Never forget

Humankind-Be-Both-Button-(0127)Yesterday I left my family’s Thanksgiving festivities feeling full, not only of food, but also–and especially–of love and warmth and goodwill. Compared to most of the world, I have a lot. My modest house might need a good cleaning, but it keeps me safe from the elements and has more than enough room for my kids, my dog and me. I live on a budget like everyone else, but my family has never lacked food or clothing or health care. I’ve gotten to see much of the world, Most importantly, I have a big, quirky, loving family with open hearts.

All those things were in my psyche, if not my consciousness, yesterday when I saw a woman standing on a corner not two blocks from the feast I had just left, tapping her wrist questioningly in the universal symbol of “What time is it?” I slowed to a stop, rolled down the passenger window, and leaned across my daughter to tell the woman it was close to 5pm.

She needed a ride to the next bus stop, she said. She wanted to take the city bus downtown to the Greyhound station, where she would catch a ride to Wisconsin and her grandmother’s funeral. She was sad and she needed help.

As my so-called street smarts kicked in and an invisible voice told me “Drive away, Tammy, this is a bad idea,” I heard myself telling my son to make room for the woman in the back seat. I’ll spare you the details, but the ride to the bus stop turned into tears and a donation of $40 for the ticket. By the time I let the woman out of the car to make her way to Greyhound, I felt more than a little uneasy and wondered if I had been the one who had just been taken for a ride. I’m doubtful that the woman actually took that bus trip.

I had helped someone in need, but I felt bad. It bothered me all night long and into today, until I recounted the scenario to my brother.

My big-hearted bro had no words for me but my own. He reminded me that over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve taken offense to the knee jerk reaction of many to recent acts of terrorism, I’ve staunchly supported continuing to help Syrian refugees. All refugees, really. I rarely get into political discussions, but this one is more human than political to me. My deep-seated belief is this:

We can’t sacrifice our humanity for the sake of our existence.

We have to keep helping people, even when there may be danger involved, simply because it is the right thing to do. It sickens me when others use a cry of Never forget! in response to acts of violence or terrorism, not to make the world a better place, but to justify their own prejudices.

And yet I still felt silly for having tried to help that woman. I wondered if I had put my children in danger, if she was really who she said she was, where that money was really going to be spent.

With a gentle nudge, my brother told me, “Anything we do that opens our hearts is not a wasted effort. You cannot control what happens in someone else’s heart, only that you yourself were kind. Why should you ever feel ashamed or foolish for having human empathy and caring for the suffering of others?”

Then I remembered something I had posted on my Facebook page just last week.

To the people who cite our nation’s hungry and homeless population as a reason to close our borders, please tell me what YOU’RE doing to help the people you call “ours.” If you’re just spouting statistics that you found on the internet from the comfort of your warm house with a full belly, I’m not listening.

And if you want to do something about it but don’t know how to help, contact Donnie/Kelly Foster (MISFITS), Street Reach for the Homeless, Samaritan Homeless Clinic (Dayton), or just head downtown with blankets and food.

If you really care that much, let’s do something about it.

You know what? I DID something about it. I don’t know how it turned out, but that’s not mine to judge. I walked my talk, and today I feel good about that. This year, more than anything, I’m thankful for a heart that sometimes has to guide my mind when I try to think too much, and for a brother who keeps me pointed in the right direction.

The next time you hear the words Never forget! be sure that what you’re remembering is how to be a better person and how NOT to let the actions of a few justify anger and hatred, no matter how scared you are.

Never forget that preserving our existence is not worth the sacrifice of our humanity.

Giving back

homestead girls xc 2015Remember that big trophy case in your high school? You know the one; it houses all the awards from sports and band and club competitions. It’s filled with statuettes and plaques and medals and team photos, and you always stop to look at it when you go back for a visit. Heck, my daughter’s school is big enough that it has a trophy case for each sport.

Except hers.

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find any awards on display for the girls’ cross country team, even though the team has historically been successful. Heck, this year alone they placed ninth at the state finals, piling up wins and places along the way. So where are the trophies? Where are the ribbons? Does the school hold girls’ xc in complete disdain?

