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 photos, 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 pets.

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.

Talk Less, Smile More

When rap was first popular I didn’t really get into it. I was more of a sappy love song/top 100 kind of gal mixed with a bit of heavy metal from my pool hall nights and some folk from my girl power days. Looking back the rural white suburban kid I was just wasn’t ready to understand the power of rap lyrics — they were too far from my experience. Over the years I have spent a lot of time wondering if I could like (even love) rap under the right circumstances.

The answer is yes, absolutely yes. I don’t like to jump on any bandwagon but I just can’t help it with Hamilton, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It turns out that historical rap is my gateway drug.

If I hadn’t elected to be an English major I could have easily picked history. I love learning about the long arc of human experience and knowing that nothing is truly new. History is big, but at the base it is made up of people, people living their lives alone and in groups. So, even though I couldn’t pull off better than a B+ in any college-level history class (too many facts to memorize), I registered for one a year any way. I left the facts in the textbooks, what I brought with me were the big questions and answers.

Like why Aaron Burr would demand a duel from Alexander Hamilton, two members of the same political party who had known, respected and worked with each other for years?

Miranda does such a great job setting forth that big question that I’ve had four lines on a loop in my head since I started listening to the soundtrack.

Talk less, smile more

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for

You wanna get ahead?

Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.

The stanza, coming in the early part of the musical, sets the stage for how two men with such similar politics could become lifelong rivals. Hamilton lived out loud, speaking and writing at length about his politics and opinions worrying little about the ramifications. Burr lived in privacy, choosing to keep his life and politics close and using his winning personality to gain influence.

As I’ve been singing those words over and over again, it struck me that I’m neither a Hamilton nor a Burr. Hamilton would certainly feel like I worry too much about how I express something and what the impact on those around me will be. Burr would certainly feel like I share too much and give too much ammunition to my enemies.  I’ve got a little bit of both Hamilton and Burr in me; I’m a Talk More / Smile More woman.

At various points in my life, I’ve worried about that. I’ve been counseled to be a bit more like Burr — closing myself off and protecting myself from those who would harm me. But, I don’t really know how to live that way. Instead, I decided to lean in and write a blog that is unapologetically like Hamilton, who wrote voraciously and likely would have enjoyed the idea of direct communication of ideas with anyone who would listen. But, Hamilton also notoriously wrote an open letter to the editor about his marital infidelity, giving his wife no warning and letting her face the brunt of the impact alone. I couldn’t do that. My story is my own, other people get shared only with their permission.

Talk more, smile more might not be a catchy slogan for a musical or a political campaign, but I like it.

Perhaps Miranda’s characters are not as archetypal as the story would suggest. None of us really are. But the historical truth is that they met each other on a field with pistols drawn because of some fundamental difference of opinion or character. They believed that the differences couldn’t be resolved without violence. I see a lot of that now, people believing that we can’t resolve differences of opinion or character without violence. It makes me sad. I cry every time I listen to the song as Hamilton dies, “The World Was Wide Enough.” We don’t need to create the false choices — us or them, you or me. Hamilton and Burr were on the same side and still they found a way to be on the opposite sides of a field at dawn. Our country lost two great minds, one to death and one to villainy. What a waste.

So, let’s talk more and smile more; instead of a duel, let’s have a picnic.

One Good Woman

I have a secret to tell you and I’m a bit embarrassed to bring it up. You may know me as a card-carrying feminist and a high-powered professional, but I’m something else…

I’m a romantic.

Tomorrow I will be celebrating my 21st wedding anniversary and after all that time I’m still sappy about it. I know that there are some couples who end up settling into warm friendship and some couples who end up souring, but that’s not me. I’m still googlie-eyed and star-struck. I’ve got it so bad that my daughter felt it necessary to give me some advice on our recent vacation.

“Limit the PDA, Mom. Nobody wants to see that.”

My husband, on the other hand, is the strong silent type. Outside of the occasional Hallmark card or drug store box of chocolates, he’s an action guy. He shows his love by keeping the lawn mowed, checking my tire pressure and texting me at the office when I’ve been working too hard, “You coming home soon?” And I’m ok with it, because his actions are really great.

