Tuesday, August 30, 2016

President James Buchanan - #15 - Recap

I had two main questions as I read about President James Buchanan, the fifteenth and only bachelor president. One was rhetorical: How in the world could citizens justify slavery? I didn't expect to be able to answer that one.

The other question focused on why the US had such a run of Northern-born presidents who sided with the South in the years preceding the Civil War?

Then on page 137 of Jean Baker's biography I actually got an answer for Buchanan's prosouthern tendencies.

The question remains why Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian educated in a free state whose wealth came from the practices of capitalism, not plantations, was so pro-southern. The answer goes beyond the political support the South extended to him in 1856. Rather it rests in his social and cultural identification with what he perceived as the southern values of leisure, the gentleman's code of honor, and what George Cary Eggleston, a Virginia writer, once called "a soft dreamy deliciously quiet life...with all its sharp corners removed." Throughout his life, James Buchanan enjoyed the company of southerners. Their grace and courtesy, even their conversational talents, attracted him. With slavery unimportant--indeed Buchanan became convinced that slavery helped "civilize" blacks--he sought out the company of these white aristocrats and soon absorbed their ideals. He believed  southern legislators were often statesmen, protecting that icon of his faith the US Constitution."

Ugh. Re-reading that passage turns my stomach. 

It is serendipitous that I have read this group of presidential biographies in the midst of this year's presidential campaign season. Reading about these terrifically terrible presidents offers some perspective. Becoming more familiar with this time period underscores what I've been saying all along: In human history in general and in US history in particular, the good ol' days is a mythic time period. 

The days we're encountering now are not the worse in our nation, but the worst we who are living now can remember. However, it also is a solid reminder that when we do not study the lessons and mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat them.

James Buchanan was one of the most qualified men for the job of president. He had a terrific governmental resume. He and John Quincy Adams shared this in common. They also shared legacies of leading poorly and not excelling as commanders-in-chief.

Jean Baker best sums up Buchanan on page 141: "He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history."

What a legacy, JBuch. 


Monday, August 29, 2016

Roadside Wisdom

"Everything is uncertain," said The Rev. Gary Braun, of the Catholic Student Center at the university where I work.

I sat in the audience of a campus gathering focused on unity, social justice, and peace. I wrote his words in my journal as I listened.

An hour later, my car lost power in rush hour traffic. I managed to get to the shoulder without calamity and was waiting for AAA to tow my car.

Smiling through the heat and annoyance

Déjà vu. One-and-a-half years earlier, car trouble left me on the side of the road. How far I've come since then, I thought. I remained calm. I thanked my lucky stars for my 19-year AAA membership--best money I spend all year.

"Bert" my blue pathfinder getting a lift

I thought again of what Father Gary had talked about. The uncertainties of life. How we suffer from the delusion that there is something or someone that can keep us safe. That we must work against fear's temptation to live life small.

It would be so easy to say that this car trouble, the impending repair bill, and the ensuing two hours ruined my night. But it's not going to happen. I won't let it. There were bright spots along the way: The car trouble hadn't caused an accident; two separate groups checked on me while I waited; the AAA employees I spoke with were kind and helpful; the gentleman who towed my car was also kind and we had great conversation about what the alternator does, my book research (this episode can be counted), and the benefits of an upgraded AAA membership to cover greater towing distances.

I put my key in the key drop and paid for my towing mileage. We wished each other a good evening and I set out on the walk home. I took a short cut and heard the rumble of thunder. I smiled at the timing.

Halfway through the subdivision I looked to my right and saw the faintest appearance of a rainbow in the sky. I kept walking and soon felt raindrops falling softly on my skin. Within five minutes and in the shelter of my home, the skies opened up and a downpour began.

Somewhere over the Rainbow...

Father Gary talked about how there is adventure to be found when you take life as it comes. When we run towards what we fear rather than away from it. Tonight's adventure proved once again that I am cool under pressure, a great problem solver, and that wishing away a problem is an ineffective use of energy. I may have had a car break down, but I am not broken. Not by a long shot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Rejection #5

In April, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic and host of the Magic Lessons podcast, asked listeners to submit a 100-word essay explaining why they should be featured on the second season of Magic Lessons.

My essay was one of thousands submitted. I'm happy to report that I was not selected. And for good reason. I've listened to Elizabeth's first three podcasts, and her selections were spot-on. The featured creatives posed multi-layered challenges for the reasons they felt blocked in their creativity.

Listening to Elizabeth peel back the layers of each of their issues was enlightening and helpful in my own creative life. 