Nope.

When I attended Awards Night, I saw all the hardware displayed in its shiny glory. One statuette must have been at least two feet high; it stood on the table like a beacon, luring the girls to come back for another season, another success. And that was only one of the awards. The spread on the table would have wowed anyone.

By the end of the night, it was gone.

That’s because the coaches felt that since the girls had earned them, they should keep them. They’ve made it a tradition to present each senior runner with one of the awards from the season, choosing according to some anecdote that matches each girl with a particular race.

These aren’t just the varsity runners; they’re ALL the senior runners. That includes seniors on JV who may never have earned an individual award in their high school careers. By the end of Awards Night, everyone had something to commemorate her contribution to the team.

That’s pretty selfless of the coaches, if you ask me.

After all, they’d have one impressive trophy case if they accumulated all that hardware in a single location. They could revel in their success every time they walked past. Look what we’ve accomplished! Don’t we produce great teams?! 

Instead, they tuck their successes away in their hearts and memories and give the credit to the girls who showed up every day and worked their tails off. To the girls who ran two and three and four hundred miles over the summer to stay in shape. To the girls who collapsed after crossing the finish line because they had nothing left.

Don’t get me wrong. The coaches worked their tails off, too. They poured hundreds of hours into the season–after teaching all day. They ran and biked alongside the girls. They gave up time with their families. They were the first ones there and the last ones to leave every practice and meet. They praised and prodded and encouraged, even when they were mentally exhausted. They earned those trophies, too.

That’s why giving those trophies to the girls means so much. The coaches taught the girls how to stretch, how to eat, how to race, how to persevere, but the most important thing they taught them was how to give back.

We gain so much more from giving credit than from taking it.

Thanks, Coach W and Coach B.

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.

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.

Pain points

IMG_5806There’s a new kind of salesmanship in town, and I think I like it. When I can find it, that is.

Not long ago, I received an assignment to write about a new company that offers sales training. Pretty standard stuff, I thought, so I scheduled the interview and went on about business.

My discussion with the owner was interesting. I won’t go into the full spiel, but the crux of the philosophy is to find the customer’s pain points and solve those problems. If your product/service doesn’t intersect, be honest about it. Don’t sell, solve problems. Don’t conduct the conversation to your benefit; conduct it to his benefit.

What this boils down to is that the salesperson has to get to know his customer. For the most part, that requires ingenuity and intuitiveness–that is, asking the right questions and making the right connections.

I thought all of this was fairly intuitive, but apparently not. You see, I bought a new car this weekend. I hadn’t exactly planned to do it, but I wouldn’t consider it a whim, either. I did a little homework to prepare myself and set off to my dealership of choice.

To be fair to the sales guy, he seemed to listen to me and did everything I asked. When I told him my parameters, he didn’t try to push me in a different direction. He just kept trying to find a solution that fit.

Unfortunately, his manager wasn’t of the same mind. (Why anyone still follows that high pressure, old-school process of hand-off/hand-up is beyond me, but that’s another blog post.) Although the manager had spent precisely ZERO time with me and couldn’t have understood my personality or motivation, he jumped into the conversation and took off, leaving me behind. He started throwing payment scenarios at me and wouldn’t shut up long enough to see what I, the CUSTOMER, was after. The resulting conversation was stilted and mutated, far from the equal exchange it should have been.

After all, he didn’t understand my pain, my motivators.

I wanted a new car, but I didn’t NEED one.

There’s a new driver in my household.

I have a dog whose coat doesn’t match the interior of the car I was considering.

I didn’t have a trade-in because I wanted to keep the old car, too.

I haven’t had a car payment in four years.

I want to be treated like an intelligent human being.

The numbers were important to me, but I needed to verify them for myself. This is a big purchase; I’m not going to take someone else’s word for rates, surcharges, etc.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t even catch my name.

