Work in Progress

I came across a story yesterday on the Internet about a young, obese woman who is the focus of a new MTV reality series, Chelsea Settles.  Naturally, I was drawn to the story because I wanted to know if Chelsea had lost any weight.  The pretty-faced Chelsea admitted to weighing 324 lbs. and hoped that a move to Los Angeles from her small, oppressive town in Pennsylvania would be the lightning rod for her weight loss plans and a new start in life.

Chelsea Settles

Chelsea Settles

The article did not directly report whether she realized her goals.  You have to tune in to MTV to find out and it’s unlikely that I will, but I was struck by one of the questions that the reporter asked Chelsea.   The reporter wanted to know if Chelsea was still a “work in progress” or was she finished after six episodes.

I am more than twice Chelsea’s age and I doubt I have ever faced the challenges that this young woman has, but let me lay it on the line right now:  I am still a “work in progress.”  I wonder when you ever stop being a “work in progress.”

I am always looking to lose a few extra pounds, say the right thing, improve my vocabulary, learn a new language, dress appropriately, be the “perfect” mother, you know, stuff like that.

Invariably, I fall short, become overwhelmed and decide to take a nap.  There’s nothing like a little sleep to refresh me and sharpen my outlook.  Still, I continue to set goals and try to chip away at them.   This blog remains one of them and I must admit, some days it feels like I set myself up to fail, particularly when my computer screen remains blank after an hour of steady staring.

Do you think Steve Jobs felt he had accomplished everything he wanted to when he died at 56 last week?  Unlikely.  Apparently, Jobs authorized his soon-to-be released biography because, as he told author Walter Isaacson, “I wanted my kids to know me.”  Jobs concluded his final interview with Isaacson by saying, “I wasn’t always there for them (his kids), and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”

Personally, I really benefited from Jobs’ commitment to the iPhone and all the technological breakthroughs that he spearheaded.  But I wouldn’t have wanted to be his child.  If you have to read a book about your parent to know him, then I think you were cheated out of some quality time.

On the other hand, I have always been there for my kids.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I could have helped Steve Jobs invent the iPhone if I wasn’t carpooling or making grilled cheese sandwiches.   Since I’m still a “work in progress,” there’s hope yet.


You’ve Got Mail…Or Not

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is under siege.   Mail volume fell from 213 billion pieces in 2006 to 177 billion pieces in 2009, a 17 percent decline in just three years.   By 2020, USPS deliveries are projected to plummet to a mere 150 billion pieces.

This still seems like a lot of mail to me.  I think if you have 150 billion pieces of mail, you need to keep the system going.   Yet, there are calls from different corners of the world, usually the right corners, (you can take that one of two ways) to privatize the U.S. Postal Service, lay off hundreds of thousands of workers and compromise or cancel those pesky benefits.

Legendary postal carrier Cliff Clavin

Legendary postal carrier Cliff Clavin

I like getting mail.  When I hear the mail drop in my box in the garage as I work upstairs, I interrupt my day to see what has landed.  The mail often includes stuff I have to shred immediately such as credit card and loan offers.  I own two shredders for this purpose and they get a workout after the mail arrives.  I never throw an intact piece of mail away as the prospect of identity theft haunts me.

In spite of the plethora of junk and bills, the mail typically contains something I want.  My kids and I each subscribe to at least one favorite magazine and there’s usually a thank you note or invitation we enjoy.

I know my mail carrier by name, Richard.  He is as dependable as the fog in my part of town and unfailingly cheerful.  Richard works hard hauling his sack of mail from door to door and puts my mail on hold when we go on vacation.  I reward him with a bottle of wine, but it hardly seems adequate for the valuable service he provides.

Some of the finger pointing over the post office’s financial straits has been directed at e-mail, which has replaced traditional letter writing.  I disagree.  I think the telephone rendered most letter writing obsolete a long time ago.  Now we e-mail or text when we don’t want to pick up the phone.

Personally, I try not to write anything personal in e-mails.  Why?  Because they can be forwarded with a click of a mouse.  Has this ever happened to you?  I know I’ve received a few e-mails that the sender would have preferred I not see.  I especially enjoy the drunken e-mails sent around midnight.  I haven’t seen a lot of them, just enough to inspire a tortured scene of degradation and disgrace in my first novel.

