Failures and Fiascos

“No true fiasco ever began as a quest for mere adequacy.”  —Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown

I fell in love with this quote the second I heard it. It really resonated with everything going on in my life at the time. Fictional Drew Baylor became my hero.

Drew also said, “Failure is simply the non-presence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.”

Thomas Edison put it a different way. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Bob Ross, the afro’d artist of PBS fame, was known to say that when it comes to painting, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”

The varied nuances in these quotes take me down somewhat different mental paths. I have had failures, and I have experienced fiascoes. For the most part, I point to my years working in the public sector for both. Usually, debacles led me towards alternative paths that worked out just as well and occasionally better, even if it was after a good bit of fretting, fuming, bawling, and varying degrees of depression. I just had to keep an open mind, look for more workable solutions, and refuse to give up.

Failure can indeed open doors, at least for a person who is imaginative and alert to possibilities.

But it’s true there’s a difference between failure and fiasco. Failure doesn’t necessarily imply significance. You can fail to set the alarm clock. You can fail at making the perfect piece of toast. The world will not end.

I’ve definitely experienced a fiasco or two, especially in my career. The world didn’t end then, either, though there were times I thought it would. Mine, anyway. Inevitably, those fiascoes resulted from experiments to break molds, push boundaries, explore the unexplored, be better. Such paths aren’t always popular in the cautious, slow-moving, don’t-rock-the-boat, if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it world of the public sector.

Sometimes I was too eager to try the next big thing, assuming others would jump on my bandwagon. I failed to understand that a thing that was only my dream was destined for doom. I didn’t look for unintended consequences.

I didn’t imagine that they couldn’t imagine, or that they simply didn’t want to do the hard work. In my eagerness, I didn’t do my own hard work of laying groundwork, getting investment.

Sometimes, my ideas were just plain dumb! People were right not to dive in with me.

And on occasion, I made the very bad mistake of assuming people I thought of as mentors would stand behind me—or at least guide me. It was a painful lesson to learn otherwise.

As I look in my life’s rear view mirror, my career growing infinitely smaller behind me, I understand that it was always lofty goals which led to my efforts which in turn led to fiascoes. I’m proud of that. And painful as those moments may have been at the time, visible as some scars remain, I’m content in the knowledge that I wanted to make things better, that I knew how to dream.

Like Drew Baylor, I’d rather dream big and fail big than stumble along in mere adequacy.

Tip: watch this 2005 feel-good road trip movie (featuring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Paula Deen). You’ll be glad you did.

Boundaries

Just as children are astonished to discover potatoes buried in the ground the first time they dig in the garden, I’ve heard there are real people who, on their first airplane flights, have been shocked—shocked!—at the absence of lines differentiating one state from the other. Yes. Strong, black, permanent-marker-type lines like they’ve seen on road maps or in textbooks.

                                     Where are the boundary lines?                                       Aerial photo courtesy of Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9578535

I’ve been thinking about boundaries—those demarcations that set us apart. Some are real: canyon ledges, rock cliff faces. Who would want to take that next step into the abyss?

Rivers are demarcations. They divide one piece of land from another, and sometimes (but not always) rivers are used to set boundaries. Even so, they’re usually crossable by one means or another.

But other boundaries are completely artificial. Humanmade. Political, legal, emotional. Some are good to have. Some, not so much.

One of our neighbor families once owned the acreage where we now live—for a very long time—before having to sell it off to pay health care expenses. I’m sure it was a painful decision. They’d sold to someone else, who then sold to us. One day a year or two after we’d moved, we came upon the matriarch of the ‘first family’ hunched over our wild blackberry patch like a furtive hooded monk. She figured we wouldn’t mind her picking those blackberries, she said, to make jelly—like she always had.

She knew she was overstepping boundaries. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have looked up at us like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. But she was ready with her passive-aggressive defense, suggesting that by prior ownership, she now had squatter’s rights. She did not respect our boundaries.

