The icing on the cake

Kara80s-8Years ago when we were young and ambitious and thought we had a lot to prove, a friend of mine began to prepare a birthday celebration for his girlfriend. As on any birthday, the crown jewel of the celebration would be a cake, but this one would be her favorite flavor, made from scratch.

Everything went according to plan–until it didn’t. In the middle of the cake prep, the power went out. Okay, you say. These things happen. She’ll understand. I mean, really, is it that big a deal? Just go to the store and buy a cake. Take her out to eat and finish it later. It’s just a cake.

Nope. That wasn’t the point. That cake was his labor of love, an all-in dedication of the work of his hands. It was important.

The next step in the recipe was to beat egg whites into stiff peaks. You have to beat fast and hard and continuously for some time before those snotty little suckers finally submit and stand at attention, a feat normally best accomplished by an electric mixer. With no power and thus no mixer, my friend simply grabbed a wooden spoon and got started.

After nearly 25 minutes of beating (and probably laughter and sweat and finally, cursing), those snotty little suckers eventually submitted to his hand and stood at attention. Mission accomplished.

The power came back on in time for the rest of his cake bakery to proceed without incident; the birthday celebration went off without another hitch. In fact, I don’t know if my friend ever told his girlfriend what he had done.

In the grand scheme of things, is this really a big deal? People roll with the punches every day. We take detours, make allowances, adjust our expectations and move on.

Or do we?

How often do we go the extra mile for another person? More importantly, how often do we go that mile when we may not get credit for it? You couldn’t tell the effort that went into that cake just by looking at it, so did it really matter?

Yes, yes it did.

This, my friends, is caring. It’s what we do for the people we love to make their lives better. We go the extra mile when the bottom falls out, when we’re tired, or when they need us. We do it because we can and because we love them, not for the recognition. Real love is not transactional.

Love your people every chance you get.

 

Promises, promises

The last time I wrote here, I made a bunch of promises–including a promise to write about the things I promised. Well, if you thought I forgot about that, you were wrong. I’ve been busy, albeit sporadically, trying to make good on those IMG_2375[1]promises and learning lessons along the way. I’m going to break up my report into a series of posts so it’s easier to digest.

Before I dive in, let’s recap the promises.

  1. Go skiing with my son to honor his desire to spend time with me and show me what he loves.
  2. Focus on something other than myself. Look outward rather than inward.
  3. Write about the process.

That’s only three items; how hard could it be to check off that list, right?

Well, a quarter of a year has passed and I only have one definitive check mark. I’ve made progress on the other items, but as I described it in my original post, it’s more of a journey than a destination.

You have probably surmised from the photo that I made it to the ski slopes with my son. (Yay, me.) I’ve also spent a lot of time researching possibilities, evaluating opportunities, and trying some new things. My head is full of information that is begging to be mined for nuggets of wisdom.

It’s coming, my friends. Here’s what I’m going to share with you in my next several posts:

  1. There’s more than one way to conquer a mountain.
  2. Overthinking kills ambition.
  3. People who need help don’t want you to wait to get your ducks in a row. They don’t need them to be lined up; they just need ducks.
  4. My grocery cart looks a whole lot different to me now.
  5. Never, ever lose sight of the people.

Stay tuned.

Burn, baby, burn

Fire flames isolated on white background

Every day (mostly), I write a quote on the dry erase board that hangs on the door to my office. Some are inspirational, some are motivational, some are snarky, and some are just downright funny. Each one of them speaks to me in its own way, and some of them stick with me longer than others. I’m still chewing on Tuesday’s maxim.

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

I was feeling a little snarky when I found that one, and it seemed to fit my mood pretty well. I didn’t give it much thought as I scribbled it onto my board, but two days later, I can’t stop thinking about it. Each time I turn it over in my head, I think of it differently.

I had someone in particular in mind when I selected that quote, and my initial reaction was, Darned straight. That person doesn’t deserve my consternation. (Okay, my actual thoughts were a little more colorful, but you get the point.) Once the steam started dissipating, the mental revolutions commenced.

First revolution: Don’t get all jacked up for someone else’s cause. Yeah, I’ll buy that. I’ve got to buy in all on my own or it doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to be a lemming.*

Second revolution: Don’t ruin yourself trying to fix someone else’s problems. Sounds good to me. It’s not that I don’t care, but I’ll be no good to anyone if I break myself in the process.

