An Honest Day’s Work

I grew up in the Midwest and so I am stereotypically wired to appreciate the value of hard work. It’s possible that if I had grown up somewhere else, I might not be a workaholic. Possible, but not likely.

Over the last 24 hours, I had an opportunity to shadow the employees at my company who do the real work. I watched as the night shift picked and loaded shipments and followed along as a driver delivered product to a dozen customers over an eleven-hour shift. I got four and a half hours sleep between shifts and walked more than 14,500 steps and 6.75 miles. I pushed myself 100% harder than I normally do.

It felt great.

When I got back to the office today, a number of people asked me how it went. I told them, honestly, that it was a great experience and I was very appreciative of the time and effort that the team spent to help me learn the business. There was surprise, because I think it’s hard to believe that what you do every day, day-in and day-out, could be valuable to anyone else. I get that. I’ve worried about whether I bring enough value to the world, too.

But here’s the thing that I got to see that I don’t get to live every day:

  • Tangible completeness. The work was specifically defined and could be finished. We started with a trailer full of product and after a day’s worth of hard work it was empty. My work is so rarely that neat — instead I have ‘good enough for now, do more later.’ It was rewarding to be done, if only for a day.
  • Clear value. Each stop along the way we were met by real people who were counting on us. People with empty shelves that needed to be filled. Everyone was waiting, eager for their product deliveries. I heard more than a few people say, “see you next week” as we headed off on our way.
  • Physical tiredness. There are many days that I go home on fumes, my brain exhausted and my eyes red but I rarely have the bone deep tiredness that comes with activity. I’m sure that if I had to do it every day that I would look at it differently, but today I appreciate the weariness that comes from honest effort.

The guys that let me into their day-to-day life treated me like a VIP — I was from corporate and had a fancy title. But the reality is that I spent at least as much time as they did worrying about the visit. I worried that I would be in their way or upset the carefully coordinated steps of their work. I worried that I would say something stupid, or at the least something uniformed. I worried that I would look silly in the uniform. (Truthfully, I did.)

Worry aside, though, I’m glad I did it. I got closer to the work of my company and to our customers than I have been in three years. I was able to connect what I do every day to the people who benefit from it. And I was able to remind myself about the value of good, hard work. The kind of work that so many of my friends and family members do every day while I am sitting in meetings, helping people clear bureaucratic hurdles and building awesome spreadsheets and presentations.

And in case I forget, tomorrow I’ll have the aches and pains to remind me all about it.

The Siblings Only Dinner

Tonight, I joined my two brothers for our annual post-Thanksgiving tradition. We’re not sure when it started, but we’re pretty sure it was triggered by my international assignment or my grandmother passing away. One of my brothers was able to rattle off eight restaurants we’ve eaten at so we are pretty sure it has been at least eight years. We call it “siblings only dinner.”

Which of course is a misnomer. Sometimes we have breakfast.

Anyway, eight years ago (give or take) I noticed a pattern. Whenever I saw my brothers, we were surrounded by people and we rarely had moments of quiet connection. And that was hard because I’ve always been close to my brothers. We share the same DNA source code and had the same experiences growing up, but more importantly I really value them as people. So when I noticed that we were only able to get to the ‘hey how’s the job?’ depth of conversation, I decided that wasn’t going to work. So, I made a proposition.

One night, once a year. A couple of hours away from your spouse and kids. Just a little bit of time to remember where it all started and to stay connected. Siblings only.

That first year involved a bit of negotiating. Our significant others wanted to know why they weren’t invited. Our kids wanted to know why they couldn’t come. People had to work. Others were traveling. I got creative and leaned in. We made it work.

We’ve made it work every year since.

It hasn’t always been easy. One year I had the flu so bad I barely remember eating anything. Another year the only day we could make work was the Friday after Thanksgiving and one of my brothers had to work — we met him during his lunch hour. We’ve done late breakfasts and early dinners — we’ve met within minutes of our homes and driven two hours one way. 

We just make it work.

We do it because it’s important to each of us that we stay connected. We want to make sure that when the bumps and bruises of life hit us that we are resilient and capable of responding not just individually but as a team. We want to know that we have the kind of relationship to weather the things that we will know will happen someday — including loss and heartache. I want them to know I will be there for them, just like they want me to know they will be there for me.

The most interesting thing is that as much as we have in common, and as much as I feel like I know everything I could know about them, they still have the power to surprise me. They have been part of my life since the day of their birth and I don’t know everything yet. We still have new stories to share.

And in 364 days, we’ll share some more.

