Altered reality

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–mostly because it is a lesson I have to keep learning myself. Perception is reality.

A couple weeks ago I attended an event that included a panel discussion with people presenting differing viewpoints. One woman came from an under-served neighborhood and felt abandoned by the city. She offered impassioned pleas for more civic interaction, including police presence that involved more than responding to crime. She wanted active integration into the community that included patrols, meet-and-greets, and regular (positive) interactions.

The police representative on the panel responded with a litany of statistics, showering them like raindrops, hoping to fill the other woman’s vessel and quench her thirst.

That didn’t happen.

When the policewoman cited the number of patrols in that quadrant of the city, the woman responded that she had never, ever seen one in her neighborhood. When the PW talked about police interactions at the Boys and Girls Club, the woman reminded her that the Boys and Girls Club was miles from her home, too far for kids to walk. That was great, she said, but it didn’t help the kids around her.

As I watched and listened, I thought, Why can’t the PW see that statistics aren’t reaching this woman? Those facts and figures don’t seem to be affecting her actual life. Even though they might be true, this woman isn’t seeing the benefit of the work being done. The PW just isn’t hearing the NEED. She’s too focused on her response that she’s not hearing the woman.

I had it all figured out. I would never do such a thing, of course. I understand communication!

A few days later, I was talking to one of my kids. He was telling me something really important to him, and he kept saying I wasn’t listening. That I didn’t hear him. That THIS was the way he felt but I just didn’t get it.

I countered with a list of the things I had done and said to prove him wrong. Of course I get it. Didn’t I do this and this and this? Didn’t I tell you that? What about that one time?

Slowly (way too slowly), it dawned on me that throwing “statistics” at him to prove him wrong–did you catch that? TO PROVE HIM WRONG–only widened our gap. He was right; I didn’t get it.

Just like the PW, even if I was “right,” it didn’t matter. My kid still felt disenfranchised. All those things I did? They clearly hadn’t been effective. I needed to take a different tack so I thought I would try to…

Wait a minute.

What I actually needed to do was stop and listen, not figure out my next move. I needed to really listen, not just to his words, but to his feelings and experiences. I needed to try to understand his reality so I could meet him there. My solutions to the problem I thought he had would always miss the mark if our perceptions didn’t align.

Reality is fluid; it depends on through whose lenses it viewed. We need to understand that it differs with each person’s perception.

So let’s stop talking past each other. Let’s stop trying to prove each other wrong and ourselves right. Let’s stop forming a response before the other person is finished speaking.

Instead, let’s start listening. Let’s put on someone else’s glasses and try to see the world from his view. Let’s learn each other’s language so we can communicate better. Let’s put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to get out of our proverbial boxes. Instead of trying to “help,” let’s find ways to work together.

For me, it starts at home.

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.

Us and them

In one of my former jobs, I led a team of people serving all departments in the company. We were responsible for global branding, identity management, and creative services, among other things. My reporting structure was at the corporate level, which made a ton of sense given our charter to serve everyone.

At one point, company politics changed that dynamic, and for a period of time I reported through one of our divisions. That wasn’t supposed to change anything my department handled (and it didn’t), but other divisions panicked. They no longer viewed my department as neutral and assumed we would give priority to our reporting division. I had been working pretty hard to build credibility with the panicked division before the change, and in one fell swoop it disintegrated.

So we started over.

Although we worked really hard to change their perception, I still felt a rift. There was an “us and them” feel to our interactions, and eventually I realized it had found its way into our language. The division liaison who worked with us—great guy, btw—would talk about my group as if we were part of the division where I reported. In turn, my team responded accordingly. WE do this. YOU could try that. And so on. The very language we used started to separate us from the beginning of any conversation.

That’s when I became the language police. To the amusement and often irritation of my team, I would stop people mid-sentence in meetings to remind them that we worked for everyone, so we were part of everyone’s “we.” Instead of aligning ourselves with one division, albeit unconsciously, we made the verbal effort to be inclusive. I earned my share of eye rolls, but I can’t count how many times I said things like, There’s no THEY here. We’re all the same WE.

Eventually our relationship with that division improved. By the time my reporting structure was moved back where it belonged in the corporate chain, we enjoyed working with that division more than any other. I credit the power of language for helping us get on the right track.

I think about this situation a lot amid our current political climate. So much of what I hear from people around me, in the news, on social media—everywhere, really—comes with an overpowering dose of “us and them.” The Dems do this! The Rs do that! Liberals! Evangelicals! You! We!

Stop it, everyone. Just stop. Take a minute and think about who will listen to what follows when the very beginning of whatever you have to say draws a line in the sand. Are you on MY side or THE OTHER side?

