Friday, July 25, 2014

The story of a recycle bin

This is what I saw at the bottom of my driveway one Sunday morning in late May when I pulled out to go to church. A frat party gone bad? A bunch of kids partying in my yard?   

But, no, I didn't cringe when I saw these chock-full recycle bins...I smiled. I recalled the great time we'd had the day before getting ready for and then helping to host our annual neighborhood party. I laughed when I remembered the multiple generations pitching in to make a huge feast on the checkerboard of tables we set up in the street.

These two recycle bins contained the remains of pizza boxes, soda cans, water bottles, a half dozen ketchup and mustard  bottles that were the base of homemade BBQ sauce, juice boxes, Snow cone cups and yes, a few beer cans and wine bottles too.

This party is a neighborhood tradition on our street and several adjoining ones dating back well beyond our 20 years in our house. The "young families" (now in our 40s and 50s) took over from the "older families' to host this extravaganza 10 years ago or so, but we think the tradition dates back a good 30 years.

Several years ago, the guys on the street decided to start cooking a pig, ribs and chicken to complement the potluck spread everyone had traditionally contributed to the party. They start prepping the pig around 9 a.m. fortified by Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee (OK...probably some Bloody Marys too). 

The "half pig" is moved ceremoniously from the make-shift cooler on the back of the golf cart onto the big grill. It gets wrapped in chicken wire so it's easy to turn as the day goes on.

While the prepping of the pig is the first order of the day, the bigger, and surely more important, event comes when the jump castle is delivered mid-morning. Every year we wonder if there are still enough little kids in the neighborhood to justify the expense of this. But every year, when the jump castle guys come to retrieve it about 9:00 the night of the party, we are reminded that yes, it was worth the expense. 

It's like the kids have some sort of underground communications network to know when the jump castle has arrived. Before it's even fully inflated, we can hear the pounding of kids' feet running down the street to hop in.

The BBQ cooks set up shop on the side of the street to keep an eye on the jump castle and the pig throughout the day. And knowing there's someone out "manning the pig" all day, parents are willing to let the kids jump to their heart's content all day long.

About 5 p.m. the saucing of the pig begins. The three master BBQ experts who have toiled over the nuances of three sauce types all day start slathering on the sauce. Then around 6:30 the picking of the pig starts. The BBQ experts delicately pull the meat and brush on the sauce so guests can easily get to it. 

Then the bounty of the pot luck materializes as we start peeling back the tinfoil to reveal the glory of goodies ranging from mac and cheese to baked beans and homemade coconut cake to fruit salad.

The guys pull the ribs and chicken off the grill and serve them from a cooler that keeps then warm and messy. The adults pick their BBQ right off the grill with the choice of three homemade secret recipe sauces while the kids tumble out of the jump castle to eat too. Great food and fellowship make the recipe for the evening.

Around 8:30, the crowd of 100 or so neighbors, neighborhood "alums," family members of neighbors and a few honorary neighbors starts to break up. The teenagers drive golf carts to deliver some of the older neighbors back home. We pack up and drop off care packages of leftovers for several neighbors who are housebound. Many hands make light work to clean up the mess.

But the night isn't done yet! After the mess is cleaned up, the Herbie Curbies filled and the recycle bins overflowing, we circle up folding chairs around a burn barrel dragged out to the middle of the street. The party hosts with a few random friends  thrown in, sip on another beer, strum a few guitar tunes and enjoy the first of many warm weather gatherings on the street. Summer has arrived.







Saturday, May 31, 2014

And the rest of the story...the Clint Black Concert

If anyone doubts the power of social media to make connections, read on... 

Many years ago, I had the chance to tour the White House with country music great Clint Black and a friend (read that story here). An item on my bucket list has always been to see him perform again and maybe, just maybe, be able to meet him again.

That chance materialized when he came to Florence to perform at the Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center. When I learned about the concert, I set out to make the right connections to meet him again and find out if he remembered that fun adventure at the White House with the same clarity that I did. 

