Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beyond the Horizon: Olympians and Excellence

The Olympic Games fascinate me, even though I’m not generally interested in sports. My favorite team efforts are not found in stadiums, arenas, or ball fields, but rather in Lincoln and Kennedy Center or a Broadway theater. The excitement of an excellent performance, however, is a common denominator of the Metropolitan Opera, a ballet company, or the amazing feats of the Olympic athletes.

I didn’t have a sedentary childhood, but there was nothing particularly athletic about it. My family followed the Philadelphia baseball teams on the radio and once in a while went to a game, but I don’t remember much else capturing our attention. Therefore it is surprising that my mother wanted each of her children to earn a varsity letter. We all attended Abington High School where the sports letter “A” was adorned with a ghost, the school mascot. My oldest brother Don played tennis and was a fine swimmer; he was awarded a letter in each sport. Dorothy also earned hers in the pool.

My brother David managed to acquire a track and field letter through persistence more than athletic prowess. I remember he once finished last in a cross-country event and reported at the dinner table that he had raced against time, and time had won. I asked him about his team experience recently and he said:

I was a half miler and high jumper. I remember leading the pack for the first lap of a half-mile race, and then I pooped out and quit running. A couple of my favorite girls in my class came running over to see what happened. They had been cheering me on. So much for fortitude and competitive juices! I had learned quickly that I could run to exhaustion and, knowing I was there, do the sensible thing and quit running while I recovered.

I was in high school before Title IX (the law that ended gender discrimination in public school activities) and I only remember field hockey, softball, and swimming being available for girls. Unfortunately nothing involved bike riding or hiking, my two favorite forms of exercise. Mother encouraged me to go out for swimming since I was at home in the water and had not shown any aptitude for field games. I couldn’t master the breathing for the crawl but soldiered on in back- and breaststroke, although I never achieved enough speed for competition. The swim-team manager had graduated, and I knew that managers also earned letters so I asked the coach if I could try out. That position certainly matched my skill set. I loved the job of recording everybody’s lap times and the points earned for dives; very soon I understood degrees of difficulty and the fine details of leg and arm positions. My other managerial responsibilities included cleaning up after practices and making arrangements for away meets. Since I worked out with the team during their warm-up time, my mother was well satisfied. I topped off the experience by using the time on the bus going to meets to knit a maroon sweater to match my coveted letter.

Bill and I discovered the joy of watching the Olympics in 1972 when we drove Kevin to Pittsburgh to start college at Carnegie Mellon. We stayed with my cousin Dick’s family, and they had a large television tuned to gymnastics when we arrived. At that point in our lives we didn’t have a TV and were unaware of what we’d been missing. We bought one a few years later, and I’ve been a devoted Olympian spectator ever since; I try to keep my schedule clear for both winter and summer games.

There is much about the choices made in broadcasting the games that irritates me, and I just have to live with that. My cable package only gives me NBC without the affiliates (MSNBC, NBC Sports, etc.). My eyesight makes watching on the computer screen tiring and frustrating. I check the schedule and stop whatever else I’m doing to concentrate on swimming, diving, track and field, or gymnastics and any of the more esoteric events that make it onto the broadcast channel. I like beach volleyball, which is only two players on a team and looks like fun, albeit demanding, but I skip the other team games. I grieve that very little of the equestrian, fencing, or archery competitions are available to me. I did tune in for the bike race, mainly because it took off from Buckingham Palace, but it was filmed from behind and showed continuous footage of riders bunched so closely together that it was impossible to get any sense of individual achievement. They were racing for hours, but I was done with it in about ten minutes.

I am committed to this international event for both intangible and concrete reasons. The Olympic Village created for the participants becomes a United Nations of athletes. I dislike the way politics is often highlighted in commentaries, but as a spectator I often notice the bonds of friendship across nationalities, such as when a US swimmer wished a Chinese competitor good luck. At a time when armed conflict in all parts of the world is a regular feature of the daily news cycle, we have this long respite every two years when we can turn our attention to the peaceful competition of the world’s best athletes and celebrate their amazing accomplishments.

