07 December 2008

Over the Hills and Everywhere...

"Yes, I was a seeker,
I sought Him both night and day,

I asked the Lord to help me,

He showed me the way.

Down in the manger,

Humble Child was born.

God sent us salvation

On that Christmas Morn..."

I guess I took a break from blogging, but certainly not from living. I can't exactly put my finger on the exact cause of my blogus interruptus, but there have been a few legitimate contributing factors.

When last I tapped out an entry, we were days away from an election. November was closing in fast. I was pleased with the outcome, at least nationally, and as I've watched the transition begin, I am sincerely impressed with the manner in which the president-elect is assembling his team, reaching out across party lines and also his affect of graciousness. This morning, I watched Tom Brokaw's interview with Barack Obama on "Meet the Press" and, again, I am amazed at manner in which his brilliance is co-mingled with equal parts of common sense and compassion. I truly do feel as if our ship of state is in supremely capable hands with this man at the helm.

The day after the election, Katie and I found ourselves on the phone for our daily lunchtime chat and then suddenly, after dissecting the election results she asked me, in a rather bewildered tone, "what are we going to talk about now?". We both laughed, realizing that we had been completely immersed in primaries, debates, sound-bites and "Palin-tology". Fortunately, however, it didn't take us long to realize that we could easily move onto other topics and our conversations have remained as lively and stimulating as always. I never doubted that for a second. We've never been at a loss for words - I love listening to her extrapolations and considered points of view and perspectives.

Speaking of Katie, she's been quite busy herself up in madcap Manhattan. Since my last blog, she's managed to find a new position - she's now assistant director with a progressive preschool on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which was only five blocks from her apartment until...she and John regained their gypsy ways and MOVED! John and Katie now live in the West 60's, near Columbus Circle and Central Park, and not only have they moved on, but they've moved up - to the 18th floor! NO MORE STAIRS and more square footage including......a dishwasher (and I don't mean John.). I'm told the kitchen is all stainless steel, high-tech appliances, hardwood floors and a terrace.

It was from this terrace that Katie had the odd and interesting experience of looking DOWN on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats as it passed by their street. She reported that she didn't realize the balloons weren't as tall as she had previously th
ought as they drifted past Thanksgiving Morning. I'm still waiting on interior photos...ahem.

However, in a display of nothing but pure, parental pride on my part, Katie had this photo published in "Gothamist".
(Taken from the kitchen window of their new apartment...nice view!). It should be noted that everything she has learned of photography she did NOT inherit from me.

Additionally, Katie has shared with us that she has been stepping out on John, but she's been completely upfront about it. Ignoring the wise adage never to date anyone at work, she's crossed that line and can frequently be found in the cozy company of a younger man. She did send me a photo of him and, admittedly, he's a handsome fella, having just celebrated his one year birthday. John is taking it as well as can be expected, admirably so, hoping I'm sure that it's a fleeting fling, but some days it's all Katie can seem to talk about. John must be a very strong, devoted man to stand by her like this. :-)

Justin has been doing great, too! He and Stephanie moved into a new townhome in Milton, West Virginia (home of Blenko Glass!), and both of them have been working hard with his Dad in preparing for the opening of the shiny, new "Direct Buy" store in Cross Lanes, West Virginia. They had their grand opening last Saturday and by all accounts, things are going great.

Justin doesn't check in every day with chatty phone calls which means I call him at least every other day for updates and news. He was wildly excited by the first snowfall a few weeks ago and stayed up extra late just to watch the flakes fly. This is the first time my West Texas born son has lived among mountains and it's been quite a new experience for him and North Carolina born and bred Stephanie.

Stephanie's Mom and Grandmother visited in late October for a long weekend and took in "Bridge Day", marveled at the fall colors, visited Hawks Nest, Charleston and Huntington. I spoke with Steph's grandma the week after she returned and her first comment was, "I had no idea how beautiful West Virginia is! I want to go back soon!". Needless to say, I believe she was quite impressed. I know the kids enjoyed their North Carolina visitors immensely.