Third revolution: Don’t sacrifice yourself to help others. Hmm. A little self denial for someone else’s benefit never hurt anyone. In fact, I would argue that in many cases, it builds character–and it’s the right thing to do.

Well, crap.

I wanted to nurse my irritation, not untangle it. I wanted to wallow in the darkness, not see myself illuminated in the mud. Sure, it doesn’t make sense in the long run to wind up so depleted that I can’t help anyone, but how often does that really happen? Putting my needs (read: wants) aside to help someone else is a noble endeavor. It’s the difference between being focused on the bigger picture and being self-centered.

Here’s the caveat, though.

Every fire needs fuel. If you don’t feed it, eventually it will burn out.

So those times when I feel snarky and just, well, done? Those are signals that I need to pull back, take care of myself, and re-energize. Refuel. Find my zen. Untangle the knots. Maybe even dump the lost causes. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t mean quitting–it means taking a break to get healthy and strong so I can get back at it. Someone once told me, The wounded can’t carry the stretcher. It doesn’t mean we don’t need stretcher-bearers; rather, we need stretcher-bearers who won’t drop the darned thing.

And that leads me to the fourth revolution:  It’s not about NOT setting yourself on fire. It’s about not letting fire consume you. Do good. Take care of yourself. Do more good.

Don’t burn out; burn bright.

*Side note on lemmings: be careful when you follow the masses. Sometimes the ‘m’ is silent.

Mother-Teresa-Quotes-Do-Your-Best-Anyway-1

When I grow up

208247_5887814934_3245_nWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many times were you asked that question as a child? How many times have you asked it? Do you know the answer?

It’s a tough question, mostly because we feel limited by the labels in some mythic index of occupations. Besides that, things change. Technology changes. Society changes. Needs change. People change. Very few people carry that same dream forward and can actually present a business card bearing the label they casually (or passionately, in some cases) spouted.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be an insurance salesperson! But I do know people who sell insurance–and even reinsurance–who absolutely love their jobs. They love helping people feel secure and protecting their assets.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a be a logistics manager! But I do know logistics managers who find tremendous satisfaction in putting together intricate delivery plans to ensure that their customers have what they need, when they need it. They love knowing that their work keeps factories running.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a customer service rep! But I do know plenty of customer service reps who become energized by helping people get what they need. They love solving problems, fulfilling orders, and making connections.

*Cut to real life.*

One of my friends is looking for a job. His life path has removed him from the corporate frenzy for several years, and now he’s looking to rejoin the fray. When we talked about this, I found myself asking, What do you want to do? Of course, I was looking for a label to slap on his forehead so I could drop him into a category. Then I’d know which direction to point him.

He didn’t give me a clear answer, probably because he didn’t have one. Instead, our conversation digressed into the verbal pinpricks we like to inflict on each other. Slightly annoyed, I finally said, “You need to find a way to get paid for exasperating people.”

Boom.

I thought I had landed a jab and we’d move on. Then I started thinking about it. What if he could find a way to get paid for exasperating people? I concocted a plan and pitched it to him:

You could totally sell it. Call yourself a change agent and get hired for short-term gigs by companies that are having a hard time changing “the way they’ve always done it.” Your entire job would be to sit in meetings and be contrary. Force people to think differently by answering your pain-in-the-a$$ questions.

Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, but I know lots of companies who could use this kind of thing. (And if you label yourself a consultant, they might even buy it.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we limit ourselves with labels. Crazy ideas like this don’t come from trying to fit someone in a box–and we need more crazy ideas so we can come up with some good ones in the process. We have to think bigger than labels.

Instead of asking what someone wants to be, maybe the better questions are What do you like to do? What problems do you want to solve? What is your passion? It might be hard to give that destination a name, but I’ll bet you find the journey more fulfilling.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. (Attributed to John Lennon)

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.

 

Kick in the pants

muffin-topOver the past year, I’ve gotten away from my running routine and let my eating habits erode. You can guess what that’s done to my shape; the wardrobe additions I’ve made in the past months look as if they belong in someone else’s closet if you compare the new size tags to the old.

I know all this academically, of course, but I’ve gotten pretty darned comfortable in my new jeans. It’s easy to ignore the obvious when you accommodate by updating your accoutrements.