Recognizing excellence in most any endeavor quickens my interest. As an unapologetic word lover, I checked my thesaurus and found this list of synonyms for the word "excellence": distinction, quality, brilliance, greatness, merit, caliber, eminence, skill, talent, virtuosity, accomplishment, and mastery. Yes, the Olympians of today, like their precursors who honored the gods of Olympus, are at the pinnacle of their sports. Among a group of finalists, often only a few seconds or points separate the winner and the one who comes in last. They are all masters.

For the past six months I’ve been reading various books and articles related to brain function, neuroplasticity, and the changes in brain structure that accompany mastery (summed up for me in the easy-to-grasp theory that it takes 10,000 hours of concentration to achieve virtuosity in any given field). I calculated that I had done the time with knitting over the past seventy years, but it was for recreation—I wasn’t necessarily striving for excellence. Athletes sometimes refer to the desire to reach their personal best that keeps them pushing through the exhaustion my brother wrote about. I can claim that intensity only about writing. Even though I become exhausted much sooner now than when I was younger, I do have much stiffer standards for writing than knitting.

Clearly some of the athletes will have to work through the pain of a less than perfect performance or losing to another athlete who is simply better. However, in the little interviews popping up on NBC, person after person says, “It is such a honor just to be here, no matter who wins.”

These gifted young adults with their finely-toned bodies and healthy faces are so thrilling to watch, I forget the aches and pains of aging, stretch out the stiffness from sitting, and get back out there to walk. This morning I heard an Olympic poem on NPR that referred to the athletes as those “who look beyond the horizon.” Knowing that it helps with posture and alignment, I typically try to keep my eyes at skyline level as I walk. This time I turned my attention to the other meaning of horizon, “the range of one’s knowledge.” Athletes striving for perfection look beyond the horizon to imagine what is possible, to embrace the adventure of discovery. But the athlete must also learn the awareness of now, living fully in this moment with your body and your intention. In those competition spaces, noisy with the passionate shouts of spectators, the world sees those inward moments as the Olympians claim their inner space just before the dive, the vault, or the start of the race. What had been beyond the horizon is here and now.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Exploring "Language from the Land" One Dance Step at a Time

When I was in my early fifties, I occasionally did secretarial work for the world-renowned pianist Lili Kraus, whose home base was Celo during the last two decades of her life. On my first day she handed me a large pile of unopened envelopes from all manner of charities asking for donations. She told me to go through them and toss any that had to do with people or buildings, and keep all the ones from organizations that helped animals or the Earth. When I looked quizzical she volunteered this explanation: for the rest of her life she only wanted to give her money to support animals, particularly endangered species, or to help organizations trying to save the planet.

It made quite an impression on me, and, even though my career with a social change organization was just beginning, I thought it seemed appropriate for younger adults to do the heavy lifting for political causes and movements for change, and that as people age they might be comforted by shifting their volunteering and giving to the preservation of wildlife and our planet home for future generations. I resolved to do that and made the shift when I retired some fifteen years later.

Indi with Louis XIV at Versailles Last Winter
My daughter-in-law Indi is now about the same age I was when I started thinking more deeply about what sort of a world my great-grandchildren might inherit. Last week she came to visit me briefly on her way home from a ten-day dance adventure. Indi is a professor of dance at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, and every summer she tries to increase her exposure in her field and recharge her creative batteries. One of her main pursuits is sacred dance, but this year she chose a different emphasis. When she signed up for the Dance Exchange 2012 Summer Institute, it was largely because of her interest in Liz Lerman, the dancer and choreographer who established the Dance Exchange. For Indi, it was part of her current process to define a vision for the next chapters in her life. My own similar process had been more of an evolution based on vicissitudes, but it happened in the same decade of life—our fifties.