I figured that every day in my professional life I make connections using various communications tools to make a case. So maybe I could use those same strategies to make contact with Clint’s people and convince them I wasn’t some middle-aged crazed fan.

I thought about the resources I had available to me to get my story to him… old photos, relationships, social media and a good story to tell.

First, I posed a question on Facebook asking if anyone had connections to the country music world or Clint Black's “people.” Then I turned to relationships in Florence through work colleagues, personal friends and news media contacts. Both the Facebook and the personal relationships turned up some good leads that I started pursuing.

Then I went to my personal archives (i.e. old scrapbooks in the attic) to find the collection of photos and memorabilia from that visit to the White House. Fortunately my personal archives from that era are very well organized. I just snapped some photos of the old photos with my iPhone and set to writing a blog post that described this once‐in‐a‐lifetime experience.

In the meantime, one of my personal relationship leads panned out to the point I was assured of a place on the pre‐concert meet and greet list should Clint decide to do that.

But I knew there were more options to pursue.

The next day, I posted the story of that White House adventure on my personal blog. The post included a bunch of photos, and I tagged Clint Black's fan page on the off chance his "people" actually monitor the posts (with 700k+ fans I really had little hope on this one).

Much to my surprise, the next morning I had a nice email from Clint's manager. Clint had seen my post and was inviting me to the meet and greet before the concert!


I evangelize every day at work about how social media is a common thread that can weave together just about everything we do. This connect point with Clint and his manager really illustrated that good can come from social media when used the right way.

The “meet and greet” with Clint didn’t disappoint. We were part of a very small group waiting to meet him, and his “people” were very gracious. We were led into a green room space with a backdrop like those used at the Academy Awards.


The manager arrived first and asked if anyone had photos for Clint to sign. I had enlarged a photo from the White House visit, and he took it back to the bus to be signed. Since I had no negative, I quickly discovered a scanned and enlarged version of a 24-year-old photo yields a very fuzzy duplicate. 


When Clint arrived, he was dressed in black from head to toe with the signature black hat. A few butterflies flitted in my stomach as I kept telling myself...he’s just a guy my age who happens to wear a black hat and has sold millions of records.


He made his way through our group kindly speaking to everyone in a hushed voice (the manager had warned us he tries to keep his voice soft leading up to a performance). I was the last in line with my friend Eleanor who was my “date” for the night.

He said my name and gave me a hug…not quite like long lost friends but still it was cool. We popped through the requisite photo snaps while quietly talking about the fact he did, indeed, remember going to the White House. Although he admitted his memory was a little hazy on how it all came to pass.

Then, he was ushered off to make his final performance prep. The manager handed me the fuzzy photo with an autograph that seemed so appropriate for this middle-aged adventure.


"To Reba…The past is always a little blurry. Clint Black."

Yep, he’s right. Maybe the start of lyrics to new song?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Killin' Time until the Clint Black concert

I have worked in, or around, politics for my entire career. For that reason, most of the "grip and grin" photos in my office are with politicians. While meeting and having photos with a president, congressmen, senators, heads of state from around the world, legislators and local officials were thrilling experiences, my secret vice is my collection of photos with country music stars.
 
So when I got to go to the White House with a country music star, I was over the moon.

My love of country music started with a high school friend. This was back in the late '70s when the first of the "new wave" of country singers was coming along on the heels of the greats like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I came to love Reba McEntire, Lyle Lovett and the Statler Brothers in college.  
Backstage with Merle Haggard

Later, as a young professional in Washington, I often had access to concert tickets and backstage passes thanks to lobbyist friends. One friend often got us backstage passes for the likes of George Jones and Merle Haggard.

But my biggest country music thrill came in 1991 when I got to visit the White House, ride the tour bus and visit backstage with Clint Black and his band. At that point, Clint Black was a successful newcomer on the country music scene opening for Merle Haggard.