A Parent Point of View

It’s been 15 years since my primary self-definition changed from child to parent. I like to tell soon-to-be parents that I can’t explain it, but that they’ll get it on the drive home from the hospital. It is something that needs to be experienced to be understood.

But, even after I saw myself as a parent, I continued to cling to my definition as a child. Not surprisingly, the role that had been my first was still the most familiar. I remembered going through the life stages and I hadn’t yet experienced helping my own children navigate through them. Over time I built-up the ‘parent’ wiring in my brain and then *snap* it took over. I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the moment that I realized it had happened.

I was reading a book called The Glass Castle, written by Jeannette Walls. The back cover describes it as, “a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant.” The book is compelling and I strongly recommend it but I don’t remember it for its literary strength. I remember it because for the first time ever I read a book and found myself connecting my own experience not to the children but to the parents.

Maybe it was the fact that my kids were the same age as the book’s kids. Maybe it was the fact that an early scene put a young child at risk and I went deep into mama bear mode. I’m not sure what combination of factors were at play, but all I know is that by the end of that book I was incapable of seeing the book from the kids’ point of view. Every example of the parents putting the kids in a dangerous situation or leaving the kids to struggle to find a meal made me cringe. I was angry, so angry, at what the characters had done. What people like me — parents — had done.

At book club the other readers tried to get me to see another point of view, one that reflected the growth through adversity. I heard them, but I just couldn’t rotate my perspective and that surprised me. I didn’t care for one minute that the kids loved their parents. Or that they grew up to be successful adults who felt that their creativity and resilience was a gift from their unique experience. I found myself mentally stuck in the parent point of view. There was a skipping record in my head, “How could they do that? How could they do that? How could they do that?” Truth be told, I haven’t shaken the needle loose since then.

That’s why when the news (and Facebook) has shifted to the refugee crisis my first point of view is that of a parent. One of my friends posted a link to a photo documentary of refugee children and where they are sleeping — sad, heartbreaking images of children sleeping out in the open, in hospital beds and on cardboard boxes. My thoughts immediately went to my reality: of tucking my own children in each night in comfortable beds with warm blankets where they are safe and welcomed and home. Regardless of politics, regardless of other suffering, I understand why those parents want my reality for their children.

I’ve never been asked to sacrifice like that for my children, but I know my heart. I believe that if bombs were to fall on my home or threaten my family that I would walk away from everything. I would leave behind my trappings and my comfort, I would make myself into whatever they needed me to be to survive. I would be, without regret, one of the thousands of mothers dirty and huddled on a boat and in the streets and at a train station. I would demean myself and make myself as small or as big as I needed to be. I would battle, beg or bargain because the only point of view I know now is that of a parent.

And, like most parents, I would desperately hope that whatever I did was enough.

I’m Okay

Yesterday, when I was one mile away from my highway exit and only minutes from being safely home, a three-vehicle accident hit me from behind. I was driving 70 miles per hour, heard the crunching metal and then felt the impact. I was stunned — I had never considered the possibility of being rear-ended at full speed. My glasses flew off and I scraped my chin but after the initial shock I was fine. Somehow, despite wreckage over three lanes of a four lane highway, I held my lane and was fine.

I was fine.

Once I realized the car had stopped and that nothing else was going to hit me I took a deep breath. I stopped the bleeding on my chin. I pulled my car over to the edge of the highway. I turned on my hazards. And when I knew that I was safe and that everything was under control, I did one more thing: I called my husband. 

“I’m okay. I’ve been in a serious accident on the highway, but I’m okay. It looks like it is going to take awhile to get things cleaned up, but I see the flashing lights. I’m okay.”

Sitting safely on the side of the road my worry was over, I felt nothing but gratitude and relief. But I knew nothing would ease the worry of my husband until I was home and in his arms. Every single time I leave the house and drive away the man who loves me more than anything worries. He worries that something will harm me when he isn’t there to protect me. He worries that the chaos of the world will be too much for me.

When there is a moment of chaos, our opposing world views collide. I see coming out the other side as proof that all will be well. He sees the chaos itself as proof that danger is everywhere.

We’re both right.

Early on in our relationship I fought his worry. I felt insulted by it, like he didn’t trust me to take care of myself. I raged and reminded him that I was a grown adult and that I had lived successfully without him for 20 years. I hated being judged and I didn’t spend even a moment thinking about what was behind it or that he experienced the world differently than I did. I fought it for longer than I should have.