I muddled along happily in self-imposed oblivion until late last week I pulled on an old pair of jeans. Oomph. They were so tight I could barely breathe. I thought I had been doing better–time for a reality check.

Guess I’d better get back to work on the old self.

Of course, those jeans got me thinking. It’s so easy to measure ourselves by our current circumstances rather than the actual standard. We compare our work to what others around us are doing  and think it’s good enough when the result is better than theirs–but we forget to look at our job goals or performance measures. We look at our kids and think they’re great because they’re not flunking out, pregnant, or high–but we forget that we are also responsible for their character. And yes, we look at our physical being and consider ourselves ahead of the game because we have clothes that fit and feel fine–but we ignore the long-term health consequences our actions (or inaction) may be inviting.

Simply put, we get comfortable where we are.

We need to check our status against our goals, not our surroundings.I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a kick in the pants to get out of my comfort zone.

The extra mile

IMG_4773Okay, I screwed up. I missed the mark, so to speak, with yesterday’s post. As soon as I hit publish, I knew it didn’t feel right. Something was missing. It’s this:

A milestone, by definition, marks progress; it doesn’t make progress. The travelers do that. And the progress they mark completely depends on what’s left in front of them.

So that list I made yesterday? It’s hollow. It doesn’t say anything about the work it takes to get to each milestone. The individual conversations. The refueling after an argument. The rest stops for alone time. Switching drivers.

It also fails to take into account the type and distance of the journey. Some milestones might be a big deal along a short path, but they might not carry as much weight when there’s a long road ahead. Think about it. It’s usually not very exciting to know you’ve traveled five miles when you have 1000 left to go.

All this just makes the whole concept of earning intimacy more nebulous (see my Snowshoes post for that discussion), and I fear that my list may actually foster exactly that which I intended to guard against. It risks becoming a checklist, and just because you can tick off each event doesn’t mean you’re as far along the path to cozy connectedness as you think you are. It’s a feeling, not an accomplishment.

In truth, the milestones along the way are relative, contextual, and difficult to define. I can’t say specifically what counts as an indicator of relationship progress, but allow me to borrow the words of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.

Which leaves me humbly knowing that I must appreciate each moment for itself, embrace natural connections, and hold myself back from forcing situations or pushing relationships beyond their natural progression.

Now I wonder whether the only way to compile a list of relationship milestones is in hindsight. Looking back, I can tell you what moments have been important in each of my relationships, but no two were the same–and sometimes neither were the broad categories. Things that mattered in one relationship had no meaning in another. The pacing was very different and never consistent. Most importantly, I didn’t always recognize them as they came.

So be careful with milestones. Don’t presume to know what is important to each relationship. You’ll know it when you see it–but sometimes you’ll be looking through your rear view mirror as you speed off to the next.

(And now, dear readers, I promise to move on to a new topic!)

Food fancies

IMG_5693I fancy myself to be a foodie. I like dishes that awaken my palate, juxtapose flavors, surprise my senses. Buttermilk basil sorbet. Brussels sprouts tossed in homemade pomegranate molasses. Duck meat loaf. Stinky cheeses. Anything with arugula. Latte art.

There’s not much I won’t try–unless it features goat cheese or a nasty orange vegetable–and in fact, I relish any chance to tickle my taste buds. I’ve tasted a lot of dishes, and I know my food.

Or so I thought.

Last week, to our surprise and delight, my brother and I stumbled across a multiethnic grocery store. We marveled over the unusual vegetables (would you believe that it was the first time I had ever seen a chickpea in its natural hull?) and ogled new species of fish. We piled our arms full of assorted Japanese mochi. We admired the rows of live frogs, sitting at attention like Kelly green soldiers waiting to meet their fate. We laughed at buckets of pig snouts.

The deeper we got into the store, the more items we found that we didn’t recognize. Puck cream. Freekeh. Basil seed drinks. Black silkie chickens, frozen whole and feathered.image2 We even found things we hadn’t considered food. Seagull meat. Beef blood. Beef bile. Goat heads.

We had a ball poking around; the colors and smells and packaging–and the items themselves–were fascinating. They were also humbling.

I may think I know a thing or two about food, but outside my comfort zone, I don’t know jack squat.

Twenty aisles in a Florida grocery store taught me that I still have a lot to learn. Even when I take pains to expand my horizons, the world around me stretches far beyond my field of sight. How arrogant of me to think I could master any subject.