Plenty has been said about personal boundaries of late, with much more eloquence than I can offer. Let it be said that they deserve respect, too.

But what I worry about is the tribalism which we’ve allowed to create artificial boundaries, rivalries that erupt based on nothing more than an accident of birth, or where one’s parents transferred for work once upon a time, or where we went to school, or simple indoctrination. That sort of thing.

It bothers me, this “We live in the best [fill in the blank],” or, “My [blank] is the best” mentality. We use this blanket superlative whether talking about our schools, our communities, countries, spiritual beliefs, or ‘our’ teams. How can we possibly know ours is the best? I certainly can’t; I’ve not experienced all the others, even superficially. Has anyone?

I’m pretty place-bound. I’m at home with what I know. I appreciate the landscape around me, the people who surround me, my heritage. Traditions built from shared experiences help bind us together in ways that help us through times both easy and hard.

But don’t all people everywhere have every bit as strong a claim on pride of place as I have? Don’t I need to understand and honor their natural pride without proclaiming mine is the better, the best, and possibly the only, way?

Is it arrogance that makes us believe such things? Or ignorance? Or both? Isn’t there a better way to live in this world we share? A more thoughtful, generous way?

When I travel across a single state, I may move from salt water and a flat, sand-covered topography to densely green mountains, from arid desert to lush wetlands. Yet, as I step across the imaginary line between my state and its neighbor, I neither see nor feel anything magical taking place to set one apart from the other. Except for a green metal road sign, I wouldn’t know. The terrain is the same. Why should I imagine there’s something completely unique about my side of the boundary?

Photo courtesy of Famartin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Can any lasting good come from this cutting ourselves off from otherness? How can it build understanding and goodwill? And if we don’t want to build those things among our fellow humans, what do we want?

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Holy Words

Lately, I’ve found myself deeply touched by the words of others. Yes, mere words have lifted me up and given me new hope. There is something of the holy* in their wisdom. (*Etymology lesson of the day: the English word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English word hālig, meaning “whole” as in sound, healthy, complete.Wise words, coming from lessons well-learned, have the potential to make us whole. 

My young friend Emma recently had the opportunity to immerse herself in the life and culture of the Philippines. She came away with this insight: “I am beyond grateful for my life and being able to have the opportunity to come and visit this amazing country, where they are grateful every night for simple things such as a glass of water.”

A cousin who recently suffered a stroke and has a long recovery road ahead of him is taking on the challenge with great determination. He reminds us that “the simplest tasks are the hardest;” he takes pride in every inch of progress including his first day moving to and from his wheelchair with no falls, noting, “You have to learn to appreciate the simple things in life . . . and be glad to have lived through yet another day!!!” He has the saving grace of a sense of humor. After the hard work of putting on and tying his shoes, he realized he’d gotten them on the wrong feet. “You have to learn to laugh a lot,” he said. 

A special friend living with a serious illness said something along these lines: “There have been unexpected blessings on this journey,” as she expounded on the kindnesses of others and a hyperawareness of beauty and truth.

Each of these perceptive people has learned big lessons. Each is a little different, and each one is important. May we all be blessed with the empathy to see and appreciate the daily struggles of others. May we all develop the ability to look around us and honor the unearned bounty that surrounds us. May we learn to laugh at ourselves and to honor our baby steps; they have the potential to turn into giant leaps. And may we recognize and be strengthened by the blessings bestowed by good people, be they professionals, family, neighbors, or strangers.

Whether we want to believe it or not, there is a whole heck of a lot we can’t control in life. But we can learn from it. These inspiring people in my life have learned important life lessons, and they inherently understand the value of passing them on. May we be good students of them and their kind. Be whole.

Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer

They call them the dog days of summer, these days of July and August, usually the hottest and most humid of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). But I can already feel fall. The air has grown slightly less moist, hinting at autumn’s dry coolness, even when the thermometer doesn’t agree.