My submission was genuine, but it was also boring--vanilla. Truthfully, I know the answer to the problem I posed: rest and pushing through. Those are the two things I need to achieve my creative pursuits, and so while I would love to speak with Elizabeth Gilbert and discuss the magic of the creative life, she was wise to pass up my submission.

There's really nothing else to say. I'm slowly making my way to 300 Rejections.

Screen shot of my submission

Friday, August 26, 2016

Urban Epiphany

I learned a long time ago—on my first trip to London, England—that the most memorable trips are the ones where you follow the moment as it unfolds. Where some light planning is done, but mostly you set off and let curiosity be your guide.

We met my parents in Chicago at the beginning of August. Our primary goal for the trip was for Cadence to spend the money she saved for more than eight months and purchase an American Girl doll and to eat lunch at the famous store's dining room.

Besides that, we didn't have many plans. We filled our time walking Michigan Avenue, taking an architectural tour by boat up and down the Chicago River and window shopping.

In the spirit of letting curiosity rule the itinerary, I googled labyrinths in Downton Chicago and found one within blocks of the American Girl store. My family was game to take the detour off Michigan Avenue and to walk the labyrinth at St. James Cathedral.

The day before on our trek to purchase the Girl of the Year, Lea Clarke, I stopped in my tracks in front of this window display. Salvatore Ferragamo. This jacket! I stood there breathless at this garment's beauty and the likely price tag.

The photo doesn't do it justice.

My mom urged me to walk into the store and inquire about the cost, but I was struck by a bout of  self-consciousness. I was wearing a denim tunic, black leggings, and black leather Clark's mary janes. I felt cute and comfortable, but not dressed for entering Mr. Ferragamo's designer showroom.

I could see myself in that jacket. Michigan Avenue's designer stores have my name and body type written all over them. Tall, ultra slim people are the target audience. The only things missing in the equation are my bank roll and a willingness to pay three times what my wedding dress cost on one item of clothing.

I woke up the next morning still thinking about the jacket. Clearly, Mr. Farragamo's design made an impression on me.

We hiked up to St. James Cathedral and found the labyrinth set parallel to the city sidewalk. Mom sat down on the bench adjacent to the path while Cadence and Dad entered the labyrinth and began their walk. I gave them a few moments to get ahead because the labyrinth is small and would quickly feel crowded at some of the turns.

I marveled at how serious my daughter took the walk and appreciated my Dad's willingness to participate in this spiritual practice that means so much to me. They waited for me in the middle, so I could capture our “made it to the center” photo. We paused for a moment in quiet contemplation and then they began to wind their way out.

This visit to the labyrinth was vastly different from most. Given that it was in Downtown Chicago there were a lot of noises and people to distract me (including the business man who was laying on the other bench reading a paper on his lunch break). But it was also a great reminder that peace isn't achieved in a lack of commotion or chaos, but can be found in the midst of all of the swirl of life's activity.

I enjoyed watching the reverence in which my family participated with me. After I exited the labyrinth, I sat down next to my mom. Cadence re-entered the path and turn-by-turn made it to the center again. There, she paused, eyes closed. She finished her walk and then said, “Mom, I said a prayer in the middle. Wanna hear what I prayed for?” I walked straight to the center and met her there. Her prayer included all of the homeless people we'd been passing. “Let them know it's going to be okay and help them have a good day.”

After a rest, Mom was ready to walk the path. It was relaxing to watch another person wind her way to the center and wind back out.

Yes of course! I'm in a jacket, whilst my daughter's in shorts and t-shirt. That's how we roll.

We returned to the “real world” making our way back to Michigan Avenue en route to our lunch reservations. The pull of designer clothes in the window displays were too strong. I kept stopping to take photos. I stood at the Burberry and Brooks Brothers windows in awe. My eyes soaked in the fabric patterns. I was taken with the ties, and saw one women's ensemble that included a tie. “I'm going to add ties to my wardrobe!” I whispered to myself.

I felt an internal clash as I pondered my love for these two very different things. How could I be so moved by the holy experience of walking a labyrinth and find myself breathless with admiration for something so unimportant as designer clothes? There are hungry people, homeless, jobless and struggling. I couldn't reconcile loving expensive things when there was so much need around me.

I wrestled with those thoughts for many city blocks. And then another thought occurred to me and accompanied me home. In a sense, my breathless wonder for walking the labyrinth and standing at the window in rapt admiration are both forms of standing on hallowed ground. I can appreciate the beauty of design and fashion without compromising my values of serving others, spending wisely, and not getting sucked into the culture's insistence on consumption as a quick path to happiness. My reverence for the talent and vision of the people who created such inspired works of art can be holy too. 

