French lessons

After a weeklong visit with my newfound French family (and the ubiquitous American set), I’m left feeling exhausted, exhilarated, and reflective all at once. The exhausted part is easy to understand: almost 30 players with distinct personalities and expectations moving in and out of the scenery for nine days (whew!) generates a level of energy I can’t even duplicate with espresso and Red Bull. Exhilarated? Well, meeting long-lost family members and scaling language barriers will do that to a person. Reflective? This is exactly the kind of situation that is perfect for pondering, internalizing, and growing.

I learned a lot this week. Some of the lessons were new, while others simply reawakened or reinforced truisms I had long ago packed away in my mind. In no particular order, here are some of the lessons I learned.

  • Some things transcend language. Beyond the basic necessities of eating, sleeping, bathing, and shopping, all of which can be handled easily enough with a round of charades, we somehow exchanged a lot of other information. All it took were open hearts.
  • We can learn a lot from our kids. Instead of stumbling over words, they found a common language in shared interests–music, games, videos, teenage angst–and built out their relationship from there. When they couldn’t find words they could understand, they simply shrugged and moved on to something else, eschewing frustration for an easy-going camaraderie. The sound of their laughter warmed everyone’s hearts.
  • Family is family. It didn’t matter that most of us hadn’t met our transatlantic relatives; the connection was undeniable.
  • People need downtime to process emotional experiences, even when they are positive. As much as we wanted to take advantage of every limited moment together, by the end of the week the fatigue of constant emotional barrage showed plainly on everyone’s faces.
  • Although we may try to divorce ourselves of expectations, we can’t completely get rid of them. 30 people = 30 sets of expectations, however minimized. The best way to deal with them is to acknowledge their existence and work around them. Be flexible and direct, and never, ever let them become the elephant in the middle of the room. Given the size of our group, I think everyone did a pretty good job.
  • Personalities aren’t dependent on words. Even without a common language, they shine through loud and clear. What a gift.
  • Smiles, hugs, and outstretched hands make all the difference in the world.

My French sucks (Ça craint). I’ve got a long way to go with the lessons I started taking in May, and that became very apparent this week. That didn’t stop me from getting to know my uncle and cousins, though. As I had hoped and believed, we made it work. The best part is that not only did I learn about them, about my American family, and about myself, the story isn’t over. The Chevalhiers are my family forever, not just for this visit. That leaves me more determined than ever to master their complicated language, and I’m already making travel plans for next year. That’s not a happy ending–it’s a happy beginning.

Dress for success

I don’t feel like a runner. Most of the time, I still feel like the pudgy girl who plagued me in the mirror during junior high or the puffy version who inhabited my skin for ten years post-childbirth. It’s easy for me to forget that I’ve transformed myself into a personage more active. I know in my head that I run, that I can do it, but that part seems completely separate from my “real” self. In my mind–and even in my skin–I feel like the old me. Nothing has changed.

Until I put on my running clothes.

When I look outside, I can’t imagine pounding the pavement for 5, 6, 7 miles. It just doesn’t fit with the me I know. But as soon as I put on my shorts and tie my shoes, I feel like a completely different person. Somehow, that small act of swathing myself in sport-appropriate attire completely changes my mindset. I’m an athlete. I look the part. 

This personal phenomenon extends beyond the workout regimen. I’ve often said that if I worked at home, I couldn’t do it in my pajamas. I’d have to dress for work to get my professional mojo on. I don’t remember when I discovered this about myself, but my adornment has a huge effect on my mental participation in any activity.

You can pick your cliché–dress for success, the clothes make the (wo)man, whatever–but I think there’s something there. Maybe it’s not the same for everyone, but I’m pretty sure each person has his own trigger. Even if it’s not the way he is dressed, there is something that flips his switch to engage him in that thing. If you don’t know your trigger, I recommend that you figure it out. Discover it, know it, use it.

When it’s time to get the job done and you’re just not into it, dress for success.

Too late

I lost a friend yesterday. We didn’t fight. I didn’t make her angry. I suppose I disappointed her, but she never said so. I simply ignored her because I was too wrapped up in my own ups and downs to think about anyone else. My own heart was too full to bear the weight of anyone else. Yesterday, my friend died. I didn’t have a chance to tell her goodbye, or that I loved her, or that she had carved a niche in my heart all her own. I hope she knew how much she meant to me, because I didn’t tell her.

My story is not unusual, unfortunately. It is a painful reminder of just how much words do matter–but only when they are shared. They void they leave when kept to oneself is too overwhelming to let it become permanent. I wish I hadn’t.

I’ll miss you, Phyllis.

Love and respect

In a conversation today with a good friend, we landed on an interesting conundrum. I posited that I would rather be average and have friends than really stand out but do so alone. As soon as I said it, I cringed. For me, relationships are key to life; they give context and color and reasons for doing what we do. A solitary existence may offer accolades, but what does it bring to fill the down time and the quiet spaces?

Still, I cringed. I wonder if some talents warrant sacrifice. What if that one thing that someone does better than anyone could be worth enough to the rest of the world that it would be (perhaps) shameful to abandon it. Would we miss medical miracles? Technological triumphs? Eternal enlightenment?