I hear it in the sounds of insects—different from early summer bug buzzes and chirps. And I hear the occasional thump when a premature nut hits the ground.

I see it in the trees. Their leaves grow simultaneously darker and paler, and occasional ones waft to the ground. I see it in the flowers, too, whose colors have changed from bright summery hues to the softer mauves, lavenders, and golds of fall.

Yes, we may still officially be in summer’s dog days, but fall is in the air. There’s something slightly wistful about these times when the old begins to fade and the new is just beyond the horizon. We become nostalgic for something not yet gone. While some of us bemoan the loss of barefoot days, summer picnics, tubing down a river, others are perking up at the prospect of football, fall foliage, apple cider, and hayrides.

By the way, do you know where the term ‘dog days of summer’ comes from? I always thought it had to do with the way lethargic dogs laze on country roads or under porches during our annual heat waves. I guess in a roundabout way that’s not far off. In fact, the ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer ‘dog days’ because they associated them with the star Sirius, the dog star. Our most sultry days coincide, more or less, with the time each year when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appears to rise just before the sun.

At this time in my life, the change of seasons brings a question to mind. It looms larger with each cycle—what changes lie in store with the next season? But, whatever is in my own future, my head knows that each season brings its own gifts. My challenge is to embrace them while they are here in all their fullness and, when the time comes, to let them go lightly so I can do the same when the next one rolls around.

 

Honoring the Dead

A while back I wrote a social media post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” genealogy challenge. The week’s prompt was Oldest, and I wrote about the oldest cousin on my mom’s side of the family.

Little Bill died in a tragic vehicle accident at the age of seven, leaving me as heir to the title of oldest. His siblings thanked me for memorializing someone whose life was too short to leave much of a legacy of his own.  

A friend of mine shared that the oldest child in her family had been a ‘blue baby,’ living only nine weeks. When her parents moved nearby in their later years, she learned more about the brother she never knew. She learned about her parents’ abiding love for him. She discovered he was always alive in their hearts. Now that her parents have died, too, she feels called upon to keep his memory alive. That need fuels a deep connection to this person who had never been much more than a myth to her.

I’m currently working on a book about my mother’s life and times. That means her siblings, her parents, her grandparents, too. Almost all of them are long gone from this world, so part of my process involves calling up memories, begging them to awaken from their slumber deep in the recesses of my mind, sometimes birthing random mental snapshots into full-blown narratives.

I was having trouble getting my grandparents’ story to make much sense on paper. I found myself fervently wishing they were still here for a face-to-face. (Actually, this is something I regularly wish for.)

Sometimes, it feels as if they have heard me. My eyes wander beyond the keyboard and I see their ethereal presence. It’s not my imagination; they’re there. Side by side they stand, he in his dark brown dress trousers, their legs as wide at the bottom as at the top, the way they were back in the ’50s. She’s wearing her usual fare: a cotton shirtwaist dress, small brown print on a beige background, her stockings rolled tightly an inch or two above her knees just the way I remember.

I only see my grandparents from mid-thigh down. But I feel them standing together, their arms touching, their eyes boring into the top of my head. They don’t answer my questions. But their presence is powerful. They are urging me on, assuring me if I keep at it, I’ll figure it out. But reminding me it’s all up to me now. They can only cheerlead. And they do. Silently, but hard.

I don’t dare look up. I’m so afraid the gossamer thread that binds us in this moment will drift off, my grandparents with it, and I want them to stay.

 

 

I, too, feel a deep and abiding connection to these people who no longer walk among us. They continue to have much to offer. I want to be the keeper of their flames.

Interpretations of a Snapshot

I tried an experiment a few weeks back when I posted a photo on social media and asked my friends to study its details and tell me what they saw. I said nothing about the photo itself, though a few immediately knew it was a picture of my mom in her teenage years.

