LSS: Crooked paths and careers

My friend Denise Young from Reno, Nevada, had a clear idea of what she wanted to be all along. Denise loved pigs. Her entire home was decorated a la porky, with porcine accoutrement adorning every pink pig-face knob and handle. Since she was a child, she raised pigs for 4-H competitions. Blue ribbons papered the hallway of her mom’s house with its first-class pigpen in the backyard. Denise’s prize-winning sow was named Wilma. Wilma paid for a significant portion of Denise’s college by producing plenty of prize-winning piglets. When Wilma died, Denise had the giant head stuffed and mounted.
I kid you not.
Pigs became her trademark. When Denise was sitting on the sofa reading a magazine, chances are high its name was something along the lines of Swine News. She picked her college based on which state had the best barbecue. And, of course, she went to there to study pigs.
I was a tat envious of Denise for how clear she was about her career path. I love to be around people who are pigheaded about what they’re interested in — to the point that they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Personally, I’ve never been as interested in any one thing as Denise was. Instead, I’d like to believe the list of all the jobs I’ve had since and including college reflects that varied interest as opposed to some lesser character trait.
I had to include college because my first college job was working for a nearly mad scientist who made frequent trips to the Amazon jungle. He would clip hundreds and hundreds of plant specimens, press them and bring them back home to be placed in one of many stacks of press plants — all waiting for me to carefully glue them to a special non-acidic paper. I lasted a semester.
My list of jobs includes a stint as a movie theater auditor, a 411 operator in training, answering calls for a team of janitors, three months as the social services director at a nursing home playing Bingo and serving snacks. There are also a string of editing, writing and English teaching positions I’ve had through the years — teaching English from its most basic to its most lyrical.
Plus, there was work that just doesn’t fit into any of those categories. These are the jobs that aren’t easy to explain. Some of them may seem incredulous even. I once spent a weekend as unarmed security for Nelson Mandela. In Eastern Europe, I coached a high school girls’ basketball team that did not speak English. Let me repeat that. Not a single player spoke English. Our practices were like episodes of I Love Lucy with me flailing all over the court as the team stood on the sidelines stone faced.
Unlike my friend Denise, I never had a clear idea of what I’d be when I grew up — and it shows. All in all, I’ve had 25 different jobs doing 25 different things.
I never saw that coming.
But that’s the way life works, isn’t it?
Even for people like Denise, life’s projected trajectory takes unexpected turns. When she went to graduate school and started taking statistics, she turned out to be a statistics wizard. Instead of spending her adulthood working with all things piggy, she’s ended up teaching and practicing statistics professionally.
Life is not a straight line.

LSS: Square plate lesson

After reading this piece, you may wonder if a friend bet me that I couldn’t write a column about dinner plates — and you may be right!
I have come to the point in life when I try to do more with less, but I have a confession — dishes are my Achilles Heel. So about five years ago when I thought the time had come to buy a set of new dishes, I looked long and hard to make my careful conclusion about which dishes to buy.
Ultimately, I settled on a new set of gorgeous white dishes — not just any dishes, mind you. I decided to buy square ones.
Square dinner plates. Square salad plates. Square bowls. Square serving platters.
You get the picture.
I was so pleased with my new dishes. You know, the kind of pleased that earns a moment of taking it all in — they set a beautiful, contemporary table. I stood back and admired them in all their square glory.
Shortly after we ate our first meal on the square plates came the not-so-fun part of dishes — doing them. Even with the first washing, I screeched when I dinged the corner of a square plate on the sink divider, but I thought little of it. However, as time passed, the chips began to show — much more quickly than nicks had shown on previous dinnerware. Almost every time we washed these dishes, at least one would suffer a new mark of endearment.
I’d like to believe that I’m not a reckless washer, but standing at my kitchen sink, I began to give real thought to this geometric dilemma. Corners of a square plate, it turns out, are out there much further than any particular part of a circular plate.
Stay with me as I acknowledge that part of this quandary may have something to do with the fact that most of us are more accustomed to holding and washing a round plate. (You’re welcome to give this as much thought, as you’d like — go ahead and close your eyes and think about how you would hold a square plate in one hand versus a round plate in one hand.)
Yes, the shape of the plate doesn’t affect the amount of territory it offers, but the differences in shape require two total different approaches when it comes to care and hardiness.
The fact is that I lived more than 40 years of my life without ever owning a square plate. My mother never had square plates. My grandmother never had square plates. In fact, a little research suggests that circular porcelain plates have been around since the 5th century. Some of the explanation for the circular shape is likely related to fundamentals of ceramics and other archeological reasons beyond my realm of knowledge.
Even without the three generations of my family, circular plates have been around for more than 1,500 years.
A millennia and a half of tradition has to stand for something — and this I know: square plates are not user friendly. I bought them because I thought they were cool. I thought square plates might fit better in the cabinet — hug the side of the cabinets and maybe take up less space even. However, the truth is that for our family, none of those reasons is good enough to ever buy square dishes again.
All this thinking — specifically about plates, but generally about something much larger — has brought me to a conclusion. Even though I believe in progressive thinking about most issues of life, sometimes there are solid reasons backing up the traditional ways of doing things. Round plates are just one example of the merit in traditional know-how and reasoning.


