Side effects

The other day I was talking to a friend who has devoted a good deal of her life to the ideals of the civil rights movement. She spent most of her teaching career working with inner city kids, leading classrooms of students who didn’t look a thing like her when others were too scared or too comfortable to step in. She has always acted with kindness and empathy toward everyone, regardless of race or creed. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t engage in a conversation about the current climate of racial tension exactly the way I thought she would.

When I questioned her about it, she seemed tired, defeated. All those things we fought for seem to just be coming full circle again, she said. My sense was that she felt that it ultimately hadn’t made much difference. Here we are again, fifty years later, fighting the same battles.

She kept talking about unintended consequences, and I wish I had spent more time probing what she meant. I sensed a bit of regret, not for the cause, but for the place we have landed.

But I keep going back to those unintended consequences.

What did she mean? What are/were they? Do they matter? The truth is, I don’t know any of these answers. I hope to find out someday soon.

What I do know is this.

We can’t let fear of the unknown hold us back from taking action to move toward something that’s right. We make choices based on the information we have at the time and do the best we can. We learn to mitigate the side effects when they come, but we keep marching toward the goal–however imperfectly.

I respect her fatigue. If she’s tired, that’s okay; it’s my turn to step up.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

Why ask why

Since I started writing again, I’ve purposely avoided tackling the topics of the moment: COVID, racism, civil unrest. There’s already so much being written on all sides that I feared my voice would just add to the confusion. And to be honest, it’s safer.

It doesn’t feel right, though.

It’s hard to keep it light when so many things weigh heavily on my mind. I am heartbroken about what’s happening across the country: Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles. Pick just about any city right now and you can find protests and violence ravaging the streets.

While I don’t condone violence–against humans, animals, property, or anything else–if we ONLY look at that, we’re missing the point. It’s too easy to focus on an end result and make sweeping judgments. When we do, we’re just treating the symptoms.

Why aren’t we asking WHY?

Why are people so frustrated and angry? Why does an entire population feel disenfranchised? Why do people feel they have to break things or cause unrest to be heard? Why aren’t the rest of us listening?

We have built a society that systemically discriminates against people who are not white. We didn’t admit Black people into college for a really long time, and when we did, we didn’t let them live there or use the libraries or do any of the things they needed to succeed. We didn’t let Black people get union cards back in the day, so they couldn’t find work in the trades. We didn’t let black people get loans so they couldn’t make investments in businesses or houses or their own prosperity. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

Fast forward to today. Even when laws have changed, the cultural effects continue to be carried forward. Attitudes, neighborhoods, expectations, beliefs, stigmas. Some of us won’t even acknowledge a problem ever existed at all.

There’s a tweet going around the internet about an idea for a new reality show:

ok hear me out….a reality show where billionaire CEOs have to live off of their lowest-paid employee’s salary for a month

— eva ☻ (@evamarieluter) August 30, 2020

If you follow the thread (which is now ginormous), someone commented that it wouldn’t be a problem for the billionaire since s/he would just invest, build wealth, and get the heck out of there. Yeah, right. Understandably, many people responded to remind that person that when all your money goes to rent and food, there isn’t anything left to invest. The debate got pretty toxic, but isn’t this the same point we need to examine for Black people in our country?

How could we ever expect anyone to work their way out of dire situations when all of their resources went to survival? And we refused to provide the tools–education, jobs, certifications, access to credit–that would help them change things? Even if those things are (arguably) available now, they’re already way behind. And again, the cultural effects remain much more deeply entrenched.

Before you start giving me anecdotal illustrations of people for whom this was NOT the situation, I’ll agree with you. Yep, right now. I agree. Not every Black person suffered in the same way. Many became prosperous and “lived the dream.” (Whose dream is debatable, but that’s for a different day.) But many, many, many more–the overwhelming majority–fell victim to a system designed to keep them separate at best and unable to function at worst.

I’ll also say this: I don’t have the solution.

