Thursday, April 28, 2011

Inconceivable Grandmother: On the passing of eras II

Inconceivable Grandmother: On the passing of eras II: "Yesterday was what used to be known as Secretaries Day. I'm not sure what they call it now, an attempt to acknowledge the efforts of execut..."

On the passing of eras II

Yesterday was what used to be known as Secretaries Day. I'm not sure what they call it now, an attempt to acknowledge the efforts of executives' assistants, but the fact is, the profession that used to be known as Secretary no longer exists.

Now I'm not going to rant against technological displacement or anything like that. I'm deeply thankful that computers and e-mail have erased the need to sit in front of some man's desk taking dictation, in shorthand, for hours on end. Although, I might be the only person I know who still knows shorthand. And I still use it.

Nearly thirty years ago, I started working for Judi Adam, then Executive Director of Portland Concert Association. I was her Assistant at that time, and a few weeks after I started, she was dictating a list of things for me to do, and without thinking about it, I was writing it down in shorthand. Second nature to me. She stopped in mid-sentence, stood in front of my desk, and declared, "You didn't tell me you took shorthand." My response: "You didn't ask." That still makes me laugh.

For some unknown reason, yesterday, perhaps because it was "Secretary's Day," I Googled Katharine Gibbs School, the pre-eminent secretarial school of my day where I learned, in addition to shorthand, how to type fast, how to be the grammar queen of whatever office I worked in, and how to be a really good secretary. To my chagrin, I learned that it no longer exists. "Katharine Gibbs School has closed," said the web page. I wasn't surprised, just sad that an era, indeed, a whole profession, had passed.

To graduate from Katy Gibbs, you had to be able to type at least 65 words a minute and to take Shorthand at 100 words a minute, which was passing at Gibbs. 140 was an A. The word around school during the summer of 1969 when I was trying to get up to speed, was that Walter Cronkite delivered the CBS Evening News at a steady 140 words a minute. We would gather around the television at 6:30 every evening with our steno pads and pens ready and work feverishly for thirty minutes. When I was able to take down every word for two nights in a row, I started to pack my bags. The next morning I went in to Shorthand class, asked to take my timed test, and got an A. And left New York the next day.

What I learned at Katy Gibbs got me started. Later, as barriers fell and more and more careers opened up to women, being a "secretary" lost its professional luster. But, as I said, it got me started.

On the passing of eras

My husband's sister's husband's aunt, "Auntie," Ruth Rhoads Lepper Gardner, passed away on April 16, barely two months shy of her 106th birthday. A memorial service was held for her in the Southport Methodist Church on a rainy Saturday morning last weekend, and as I sat there, celebrating her life, my mind went to the other women I've known in my life who were born, as Auntie was, in 1905.

Were I an astrologer, I might know and not just suspect that there was something radical in the stars that year that created a cohort of amazing, unusual women. Not just smart, but bold, eager to break the molds they came out of, and independent, more than able to stand on their own. My mother was one of these. Born in October of that year, she earned her B.S. degree in Economics from Depauw University and went on to get her Masters in Marketing and Retail Management at Simmons University in Boston. While she was at Simmons, she might have met my husband's aunt, Eleanor, also a 1905 woman. John's mother, Martha, was born that year, as well; after graduating from Park College in Missouri, she went on to Radcliffe and got her Master's degree in, I think, Chemistry.

These women gave me a lot to look up to, much to admire and aspire to. Auntie's passing made me sad to think she was really the last of an era. But it also made me happy that I had had the chance to know her and so many other strong women of her era and learn from their spunky examples to embrace life and break molds.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Blog Birthday

Yesterday was the first birthday of my friend, Anne's, blog, Anne's Awesome Adventures.  (If you aren't already a follower, I highly recommend this blog.)  It was Anne who inspired me to start this blog and who gets me writing when I start to drift away.

Several years ago, Anne, Brenda, Jan and I (and possibly Kasey, but I don't remember) undertook an adventure, performing public readings of our work at Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  The next spring, Anne was invited back to read, and Brenda and I accompanied her.  Thanks to Brenda, our bff with the coolest connections, we stayed at The Harvard Club in New York City.

A few days after I returned home, a cream-colored envelope arrived in the mail with the return address of "The Harvard Club."  Inside was a sheet of Harvard Club stationery on which Anne had written, "Dear Becky, Sit down and write that damned book."  I still have that note, it is right in front of me as I write this.  Best nudge I ever got.  When I forget why I'm pecking away at my computer, I just re-read that note and remember why.

