Archive for June, 2009

A Place to Read

I hReading bookaven’t been there in more than six years but I could walk there in my sleep.  Down the front steps of the Archbishop’s Mansion in San Francisco, turn right and walk for two blocks.  On the corner sits a coffee house with butcher block tables and no noise save for the hiss of the steamer.  It is dark but, not dreary.  It is welcoming but, not overly friendly.  It is one of a thousand places I have picked over the years as a place that would be perfect for sitting for hours and reading.  As the mom of a toddler and two teenagers, sitting and reading for two hours is not going to happen but, I can fantasize about it.  Imagine all of the places I will return to one day and just sit, read and enjoy.

I know I could sit in my living room and read but, I don’t think reading is all I am looking for.  I am looking for that place where I can be alone with my book but not lonely.  That place where I will look up and see other people living their own lives.  The coffee house is just one of them.  There I know I would see others reading but I would also see the couple come in for a muffin and a coffee.  Him in his jeans and t-shirt, her in her slightly too dressy for a coffee house dress – what I once would have referred to as the walk of shame.  No shame here though.  He holds her hand and she smiles up at him as he asks whether she wants to split two different muffins.  I would be a part of their lives but, they wouldn’t know it.

At the tidal basin in Washington, DC there is a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It is one of my all time favorite places to take out of town guests because most people don’t know about it and it is just so lovely.  Running water makes a summer day there feel cooler.  The children love to climb over the rocks set throughout the park and the adults stops occasionally to read the many quotes attributed to FDR.  There are benches throughout the park, almost all of them under trees offering shade and protection from the heat of a DC summer.  I love the idea of sitting there and watching the tourists as they make their way through the park.  I imagine myself reading my book and listening to the sound of the running water and the laughing children as they clamber over the rocks or stick their feet into the pools of water.  I imagine a mom who, needing a break from the world of toddler adventures stands at the edge of the fountain and just watches and listens.  She doesn’t have to chase them or entertain them because they are happy to be here.  There are no roads to worry about and the fountains are barely ankle deep so if they fall in the worse that will happen is they’ll get wet.   I imagine her meandering over the single bolder that sits off to the side and being so thankful for the little reprieve this secret find of DC has offered her.

Just southwest of London, there is a bench, again under a tree, but this time in a field of daffodils.  Most people don’t know about it because they are too busy looking at the gorgeous rose gardens or the palace itself.  It sits just on the other side of a parking lot by Hampton Court Palace.  Those who do know about this little section of English beauty are almost all in their sixties or seventies.  They come here on their way home from the grocery store and they walk slowly around the perimeter.  They stop to watch the children through the gate that leads into the main garden.  They talk quietly among themselves and then they leave.  This is one of the quietest places I would sit to read but, the beauty is so simple and so fresh.  Such a testament to why I love England in the spring.

These days I can’t sit for hours reading or watching people, giving them lives from my imagination.  I am too busy with my own children and my own busy life, but I can think about it and dream about it and plan for it, searching out new spots and one day, when my children are all grown up, I can head out the door with that book and choose from one of the many spots I have stumbled upon over the years and finally spend hours under that tree, on that bench reading, watching and enjoying every minute of it.

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Tell Me Your Story

Some people would describe me as a talker.  I would describe myself as a listener.  The thing that most people don’t notice is that when I start a conversation with a complete stranger (which I do almost everyday) I ask open ended questions in the hopes of being able to listen to something new – to learn something about somebody that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.   I am often greeted with a sideways glance and a grunt but once in a while I hit the story jackpot.

A couple of years back an older gentleman boarded the bus a couple of stops after me and I noticed that he had a running jacket that was almost twenty years old.  There was no mistaking the fact that, even at eighty plus years of age, he was still a runner.  As he walked down the aisle, I scooted over to the window seat and offered him a seat beside me.  On a bus you only have a few minutes to get to the heart of a conversation, so I asked right away about his running.  He opened up immediately.

I think the people who respond are just looking for someone to talk to.  They know they are interesting and are just waiting for someone to notice it.  This gentleman was wonderful.  Not only did I learn that he is indeed still a runner but, I also learned that back in 1954, in the race to run a 4 minute mile, this gentleman had run with Roger Bannister.  This gentleman could have passed right by my seat when I offered it or even sat beside me but not responded questions but, he did and I was given a glimpse into history I may have never gotten.

Everybody deserves their right to privacy and I understand the desire to keep to one’s self and not be bothered by those around you.  I also see how people get nervous when a stranger starts speaking to them on the bus or a Starbucks or even in a grocery store but, I love the people who have responded.  Sometimes I learn about the everyday things going on in their life – about their children and their sports teams or what they think about our economy or what movies they have watched recently and I can join in the conversations but, sometimes I just sit back and listen.  I am amazed at how interesting people are and how many things other people have experienced.