It's not an either/or proposition, but rather a both/and. Life is so much more textured, rich, and lovely when I allow myself to spend time in the both/and. This urban epiphany coupled with a better understanding of myself proved to be the best kinds of souvenir—a full and open heart and a suitcase that still zips closed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Woman of the House - Vol. 2 - Plumbing

I woke up this morning feeling a sense of accomplishment. With the help of two friends, their toolbox full of appropriate tools, some sweat, some curse words, and a lot of laughter, a shiny new faucet was installed and doing it's job of not dripping.

I put Calvin Harris and Rihanna's song This is What You Came For on repeat. I needed some pump me up music to inspire  and summon the courage and motivation to dig into the plumbing project. I watched the video on how to remove the old faucet. I read the instructions, and got to work turning off the water under the sink. I turned off the hot water with success, but the cold water continued surging out of the faucet--no matter how hard I turned the cold water supply.

After 20 minutes of trying, praying and whimpering with frustration, Rihanna and Calvin were no longer helping. I turned off the music. I wasn't ready to quit, but I was annoyed. Fifty minutes into the endeavor with no better results, I called Manda and asked to talk to her husband, Gus.

Over the speaker phone, he talked me through what to do. When cold water was still shooting out of the faucet, Gus asked, "Could we come over and take a look?" While I would have liked to have done it myself, I knew I needed help, so I said, "Yes! Come on over!"

I was so grateful that they were willing to help me on short notice. Gus is so great. He was one of the friends who helped me with replacing the light switch in my bedroom.  He respects my determination to do things myself. He offers suggestions and tips and waits awhile before asking if I'd like help.


Tight spot.
 I was cracking up about how weak my stomach muscles were to support me while reaching up to loosen everything.  I was able to loosen some of these parts on my own and then I hit some stuff I couldn't manage. I eased out of the tight space and Gus took my place.  Our progress slowed when he determined that some rusted stuff (see below- I have no idea what it is called) had to be removed in order for us to proceed.

Obstacle to progress.

No plumber's crack, but also no matching either. I'm comfortable, which is my top priority when I am home.
Once the rusted piece was removed, Gus moved on to removing the soap dispenser where new sprayer would reside. Creative problem-solving and teamwork helped us overcome not having the right size tool for this stage of the process. Manda, a photographer, was in charge of documenting our work.

Old faucet out!

I learned new vocabulary in the course of what became a three-hour project: gasket and escutcheon. I resumed my place under the sink to tighten the new faucet in place. Gus followed up with more tightening.

This is Manda's favorite "action" shot. Note the grimace on my face.

Tada! After.

We did it! Gold medals for us! TEAM NO MORE LEAKY FAUCET!
I truly could not have done this project without Gus and Manda. It's a relief to no longer have a leaky faucet and to not see the Delta box sitting in my kitchen waiting to be opened. The good feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction lasted all day. I was productive at work; I attended a networking event with my work mentor; I grocery shopped while Cadence was at Girl Scouts; and then mowed the front lawn before the dark set in.  I talked with our neighbor, who is a talented carpenter and all-around handy guy, about the next projects that I need help with. He assured me that all of them could be done with little difficulty or great cost. (I will of course document them here.)

The evening wrapped up by helping with 4th grade math homework and watching a few minutes of Olympic diving and volleyball.

I am amazed by how good it feels to take action on all of these lingering projects. With each project I undertake, I know my confidence and skills will increase. I can't wait to see what I accomplish completely on my own someday. Until then, I am so grateful for my friends' help.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Woman of the House - A New 300 Rejections Series Vol. 1

One of the biggest adjustments back to single life is knowing the car and home maintenance fall squarely and singly on my thin shoulders. When I was last single 15 years ago, I rented an apartment and had facility people I could call if something needed to be repaired.

Last summer, my parents helped me with a few things. Dad rebuilt the rotting wooden steps that led to the patio; he re-anchored the gate in my back yard; he also repainted the porch railing and replaced my furnace filter.

In the past year, other things have gone kaput: my DVD player stopped playing; my microwave lights up and blows air, but does not heat. Excessive rain the day after Christmas flooded my basement. The spin cycle on my washer is working less reliably than in the past. The wall mirror in my bedroom tipped over and shattered. The kitchen faucet is broken and the ceiling fan switch in my bedroom needed to be swapped out.

It's been irritating and overwhelming. It's also been empowering as I find creative ways to prevent having to fork over a lot of money for these repairs or replacements. With the magic of one cord (sourced by a friend's husband and teenage son), we watch movies using my laptop. A friend passed on a microwave that was on its way to Goodwill. So far, these have been reasonable workarounds for some of the malfunctions.

