Monday, February 15, 2010

Six Months

There is a feeling I have quite often after awakening from a dream where I have an odd sensation that the dream was not a dream at all, but a parallel life I am living. Mostly this shadow is present after a BAD dream. The details so vivid and so unsettling I go back and examine as much detail as I can reconstruct to see if I recognize anything from my awakeness.

It has been exactly six months since we returned from New Zealand. Six months today. February 15, 2010. And I find myself forging through my memory wondering how much of that whole experience was real...and what has been corrupted by my imagination wanting it to be so good.

"New Zealand" is starting to feel like an event that happened to me rather than my life. Sort of like a dream. There is a quality of evaporating. Of melting. And I am desperate to fortify the experience. Somehow to package it so I can try it again. When I first got back, I declared I would "write a book" about our experience. I have always had a book in me. I am pregnant with a book. I am longing for the book to write itself. But six months has gone by and the book hasn't budged. The stories are sitting so patiently. Like children waiting to be called on.

I know writing takes discipline. I signed up for a writing class at the University of Chicago no less and missed half the sessions due to...MY SCHEDULE. My WORK SCHEDULE. The New Zealand gift of no schedule has vanished. I signed up for a writer's group. Maybe that will coax out the chapters.

I consider writing more blog posts. Is life at home worthy of the blog? Is writing about the women in Lincoln Park who exchange their dog's names, but not their own as interesting and meaningful as writing about Moko the porpoise or about the Maori?

Is my adventure and the freedom and wonder of starting over still compelling now that I'm home?

We'll see.

Six months later. No book. No blog. Damn it! I need to bring some kiwiness to Lake Shore Drive. I need to tap the wisdom and quiet of Down Under to illuminate this path right now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Feeling the beast

Shortly before I left Chicago last month to return to New Zealand, one of my dear friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. This news has become a semi-annual event. Despite all of the Walks for the Cure and hopeful pink ribbons and fundraisers and medical advancements, breast cancer seems to be part of the fabric of life. The angst of my generation.

I have been grateful and blessed not to have had the call back from my gynie that something is amiss after the annual wrestling match with the mammogram machine. But so many friends have had “that” call. That second visit. The biopsy. The radiation. The chemo. The hair loss. The nausea. The fear. The whispered updates in the powder room at someone else's party.

After each surrogate scare, I become more dutiful in terms of my own breast exams. I pocket the card from Dr. Kamel instructing me on the proper rotation of my rigid fingers over my nipples and lymph nodes. I soap up in the shower and awkwardly press and fumble about, not exactly sure what I'm looking for and hopeful that if there is a mass, I'll be able to feel it. What does IT feel like?

This is my experience with breast cancer as of yesterday - June 9 - at 5:00 p.m. I am an informed bystander. A not too reliable examiner.

Here's what happened next.

I am leading a workshop for a client here in Gisborne. The workshop is being held in the Catholic Church - not because the topic is at all just so happens the church meeting room is the best space she could find to hold this session. As we are wrapping up, I notice a woman sort of beckoning and gesturing through the small window in the back door. My client notices as well and some sort of sign language is exchanged, and I go back to the final round of thank you's and assorted closing remarks.

My client, Dee [not her real name] stands up and makes the following announcement:

"Before everyone leaves, I want to make you aware that Sue Smith [not her real name either] is here in the church. Sue was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she is willing to let you feel the lump in her breast so you know what one feels like."

I am not quite sure I understand what Dee has just said. "Are you saying Sue is asking if we want to feel her breast?" I stammer, just in case I'm completely off base.

"Yes, she wants women to know what cancer feels like so they have a better chance of finding it themselves."

Unreal. Surreal. I am already late to pick up Brent and in super rush mode, but I am compelled to do this.

Dee and I walk into the church hallway. It is dark and cold. We approach a small chapel where Sue is praying. Dee kneels and crosses herself before entering the chapel. I hover modestly, still wondering if it is too late to back out of this incredibly private moment facing down the invasion in this woman's body.

We then go into the "loo" and Sue starts undressing. Her blue sweatshirt is tossed onto a small garbage bin on the floor - there is no other furniture except the toilet and a wet sink. She is explaining that she found the lump during her shower and is a nurse and thought maybe other women might appreciate a close-up of this cancer monster. She peels off her shirt and her bra. Her two naked breasts are there - in front of me. I've never seen another woman's breasts this close. Not even my own mother.