Don’t get me wrong; I have some very strong beliefs about what needs to happen in this country. I will neither present nor debate them in this post; I want to stay on point and not lose anyone’s attention because of a particular issue. I’m trying to illustrate that the language we use powerfully affects our ability to have meaningful conversations with each other.

So here’s the thing. Let’s stop making broad categorizations that immediately define US and THEM when we’re trying to talk to one another. Even if I generally identify with a particular group, I guarantee I don’t espouse every single belief of that group—and I doubt you do either. So let’s stop identifying each other as “uses and thems.” Let’s stop telling each other why the other person is wrong. Let’s focus on sharing what we believe and why—and LISTEN when others are doing the same.

This is hard stuff. I know what I believe and why I believe it; why waste my time listening to opposing views? My answer boils down to this: what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working. The vitriol that surrounds us every day is staggering. No one is blameless on this.

It’s time to have conversations rather than posturing for battle, and it starts with watching our language.

Words matter.

Same old song and dance

*1986 Junior Miss banquet. Not naming names.*

I heard a song on the radio the other day that took me back to high school when I participated in the Junior Miss Pageant (now known as Distinguished Young Women). Yes, believe it or not, I was once a pageant contestant. The how and why are less important to this story. Just know that it happened.

I had no expectation of winning—or coming close—but I did my best and had fun with the other girls through the process. It wasn’t too hard to follow all the choreographed moves, I thrived in the one-on-one interview, and really, how taxing is it to walk across the stage in a prom dress? Only one aspect of the pageant struck cold, hard fear in me: the talent competition.

It has been well documented that I can’t sing. I don’t play an instrument. I’ve never formally twirled a baton, taken dance lessons, or participated in any activity that could be considered “stage-worthy.” I had NO idea what I would do for this competition, and I felt horribly awkward.

At the time, a TV show called Puttin’ on the Hits had become popular. It featured people lip syncing to popular songs, and judges scored participants on how authentic their “singing” seemed. This, my friends, is where I drew my inspiration. (Insert eye roll here.) Indeed, I lip synced a song. On a stage. With a few made-up dance moves. In front of a few hundred people. It was not my best moment.

Anyway, hearing that song on the radio that reminded me of my pageant experience and got me thinking about how we define talent. We take such a narrow view of talent when we limit it to what translates to a stage performance. What about the person who is really good at cooking? Or knows how to fix anything mechanical with a single glance? Or can run fast or jump high or make three pointers all day long? What about the person who can write stories that make people laugh or cry or even transport them to another place? Or the empath who naturally knows how to make others feel special? There are so many kinds of talent that don’t translate well to a stage. How do we put those on display?

2020 Tammy would do things differently. I would have written this essay—or one like it—and delivered it on stage. The writing would have been my talent—not just stringing the words together, but speaking for others and hopefully bringing a different perspective to the audience.

I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t write. It’s pretty hard to make a cheesecake in two minutes in a high school auditorium.

Talent is so much more than song and dance. The next time someone tells you “Oh, I’m not talented,” don’t let it slide. Everyone does something well, in a way that comes naturally. Look for it.

And by the way, it’s not a competition.

Miss me?

I’m back, at least for the moment. And although it’s the elephant in the room, I don’t plan to write about COVID beyond this paragraph. That may change, but there’s already so much noise out there that I believe one more voice will only add to the confusion. Besides, with so many (real and imagined) expert opinions, I won’t be contributing anything new, just restating. So let’s get this out of the way: there’s no harm in wearing a mask. The potential effects of not wearing one and being wrong far outweigh the potential effects of wearing one and being wrong. I’m happy to discuss elsewhere, but not on this platform. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Stay tuned for new content. I’m teeing it up now!

For Tim

a long time ago tim

“Have you been writing?”

“What have you written?”

“Why haven’t you been writing?”

He hounded me. Every time we talked or texted, he hounded me. He valued my words and wanted more of them. I had a few well worn excuses, but he always pushed me to come back to the keyboard.

“Find your words,” he said.

Now he’s gone, and I have no choice. I owe it to him. These words are for him, about him, to him.


Tim wasn’t perfect. He was full of flaws and I stopped falling for his bullshit long ago. But he was special, really special.

Other people who love him, whom I’ve never met, describe him the same way I knew him:

Smart. Quick witted. Funny. Loving. Kind.

Radiant light, bursting forth from an imperfect vessel.

He made me feel like I didn’t have to be a whole, complete person to be smart and creative and valued.

Of course I’m stealing their words; I couldn’t write them any better.

