Four-legged Love

I woke up yesterday morning to an interesting pair of sensations. I heard the jingle of tiny bells and I felt the pressure of small paws darting across my chest. More effective than any alarm clock, our two four-month old kittens were letting me know with high-speed urgency that they were awake and ready for the day.

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

When I gave up hoping they would settle down, I opened my eyes and pulled out my iPad. Eager to see what had happened in the world while I slept, I checked my Facebook feed. And there, looking back at me with chocolate eyes filled with love, was my beautiful yellow lab Sandy. Facebook was reminding me that it had been a year since we had said good-bye to our girl.

It felt like the universe was telling me that I needed to write about pets — and even I don’t say no to the universe.

Pets have always been an important part of my life. When I was born my parents had a curly-haired mutt named Pooky. She was constantly there in my dad’s slides, standing near me toddling or manhandled into an awkward family photo. I thought of her as dad’s dog, but he always claimed she was mom’s dog. I just knew she wasn’t my dog, not in the way that kids claim ownership of dogs.

In elementary school, a neighbor’s purebred beagle had an unexpected litter after a crafty cocker spaniel had gotten into her pen one spring night. The resulting puppies were free to a good home and I was at the perfect age to relentlessly nag my mother about it, old enough to reason and young enough not to care about being annoying. She looked me in the eye and told me that it was a big responsibility —  that it wouldn’t all be fun. I was sincere and solemn as I promised that I would feed, water, walk and train it.

It was love at first sight when I picked out a floppy-eared tan beauty, more cocker than beagle. I named her Tippy and as mom pulled us home in our big yellow wagon I held her knowing she was my dog. She slept in my room, she followed me around, she wore the collar I wanted and played with toys I picked out. I was too young to realize that she was only my dog for the fun stuff. She was mom’s dog for the hard stuff. Mom potty trained her. Mom made sure she had food and water. Mom took her to the vet. And when Tippy woke up one morning and her back legs wouldn’t work, it was Mom that had to say good-bye. I know now that calling me at college to let me know she was gone was one of the hardest things Mom ever had to do.

By the time I was a mom myself, bundling up my daughter to go pick up a puppy, I understood what it meant to deal with the hard stuff. Life had taught me that lesson through nursing an elderly cat with subcutaneous fluid treatments and watching a kitten die of a painful terminal disease. I thought I knew, when we walked off that farm with a new member of our family, what it meant.

I still didn’t understand, not completely.

It is only now that I understand that four-legged love is a special kind of love, burdened from the beginning with impending loss. Most people do not have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive a romantic partner. Parents rarely have to consider the likelihood that they will outlive their children. But in the vast majority of pet relationships life expectancy means that you will watch them go through their entire life in a blink of an eye — from being a baby and learning basic tasks to aging and finally passing away.

After losing Sandy and Patch last year we weren’t sure when we would be ready to bring a new pet into our lives. We didn’t have a concrete timeline, but when my brother called and told me he had rescued a litter of feral kittens in his barn it seemed like a sign to me. I’m not sure my husband was ready for one kitten when I announced we would be adopting two feline brothers. But, ready or not we did it. We named them Thor and Loki and we settled into figuring it out.

Last year I said good-bye to two wonderful pets whose entire lives I had been lucky enough to share. This year, I am watching two more begin their journey as they find their place in our home and build a home in our hearts. A part of me wants to tuck a little chunk of my heart away so that it doesn’t hurt so much when I have to say good-bye. But they won’t let me, the connections are already too strong. I know them now and I can’t imagine what our family would be like without them.

And I guess that’s the power of four-legged love.

Too Much Collaboration

Earlier this year I shared a post called The Case for Collaboration in which I described my early experiences with teamwork and argued that business today is all about being able to work effectively with others. I ended the post with an opinion framed not by facts but by my experience. I wrote:

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

Today, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that both validated my view and suggested a significant cost to my being right, costs to both to me and the organizations that rely on my abilities.

The article, Collaborative Overload (HBR, January 2016) notes several interesting facts from its research:

  • “…over the past two decades, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
  • At most companies, people spend 80% of time on collaborative tasks (meetings, phone, email)
  • “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
  • “…roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don’t amplify the success of their colleagues.”
  • “The lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women.”

As I read the article, I felt better and better about the way that I consistently work to share my information, social network and time and worse and worse about the negative impacts that the article said my collaborative overload was having on me and my teams. The article said that I was setting myself up for burnout and there was a risk I could become an institutional bottleneck and so overtaxed as to become ineffective.

It’s hard to look in a mirror and not like what you see.

So, what to do about it? Given my value system, there’s approximately 0% chance that I will turn into a ‘door closed, don’t ask me, say no to everything’ person. But, thankfully, the authors suggested some concrete ideas for responding that don’t involve me not being me.

First, it suggests shifting from being a personal resource (investing my own time and energy in solving) to being both an informational resource (sharing knowledge and skills) and social resource (providing access and network). Both of those collaborative resources are more efficient and the good news is that I already try to do both of those things. But, it’s a reminder that I need to do it more and to be consciously stingy about where I deploy the scarcest of my resources, my time and energy.

Second, it suggests changing how I respond to requests, by thoughtfully triaging emails and meeting requests. That’s always easier said than done. Strangely, I find that when I am most exhausted I retreat into the comfort of “cleaning my email box”. And, anytime I do try to set up barriers or limits (checking email twice a day, creating quick ways to delegate or ignore) it never lasts for long. The problem is doing those tasks is simple and I’m good at it — and I feel guilty ignoring the constant demands hiding there.