"Smartly dressed" in the
White House press room
This once-in-a-lifetime treat was a birthday gift from a friend who worked for Lee Atwater at the time. When Clint Black’s “people” called Atwater’s "people" to request a White House tour, my friend Rhonda (who was then-assistant to Atwater) arranged their tour...and got us on it too.

I remember it vividly. Rhonda and I spent hours deliberating over the appropriate dress for a visit to the White House with a country music star. Jeans and boots would have never occurred to us, so we dressed "smartly" in pared down work attire.

Tour bus parked next
to the Treasury Building
Clint's "people" told us to meet the tour bus on the corner by the White House on that hot Sunday afternoon. Rhonda and I were giggling like two kids waiting anxiously for the bus on the first day of school. This was back before tight security and street barriers kept the White house very off limits. So when the bus drove up, we just hopped on, and it parked on the street next to the White House...easy as that.

W
ith quick introductions all around, we made our way to the White House gate. While I had been on several White House tours before, I couldn’t contain my excitement while trying not to be the star struck groupie (after all, Clint was about my age and not a whole lot taller than me without his hat).
Oval Office in the background


Photos were still allowed in the White House back then, so I snapped and snapped shots of this great adventure. Now almost 24 years later, the photos have survived in one of many scrapbooks in my attic. They chronicle our extended tour of the Oval Office, press room and West Wing. Looking back on the photos and seeing the look on my face, it's easy to remember I was just this side of giddy.


Entrance to the West Wing
I snapped shots outside the West Wing office door and at the press secretary's podium. I have pictures of the band posing behind the desk in the Oval Office and Clint playing the piano in the grand foyer of the White House (he was actually singing happy birthday to me!)
Singing Happy Birthday

I've wondered occasionally when I hear a Clint Black song on my ITunes if this was a cool visit for him and his band or "just another day at the office" for a country star.  
Now, 24 years later, I have tickets to see Clint Black in concert in Florence later this month. Maybe we'll have a chance to reminisce about that adventure at the White House?
Clint and the band
Relaxing in the Red Room




Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Conundrum of Stitches versus Fabric

I've long since given up on formal New Year's resolutions, but each year I do try to affirm a few "ways of living" to keep me sane and forward thinking. This year I have tried to focus on knowing when to live in the moment, while at the same time, recognizing when it’s important to take in the big picture. 

I recently read my favorite author's newest book - Anne Lamott's, “Stitches.” Not only does she write beautifully, but she also has an ability to look at life with humor, humility and perspective that resonate with me.

Anne integrates the analogy of stitches throughout the book by suggesting you can miss the magic of the stitches in daily life if you are always looking at "the whole shebang," as she puts it. You can miss the beauty of the colors, shapes and imperfections of the stitches if you are always just looking at the design of the whole fabric.

But I like taking that comparison a little further to try and balance focusing on the stitches of life with appreciating the complexities of the woven fabric. 

Looking at individual stitches requires a still mind to focus on what's right in front of you. Enjoy the delicate intricacies of the circumstances...follow the music, really digest the words you are reading, listen to the sermon, take pleasure in the company around you, be grateful for the beauty of your surroundings. 

Appreciating these individual stitches brings peace in a chaotic world. It calms the mind and body to focus on the single goal of living in the moment….often when everything else around you is in chaos.

On the other hand, concentrating on the fabric that is held together by the stitches meets a completely different big picture need and requires a whole different focus and discipline. Looking at the fabric gives us the joy beyond the moment to see how we can contribute to a bigger world. If you think of yourself as a stitch in the fabric, you can see how your beauty, imperfections and individuality join with others to make the unique piece of cloth.

If we spend all of our days in “the moment” stitches, we could easily to fall into a “me-focused” universe that fails to recognize the challenges that life requires of us. Gazing only at the stitches during a crisis can make you feel hopeless thinking there is no way out; there are too many details to attend to; tomorrow can't possibly be any better. Changing to fabric focus can help in this scenario.