Two friends helped me replace the switch in my bedroom. Since I'd taken the basic electricity class at Home Depot last year as part of my 40/40 list, I had some sense of how to replace it. My friends didn't take over the job, they let me do it and guided me through the process. They were complimentary about my confidence and ability to do the job.

So when I was told recently that I needed a man-of-the-house and a friend would be the man until I got one, I was caught off guard. He listed a litany of things he wanted to help me with. I was embarrassed to discover that I needed to have changed my furnace filter many times since my Dad did last summer. I had no idea! I wondered, "How do I learn all I need to know?"

I also cringed at the thought of not being a competent homeowner on my own.

It would be great to share the burden of these responsibilities with someone some day. I like the idea of trying my hand at partnership again because I'm a team player. I like the concept of a couple working side-by-side accomplishing things together. But I cannot subscribe to having a man-of-the-house simply because I don't know what I'm doing, and I need someone to do things for me.

This awareness reminded me that you don't know what you don't know. It also reminded me of what Maya Angelou said: "When you know better, you do better."

And so tonight I did better. I drove to Home Depot. I asked a lovely young woman at the customer service desk where to find the filter. I told her about the kitchen faucet I need to replace as well as the filter and she cheered me on. "You can do it. Get on YouTube and it'll show you step-by-step. I replaced my garbage disposal on my own with the help of YouTube. My Dad was shocked. 'How'd you know how to do that? he asked. I told him I learned online. You can too." I also marked my calendar to remind me to replace the filter in 90 days, per the filter information.

I don't have a problem asking for help if I think I'm out of my element. (Like when I tried to replace the struts on my pathfinder. WAY OUT OF MY ELEMENT.) But I definitely want to learn to do as much as I can for myself. So the wake-up call is worth the embarrassment. There's a lot at stake: my own self-respect and self-confidence as well as ensuring my daughter has a great role model. She's watching my every move. I want her to watch me be a confident homeowner. I also want her to know that she is capable of anything. Just like her mom.

Me with a gleaming white new filter


The replacement is already on my calendar

Next up: I'm going to watch the delta faucet video. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I need my editor to title this one.

This little girl didn't have a complete picture of herself. She loved reading Ramona Quimby books, playing house with her sister, strawberry crunch cones at DQ, and roller skating. She knew she was a good friend, a hardworking student, and an expert at giggling. The popular kids told her a different story: she wasn't cool; she was too skinny; she didn't need a bra soon enough, and no boys would like her. She believed them, and these messages stuck with her for years.

What this third-grader didn't know at the time was that a sweet, funny, popular little boy sat in the desk behind her and had a crush on her. He saw something different: a little girl who was kind, and smart, and compassionate—different from the other girls. She wouldn't learn this story until she was an adult. When the boy-turned-man confessed his childhood crush years later, it was like watering a nearly-dead plant. Before the pitcher of water, it could be assumed there wasn't much life left in the parched plant. His words absorbed in the soil of her heart and prompted new life to sprout. With wisdom, she decided to believe his version. His friendship, affection, and belief in her helped rewrite the little girl's story and to see herself differently as a woman.

And then she got ahead of herself and fell for him. She dreamed about what life with this kind man could be like. It was a nice fantasy, a beautiful one, really. Shared place, shared memories, shared values. But it wasn't to be. Long-distance, careers, children, and bad timing intervened. Time passed. He met someone else. More time passed and one day he announced he was getting married.

It would be so easy to wish none of this had happened. That he'd kept the crush to himself. That she hadn't fallen for him. But easy doesn't work for this woman. Experience has taught her that there is too much good stuff guaranteed to meet her on the other side of confusion and a bruised heart.

What she's learned so far: (in no particular order)

She deserves and is capable of a beautiful, healthy relationship.

Our view of what we see and believe about ourselves is limited.

People come into our lives exactly when we need them. In this case, this friend walked her into a new, exciting, and scary chapter of life.

She has so much to look forward to.

Life is best lived in the present. Too much time spent forecasting the future is problematic.

She has a resilient heart and spirit.

This time was not a waste.

Healing happens in unexpected ways.

Friendships can shift and change form and still be nourishing.

Seeing life as adventure and mystery are the best ways to navigate it.

Endings are always paired with new beginnings.

So many lessons that fortify her in this liminal, in-between stage of life.

Disappointments and sadness are inevitable. She is determined to weed them out when they crop up, and to plant seeds of hope and joy, humor and humility, growth and goodness. She's blooming where she's planted.