Sue has very large breasts with huge tan nipples. I can see her veins, like foot shoulders creeping just under her pale skin. I don't want to stare, but she is directing me to "look right at my breasts." She raises her arms and at that point, I notice a slight distortion in her right breast. It is sort of lopsided. Uneven.

She places my hand under her breast and together we are prodding and pressing. My other hand searches on top. I feel a bit voyeuristic, but mostly curious and careful. I feel a plum. No -- more like firm spongy ball. It moves, but it is definitely in there. Playing hide and seek under our intertwined fingers.

That's the beast, she says. No irony or bitterness. Just the statement. Almost like she's pointing to a small cat or house pet.

We are huddled in the bathroom, roaming over her most feminine limb. I want to be tender and respectful. I am in awe of this woman. She is standing before me. A complete stranger. She continues an almost methodical tour of her breast and then says, "I'm probably going to lose my boob. Maybe both of them." Offhandedly. Matter of fact.

I am moved beyond belief. I am in a Catholic Church. So very far from my own faith, but so obviously in the space of the divine. I am holding cancer in my hand. But I can also feel Sue's heart. Her humanity is so large, I am speechless.

The door opens. Another woman steps in...I need to use the loo she says. I'm not even sure she knows what she's interrupted. But it must look a little bit odd - a topless woman in the church toilet.

Sue gets dressed and heads into the meeting room. She tells me they will schedule her surgery on Thursday. I tell her I will pray for her. I cry all the way home. I have just met generosity. I have shaken the hand of magnificence. I touched the beast.....who lives in an angel.

What are friends for?

How many times have I responded with that question when someone thanks me for some mundane exchange of relationship reciprocity? In retrospect, I've used the term flippantly. Absentmindedly. Filing-my-nails tuned out...on automatic pilot.

Well, when you relocate to New Zealand for six months and happen to have a dog, you learn about QUARANTINE. Which basically entails spending more than you would on a first class round-trip ticket for the canine to fly cargo not to mention the expense involved for dozens of tests; and paperwork up the wazoo.

So, we moved here on an empty-nester whim, but what about the pooch?

What do to with your adored, spoiled, thoroughbred Havanese?

This is where the terms "stepping up" and "unequivocal love" and "separating the men from the boys" come in handy.

Jennifer and Scott hosted Baci for three months. It was only after I came home to reclaim her for a month that Jenn shared the fact that my brilliant "housebroken" pet had been pooping on the carpet EVERY MORNING she had been in residence. Nary a word of this bowel dysfunction was shared while I was away. I was appalled and aghast and embarrassed and even still, Jennifer and Scott agreed to take Baci AGAIN for the final 2 months of our time down under.

No way. I can't possibly impose like that. Even after the carpet cleaning!

So, Baci has been relocated to Patti and Michael's house for our final two months away. I hold my breath. I send a few tentative e-mails. Has the little princess behaved? Is she sleeping through the night? Barking too much? Going in the run?

All is well. No worries, reports Patti.

Until this morning, when she reveals that the little angel has gotten into the disgusting doggie habit of, you know, licking her, you know, never mind, you know. Apparently she's also scooting along the Persian carpets to wipe her, you know, and clean off any remaining - let's just say it - Shit. Now that Patti has let the cat out of the bag, she continues to share the lovely news that Baci has also had a couple of urinary leaks.

NOOOOO I scream to myself. I am truly mortified.

However....there's not too much one can do about doo doo so far away. Except get on their knees and praise the lord that they have friends like Jennifer and Scott and Patti and Mike who absolutely know what friends are for.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Talk about common sense....

We are in Wellington for a weekend in the "big city." Brent is ecstatic to be somewhere with any sign of life on the street after 8:00 p.m. I note this both because it is true....we do live in a small town, and I haven't mentioned Brent for awhile and he likes the occasional reference in the blogosphere.

The cab driver is headed back to the hotel. It is probably about 10 o'clock or so. Rainy night out. Not terribly treacherous. Not terribly late. Which is to say that conditions are good on the roadway. All of a sudden, I see a barricade of flashing lights just in front of slow down...there is obviously some heavy duty police activity underway.

Seatbelt check mutters the cabbie.