And then there’s the “Reply All” e-mail.  I plead guilty of using “Reply All,” but do so sparingly and reluctantly.  It never ceases to amaze me that people think their replies interest the collective e-universe.   Do all 15 recipients really need to know that SallySue is not available Tuesday or Wednesday because she is booked in high-level meetings, but that she could, if pressed, squeeze us in Friday?

While snail mail lacks the instant gratification that e-mail offers, I think it still has its place in civilized society and deserves our support.   Few services positively impact the taxpayer the way that our postal service does.   I can’t think of too many businesses that provide door to door service for 44 cents.

Since the early 1980s, the U.S. Postal Service has not received direct tax subsidies except for costs associated with accommodating disabled and overseas voters.  In other words, it has paid for itself until now.   There are a variety of complicated reasons for the USPS’ financial woes, but I am reluctant to alienate my handful of readers with my opinions any further.  Suffice to say, our mail carriers were not bundling subprime loans in their mailbags.

The James A. Farley Post Office in New York City bears the famous inscription that has become synonymous with our mail carriers:  “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  Apparently, only Congress has the power to get in their way.

Enjoy the Marvelletes’  “Please Mr. Postman.”   I don’t think my Internet server could inspire lyrics that yearn like this song does.


Application Season

‘Tis the season for applications at the Crowley home.  My daughter is applying to high school and my son is applying to college.  I am cooking a lot of food.  When my kids hunker down to do extended schoolwork or in this case, extended applications, I function like a combination cheerleader and short-order cook.  I check on my kids occasionally, talk them off the ledge if they are despairing, and provide liberal servings of turkey and grilled cheese sandwiches and steak fajitas.  This gives my son and daughter the strength to complete their tasks and I feel immense satisfaction that I am contributing on some level to their success.

Mention the word “application” and parents of teens shudder.  In my day, I applied to two colleges.  I was going to apply to a third, but the essay seemed like too much trouble and I felt confident that I would be accepted to one of my first two choices.  Times have changed.  My son will probably apply to nine colleges, which is considered on the low side.  The common application AKA “the common app” is supposed to alleviate some of the tedious data entry, but only four of the colleges to which he is applying accept the common app.

Some of the application questions elude me.  For example, my daughter has been asked to identify her favorite quote.   If I were asked this question, I would be dumbstruck.  The ability to summon up a favorite quotation represents a major hole in my education.  I can tell you the lyrics of a number of Top 40 songs that ruled the charts between 1970 and 1981 especially any Carly Simon, James Taylor or Carole King hits.  I specialize in these three artists’ recordings.

But I was never asked to memorize a single literary quote in my long education.  Now it’s too late because my memory is shot.  Anything from my life that I remember took place between the ages of 10 and 21.  I don’t know what happened to my brain after that, but I never learned all the words to a favorite song again, let alone a poem or quote from literature.

Sometimes I feel intimidated when I read a book that uses a lot of quotes from other sources.  I wonder, “Do these authors annotate everything they read and if so, where do they find the time, or do they have amazing memories, or do they just Google a lot?”   Personally, I Google a lot.  I’m not proud of this, but let’s face it, everyone does it.  I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag without Google and my virtual Thesaurus.

I do have a few sayings that I draw upon, and naturally they’re from my mother who could quote Shakespeare if prompted, even though her daughter can’t.   They’re more like Patsy proverbs because that was my mom’s name and her words communicated useful thoughts like a proverb does.   She often told me, “Simplicity is the key to style,” advice I have taken to the extreme at times.

My mom also told me “not to get attached to material things,” counsel that I did not appreciate when it was dispensed but has carried me through many a disappointment.

I think if admissions officers really want to understand the essence of a student, they should ask them to identify and interpret a memorable quote from a parent or caregiver.   The variety of responses would open up a Pandora’s Box of emotions.  One thing I know for sure, you can’t Google those memories.

Here’s one of my favorite songs from Carole King.  I could sing this song in my sleep and probably have, just in case you were wondering.