In the time since I last blogged, Stephanie and Justin have added another year to their age - born exactly two weeks apart, they are now the ripe old age of 22. Apparently Justin is carrying on the male Cook tradition of enjoying the companionship of older women, even if that older woman is only older by two weeks! My Dad frequently points out that he, himself, married an older woman - my mother being one year and one month older. He has never let her forget it and, fortunately for my Mom, she simply ignores it knowing she can outdo anyone in this house with both hands tied behind her back.

And then, of course, there has been work. Lots of it! This has been a busy time where I work and we're growing fast. For as dismal as this economy has been, and continues to be, it's been great for our business. We have been accelerating in production which means that I have been hovering over and tinkering with all manner of Excel spreadsheets. They are growing longer and longer and longer which means sales are climbing at a very nice pace.

Last Monday evening, I was invited to have dinner with our president, George, out of Greenville, SC, and my boss Rich, here in Wilmington, along with my friend David, who is a manager at the Greenville office. In fact, when I first interviewed for this position back in June, George and Rich were present at what I affectionately refer to as "the first interrogation". I told them this past Monday Evening, over escargot (they made me take a bite), duck, scallops and my own filet mignon, that if I had realized that the true nature of my work would be almost specifically accounting and so overwhelmingly statistical in nature, I would have thanked them for the opportunity to meet them, given each of them a warm handshake and gracefully pulled myself out of the competition. I knew the title of the job was "Operations Manager" and "Branch Office Administrator", but that struck me as rather vague and, quite candidly, I just assumed I would be pushing paper and typing a few letters and maybe, on rare occasions, filling out a check request. Ha! Was I ever wrong.

Who knew there were 22 column spreadsheets, complete with formulas and functions to figure out, just waiting for me to fill in and that I would find myself juggling New Business Reports, Issue Reports, Profit, Loss, Expense and Production Reports and that , the totals on each of these were tied into each other and must be reconciled weekly and monthly; that each columnar total had to be accurate in order to tie in to concurrent reporting and that monthly totals had to be broken down by product, type and agent! I had absolutely NO IDEA what I was heading into and thank God I didn't.

Fortunately, when we started, we were an office of three: Rich, Robert and me. The production was easy to track and the totals were more than manageable giving me the chance for some very real and serious "on the job" training. Another facet of all of this is that I was put in charge of recruiting and it's funny now, 8 agents later, but it took me a while to realize that each person I was interviewing could potentially result in longer spreadsheets, more tracking, more Excel spreadsheets! Oy! In fact, with each new hire, my work increased exponentially. The correlation between recruiting and the increased accounting load took a little while for me to understand - here I was, looking for people who would inevitably make my work more complex and numeric. How crazy is that? Well, duh, of course that was the point! I just didn't initially, back in what I now refer to as "the salad days", quite understand the machinations of it all.

So of course now, when I interview people at a first briefing, I size them up and, as I chat up the really sharp applicants, realize that a sterling criteria can be distilled into one simple question: Which one of these people possess the ability to make my work even MORE overwhelming and elongate my "new business report" to quadruple digit rows? Putting aside fear for my own private sanity, I realize it's my mission to facilitate in the hiring of the folks who have the potential to provide me with the greatest headaches and, every now and then I glance at the one hallowed spot among the agent mailboxes that houses the extra large size of Advil that Rich has placed within convenient reach of my desk. As Rich always says with a smirk..."I'm a giver...".

Now, what has been truly amazing and unfathomable for me, this person who has always preferred the currency of words, is how much I have grown to enjoy my work. I know, I'm stunned by it myself. I can't believe how much I have been fascinated by how this business has grown from day one. I have come to discover and covet the giddy, satisfying buzz one feels when all of my columns reconcile TO THE SECOND DECIMAL POINT. I have found myself playing with mathematical functions on the Vista Version of Excel and learning how to correspond those totals to other spreadsheets automatically and being astonished when they work just like they're supposed to. It's some crazy stuff I'm learning!

Now, I write this as the daughter of a man who has spent his entire career and retirement reveling and basking in the joy of numbers. My father was an accountant for several coal companies throughout his successful career. My dad adores numbers. He is an Excel spreadsheet genius. My Dad has one of the sunniest dispositions I have ever encountered and I don't recall ever finding him in a low mood. Ever. He can find sunshine in almost every situation. He's just a really happy guy and always has been and he smiles quite easily and often. I must tell you, however, that when he opened up a file I sent him, sharing with him the sort of work I do, this man's face lit up in mega wattage. He looked up at me and said, "Wow, this is what you do? My goodness, you have a GREAT job! If I were younger...".

