Getting the Jump on Time

I woke up this morning cursing daylight savings time. Now, you may be nodding your head in solidarity — who likes losing an hour of sleep? — but I actually love daylight savings time. For a person like me who loves sunshine and hates mornings the annual “spring forward” is a small price to pay for 239 more hours of enjoyable sunlight. So, it was weird when I woke up this morning and struggled to be excited.

Normally, I spend the Sunday morning after the big shift lazily waking up without an alarm. I open my eyes whenever it feels right and look around at the various clocks throughout my house unconcerned with which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I spend the whole day with chronological near misses, constantly asking, “Is this clock right?” but it actually doesn’t matter. I am weekend calm and the answer really isn’t all that big a deal — we have all day to figure it out.

This morning was different. I’m traveling for a women’s leadership development conference and today’s agenda starts at 7:00am. At last night’s event, the organizers were insistent that individuals should not miss our start time so I came back to my room and developed an elaborate scheme. I was going to ensure that I didn’t screw up by changing my phone from automatic sync to manual sync and I would set it forward before I fell asleep, just like in the olden days.

Take that, I thought. I’ve got this handled.

Well, when my alarm went off on my cell phone at 6:00am on the nose, I saw that the hotel’s alarm clock still showed 5:00am. No worries, that was to be expected because everyone knows that alarm clocks need a human being to update them. But, in an over abundance of caution (and because my Spidey sense was tinging) I thought I better confirm the time using one of a million “what time is it” websites. Site after site stated it was 5:00am, not 6:00am and I sat there befuddled, wondering which data was right.

“Is this clock right?” felt strangely urgent.

So, I jumped out of bed and called the hotel front desk where a nice woman confirmed that I had — in my over-engineered attempt to not screw up and miss my meeting — sprung forward two hours. My smart phone had refused to be dumb and regardless of my attempts to make the change proactively still adjusted to daylight savings at 2:00am as per the careful programming. Sheepishly, I hung up the phone and headed to the shower.

We’ve all been there, faced with a failed plan and stuck not knowing how to move on. If I wanted to, I could whip myself into a frenzy and spend the rest of the day disappointed. I could be angry about technology, frustrated with my plan, or embarrassed by my own incompetence. I could be, but I won’t.

Because in the end, instead of rushing down to the breakfast at 7:00am, I was dressed and ready to go at 6:00am. I pulled my iPad out and wrote this blog post. From one perspective I did lose an hour of sleep, but I gained an hour of reflection. And more importantly I gained another remarkable moment that makes my life not just a series of days, but a series of stories.

And I’ll gladly be sheepish (and sleepy) in exchange for that.

Surviving Midwestern Winter

Someday, spring will come. I feel compelled to remind myself of that as I trudge through the final weeks of our midwestern winter, sitting on my heated seats and wrapped in my massive “blarf” — an accessory that is part blanket, part scarf. Winter is my least favorite season and I haven’t warmed to it over time.

No pun intended.

The certainty of a new spring inspires me. No matter how depressing the graying piles of snow and constant overcast skies can be, I know deep in my heart that brighter days are ahead. Last week, I got out of the office at a decent time and actually pulled into my driveway before the sun set. I smiled, pleasantly surprised by the proof of lengthening days.

It seems odd that I’m still surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, by something as banal as beating a sunset home. After all, I have lived most of my life within the Great Lakes basin, watching the same pattern for nearly 46 years. The dark, cold months of winter finally drag everyone but the skiers, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen into a funk and then one day the college kids are wearing shorts with daffodils popping out of the ground.

Poof, spring.

I love the seasons, love the fact that our oblong orbit around the sun can create a pattern of life that takes me into cold darkness only to bring me out again. It’s like the universe is speaking just to me, “Don’t worry, Mel. Yes, we will make your day-to-day living miserable. Going anywhere will be a pain in the butt and you’ll feel constantly cold. All you will want to do is stay inside next to a roaring fire in your footie pjs under a fuzzy afghan wishing you had been born in Tampa instead of Toledo. But we promise that it will get better. One day, you’ll walk outside and the air won’t hurt your face.”

And sure enough one day I walk into my garage without my coat. Later, I get into my convertible for my commute. Then one weekend we put the boat in the water and the snow is just a fuzzy memory that Facebook will remind me of in the years to come.

