spots in the bleachers, and when someone calls for a paper ballot, we all enjoy the opportunity to stretch and jabber for a few minutes. Then it's back to the bleachers to knit, nod and whisper as neighbors opine, and solemnly intone "Aye" or "Nay."

As a Vermont transplant, I love Town Meeting Day. My first year I was amazed at the tolerance of diversity of views and the highly developed skills of social discourse. By now, I have come to recognize that what I once saw as politeness is sometimes the Yankee economy of not spending much energy on a fight you can't win or on a fight that has already been held many times over in generations past.

Today in Stowe, for example, the Town decided not to go to Australian ballot to vote on the budget. Recapping the argments, one Selectboard member pulled out an almost identical proposal from the 1976 Town Meeting notes.

Most towns are done by early afternoon, even contentious Stowe. Then it's off for a romp in the sunshine, an afternoon free to play in the snow, spring's advent teased into our consciousness by another Town Meeting Day. It may not be spring yet, but surely it is coming.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Step right up. Get your winning ticket. Pick your entry in the springtime lottery. No, it’s not in the raffle for when the ice goes out on Joe’s Pond.

My mother sent me today a big box of spring flowers—daffodils and forsythia and spiny pink flowers and spiky white long stems. One vase on the television, one on a side table, they do brighten my wintry living room.

One of the shocks of living in Vermont is that the forsythia does not bloom. Before Vermont, I was accustomed to the bright yellow cascades as a sign of spring, and even after I learned that the bush is pretty darn invasive, I still welcomed its annual show. In Vermont, where winter temperatures can drop to forty below zero, buds freeze and there is no show. Not forsythia and only sometimes crabapple.

So it is lovely to have some blooming sticks in my house. It hasn’t been a hard winter, not at all, but spring will still be very welcome.

Still you have to wonder how long I will have these flowers. The puppy circles. I fear we may be looking at hours rather than days. Get your winning ticket soon.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Winter ways

I’m getting the hang of burning wood. And I am watching my own perspectives shift. I used to set the thermostat and wait for oil deliveries, like anyone who has an oil furnace. Now I start the weekend with a wood fire in the combination furnace, and I enjoy my house all the more because it is warmer than my penny-pinching would tolerate of the oilman. Actually, I run a three-fuel household, applying oil, gas and wood each in its best use as I see it. The oil is the backdrop, with a small gas stove in the living room for a cozy fire that warms my toes when the north wind kicks up. I have appreciated both, but I revel in the dry, toasty warmth of a wood fire in the furnace.

Now it seems luxury to be able to sleep through the night without stoking the fire. The oil burner kicks in, and I stay cozy under the covers. This morning I went down and found warm ash that sparked when I stirred it. Ah. A little newspaper, some kindling, and a log, and we are in business again.

You have a relationship with a wood fire that you don’t have with an oil burner. A wood fire takes skill to build (learnable), it needs tending, and it repays your care. I can see how burning wood could be an essential element of the Vermont winter experience—its warmth, its fussiness, the daily repetition of task. Not to mention the extended work of getting wood in. City-spoiled as I am, I will order up a couple cords to keep my weekends toasty. I know how hard people work to bring in their wood.

Yesterday at a neighbor’s sliding party, I met a guy who brought a big black sled with a rope handle. Heating his home entirely by wood, he needs to make trips into the forest from time to time, hauling back the little stuff and bigger stuff on his sled. I suspect that despite the gruff exterior, he also needs a slide or two each winter. I gotta get me a sled like that.

The sliding was great to watch, the party a little daunting. I have been here three years, and I don’t get a lot of invitations. Shy to a fault, I force myself to accept most invitations so that I put myself in a position to interact socially—not so bad once you get past the reserve. Fortunately, Vermonters don’t really care if you talk to them or not. You can just stand there and admire the sliding technique, later bring out the puppy on a leash to get her a little socialization, too.

I am here to report to my Southern kin that if these people were magically transported to a Georgia hillside on one of those biennial occasions of four or five inches of snow, they would be amused at how little we warm-dwellers know about sliding. I had been to a sliding party once before, but that one was populated by transplants, who simply do not get it.

Everyone of every age took some kind of trip down the hill in total abandon to the triumph of gravity over friction. The Vermont-born take to the snow like otters to a stream, whooping and falling, going down in groups, then scrambling out of the way before the next slider knocks into them like bowling pins…or sometimes daring collisions and rolling in the snow. Teenagers were present in number, and despite a few moans, “Maaaaa, do I have to be here?” were the most active sliders. One girl, pepped up on cold and laughter, stopped on the way to her parents’ car to flop down and make one more perfect snow angel. I have always thought of sliding as an activity for little kids, but it was clear that they were just learning. The parents were right in there, falling off their tubes and rolling in the snow, laughing at themselves and along with their offspring, demonstrating that sliding technique does take decades to perfect.

Clothing and equipment and party venue all are designed for this kind of an afternoon. When I first moved here, I would not have believed that people can have a party that is mostly outdoors on a twenty degree day. There was a heated garage space to accommodate people who needed to warm up—that’s where the food and beer were—but mostly people were outdoors for hours at a time. Warm boots, snow pants (no fancy schmancy ski clothes here), and peculiar looking but functional headwear make this possible. Sliding equipment ranged from tubes (the ones for sliding are filled in the middle) to snowmobiles to the hot new skateboard-on-a-ski. No making do with cafeteria trays or cardboard boxes for these serious sliders.

In the hours I was there, I eventually unbent enough to consider going down the hill. It helped a lot to see one of my board members demonstrate the superior sliding technique developed over his forty years of life in Vermont, whooping and hollering as he did so. He also confided the important tip that you should never go down the hill with your beer in your pocket. But by then, I was cold and the puppy was fussy. Maybe we will get our own sliding equipment and she can pull me along—I think she would like that kind of work. Or then again, maybe you can only properly slide at a party, laughing and bouncing off your neighbors, warming up with chili and hot chocolate, and going out to do it again.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The curse of February

This morning it was clear and not too cold (that’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit for you non-Vermonters) so we continued the pedometer challenge, again on snowshoes. The calendar has moved forward, renewing the gift of light. By seven, it is now light enough for an enjoyable tramp, a good—no, make that great—half hour with landscape and romping dogs.

Suddenly, I realized: it is March. March, march, march. Tramp, tramp, tramp. If it is March, that means that dreary February is past. Woo hoo! Yippeee!!!!

I have always hated February. How can such a short month pack in so much hatefulness? As a sufferer from the aptly named SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), I know to watch out for autumn retreat of light and to be particularly on guard in February. I know, the days start extending at the winter solstice in December, but my personal experience is that the world is not quite right until February is over. Ever optimistic, I hope every year will be different, but no.

Still, this year it didn’t seem so bad. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to dreading February, and it slipped right by me while I was doing something else. Or maybe it is because we really have had an easy winter, hardly even any snow and few subzero days. Or just maybe I am actually learning to moderate my own behavior to live with the rigors of the outside world, including February’s call for enhanced indoor lighting, disciplined physical activity, and patience.

One way or another, for this year at least, the curse of February is broken. Let us March forward toward spring!

I once knew a little girl, not so little by now, whose birthday was March fourth. How perfect is that for a birthday?

Please read Julia’s exquisite comment to Dancing on Snowshoes. A woman with her priorities straight, that’s our Julia.