He's been proud of my writing. He would always compliment my newspaper columns which he read faithfully for the five years it ran. He was always pleased to see me published in "Wilma", "Greater Wilmington Business Journal", and enjoyed reading my work in "PC Magazine" both online and in the printed magazine however, I have rarely seen him light up as he did when he truly discovered the scope of work I am doing. I think my conversion from Microsoft Word to Microsoft Excel has made this man ecstatic. I laugh at him as I send him updated versions of my new business report, so proud is he that back in October he actually printed one out and taped the entire thing together which took 13 sheets of paper and gave me to display in the office. I don't think he ever printed any of my articles and taped them anywhere. Who knew that a spreadsheet held such power? I do believe that, as far as my Dad is concerned, "I HAVE ARRIVED". I believe he probably imagines that my new-found fascination with this genre of work is probably due to a recessive accounting gene (from his contribution to my DNA), that has FINALLY, at LONG LAST, awakened xeroxed itself.

Now, here's the part that kind of has me a little concerned. Most people claim that they "leave their jobs at the office", as well they should, right? Historically, without someone pointing a gun or a paycheck at me, I would never voluntarily open an Excel Spreadsheet up at home. It's like I could find 10,000 other things to do on a computer without ever considering opening a blank spreadsheet on one of my home computers. I haven't confessed this in print before and maybe it's the reason I haven't blogged because I know I have a tendency to turn this blog into a bit of a confessional but hey, it's good for the soul, right? Here's the issue and it's not easy to write about but, well, I have been keeping track of my finances, receipts, expenditures, the whole ball of wax. I now save ATM receipts and I log them, along with gasoline purchases, even freaking small Dunkin' Donut receipts aren't safe from my control and reportage. Frankly, I'm a little scared. A mere year ago I would throw those things away and never think twice and now, almost every evening I find myself fishing out receipts in my purse from purchases made that day and it's kind of freaking me out. I mean, I try and play it cool and still maintain the facade of the crazy blond, spreadsheet unencumbered ditz, but it's getting harder and harder to hide my new hobby.

I think I'm turning into my Dad. I look in the mirror and I look the same, but I can't deny the fact that I update my personal finance spreadsheet on a daily basis. I know, I know, admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? But the thing is, work, my family, they're all enabling me! Should I add another "AA" to my repertoire? Is there, in fact, an "Accounting Anonymous"? I don't think I have time to add another 12-Step group to my schedule. This may well prove to be an addiction I may have to make peace with.

Speaking of AA, I was elected the Intergroup Rep from my home group a few weeks ago which means that I attend a meeting at headquarters every other month to report back to my home group the goings on at our local main office. It didn't sound like that big of a deal so of course, I accepted the role and figured it would basically involve keeping up with information such as new meetings in the area, methods of reaching out to the community, etc., Sounded harmless enough, right?

On the third Thursday of October, I arrived at my first meeting at Intergroup, and took my place among the other home group reps and, upon being warmly greeted by the head of Intergroup here in Wilmington, was handed an agenda and some accompanying papers that were to be discussed. I sat down in my chair, opened up the papers to see that it contained, what else, a spreadsheet with budget information and Intergroup assets, expenses and all manner of pertinent financial information and a proposed budget for next year. I just sat there, after leaving four minimized spreadsheets on my work computer amid my cluttered desk, thinking I was in a "safe place" at local AA headquarters, to be hit with budgets and expenditure forecasts? Egads, I thought. I can't get away from this stuff! Even AA isn't a safe haven for a burgeoning numbers addict. I had to laugh. There I was trying to be a "normal" recovering alcoholic and they hand me paperwork to facilitate my newest addiction. I shared this experience with a couple of trusted AA friends who wisely offered, "Susie, this is probably God doing for you what you couldn't do for yourself...". Figures.

On January 12, 2009, I will celebrate (God-willing) five years of no longer taking a drink. Now...I take a number. What a crazy world, isn't it? Sobriety remains full of surprises and I continue to be grateful for each one of them. One day at a time, of course.