Tammy and Polly joined us for tea and a visit on my screened-in porch. Indi was thoughtful as she talked about being one of three older dancers keeping up with a sizeable group of younger ones. She had brought a copy of the advance flyer and an article about the program. My senses quickened as I realized that, at least according to one author, the participants in this institute were “Dancing About the Earth.” As I skimmed through the article I saw that the centerpiece of the ten days was the creation of “Language from the Land,” a stage production under the leadership of Cassie Meador, the artistic director of the Dance Exchange. Based on “stories about our local environments” and including text by Rachel Carson, the finished work was presented on each of the last two days of the institute as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. Kate Mattingly’s on-line article gave this background: "'Language from the Land’ reflects Meador’s investment in promoting awareness of our environment and ecology. This spring she undertook a 500-mile walk that she described as ‘an initiative in art and environmentalism’.” The process Indi took part in during her time there was described as, “exploring the arts as paths to deepening understanding.” The article concludes with this question: “How would our world be different if we consistently considered the impact of actions not only on our own lives, but also on the communities and environments we share?”

It was a physically demanding ten days that included warm-ups and dance technique classes in addition to the physical work of creating and rehearsing the performance. In addition, the participants explored the “Dance Exchange Toolbox” for creating movement and gathering community. The process asks, “How does our body act as a resource to tell our stories, and enact change?” Inevitably this way of working and thinking will become a part of Indi’s future. But since it was the content that had caught my attention, I asked her if she thought she might pursue the earth-focused subject matter with her students, and she responded affirmatively. All too soon, it was time for her to push on toward her home, using directions I gave her for the less traveled scenic route through Kentucky.

After she left, I turned my attention to two days worth of mail I finally had time to peruse. By pure coincidence my stack included three 2013 calendars with enclosed requests for donations from organizations that fit Lili Kraus’s profile. The first one I opened was from the Ocean Conservancy and provided me with beautiful pictures of marine life, including endangered reefs. There was also an interesting list of ways I can reduce a negative impact on waterways that eventually flow into the ocean. The second was from an organization working to conserve our national parks and protect them from risks such as development pressures and climate change. The pictures of national parks from coast to coast were inviting and instructive. The third was from World Wildlife Foundation, which highlights wildlife in danger of extinction. I’ll support all three organizations with a check and a mental nod to the pianist Lili, the dancer and teacher Indi, the choreographer and dance innovator Liz Lerman, and all the other artists who use their talents to increase awareness of the impact we each make on our environment. The watchword for my later years has been “awareness”—awareness of each moment I live and the consequences of each decision I make. As for the calendars, I have passed them on so that school children can make use of the lovely pictures.

Since I live in a swing state, I have been made painfully aware of what the millions of dollars pouring in to the 2012 election are buying. They are political ads accentuating the negative with ugly pictures, off-key singing, and repetitive accusations, which are most assuredly exaggerated on both sides. I keep thinking how much good that money could be doing for education, for clean waterways, for rural health care clinics, for food banks.What if instead the Super PACs used those donations to work on the most important national concerns in the name of the candidate or their party.  Such a bold move would give a powerful answer to a question suggested by the Dance Exchange Toolbox, “How does our body politic act as a resource to tell our stories and enact change?”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DNA, Family Traits, and Immortality

My Granddaughter Wilhe with my Great-Grands Isaac & Roslyn

 Paul and Nelle Cook, my parents, had nineteen grandchildren. Over the past year I have been able to spend a little time with all but three of them plus many of their children. Last September my late brother Don’s granddaughter was married in the presence of all of his seven children and their families. It warmed my heart to recognize my brother’s laugh, hear his wit, look into his eyes, and see his smile on many of his offspring. In addition, he passed along the Cook family writing gene, strengthened by the DNA from his wife Cherry, also a writer. Don was an overseas correspondent who worked first for the NY Herald Tribune and later for the Los Angeles Times. He published many books on modern European history and paid the school bills with scores of magazine articles. Enough of his offspring have been writers of one sort or another that his children dubbed writing The Family Trade.

In March I went back to my home territory of Philadelphia to celebrate my sister Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday in the presence of her six children, most of the grandchildren, and two great-grands. Again I saw in her progeny the familiar eyes, smiles, humor, turns of phrases, and facial expressions of my sister, my parents, and even my own children. Two of her sons wrote poems for their mother and others in the family wrote tributes.