What I do know is that we will never, ever make any progress toward peace and justice if we only address the symptoms. If we only address the violence and looting, it will keep happening. We need to treat the whole disease to find a cure, not just the symptoms.

Start by asking what brought us here. And don’t forget to listen to the answers.

The time I got it wrong

I hate to be wrong. As much as I love to be right (who doesn’t?), I hate to be wrong even more. I have lots of reasons for this, but since they revolve around my self-psychoanalysis, I’ll spare you the details. Just know that I viscerally hate to be wrong.

Imagine, then, the internal turmoil that enveloped me the day I realized that sometimes it’s actually BETTER to be wrong. Or the days I have to remind myself of that lesson.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I have a hard time with that, too. But seriously, there are many times when being wrong is better than being right.

Take COVID, for example. I wear a mask, not because I “live in fear” (some anti-masker accused me of that the other day) or because an oppressive government forced me to do it, but because I believe it offers some protection to me and those around me. I believe we need to take reasonable precautions to slow the spread of the disease. I believe that NOT wearing one puts people at unnecessary risk. Sometimes when I see people gathering in large groups, defiant of scientific advice, I think, they’ll see. The virus is going to catch up to them. Except, I really don’t want anyone to get sick.

When a close friend of mine told me her daughter was getting married–straight out of high school–I found it difficult to feel celebratory. Marriage is hard enough! Young marriages are doomed to fail! Why doesn’t she wait at least till she’s legal to drink the champagne at her wedding?! I had a lot of thoughts like this, until one day I realized, what are you hoping for, T? That you’ll be proven right? That means the marriage will fail. No way did I want my friend’s daughter to suffer the pain of divorce.

My dog has been limping around since March. I’ve taken him to the vet so many times, it’s not worth counting. He’s a gentle giant with a heavy dose of stoicism, so the animal care staff mostly thought I was being overprotective. He’s getting older; this is to be expected, especially in these large breeds. He probably just has arthritis. Many months and some expensive xrays later, we learned my best boy has two torn cruciate ligaments, the canine equivalent of the human ACL. Yup, one in each back leg. My poor boy is now looking at two tough surgeries and recovery. As much as I want my boy to be zooming around the house, a tiny bit of my perversely vindicated self wants to scream I TOLD YOU SO to the vet.

Anyway, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn–and re-learn. I feel like a failure when I’m wrong. I like being the person who got it right, not the one who suffers defeat.

But sometimes I need to remember that the real victory is in the outcome itself, not the position I took. It’s when people stay healthy, when marriage works, when your dog is okay after all, when the result is something GOOD. Especially in those times–and probably in many others, as well–I need to remember that rightness and righteousness are not the same.

Flying blind

A couple of nights ago, something started thump-whumping on my back door. I didn’t think anything of it at first; my house often makes creepy noises that flare up and then disappear. This one kept happening, though.

It’s August, a little late for the giant Junebugs that don’t realize a giant pane of glass stands between them and the light. Anyway, the sound was lower-pitched than that, like something bigger and maybe furry.

I started having visions of a raccoon trying to nudge the door open, but when I turned on the light and looked outside, I saw nothing. No ringed eyes looking up at me, no tiny black paws scrabbling to grab hold, nothing. I turned off the light and went back to the sofa.

Thump-whump! Thump-whump!

The sound came again, and again I turned on the light and looked through the glass door. Again nothing. This time I convinced myself the sound had come from a bat launching its small, furry body toward my kitchen, stopped only by the glass door. That had to be why I couldn’t see anything, right? It had flown away. Definitely creepy.

Back to my seat I went, mentally preparing for how I would remove the creepy flying mammal when it finally sneaked into my kitchen. I don’t have a net, but I might be able to locate a tennis racquet somewhere in the house. Oh please, oh please, don’t let it come to that.

Thump-whump! Thump-whump!

When the noise started again, I grabbed a flashlight. Instead of going directly to the door and scaring off the critter by turning on the outside light, I went to a window where I could see the door from a different angle. I shined the flashlight across the door to try to catch a glimpse of the offender. Still nothing. What the heck?