Between work and work, I have turned my attention to rearranging the upstairs of my home. Since Justin moved in July, I have gained incredible amounts of square-footage. There is so much space up here now. My kind and generous boss, Rich, graciously gave me a beautiful and very heavy desk and I love it. After he and his lovely wife (and Bobby) delivered it one Sunday Afternoon, my Mom and Dad came up to see it (it's a really nice desk), and as I was contemplating how to get it into what used to be my old office, my Mom brilliantly suggested, "Why don't you use it in the loft - leave it right where it is?". I thought about it for two-seconds and realized it was pure genius. It offered me plenty of room, quick access to my beloved books in the built in shelves, and freed up another room because I wasn't really using the loft for anything. My Dad helped me set it up and it fits perfectly and I don't know what to do with all this space!

Of course, change begets change, right? And so I soon decided that I would turn what used to be my office into my bedroom so that necessitated more moving (and sore muscles) and that, of course, meant that I became a fan of Craig's List. In fact, I tell people that my house is now decorated in "Early Craig's List". Let's see - in the past few weeks, I have snagged a stained glass window which overlooks the open space that used to house that dreadful bird aviary, an almost new barely used Sharp flat screen TV, a 3 year old Kirby G-6 Vacuum that originally cost $1200 that I got for $100 and has ALL the attachments and sucks out dirt you had no idea was lurking in places you can't imagine! And yesterday, my Craig's List surfing resulted in an antique pie safe that my Dad and I secretly picked up and surprised my Mom with for her birthday which is December 13th - when she'll celebrate being a spry 85 years young. She loved it and it looks GREAT! Craig's List is like sports shopping and I enjoy it immensely except for one thing - the spelling drives me nuts on there and one word in particular makes me scream - people advertise tables that one eats at as "dinning room tables" and my gosh, do you have any idea how prevalent the misspelling of that word is? I want to shout - there aren't THREE N'S in there people! I know it's a crazy pet peeve, but what about spell check? Spell check is our friend and I'm hardly flawless but how can you look at "dinning" and NOT see something amiss? Sometimes I have to take a walk after seeing so many ads for "beautiful dinning room table - it will look great in your dinning room!". What in the world is a dinning room? Moments like that, I just have to get up and take a walk or clean an aquarium or I can be found muttering...DROP the DOUBLE N!

Speaking of aquariums, the fish are thriving and multiplying and every week I have a pair of pink convict cichlids that multiply some more. If anyone reading this in the Wilmington, North Carolina area would like about 100 baby pink convict cichlids and knows how to spell the word "DINING (as in DINING ROOM TABLE), I would be glad to set you up. These pink convicts are proliferate and they're such GREAT parents. Really, it's fascinating to watch them - they will fight off intruders (including my hand which has been bitten many times when placing fry food in the tank) with a remarkable, primitive ferocity. The parental instinct in these fish is incredible. They will scoop the babies in their mouths, dig sand caves in the corner and spit them out. Of course, even pink convict babies don't listen and within about ten seconds, they sneak out of the safe place and will wander back out into the open tank but, ever vigilant Mom and Dad race in and corral them right back home. It's fascinating and a lot of fun to observe.

And here we are in December. How in the world did that happen? Where did this year go and I know it's redundant and I say it every single year but my gosh, in the words of John Mayer, "STOP THIS TRAIN". Time is flying by so very fast. We were at our neighbors yesterday morning for their annual neighborhood Christmas Brunch where all manner of soups, sweets and neighbors catching up with neighbors was bountiful as it always is. It's always so much fun to see these wonderful people in our neighborhood (even if most of them were McCain supporters) who we see walking around during the rest of the year, gardening, mowing, raking or watching their kids move away because we all have kids who have grown up, but never really having the chance to truly catch up with what's been going on. The Freshwaters afford us this opportunity every December and we all look forward to it. This year, it was BYOB (bring your own bowl). We had a fantastic time and my Dad enjoyed hugging all of our female neighbors and ignoring their respective husbands. He's such a flirt and always in his glory.