He was the kind of person who makes you better, even when he struggled himself. He always knew how to draw out the important parts and he didn’t care if he pissed you off doing it. In fact, that’s the thing I think he liked most, because getting a reaction usually led to the getting better part. It made me see my flaws or my excuses or whatever, and that made me face them. And he always, always stretched me, though I’d never admit to him that I sometimes struggled to keep up.

Once I asked him for advice in overcoming my writer’s block. This was our text conversation (the real deal, not paraphrased):

Me: How did you find the wherewithal to return to the keyboard?

TJT: Just pound out something shitty and return to it with your critical eye.

Me: Words fail me.

TJT: Sure, blame it on the words.

Me: And I them.

TJT: Now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe you need to be told to shut up by someone or something. Then those words would be itching for a fight.

Me: Perhaps, but not likely.

TJT: Shut up.

Sure, he said. Blame it on the words.

He was right. It has never been the words; it has always been me.

Others have written long, loving tributes to this man who left the world before we were ready. Mine is less long, though no less loving.

Tim, you were as wonderful as you were difficult. We saw each other’s flaws and loved each other anyway. Sometimes you even flaunted yours to me, and I knew because of it that you trusted me. Our connection was deep and real, though miles and time separated us. You made me laugh. You made me mad. You made me think. You made me better.

Sometimes I don’t know how to explain you to people who don’t know you, but I guess I don’t have to. All that really matters is that you were my friend.

Rest in peace. You deserve to finally find it.


Love Over Gold
You walk out on the high wire
You’re a dancer on thin ice
You pay no heed to the danger
And less to advice
Your footsteps are forbidden
But with knowledge of your sin
You throw your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
And you go dancing through doorways
Just to see what you will find
Leaving nothing to interfere
With the crazy balance of your mind
And when you finally reappear
At the place where you came in
You’ve thrown your love to all the strangers
And caution to the wind
It takes love over gold and mind over matter
To do what you do that you must
When the things that you hold can fall and be shattered
Or run through your fingers like dust
Written by Mark Knopfler, performed by Dire Straits

Thinking out loud

stenoI’m really struggling with a project at work. Actually, the project itself is pretty straightforward; the problem is finding a common language with my work partner. Frankly, the situation has been really frustrating me. As much as I KNOW the effects language can have on a person, I’m not immune to them. I find it hard to overlook certain word choices when they are pointed in my direction. Words matter.

So there’s that.

There’s also the issue of asking for information one way and receiving it in a completely different–winding and muddled–format. I find myself wading through a pile of words that I have to struggle to understand, let alone organize. Words matter.

So there’s that, too.

I don’t want to sort this stuff out; I want it to be easy. (Don’t we all?) But then, isn’t this what I say I’m good at? Isn’t this what I do? Isn’t it my job to pull in information and figure out not only what matters but also how to communicate it back to others?

Well, crap. Why do I always forget that challenges are generally opportunities in disguise?

I’ll fix it. I’ll make it sound good. It’s what I do. And you know what? I love it.

Thanks for letting me think this out on your screen. That’s what I do, too.

On being personable

Humankind-Be-Both-Button-(0127)There’s an author I’ve been following since back in the early days of my own blog. I liked the way she wrote, and she had an amusing way of drawing people into her content by using suggestive titles that made me laugh. Heck, back in those days her blog was even called The Accidental Cootchie Mama.

One day she put a call to action in one of her posts, and I responded. I don’t even remember what it was–something about taking a few seconds out of my day to help her friend. It seemed easy enough, so I did it and commented accordingly. Lo and behold, this person–this author–responded. To little ol’ me. For some reason, that made me feel important.

Fast forward a few years, and The Accidental Cootchie Mama gave way to a real-life author blog. You see, my writer had PUBLISHED A BOOK! This was exciting for me, since I felt a kinship with her, this blogger-has-big-writing-dreams-and-starts-accomplishing-them person. I identified with the first half of that description, and her success gave me hope for the second half. I still follow her because she’s real to me.

Fast forward again, and now she’s three books in. I’m learning a lot about the grueling nature of a book tour and the only-glamorous-on-the-outside life of a published author. This woman works hard for everything she gets. She’s trying to eke out a living on the book circuit while she wrestles with a bunch of personal issues. But you know what, she’s transparent about it. She’s real, and I love that about her.

Yesterday I noticed a Facebook post that screamed for acknowledgement. Her energy and resolve were flagging, so I added a comment. Guess what.

Within seconds, she responded. It made my day.

What’s the point of this rambling post? I wasn’t entirely sure when I started writing; I just felt that there was something important in this incident. As I’ve worked this out on my keyboard, here’s what I think now.