I guess I could move somewhere where the seasons are less dramatic. If I really wanted to I could move to a place where the coldest days bring rain and an inch of snow is considered an oddity. A friend from high school moved to New Orleans. Several friends now live in North Carolina. Someone else just took a three-year gig in Fiji. No one is forcing me to stay here, a mere 300-miles northwest of where I was born. But, what would I look forward to? What would I do without a winter to survive?

Winter to me is a metaphor for every low, dark moment of my life. Every time that it feels too dark, too cold, and too exhausting I remember that spring will come. I find a quiet place and think about the way I feel when the grass starts to green up and I can sit out on the deck without a coat. I envision laying in the sun on the back of the boat, eyes closed against the bright until the heat is too much and I move into the slice of shade created by the bimini. I imagine the wind in my hair and tunes loud in my ears as I drive with the top down, mile after glorious mile.

And somehow, no matter how much snow is piling up in my life I know that spring will come.

So, I guess I’ll stay. Midwestern winters may be long and cold and brutal, but the summers are fabulous. I’m not sure I would appreciate just how fabulous if I didn’t have to survive one to get to the other. Philosophers and psychologists can explain it better, but for me it’s simple. Every year I put my blarf away I have another data point that proves without a doubt that I’ll make it.

But please, for the love of all that is good, let spring come soon.

What Experience Teaches Us

When I was 22 years old I went to buy my first car. Actually, I was buying my fiancée’s car. Actually it wasn’t a car, it was a stripped down Ford Ranger pick-up, silver with a blue pinstripe. We were both so young, kids really. But, months away from getting married we knew it had to be done so we walked into the dealership and did the best we could.

We thought we had negotiated pretty well, navigating good figures for both trade-in and rebates. We felt good about the overall deal until we found ourselves sitting across the desk from the “finance guy”. Then, looking at the paperwork thrust in front of our wide-eyed faces, I saw a number that didn’t make sense. I pointed to the figure and stated confidently that something wasn’t right — that wasn’t what we had agreed.

I still remember the feeling when he laughed.

He calmly and patronizingly told me that I didn’t understand. No, the discount or rebate (I don’t remember which) was there, I just couldn’t see it. It’s a common error that most first time buyers make, he said assuring us that it was there. It was garden variety razzle-dazzle ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ that I would never fall for now, but that was more than 20 years ago. Then, I was just a young woman figuring out my role in my forever relationship, uncertain in how much was too much. My stomach twisted but I accepted the slick words and let the moment go. My fiancée signed the papers.

Having lived through that experience, I can empathize with people who find themselves on the wrong side of a scammer. I’m a smart capable person, I have good judgement and confidence in asserting what I believe to be true. And yet, I can think back to that moment where none of that mattered. Someone with more experience and less gumption took advantage of us to make a sale and likely put a few more dollars in his pocket. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

Many years later when I was in management at an automotive company I was attending a women’s leadership event and we were talking about the dealership experience. All of the people talking — myself included — had long since moved beyond buying cars as “normal people.” By that time I was eligible for two management lease cars a year, cars that I custom ordered online and picked up in a special employee garage. My car payments were deducted automatically from my paycheck, insurance was included, and maintenance was as simple as showing up 30 minutes early to work and handing over my keys. But, I remembered that young woman and that feeling; I raised my hand and asked whether we could really understand the dealer experience when we no longer purchased cars from dealers.

Every experience that I have gives me another opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes. The early married years when we drank Kool-Aid and ate Kraft Mac & Cheese, when a “luxurious” week would be Hamburger Helper and the cheapest pound of ground beef we could find. The time I held my infant son in my arms when the anesthesiologist put him under and he went limp in my arms and I panicked a little, even knowing what was going to happen. The confusion when a group of men in Australia asked me if I owned a gun, the joy each time the nurses placed my new born babies in my arms.

There are so many experiences I will never have, experiences that are missing for me because of the fickleness of my birth. Those limitations make it harder for me to appreciate the unique opportunities and challenges others have faced, my ignorance makes it harder for me to empathize with them. So, I keep my ears open to their stories, whether it is across the lunch table or through a podcast. I try to imagine what it would feel like to believe that my father rejected my kidney because I was gay or to lose my husband to an avalanche and feel responsible.