This is our ninth Christmas in this town and I moved here with adolescent kids who have grown up and moved North (and who still delight in calling me at odd hours to report that "MOM, it's SNOWING RIGHT NOW!", always to get the response from me, "I'm so happy it's you...and not me!". But still, I revel in the enthusiasm with which they greet it and then I wonder to myself, how in the world did I raise kids who like cold weather and frozen precipitation? Was it something I ate during my pregnancy? Did I watch Rudolph too many times? Was it the ice cream I scarfed down? How did these Southern bred kids become Yankees???? (I know, Justin lives in WV, but as far as I'm concerned, that qualifies him for a Yankee if, for no other reason than climatological data).

Unfortunately, Justin will not be able to make it in because his boss told me that he has to work the day after Christmas. Of course, his boss is his father and from what I can tell in talking to both of them, they're having a great time working together in this mammoth business venture! It's fun to hear them speak of each other in a way that implies they are truly working closely and well - father and son. Pretty cool. Quite a blessing, indeed. From what I can tell, there's a lot of mutual respect going back and forth between them. I love that.

Katie, however, will be arriving on December 23rd and we can't wait! We'll certainly miss Justin and Stephanie, but we'll enjoy having Katie and John visit. I haven't seen her since her visit in May which feels like years ago! She may be all grown up, but she's still my little girl. I definitely need a Katie fix!

Sometimes, especially now that I don't see either one of these kids everyday, when I do see them, I just find myself studying them, fascinated at who they've grown into being, amazed and even more grateful that God configured so perfectly to place them in my life. I can't begin to adequately articulate how much I've grown to admire and respect both of them and who knew that the tsunami of love that one feels for their child at birth, can grow to such expansive, infinite proportions? And it keeps growing in ways no one can probably explain because it's just massive. Isn't it? I mean, you know how you don't think you can love someone any more than you do at certain times, but the great thing about love, is that it reaches so far beyond what you were sure was the limit - the bar constantly continues to be raised and it intrisically exceeds itself. For me, it's such a keen reminder of God, the largess of something intangible, so overwhelming as to render itself impossible to quantify. There is no scale to it and, apparently, absolutely no limit at all. Then again, that's what this season is all about isn't it? It's where the light first became lit, the source of everything that is good and valuable and most precious to each of us with the advent of that birth. Because of that humble beginning, I have all of this incalculable love. I need to remind myself to remember that source of this season more often. I would have nothing without it. I wouldn't even "be" at all.

I'm grateful. I'm just so grateful. I'm even grateful for people who sometimes insert extra "N's" in "dining". I'm just that grateful.

If you're reading this, I'm grateful for you, too.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from my dear, sweet friend Michel in Nantes, France. We had such a great talk and it feels like I've known him forever. We were talking about our respective kids, the two Thanksgivings he'd shared with our family in the past ten years, and what was going on in our lives. His work sounded most decidedly much more intriguing than mine - he had just finished translating Zbigniew Brezinzki's latest book from into French, along with even more stimulating projects. He has always been one of my most valued and trusted writing supporters and my respect for his opinion and talent is boundless, along with being such a trusted, special friend. Michel asked me why I hadn't been writing much (at all) lately. It was a legitimate question and I shared some things with him that had evolving inside of me in these past few months.

Quite a few years ago, the ever astute Michel made the remark that I was "becoming the person you were raised to be", after what was really just a lull in a tumultuous time. His remark struck me at the time because I knew that whatever I might look like on the outside, on the inside I still wasn't close to being who I was raised to be. I guess his remark lingered in my head because I knew innately there was such a disparity between the truth of that statement and my own reality at the time he made it.

In fact, I was spiraling - I remember wishing that I was even close to becoming who I was raised to be, but I was at least honest enough with myself to know that, in fact, I wasn't even in the same neighborhood of any of that. I still had quite a few years to fall before I could begin to get up and assess the situation. I had much more damage to do (mostly to myself) but even given the point where I was at that time, Michel's statement sounded an alarm in the very deepest part of my (then) fragile being. I wanted to be able to say with clarity and honesty that yes, indeed, I am very much close to being the person I was raised to be...

At the time, it felt like a hopeless dream of a goal.

During these past few months, my parents and I have keenly missed Justin, as we did Katie when she first flew the coop. The absence created by his relocation was nothing less than a very real adjustment. He'd never really lived away from home and you'd be surprised how seeing the same guy for almost 22 years can become a habit. It was so quiet after he moved and I think, in some way, that we each stayed "up" for each other almost as much for ourselves. Of course, it required that indispensible but impossible to rush commodity of time. Time takes time and it never allows itself to be rushed.