This guy just swooped in, gave most of his attention to my dad, who was merely there as my ride so he could take my other car home if I decided to drive one off the lot. He wanted me to make a decision from estimated calculations, not actual fully disclosed worksheets. He didn’t have a clue as to why I wanted a new car or the factors that influenced my decision. In fact, he still doesn’t.

He never gave any indication that he cared about me or whatever issue I was trying to solve. And he didn’t know when to shut up.

In spite of that sales manager, I bought the car. The salesman and the finance guy–and the service department that has done right by me for years–tipped the balance. But if my decision had hinged solely upon the sales manager, I would have saved myself four hours (and a bunch of money), gone home, and sent the guy a link to that sales trainer.

In fact, I just might send that link anyway.

Cash cab

IMG_5768My little miss is heading to Germany for a month this summer. She’s super excited to stay with family friends who will “treat her like a person, not a kid.” And she wants to do it all by herself; Momma has been instructed not to fly over with her. This kiddo has something to prove: her independence.

She reminds me a lot of me, but better. Way better.

I hope so. Little Miss’s upcoming trip brings back memories of my own trips; in particular I’ve been thinking of my arrival for my second stint in Germania. I was 19 years old, and ready to take on the world–or so I thought.

After I landed at the Stuttgart airport, I needed to make my way to Tübingen, a town about 20 miles to the south where I would spend my junior year in college. That should have been a piece of cake. Airport-bus-train-destination. I had read and re-read every piece of information I had gotten from both colleges–my American one and its German partner–and even though there was no internet back then, they had very thoroughly laid out all the steps on volumes of paper.

But I froze. In spite of five years of German classes and a summer exchange program a few years earlier, my exhausted, jet-lagged self was afraid to open her mouth and ask to be pointed in the right direction. I was afraid to look like another American ingenue. Add to that my Midwestern lack of exposure to public transportation, and I felt utterly overwhelmed. So with a pocket full of the D-Marks I had already exchanged at home, I did the only thing that made sense to my addled brain: I hailed a cab.

Yep, I hailed a cab. To take me to a town about a half-hour’s drive away. A cab that had little chance of scoring a return fare–after all, who would be so stupid as to take a cab when all those beautiful, efficient trains were regularly rushing back and forth between the two cities? As you might imagine, I paid a pretty penny for that cab ride, close to $100 in 1989 money.

I laugh about it now, but you know what? I don’t think it was all bad. Sure, it was expensive, and people–especially my German friends–have laughed about it for years. But the thing is, I got it done. I didn’t know what to do and I still found a way to get it done. It may not have been the cheapest or the most efficient way, but I proved I could take care of myself.

Of course, I learned a couple of lessons along the way. Besides the obvious do-what-you-gotta-do exercise, there’s this: sometimes you just have to put yourself out there. You might get where you want to go without asking questions, but chances are, it’ll cost you. By asking for help along the way, not only will you move toward your goal, but you’ll also learn what you need to get you there the next time.

So, Little Miss, when you get to the other side of the pond, do what you gotta do to find your way. I just hope it costs less than cab fare.

Easter eggs

Easter-EggsSomething popped up on my Facebook feed the other day that I can’t get out of my head, and not in a good way.

XX days till Easter! Have you ordered your FREE tickets yet?

A church pimping tickets for its Easter service?! They did the same thing at Christmastime, too.

In the interest of full disclosure, the church makes it clear that the tickets are free, and a couple of friends have told me that the tickets are just for number-planning purposes. I’ve been assured they won’t turn anyone away.

It still doesn’t feel right to me.

From a marketing perspective, I get it. Issuing tickets combines implications of limited time and limited supply to create a sense of urgency. It can be an effective tool to make people want to jump in and commit right away.

But this is church. Church.

And while I’ll be the first to admit that my faith is pretty lapsed right now, this isn’t right. The mission of the (Christian) church is to save the lost. Tickets are for people who already want to be there, not those who may be inclined to slip in unnoticed to see what they can find to help with their struggles. Or people with questions they don’t know how to ask. Or people looking to make some kind of change. Generally those people are much more tentative, and tickets make it a BIG DEAL.