A London taxi driver sticks out as one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  As we were getting into his taxi, he noticed my copy of London at War and started asking me about it.  I told him where I was and what I had learned so far and that is as far as I got because he started talking about growing up in London in World War II.  He told my husband and me how his mother refused to evacuate and how hungry they were during the war.  He told us how his sister worked as a WREN and survived being in the war zone only to be killed when a German bomb was dropped on the train station by their house when she came home.  He explained how his mother built a garden over the top of their bomb shelter in the back yard and how they would run for the shelter in the dead of night.  We pulled up outside our flat and he turned off the car and sat there and talked and talked and talked.  All I could do was listen in amazement.  I did finish reading that book but, it never compared to what I learned in that taxi that evening.

This taxi driver was the beginning of my quest to learn more, to probe more and to listen more.  If a person wants to tell me about their daughter who has just left for college and how much they miss her, I am happy to listen because I know they must need to talk about that.  But, even more than that I am looking for those people who are truly walking history books.  Those people who are just waiting for someone to ask because they know they have a story to tell.  I am looking for the man who can’t stand the sun because he spent three years in an outdoor prison cell as a prisoner of war in the Pacific, or the woman whose husband was killed in Germany during the war leaving her to take care of six kids and stay in the same house for the next forty years because she just couldn’t face leaving the place where she last saw him.  I am looking for the person who once rode in a car with JFK on a campaigning tour or the man who was pulled over by police three blocks from the rioting in DC after Martin Luther King was killed because he was breaking the curfew but had no idea about any of it because he had been studying for the bar exam.

I do love to talk, to tell my own stories and those I have heard from others but, I what I love most is to listen – to close my eyes and let the stories float through my brain and grab hold.  So, if you are out and about and happen to run into a short little lady in running clothes and glasses, take a moment and tell me your story.

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The Freeze Ray

Wilmington vacation 2008 028I am searching for a freeze ray. Most moms would agree that a freeze ray that would allow us to freeze our children in various stages of their lives is just the ticket. When they are eight months old and laughing at everything around them, we think this is the stage, the absolute best stage and we would love to freeze that moment, never to be lost or forgotten. When they first start talking and begin to say the funniest things, wouldn’t that be a great time to save. The time when they are five and they step off of the school bus, reach out for your hand and before both feet even touch the asphalt they start telling you all about their day. That is the best, right?

With each different stage I think my children have reached the very best one and I want to freeze them right there. I want to savor every moment and do whatever it takes to keep them from growing too big too fast and becoming the adult who will walk out that door for college and eventually into their adult real life.

My oldest child is now fifteen. He is almost a foot taller than I am, can bench press my weight at the gym and has a thousand things going on in his life, but there are times when I can still see that little boy inside of him. There are days when he comes down the stairs and into our kitchen and without any prompting walks into my arms for a hug. I have a rule about hugs. I only stop hugging when they do. If they want a ten second hug that is fine but if they need a long, I need my mommy kind of hug I am okay with that. I am never too busy to hug my children. I have noticed lately that even as he is setting boundaries and proving to everyday how much he has grown, his hugs are lasting longer. And, of course, I love this and want to freeze these moments.

These days I am even more aware of his growing up and moving on and there is a part of me who is not ready for this – a part of me that isn’t sure I ever will be. But I don’t have a freeze ray that can stop it from happening, freezing him in time so that I can keep him here in my arms forever. I have to remind myself of all of those other stages that I thought could not get better. I have to remember the stages that followed each one of those milestones and imagine what he will be like as he walks across the stage to get his diploma or walks into his college dorm for the first time. I have to try to imagine how much I will want to freeze the moment I first realize he has met the girl he will marry or the moment his first child is born. So yes, I would like a freeze ray, but if I am honest with myself, I know I will want one for all of those times as well.

Each stage in their lives is better than the one before it. With each year they grow and become better and more developed individuals. And each step of the way I love them even more than I did in the last stage. But even knowing all of this, I still have to remind myself of it every time I start searching for that blasted freeze ray.

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My daughter, Megan is beautiful with a soccer ball.  I can get lost just watching her move the ball across the field.  She cuts, and fakes and players fall for the moves.  She dribbles up the field, splits the defenders and makes it to the box just in front of the goal.  I watch in eager in anticipation and she…passes the ball.  Sometimes it is a beautiful pass that turns into an assist as her teammate scores but often it is a beautiful pass that ends up wasting all of the work she has done to get it to that point.

“If you don’t shoot, you can’t score,” we would tell her after each and every game.  Finally we stopped repeating it.  We let her play her game and hope that one day she will get that desire to shoot the ball and score, that that goal will give her the shooting bug and she will continue to shoot and score.

In life and on the field, it takes more than just talent to achieve our goals.  It takes desire and passion and just a little bit of bravado.  It takes putting yourself out there and shooting the ball even if you think it might not hit the top right corner of the net. 