Thankfully, at some point I got smarter. I started asking questions and listening to the answers. I didn’t stop going into the world or taking on new challenges, but I tried to understand how the person that I pledged to be with through this journey would feel as I did. I made small changes, like texting “I’m okay” when I went out alone. Mostly, I just learned to appreciate that the worry was wrapped so tightly around the love that they were virtually indistinguishable.

And that’s why when he told me this morning that he didn’t sleep last night, I simply hugged him. I knew that he spent the night playing through 100’s of different scenarios, ones where I didn’t walk away. Ones where my version of the world is wrong, no matter how much he wants it to be right. And I couldn’t be mad at him for that. So, I hugged him some more and reminded him of one basic thing, the one thing he cares about more than anything.

I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.

Inspired to Inspire

Yesterday I announced on my Facebook page that I had been promoted. I hesitate with those posts because my natural tendency to share goes to war with my natural tendency against self-aggrandizement. But, in the end I put it out there because my work is an important part of my life and the people who care about me know that.

Even so, I was unprepared for the outpouring of support I got. Only my post about losing my beloved dog triggered a greater response, and after 11 hours (most overnight) I received 104 likes and 39 “congratulations” messages. I forget how many people care about me and are cheering for my success and happiness. It’s awesome.

There were a series of comments though that gave me pause. Here they are:

  • Congrats. 🙂 so inspirational.
  • Congrats Mel. Way to follow your dreams. Such an inspiration.
  • Many congrats Mel! You deserve the world. You are truly amazing and such a motivating inspiration.

The comments are incredibly kind and they were made by people who have known me long and well. People who I respect and whose opinion matters to me a great deal. And as I read the comments last night, one thought kept coming into my head: Does anyone hear the statement, “You’re such an inspiration!” and say, “You’re right, I am.”

Because I don’t.

I get up most days and go to work. I have good days and bad days. My inbox is always full, and there are times when I let my boss, my peers and others down. When I am short on sleep and stressed out I can respond with passion and frustration — it can hurt or intimidate people. I don’t always listen as well as I should. I’ve made good decisions and bad decisions. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.

None of that feels insprirational. It feels incredibly ordinary. Like every single person reading this post could say the exact same thing. I look at myself and my life and although I feel pride and satisfaction and happiness galore — I don’t feel inspiration.

So, I figured maybe I just didn’t understand the word. I consulted Google for a definition. It said:

Inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

So maybe that’s the rub. Inspiration isn’t about self-perception it’s about external response. It’s about other people ‘being mentally stimulated to do or feel something‘. And while some people might actively work toward inspiration, others might stumble into it simply by living and doing the stuff that comes naturally.

And for me, if the person that I am or the words that I say bring about action and feelings in others — especially positive actions and feelings — that is awesome. Because life and the value in life for me is defined by the moments of color when I was inspired to be more or I felt that I had achieved more than I had thought possible. A better person. A better wife. A better mom. A better friend. 

I still don’t feel like an inspiration. But I am grateful beyond words that something about me has given that feeling to others.

And that’s so much better than a title. Any title.

Why Tax Policy Isn’t Easy

I remember a day in the late 2000’s that crystallized the challenge with tax policy. One of the students who worked in my office came in upset by the tax structure in the United States. He stated that it was an unfair redistribution of wealth and he asked for my opinion. I don’t remember my exact words, but they went something like this:

Any tax is a redistribution of resources, so it really isn’t as simple as taxes are good or bad. There are two questions that need to be discussed: is the revenue side right (i.e. how the taxes are assessed and collected) and is the expense side right (i.e. how the spending priorities are determined and spent). I guarantee you, everyone has an opinion about both rights.

From his reaction, I got the impression that my answer was unsatisfying. So, I picked a single example and shared my point of view. I observed that although there are places in the world that can produce food more inexpensively than the United States, there is a strategic need to ensure sufficient cultivated and cultivatable land within our borders to feed our populace. So, there has been a long standing practice of farm subsidies and tariffs to ensure that the agricultural industry survives — not every farmer, but the industry. I shared that I was sure some of my federal income tax went to that, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell him how much.

He paused and looked at me. I could tell he was still looking for an answer, a simple answer, about whether I thought taxes were unfair. I shook my head. “My dad always said that fair was a term in baseball describing the area between the first and third baselines. Taxes aren’t fair or unfair. I’m more than willing to talk tax policy, but it’s going to be deeper than fairness.” We didn’t talk about taxes again.