I conducted this inquiry for a couple of reasons. It was Mother’s Day and I wanted to do something besides tell how my mother is the best in the world. I hope there are millions of people who believe that about their own moms; we don’t have to compete. But maybe I could get people to spend a few minutes studying her—a different kind of tribute.

I had another reason for seeking input. I’m writing a book about my mom’s life and times, and photographs will be a big part of the story. I love pictures; I’ve probably spent more hours poring over Mom’s photo albums than everyone else in my family together, including my mother. Predictably, my attention is usually drawn to the intended subject of the photos, and I realized I may be missing some important details. Like the fact that the shrubbery and lawn in this picture seem unkempt. There’s a story there, and I’d never even noticed it before I took a long, hard look a few weeks ago. I wondered what others might see that I was still missing and how their attention might hone my own visual sensibilities.

Just the way people expressed themselves caught my interest. Some comments were more emotional and personal while others attempted complete objectivity. Some were philosophical; others whimsical. Here are excerpts from some of the varied insights. Maybe you’ll find the process as interesting as I did. I learned a lot. I hope I’ll never look at a snapshot the same again.

  • I’m noticing the trees or bushes that are behind her—but I can’t name them! I see the pillar is handmade using REAL stones. I think this photo may have previously been in a photo album that had black pages.
  • The photo was taken at mid-day, because shadows are short. The house has a deep porch. It looks like creek rocks were used instead of field stones. One of the trees behind her to the left looks like a young poplar. The tall bush on her left looks like a privet, allowed to grow tall. She is wearing laced shoes and bobby socks. Her dress has a subtle print to it, but the photo is underexposed, so the print does not show well. She has a short vest. It is summer.
  • It asks me the question: Why is this person trying to blend in with the shrubbery?
  • She is standing near a porch and a porch pillar that is encompassed with overgrown bushes. I wonder about the things I can’t see. I can’t see the house, even though I see the rock pillar and the ceiling of what I perceive to be the porch. And I wonder who is taking the picture. And what is in her hand that she is holding up? Her mouth is slightly open, so she must be saying something to the photographer. I like that this photo has lots of plants and less hardscaping than the modern houses have. She is wearing a dress, and ankle socks with her shoes.
  • I see determination and strength.
  • I wonder what she is pointing at with her raised right arm. Is it the vining plant above her finger?
  • I have a thing with black/white photos. I ‘know’ the colours (at least I think I do) and your mom’s dress/bolero is light yellow with a white blouse or front piece. I believe it is all one piece with the bolero attached.
  • She’s standing beside what appears to be an Italian Cypress and pointing to something behind her. If you note the angle of her finger—she is not pointing straight up, but up and behind. The yard she is in is not kept.

And in response to that last comment came these two:

  • Maybe in the 30s and 40s yards were just not manicured to the extent to which we have grown accustomed.
  • I agree. We mowed and trimmed much less back then—no power tools! Not enough time, either; we focused on chicken flocks and large gardens.

I also appreciated that my commenters offered the following perceptions, which have nothing much to do with my photograph but remind me of other important points worth pondering.

  • I am drawn to the torn corner of the photo. It’s sad somehow. It fragments the photo, makes it not whole, much like memory itself—remnants of time, fleeting glimpses into something long past. Photos freeze a moment forever, but like the memory of that moment they will change over time; fade, become fragmented and develop holes that leave out bits of information.
  • When I’m getting ready to do something with a “vintage” photo, I try to do only as much cropping as is truly necessary. My thinking is that I need to preserve the surroundings as much as possible. Even if they don’t seem important to me, they might be significant to future generations.
  • I often try to cut out or hide parts [of a photo] that I don’t think are pretty or don’t make for a good composition. But I need to think more about how to “preserve the surroundings.”

Then there was this one. May we all heed its lesson. “My neighbor used to look at a daylily and point out every little nuance—color, pattern, edge, shape, sizes, etc. She made me look at each flower individually, and the unique beauty of that flower. My desire is to look at people in that manner.”