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.

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.

Discography

06_Cervical_MRI_scan_R_T1WFSE_G_T2WfrFSE_STIR_BFor well over a year, maybe a year and a half, I’ve been plagued by a steadily worsening, sore shoulder. Some days it bothered me so much that it limited how far I could run, because even just holding up my arm was too much. Even so, I figured I could tough it out until it eventually healed itself.

After nearly a year of ridiculous denial, punctuated occasionally by internet searches that told me I suffered from maladies ranging from stress to cancer, I finally went to the doctor. Four hundred dollars and an MRI later, I learned my shoulder pain actually radiated from a bulging disc in my neck. Good to know.

A spinal cortisone shot and many more dollars later, nothing had changed. I frittered away the calendar days suffering in (relative) silence until I found myself a quarter of the way into a new year and a new, unmet deductible. That seemed as good a time as any to finally pick up the script the doctor had written and make an appointment for physical therapy.

Two months later, I’ve found significant relief. I had started to believe the light at the end of the tunnel was getting pretty bright–until last weekend. I had a regression, and many of my symptoms came back hot-and-heavy.

The thing is, I knew it was my fault. I had gotten sloppy with my posture again. It’s not comfortable to stand/sit up straight all the time. All those neglected muscles get sore from walking around at attention. It’s so much easier to just relax in a slouch. After all, I feel kind of silly carrying myself like a soldier, and it takes so much focus to not slip into old habits. (Excuses, excuses.)

Even so, I knew when I went back to PT this morning that I needed to fess up and ask for a taping treatment.* I really, really, really didn’t want to; it’s not super comfortable to maintain a rigid posture when you’re body’s not used to it, and sometimes it gives me a slightly claustrophobic feeling. Oh, and did I mention that after awhile, it makes my back itchy. No, no, no…please no.

But I did it. I asked to be taped again, because I knew that whatever amount of discomfort I would experience would ultimately lead to the healing of my root problem.

And there’s the metaphor.

Another kind of therapist–the head kind–tried and tried to tell me that years ago, though I shunned her advice. It figures that my stubbornness only led to being presented with the same lesson in a physical manifestation.

Sometimes you have to go through hurt so you can heal.

*My PT uses a technique where he applies tape to a patient in slightly exaggerated, good posture. When the patient starts to slouch or to return to bad form, the tape pulls, giving a physical reminder of the lapse. Essentially, it gently forces the patient to maintain good posture. Different problem areas call for different taping techniques. If you don’t believe me, you can learn more HERE.

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.

Breakfast blues

IMG_5767I had to take my eight-month-old puppy to the vet for a surgical procedure recently (nothing serious, you know the one). And while I knew it would all work out in the end, the most difficult part was not being able to feed him breakfast–or anything else, for that matter.

Just as with people, dogs have to fast before surgery. No food or treats after 8pm–water only. No come-upstairs-with-me-it’s-time-to-go-to-bed treats. No 6am bowl of kibble. No get-in-the-kennel-while-I-take-the-kids-to-school treats. He was as confused as I was heartbroken for him, softie that I am.

What really struck me in all this is what Wallace did about it. Normally when we get up in the morning, I let Wallace outside to drain. He takes care of the minimal amount of business he can get away with, then comes back inside to chow down. As soon as he’s finished eating, he swipes his paw at the door, signaling that he’s ready to go back outside and finish his business.

Except this time when I let him back inside after the first round, I didn’t feed him. We played instead, but his attention span was short and he kept looking toward the container where I store his food.

I’m pretty sure he thought I was off my rocker and just forgot. So Mr. K9 Smartypants decided to take me through the motions again, hoping I’d remember. He headed back to the door. As soon as I let him out, he squirted a tree then turned around and came back. He went straight from the door to the food container, where he got nothing but an “I’m sorry, buddy” from me.

So back to the door he went. This time when I let him out, he took a few steps onto the patio, all the while looking back over his shoulder at me. “Pay attention, Mom. This is how it’s supposed to go.” He didn’t even bother to squeeze out a dribble; he just made a loop back to the door, maintaining eye contact with me the whole time.

I felt so bad for my furry baby.

Wallace thought that if he just kept following the steps that had always worked for him before, they would work for him again. He didn’t realize that something had changed and the old routine wouldn’t help him anymore. (At least not on surgery day.)

Then I wondered how many times I’ve done that very same thing. How many times have I gone through the same motions, plugged the same numbers, reacted the same way, expecting something to change? If I just keep doing this, eventually it will work. Um, probably not, TD. If it didn’t work the first 600 times, chances are that it’s not going to magically kick in on attempt #601–at least not without changing something.

Wallace is pretty teachable. After a couple more failed attempts to convince me to feed him, he found his favorite chew toy and curled up for a little self-soothing. Too bad we humans don’t learn as fast.

Give me my money (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!)

What’s cookin’

cookbooksI love cookbooks. I like to page through them, reading the recipes, mentally putting them together to figure out if something will work. I like the background stories that some of them include, and I imagine what it must have been like the first time that steaming dish made its way to the table. Mostly I like the way yet another assemblage of words–not prose, not poetry, not carefully crafted essays–can make the neurons fire in my brain to conjure pictures and flavors and smells. [Oh, how I love words and their power.]

Lately, though, I notice my cookbooks gathering dust. Never fear, I’m still feeding my family, but unless I’m reaching for a specific recipe that resides in the pages of my collection, I find myself reaching for my phone or my iPad to search the internet for inspiration.

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that.

My approach is the same; I read through a recipe to assess it. I compare several different options. I imagine the outcome. It just feels so…impersonal. I miss holding the pages and smelling the paper, not to mention the fact that the screen on my phone gets pretty nasty from my internet cooking forays.

Still, it has its benefits. I have access to more resources than I could ever fit into my kitchen. I get the benefit of others’ reviews and commentary. [Note: ALWAYS read the commentary.] My cuisine choices are no longer limited by that which sits on my shelf. The world is really and truly at my fingertips.

As much as I love my hard copies and hope that paper cookbook publishing won’t fade away, on the whole, I think I’m far better off in this brave new world. I think we all are, actually, and two reasons stand out to me in particular:

  1. Accessibility. Anyone can find just about anything with an internet connection (free at most libraries for those who don’t have it at home). No longer are we limited by resources, e.g. how many/which cookbooks we can afford, what’s available in local stores, whom we know who can help.
  2. Competition. As a pretty firm believer in the corrections of the free market, I have to believe that increased accessibility and the corresponding increase in options will positively impact the quality of all. While things may look different in the end, I believe that survival of the fittest will make the winners–whatever they may be–far better than the original offering. I just have to be open-minded and keep a broad perspective.

It’s cookbooks for me, but it may be something else for you–I think the lesson is universal. Still, if you borrow one of my cookbooks, please don’t forget to return it!