Seatbelt check, he repeats. The cops set up these check points to make sure people are buckled up. If not, I get a ticket and a big fine.

Brent sighs with impatience. This scrutiny will cost us a few extra minutes...and extra bucks. But I am just fascinated by this extremely practical approach to safety. The cab inches up and the cop shines a megawatt light into the window. Next, he pokes a little machine at the driver. Our cabbie expels a couple of breathes - sort of spits at the thing - and states his name. Apparently the device is a breathalyzer with some type of recording device attached to instantly capture a possible DUI infraction. The officer glances at the two of us, safely belted, and waves us on.

We've passed. The driver is sober. The passengers are belt compliant. Simple and straight forward law enforcement.

I think about how Chicago dispatches its "traffic officers." They bundle up already obese men and women who haven't passed a physical since grade them at extremely congested intersections...give them a whistle ....and let them loose. As far as I can tell, even in the most acute cases of rush hour traffic, these guys have absolutely no impact. Buses still run red lights to back up the next three cycles of turning lights. Pedestrians still jaywalk. Drivers turn right from the middle lane causing all sorts of backups. But boy can those cops blow a whistle and gesture with a menace.

Back to the roadside blockade.

I continue to marvel at how a simple approach to complex issues can trump money, size, and sophistication. Arguably the Chicago police force is one of the best trained and most effective in the country. But, here on this little island "down under", they are going door to door [car door to car door] to tackle one of the most dangerous crimes of all - DUI. This is grass roots law enforcement at its best.

Just good common sense.

The End of Crackberries

The very first workshop I led here, a woman approached me at the podium as I was setting up my materials.

"I am in the middle of negotiating the sale of my house," she said quietly, "so I might need to take a phone call during your talk tonight." I stared at her blankly. I wasn't sure if I should congratulate her for being able to sell her house in this market....or just nod politely. "So, I'm going to leave my cell phone on in case I need to step out," she continues, sensing I'm not quite catching on here.

Oh, you're telling me that your cell phone will be left on during the workshop and that you may walk outside for a bit?

""Yes"", she nodded. "I didn't want to be rude or for you to wonder if I glanced at my phone from time to time."

Are you KIDDING I am thinking to myself. Someone looking at their phone during a workshop. Or seminar. Or meeting. Or in the middle of lunch. Or in the supermarket. Or on the freeway driving 70 miles per hour. This is standard operating procedure. Not only am I accustomed to the occasional buzzing, vibrating and errant iTunes interrupting any and all business and social interactions, I have grown numb to half of any group of people gathered together busily tapping their screens below the table as they text away, oblivious to the fact that REAL people are having REAL conversations in REAL time. Right in front of them.

I start the workshop and sure enough, about 20 minutes in, Carol discreetly picks up her phone and wanders outside. I find myself wondering if the sale is going ok and at the end of the night, she confirms that indeed, she made forward progress on the deal.

I've now facilitated eight workshops here in Gizzy and no one else has approached me at the beginning of a session with a similar apology or explanation.

They didn't need to, because people here don't use their PDAs when they are in meetings. I hadn't realized how accustomed I had become to doubletasking myself. Task 1: Facilitate any number of significant, critical conversations among clients that hire me to navigate them through difficult issues. Task 2: Try to quiet the noise in my own head when I see the inevitable participant doing their own private lap dance with their Blackberry.

I share this particular "difference" in culture and protocol with a group of women gathered last week to participate in a communication workshop. They are curious about the differences between U.S. executives and kiwis. I can see they expect me to hold forth with some profound observations about personality or leadership style or management perspectives.

I think for a moment or two. The biggest difference? Intellect? Nope. These kiwis are sharp. Personality? Hmmm...they are more informal, but no less professional. Confidence? Americans are confident...but New Zealanders are somehow more solid.

Actually, the biggest difference is that when I'm with a group of kiwis, everyone is here in the room. No one is on their cell phone. No one is on their Blackberry. The phone never rings.

They look at me astonished. Do people use their phones during meetings or lectures in the U.S.?


But that is so RUDE. [The women get as close to an uproar as I've seen]. Disbelief hangs in the room like a musty coat in the cedar closet.

Yes, it is RUDE. We call this addiction to immediacy "double tasking." And being efficient. We wear our 24/7 badge like an Eagle Scout. But while our fingers are busy being responsive, our attention is MIA. Why is returning an e-mail more important than returning my gaze?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

An apple for the teacher?