One of those “fabric” flashes hit me during a health crisis with my dad when I realized we had to look beyond that ICU crisis moment and take the wide angle view that there are other possibilities (he will be OK ) beyond the immediate dire situation. There are solutions we may not see by only living in the moment and only staring at the stitches.

But defaulting to the fabric while trying to take in a moment of peace can keep you from enjoying the beauty of your immediate surroundings. 

While sitting around a fire with friends out in the country on New Year’s Day wanting to just enjoy the moment, I had to tighten my lens to look at the stitches of enjoying the grace of good friends and good food around me. I found peace by pulling myself away from the big picture fabric that that was suffocating me thinking of the mess in my house along with work and daily life responsibilities that would kick back after this restful holiday. 

I have learned a great deal about this “stitches versus fabric” conundrum from a college friend, Keleigh. Her 10-year-old daughter is fighting cancer for the second time. Somehow Keleigh finds time between this huge challenge of caring for a Downs Syndrome child with cancer, nurturing her other five kids, tending a marriage and holding together a household to keep a Caringbridge journal of their journey. I am constantly inspired by her faith and ability to know how to move between stitches and fabric. 

Over Christmas, Keleigh wrote so beautifully on her Caringbridge site about the joy of living in the moment with her 8-year-old youngest daughter. They were able to slip out of the hospital and visit the American girl store while her oldest daughter was at the hospital to stay with her ailing middle daughter during a chemo treatment. 

When reading Keleigh’s post, I could just feel her wrapped up in the joy of enjoying the stitches with the youngest daughter knowing the oldest daughter had the fabric covered for the moment. 

Great lesson learned.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Guest blog...Because the Internet

(I'm pleased to introduce my first guest blogger, John Peters, my 15-year-old nephew who is a freshman at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston. This was a paper for his English class)

George Orwell wrote about our destruction by things we hated like an oppressive government, but Aldous Huxley wrote about our destruction by things we loved like TV. If Huxley had written his famous book A Brave New World sometime in the last decade or so, he definitely would have included the Internet in his criticisms. The Internet has, for some, created a lifeline to other people that have the same interests or hobbies but would be otherwise unreachable. This is a very good thing most of the time, but it can sometimes cause disconnect from the present. The Internet has completely reformed the way its users and everyone around them go about their lives every day. 

The Internet is used every day and affects everyone. It is a vast and infinite tool that can figure out almost anything. The Internet is a tool that has become so essential and ubiquitous that if it were to disappear, even if for just a day, panic would ensue. We have become so reliant on the Internet that even the pettiest daily activities are planned around it. Choices of restaurants, hotels, and social event venues are often controlled by whether or not that place has an internet connection. That being said it has completely changed the way its users think, and don’t think.

The Internet has had a fair share of negative effects on its users. Its overuse can sometimes become addicting. Insomnia is one side effect of internet addiction. Internet addiction may sound rare and serious, but mild cases are shockingly widespread. What would you do in a room with a book and an iPhone? If you’re anything like me, you’d most likely disregard the book and go on Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook. It may be a sad truth to some, but it’s the truth nonetheless. The Internet has created and transferred more sub-cultures from the book to the screen than almost every work of literature. I am proud to say that I’m a recipient of the Edgar Allen Poe newsletter.
    
People that don’t know much about the Internet often assume that it consists of only Facebook and cyberbullying. But I can say first hand that the websites I visit in my free time are predominantly educational. Educational not necessarily in the school sense of the word, but more so the learning sense. I spend a large part of my recreational internet use on a website called Rapgenius.com, which is a site where users can annotate the lyrics of rap songs, rock songs, news stories, and even poetry.
    