My boyfriend came up behind me and peered over my shoulder. He scanned the area with his eyes and somehow landed on a tiny flicker of movement on the ground. “Shine your light there,” he said.

I did. I could see something moving, but I couldn’t get a good visual. I adjusted the flashlight’s beam to be less diffuse, and I finally saw it. A giant locust. Seriously? That was the thing that had been creeping me out all evening?

Subsequent thumps that evening no longer bothered me. In fact, I even gave a little chuckle when I heard the sound again, amused and a little sheepish at how I had fallen victim to my assumptions.

There was no bat trying to get into my house to terrorize me. All it took was a little investigation to disprove my theory. Once I got more information, even the continued thumping no longer set my mind racing.

What a good reminder to look for more information before drawing conclusions and to be open to what we learn, whether it proves or dispels.

Shine your light. Look from a different angle. Be ready to find something you don’t expect.

Identity crisis

I love food.

For most of my life, creating it has been part of my identity. As an adolescent, I baked. When, as a newly minted adult, I called myself a good cook, my dad countered and said I was a good baker–he didn’t really know whether I could cook. So I rose to the challenge and dove into new recipes, embracing new techniques. Now I bake AND cook.

I love to read recipes and experiment with complicated cooking methods. I buy unusual ingredients when I find them at the grocery store just to see what I can do with them. Just yesterday I picked up a box of Cape gooseberries to see where they might lead me. I can’t stand to clean my house, but I’ll happily cook all day.

Of course, eating comes with the territory. Discovering a new restaurant, an unusual flavor combination, or just pure deliciousness is an enduring quest for me. Although I have a few favorites, I rarely order the same thing twice at a restaurant for fear I’ll miss out on some other epicurean delight. And I try really hard to avoid ordering the same thing as someone else at my table. After all, I might be able to snag a bite of something different.

So what’s the problem?

In my (seemingly constant) effort to maintain my weight and improve my overall health, food represents a key component of that formula. I’ve made lots of lifestyle improvements over the years, but the hardest thing has been–and still is–separating myself from food. It’s like tearing away a piece of my soul.

Look, I make mostly healthy-ish choices. I’ve shifted my cooking style. I’ve learned to embrace and love vegetables (except the orange ones). I work out hard. But walk me past a new coffee shop or bakery, suggest we try a new restaurant, or tempt me with a fancy technique and I’m all in.

I’m trying to set boundaries and find alternative pleasures. I’m striving for moderation, to embrace all the sensory pleasures of food–the visual stimulation of a carefully composed dish, the smell that envelops me, the sound of the sizzle, the feel of working the dough–so that taste becomes less important and I find satisfaction in a single bite.

But this is my SOUL we’re talking about.

I’m not asking for advice here. Finding the right balance with food in all its aspects in my life is hard, but I’m trying. It isn’t the food I need to figure out so much as myself.

I see this as a journey in self-awareness. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten or five, I wouldn’t have recognized these things. Somewhere along the way I realized that food has become integral to my identity (admiring, creating, eating, sharing), so of course making lifestyle changes that revolve around it will be hard. In this case, I think the key is to finally recognize that I can’t just quit the thing that matters so much to me. I can’t even work around it, really. Instead, I need to work with it in a way that allows me to embrace my identity and still achieve my goals.

All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out food, when I should have been trying to figure out myself.

Dragon slaying

I’m struggling again with writing, as you may have surmised from my absent blog posts this week. I’ve started second guessing my ideas: Who would want to read that? I’m worried about my tone: Sheesh! You sound like Pollyanna, always turning things into glib sunshine and rainbows. I lose my grasp on fleeting ideas: I just can’t think of anything interesting to write about. This old insecurities (explained in I am not a-mused) have flared up again.

I can’t let that happen.

So here I am, writing about the insecurities themselves. By giving them voice and then countering with the truth, I intend to put them to rest. I know I’ll likely have to do this many times and they may never be permanently defeated. Hopefully, though, each time will get easier and the process of cutting them down will become second nature.