Lastly, the article suggested ways to increase awareness on the need to recognize and reward individuals who manage to deliver results and help others deliver. Those employees, the article and related studies suggest, have the potential to contribute substantially more than their teammates, driving organizational performance at a time when collaboration is critical to success.

But only if they don’t burn themselves out first.

Bad Exists

Tomorrow is the fifteen anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Every person reading this could add any number of other things wrong with the world today that lead them to despair. At moments like this even I have to acknowledge, objectively, that the world is not always a good and kind place. I’m an optimist, but I am no Pollyanna ignorant to the world in which I live.

I am fortunate that I did not lose someone personally in the attacks that day. But, I remember the feeling of incredulity as I huddled around a desktop watching CNN at my office. I remember the frantic phone trees to make sure our employees on travel status in NYC were safe. I remember the announcement that all employees were being sent home and I remember driving a colleague to her house because she had carpooled that morning with her husband. I talked non-stop the whole way, but the funny thing is I don’t remember who it was. Weird.

My strongest memory of the day was getting home and hugging my daughter, not yet a year old. I remember sitting with my husband, holding his hand and discussing what it would mean for her. I was strangely appreciative that she wasn’t old enough to understand it, even as I came to terms with the fact that it would change her life in ways I could not fathom. It was a clear and obvious example of bad in the world that no one could protect her from, not even me.

When you’re a glass three-quarters full kind of person, dealing with the bad stuff isn’t simple. To cope, I’ve learned to expand my framing of the world beyond my own experience, to add perspective of other times and places. In the long arc of human experience there are countless examples of worse evils and greater goods to remind me that I am not special. That my trials and triumphs are only remarkable in that they are remarkably human.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to recognize that not everyone deals with the bad in the world the same way and to ask what more we can do. I don’t have an easy answer, no magic wand to make the bad go away or to help people cope with the bad that is here. I wish I did. I wish anyone did, but I know that people who promise an easy way to deal with bad are delusional. Or worse.

Like many children of the 70’s, I remember watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. As an adult I have been impressed by him and was touched by a quote of his spread by the Internet. He said,

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

So, I don’t reject the idea of bad existing. I smile. I write a blog that focuses on real people making their way through the real world, celebrating the good and downplaying the bad. I believe, deeply in my heart, that living in the world today is a gift even when I am reminded that bad exists. Even on the eve of the shared moment that defined the young adulthood of my generation. I’m no Mr. Rogers, but he articulated so well what I believe. Yes, bad exists but so does good.

I try to remember the amazing good.

Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.

Betting on Cally

Flying from East to West is the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing magic. I never have enough time to do everything I want to do, so when I can jump on a plane at 7:30pm in Chicago and be asleep in my hotel in Phoenix by 10:30pm it’s like I’m Hermione Granger with a time turner. I focus on the magic trick and ignore my body, no matter how exhausted I am from reality. Look at the clock, woman, it’s only 10:30pm.

So, when I checked into my hotel room and noticed the short handwritten note from my housekeeper, I didn’t think too much of it. I went to bed and got up and went to work. Normal day, normal stuff.

But, when I got back to my room after work that day I noticed there was a new note. It was from the same person, but longer. More insistent that if there was anything I needed just to let her know. Her name was Cally and she signed it with a smiley face. There was something so appealing about it that I had to respond, jotting a quick note at the bottom of the page. I posted a picture of the note and my response on my personal social media page — I said that although it was possible that writing notes like that was a management mandate, I didn’t think that was driving Cally. There was something about her sincerity that came through her words and that fun smiley face.

I posted that I was betting on Cally. That it was a “betting on Cally” kind of day.

Throughout the day, I thought about Cally. My brother got a job cleaning hotel rooms one summer and it was such a grueling job he quit after a day. I know it is hard work and I found myself thinking about the character of a woman who would take the time out of that job to hand write a note. I wondered if my brief comment would elicit a response. And then I worried about something I hadn’t considered: what if today was her day off?

I shouldn’t have worried. I came back that night to a new note. She thanked me (two exclaimation points), told me she was happy I was comfortable and to have a super stay. She signed it with her signature smiley face.

The next morning, I left Cally a longer note. I had decided to stay in the hotel one more night instead of moving closer to the airport and I asked, jokingly, if she would make sure they didn’t throw out my stuff. When I got back that night they had deactivated my room key, but I had all the faith in the world in Cally. After getting my key re-activated I opened my door and walked to the bedside table. There it was:

Hi… I want to thank you for writing back to me! I want my guest to feel welcomed and enjoy staying with us when away from home. I wouldn’t let them throw away your belongings. Glad to see you stayed another night. Thanks again!

It wasn’t an easy week, I worked too many hours and had some hard conversations. I hadn’t been clear about how long I would be gone and when we talked my husband was disappointed he wouldn’t see me until after work on Friday. I lost a blog post because of connectivity. Nothing crazy, but there were a few moments when I was struggling with keeping everything in perspective and staying focused on what I could do instead of dwelling on what I couldn’t. And the truth is that those notes, brief and unremarkable perhaps, helped. They made me smile and cheered me on. Cally reminded me I wasn’t alone.

I woke up today at 3:00am to head back to the airport. I was tired and rushing but I took a moment to write one more note to Cally. I thanked her for making it easier for a working mom to be away from her family. I did something I’ve never done — I told her I write a blog and that I would likely reflect on her kindness in a post. I gave her the website. It’s anyone’s guess whether she will look it up and if she does whether she will feel as appreciative reading these words as I am writing them.

But I’m betting on Cally. It’s a “betting on Cally” kind of day.