But then one day my whole world view on the matter imploded. We were driving and I was singing a Journey song — loud and off-key —  feeling like it was our song and our moment. It made me think about the fact that every sappy song makes me think of us and that I didn’t have any idea what songs made him think of us. Of me. So I asked him the question even though I didn’t really expect an answer. Imagine my surprise when he said, completely sincerely, “Yeah, I’ve always thought of Peter Cetera’s One Good Woman. You know the one I’m talking about, right?”

Gulp, I had no idea.

As soon as we got home I ran to the computer and pulled up YouTube. I listened, transfixed and in awe, to every word. I realized in that moment that while I had 100’s of songs to remind me of our relationship, he picked one song. One song that reflected on the power of one good woman in a relationship. One good woman. Me.

It was a perfect song.

It took me many years to ask the question and I wish I had asked it sooner. I can listen to the song over and over and every stanza resonates with me. On days when I feel like anything but a good woman I put on my headphones and it reminds me that I am. It reminds me that my husband, who has listened to 1,000’s of songs over his 40+ years on this planet, picked one song and made it mine. He believes that I am one good woman.

And that is all the romance I could ever want.



The Case for Collaboration

This week, I was reminded of a conversation that I had when I was working at the university. I was having lunch with the director of a center on campus, a nationally recognized researcher whose intellect and character I respected immensely. We were talking about how our courses of study — hers toward a PhD, mine toward an MBA — had prepared us differently for the task of collaboration.

She told me that as she advanced in academics she was expected to isolate herself more and more. Focusing on narrow research questions and specializing in unique areas, she became an island of one. Occasionally, it had been incredibly competitive to see who could get to the best answer quickest — only one person could win.

I shared with her that in my academic preparation, nearly every activity required group engagement. In fact, I was assigned to a 40-person cohort and a six-person team for my entire first year. I took every class with the same people and I completed nearly every assignment with them.

At the time, I can tell you it wasn’t easy and I didn’t like it much. My team was composed of a diverse group of people. We had two women and four men, four Americans and two international students, two people with technical degrees, three business degrees and a liberal arts major. But, the most challenging issue was that we had significantly different goals for being in the program in the first place.

I was laser-focused on proving that I could be a business leader — I was going to soak in and learn everything I could. I knew I needed to get a 4.0 to start my career without having to apologize for either my liberal arts degree or my two years working as an administrative assistant. I was pivoting and I knew what was at stake; I was more driven during those two years than I had been in any time before or even since.

My team was not.

I struggled, honestly, to build shared goals. I was so new to collaboration that I didn’t always go about it the right way. I talked too much and asked too few questions. I didn’t always embrace people where they were because I was so focused on where I was going. I asserted my own point so strongly that I broke relationships. I definitely overcompensated.

When I started grad school most people assumed I would be a weak link. There is a general perception that anyone capable of analytical thinking goes into either the STEM or business fields as an undergraduate. Only individuals without capability would select the liberal arts, right? That was where I started, writing papers and creating PowerPoint slides. Until I aced statistics.

By the time we started second semester and our core finance courses I had become the team go-to. Free rider syndrome got worse and I reacted poorly. I was so young that I just tried to do more and more, filling in every gap that got created because I honestly didn’t feel that I could afford to let any grade slip. Finally, when I was tapped out and couldn’t figure out how to manufacture any more time in the day I got desperate. I decided to show up late for a team meeting to see what they would do without me.

When I got there fifteen minutes late, I asked how they had decided to approach the case we had been assigned. There was a bit of looking around and then someone said, “Well, we’ve been talking and none of us has a good idea of how to tackle this one. So, we think it makes sense for you to do it on your own and we’ll handle the next one. You can sit that one out.”

Just typing it now it sounds fake, like I’m making that up. I remember being stunned. I remember making a spontaneous decision not to argue about it, not to try to convince them that they should contribute. Of all the things that I had considered might happen, that was not it. I’m not proud to admit it, but all I did was say, “Ok.”

I was just so tired that I retreated.

It was a hard case, probably one of the hardest I did during my time in grad school. There weren’t easy answers, the analysis was complicated and there was significant judgement involved. I struggled, but I was determined. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder or felt I had something to prove, but at the bottom of it all was my knowledge that I needed to do well so I could get a good internship, get a good job and blaze my trail. In the end, I turned in my best answer on time, with everyone’s name on it. I never told the professor that it was my individual work — it was a team assignment and the fact that we made a team decision to single source it didn’t matter.