It just takes practice, and to show I’m serious about slaying my dragons, I’m going to do it publicly.

  1. Who would want to read that? C’mon, T. You’ve said since Day One that you’re not writing for anyone else. Remember how you said that writing every day jumpstarted your creativity and helped you organize your thoughts? Yeah, you really said that. Why don’t you own it now? Write like you mean it.
  2. Sheesh! You sound like Pollyanna, always turning things into glib sunshine and rainbows. Life isn’t sunshine and rainbows, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to find the nuggets of wisdom in everyday situations. It doesn’t mean your life is perfect, T. Actually, you need to find those nuggets for yourself. (See item 1 in case you forgot your audience.) There are days when you feel like buckling under the weight of all that’s going on; it’s perfectly normal to look for ways to make sense of it. In fact, this exercise is vastly healthier than wallowing (at which you’re also quite accomplished).
  3. I just can’t think of anything interesting to write about. Jeez, T, you’ve always prided yourself on being able to make something out of nothing. How many times have you told people that’s what your blog posts reflect? After all, you just wrote a whole post on how you couldn’t write. Talk about turning nothing into something!

I doubt that I’ve slain the dragon of self-doubt, but hopefully I’ve beaten him back for a while so my body of work–my armaments–can grow.

So friends, here’s my formula for dealing with fear/self-doubt/whatever is holding you back: bring it into the light. Call it out; share it with someone else. Then present your counterarguments. If it helps, do it in third person. Pretend you’re counseling a friend or your daughter or someone important to you. Write them down, point by point, so you can SEE them. Then go do the thing that scares you. Your legs may be wobbly, but they’ll get stronger as you go. I promise.

Cut to the chase

Stilfehler / CC BY-SA

When I visited my hairdresser the other day, I went armed with an idea. Mind you, for nearly twenty years I’ve told her, Do whatever you want. Once in a while I tell her to leave the length, thin it a bit, get it out of my face, but the execution–if not the entire style–is usually up to her. I’m just not very good at this stuff, so why not leave it to someone who is?

Well, after thirteen-ish years of the same hairstyle with only small variations in its length, I thought I needed a change. I’ve been psyching myself up for it for months, but I’ve never quite been able to make it happen. After all, the only place to go was short, and I wouldn’t be able to change my mind once I heard the snip of the scissors. I’m not afraid of short hair; I’ve worn it that way for close to half my adult life. I just…wasn’t sure.

I used the week before my appointment to find some photos of styles I liked and thought would work with my thick, coarse, wavy hair. I sent a few to my fashion consultant (my daughter), who gave me the thumbs up. All systems go, right?

I texted a heads-up to my hairdresser a couple of days before my appointment: This is your fair warning. I’m thinking about going short. I knew she’d have to digest it, and saying it out loud (via text) forced me to make a decision. It was no longer just an idea.

When I arrived at the salon, I nervously showed my hairdresser the photos I liked. I still wasn’t 100% sure and I wanted her opinion. Her initial refusal to make the cut galvanized me.

What?! It’s my hair! What’s wrong with these styles? Short in the back, longer in the front; isn’t that what we’ve been doing, just on a wayyyyyyy different scale? I want my hair short!

She ended up cutting my hair, and I love it–so does she.

What I find particularly interesting about this encounter is that my doubt vanished when my hairdresser pushed back. I realized I was ready and dadgummit, we needed to make it happen. As I laid out all the reasons whey I wanted this and why it was time, my position solidified. Although I can be pretty stubborn and often contrary, I’m fairly certain I would have backed off if I hadn’t been ready to make the change.

When we bounce our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, questions, whatever off others, it helps us hone and understand them for ourselves. We often need to get out of our own heads and test our positions in the real world. Sometimes we’ll end up doubling down, and sometimes we’ll end up rethinking them. Either way, we’re better for it.