My talents certainly don’t lie anywhere on that grand scale, and still I wonder whether I would actually trade being great for being good. I’ve always been taught to do my very best and to nurture my natural aptitude in order to make it flourish. I teach the same to my children. Pride is part of our culture.

I know that I would never give up a friend to have a talent. I have days, like everyone, when a relationship is the only thing that carries me through. Yet when I look at it from the other direction–would I give up a talent to have a friend–it somehow seems like a different proposition. Maybe the presentation presumes the presence of one and the absence of the other. In that case, what would I do if I had to choose between a talent and a friend? If I had both in front of me and could pick only one? Would pride sway me? I think I know the answer–I think.

Which would you choose? Respect or love?

Ready or not

My French family arrives tomorrow for a weeklong visit. Seven people are coming–some have even already begun their journey west–and I’m excited. I’m ready.

You’d never know I’m ready by looking at my to-do list. I haven’t even started cleaning my house. My pantry is empty. I haven’t assembled a menu for the day I’ve been assigned to feed everyone. I can’t say more than a few basic phrases in French, and my ear can’t striate spoken phrases into the individual words I need to grasp. But I can’t wait.

I just know that somehow everything will work itself out. I can fake the house cleaning (that’s why I have closets, right?). One whirlwind trip to the supermarket will erase my pantry woes. Menu, schmenu. Cooking for a crowd doesn’t scare me. The language deficit leaves me a little apprehensive, but we’ll manage.

Hugs and smiles and tears and charades and photographs and gestures. That’s how we’ll communicate. We’ll dance to the basic rhythm of life–wake, eat, observe, sleep–and we’ll fill in the silences with our willingness to try. We’ll communicate with our hearts, watch the kids play, and toast with our wineglasses. Our interaction may be life’s basic box step, but we’ll be dancing together.

Yes, I still believe that words matter. I also believe that, though we don’t share a common language, the words will eventually come and we’ll all make beautiful music together–without missing a beat.

Bienvenue ma famille! Come quickly, Christian, Valerie, Virginie, Alicia, Kesia, Anthony, and Lisa. My house isn’t perfect and I can’t speak your language, but I’m ready!

P.S. If we really get desperate, we can fire up our laptops and chat, sitting side-by-side on the couch, with Clownfish.

Hurry up and wait

Those who know me also know that I don’t like to wait. I tend to move constantly, doggedly pursuing the “next thing.” Even if that thing isn’t of particularly great importance, I’m hot on its tail just on principle. I am fueled by constant motion. When I’m forced to stop, I get frustrated.

Yesterday I went to pick up lunch at a local drive-thru. After I had paid at the window, the server informed me that my salad would be “just a minute” and politely asked me to pull forward and *shudders* wait. My face wanted to contort in exasperation, and a look into the server’s eyes told me my half-hearted effort to keep it under control was unsuccessful. She knew I wasn’t happy.

Held hostage by the $6.41 I had already paid, I resignedly pulled forward. The two-minute pause before the server arrived at my window with my food allowed enough time for me to wrestle and subdue my animosity, so that so that when she did appear I was appropriately contrite. (After all, I really didn’t have anywhere else to go, and it was only two minutes.) She left relieved that I hadn’t given her a hard time, and I went on my way.

Just telling the story to this point makes me feel sheepish, but there’s more. After I settled into a reverie with my audiobook and began to eat, I was surprised at the freshness of my salad. It was, in fact, different enough from the norm for me to notice. My next thought was a resounding DUH! as I reddened in shame. In spite of my less-than-stellar attitude, I was rewarded with something good, something I probably didn’t deserve.

Somewhere along the line I forgot that there are choices or trade-offs in every situation. Of course my salad was fresh. I had had to wait because it wasn’t ready; they had to make it. That’s the way it works–if there had been one in the cooler, I would have saved two minutes, but I would have had to settle for lettuce less crisp. Wait/fresh vs. no wait/less fresh. There’s a tiny risk-and-reward proposition wrapped up in everything.

This particular situation isn’t particularly important in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill to let it remind me that waiting isn’t inherently bad–or that hurrying for its own sake has any value. I don’t plan to stop moving anytime soon, but I’ll try to do better at not begrudging the speed limits. As a devotee of cheesy 80s movies, I am reminded of the wise words of Ferris Bueller: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Save Ferris.



We repeatedly underestimate how important a story is to help us make sense of the world.

I read this in today’s blog post from Seth Godin. That’s it. That is the absolute core of effective communication. Throwing facts, opinions, statistics, or theories at people does nothing to evoke a response. Without framing that information in context–particularly a context that means something to the listener–you’ll either receive nothing in return or an interpretation so far from what you had anticipated you didn’t know it was possible.

A few years ago I gave a presentation offering business writing tips. The cornerstone of the message was comprised of two principles:

  • What do you want your audience to know?
  • Why does (should) your audience care?

If you nail the answers to these two questions, you’ll know what story to tell. Your story doesn’t have to be an anecdote or a cute quip, though they often help. Your story is simply the context you thread through your information to weave it into something that makes sense to your audience. Your data is not your message–your data is the support for your message.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing, making a presentation, or simply speaking to a friend, you have to make a connection. It’s almost impossible to make your point without it.