Best behavior

Mothering a daughter is hard, especially a strong-willed, independent-thinking, highly emotional daughter. And most especially the teenage variety of said daughter. She’s smart and funny and caring and I generally love being around her, but it’s still challenging.

I try to be conscious of my actions. After all, she’s been watching me for the past sixteen years and I’m her role model whether I like it or not. On my good days and bad days, she’s taking it all in.

She’s a big part of the reason I walked away from a long-term job with a fair amount of responsibility a few years ago. I wanted her to see how important it is to pursue fulfillment over a fat paycheck.

And I certainly thought about what she would learn if I didn’t end an unhealthy dating relationship not long ago. I wanted her to see how important it is to stand up for oneself and to walk away from situations that may steal one’s self-respect.

It’s also crazy important to me that she sees me interact amicably with her father and her stepmother. She needs to know–to see–the positive effects of releasing grudges and moving forward, that sometimes you can love someone (your kids!) so much that you work through things for their benefit, even when it’s hard.

I want my daughter to absorb my actions and not just hear my words.

Doesn’t that all sound great and honorable? Unfortunately, I’m only thinking consciously about this stuff about ten percent of the time. The other ninety percent, I forget to be intentional and I’m just…me. Whyohwhyohwhyohwhy is it so hard for me to remember that she’s watching everything, not just the lessons I’ve identified?

I can handle a full-blown crisis like a pro, but insult my intelligence, stomp on my pride, or hit me with a steady stream of attitude and all bets are off. Let’s just say my lackluster everyday frustration management skills might be a little more visible than I’d like. That’s not the best scenario for a mom with an already outspoken, highly emotional pair of teenage eyes on her.

I also tend to think out loud, so I go down a lot of rabbit holes before I end up on the right track. know I’m just working through an idea before I take (what I hope to be) rational action, but what does she think as she observes my process?

You’d get bored and I’d get embarrassed if I continued laying out my everyday faux pas. My point is that unfortunately, we don’t get to pick and choose which lessons our kids learn from us. While I’m happy with some of the big things, this light bulb moment has helped me realize that I need to be equally diligent about the little things, too.

The best I can hope now is that someday she’ll look back and realize that in addition to being a mom and a role model, I’m also human.

Youthful ideals

IMG_6233A thought struck me early this morning, and I haven’t been able to let it go. As a rule (there are always exceptions), people’s aspirations tend to diminish with age, and I don’t think it’s because they’ve accomplished everything on their list. Seriously, if you’re over 40, I’ll bet you’ve at least once rolled your eyes or chuckled to yourself when you heard some college student talk about some grandiose idea that would change the world.

I remember when I used to be like that, you think to yourself. Ah, to be young and idealistic again.

But WHY? Why, why, why do we let ourselves get so jaded and “realistic” that we give up reaching for the impossible? I guarantee you that nothing has been invented, written, changed, or accomplished by someone who thought oh, that’ll never happen.

Before I go on, let me make one thing clear. I am the guiltiest of the guilty. At 40-something, I often think my life is practically over. I catch myself thinking that my latest, greatest hope now is to prepare my kids to do great things. That’s just BS.

So anyway, here’s how I see our aspirations progressing over time:

First, we think of our lives in terms of “I want to be a/an…” [astronaut, teacher, scientist, basketball star]

Then we progress to “I want to be…” [happy, successful, rich, fulfilled, content]

Eventually we change it to “I want to…” [travel, retire, lose weight, have kids]

Finally, we finish with “I want…” [a new car, a lake house, more time]

Straight up, we settle. We give up our dreams in favor of comfort. If our old dream doesn’t work out, our new dream becomes just a little bit less. We make it something we think we can accomplish instead of aiming for what lies beyond our reach. I have a secret to tell you, chickadees.

Nothing really important ever got done that way.

And if you think this post is for you, great. I hope it inspires and recharges you. But truth be told, it’s for the girl who used to shelve books in the junior high library during her study hall. The girl who once upon a time put away an armload of biographies and thought to herself, I want to do something important someday. I want to be the kind of person who is in a biography. It’s for the girl who grew up and forgot that. It’s for me.

 

Translation error

translation errorOh boy. I spend all this time talking (writing) about finding a common language, minimizing communications mishaps, and interacting with clarity and what do I do? I tumble into that very pit myself.

I was sitting at lunch when an acquaintance asked me how I would approach a particular situation. After casting about (in my head) for a plan, I chose the germ of an idea and held on for dear life. I ran with it, talking and talking around the thing until I had exhausted its possibilities.

When I finally shut up, I noticed my companion’s eyes had shuttered. I had missed the mark.

I hid my embarrassment as we moved the conversation to other things, but I didn’t stop turning over that misfire in my head. Where had I gone wrong? What should I have done differently?