Certainly this example is pretty simplified, but there’s truth in it. Aren’t we all better when we’re willing to learn how our ideas stand up to opposition? I challenge you to sit down with someone who doesn’t agree with you on an issue and have a (civil!) conversation about it.

I look like a total dork in pics, but here’s the new cut!

Side note: I DID listen to my hairdresser’s concerns on this, by they way. It turns out that she wasn’t opposed the short style I wanted. She has just been burned by being held to a particular photo when the person’s hair doesn’t behave exactly like the model’s. Once I removed the photo from the equation and told her what I wanted to accomplish, she agreed, as long as she could do it according to her vision. She’s been cutting my hair for nineteen years, so I trusted her to do that. We make a good team, especially when I let her be the expert.

En-titled

As a side gig, I write articles for a local magazine. As much as I enjoy it, it’s like exercise: the hardest part is getting started. I’ll sometimes spend hours–yes, hours–agonizing over the title. The computer screen never looks blanker than when I stare at it waiting for inspiration.

It isn’t that I don’t know what the article will be about. By the time I sit down to write, I’ve already done my research, interviewed the subject, and loosely outlined the content. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong-o, at least in my case.

Even if I know all the pieces and roughly how they’ll fit together, I still need a hook. I need to nail the title and the subhead because that’s what sets up everything else for me. When I serve up a wimpy title, the article that follows fights hard for its rightful place in mediocrity. But when I create a strong lead, it becomes my jumping off point for what comes next. That’s why I’ll spend hours looking at a blank screen while I turn over possibilities in my mind. I have to start strong.

Life’s like that. I need to pick a direction, set a goal so I can take off. I need to know where to go so I can get there. For a long time, I simply followed “the” formula: go to college, get a job, work hard, get married, start a family, keep working hard, hopefully get somewhere. But where? It isn’t enough to just work; you need to work toward something. If you don’t pick your own goal, you’ll just follow the tide of your circumstances. You’ll likely end up somewhere far from where you had imagined yourself or simply adrift.

As I write, occasionally I find that the title I’ve chosen has taken me in the wrong direction. Maybe I’ve uncovered information and nuances along the way that I hadn’t considered. Maybe I stumble on a better story. Maybe I didn’t fully understand my subject at first. Maybe I just got it wrong. 

You know what I do then? I change the title and set off on a new path. It’s never too late.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.

Yogi Berra

Heavy lifting

Yesterday at the gym I had to do floor presses. Essentially, that means lying on my back and extending my arms perpendicular to the floor, holding dumbbells. Then I bring the dumbbells back toward my face, one at a time. I’m not big on weight lifting, but I do what my trainer tells me and I actually don’t mind this one.

The only thing I find a little awkward about the exercise is picking up the dumbbells. I either have to do it before I get on the floor, which means maneuvering my way down with a bulky weight in each hand, or while I’m half prone, which means I have little leverage. I find the latter slightly more doable, so that’s the approach I took yesterday.

Everything went fine until round three. I came back to the floor press station from the preceding exercise, sat on the floor, and picked up one of the weights–no problem. When I tried to pick up the second weight (one-handed and with less agility, as I already had the first weight in the other hand), I couldn’t do it. I mean, I just could not get that thing off the floor.

What the what?

I had just done this twice before with no issues, but try as I might, this time I couldn’t make it happen. No matter from what angle I approached it, the dumbbell would not come off the ground. It baffled me, and I felt silly.

My trainer saw what was happening and offered to help. Of course, I refused. I knew I could do it. The dumbbell wasn’t that heavy, and I had already done it twice before. Besides, I HATE to ask for help. Or accept it. Or even admit I need it.

Still, try as I might, I couldn’t separate the weight from the floor. Thankfully, my trainer didn’t ask a second time. He jogged to my side and lifted the dumbbell into position. The rest of the exercise went off without a hitch.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Why was I suddenly unable to do something I had been able to do only minutes before? And why did I stubbornly refuse help?

According to my trainer, this was a perfectly normal situation. My muscles were fatigued, predictably. He stood at the ready to help (that’s what spotters are for, right?), but I was determined to handle the situation myself. That turned out to be futile.