My mother was an accomplished, although unpublished, writer who for many years sent out a monthly mimeographed blog-typemissive, called The Cookie Crock Letter. My brother David has written and published academic books, and Dorothy started and kept up several community newsletters. Our father wrote as needed in his work as a school principal, and for fun and inspiration he composed both doggerel and serious poems. There are writers among my other nieces and nephews, and both Robin and Melissa earn their living in part with the written word, while my son Kevin has done some fine translations of plays from Spanish to English. There’s definitely a genetic pattern there.

However that is not the “Donna Jean gene” (See post from July 10) that was celebrated by Kevin and two of my grandchildren, Natalie and Nathaniel. Here are some specifics from their skit that describe the gene:

Needing to have a framework to work within, but able to be fluid about the work itself.
Making sure things get done.
Being the responsible one.
Feeling like you are the one that has to fix things.

They also identified part of the gene they called the “Grand Summary Effect.” That happens when you listen to a long discussion and then, toward the end, take everything that has been kicked around for an hour and compress it into a clear summation. Everyone looks at you and says, “very well put.”

Donna Jean Chatting with Natalie at Brunch
In the skit, Nathaniel raised the question “How much of this is actually a choice, or something we were raised to be, and how much of it is the gene?” That opens up the nature vs. nurture debate, but right now, I’m just ruminating about DNA. In our nuclear family of five, Bill, Robin, and Melissa generated most of the fun, creativity, animation, adventure, and joie de vivre. Kevin and I, both Capricorns, often provided the structure, logistics, common sense and budget to implement the ideas flowing fast and furiously from the majority. It’s no surprise that I gravitated to administration, human resources, and public relations while Kevin became a theater technician, a lighting designer, and a stage manager. Natalie will soon be working as an AmeriCorps volunteer, Nathaniel is an engineer, and both have been involved in the technical aspects of theater.

In the presence of my gathered family during the birthday celebration I thought of them as a grand tapestry with threads that have come by way of all the in-laws with their rich and diverse DNA contributions combining with the strands my children got from the Cooks and the Dreyers. Humans deliberately breed plants and animals to accentuate certain characteristics. So far that has not been an overt part of human breeding, although there are doubtless subtleties that come into play as we are attracted to others and eventually pick a mate. Just as my offspring self-identify qualities that they also recognize in me I see Bill to some degree in all of them, and I note with joy the way the grandchildren display physical and behavioral traits of both their parents. Still, the miraculous part is that each individual is unique.
Roslyn with her Mother Torey

How lucky I am to have a new generation of in-law grandchildren and four great-grands to study and appreciate. The youngest of these—celebrating his first birthday later this month—looks so much like his father (the in-law) that it is startling. He also has his dad’s amiable personality. I’m sure his lawyer mom (my granddaughter) is represented in his make-up, but maybe we have to wait until he starts talking to discover her contributions. The other three already show the strong mixture of their parents and, much to my surprise, three-year-old Roslyn resembles a picture of me taken when I was four.

When you are celebrating your eightieth year, you know somewhere in the back of your mind that you won’t be here forever! But my DNA, however much it is diluted, will still be recognizable by the same techniques of analysis that famously identified the offspring of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

As I looked around the horseshoe-shaped table at my assembled family singing Happy Birthday, I thought of Bill and of the immortality that flows and will continue to flow from all the Bill and Donna Jean genes, further enriched by the in-law strains. Days later in the solitude of my home, I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s book and saw these words that provided the Grand Summary of my feelings, “…that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life.” *

* Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nigel's Friend Had a Party

In the lead up to Independence Day, I received an e-mail asking if I could bring Nigel and walk in the Penland Parade with a group representing the Mitchell County Humane Society. Because of the heat, dogs and owners were not walking the whole parade route but would join the marchers as they neared the waiting crowd at the center of the school’s campus. Remembering happy days of marching in parades as a child, I decided to dress myself in red, white, and blue and take Nigel in his red collar with matching leash to walk with the other dogs.

