Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Best of Plans

I have a plan: A 24-hour roadtrip to the burbs of Chicago, for a reading and book signing by a favorite author, Elizabeth Berg. I schedule time off work, book a motel, and Mapquest the route. It is the best of plans. But if you ever want to make God laugh, just tell Him you have a plan.

The plan is running smoothly as I cruise into Chicago in less than four hours. A glance at my directions shows a mere 12-mile drive out I-290 to the motel. But then I spy the orange barrels. And realize it is rush hour. And come to a complete stop. One freaking HOUR later, I pull up to the motel, praying my bladder will be patient enough for check-in.

The other bad news is the area appears sketchy. No worries, since I won't spend much time here. All I need is a short but meaningful affair with the internet and a hot shower before heading to Oak Park for the event.

The very bad news is the motel's internet service is down, quite likely for the night. I sigh, glancing with longing at my laptop, and turn on the shower.

The very VERY bad news is the motel's plumbing issue. No hot water. Not even tepid.

The front desk clerk, hoping to make amends, offers me alternate directions to Oak Park, to avoid the hell that is 290. I glance at my disheveled hair in my car's rearview mirror and sniff my underarms. I hope Elizabeth Berg has a soft spot for homeless people.

I find my way through several suburbs to the venue in Oak Park, with only one missed turn. I manage to find a streetside spot, just around the corner. Boy-howdy! Perhaps my luck is changing!

Elizabeth Berg and her cohort, Julia Keller, are inspiring. I am pumped as I wait in line to have Berg sign a copy of her book. I rehearse some wise and witty commentary for our little chat. Once I am actually in front of her, however, I am tongue-tied. I stammer a couple lame statements and questions. She responds as politely as one might to an imbecile.

I hustle away. I need drinks. Now.

Out of courtesy to the people of Oak Park, I decide to not grace a local drinking or dining establishment with my foul presence. I will buy a six-pack, some fast food, and retreat to my lowly motel room. Perhaps the internet will be working. Perhaps the water will be somewhere above the freezing level.

On the way back to the motel, I find myself hopelessly lost. Meanwhile, I endure a series of anxious phone calls from my mother. Are you lost? (Yes.) Are you in a bad part of town? (Quite likely.) Are you frustrated? (ABSOLUTELY. STOP CALLING ME!)

Beer and drive-through food procured, I finally land back at the motel. As I exit my car, I notice the ominous orange envelope on my dashboard. I sigh, speculating upon its contents, although it's not a difficult guess, as it is labeled "The Village of Oak Park, Parking Operations."

I change into my pajamas and open a beer, before I remember my new Berg book and my writing materials are both in the car. I'm too spent to head outside for either. And perhaps I shouldn't wander into this iffy neighborhood parking lot in the dark. My karma seems a bit off tonight.

So, here I sit, in my motel room. Drinking a lukewarm beer and writing on a 4x5 notepad from the room's desk drawer. (I haven't scrawled words this tiny since the biology cheat sheet I wrote my sophomore year in high school.)

I pull out my parking ticket and examine it. I owe a pretty sum of $250. However, I can appeal the violation within 14 days, in person, in Oak Park.

Hmm. A roadtrip to the Chicago suburbs. Maybe next week?

Sounds like a plan.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shoulda? Coulda? Woulda? Did.

I haven't been the impulsive type since a spring break in Fort Lauderdale 30 years ago, when I allowed someone to strap a parasailing harness on me that hiked me incomprehensibly high over the Atlantic Ocean. (Note: I'd swallowed a great deal of liquid courage first. This sort of decision shall never be repeated.)

No, I tend to be the overly analytical type, contemplating each decision and action, measuring every risk and benefit, weighing all pros and cons.

So it was out of character, a year ago this week, when I sat down at the computer and briefly entertained the idea of writing a blog. I Googled the word "blog," and found a basic template program. Within minutes, I had a registered blogspot and then a blank field on the screen, with instructions to start typing away.

Frightening, isn't it, how they let just anyone's rantings and ramblings to be published online?

It would be a fleeting experience, I figured. I'd struggle over a few blog entries, and I'd quit after a matter of weeks. Lack of topics, of commitment, of readers--something was likely to convince me to cease and desist soon after I first hit that "publish post" button.

I didn't count on the fact that I'm apparently full of all kinds of sometimes contemplative, sometimes crazy crap which I'm more than willing to share. I never considered that producing a short piece of writing each week could prime my creative juices for other more intensive writing endeavors. I didn't realize that, in brainstorming and writing a weekly blog post, I might become more thoughtful about events and emotions in my own life and in the lives of others.

And I certainly never fathomed how my weekly words could reconnect me with old friends, and allow me to meet new ones.

One year and 65 blog posts later, I'm awed by what this blog has given me. Although I can't say for certain how long I will continue it, I know it's been rewarding in more ways than I ever imagined.