Sometimes we get tired and we need a boost from those around us. Most of the time they don’t think a thing about it and gladly lend a hand. In fact, like my trainer, they feel needed and valuable when they can jump in. It saves time (ref: my repeated unsuccessful attempts to lift that dadgum weight) and gets the job done more efficiently. And when you’re on the other side of it, sometimes you have to just jump in despite the refusals.

Thanks, Bryce.

Silver linings

I’ve written about some heavy stuff lately, and I need a breather. The past few months have been rough for almost everyone. Still, I can find bright spots and I’m grateful for them.

Today I’ve decided to share some of the silver linings I’ve discovered in my quarantine world. I don’t always see them unless I take the time to look for them, and today I feel the need to flesh them out. I’ll be honest; I have no idea how this list will look, but here goes.

  1. Writing letters. I went old school a few months ago and started writing real pen-and-paper letters to people with whom I’d lost touch or wanted to get to know better. And they’ve responded! I love finding these treats in my mailbox, and the process of organizing my thoughts without the benefit of the backspace key has been wildly helpful to my mental processing ability.
  2. Patience and kindness. Even though I’ve run into some short fuses, I’ve more often experienced people exercising more patience for others these days. I know I have, anyway (mostly). When I’m putting six feet of distance between me and the next person, I become less focused on getting ahead. I’m learning to wait, which doesn’t come naturally to me. I also see people volunteering to help others: offering to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor, sharing books, running errands, providing a meal. One day a friend dropped off a big bag of cheesy popcorn on my front stoop. It was totally random, totally unnecessary, and totally appreciated.
  3. My dog! Those of you non-pet owners may not understand this, but I’ve been able to enjoy the benefits of his companionship 24/7. He’s a faithful friend who loves me unconditionally (and even more when I have treats), senses my moods, offers comfort when I need it, and always acts happy to see me. Who wouldn’t love that?
  4. Having a job. As I watch so many people around me struggle with not having enough, I become ever more grateful that I not only have a job in these trying times, but also one that is flexible enough to let me work from home. I am more conscious of what I have and try to share as much as I can.
  5. Bonus time with my adult-ish kids. Living together as adults hasn’t always been easy–and if you know me personally you know how fully I embrace empty nesting–but this has been a time of growth for us as a family. We’re not perfect, but I’m glad we have each other. They’ve now gone back to their academic domains, and I’m thankful for that, too.
  6. Slowing down. I’m learning a lot about myself and have a long way to go, but reducing the noise around me certainly helps my focus. I don’t always like what I see, but now I can recognize it and work on the things that need to change.
  7. Noticing the small stuff. Slowing down helps me notice the small stuff, too. Enough said.
  8. Going for walks. For a while, it seemed as if the whole world was out walking, and I loved it. I know I’ve strapped on my tennies to walk more times in the last week than I did all of last year, maybe even the last couple of years. I’ve loved exploring the neighborhoods around me and connecting in a much more sensory way than a drive-by offers.
  9. Watching the world get creative. This might be my very favorite thing. I love, Love, LOVE seeing people find creative ways to navigate this new normal. Some of my faves include a Facebook group to identify which restaurants offer delivery/are open/need help (2GoFW), cottage businesses popping up as people search for new sources of income and finally have time to pursue their passions (Tameka’s Cakes–so fun and delicious), and companies that shift their resources to help make PPE (e.g. Design Collaborative, a local architecture firm, used its 3D printer to make face shields). My kids have tackled some challenging recipes to hone their cooking skills (48-hour sous vide short ribs, turmeric cauliflower steaks, homemade hamburger buns? yes please!). Families who barely used smart phones now enjoy regular video visits. For a time, my brother and I even shared virtual cocktail hour each week. We’re all getting better at this.

Hey! That’s not a bad list. Sometimes I surprise myself.

Finding the silver linings helps me remember that obstacles can also be used as stepping stones. I’d love for you to share some of yours in the comments.