Now the main event of last week was not Independence Day, it was my celebration of eighty great years of life with those I hold most dear: my children and grandchildren with their spouses, and of course, my four great-grandchildren (altogether we number twenty-two). A dozen of them were at Penland for the parade, ice cream social, and fireworks. However, as I walked up the road I was focused on managing my cane and the leash and keeping Nigel from eating stray Tootsie Rolls (chocolate is poison to dogs) that were being tossed to the spectators. Suddenly I heard this roar of familiar voices yelling “Grandma! Grandma, Grandma!” and my heart did a few flips of perfect joy. Forgetting my usual reticence in public situations, I exuberantly shot my arm and cane up into the air, and Robin was somewhere with a camera.

For me, that picture captures the feelings I had for four days as I reveled in children’s glowing faces, young adults full of plans and promise, and successful middle-aged couples, all eager to make my wishes come true and solid in their support for my lifestyle and my daily choices. Thanks to the example provided by Bill and other family forebears, the Dreyer clan has lots of performers. So they put on a show, carefully tailored to who I am. They began with a reading from a favorite childhood book, featuring the common sense solutions of “The Lady From Philadelphia” (a sobriquet I earned somewhere along the way). Then Robin read a poem he had written, which so perfectly captured my life as it is now that I immediately decided it should be the blog post for this week. There was also a skit by my son and several grandchildren who identified traits they have in common with me as coming from the “Donna Jean gene,” some other readings, an endearing song parody (the work of two of the in-laws) and other appropriate songs sung by my granddaughter-in-law Polly who has taken Bill’s vacant spot as “singer-in-residence.”

We all feasted on trout and the produce from family gardens topped off with fabulous gluten-free cupcakes. Actually the good food never stopped all through the three-day celebration, which also included cooling off in the river, hiking, and bonfires (complete with marshmallows and s’mores). My cup has most assuredly been running over!

Nigel’s Friend
by Robin Dreyer

Donna Jean, Nigel's friend,
Walks the road from end to, oh, down there somewhere.

Helped out by a bionic knee,
When she gets home—a cup of tea.

Then she reads in a vibrating vest,
Which breaks up phlegm to help her rest.

She knits and sews and sometimes mends,
And keeps track of a lot of friends.

Who know they can count on these things three:
Sympathy, wisdom, and a cup of tea.

She writes an essay every week,
And on Tuesdays, gives the whole world a peek.

It might be a memory, or a creative fix
To an old-age problem—or politics.

And if you do something crazy—like attacking her dog,
You, too, might end up in her blog.
(Let that be a warning to all you raccoons out there.)

It turns out that when you get as old as our mother,
It's just one damn thing after another.

You can't do this because of your heart,
You can't to that because of some joint,
Some days you wake up and just say, "What's the point?"

Donna Jean has these days—she's not immune
But stubborn persistence is always her boon.

She talks to her doctor, drinks a Chinese potion,
Takes a long nap, rubs on some lotion,
Makes a healing broth, does a little dog play,
One way or another, she gets through the day.

An inspiration to us all, she keeps chugging along
And now I have come to the end of my song.

Donna Jean, Nigel's friend,
She walks the road, from end to, down there a ways.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Supreme Court, Health, and the Fourth of July

On the morning after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Healthcare Act, I awoke to a balmy day and set out at once with Nigel to greet the morning. The sun had just come up above the mountains to the east, and everywhere I looked the foliage was tinged with gold. When I got to the meadow, the mountain range to the west was in full view and as clear as a National Geographic photo. The sky above was bright blue and almost cloudless, and a rather brisk but warm breeze was blowing the leaves of the trees every which way. I skipped a few steps, which is not too easy with a walking stick in one hand and a dog’s leash in the other. So I resumed a natural pace and started singing instead. The weather forecast called for high temperatures, and I decided to have breakfast and then go grocery shopping while it was still cool enough for Nigel to come along and wait in the car.