I have spent the past thirty years dreaming about being a writer, of putting my work out there in front of other people and having them respond positively. But until a couple of years ago I refused to shoot the ball – out of fear.  I was afraid of what people would think about something I poured my heart into. Instead I wrote stories on my computer that no one every saw, filled journals with my thoughts and every few years tossed the notebooks with the other unwanted items from our house.  I refused to take the chance, to shoot the ball.  Until one day, I did.  I wrote an essay about Megan and showed it to my husband because I knew he would be interested in the subject. After reading it, he encouraged me to take the chance.  I sent it in and received the positive response I had always hoped for.

Since that time I have taken the chance over and over again.  I write and I submit or I write and I post.  Sometimes I get a positive response, sometimes I don’t, but I am not scared anymore.  I am taking the chance and that is the whole point.  I am pursuing a lifelong dream to be a writer and dreams don’t come along everyday.  Maybe I will get published in Runner’s World or Sports Illustrated or write a book that ends up on the bestsellers lists and maybe I won’t but it turns out that shooting (or in my case writing) is the best part of the game.

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We were bleeding money and it had become critical to control the bleeding.  My husband was just about to start a job that paid twenty five percent less than we were making and even in his current job we were treading water, trying to stay afloat.  As we started planning for the future, I was panicked.  I had visions of losing our house and having to move in with our parents. Unfortunately, we had just finished watching Cinderella Man and my panic was fueled by scenes of the Great Depression.  If we were going to survive the next three or four years with his new job, we had to take control of our money.

We started by analyzing our spending.  What were the big expenses we could cut out or greatly reduce?  Were there smaller expenses we could get rid of that would add up to big savings?  The good news, we discovered after going over our accounts, is there were both.

The Big Expenditures –

The first thing we were able to do was give ourselves a big pat on the back.  Several years ago we had decided to automate our savings.  We had also automatically increased the amount every year.  The idea was it became money we never counted on because we never saw it.  To cut this monthly expenditure from our budget was hard but necessary, at least for the time being.

The next biggest expense was food – groceries and eating out.  I was embarrassed when I saw these numbers on paper.  Dining out was an easy cut for us but it meant making a conscious decision.  We decided we could go out to eat once a month so now we have to choose wisely. There is no more, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight so let’s go out.”  We look at our schedules and see if there is a day we are going to be too busy with soccer schedules or other family events to get back to the house and that is the day.  Even then we eat at a lower end restaurant instead of the nicer ones we had allowed ourselves several times a month before the job change.

Cutting the grocery bill was a little harder but also a lot of fun.  It became a game to see how much we could save.  The first thing I did was start planning ahead so I could stop going to the store everyday.  I plan ahead for the entire week and then make my list from there.  I also clip coupons and look through the weekly circulars for the best deals.  I have found that some stores are now putting in store coupons for as much as thirty dollars.  My husband and I will split the list on those days and shop separately so we can save sixty dollars.  The savings are tangible.  Even my children get in on the action and get excited to see the numbers at the bottom of the receipt showing how much we saved each trip.

We were also lucky enough to refinance our mortgage and reduce our mortgage payment by quite a lot.  Other than that the big expenses were set in stone.  So we had to turn to the smaller expenses and hope they would add up to big savings.

The Small Expenditures –

The first thing we gave up was services.  This was hard, not because we were not willing to do the work, but because it meant taking money out of our service providers’ pockets.  I still feel guilty for that, but I know we were left with no other choice.  We cancelled our cleaning service which had been every two weeks, a dog walker a couple of times a month and the yard guy but in combination it saved us more than the refinance had.

For almost two months I became known as the “Conservation Nazi” in our house.  I controlled the thermostat and the lights in the house to a point my family was ready to revolt.  Then, without their even realizing it, they were shutting doors and turning off lights and grabbing an extra sweater instead of complaining about the cold.  We cut our energy bill by more than a hundred dollars.

I continued on the small expenditures, cutting a hundred dollars here and fifty there.  I bundled our phone, cable and internet.  I called the cell phone company and asked for a reduction of my fees to match current market value.  I told the kids we were going to cancel camps for the summer, stop personal coaching sessions and vacation close to home.

This is when we became even more aware of the small bleeders. We started noticing how much of our spending was mindless spending.  “Mom, I need new cleats.” And they would get new cleats before I really analyzed whether they needed them or wanted them. “Mom, can I have that new video game?” Sure, I would go out and get it the next time I was at the mall.  It was only fifty dollars, right?  Suddenly we all began to realize the true value of fifty dollars.  Even the kids realized the value and stopped asking for things unless they really needed them.

Today we are making twenty five percent less than we were six months ago and I am starting to put money in savings again each month because we cut the things that were not important to us.  Every time I find a new way to save money or look at the savings at the bottom of the cash register receipt I get a little thrill.  I realize we are doing something we should have done long ago — we are stopping the bleeding.

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