Bully for you

Mary RaberOne of my first kindergarten memories doesn’t have anything to do with school at all. It’s the walk home that vividly sticks with me. I didn’t live far from school, and I routinely walked home with the rest of the kids who lived in nearby. We weren’t exactly friends, just fellow travelers by circumstance, and after about a block or two, the group would start to disperse.

If you’d think nothing would happen in that short distance, you’d be wrong. We had barely taken a step off school property one day when the heckling began. The focal point was a kid whose only transgression was being overweight. The kids–even the big kids, third graders–called him names, and the more upset he got, the more they heckled him.

The kid began to separate himself from the crowd. In my head, it looked (and still looks) like a pint-sized mob scene. Pack of kids in the back, lone kid in the front trying hard not to flinch at the word daggers hitting him from behind, moving toward home as fast as his legs could carry him.

When the kid neared his house (or maybe it was just the corner where he would turn and the others would continue straight ahead), he turned around and yelled the worst insult his five-year-old self could conjure: “YOU F***ERS!” before he ran inside to safety.

Bullies. Jerks. Such cruel kids.

I was part of that group.

I’d like to say that I didn’t do any name calling–I don’t think I did, but maybe that’s just my memory smoothing things over. I was uncomfortable, that’s for sure. I remember going home and talking to my mom about what had happened, ashamed of the taunting and bewildered that lightning hadn’t struck the kid for saying that worst-of-all word.

Regardless, I was still part of that group.

I didn’t stick up for that kid. I didn’t separate myself to walk with him. I didn’t offer comfort. I didn’t leave. I didn’t have to say a word to be complicit, and to this day, I’m ashamed of myself.

I had to look at that kid in class every day; our last names started with the same letter, so we never sat very far apart. And though I was wracked with guilt and could barely make eye contact, I never apologized. Until we graduated from high school, I never apologized, although every time I saw that kid I would think about the kindergarten incident.

Eventually, time and distance put it out of my mind, but when a friend recounted a bullying scenario in which her young daughter was involved, that long-ago walk home came screaming back into my head. I shared it with her, and she suggested that I apologize to him. So I’m going to, through this blog.

And I’m going to use it to remind my kids, myself, and anyone who will listen that sometimes a person communicates more by where she chooses to stand than by the words she uses–or doesn’t use. Get out of the crowd and stand for what’s right, friends. The concept of “safety in numbers” doesn’t apply to your soul.

So, RH, I admire you for standing up for yourself that day. I wish I would have joined you. I’m sorry.

Give me my money (again)

For some reason, a bout of nostalgia is causing me to revisit some of my old posts. I originally published this one in June 2011. Hope you enjoy this oldie-but-goodie.

Bound for yet another youth hostel at the end of a long spring break jaunt through Italy, a friend and I hurried to catch a subway train in Rome. (Obviously, the presence of the word “youth” indicates that this event occurred MANY years ago.) Caught up in the rush hour hustle-bustle, we scrambled to squeeze ourselves into a crowded-to-bursting train car. When the door closed on my backpack and then reopened, I tried to press myself deeper inside. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it past the man in front of me because we got caught up in that awkward dance of both moving the same way at the same time. We finally figured it out following a rapid-fire exchange of good-natured scusi/prego, and the train door closed.

A minute later, an older man pointed out the gaping zipper in my fanny pack (no comments, please!). You guessed it–my wallet was gone. Of course, being the enlightened world traveler that I was at the ripe age of 20, I quickly understood that the scusi-dance I had just experienced had been an intentional distraction. We hadn’t yet come to our first stop, so I knew my dance partner was still on the train and I easily drew a bead on him. As I suspected he would, this guy left the train as soon as the doors opened. Fearless and galvanized by my youth, I hopped off the train and jumped on his back, yelling over and over, “GIVE ME MY MONEY!”

To keep this long story from getting longer, I will simply tell you that during this excitement, I looked back at the train as it pulled away from the platform. Through the window I saw another man holding my wallet, rifling through its contents. I had nabbed the wrong guy.

Certainly, the guy I had in my clutches wasn’t innocent. He was part of a two-man team whose MO was for one to distract and the other to snatch. Even so, my actions were ill-directed and didn’t recover my money.