After he wolfed down his morning meal and I packed away a bowl of granola with the last bit of fruit in the house, a piece of gluten-free toast with some peanut butter, and a cup of a gloriously hot, aromatic Assam tea, I grabbed our grocery bags and we headed out to Burnsville. There was no traffic, and the daily work on the highway had not yet begun. The world belonged to Nigel and me. The clerks were eager to help me find things and the checkout lady rang up my order while we chatted about the gluten-free products I was buying. She also avoids gluten and told me she loves Udi’s bread because it is so beautiful when it’s toasted.

The car was cool when I got in to drive home and there was still no traffic. I listened to the coverage of the Supreme Court decision and realized that although the word “healthcare” was used over and over, they were reporting on all the worst-case scenarios of inadequate or status quo insurance coverage and the changes that had to come in order for our country to provide care to all our citizens. A couple of days earlier I had watched a scary feature during the PBS Newshour on the obesity/diabetes epidemic sweeping the country and the high cost to the nation of poor eating habits. The new law provides for more preventive care; I hope that in addition the emphasis on prevention works its way into everyday life and choices. That is where sustainable health is forged. 

 Wellness has been a major interest of mine ever since my marriage in 1953 when I suddenly felt responsible for feeding my new husband and myself—and before long, my first child, as well. I first read the Adelle Davis books and then continued to study all aspects of food and health. Melissa, my youngest, once told me that when she and her brothers were little they thought that if they got sick I would yell down their throats and just make the germs go away. Driving back to my beloved mountain home, I was thinking about the things I had already done that day to care for my health: walking, singing, a good breakfast, shopping early to avoid the heat, and buying nutritious food.

Yet in spite of my devotion to healthy living and Bill’s own attention to exercise, he had a lengthy illness and died at the age of seventy-two. This was followed by own long illness and the struggle afterwards to rebuild my immune system and lung health. Medicare with a private medigap policy provided Bill with excellent care until he died. I have been a Medicare and medigap recipient for fifteen years and I’m grateful for it.  I also feel an obligation to myself and to my family to do whatever I can to stay well.

Two days after these ruminations, the Supreme Court decision was the subject of the Sunday TV talk shows, and Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being, aired a replay of an earlier interview titled “The Inward Work of American Democracy” that turned out to be philosophically relevant. The guest was writer Jacob Needleman, and, as often happens for me, his subject was one I have contemplated in the last year and written about on this blog: the pursuit of happiness. This scholarly man had been deeply interested in why the founders had included “happiness” in their document and also about the contemporaneous understanding of that word. He concluded that their definition might have been closer to “well-being” than to the current adolescent understanding of “happiness” as feeling good and having nice things. The founders believed that there is no happiness without virtue, that happiness depends upon our relationship with ourselves, and that the essence of love is to care for others. Needleman believes that such spiritual values are embedded throughout our constitution—another example can be found in the governmental structures that provide a means to reconcile differences.

Several quotes from the founders were included on the program, and I was struck by this one from The Federalist Papers: "What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

At the end of the hour, Krista Tippett asked Needleman what question he would pose for people to think about and elicited this response:

“If we can separate it out from all the right- and left-wing rhetoric, just step back into our independent mind for a moment and don’t worry about whose side you’re on or who’s good: What are the duties that are implied by our rights? We know the rights we have. We know the words.  What duties do we have? That is a question I would invite people to think about without any political agenda in their mind…I think that’s the thing I would say we really need people [to] come together to think. Not action groups…but thinking groups, because out of the good thought will come right action.” (from the transcript)

I’ve often heard it said that in a democracy, healthcare is a right, not a privilege. If it is a right, what are the duties implied by that right? Perhaps our pursuit of happiness begins with the pursuit of health.

I love my country. I also grieve for my country and the erosion of civil discourse. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the Fourth of July and my happy memories of celebrating with picnics, parades, and fireworks. This year I feel uplifted by our Supreme Court and its decision to uphold legislation that is at least a beginning to making healthcare universally affordable. I invite you to join my “thinking group” by leaving a comment. Happy Fourth of July to all and good health!