Thanks, Anne.  And happy BlogDay, a day late.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Traveling

I love to travel.  Traveling gets me out of my skin, as well as out of my house, my very safe state, and sometimes my country.  It makes me think, and it gives me lots to think about.

On a trip to Central America last month, we hadn't yet left the US when we learned what it felt like to be in a foreign country.  When we arrived at the AeroMexico desk in the International Terminal at O'Hare, we were the only non-Mexicans in sight.  All of a sudden, my blond hair felt like a beacon of differentness, and it wasn't comfortable.  I thought that maybe, that might be a tiny bit of what my African-American friend Brenda feels like when she visits Boothbay Harbor, alone and different and no way to not stand out.  It was a feeling I hadn't expected to experience and I was still in Chicago!

When we visited Nicaragua, I saw poverty more severe than I had ever imagined.  They are trying so hard to develop a tourism industry, but there is still trash everywhere on the dusty, dry landscape.  How can you worry about picking up trash or recycling when you're just trying to find enough to eat?  A few miles south, in Costa Rica, the countryside is neat as a pin, lush, green and welcoming.  I learned that, unlike Nicaragua which is still recovering from the civil war of the 1980s and '90s, Costa Rica gave up its military in 1849 and decided to dedicate its resources to education, health care and tourism.  Costa Rica is one of only two countries on this planet, Switzerland being the other one, that doesn't have an army and that has stayed neutral for more than a century.   The literacy rate in Costa Rica is more than ninety percent, and the health care system is first-rate.  Costa Rica has become a destination for medical tourism, successfully combining plastic surgery expertise with tourism.

To me, traveling is about more than sun and surf and warm ocean breezes; don't get me wrong, I love those things.  But I also love learning things I didn't know and seeing my own life through a different lens.  I've enjoyed counting down the days with my friend, Anne, as she gets ready to travel to England in 13 days, because she gets it, too.  We love putting ourselves in different places and different situations and seeing how we react and how it changes us when we re-enter our lives back home.   And, now that I've unpacked and done the laundry and put away my travel supplies, I can get ready for the next adventure:  Ireland in October.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Inconceivably, again

Well, it's happened again.  My step-daughter, Laura, and her husband welcomed baby Matthew Jackson to the world on Saturday afternoon.  So, now, I'm twice a grandmother.

I could tell that something had changed in my worldview when, on a recent trip to Central America, I took photo after photo of little kids.  Not something I would have ever thought of doing in my pre-grandmother days.  I never really liked kids, but now, at least through the camera, I can't get enough of their faces, full of innocent trust and wonder.

And holding baby Jack on Sunday afternoon melted my heart.  I was afraid to hold him at first.  At 7 pounds 8 ounces, he weighs less than half of one of my cats.  But I held him and managed not to drop him and fell in love.

Now I have to work on my Grandmother name.  I don't like "Grandma."  Not at all.  It's just not me. "Grandma" was my mother-in-law and I think it should stay hers.  I just don't feel right taking her title.  "Oma" is a Dutch word for grandmother, and since I have Dutch heritage, I think that's appropriate.  And it doesn't step on the toes of the other two grandmothers in the equation.  And Oma is easy, I think, for little ones to say.  So, Oma it is.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Signs of Spring

Yesterday was the first of March, and this year, this far into this winter of non-stop snow and bitter cold, it felt like a huge relief to turn the calendar to a new page.  Frost heaves are turning roads into mogul courses; it's annoying, but a sure sign that winter is on its way out.

I was at my desk yesterday afternoon, working on a budget for our fast-approaching retirement, when a movement outside the window caught my eye.  My backyard is an apple orchard, ancient gnarly apple trees standing stark against the white snow encasing them halfway up their trunks.  I looked out and saw two birds hopping about on top of the snow crust.  My brain computed that they weren't crows; the crows tend to hang out in the front yard.  I watched for a moment, and one of the birds turned so I could see his bright red breast, and I realized I was watching the first two robins of spring.

I was so excited I instantly e-mailed my friends with the news, "ROBINS!"  With that sighting, I know spring really is close at hand.

My neighbor, who has spent part of nearly every day this winter snowshoeing through our fields and woods, is sad that most of the snow is behind us and the days of good snowshoeing are numbered, but I'm delighted. Longer days and warmer sunshine are right up my alley.

Welcome back, robins, from wherever you spent the winter.  You're a good sign.