I've been invited to do a guest lecture at the Polytech - the local extension of one of the country's college systems. One of the students in the class saw my picture on the front page of the Gisborne Heraldread the article about my background coaching and teaching leadership in the U.S. arranged for me to come to class.

Judith, the student who caught my five minutes of Warhol fame, meets me at the front of the campus and escorts me to the classroom. As I enter the classroom, I immediately notice a very large bag of mandarins perched on the front table. The bag of just-picked mandarins is part of the class's thank you gift to me for my lecture [they also throw in a bottle of very nice locally produced Merlot and a hand signed card] and the mandarins, as it turns out, are from Judith's orchard. I am both touched by this gesture and eager to peel into these sweet little treats that are now in season in New Zealand.

But, don't you traditionally give the teacher an apple? Um...yes...but apples aren't in season. Mandarins are. And that's precisely the point!

We've been numbed by the fact that in any local grocery store, you can get ANY kind of fruit or vegetable ANY time of year. There is no such thing as being "in season." Because if Florida, Texas or California aren't producing grapes and bananas, well Chile and the Dominion Republic are.
With an abundance of organically grown produce from around the world, I can't recall ever wanting for any fruits or vegetables. It never occurs to me what "season" we are in, because I can buy whatever I want from somewhere.

The thought of restricting my purchases to locally grown products seemed irrelevant to me. Who cares where the truck comes from? Or the railcar? I'm not going to save the world by boycotting Oregon apples or avocados from California.

But when you are buying produce in New Zealand, those imports are being hauled literally half way around the world with a carbon footprint in size 12! So, once living here, I stopped buying imports. I buy only fruit and vegetables grown in New Zealand. Which means we haven't eaten strawberries since March; figs were perfect in April; and mandarins are over-the-top juicy RIGHT NOW.

When did we start obliterating the seasons? Who came up with the idea of manufacturing nature 24/7 just like an IT platform? Why do we need to have things flown and shipped and trucked to our tastebuds? This abundance didn't used to be disturbing to wasn't even abundant. Now I "do the math" in the supermarket and think about what I'm addition to the melon. How much gas and pollution does my fresh fruit salad create?

So - we have less variety in our produce bin - but it has so much more integrity somehow. My refrigerator feels more authentic. And, I LIKE the fact that I know what's in season. It has been a wake-up call for me. Do I really need to eat corn in December and watermelon at Thanksgiving? Those mandarins are delicious and I'll always remember that I taught the class in May - because of it's mandarin season.

Where have I been?

I feel sheepish that my last post was on March 23 - a full two months ago - when everyone knows you MUST update blogs three times a week. Or more. According to the social media gurus. Problem is, I didn't have much to say. And one of the principles I'm adopting about this blogging thing is to only blog when I have something [I think is] worth sharing.

In the meantime, I went back to the U.S. Spent five weeks "at home" doing various work and family things. Yes, had some culture shock re-entry. Most notably witnessing the distasteful behavior of drivers along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Nobody lets you in their lane. Even with a turning signal and more than enough space so as not to be rude and cut them off. This robotic way of driving doesn't happen down under. No one is in that much of a hurry or that late or that comatose or that distracted not to notice and respond to the angst of an honest driver just trying to make a lane change for G-d's sake!

So, I did my things at home. Reunions were sweet and meaningful. I noticed and apologized for tearing up a bit when I was with my friends....just like I am ginger when breaking an egg or testing a peach or tomato for ripeness, I felt that same careful protectiveness when I was with my "intimates." Especially sweet was a weekend up in Ann Arbor celebrating AJ's graduation from Michigan. My sister Wendy was a wonderful companion and the entire experience was sort of like ordering a banana split. This indulgence though was purely emotional - definitely a cherry on top!

But lots of my friends have sons and daughters graduating and they are spending time with their families. This is not blogworthy. Nothing exotic like my tales from New Zealand. As such, I've kept the lid on the box. It doesn't quite feel legitimate to blog about life in Chicago.

But, I'm back in New Zealand now. Have been for two weeks. Enough time to save up some good stuff. To observe and caress the daily aha's cropping up. To feel inspired again by this oasis of civility and innocence. Of simplicity and wisdom. Of little things with profound impacts.

I've missed myself writing.....