Old Friends

Last week, I took a walk in the fog on my blog.  To be truthful, I do enjoy my walk, but I really didn’t like my post.   It had good descriptive qualities, but it lacked honesty.  I appreciated the positive feedback I received, but I felt unsettled.

Then, I received an e-mail from Sarah, one of my oldest friends, (not age, mind you, but length of friendship.)  “Wow,” she wrote, “I want to go for a long walk on the beach and talk to the birds…and you, of course.”  Boom!   Nothing like an old, true friend bringing me down to earth.  I laughed so hard I cried.

Some of my old friends

Some of my old friends

You see, I wrote about the birds and the names of the avenues and the surfers out of obligation.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are all things worth noticing.  I know this because I’ve read many books on writing that tell me I should notice everything and be specific as possible.  Therefore, I included an explanation and some thoughts on the endangered snowy plover.

But how much do I really think about the snowy plover on my walk?  When I have to meet my self-imposed blogging deadline, the snowy plover takes on a sense of urgency.  Otherwise, I barely notice any birds other than to duck and cover when they fly by in packs.

Most of the time, I walk with my friend Janet who I’ve known since the third grade and doesn’t want to be mentioned in my blog.  Suffice to say, we yack the entire four miles and by the time we’re done, I’ve barely noticed that time has elapsed let alone the snowy plover and the surfers.

This brings me back to Sarah.  Sarah and I were born around the same time and shared space in the nursery at St. Mary’s Hospital.  Although our parents knew each other, we did not become acquainted until we were 13.  We’re almost 52 so we’ve known each other well for almost 40 years.

I don’t get to see Sarah as often as I’d like as she lives two hours away.   It doesn’t matter.  When I see her, we pick up where we left off and she dishes me in a way that only someone who has known me for 40 years can do, ribbing me in her e-mail about a previous walk we shared on the Santa Cruz beach where I donned a blue terrycloth jogging suit that I accessorized with penny loafers and an Italian satchel draped across my body.  Of course, I give it right back to her, but her wit often trumps mine.

I feel very lucky to have a good number of old friends.  Although I’ve grown up in a large city, I’ve lived in a small community where so many of my schoolmates still reside.  I went to college across the Bay and made new friends who, because of my advanced age, are my old friends now.  And I treasure them.

Old friends sparkle like diamonds.  They light up the room in a party and I am immediately drawn to them.  My old friends absolutely judge me and tell me what they think to my face.   We celebrate milestones together because we’re roughly the same age.   I don’t have to explain that I am the youngest of six children; they know the names of my brothers and sisters, my parents, my late aunt Margie, my husband and my children.  They know that I don’t like vegetables and that a long time ago, I drank like a fish.  They get my humor and I relish theirs.

As I said before, I feel very lucky.  I have new friends, too, folks that I have known only 15 or 20 years and or maybe just 15 or 20 months.  I love them dearly, but they really only know the “adult” Nancy and sometimes, I just want to go back to that time when I was young and didn’t have a care in the world.

When my mother turned 70, my sister threw my mom a birthday party and invited all of her old girlfriends.  I remember my mom being asked how she felt now that she had reached 70 years of age.  She answered, “I feel like I just turned 13.”

Why wouldn’t she?  She was celebrating her birthday with her old friends.


A Walk in the Fog

San Francisco can be so miserably cold and foggy you have to take a walk to warm up.  About three days a week, I suit up wearing several layers of fleece and head out to the walking path that borders the Great Highway next to Ocean Beach.

To the uninitiated, this intersection of land and sea may appear unwelcoming, desolate and grey.  It’s grown on me to the point where I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather start my morning.

The path begins where the Great Highway meets Sloat Blvd, just west of the San Francisco Zoo.  Built in 1983 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission with monies from the Clean Water Act, the route is an easy one, stretching two miles from Sloat Blvd. to Lincoln Way, which borders Golden Gate Park.  It follows a straight line, with the occasional rise and fall.   Its straightforward topography makes the course an ideal choice for small children and old people to recreate, and there are plenty who do.