The Internet has changed the way we look at the world, but whether it’s for better or for worse is your choice. The Internet is a community bound together by certain common interests and hobbies. It is an outlet for the oppressed, a blank slate for the voiceless, and a family for the hopeless.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Dog Named Sam

I caught a flash of a rust colored fan of a dog tail darting between two herbie curbies as I drove home from my parents' house. My dog karma instinct immediately kicked in...it was a golden retriever who looked like a smaller version of our long-gone but much-loved Beaufort.

I had to stop.

I pulled out the dog biscuits I keep in my car console. As I opened the car door thinking I'd have to coax the dog to me, he bounded over. He had a collar and tags - good news.

I found the tag. His name was Sam...the name of my childhood dog. He was friendly, even loving. He nuzzled my knee as I scratched his ears while I dialed the number on the tag.

No answer. I left a message and debated next steps still just enjoying scratching Sam's ears while he nuzzled my knee like my golden retriever Dixie does every day. There’s just something peaceful about that nuzzling.

Then, I'm knocked back to the moment. The phone rings and the owner identified Sam. The owner was just minutes away at the store. Sam was only a block from home so I loaded him up in the car. He jumped right in. I hope he has a loving family, I thought. I hope someone scratches his ears when he nuzzles their knee.

I gripped his collar as I walked him up the driveway to the front door. I really hoped a gleeful child would greet us so thankful the beloved family dog was home.

I heard a woman on the phone coming out the side door yelling Sam’s name swearing she hadn't let the dog out. Sam pulled out of my grip and rounded the corner toward the voice. He seemed happy to see her...she kept yelling into the phone she hadn't let the dog out.

I waved, got in the car and drove home where Dixie greeted me with a knee nuzzle. She had an escape episode a few years ago, and I always feel I owe a debt to dog karma for the guy who rescued her and her canine companion in the middle of a busy road and called me.

Maybe a few cents deposited back in the dog karma bank for the next time I need it, thanks to Sam.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Smoking a Pork Butt is Like Writing

My husband got a Green Egg grill for Christmas and smoked his first pork butt to make BBQ on it that weekend. As he worked on this hours-long process, it occurred to me how similar it is to my writing process.

To take a page from Stephen Covey, we both begin with the end in mind. My husband knows how he wants the BBQ to look, feel and taste. I know the story I want to tell. Getting to our individual ends involves some of the same lessons, compromises and processes.

First  both writing and smoking a pork butt involve following some basic rules.

When smoking a butt, the temperature has to be at a certain level to ensure food safety. There is no way to speed up the process. A lot of personal preference is involved relative to taste or doneness.

Writing isn't all that different. You have to accept certain basic rules of grammar and usage to ensure the reader understands what you are trying to say. Writing will flow at its own pace…inspiration can't be rushed. Everyone writer has his own personal preferences for structure, tone and voice.

Each time you cook a pork butt the circumstances change. Humidity, weather, the source of the meat and other variables can change the cooking process slightly resulting in a longer or shorter cooking time. The meat’s temperature could go into a stall, and you have to wrap it to get it to jump from 165 to 185 degrees.

You can’t throw the meat on the grill and come back eight hours later and expect it to be the same as it was last time you cooked one. You have to tend it, adapt and change along the way.

With writing, circumstances change with everything you write. Variables depend on where you get your inspiration, what is your frame of mind and what is the goal of your piece. Are you on a word count deadline for pay or are you sitting on the porch at the beach writing intense personal reflections? Different types of writing require adapting to the influences of the situation. 

As the meat moves thought the process of breaking down from a raw slab to the deliciousness of BBQ, it absorbs what is around it…the rub, the marinade, the smoke.

As the written piece moves through the process from inspiration to publication, it absorbs the life experiences of the writer…perspective, insights, biases.

Just because the meat reaches the appointed temperature doesn't mean it's ready to eat. Before it can be served, the meat must rest. When you come back to it later, the juices have absorbed, adding another dimension to the final taste of the meat.