Now, you may be wondering how I’m going to turn this into some sort of communication insight. That’s easy. Particularly in times where you need to take corrective action or to give negative feedback, consider these lessons:

  1. Look before you leap, especially if you’re jumping someone’s back. (Literally, in some cases!)
  2. When you need to resolve a problem, make sure you have the right guy. (Misdirecting your anger won’t help anyone, and it could even backfire. I was lucky.)
  3. Be patient. (What I didn’t mention above was that there was another train coming five minutes after the one  into which I had crammed myself. The time I lost due to my haste and bravado was far more than the five minutes I would have waited for the next train. And I would still have had my money.)

I love to tell this story, and I’ve told it often. For the record, though, this is the first time that I’ve made the connections that now seem so obvious to me. There really is a lesson in everything.

Dirty laundry

DirtyLaundry2-LaundryBasketI hate to do laundry. I’ve always hated to do laundry. In fact, when I was in college, I once made it a record six weeks without venturing to that dreaded room in my dorm basement. My secret? Underwear, lots of underwear. After all, who really cares how many times you rotate sweatpants and jeans when you’re 18 and trudging around the campus anti-world? Underwear is a different story, though. One-and-done is my motto, so the key is to have A LOT of it.

My aversion to the washing machine took on a new dimension in those college years. When I ran dangerously low on unmentionables, I bought a couple of pairs at a boutique near campus. You can imagine how that price tag impacted my poor-student budget, so I knew I had to find a more sustainable approach.

Laundry time? Nope. I needed Target.

The problem was that with campus nestled in a residential area and the mall in the next town over–and me having no car–I needed transportation. None of my friends had cars either, so desperation led me to the city bus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the bus, and as I have cruised through adulthood exploring different cities around the world, I think public transportation is one of the greatest inventions ever. But as an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest, I had no idea how to use it. It intimidated me.

In fact, buses still intimidate me. Trains are pretty simple to figure out; there’s always a map nearby to offer the big picture, and whole system is generally well-mapped visually. It’s easy to see how many stops, how many changes, where to switch, etc.

Not so with buses.

Without a station structure to house maps and posters–and with less oversight to deter vandalism–bus huts have neither the space nor the maintenance routine to provide much information. In fact, there’s often just a sign marking the location of the stop sitting atop an abbreviated schedule that looks something like this–if you’re lucky:

bus-sched-1

So say I know I’m standing at Tunnel & Thayer. I can see all the times the bus will arrive to whisk me away. I can even intuit to which stops it will take me, but what then? How do I know where to transfer? What’s available to transfer TO at those stops? Where are they in relation to anything? And how much does this even cost? Is bus riding some elite club for people who grew up in the city, a conspiracy to make the rest of us feel like country cousins?

Today I’d pull up the Transit Authority’s website on my phone and try to figure it out, but in 1987, there was no internet, let alone smartphones. Heck, car-mounted cell phones were just starting to come out, and they were super expensive. But, I digress.

My point is that this is a communications disaster. It’s not intuitive and there’s no real way to get information when you need it. Good communications principles don’t just apply to marketing efforts, meetings, and manners. They should be ubiquitous. They apply to everything, even bus schedules.

When you’re trying to give people information, remember this:

  • Don’t leave out important information.
  • Make it easy.
  • Use visuals when possible.
  • Spread the word.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just do my laundry more often.

Red letter days

tack calendarWell, crap. Yesterday was National Grammar Day and I missed it. The one day a year I can officially pontificate on participles, advocate adverbs, and preach pronouns, and I missed it. (Note that I said officially.) It’s a good thing today is National Absinthe Day to make up for it.

Yeah, yeah, I know those “National Day of…” events are just goofy blurbs on some nebulous calendar, but they are kind of fun–and they provide a convenient excuse to celebrate something when you need a pick-me-up. Check ’em out and have a chuckle: https://www.daysoftheyear.com/.

Personally, I can’t wait for Punctuation Day on September 24, but Walk Around Things Day on April 4 and No Pants Day on May 1 will be a hoot, too. And thank goodness I remembered National Drink Wine Day on February 18. Missing that would have been like forgetting Christmas.

We all need a little levity now and then; find something fun and make a day of it!

[Okay, I can’t resist a shameless grammar plug. Why do we have to confine proper language usage to a single day? Grammar DayAfter all, words matter.]

