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.

Stop the madness (again)

Sometimes I can’t seem to stop escalating an argument–or a non-argument. When I stumbled across this post in the archives, it felt right to dig it back out. I wish I would have remembered this a few times over the last couple of months. Oh well, it’s not unusual that I have to re-learn the most important lessons!

Every now and then, someone sends me a message that really ticks me off. These messages are generally short, snarky, and pointless, designed simply to throw a barb my way for a perceived slight. I don’t get mad when I’ve really done something wrong–humble and embarrassed, maybe, but not mad. Strangely, it’s the undeserved barbs that hit their mark.

I got one of those messages this morning. I can thrust and parry with almost anyone when it comes to words, and I quickly typed my equally snarky response. And then I retyped it. And retyped it. I continued honing it to get it just right. With my cursor hovering over the send button, I hit delete instead. On purpose.

I’ve never done that before.

I’ve always risen to the challenge right along with my hackles. I respond in kind (that’s a funny expression when the response is usually not kind at all), and I end up sputtering and seething. And the cycle continues. No one needs that.

Inexplicably, this time I realized some key points. First, I didn’t act inappropriately to this person. Second, I didn’t owe him an explanation for anything. Third, he knows how to push my buttons, and I was poised to let him do it. By the time he had sent the message, he was already on to the next thing. Why should I spend the rest of my day stewing in this one?

It was up to me to continue the madness, and for once, I didn’t. I deleted my response, deleted, his email, and–writing this post notwithstanding–moved on. For whatever reason, I realized that it only takes one person to stop the madness. Anyone can be that person; today it was me.

Baby shoes

Classic_baby_shoesSome years ago, I stumbled across a concept that still holds my fascination. It’s called six-word stories, and the idea is to tell a story in–you guessed it–exactly six words.

The idea supposedly originated with a bunch of writing cronies who got together and placed a bet about who could produce a short story that was only six words long. Or who could write the shortest story that could make someone cry. Or who could write the shortest story. The details are nebulous, if they’re true at all, but supposedly Ernest Hemingway won hands down with this:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

Pretty powerful stuff, those sentences.

Its origin notwithstanding, the idea fascinates me. It offers a clear illustration of the power of words, thoughtfully and carefully chosen–one of my favorite topics.

Six-word stories are tough to master; if you thought staying within Twitter’s 144-character limit was hard, it’s nothing compared to this. Succeed in six words, and you’ll feel like a genius. It’s a great brain exercise, and your “regular” writing will be better for it.

Here are a few of my favorites from sixwordstories.net*:

Painfully, he changed “is” to “was.”
—Icantusemyimgurname

Smoking my very last cigarette. Again.
—Seablood

Born a twin; graduated only child.
—kconz21

Sorry, soldier. Shoes sold in pairs.
—Independent

Amazing how six words can tell you all you need to know. Try it; I dare you. You’ll be better for it.

Every word matters; choose each thoughtfully.

*The sixwordstories.net website and its corresponding Facebook page haven’t shown any activity for more than a year. They’re still fun to poke around, though.

Special note to JHS, TJT, RDH, and CC: you wordsmith/writer types are on notice. I want to see what you can produce in six words. I promise, this will be better than the ice bucket challenge!

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.

 

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.

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.