We got the best grade in the class. All of us.

I tell that story a lot, especially to individuals early in their career. I tell it because I learned so much from it. I learned about the importance of building shared goals early on. I learned that collaboration isn’t easy and you have to invest in it as much or more than building skills. I learned that sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I would get it wrong. And, most importantly, I learned that when I got it wrong I would have to be willing to deal with the consequences to get results I wanted. I learned the consequences might not be fair.

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.

It’s a good thing I learned what not to do when I was young.

When In-Laws Become Family

When I got married, I don’t remember thinking all that much about the family I was marrying into. True, we had spent time together during our two year courtship, but much of that time I had been living out of state. True, I had been in my husband’s sister’s wedding, but I was one of many bridesmaids. I did not yet have the deep knowledge of who they were as people, or of how it would work to become part of their family. And I’ll confess that I really did believe the old adage of “I’m marrying him, I’m not marrying his family.” I was 22 and still attached to some of the romantic ideals of young love.

I was so young.

Even now it’s hard to believe that I was so naive about the matter. Family is incredibly important to both of us and believing that we could have been happily married absent deep engagement with our families is crazy. Thankfully, over time I learned that we embrace family the same way. We both like to spend time with our parents and siblings, whether special occasions or just hanging out. We like to share our passions, hobbies and homes with them. And, we both believe in putting the needs of our family at the top of the list. I know that if someone calls and needs my help I don’t have to ask permission — I can act immediately and inform him later. He could, too.

I’m not sure when I stopped thinking of my in-laws as my husband’s family, but as our family. It didn’t happen at once but over time as we lived through the shared weddings, births and events that build a family in the first place. My first married Christmas our goddaughter was two days old. And over the years, converging around the pool at my in-laws, we watched as babies grew to toddlers, toddlers grew to children, children grew to teens. My goddaughter turned 20 last December, and it was our family — not his family — that watched her grow to adulthood.

As a woman there is no in-law relationship as fraught with worry as the one with your husband’s mother. And for me, my mother-in-law represented everything I felt most insecure about. The first time I walked into her home I thought I had been transported into a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Every room was tastefully and completely decorated, with thoughtful and elegant details. And everything was clean and organized without a spot of the clutter that was normal for me.

I was terribly intimated.

My mother-in-law has a talent and a passion for making things beautiful that is enviable, but she has never once made me feel bad about it. Of course, that didn’t save me from feeling incompetent by comparison. I remember the time that all of my worries about not being good enough came crashing down. We had returned from an international work assignment and bought a house out of foreclosure. Everything in the house was white or beige and rather than decorate immediately we bought self-stick blinds for the massive windows in our great room. Two years later we had still done nothing. And then one day I came home to my husband installing curtains.

Something inside me broke. It didn’t matter how great it looked, my husband had to get help from his mother to make our house a home. The new window treatments were infinitely better than what we had before, they had been purchased on sale for a great price and they met my style and color choices to a tee. It was perfect, except for the fact that I couldn’t have done it. And my husband knew I couldn’t do it. And my husband’s mother knew I couldn’t do it. 

I felt inadequate and I barely held it together enough to find a quiet space to process my emotions.

Strangely enough, it was that experience that helped me jettison the last feelings I had of ‘yours versus mine’ in my heart. I remember talking with my mother-in-law about it, telling her how badly I felt that she had to fill in for me and how envious I was of her talent. She seemed genuinely surprised. “You have great taste, Mel. You just don’t have any time.” I realized then and there that she knew me and that she didn’t judge me. Years later when we moved into our current house she visited and together we redecorated the dining room. We shopped and planned together and then she executed it flawlessly when I was at work. It’s one of my favorite rooms in the house.

This weekend I was hanging out with her and it struck me that is has been many years since I have thought of her as anything but my mother. I call her mom and I talk with the same level of openness and love that I share with my own mother. We were talking about life — love, kids, happiness — and she gave me the biggest compliment any mother-in-law can give her daughter-in-law. “I don’t think anyone could be better suited to each other than you two.”

And that’s family, no matter how you build it.