The same is true with writing. Just because you have hit the word count doesn't mean your story is ready for publication. Before it goes to the editor, the piece must rest. You come back to it later and see what nuances have absorbed and which ones you may have missed.

Once the meat has rested, it's time to pull it apart, add some sauce and serve up the BBQ that looks completely different from the slab you started with on the grill.

In writing, you want to pull your work apart one last time, add some sauce (or sauciness) and your final product can be something completely different from that slab of a first draft.

Serving up the BBQ to your guests is laying your time, talent and passion out for all to see (and taste). It takes some courage to set that plate down not knowing if your guest will taste it with the same palette you have. Or what if the diner douses it with ketchup to make it more his liking? At that point it becomes more about what your guest likes not what you wanted him to like.

In writing, hitting the send button to the editor is like setting the plate of BBQ in front of your guest. You lay out your thoughts, passions and stories not knowing if they will be loved by the editor or eventually the reader. Your work may be published after lots of red ink (the ketchup of writing) has been spilled on it…and that's when it becomes more about what the reader wants to read not what you wanted to say.

Both writing and cooking must be done for the joy of the process as well as the end result. Sometimes the end result turns out just as you'd hoped but, like everything in life, sometimes it doesn't. Either way the passion for learning through the process is what makes both writing and cooking fun and fulfilling.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Random Connections of a Neighborhood

We all know the saying "you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family." In some ways, the same could be said about neighbors. Generally, you can't decide who moves in beside you, across from you or down the block from you. Great neighbors are one of the random connect points in life that I love.

Neighbors often know more about your habits than anyone else. They know if you eat and drink healthy by what's in your recycle bin. They know if you clean up after your dog, how late you go to bed , if you keep a neat yard, what time you leave in the morning...the list can go on and on. So when neighbors can also be friends, watchdogs, key-keepers, nurses and babysitters, it's truly a lucky place to be.

Living in Washington, DC, during my early career years, I made my first "grown up" friends, Eleanor and Helen, because they lived across the street from me and my two roommates. Like us, Eleanor and Helen were recent college grads from the south living on their own for the first time. We quickly discovered they had college experiences similar to ours and were working in the political arena like we were.


The five of us grew close sharing Thursday night tv-watching parties, lamenting over first "grown up" boyfriends, experimenting with recipes and scaring off burglars. We could pop back and forth between houses in our pajamas, and no one would notice. What a comfort that friendship came to be with those neighbors.

Later after getting married, my husband and I lived in a fairly large condo complex just outside of DC. No such luck with neighbors there. The only contact we had with our upstairs neighbors was listening to them bounce a mattress down the stairs in the middle of the night as they moved out. We knew we were missing something without a neighbor we could trust with a house key.

When we moved to Columbia 20 years ago and bought our house, little did I know what a gold mine of neighbors we would accumulate over the years. I marvel daily at the magic our little neighborhood has created. Kids attend different schools. Adults work in varying professions. Families hail from different places. Ages span many decades. Some have been on the street for 50+ years and others are newcomers. But we are lucky beyond words because of these friends who have come together purely by the random connection of where we live.

We lovingly call each other "Gladys Kravits" after the nosy neighbor from "Bewitched." It's reassuring to know that someone will notice if your car is home during a workday and call to check on you. It's comforting to know that someone will pick up the paper and mail if you are out of town.  

Need to cut magnolia leaves? Come on down. Missing an ingredient while cooking? Surely someone has a egg. Car need a jump? Someone will be there to help before you can make a phone call. Feeling under the weather? Casseroles and soup will show up. Need to hide Christmas gifts? Always space in someone's garage.
 
The yearly street party, frequent impromptu cookouts, kids driving golf carts, boys throwing the baseball with dads, little ones climbing the magnolia tree outside my sun porch, parents carpooling, adults "porch sitting" on a weekend night....all coming together because of the random connection of a neighborhood. We may not be unique, but we sure are lucky!