 

If the shoe fits

IMG_5753After my Crunch time post last week, a friend told me he couldn’t wait to read the follow-up. I never expected to write one, but dang it, he was right.

My dog ate my Mophie.

Just days after I called out my kid for not taking responsibility, today it became my turn. My mouthy puppy gnawed on my phone’s external battery pack, and to add insult to injury, he did it while sitting beside me. I assumed he had his bone–belatedly I realized he didn’t.

So was it the dog’s fault? Nope. It was all mine.

I should have been watching. I shouldn’t have assumed. I should take better care of my stuff. The blame lies on my shoulders.

BUT.

There’s another lesson in this.

Stuff happens, and sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes it even happens right under our noses.

So while I still expect my kid to take responsibility for leaving his phone unattended–just like I’m owning up to letting my dog chew on my Mophie–I’m going to cut him some slack. He’s human; we all are.

And yeah, while you’re smirking and thinking that it always looks different when it happens to me, sometimes that’s the only way I learn the lesson.

Cut me some slack.

(Well, JD, you got your wish. Now stop laughing.)

Sit down and shut up

A few times a month, I have to interview people for articles I write. The key isn’t to ask a lot of questions; it’s to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. The best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Even though I know this, I often struggle to keep quiet. I want to identify with that person, relate similar experiences, share success stories, and sometimes even–oh, bite your tongue, Tammy!–offer advice.

But that’s not my job.

A story interview isn’t a cocktail party where people posture to outdo each other. It isn’t a networking event where everyone trots out her useful skills in a thinly veiled dog-and-pony show. And it certainly isn’t an interview of ME where I need (or get) to lay out my resume and regale the person with my accomplishments.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to impress–but it’s not about me.

It doesn’t matter that I went to the school my interviewee just described.

It doesn’t matter that I work in the same field in my “real” job.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to the same country or eaten the same foods.

It doesn’t matter that I agree (or disagree) with his point.

All that counts is that I’m there to learn, and unless I’m asking questions to elicit further information, I always learn more with my mouth closed.

Someone else’s validation of my resume or academic credentials or thought processes or travel history or food preferences or whatever else I feel compelled to share doesn’t change who I am or what I’ve done. So why should I feel the need to insert ME into every conversation?

Wait–I just said conversation. Weren’t we talking about interviews, not everyday exchanges?

Well, crap. I guess there’s really not that much difference. No matter what the scenario, I always learn volumes when I use my ears more than my mouth. I said it earlier: the best sessions take place when I barely say a word.

Tammy dear, remember that communication is just as much about the intake as it is about the output.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Steven R. Covey

(Thanks, KMN, for preaching this relentlessly. Maybe someday I’ll finally hear it.)

Eating habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot long ago, a friend and I were discussing where to go for dinner. We were still in a getting-acquainted phase, so we hadn’t gotten familiar with each other’s eating habits yet. In the course of the conversation, he gave me a wry grin and said:

I’m not a vegetarian, but sometimes I eat like one.

While that gave me a chuckle and helped us pick a restaurant, I liked the phrase so much that I tucked it away to chew on it later. I’ve been picking little morsels from its bones ever since.

Lately, the phrase has me thinking about labels. Vegetarian. Omnivore. Picky eater. Heck, you can take it way beyond food. Think of any label you’ve casually slapped on a person. Musician. Artist. Businesswoman. Foodie. Scholar. Curmudgeon.

What do they all have in common?

Although they may help paint a picture, they’re also confining. Usually we hear one of those labels and jump to conclusions–good or bad.

If I told you my friend is a meat-eater, a red-blooded, American dude whose favorite cheat food is hot wings, you’d probably never guess that he packs his lunch box with veggies and superfoods and sneaks flaxseed into his kids’ oatmeal, or that he might trip you so he can make it to the salad bar first.

If I told you I have a friend who is a musician, you might assume she has an artsy free spirit and miss that she has a head for details and numbers like you wouldn’t believe.

We have to be just as careful when we assign labels as when we hear them ourselves. There’s so much more to a person than the meaning–or assumed meaning–carried in a single category. Using a label to define someone confines our understanding of that person.

I’m a meat-eater, but I’ll usually choose a black bean cake or a lentil stew over a steak. One of my favorite solo meals consists of sautéed zucchini, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Eggplant parm? Sign me up.

You see, I’m not a vegetarian, but sometimes I eat like one.