As usual, clarity came almost instantaneously once we had parted–when it was much more difficult to “fix” it. Even so, here’s my epiphany:

We were speaking different languages. Instead of stopping and trying to make sure I understood what he was after, I plappered along based on my translation–not his. Duh.

He had used a term that can have broad interpretation, and not wanting to look dumb, I picked one narrow facet of it and worked from there. Unfortunately, that took me down the long and winding road to nowhere. I ended up looking like the inexperienced country cousin.

Instead, I should have stopped my blind dive and sought more information. I should have asked questions to clarify what he was after. I should have taken the time to ensure I understood his language. I should have looked before I leaped.

Who knows if I still would have come up with an answer that helped him, but at that point at least he could have evaluated its potential effectiveness rather than trying to figure out how it connected.

That’s a broad term. What does it mean to you? Do you mean X or Y? What do you hope to accomplish? Would have been some great starting points.

The moral of the story? Ask questions. Assumptions that haven’t been validated lead to conversations rife with translation error.

Curb service

curb serviceLast month my brother and I went out to eat with our dad and stepmom. We couldn’t find a parking spot on the cramped city street, so my dad decided he would go back to the parking garage we had ignored earlier. He thoughtfully offered to drop off my stepmom and me in front of the restaurant to spare us a few steps.

Unbeknownst to him, I hate to be dropped off.

know he was trying to be nice. I know my stepmom appreciated it. I know this quirk of mine doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That didn’t stop me from grumbling like a four-year-old.

Of course, in the noble interest of “know thyself” (my thinly veiled excuse for putting the ‘anal’ in analyze), I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think there are two reasons.

The first didn’t really apply this time around, and it’s probably less important anyway. Usually being dropped off at the door means I have to stand around looking dopey as I wait for my companion to arrive. I need to get over that; I see other people do it all the time, and they don’t look dopey.

It’s the second reason that helps me understand myself better. I’m capable, dang it–just as capable as any person who has to walk a few extra blocks to the chosen venue from a parking space. In fact, I can even do it in the rain. Or in the snow. Or in the heat. Or in the dark of night. (That was a little homage to the unofficial postal workers’ creed, in case you missed it.) Not only that, but I can also do it in heels.

Where the driver sees the offer as a kindness, I see it as a poke at my ability, an implied softness. Remember that old chant, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better?”

Call me a dork, but at least I’m learning.

Now that I know what’s going on in my psyche, I can figure out what to do about it. This isn’t the dropper-offer’s problem–it’s mine–and I promise you, grumbling is not an acceptable response.

The way I look at it, I have two choices. I can give myself a mental smackdown, suck it up, and graciously accept. Or I can–equally graciously–tell my thoughtful driver, “No thanks. I’d rather enjoy your company and walk with you.”

What I won’t do is make someone feel bad for trying to do a good deed.

Sorry, Dad.

 

Tying the knot

Nœud_d'huit

“Always do what you’re afraid to do,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visionary Aunt Mary advised him. We tie ourselves in knots to sabotage the energy that might be unleashed if we move resolutely ahead. The risks of making changes are great. . . especially great changes. — Gail Sher, One Continuous Mistake

I found this passage while poking around some writing prompts, and it struck me between the eyes. The second sentence, in particular, stopped me cold; knots sabotage our energy, and we tie them ourselves!

I remember one time when I had to make a particularly difficult HR decision. Actually, the decision itself was pretty straightforward, but delivering the message had me tied up in, well, knots. I agonized over it for a week. It consumed my daytime thoughts and kept me awake at night. My productivity level plummeted.

When the big day came, the message I had to deliver went without a hitch. Not only that, but the recipient also received it in an incredibly gracious manner. All that worry for nothing.

Of course, even if there had been hitches, I still had to do what I had to do. And it still would have been over the next morning. Life would have gone on regardless.

Yet I tied myself in knots for a whole week beforehand. I added layer upon layer, spending so much time securing that metaphorical shoe that I never actually used it to get anywhere. That’s some object lesson, huh?

It’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to worry about others. We just can’t let those things keep us from moving forward.

Be kind. Be considerate. Be gracious. But do what you gotta do.

Don’t let the knots trip you up.

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.)

Log jam

Photograph_of_Log_Jam_-_NARA_-_2129372Communicator though I am, I have my issues, too.

Sometimes when faced with a problem that seems beyond my reach, I’ll actually *gasp* ask for help. That’s great; after all, haven’t I espoused–right here in this blog–knowing your limits and reaching out to those whose strengths complement your weaknesses? The issue is that I often don’t wait for the help I’ve summoned. I dive in and work to figure it out myself.

Like the time I was faced with a tax issue that didn’t make sense to me. I asked a couple of accountants, but before they could get back to me, I worked it out myself.