So many changes have taken place since January 12, 2004 - the day after I took my last drink. Relationships have changed in a variety of positive ways but perhaps the relationship that changed most profoundly was the relationship with myself. In those first days, weeks and months of sobriety, you run the gamut of feelings toward yourself - and a lot of it is of the "self-loathing" variety which you have to walk through and then out of and you have to accept the fact that you have been sick, very very ill, because of the disease that's been chipping away at your whole being. And then, as time moves on, you learn acceptance and at some point, perhaps when you're not even paying attention, some threshold is crossed and lo and behold, you start to truly believe that you're actually an OK person - and then you learn that you truly can depend not only on others, but most of all, on yourself. You discover that you can be trusted probably long after many others close to you have granted you another chance. It's often said that we can be our own worst critics and I believe that's often the case, at least it has been with me many times.

Plunged into the quietness of this house after Justin moved, I've spent more time around my Mom and Dad. I've often said that I want to be just like them when I grow up and I really do because they've managed to grow up without losing their youth, their playfulness and impishness, their sense of wonder with just about everything - and even though they've been around on this planet over 80 years, they still retain that wonder. My Mom can point out a flower in the yard or the first tomatoes or cucumbers on a plant every year and she does so as if it's the very first time she's ever seen such a thing - with a genuine expression of pure awe at something she's witnessed many times before.

My Dad is exactly the same way - he can be genuinely dazzled by a meticulously cut yard, a sudden growth spurt of a plant, or even the way Cassie comes inside after it's started raining and voluntarily holds each paw up to be dried off and how she likes her face wiped in a very specific fashion. These are the kinds of things that positively capture their attention and how wise they are not to overlook them, to take notice of these seemingly small things that maybe aren't so small at all.

I have observed in these past few months how both of them find deep joy in their routines, how this couple who lived through losing their oldest daughter back in 1973, managed to rediscover joy in the details of everyday life - how these routines, putting one foot in front of the other, sustained them until the magic and wonder of life resumed its proper place allowing for things like tomatoes blooming and leaves turning to captivate them once again. They haven't simply spent all these years living - they have lived well and from what I can see - there's a huge difference in those two things. It is their continued joy in each day that has made such a huge impression on me these past few months. "Living well" is such an art and it has absolutely nothing to do with money at all but has everything to do with Grace. Grace has so many excellent definitions but the one I'm probably thinking of just now is this: "a virtue or excellence of divine origin."

When I spoke with Michel a couple of weeks ago, I tried to explain that what I was experiencing, didn't lend itself well to writing just yet, but that I knew in time it would. And I believe it will, but lately, I have felt like a sponge of sorts, enjoying the new routines I've established, finding joy in things I never would have imagined containing anything fascinating or remarkable. In a way, the things I've previously thought to be unremarkable, have proven to be the most remarkable. The point of it all that has eluded me for so very many years, is the simple lesson that joy and wonder can be found everywhere if I'm willing and determined to see it. It really is just that easy.

Back to Michel's long ago observation, that I was "becoming the person my parents raised me to be", well, it occured to me that in fact, it appears as if I had found that path and was, at the very least, heading in the right direction with as sturdy a compass as I've ever felt in my pocket. Not only does my compass feel reliable, but I have learned to depend on it and trust both my compass and me. There's a lot to be said for heading in the right direction...

The other night I was having dinner with my parents and my Dad always begins dinner with an elegant "grace". After he blessed dinner, they were discussing how much they missed Justin and Katie but then, my Dad looked across the table at me and said, "But you know what? I sure have enjoyed the three of us being able to spend time together." And then my Mom suddenly remarked that she was "so proud of me". I have to tell you, that no matter where I have been published and regardless of where I might be published in the future, I can think of few remarks that could make me feel as grateful as I did in that moment. It was a deep sense of gratitude and what a keen reminder of a Higher Power, who made the culmination of that moment and that remark remotely possible.

If you think about it, that really is "Go tell it on the mountain" stuff. For now though, given the absence of mountains, I'll just blog about it.

Merry Christmas!