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.

Enough Is Enough

Today is a perfect summer day, not too hot with a pleasant breeze. Underneath the gazebo I can peek out and see a bright blue sky bordered by a lush canopy of green and a few fluffy clouds. Cicadas and birds are the only living things I can hear, except for my own breathing and tapping on the iPad screen. In my head, I am going through the list of projects that need to be done: the trim that needs to be painted, the siding that has seen better days, and the gazebo that is starting to rust. My brain moves inside and starts to go through outdated cabinets, ratty furniture and walls that we never painted after moving in. The list gets longer and longer.

And then in my head I sell it all and move us into a three-bedroom bungalow.

Lately, I’ve noticed that my thoughts are swinging erratically between two extremes. On one hand, I look at my home or my wardrobe or my possessions and I think, “You should have more / nicer things. You work hard, you deserve it.” And on the other hand, I look around and think, “You have more than any reasonable person should expect or can use. You don’t need anymore.”

I find it exhausting and maybe a little healthy.

Our society is flooded with consumerism. Everywhere you look are examples of beautiful things that promise a beautiful life. It feels like more and more we are tying the value of our lives to the value of our things. Maybe it has always been this way, but I am feeling it acutely now in my middle years. I have example after example coming to mind.  The friend who is building a new home and sharing her journey on Facebook, with every gleaming picture a comparison to my dated 1990’s medium oak. The cottages lined up along the lakefront, their boats on lifts or at docks as we go through the process of trailering our speedboat in and out each time. The new gazebo our neighbors built with custom screening, a ceiling fan and twinkly lights, when our deck has a hodgepodge of furniture including plastic tables with peeling spray-paint.

And each time my inner toddler pops out, “I want. I want. I want!”

And each time my middle-aged self reminds my inner toddler that we don’t always get what we want. That I should feel joy for the friend who is finally putting down roots in a home that is all her own. That I should feel appreciation for having a boat at all, and that we could hardly find the time or energy to keep up a second home. That we don’t spend enough time on our deck to invest in something better. That sometimes, enough is enough.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling is that it is hard to acknowledge that life is finite. There are only so many experiences you can pack into any hour, day, week, month or year. There are choices we make about how we spend our time and how we spend our money. A moment spent here, on my deck typing this reflection, is a moment I’m not spending driving my convertible or boating with my husband. Sleeping an extra hour this morning meant I didn’t get up and take a ride on my bike, one of my favorite purchases two years ago.

That’s why when I’m overwhelmed I make the mental leap into letting it all go. Living in a tiny house or studio apartment would mean I wouldn’t have to choose. I wouldn’t be able to add more and more, there would be less to keep up. It would mean that I wouldn’t feel conflicted, the space would prevent that from happening. Someday I hope to let go of these trappings and live a big part of my life on a sailboat. It’s the ‘tiny house’ that fits me best, where I can stow everything critical in cabinets that lock, shelves with rails and hanging nets. I can take pride in finding a way to pack everything we could possibly need for our adventures into a ridiculously compact space.

And, thankfully, iPads are really small.

J.U.L.Y. (Just Unlimited Love, Y’all)

I love the month of July more than any other month of the year. I love it more than the month of my birth and more than the big holiday months. I love it for the fabulous Great Lakes summer weather and boating under crisp blue skies. I love it for the rewards of vacation and relaxing without guilt. I love it for the simple joys of longer days and time with my family and driving around with the top down on my convertible. But the reason I love it more than any other month is simple.

No sports on tv.

Now, I hear what you’re saying. What about baseball and tennis and soccer and golf? Yes, all of those sports are actively on the tv during July. They just aren’t on my tv. To understand what I’m saying, you have to go back in time. Take a journey with me to my early years.

Growing up my house was — at best — ambivalent to sports. We didn’t watch them on tv and we didn’t throw balls around in the backyard. I ran track, but that was it. Occasionally my dad would flip past a Tiger’s game or college football, but he was equally content to listen on the radio or check a box score the next day. I only remember two times when we went to a venue to watch a sports event in person; sports never caused plans to be broken or got in the way of any other activity.

When I met my husband, it was a shock to my system. The first fall that we were dating, I was surprised that it was against protocol to do anything but watch college football on Saturday. We might miss “no meaning” games, but not his team. For his team, we watched and I learned to hope they would win. In later years when his team played against my team I started a tradition of having something to do for three hours and checking the score before I returned. I learned there were similar restrictions on NFL weekends and certainly for bowl games.

I adjusted, mentally noting that 20 weeks a year were out of bounds.

Then, at some point in our early married years I started to notice that NHL hockey was on tv more and more. An occasional game stretched to whenever something better wasn’t on (and if you ask him, there is never anything better on than hockey). Eventually it got to every regular season game of his team, 80 games or 3-4 per week from September to April. The playoffs stretch into June. Together, football and hockey occupy my life from August through June.

Which leaves us with July.

Sure there are other sports, but they don’t matter. I’ve never been asked why someone chose to get married on a day when a major golf tournament is scheduled. I’ve never had to take an alternative date to a concert because it was the Wimbleton finals. I’ve never been asked to check the score of one baseball game while watching another one in person. Only football and hockey require careful navigation.

But there’s no navigating in July.

There are only a couple more days in July. I’ve seen mentions of preseason football and the rookies are hanging out in hockey camps trying to get slots. Summer isn’t quite over, but my summer is almost done. It’s time to turn off my cooking shows, download the 2016-17 schedules and get ready for the daily check of scores. My month of relief is coming to an end.

And that will make it all the sweeter next year.

Beautiful Moments

Earlier this month, I listened to a podcast on Radiolab that blew my mind. