Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wonders of the World

Email after midnight: Anyone want to share a ride to the Met tomorrow?

Me: Sure, count me in.

Gina Thies and I made arrangements for a civilized hour to meet in the lobby. We had the common goal to go on Sasha Graham’s tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Robert Place. Our topic, ancient tarot cards not usually on display with the beautiful and charming Sasha and the encyclopedic Bob. I was going to breathe in the same room with tarot cards from the 1500’s. I was jazzed.

I’m on vacation on my own in New York. It’s Readers Studio 2012, my birthday present to me.

Readers Studio is the east coast homecoming/family reunion for tarot students, professionals, artists and enthusiasts all over the world. Headed by Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone of The Tarot School, Readers Studio has been a meeting place for those of us who love the topic for ten years or so.

I had miscalculated last year and had missed out on the trip to the Met to see the antiques held there. I vowed to myself that if I had the chance this year, I would go. Sasha organizes the field trip to time it with early bird arrivals to RS. I came early this year just to make sure I could make this trip.

This just happens to be a big time at my Day Job, too. I’m fortunate to be allowed to come at this time. I had to work extra hard, some extra hours too, to get everything ready at work so that I could be out on vacation this week. We have a big deal coming up Friday night. I brought, well, let’s just say more than one computer with me to my vacation to stay connected to work just in case they need me. I plan to work after the RS festivities on Friday night; my work night will begin late that night. I’m going to have to get some extra coffee to carry me through. But I’m ready.

My long day of travel Monday was a pretty smooth ride. I chatted with a handsome sales representative about the necessity for soft skills beyond the need for excellence in business concepts. I was entertained by Christian who will be 4 in June. Christian has an orange truck, new shoes and an irresistible smile. He’s going to see his grandma and grandpa and ride in the car. I showed Christian how he could help the pilot at take off by putting his hands out in front of him like Superman does. Sure enough, we had a smooth take-off. Christian could be a really good pilot someday. My last travel companion was a gentle Muslim woman who was, she explained smiling, not afraid. She was just praying. We agreed the lights against the night earth looked like the kind of material we’d like a dress made out of. We talked about best places to buy fabric, like the fabric district in Los Angeles. She has a dress made of material like the jewels of the nighttime. She has given it to her daughter to wear now. Neither of us was afraid of our flight; we landed like soft cotton.

Tuesday my husband had told me to explore, do something free-format that I would not ordinarily do. I didn’t quite follow his suggestion. I watched Water for Elephants on TV. I treated myself to the tomato bisque and the iceberg wedge for lunch. I listened to businessmen brag about their work to each other at the next table, secretly pleased that I understood what they were talking about. I was suddenly a lunchtime industrial spy for my Day Job, completely unplanned, amused at the spill of company secrets in a hotel restaurant in New York. I read a little more in my new book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It’s good. Seriously. Dinner was OK, nothing great, not really worth the price. Then back in bed with the TV and the vampire tale, I got Gina’s email.

What a relief, I thought. I hadn’t made any arrangements in advance for a ride to the Met. And I had hoped to get a chance to talk to Gina, too.

At Readers Studio, we feel we know each other and yet we are surprised by each other all the time. Ordinarily, I would cringe at the thought of being in a single room with 300 of my best friends. John and I were talking about a recent advertisement for a cruise line where we could get away on a ship with 1500 of our best friends. We concluded that this ad alone would convince me never to go on a cruise. The sheer terror of being with 1500 friends all at once would send me overboard. But at Readers Studio, we feel like homecoming, a family reunion.

Our driver Jose was as gentlemanly as Cinderella’s pumpkin coach driver. We met our group in the lobby and followed Bob through the maze of astonishing art to the second floor print room.

“No bags, no purses, no cameras, no coats, no pens. Pencils only. Leave everything here.”

I felt like I should have showered better. I was the alien entering the ideal temperature and humidity to preserve precious pigment and paper from the ravages of extremes, damp breath, dirty hands, tugs and tears. I was sure my glasses held paper-eating microbes in their hinges, some unknown hazard that could destroy artifacts of humanity. I found a chair, a pencil, my notebook and sat down.

Before us, Bob spoke while the museum employees displayed works I have only imagined. Uncut woodblock prints the Met purchased from somewhere in Hungary from the 1500’s. We approached, holding our breaths, inspecting with magnifying glasses.

“Why, there are animals,” someone whispered, reverence for the rarities muffling all our voices. There were. Playful snails, a hedgehog, the pelican in her piety, the sacrificial lamb, a razorback boar, an owl all graced the cards like shy creatures looking around protecting walls. We took notes. We looked at more. The cycle repeated. Was it already time to go? How could time have flown so fast when it was standing still?

We stood for a moment like the tarot World card, in the circle of infinity. We were in a moment outside of time, dancers set high in the sky among the four alchemical elements, just the right amount of gravity to keep us from flying away, grounded enough to understand that the little hole in that piece of paper meant a bug had done its little damage. I was so aware that even our presence raised the humidity, raised the temperature and thereby changed the environment.

Our presence does that. It affects everything around us. If we wonder why we are here, it is precisely that. It is to be. We are wonders. We are the world.

Best wishes!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Anna of the Snows

Who was she? I wondered as my husband’s cousin spoke about their relative. What did she feel? What was going through her mind? What had her life been like, all those years ago in Montana and Ireland and Montana again?

It was my husband’s family reunion, people from his mother’s side of the family. I like them. They are generally gentle-humored and gregarious. They generally have happy children who are all cute as the dickens, even when they are no longer children. They are very Irish-American and sometimes I’m not even sure I’m qualified to know what that is in spite of my own roots. They embrace others to their family so it was not a 100% Irish crowd. And there are gazillions of them.

OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. When I compare to my own family, my family is definitely dwarfed in numbers. I have four cousins. I met one of them once. People in my family apparently decided, based on their own experiences, not to have children. I’m not sure what that is, exactly. I do have nieces and nephews and they have children, so at least from my father’s side of the family the genetic possibilities have not died out. For the most part from my mother’s side, though, my brother in Texas and I are the end of the line. We were my father’s second family and neither of us had children. Having what I think of as a “reduced” family experience, I’m always curious about other people’s families.

My husband and I feel a part of a couple of other families we know. Rocky and Kay were very close to us before they died and we enjoy their children’s families whenever we can. And we are close to Geraldine and her family, happy to be included as often as we are, honored to be considered family to them.

The family reunion last summer was special because so many of my husband’s family whom I adore attended. It’s not that everyone always gets along; it’s family after all. But they really did very well. We laughed and said, No bloodshed, no stitches, no police action, no fire department, no emergency vehicles. The kids were happy. The adults were happy.

It was even more special because people in my husband’s family whom I had never met also attended. Such sweet people! And Cousin Margaret from Massachusetts presented a family history lesson to show everyone how everyone was related. It was more than that, though. It showed us just a glimpse of who these people were, almost like they had attended too.

Con O’Neill died in the mines in Butte, the “richest hill on earth.” Just thinking of that, you could tell how difficult life was for the miners and their families. But there was more. Just after midnight in the first hour of June 9, 1917, a fire started in the Speculator Mine and spread to the Bell-Diamond Mine. Con was a foreman, risen within the ranks, a respected man. He and his family lived in a little better home provided by the mining company. A memorial stands today in Butte listing the names of those who died. Uncle Con had leapt from his bed when he heard the alarm and, ignoring his wife’s pleas to stay, had gone down into the mine to bring more miners, “his boys” back out to fresh air. He saved some but died himself. He was mourned as a hero.

There’s more of course. The moment he died, his wife and family were no longer eligible to live in foreman’s quarters. Anaconda came knocking soon after the funeral. Con’s wife Julia found herself a widow with her four young children and homeless within the same moments. How did they manage? It wasn’t until the early 1950’s it was discovered that Anaconda owed Julia and her family a pension, which, after some discussion apparently, they paid until her death in 1955.

My favorite historical relative, though, was Anna of the Snows. She was my husband’s grandmother’s twin and Con’s sister. She lived in Butte and while visiting relatives in West Cork in Ireland, her husband Mr. Harrington died. She returned to Butte and later married a Mr. Reilly who left her. She lived with her sister Mary.
When I think of this part of the story, I always think of, “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

It seems that in spite of the hard knocks of life, Anna Reilly was a gentle soul. She worked at the WPA sewing club which met at the old high school. On Saturday afternoon, October 15, 1938, Anna went to the sewing club and afterwards about 3 pm, as a blizzard moved in, she started the short walk home. Dressed in a hat, a black dress and red sweater, she became disoriented in the swirling snow. Search parties, over 100 people including nephews and other relatives, were sent out but the blizzard was relentless. She was not found until three days later on the slopes of Big Butte.

There’s more of course. It seems she had declined to wear a coat when going to the sewing club. And when last seen after the meeting, she was walking in the opposite direction from her home. She was just 60. There was speculation that she had been struck with “a sudden amnesia” or slight stroke. She had been forgetting things lately. Maybe she just lost her way in the world.

I think about her life and losses. I think about going home to Butte and what her sister said about her, that she did not have many interests outside the home besides sewing. I think of the swirling snow, her inadequate sweater and hat.

The Michael Martin Murphy song “Wildfire” goes through my head, written 30 years after her death. Anna was not chasing after her lost beloved pet pony. She was just trying to get home and instead stumbled and fell near the site of the Big “M” on Big Butte, her hat and purse found nearby.
I imagine she did not notice the cold for a while as she wandered confused. In the swirling blizzard, the notions of up, down, east and west start to be meaningless. I have one picture of her, a dark haired woman, tall for those days, with rimless glasses and a lace collar on her black dress, looking life directly in the face. I imagine she grew tired and as she stumbled on the side of Big Butte, determined to rest a bit before rising to gather her things and go home.

That was not to be her path. Instead, she walked away from the comforts of home and the love of family into a fate that haunts me just a little. I see in her the 8 of Cups, that gentle soul, a traveler on her way, who ventured through her life which took her away from love not because it was her nature to deny it, but because Nature Itself called her to a different path. She is my Anna of the Snows.

She reminds me that life’s path does not always take the direction you want, towards what you ask for. Instead, it takes you to your path, whether you ever know why or not.

Best wishes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


 I’ve been having those 10 of Wands days at work lately. Basically, there is just too much going on. When you work on a complex software system, there are a lot of moving parts. Coming down from Easter, that fun family wedding and that not-fun death in the family, I feel a bit like I got my skirt caught in the Wheel of Fortune and took a few unexpected spins, even hitting my head on the ground a couple of times on my way around.

I’m about ready for a few days of sitting in a corner, sucking my thumb and hugging my blankie. I don’t have to draw any cards to figure out that that particular refuge is not my destiny for a few weeks at least.

Usually I figure if I’m in a tornado, well, let’s make it a good tornado experience. So things like standing in line or sitting in slow traffic usually don’t bother me too much. I usually make friends in the line or to my further amusement don’t make friends. I’ll sing songs, consider the possibilities of driving a different car, try to say what I’m seeing in French or Spanish or German or maybe even Pig-Latin, none of which I speak fluently while stuck in traffic or any other time for that matter.

At a couple of recent tarot classes, we’ve discussed the concept, the possibility of clearing your mind and being still for minutes at a time. Generally I think I would want to try, say, 5 seconds and work my way up. And yet, when I read tarot, I’m somehow able to reach a clear spot in my head, like a meadow in the woods or a remote stretch of beach. Then I can read from there. But just doing the exercise? Stillness? It’s a goal.

Weird, I think, how I can have a seldom-still mind and yet sense the feeling of overload only rarely. I can do a lot of visual multi-tasking. I can’t hear more than one “track” at a time, however. I know one person who is amazing at being able to listen to multiple conversations at the same time, but in my opinion he is an anomaly.

 My workplace took a big uptick in volume recently. One of my directors assigned a particularly sticky project that was about to take a wrong turn. She also decided that it would be better to have all projects about new products and their impact on the systems in my area go through me. My immediate supervisor decided that it would be good if I was in charge of all the defects found in the software.

There is some extra administrative process that goes along with all of this and it translated to my workload expanding rapidly by about four times. Then an emergency project came up for another group and they gave me some of the items already in progress from that group, including one “hot potato” that is problematic. I know it sounds strange to say I got a problem that was itself a problem. I would explain, but as you can see, I don’t have time.

I asked my co-worker who had owned the hot potato I was relieving her of to meet with me for turnover. When you are handed something really exciting that is in danger of going south, it is essential to get the low-down, the skinny, the back story. Just a little bit of TLC in the handoff makes things go smoothly. We met.

“Hey, thanks for meeting with me. Can you catch me up on what’s up with this issue?”

She said yes and referenced an email thread.

“Right,” I said. “I read through it. It seems pretty convoluted.”

“Yes,” she said. “In that email thread, where you see my name, put your name. That’s the turnover.” And that was it.

I was dumbfounded. It was the most blatant case of Fling-It-Over-the-Fence-and-Run I had experienced in a long time. There was a meeting scheduled later that day. This “turnover” was supposed to have prepared me for that meeting. I decided to wait for that meeting. Maybe I have “one-track ears” but I learn a lot in meetings. In the context of that conversation, I expected I would be able to put at least some of the puzzle pieces together.

Naturally, the meeting later that day made things worse instead of better. I took notes. And I quickly shot off a note to my boss to let him know that the "turnover" I received was insufficient and quoted the instructions I had received that morning. He agreed another meeting was needed, to my relief. My co-worker was clearly irritated. She told me to submit my questions in advance.

“I have just one,” I said, gently as I could. “What would you want to know about this if you were in my place with no background about the issue, the project, the constraints, etc.?”

We met the next day. What a change! I was able to take notes that translated to a coherent description of the issue and the next steps. I asked questions for clarity. I wrote a summary of the meeting and shared it with my co-worker and boss. My co-worker added even more critical information than she had provided during either of our two meetings. I thanked her.

I added my new stick to the bundle on my back, juggled them as best I can. I made quite a bit of headway today on the hot potato, the projects I had before I was gifted with all the extras, the bug list, the products, the testing, the discussions with the business partners, even providing some unexpected emergency advice to another department in distress. I downloaded and tried two new utilities to view a very large file without much luck, then figured out some alternatives with the help of some more technical folks. I was able to do some in-depth analysis that pointed to, alas, a problem.

Bring in the torch and pitchfork people, the Teflon, the sleight of hand and even the finger-pointing between two technology areas. I provided as much information as I could and let them talk it through among themselves. I moved to other project tasks, another stick in the bundle, two sticks, five.

It’s a game of beat the clock. We’re screaming down the avalanche trail towards our release weekend. My sled has just a few too many sticks in it right now. I’m weighted down by my burden. I feel like the ant and the rubber tree plant. Sometimes that weight slows me down. Sometimes it keeps me on the trail as I trudge along. See, once the software release is complete, we will start this all over again. And, yes, I am happy I have a job.

I am also happy Readers Studio 2012 is very soon. I will be glad for the break.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rubber Meets the Road

“There’s still time to change the road you’re on…” says the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven.” Sometimes, you wonder if there’s still time though, don’t you? Birthdays will do that to you. Mine is coming up. I don’t mind. In fact, I revel in my birthday every year.

I like the idea that your birthday is your own personal New Year. You don’t have to wait for anything to happen in Times Square. Then again, usually you don’t get fireworks either. Celebration of a smaller scale doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. But it’s a great time for reflection, resolutions, goal-setting. It’s like your annual review at work or at least your own status report time.
If you’ve worked for someone other than yourself, you’ve probably had an annual performance review. If you’re like me, you hate them. The last thing in the world I want to talk about is a review of my shortcomings (hey, I AM standing up!) with someone whose view of your year is jaded by cold, cruel objectivity. And, if you’ve been working as long as I have, you’re pretty sure there isn’t anything out there like objectivity because, let’s face, humans are subjective. And yet, you’re expected to have an adult conversation with someone that you can’t exactly argue with. My favorite saying for moments like this is one I borrowed from my nephew, Rob, “SIGH.” Yes, I say this to myself.

So status reports and reviews are to be endured. So the big difference here is that when you have this conversation with yourself, you can argue. Take my advice, don’t do this aloud in front of people or if you do at least have the stealth to wear a Bluetooth so people will at least think you’re on the phone with someone, someone besides yourself.
OK, so now that I have you set up for the worst possible birthday you’ve ever imagined, we’d better set some ground rules.

1.      No mirrors. Hey, get real. You’re one year older. There may be grey hairs. There may be some extra pounds. There may be hair where it shouldn’t be and no hair where it should be. There might be speckles and spots and sags and wrinkles. You’ve earned all that. So, no mirrors. Do what you can, but it's not part of the review. OK, feeling better?

2.      No fair bringing up stuff from more than a year ago. This one is hard, isn’t it? You’ve got all those tapes playing in your head, all those things to kick yourself around the block about, what you might have done, what you didn’t do, what you did, what you shouldn’t have done. That was then. This is getting a little better, right?

3.      Here’s a biggie. It’s no fair grading yourself on something you couldn’t control. My dad was really big on this one. Both my mother and my step-mother died of cancer. My dad kept beating himself up because he “could have done something.” Even my most annoying daughter-logic wouldn’t let him absolve himself, “Daddy, you mean to tell me that you had the cure for cancer…and held out…twice?” He would tilt his head and raise his hand, his gesture for crying uncle when you had him. But seriously, think back over the last year and ask yourself if you could really control the disaster or perhaps just embarrassing flub that’s caught in your craw from the last year. Put through this filter, the list should be getting shorter of things you’d like to discuss with yourself, right? So, as much as I would like to spend time complaining that once again I did not win the Lotto, the tiniest bit of liability I can own up to is that I did not buy a ticket. Oh, well.

There are probably more ground rules, but I’m getting bored so you must be too. You get the idea, though. If you are going to pick a fight with yourself, you have to fight fair. But wait! You have to be fair when you’re patting yourself on the back too. That means no taking credit for things you haven’t actually done. Thinking about dieting isn’t dieting. We’re clear.
I like to think about the past year as part of a path or journey. Sometimes the road is bumpy. Sometimes the road is smooth. Sometimes there is rain; sometimes, sunshine. Did I stop and smell the roses? Sometimes. I think I could stand to do more of that. The Hubs says I need to get out more. I think he’s right. Did I work hard? Definitely, sometimes too hard. See that roses thing. Yup, I could stand some improvement in the work/life balance department.
Did waste my time on useless worrying, whining, procrastination, anger, drama or other emotional drains? Hmm, yes, some here and there. I’m really good at the sloth thing, maybe an over-achiever. I was pretty conscious of minimizing the drama and anger, though, not that I didn’t have ample opportunity to go overboard there. There have been some tempting tempests in teapots. I worked hard to make the distinction between those and Defining Moments.
Did I help others and myself? I feel pretty good about this one, although I think I could always help my husband more than I do. I ask him about this.

“Just scratch my head,” he says, reading the New Yorker with the snoring dog and the demando-kitty vying for his attention. It’s a small thing but he likes his head and back scratched.
I volunteered for stuff I didn’t have to do. I performed unplanned acts of kindness. I tried to give my young friends new experiences they might not otherwise have had. Dylan got to go ghost-hunting. Andrew got wheels, again, this time with a better lock. I helped at the spaghetti feed. Oh, a biggie: I helped with that family reunion last year, although that help was mitigated by my enjoying myself while I was there! I dragged my husband and friends with me on well-deserved breaks from the tedium. I tipped big. I gave people ups in line. I forced cake on the fire stations as a thank you for being First Responders and surprised all of them. I can be pleased with that. I could have done better, too. I tried to be kind. I tried to make people laugh. I prayed, prayed hard, for the sick, the sad, the poor, the mistaken, for after all, I am all of these too.

All-in-all, it was a good year. My solar return comes to me with a pretty good rating. There’s still room for improvement. I still have work to do. I’m not done yet. I’m looking forward to my new solar year.
The 9 of Wands shows someone who has had ups and downs in life. He’s taking a bit of a break in his journey, leaning on one of the wands like a walking stick. He needs a little support. He wears a bandage on his head. He’s been wounded, but he’s still standing. He assesses the road ahead.

If you look at your life as just happening to you, see yourself as a victim or recipient of what life has to offer, you just see the road, rough or interesting or a bit of both. But the secret of the 9 of Wands is this: If you look into the abyss and the abyss looks back, scary as that is, it also means that what you bring to the road is just as important as what the road brings you. You are an active participant in your life. Just take the next step and you'll bounce along, like a rubber ball.
Best wishes!