 

Color me beautiful

Colouring_pencilsThe past several months have held quite a few losses for my family, and I’ve had several opportunities to observe and participate in our grieving rituals. As I joined my family yet again this past weekend, I learned something important.

You see, unlike the other recent funerals, this one had less elements of pre-planning. Most of the decisions about what to do and how to it were left to the survivors. And before I go any further, let me emphasize that it all came together beautifully. It was a very appropriate tribute to a life well-lived.

As a (long-term) step-relative and a bit of a sideline-sitter anyway, I spent the days leading up to the service taking in the family dynamics. Through lots of fun memories, laughter, and tears, I noticed tiny pricks of tension. Nothing big, just now and then, I’d sense a digging of heels or an undercurrent of friction. Everyone had an idea of how “it” should be, and though they were similar, they didn’t always align perfectly.

And then a couple of events started my gears whirling. In a private family moment, we shared adjectives and descriptors of our loved one. I was quite surprised that many of them didn’t seem to line up with the ones that popped into my head. I realized there were facets of our loved one that time, distance, and life phases hadn’t allowed me to see. As I listened, I also became aware that it wasn’t just me. Although there were common themes, everyone had different insights, saw her just a bit differently.

I chewed on that until the memorial service, where the feeling became even more pervasive. As a series of people took turns remembering our loved one with words and stories, I kept seeing different sides of her. Although her sweet, caring demeanor shone through everyone’s tributes, each one had a personal spin that left me thinking, “I never realized that” or “I didn’t think of it that way.”

On the trip home, I finally figured out what was going on–what is always going on, in life or in death. It’s so simple that it often eludes understanding: we see things through our own eyes. The traits and words and events that define a person come at us through our personal filter, and we translate accordingly. The tension I felt came from each of us struggling internally to defend our own memories.

My view of a person is unique; it has to be, since it comes through filters only I have. Everyone else’s view of that person is unique, too. It is only through the sharing of stories and remembrances that we can start to understand the wholeness of a person. Each person’s narrow view alone can’t encompass the richness of a life.

It took me awhile, but I finally realized that other people’s perspectives don’t erode my own. Rather than taking something away, they add richness and fullness and color.

Music to my ears

I’m not the world’s best parent. Truth be told, I’m not even close. Once in a while, though, I get something right.

With two teenagers and a dog in the house–and me as the antithesis of Suzy Homemaker–the messes and chores never end. I keep looking to my kids for relief. Their able bodies should be able to unload the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry, or even *gasp* hang up their coats.

And, grumbling notwithstanding, they usually do–when I ask.

Futilely, however, I keep hoping that they will notice what needs to be done and just do it. After all, the dishes don’t magically disappear. Without a list or a specific request, though, I’m convinced my kids have tunnel vision in the house. This panics me, because I wonder how they will ever manage on their own.

Note to self: continually dropping passive aggressive hints does not work.

Like putting all the clothes from the bathroom floor into the sink. (They just use a different one.)

Or wondering aloud if I am the only one who ever loads the dishwasher. (No reaction.)

Or asking why that coat is on the table, again. (I really had to go to the bathroom when I got home, so I just threw it down. [Yet there it remains.])

Note to self: nagging does not work.

Who is going to do this stuff when you live on your own?

You left your dishes in the sink–AGAIN.

Your bathroom is a disaster!

And if one of those tactics doesn’t work alone, neither does an alternating chorus of them, nor does repeating them over and over. And over. It just becomes the equivalent of shouting at a person who doesn’t understand the language.

Finally I smartened up and tried something new. When I leave the house, I don’t give them a specific list of chores anymore. They’re clearly not learning from that. Instead, I give them a number and vaguery.

Today I want you to do three meaningful things around the house. You get to pick what those are, but they have to have significance. (Folding three pieces of laundry in one load does NOT constitute three things.)

Holy moly. The results I got with that approach far outweighed anything else I had tried. It forced them to take note of their surroundings and self-evaluate (is it enough?). The first time, I got a clean toilet, a clean kitchen, and a vacuumed floor. Oh, joy of joys!

I don’t know why we (read: I) don’t look at our home lives like we look at our professional or social lives. We fall into ruts and don’t even think about changing them. People are people, and the same principles apply: if someone doesn’t get it, increasing the volume won’t help. Change the way you communicate.

Stop nagging and get creative.