Snowy Plovers at Ocean Beach

The salty air assaults and invigorates me the moment I get out of my car.   I can’t see the ocean right away as the sand dunes obscure my view, but I can hear the rhythmic sound of the waves lapping the beach.

I look to the right and notice the outer Sunset homes and apartments sandwiched together like a Giant hoagie…grey, brown, white pieces of meat with an occasional tomato or yellow pepper.   The bright-colored houses amuse me.  I always imagine that the owners are overly optimistic people who think the sun will come out soon.  It almost never does.

Barefoot surfers clad in full body wetsuits cross my path and bravely enter the Pacific.  They suffer from serious bedhead, but it hardly matters given their sleek physiques.  I believe the 55-degree ocean, bracing wind and ubiquitous fog freezes their body fat off.

I mark my progress by the streets that bisect the Lower Great Highway…Santiago, Rivera, Quintara, Pacheco, Ortega, Noriega, Moraga, all named for Spanish explorers and pioneers and in alphabetical sequence, which is reassuring for someone like me who prefers an ordered procession.

The final four street names before the park provide an introduction to 19th century American history:  Lawton and Kirkham, two American generals; Judah, the forgotten engineer who dreamed the Transcontinental railroad; and Irving (Washington), the famous American author who wrote the short story Rip Van Winkle.

Golden Gate Park and a large expanse of Ocean beach known as Kelly’s Cove beckon at Lincoln Way, but after nodding to the newly renovated Murphy’s Windmill at the base of the park, I turn around and head back.  At Noriega, I cut across the Great Highway and walk the sea wall path next to the ocean where soft grasses and waxy ice plants attempt to hold the bordering sand dunes in place.

I’m not a bird watcher, but I am drawn to the protected snowy plovers that gather in an assembly at the water’s edge.  They are small, cute and apparently, very social.  They travel in packs of hundreds.  From what I have observed, they mostly sit on the beach and talk to each other, an activity that strongly resonates with me.

Amidst the snowy plover convention is a smattering of fishermen who plant their poles in the sand and cast their lines into the approaching waves.  They wear hip-high boots and waterproof jackets to protect themselves against the unpredictable surf.

Ocean Beach apartment

At Taraval, the seawall path ends and I resume my walk on the other side of the highway and a few short blocks to the end.  After four miles of strolling in the damp fog and wind, my hair has grown wider and is in desperate need of a flat iron.  But my soul has been nurtured by the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the ironic Sunset District beach culture.  I’ll sleep well tonight.


My Brush with 9/11

I feel a little like Forrest Gump.  If you saw the movie, the simple-minded Forrest had an uncanny ability to be present at every major world event.  I was not visiting New York during 9/11 so the parallel isn’t exactly straight, but my husband, F.X., had just arrived in Manhattan a day earlier.

I had talked to F.X. on 9/10 and all seemed well.  He was staying in mid-Manhattan at the Edison Hotel, having traveled to New York on business.

The phone rang early the morning of September 11 and I answered it, expecting a wake-up call from my husband.   My brother-in-law Joe, F.X.’s oldest brother, said hello and immediately asked me if F.X. was OK.  “Yes, of course,” I replied.  “Why?”

9.11 New York skyline

9.11 New York skyline

“Because two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said.

The last time I had visited New York had been in college so I had little understanding of Manhattan geography.   I knew F.X. had a meeting that morning, but I did not know where.  When I told Joe that F.X. was staying in Midtown, he concluded that F.X. was probably not in danger.

I hung up and began shaking violently.  My three-year-old daughter slept soundly in F.X.’s spot, next to me in bed.   I called for my son and turned on the TV.  The news unfolded in front of me and I became distraught, jarring my little daughter awake.  I dialed F.X.’s cell phone number repeatedly to no avail.  “All circuits are busy,” droned the operator.  F.X. also carried a pager so I tried paging him, over and over and over again.  My children gathered close to me, sensing my fear and began to cry and call for Daddy.  I tried to be strong, but failed miserably.

