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.

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.

I am not a-mused

I used to blog every day, or at least Monday through Friday. It was how I started my day, and the hours that followed were better for it. That creative jumpstart made me sharper, more expressive, and more aware for the rest of the day. I thrived on it and I didn’t care who read my words. The exercise was for me.

Then I lost my muse.

Well, that’s what I used to say. The truth is, I gave her up. I relinquished my outlet to forces I thought were beyond my control. I’m hoping that writing about it will be cathartic, that my muse will see I’m ready to take her back.

You see, I entered into a relationship that ultimately proved to be unhealthy for me. It felt wonderful at first, all sun and stars and rainbows and all that. I dove in headfirst, hungry for attention and desperate to love someone. It didn’t take long for cracks to appear, though I initially brushed them off as something we could fix later. No relationship is perfect right?

I started to feel watched. Everything I said and did was analyzed for hidden meaning, and this included my writing. Even though I often change the details of situations I recount so I won’t betray a confidence or hurt someone close to me—after all, this blog is mostly about finding meaning in the everyday situations around us, not the situations themselves—I underwent a level of scrutiny about who-what-when-where-why that eventually made me cower. My blog posts were only the start.

Instead of standing up for myself, I backed off. I thought it would make my life easier, but it didn’t, of course. It fanned the flame of presumption, like an implicit admission of guilt. It gave power to him and set a precedent of behavior: push me, make me unhappy, and I’ll back off to ease the pressure. Standing up for myself became too much work; it was easier to give in. I lost touch with friends, I performed poorly at work, I stopped being present. I became focused on keeping my day-to-day situation on an even keel, at the expense of everything else. Is it any surprise I couldn’t make the words flow anymore?

I almost—ALMOST—let someone take away the most important parts of my psyche just so I could fit into his idea of what I was supposed to be. I almost gave away my identity.

Thankfully, I realized I had to remain true to myself. I didn’t need or want to change who I am, so I left the relationship. (In case you’re wondering if he ever hurt me physically, the answer is a resounding NO.) As I look back, I realize I’ve learned some important lessons.

First and foremost, it’s way too easy to judge women who find/put themselves in situations in which YOU think they should leave but they don’t. Look, I had means (house, car, job, savings account), a supportive family and group of friends, and a strong will—and I still stayed. I consider myself enlightened and independent—and I still stayed. I would call BS on my friends or my daughter if they were in the same situation—and I still stayed. So many women don’t have all these things going for them, and we judge them. I would never stand for that, we say. Who knows? Maybe you would. I did—for a while. You don’t know what it’s like until you’re in it.

Second, I GAVE parts of myself away, thinking I would appease. I guess I assumed I’d reclaim them at some point, but that’s not how it works. I’ve learned which pieces are fundamental to my being; these are my SOUL. Now I guard them fiercely. The right person will cherish them, too.

Finally, I keep learning the lesson of forgiveness. For him, certainly, but also for me. I’m learning to let go of the choices I made and to accept responsibility for my part. I’m learning to adopt a live-and-learn posture and embrace the lessons that come with it.

I’m desperate to write again regularly. I have a log jam of words in my head and I need the relief of letting them flow. I want my blog back. I want to turn the threads of books I’ve hastily scrawled into the Notes app on my phone into actual chapters. I want to reclaim this part of myself.

This post, this long overdue admission, serves as a formal invitation for my muse to return:

Please come back. You are finally welcome here again.

Piece by piece

I just found this in some old files. It’s something I wrote years ago but had forgotten. I still believe it.

Colorful fabric with natureWhat if life isn’t a tapestry, a garment patterned by events, moods, cycles, and stages? Where even a slight change in weave changes the visual effect? What if life, instead, is a collection of swatches, where not the pattern, but the very fabric itself provides the illustration?

Some phases might be unbleached broadcloth. These times are straightforward and functional. Sturdy and strong, but unadorned.

Other times are more delicate, like linen. Crisp and cool, linen phases look pristine, but add a little heat, a little moisture, or a little pressure, and the fabric crumples.

Flannel phases are warm and safe, comfortable and sheltered.

Satin cycles are sleek and sexy.

Burlap patches feel rough and unhewn. They scratch and irritate, and they’re tough to break through.

Taffeta stands up, crisp and sassy.

Cotton times wear soft but true, dependable.

Nylon periods are something made from nothing.

I am a swatch book. You can get to know me by flipping through my pages, using all of your senses to understand who I am and where I’ve been. See the all colors, strident and faded and shimmering and dull. Feel the textures, smooth and rough. Smell the sweat and tears and celebrations that stain me. Hear my crackle and snap under your fingertips. Taste my life through these snippets of cloth. Find me, not in my design, but in my very foundation.

Rearrange my pieces over and over again, and my nature does not change. The elements of my life are indelible; my swatches are product of that which has already happened. No amount of reordering will produce another end result; life is not retroactive. Only a new swatch will adjust my character, piece by piece.

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.

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.

 

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.)

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!)