What if that was me?

Throughout the government shutdown, I have wondered how each person’s lived experience has informed their perception of situation. Have you lived paycheck to paycheck or have you always had access to savings and credit? Have you struggled with child care or do you have a strong support network? Have you been furloughed or laid off or have you had secure income? Have you ever been declared an “essential” employee and had to work regardless of pay?

For my part, I know that I saw the whole thing play out through my filter. One year, as part of a cost savings effort in my public sector job, we all had to take 10 furlough days — unpaid time off. With reasonable financial security at that time, I was able to mostly enjoy the extra time off with my family but I knew others who couldn’t absorb it as easily. Even with decent notice and the ability to space the days out, some people were acutely impacted. And that was about half as long as the federal employees experienced — all at once, unplanned, after the biggest shopping holiday of the year.

I am thankful for each of my experiences, both the good and the bad, because they connect me to my humanity. Talking with others I am reminded that I am not alone, that my experiences may be mine, but they are not only mine. I laugh sometimes when I realize how common my experiences are, like just yesterday when I saw an Old El Paso commercial about two taco shells making sexy talk in front of their teenage daughter. We do that and our daughter responds exactly the same way.

Exactly.

This is the part of each post where I usually bring it all together with some quiptastic turn of phase. I don’t have that tonight. All I know is that I am truly grateful today — and every day — for the variety of experiences that I have been able to have, for the friends that have let me into their lives, and for the strangers that share their experiences through their stories.

Tell me another one.

Not A Resolution

Once a year people all around the world take a collective look in the mirror, assess their faults and failings, and make resolutions. It’s not a modern concept — the ancient Babylonians celebrated the new year more than 4,000 years ago making pledges to their king and gods for the year to come. There is something powerful in not just identifying the things you want to change, but in making a visible and public commitment to do so. I hereby assert that I will be a better person. Eat better. Exercise more. Appreciate life.

Write more blog posts.

Personally, I have a pretty shoddy track record for making and keeping resolutions. One year, taking a hard look at my couch potato lifestyle and my family’s history of heart disease, I committed to exercising four days a week. I went out and got a gym membership and dutifully pushed myself beyond the emotional and physical struggle for two weeks. But, as soon as my work schedule, family needs, or an illness upset the delicate balance my commitment was over.

I’ve always felt a little lame about acknowleding how crappy I am at delvering on a resolution, but last year I got a little humor boost from the folks at Allstate insurance. I have long enjoyed the “Mayhem” commercials, but none have made me laugh more than the ones where Mayhem is trying to turn over a new leaf. Standing on the roof (“I’m a lightning rod”), laying in the road (“I’m a road flare”), and hanging from the garage ceiling (“I’m a fuzzy tennis ball”) his New Year’s Resolution was to keep us safe instead of creating his namesake carnage. I found the irony hilarious and I waited for the other shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long.

Watching the college football playoff, I sat bemused as Mayhem explained that while being safe was boring, “if you can stick to your New Year’s Resolution that I can stick to mine…” Then, in a quick moment the camera did a close up. “What? You couldn’t even last two weeks? Consider Mayhem back.”

And that’s how it is for most of us. It’s appealing to buy into the annual promise of brute force transformation, but real change doesn’t happen that way. Our behaviors and habits are formed by years and years of experiences and are unlikely to be easily shifted just because the calendar says January. Mayhem can’t instantly go from creating chaos to supporting stability; I won’t go from the sturdy coach potato to a triathlete. It’s just not that simple.

For that reason, I’ve learned to be cautious about setting resolutions. I dislike making promises — even to myself — that I can’t keep. So, this year I’m not focusing on changing the person I am. This year, I’m going to love the person I am and think instead about what I bring to the world. I will:

  • Live my “too much” authenticity and push past the fear of rejection and ridicule when it seeks to dim me
  • Invest in my relationships and be the best [fill in role] that I can be, providing the support needed
  • Explore my deeply held beliefs and assumptions remaining true to my values while being open to new learning and growth
  • Forgive myself and those around me for their humanity and acknowledge and embrace the opportunities given to make amends

Maybe it is a copout to walk away from my failed efforts to make big and tangible changes. I should exercise more. I should give up diet pop. I should write more blog posts. But, if I can look back 365 days from now and reflect on a year that allowed me to grow as a person, perhaps it will be enough.