About a half hour later in what seemed like an eternity, F.X. miraculously got through to me on his cell phone and explained that he was about four and a half miles removed from this enormous catastrophe.   Once I heard from my husband, my children recovered instantly and went about their business.  My two older stepchildren called in a desperate panic and I vowed to them that their Dad was safe.  I had recovered my adult self and appeared in control again, even though I really did not feel that way.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, F.X. was able to call me and report on events.  He observed thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers retreating from downtown on foot covered in debris and soot, like refugees from a war.  His meetings were obviously cancelled, which left him with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  He walked the streets, visiting a nearby fire house and offering condolences.  He talked to me on the phone as he ventured closer to the Financial District and began coughing and choking on the toxic, putrid air.

I urged him to turn back, get in a car since planes weren’t flying and come home.   I worried about biological warfare.  My overactive mind went crazy with endless and lethal possibilities.

F.X. remained calm and resolved to wait it out until the planes resumed flying.  He connected with friends, Tom Rocca and John Meyer, who also were stranded in New York on business.  They kept each other company for a day and then attempted to board a plane at JFK on Thursday to return home when the airports presumably had opened.

Machine gun-toting National Guardsmen ran security that day.  A trip to the bathroom turned into a police lineup with suspicious riflemen poised to fire over one false move.   Several hours later, the F.B.I. arrested the co-pilot and the flight was cancelled.  The scheduled take-off had evolved into a snare to smoke out more suspects.

This final experience convinced F.X. and his friends to rent a car and flee New York.  I’ll never forget when he called me for the umpteenth time that week and reported that he had crossed the George Washington Bridge and had merged onto Interstate 80 West heading home.   I had held it together once I knew F.X. seemed safe, but my sense of relief at his departure from New York was palpable.

He and Tommy and John rented a blue Ford LTD, slapped an American flag on the side window, and drove 1,600 miles straight in 25 hours, landing in Denver where the airport had just re-opened.  Wheedling their way onto the first flight out of Denver to San Francisco the next morning, F.X. and his friends made it home safely on Saturday morning.

My son had a scheduled soccer game at Larsen Park on 19th Avenue in San Francisco at 10 a.m., which F.X. was determined to attend and he did.  Our family felt overwhelmed and lucky and grateful and deliriously happy that F.X. had finally come home to us from work.

Tragically, 2,977 people did not receive this same consideration on 9/11.


The Boys of Fall

This Saturday, a third generation of Crowley men will suit up for the St. Ignatius (SI) Varsity Football Team of San Francisco and do battle in their season opener against Marin Catholic.  Expectations are running high.

Future Ignatians Kerry, left, and Chris Crowley

Future Ignatians Kerry, left, and Chris Crowley

After SI went 2-7-1 last season, my husband, F.X., a passionate SI football alumnus, proud papa and uncle, believes the team has the potential to win every game.  My goals are more modest.  I want the boys to be safe.

Last year’s football season gave me pause.  My son, Kerry, began the season with a badly sprained ankle that he sustained in pre-season practice.  He recovered and played and ended the season with 13 carries and a concussion against a formidable St. Francis team.

My husband calls Kerry “the little engine that could.”  His 5’ 7”, 175-pound frame has been finely honed and strengthened through a rigorous regimen of practices and weight lifting.  Kerry’s cousin, Chris, is 6’2″ and the center on SI’s offensive line.  We are counting on him to block for Kerry and protect him from all evil tacklers.

As excited as we are for the season to begin, we also feel the absence of Chris’ father and F.X.’s brother, John.  A little over three years ago, John succumbed to pancreatic cancer, leaving his lovely wife and two young sons, Chris and his brother Jimmy.  John’s extended family and hundreds of friends and colleagues filled St. Ignatius Church on Fulton Street to mourn his passing.

John played football at SI, too.  He also sailed the world as a merchant marine and cooked enthusiastically, studying recipes and sharing tips he gleaned from PBS cooking shows.  He hosted Christmas dinner, serving up generous portions of prime rib and manicotti made from scratch.  He loved to laugh and tell a good story.  He was well-read and smart, but the smartest thing he ever did was marry his wife Charlene.  She anchored John, and together they raised and adored their two boys.

I like to think that John is watching over Chris and Kerry and Jimmy, who plays SI Junior Varsity football.  We welcome support from heaven where John surely is residing.  We miss you John.  Go Wildcats!


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