And that is why tax policy is hard. For every person that feels like investing in a strong military is a strategic imperative I can show you someone who feels that we would be safe enough spending less. For every person who feels that public higher education is necessary for a well-educated populace, there’s someone else who feels that a pay-to-play system works fine. Healthcare. Stadium subsidies. Parks. Roads. Public safety. Fire services. Retirement safety nets. Libraries. Disaster relief. The mortgage deduction. I guarantee you that there is something that is part of the current system that you value or benefit from — something you would see as a ‘right’ expense. And there is probably some revenue generating mechanism that you also feel is ‘right’ or closest to right.

The problem — as I see it — is that there is just too much data. We can’t really consume it or discuss it to get past generalities. And I am speaking about my own capabilities, too. I heard a podcast today about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal — >6,000 pages of resource redistribution. Could I possibly understand it well enough to have an informed opinion? No. Some industries and products are given protection from competition, some are not. Why? Because someone deemed them strategically important. Is that right? Depends on your perspective, I guess. They interviewed a guy whose company manufacturers waders (for fishing) and he was going to enjoy another 8 years protected by 35% import duties. He thought that was right even though if you buy waders you might pay more.

All I know is that I recognize that no one gets something for nothing. And, I want my kids (and yours, and the stranger in some town I’ve never heard of) to be educated — because like Jefferson I believe that a well-educated populace is needed for a strong democracy. I want to know that I can trust a bridge when I  drive across it and that I can rely on safe and clean drinking water coming out of my tap. I want the elderly and veterans whose contributions I have benefited from to have at least the basics of shelter, food and care. It that right? To me it is, or right enough when you’re trying to build a system for 325 million people.

So, I will try to avoid being baited into either sound byte extreme, no matter how much I love you or value your opinion of me. I will listen to your ‘rights’ and I will share my ‘rights’. I will be excited to learn about your reasons and how your life experiences have formed your rationale. Really, I can’t wait.

Just don’t ask me if taxes are fair — not unless you want to talk baseball.

What Newton Taught Me about Living: Inertia

My senior year in college I found myself in an unusual place. After three years focused on classes in literature, history, philosophy and theatre, I was sitting in a science class. And not just any science class, but lab physics. My lab partner, a brilliant woman who would later attend Johns Hopkins medical school and go on to become a pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan, didn’t quite know what to expect. Truthfully, neither did I. It was my first science class since high school.

I did fine in the class, but my mind was always miles away thinking about what was next in my life — planning for marriage and starting grad school. Strangely, it was the fact that I was focused on other things that helped me get the most out of the class. Because even though I couldn’t do a physics equation today, I still think about what I learned that year from Newton and how it translates into life:

  • Newton’s First Law: Inertia. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion.
  • Newton’s Second Law: Force. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
  • Newton’s Third Law: Action & Reaction. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Inertia

I don’t know about you, but my most productive days start with a fast morning. Up, showered and out the door with a plan and a mission. On those days I am damn near unstoppable, running from one task or obstacle to another. I am a ‘go hard’, ‘go fast’ machine, regardless of what I should or could do to slow down and take time to recharge.

The days when I struggle to gain traction are the ones where I have a slow start. I wake with my iPad, leisurely reading posts in bed while the minutes slip away and turn into hours. Sometimes, I am avoiding a hard task, but mostly I am just stuck. Stuck in the comfort of a warm bed or a sedentary state of mind. I am a two-ton statue that is unable to shift off its base, much less climb big mountains, regardless of the important work that needs doing.

For me, it is a constant fight against inertia: 

  • I just can’t slow down when in Mack Truck mode. 
  • I just can’t start up when stuck in park.

It’s easy to feel that my challenge in dealing with inertia is a personal failing. But physics taught me it’s not. Inertia is just a part of the world, as simple and predictable as a sunrise. Newton taught me it takes energy and force to influence a body at rest or a body at motion — some outside effort is needed.

Knowing that gives me the ability to ask for help and to build systems and mechanisms to deal with the inherent inertia everywhere. It caused me to create ‘no cook Fridays’ as a commitment to slow heading into the weekend and guarantee a meal with my family. It made me appreciate my first year in grad school when I had the ‘worst’ schedule (8am-12pm Monday-Friday) because the structure of class got me going and inertia gave me the focus to study long into the night.

Maybe I would have found a way to understand being stuck — and getting out of it — without learning Newton’s first law. After all, people dealt with inertia before Newton had even written the word down. People have leaned in and pushed hard and heave hoed not thinking much about it, just doing what was necessary. Formulas explain the world, the don’t make it.

But like Newton, I just like knowing why it works.