LSS: Finding hope on Cape Fear


With two old friends and their families, we’ve spent the week on a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. My friends and I became friends in our mid-twenties in Washington, D.C. We were young and unmarried. These women know things about me, and I about them. Getting to spend significant time with each other and have the opportunity to know each other all over again has been a gift.

We’ve spent the week near the tip of this tiny island, where a large triangular swath of sand juts into the ocean. It’s called Cape Fear — yes, like the movie. (And in the trivia department: this week I learned that Cape Fear is the fifth-oldest surviving English place name in the country. It was named in 1585 when a ship’s crew became afraid their boat would sink after it got stuck in a sandbar near the cape).

The island has no cars and is as idyllic as it gets in the American South, or just about anywhere, in my book. As one of my friends said, it has been a week to do little but focus on the simple things of life — friends, food and family. We cooked a lot and cleaned a little. We ate like kings and queens. Our biggest decisions were what time to head to the beach or if we should have ice cream or sorbet.

We threw indoor boomerangs. We sang James Taylor and Van Morrison. We danced a dance called Taco Bell. In the dark of late, late night, we waited for sea turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. We found the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and a million more stars in a sky as dark as ink.

As our daughters learned to surf, one of my friends found a whole sand dollar. The rest of us found the sand dollar equivalent of spare change. Throughout the week, we laughed long and loud. We had plenty of time to catch up and philosophize.

With our toes in the sand, we counted the waves and our children’s bobbing heads in the water. Between regular intervals of abundant sunscreen lathering, we discussed whatever came to our minds.

By mid-week, we had covered politics, parenting and our favorite movies. We sat around the dinner table one night discussing the geographical details of our surroundings, Cape Fear specifically. We were comparing the island’s actual promontory to the nearby general region around Wilmington that has also taken the name.

One of the girls said, “I thought Cape Fear was the tip of Africa.”

“Nope, that’s the Cape of Good Hope,” several adults said in unison.

But we all understood how she got the two confused.

Hope and fear.

Emotions that play off of each other.

Emotions that drive us and so much of what we do.

Emotions that control so much of our interactions with others.

Hope is the opposite of fear. Fear is the opposite of hope.

We get to choose.

On the sands of Cape Fear, we chose hope.

LSS: Ten fe

Her response to my concerns, complaining and consternation was short and to the point.
I was chatting online with Mila, my husband’s cousin in Mexico. She had been a good listener as I went on about my general worries of parenthood.
If you’re a parent, you know the ones I’m talking about.
The ones that can best be summed up in the single question: “Will she be OK?”
In the big picture?
The really big picture?
Mila and I were chatting in English, because chatting in Spanish doesn’t come naturally to me. My Spanish tends to stick to the basics and likely sounds like the equivalent of a caveman to native speakers. Plus, chatting in English doesn’t make my head hurt. Mila asked me to elaborate on my concerns — and I was all too happy to respond. When I finally took a break, Mila typed her message to me.
“Ten fe, Jan,” she wrote.
No one had ever said that to me in Spanish, and it really caught me off guard. For some reason, the first thing I thought of was iron — as in fe, the element on the periodic table.
I looked at her words.
“Ten fe.”
She then typed, “Do you know what that means?”
And a sort of peace came over me. Mila is a wise woman. Of course, I knew what that meant.
Intellectually, at least.
“Have faith?” I asked.
“Yes, Jan. Ten fe.”
And I took a deep breath.
By nature, I am not a worrier. I tend to look for and expect the best. I don’t sweat the small stuff. However, when it comes to my daughters and the big picture of their lives…well, that’s a different story. I had gotten to a place that I felt a certain degree of righteousness in my concern. I needed to worry. I needed to do something.
In reality, what I needed to do is take Mila’s advice and ten fe. Don’t get me wrong, I know as a mom I need to support my daughters, be there for them, provide the best example I’m able to provide.
But am I supposed to worry about them and their future — next week, next year, when they graduate high school, when they go to college, where they go to college, what they study, if they study, if they graduate, what they do then, etc. etc. etc.?
No, I’m not supposed to worry.
I’m supposed to ten fe (or tener fe, as I suppose it would be grammatically.)
Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a parent is — nothing. Let them work it out. Let them figure it out. Let them bail themselves out. Let them wait it out. Let them make the mistakes.
And that’s how they learn, isn’t it?
They don’t learn from our worrying, concerns, complaining or consternation. They don’t do anything except get frustrated with us over that negative energy that we’re giving off. They learn from our strength.
Strength like iron.
Ten fe.