Or the time I needed to redirect a URL to another domain. I put out a cry for help, but before I could sit down with my expert friend, I had it all worked out.

I could go on, but you see the pattern. These scenarios happen more often than I’d like to admit.

Here’s my problem. I think it’s fine to ask for help. I also think it is admirable to work things out for myself. Either one is a great way to solve a problem. Is it such a good idea to keep a foot in both camps, though? If I ask for help, I should probably give the person the opportunity to deliver. If I were in his place, I’d probably find that insulting–or at least annoying.

I’m not sure why the cry for help dislodges my logjam of thought and allows me to proceed on my own. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to look as if I don’t know something. Maybe it’s because it turns my issue into a competition to finish first. Maybe it’s just cathartic.

Whatever the case, I haven’t been able to solve this one yet. I know I’ll be better for it when I do.

Puzzle me this

Not long ago, a friend told me a story she had carried with her from childhood. I felt honored, because the memory was painful so she didn’t share it often. With her permission, and a few details obscured, here’s the story:

When I was a kid, my dad took me to visit an elderly friend. The guy had a problem with barn swallows, and since his hand wasn’t as steady as it used to be, he handed Dad his pellet gun and asked him to see if he could get rid of them.** Dad agreed, and off we went.

Hoping I might be the next Annie Oakley, Dad had been teaching me to shoot, so when we got to the barn, he handed me the gun. When one of the birds tried to dive bomb us, I shouldered the gun and took a shot. I couldn’t believe it–I hit it on the first try!

When we walked over to where the bird fell, we saw that it was still alive and struggling. The humane thing to do was to put it out of its misery, and of course, Dad told me to do it. I felt sick. I agonized. I cried.

When I finally took the shot at point-blank range, I missed. I have no idea how, but I missed. I put down the gun and walked away, leaving Dad to do my dirty work. To this day, I feel like I failed. I couldn’t do the hard work when it needed to be done. What’s wrong with me?

Nothing, friend. Nothing is wrong with you.

Here’s how I see it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we spend a lifetime amassing experiences that illustrate those. If we so choose, we can use those experiences to better understand ourselves and grow from them.

My friend recounted her story to me when she was anguishing over a tough situation in her life right now. She contends that she has never been able to do what she calls the “dirty work,” and because of that, she’s a failure.

I learned a different lesson from her story, though. I saw that hurting others causes her excruciating pain, even when she knows it will lead to the best outcome. That’s not a strength or a weakness; that’s just part of her character. What she didn’t understand, though, was that when the going got tough, she leaned on someone whom she knew could do the job.

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Ask for help when the job gets too big?

I really hope she learns to see it that way. Knowing what she’s not cut out to do will allow her to call on those to whom it comes easily–and I guarantee that she’d be the first one jumping in to help me when I run into my own edges. That’s not failure; it’s why we’re all here. Humankind is like a giant puzzle, with each person filling others’ gaps to make a complete picture.

Know your limitations. Ask for help when you need it. Share your strengths generously.

**Remember, folks, we’re talking about rural Indiana, decades ago. This isn’t a gun debate or an animal rights discussion.

Fireflies

fireflyFor a long time–well over a year, for those of you keeping track–I didn’t think I had anything to write about. I froze up.

Oh sure, I’d jot down tidbits of ideas (just like always), and later I’d try to flesh them out (just like always).

But I froze up.

I couldn’t make those ideas turn into anything, until eventually they stopped coming at all. No matter how many stops and starts and excuses I made, I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me.

I had started worrying about my audience.

Who would read it? Friends? Coworkers? What would they think? Would someone be offended? Would what I wrote be interpreted correctly? After scores of questions like that, the tiny seed of self-doubt we all carry somewhere deep inside began to grow, until finally it full-out blossomed.

Not only could I not make sense out of my jotted tidbits, but I also stopped being able to find new ones. While I used to pull them out of the air like fireflies, I stopped even lifting my hand.

All because I forgot that I was writing for me–not for you. And even though I said right here in this blog that I would keep writing even if not a single person reads my ramblings. And even though I’ve really, really missed this visceral part of me.

A few weeks ago, a blogger/author I follow added a page to her site called Make a Memory. There’s apparently a whole movement behind it, but what really stuck with me were the words, “Turn ‘I wish I had’ into ‘I’m glad I did.'”

So I finally started that book I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve only knocked out a couple of chapters, but it feels good. Really good. And guess what!

I started seeing fireflies again.

I’ve even caught a few.

So here I am–right back where I started, writing because it’s my outlet, because it makes me whole. As much as I love my readers and hope that one of my fireflies will light up your life in some way, I’m doing this for me.

So let me ask you this: is worrying about your audience keeping you from doing something? Maybe it’s time to go catch some fireflies.