I’m told that this church won’t turn anyone away who doesn’t have a ticket, but I’ll wager that people who are not in-the-know will assume otherwise. If you were driving by a church that had “Call 555-1212 to get tickets to our Easter service!” what would you think? And if you decided on Easter Sunday to find a service–as many people do–I’ll bet you don’t land at that church. You’ll probably assume it’s too late because you didn’t call ahead. I know I would.

What about the argument that issuing tickets is for number-planning purposes only? My response has four letters: WWJD? For those of you familiar with the New Testament–the foundation of the Christian church, like the one I’m addressing here–think of the loaves and fishes story. There’s a clear answer to WWJD: he’d preach away and let the crowd gather, the bigger the better. Everything else eventually took care of itself.

You can tell me all you want that the come-as-you-are approach is not realistic, but remember, the church embraces the NT as fact. It is supposed to base its teachings AND actions on it.

I’m not inviting religious debate here. I’ll have whatever discussion you want in private, but not here. My point, as always, is that WORDS MATTER. The words “get your tickets” are a communications snafu for a church.

Sure, they create a sense of urgency to commit to the Easter service, but only for those already planning to attend. For everyone else, they create a barrier. They’re off-putting.

Believe it or not, I think more churches should apply marketing principles to their outreach efforts; there are so many ways to generate interest. But the right tactic has to be selected for each effort, whether you run a church, a business, a school, a club, or anything else.

Unfortunately, that church laid an egg on this one.

Bully for you

Mary RaberOne of my first kindergarten memories doesn’t have anything to do with school at all. It’s the walk home that vividly sticks with me. I didn’t live far from school, and I routinely walked home with the rest of the kids who lived in nearby. We weren’t exactly friends, just fellow travelers by circumstance, and after about a block or two, the group would start to disperse.

If you’d think nothing would happen in that short distance, you’d be wrong. We had barely taken a step off school property one day when the heckling began. The focal point was a kid whose only transgression was being overweight. The kids–even the big kids, third graders–called him names, and the more upset he got, the more they heckled him.

The kid began to separate himself from the crowd. In my head, it looked (and still looks) like a pint-sized mob scene. Pack of kids in the back, lone kid in the front trying hard not to flinch at the word daggers hitting him from behind, moving toward home as fast as his legs could carry him.

When the kid neared his house (or maybe it was just the corner where he would turn and the others would continue straight ahead), he turned around and yelled the worst insult his five-year-old self could conjure: “YOU F***ERS!” before he ran inside to safety.

Bullies. Jerks. Such cruel kids.

I was part of that group.

I’d like to say that I didn’t do any name calling–I don’t think I did, but maybe that’s just my memory smoothing things over. I was uncomfortable, that’s for sure. I remember going home and talking to my mom about what had happened, ashamed of the taunting and bewildered that lightning hadn’t struck the kid for saying that worst-of-all word.

Regardless, I was still part of that group.

I didn’t stick up for that kid. I didn’t separate myself to walk with him. I didn’t offer comfort. I didn’t leave. I didn’t have to say a word to be complicit, and to this day, I’m ashamed of myself.

I had to look at that kid in class every day; our last names started with the same letter, so we never sat very far apart. And though I was wracked with guilt and could barely make eye contact, I never apologized. Until we graduated from high school, I never apologized, although every time I saw that kid I would think about the kindergarten incident.

Eventually, time and distance put it out of my mind, but when a friend recounted a bullying scenario in which her young daughter was involved, that long-ago walk home came screaming back into my head. I shared it with her, and she suggested that I apologize to him. So I’m going to, through this blog.

And I’m going to use it to remind my kids, myself, and anyone who will listen that sometimes a person communicates more by where she chooses to stand than by the words she uses–or doesn’t use. Get out of the crowd and stand for what’s right, friends. The concept of “safety in numbers” doesn’t apply to your soul.

So, RH, I admire you for standing up for yourself that day. I wish I would have joined you. I’m sorry.

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.