Behind every facade, whether it’s a book cover, a marquee, an athletic jersey, a title, or a pasted-on smile, you’ll find a real person. Don’t ever forget that, and treat people accordingly.

And don’t forget that real people have ups and down, just like the rest of us real people. If it feels right, throw a word of encouragement their way. Or support. Or love. Or even just recognition of the fact that the person is a, well, person. Not an author or an actor or an athlete or an elected official or a teacher or a business mogul or a cab driver, but a person with hopes and dreams and trials and disappointments.

We’re all in this together. And words do matter.

P.S. If you get a chance, check out http://andrawatkins.com/blog/. Whether or not her writing ends up speaking to you, she’d surely appreciate your interest. After all, she’s a real person.

The right to remain silent

jelly donutIf you’re female, you’ve probably grumbled about your weight at least once in your life. Whether you feel plagued with an extra five pounds or fifty, we all have our number. It’s a girl thing. (I’m sure it occasionally happens with men too, but I’m not a dude, so I’ll keep my assumptions to my own gender.)

You’d think, then, that women would be understanding of each other. Apparently that’s not always the case.

A friend of mine–one who is now 100 pounds lighter and kicking the sh*t out of her goals–recently told me of an incident that happened early in her weight loss journey. She had finally decided to wage war on her sedentary lifestyle and less-than-healthy habits and got herself moving, literally. She started walking on an indoor track, slowly at first because that’s all her body and mind could handle. In fact, she remembers the broom-wielding custodian easily gliding around her has he cleaned the track. Nonetheless, she was moving; that constituted victory all by itself.

Enter one perky soccer mom (PSM), complete with yoga pants and svelte physique, power walking around the track. No biggie, right? There’s room for everyone.

Not so, friends.

As PSM rounded the curve and started to pass my friend, she threw a verbal barb that lodged itself in my friend’s heart.

I’ll bet you wish you hadn’t had that doughnut this morning, huh?

What the heck? WHO SAYS THAT?!

Every time I ponder this story I get angry all over again, for lots of different reasons. I can’t process the unbelievable rudeness of this woman. You can call it fat shaming or whatever the fashionable term of the day happens to be, but I call it rude. It’s just downright mean. Whatever happened to good manners? Decorum? Class? Did degrading someone else make PSM feel superior? Did she think pushing someone down would raise her up? If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

The bigger issue that intrigues me about this incident is the sense of entitlement. I’ve seen it over and over at the gym: fit-looking people with the “right” kind of workout clothes draping the “right” kind of body cast sneers toward the less perfect people huffing and puffing and sweating as they struggle to finish a workout. Their attitude rises from their skin like steam: Look at you! You have no right to be here. You can’t even use this machine right. You’re in my way. I deserve to be here; you don’t.

Excuse me, but isn’t the person who is out of shape exactly the person who should be at the gym? And shouldn’t we applaud those of us–regardless of size, creed, color, or anything else–who take the initiative to do something positive? We should be making way for progress, not impeding it.

Inside or outside the gym, why is it often the people who need something least who feel the most entitled to it?

Think about that.

And the next time you find yourself ready to throw shade on someone doing something good for herself, remember: you have the right to remain silent. Exercise that.

Take care

Aunt Gladys circa 1972When I was very small, my great-great aunt went to live with my grandmother. Aunt Gladys (unconventionally pronounced  GLAY-dus) would follow my brother and me around and we didn’t mind a bit because she never hesitated to join our games. She played with us unhesitatingly until the dark cloud of her dementia overshadowed the sunny side of her personality.

And that’s why she lived with my grandmother. Grandma was her caretaker–at least, that’s what we would have called her then. She fed Aunt Gladys and bathed her and tucked her in bed at night. Grandma kept AG safe and made sure she knew she was loved. She took care of Aunt Gladys.

Taking care. That term sounds so…detached.

It says nothing of the emotion my grandmother’s actions carried, the love and devotion that washed Aunt Gladys’s face or the tender care that removed obstacles so she wouldn’t fall. It ignores the sacrifice of unexpectedly rearranging a household to make sure a loved one won’t suffer alone in her time of need, or of stretching a threadbare budget to make room for one more.

Sounds a lot more like giving than taking to me.

Perhaps that’s why, somewhere along the way, we’ve embraced a shift in terminology. People we once called caretakers have become caregivers. Technically, both words carry the same meaning, but at least for me, the former screams duty while the latter emanates devotion.

I love how our vernacular keeps evolving to perfect itself. It amazes me how one little word–or portion of a word–makes all the difference to its meaning. And even if you give it little thought, your choice affects the perception of your listener.

Words matter; always choose wisely.