I can exercise next year.

The Fight for Intentionality

When I worked on a university campus I was surrounded by the opportunity to engage with new people and new ideas. Every semester my calendar would bulge with the possibility of classes, speakers, and books filled with new perspectives to be considered. I didn’t take advantage of even 10% of what was possible, but somehow I managed to attend a presentation by Dr. Scott Stanley on the topic of sliding versus deciding.

If you type “sliding versus deciding” into a search engine, you’ll find a few things. You’ll learn that the term itself (Sliding vs. Deciding®) is a registered trademark. You’ll discover a blog focused on love, sex, and commitment and more links than you could explore on a Sunday afternoon. And, hopefully you’ll get the same gist I did from my time with Dr. Stanley more than ten years ago: relationships in our current generation are defined by sliding into the next level of relationship commitment (dating > cohabitation > marriage > children) as compared to the intentional deciding of past generations.

At the time, I found the idea intriguing simply as a way to assess my own relationship with my husband. Already married more than 10 years, I looked inward. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment at each of the stages when our relationship had deepened to the next level? Yes. Could I articulate that intentionality to myself or to him? Yes. Was I certain that I hadn’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logical step, the next thing expected as part of our social contract of relationship growth? Yes. Satisfied that I was on as solid footing as I could be, I tucked the idea away and waited for it to be useful again.

Like now.

Lately, I have had this gnawing feeling like my life is less intentional than I would like. More times than not I find myself sitting in a moment and wondering how I got there. Did I mean to focus on this task? How did I spend an hour working in this space? Why is my phone in my hand again? Looking at it through the lens of sliding versus deciding, it feels far more slide-like than decide-like. Had I made a thoughtful and intentional commitment? No. Can I articulate the intentionality to myself or those near me? No. Am I certain that I haven’t simply let the current of life take me to the next logistical step? No.

Crap.

Now don’t get me wrong, not every step in life needs to be planned out. I’ve devoted many posts to my own exploration of the unplanned and unplannable experiences that create a full and meaningful life. But, in my mind that is different than being able to articulate the critical why of your own story. There is something powerful in deciding that what you are doing, why you are doing it, and who you are doing it with is your first best option and not just something that you stumbled into. It is true whether you are sitting at a business meeting, the dinner table, or chatting with someone via text — intentionality makes a huge difference in the value you can bring to the moment.

This weekend I knocked on my son’s bedroom door, rousing him from the weekend hibernation common to boys his age. A day earlier we had talked about going to a “you pick” farm and the weather hadn’t cooperated yet, but I let him know that there was a break in the thunderstorms. If he got up right now we should be able to get there and back before the skies opened up. He dragged himself out of bed and made it downstairs cleaned and brushed in record time and together we headed out. We spent three hours driving with the top down and tromping through muddy fields picking produce together, chatting about the handful of topics that are acceptable to both middle-aged women and teenage boys (and a few that aren’t.) Tied to intentionality, we were both living our first best option — in that brief shining moment I knew I was a better option than video games.

I’ll remember that moment for a long time.

And, the hard thing is this: Once you’ve lived a decide moment — or blessedly, a lot of decide moments — you feel wholly unsatisfied with a slide moments. You can see and sense the lack of engagement and commitment, both from yourself and others. You can sense and feel disquieted by the feeling that you’d rather be somewhere else, that something else would be a better use of your time. Even if you don’t have the feeling yourself, you can see the signs: you check your phone, flip over to email, create to-do lists, doodle, put yourself on mute.

When I find myself in those moments, it’s a signal that I need to create a change. I pull out my vision statement, my personal and professional goals and have a hard conversation with myself. How often is it happening? It is a temporary thing or a trend? What would it take to get back to intentionality? What can I do to put myself back in the driver’s seat of my life, to create more deciding and less sliding? Is there anyone who needs to help me? It’s rarely an easy inner dialogue, even if the adjustments are fairly simple. But, there’s one thing that I decided a long time ago that hasn’t changed: the life I live needs to be my first best choice.

Remembering from You

Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.

“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.

“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”

I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.

My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.

At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.

But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.

Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.

Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.

I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.

Until it’s gone.

I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.

