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Coming up short

In last night's dream I was asked to present a talk at a design expo. The topic was "being short." In real life, I used to edit an interior design magazine and the publisher held an annual expo in Baltimore or Tampa or Atlanta.


In the dream, she and I only talked briefly about me presenting. Maybe we ran into each other at the farmers market or around town and she said, "I'd love to have you give a talk. It could be on anything. You could even make it about being short."


Now I wondered, what about being short? Short in the context of building a career? How to dress professionally as a short woman? Or was it supposed to be more like a comedy bit?


Now the big event was upon us and I was wholly unprepared. To wit: I had not created a PowerPoint for my presentation. Fifteen years ago, when I was editor in chief for this organization, I was asked to present at the expo. Among the sessions on the ins and outs of fashioning window treatments and running a small business, I was asked to present on how to get design work into our esteemed magazine. I'd taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center, so I thought I had this. Never occurred to me to create a PowerPoint to accompany my talk.


Early in my presentation, I was interrupted by the colleague in charge of putting together the program. "Where's your PowerPoint?" she hollered, like a heckler from the back, the audience nodding along.


"I don't need no stinking PowerPoint," I said. "I have handouts."


Looking back, I was TED Talk before there was TED Talk. But the lack of preparation weighed on me in my dream. I knew they were expecting a PowerPoint and some meaningful words from me as a short person.


What can I say about being short that will mean anything? Lots of us are short. Why magnify shortness over any other quality? We fall short. We take shortcuts. We shortchange each other. We have our shortcomings. We're short on supplies.


I've always been one to buy mega rolls of toilet paper in packages of a dozen. I shouldn't say always. In college I would buy one roll of Scott at a time. But maybe that's why I buy the good stuff in bulk now.


Now I am in charge of gathering provisions for two households: mine and my mother's, who lives alone across town. I've lined her counter with individual heat-and-serve oatmeal, stocked her fridge with yogurt and heat-up meals. She has Ensure and coffee and some household items she needs are somewhere in Pennsylvania, supposed to arrive sometime next week, having been delayed due to, well… everything is delayed these days.


I'm coming up short even though I'm doing the best I can. We had a little birthday party for her on Thursday. She turned 85. Normally on such an occasion, my sister would fly in from New York and my brother and his family would come too and we'd take her to a nice restaurant. This year I picked up a bakery cake and takeout and it was just my husband and me and her toasting at her dining room table.


It was a lace-covered tablecloth. And the baker remembered to put a comma between "Happy birthday" and "Mom" which is important to a retired English teacher. And her phone kept ringing with calls from well wishers and the nurse who checks in with her regularly.


Coming up short of previous expectations is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's expansive, generous in its enoughness.


In the first days of being advised to gather what we needed to stay home for two weeks, like a lot of people who could afford to, I tried to stock up. I didn't hoard. I might have I over-gathered.


I took the liquor store up on their offer on free delivery—and then felt weird when the guy drove up to our house in his Mercedes with a box of boxed cabernet and industrial-size bottles of pinot grigio (they looked regular size online, I swear).


We have enough, me and mine. Yet I feel short. I am short, in stature. As I said, I forgot to ask my former publisher, back there at the farmers market or wherever we came up with this idea, what, exactly I was supposed to be speaking to on the subject of short.


My shortcomings? Here's the main one: Lack of courage to be on the frontline as a nurse or a doctor or other healthcare worker. Even caring for my mom's physical needs is something I came to reluctantly. I didn't believe I could hoist her wheelchair in and out of the trunk. The oxygen apparatus scared me. I would take her to get mani-pedis to avoid taking care of her toenails myself. I do more of that for her now, but I think of the people who make this kind of care their life's work and I fall short. I do fall short.


What then, having acknowledged it? I do what I can. My current employer doesn't ask me to design PowerPoints. I write and edit the words that go into them, then hand it over to the design professionals.


Likewise, in my dream I shifted to what I know, what I can do well. I went to the magazine office to look over materials that other presenters had prepared. Fortunately, my colleague Jenny was in the office too. Of course she was. Jenny has been a part of my work life for at least fifteen years, through no effort on either of our parts. We worked together at the magazine back in the day, took different jobs, then wound up at our present place of employment for the last dozen years. We are editorial soul sisters.


We saw trouble in the first sentence of a handout, a quote that ended in an asterisk with the corresponding footnote: *Free. The citation should have been for a magazine article that was available online and thus free. My God, will these people never learn?


Jenny and I looked up the full reference and inserted it. But the thing was chock full of poorly sourced citations. It would take us all night to get this piece into shape, to get the facts right, to fix its shortcomings. A tall order. Thank goodness I had help.

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