Thanks to all of you for reading. For commenting. For indulging the past year's monologues, and allowing some of them to turn into dialogues.

It's been the most gratifying impulse I've acted on in 30 years. I'd do it all over again.

Unlike parasailing over the ocean. That shit was just crazy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Turn Around

A few weeks ago, I wrote that taking even baby steps might help get us on track to our goals. Like the Alcoholics Anonymous motto, perhaps we just need to take One Day at a Time.

"Well, taking baby steps forward is plenty good and all," one reader wrote. "But what about when you take several steps backward? Sometimes you need to acknowledge your goal is futile and just give up."

Hmm. Yes, that comment is something to consider.

Let's say, for example, you're a woman who always aspired to be five-foot-seven. If you're middle-aged and stand five-foot-two, in shoes (hypothetically speaking, of course), it's time to cash that dream in for a new one.

Yes, some goals probably are unrealistic. Certain circumstances in life are locked in. Some objectives, due to age, genetics, health or other factors, can't be achieved, no matter how hard we try.

So where is the line drawn? What's possible and what's fully implausible? If we start off with the odds stacked against us, or take several steps backward, when should we decide to just call it quits?

Do we give up on losing weight, because we've regained the ten pounds we previously lost? Do we toss the idea for a new career, because we failed a required college course? Do we say, screw the possibility of seeing our grandchildren grow up, because our cholesterol and blood pressure have already risen off the charts?

What we need to decide, when contemplating seemingly insurmountable goals, is whether they're truly impossible or simply difficult. And that differentiation is, well, difficult in itself.

My friend Cindy compared goals and missteps along the way to driving on the turnpike. "If you want to be headed east and find yourself going west, do you simply say, 'Well, I'm already going west, so even if it's the wrong direction, maybe I should just keep going this way?' Or do you turn around?"

I've found it's an analogy that works for most of my own life goals.

If it's possible to truly reach your destination by reversing direction, even if it means traveling many more miles, are you willing to do so? Or do you just keep heading in the wrong direction, because you can't fathom the effort of turning back?

Occasionally life is black or white. Can or can't.

Often though, life is one great gray area. Try or don't. And when we encounter a gray spot, perhaps we should view it as a green light, and gun the gas pedal.

Will you do so, even if it means you have to first turn around?

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

"That's the problem with kids today," my friend said, shaking her finger. "They're lazy."

"Yep," I agreed. "They're lazy. And irresponsible, too."

We both nodded, our lips tightened into grim lines as we stared into the abyss and contemplated the waywardness of today's youth.

"I mean, it's April," my friend continued, "and she hasn't even looked for a summer job yet!"

"Unbelievable." I rolled my eyes. "Hell, I was working long before I was her age. Since I was 12, counting babysitting," I reminded my long-time friend.

"Hmm." My friend squinted. "I'm not sure you should count that. Wasn't that the babysitting job where you talked on the phone the whole time while the kids played in the street?"

I straightened in my chair. "Well, yeah, but neither of them ever got hit by a car. And then I got a real summer job, working at the zoo when I was only 14. And when I turned 16, I worked year-round at McDonald's for, well almost a year. Juggling school and a job demanded a lot of responsibility."

"Heh." Her lips curled. "I remember the McDonald's job. You used to inhale the helium from the balloons they passed out to kids. Then you'd squeak over the drive-through intercom, 'Welcome to McDonald's, may I take your order please?' I can't believe they never fired you for that."

I frowned. "Well, they didn't. Because I was a hard worker. And I left there, on my own volition, for a better job, remember? At Ponderosa."

"Oh, yes." My friend nodded. "I remember your stint at Ponderosa. You worked there for one month our senior year. Just long enough to make some money for our spring break trip to Fort Lauderdale. And then you quit, without giving them notice."

"But not before they promoted me from busser to salad bar attendant," I practically shouted. "Clearly, my work ethic was obvious! Besides, I got right back to work that fall, at the university bookstore. Where I worked for four full years!"

"Oh, yes, your bookstore job." She grinned. "That was a perfect one to keep for your four years of college. They were always really understanding on those mornings you called to say you couldn't come in because you had to study for a test. Made it much easier to sleep off your hangovers."

"Huh." I crossed my arms. "But I did put in a lot of hours at that job, later in the day."

"Haha. Remember how they could never find you in the afternoon, from 3-4? They'd say, 'Sherry, where were you? We've been looking for you?' And you'd say, 'Oh, I was out stocking something on the floor,' or 'Oh, I must have been back in the stockroom then,' when really, you were just up in the student union lounge every day, watching General Hospital?"

"Sure, but come on, give me a break!" I threw up my hands. "Those were the Luke and Laura days!"

"Good point. And I'll bet you worked your ass off from 4-5."

"I did. I absolutely did," I agreed, nodding. "I had a work ethic. Not like kids today."

"Yeah, kids today are just lazy. And irresponsible."