I do now.

What Brings You Passion?

Before Christmas I found myself in a church auditorium enjoying a performance by the Agape Ringers, an elite handbell choir in the Chicagoland area. I didn’t grow up knowing a handbell from a doorbell, but I was lucky enough to get introduced to ringing by a good friend who attends handbell summer camp every year. She invited me to the concert one year and little by little I pulled the whole family into it. Now, it’s something we all look forward to each year.

Anyway as I was sitting waiting for the concert to start, I thumbed through the program and read the bios of the musicians. Reading through the snippets (family life, work life and tenure with the group) I was reminded just how much collected passion the performers had for thier craft. No matter who was important to them or what they did for employment, I’m willing to bet that ringing handbells brought them significant joy. In my opinion, it’s hard to be really good at something without a lifelong investment, and having seen the group before, and watching the adoration on my friend’s face, I knew they were really good.

I got to thinking about that — the idea of what brings people passion — as I was driving home. Culturally, we have a tremendous bias toward work and the idea that fulfilling work is the central tenant to a fulfilling life. We spend a lot of time at work, after all, so it feels good to believe that people are fulfilled by that activity. But, I know that isn’t true. For most people work is simply a necessary evil, something that needs to done to put food on the table and roof over their heads. And yet, like most people, I still persist in walking up to people at events and asking, “What do you do?” as if the question will bring a twinkle to their eye. I really should know better, because it’s one of the reasons my husband hates parties. He’s always trying to figure out how to answer that question, either apologetically or covertly, because saying that he is a stay-at-home dad carries such baggage.

Ask my husband about what he does and you’ll get a lukewarm answer, but if you ask him about what he’s passionate about, you will get an earful. Talk to him about the time he brought a 1971 pinball machine back to life or when we got stuck sailing on Lake Erie in a storm. Ask him about his family or the odds of the Red Wings making the NHL playoffs. Those are the things that matter.

I find that it’s the same with most people.

A good friend of mine from high school is a drummer, so in love with the art of drumming that he built a sound proof room in his basement. I know that when I want to see that fire in his eyes I should ask about his most recent drum kit or gig — not about the very successful, well-paying job he has had for over 20 years. Whenever I see a YouTube video of someone drumming like a mad fool I think of him and smile.

My brother has spent most of his adult life writing a musical about the origins of the video game industry. He was able to share the idea with one of his idols, Ralph Baer, and it made him happier than just about any other time I have seen him. I’m not sure I want to know how many hours he’s dedicated to taking it from a rough idea through the fine tuning necessary to make him proud. It’s amazing and even so I’m not sure he will ever think it is good enough. Artists can be pretty hard on their creations.

A guy my husband knows is really into pinball. When he and his wife decided to renovate their house, they dug out their basement to double the square footage and expand his collection. He even had a specialized elevator built to make it easy to get machines up and down. I used to think my husband was too into pinball — and then I went out to his friend’s house, looked around and rode the elevator. On the drive home I acknowledged that I was wrong, his pinball hobby was normal.

I’m a workaholic and I’ve spent most of my life a little in love with my jobs. Like any dysfunctional relationship, when things have gone poorly it’s hurt a lot because I’ve wrapped so much of my own happiness up in doing well. It’s like having a huge stock portfolio in only one stock — I haven’t been very diversified. Heck, if I didn’t have my family, and now this blog, I’d be at risk of putting all of my life eggs in my work basket. Happily.

So, I sometimes forget that the vast majority of individuals don’t get that kind of passion from their work — until I see a handbell concert.

A friend of mine from college just announced that she is leaving her job. She’s one of the most professionally successful people that I know and I am confident that people will look at her decision skeptically. They will wonder what the heck she is thinking. But, if they had truly listened to her, they wouldn’t have to wonder. They would know that after doing what she had to do, doing what was needed, she is giving herself the freedom to pursue her passion. Her passion isn’t in a paycheck or a fancy title, it’s somewhere else and she’s heading in that direction. And knowing her commitment and focus, I’m willing to bet she gets there.

Whether it be hobby, habit or happening, here’s hoping that you have a little bit of energy left over from doing what you have to do for whatever brings you passion. And remember, when you meet a stranger at a New Year’s Eve party don’t ask they what they do. Ask them what brings them joy.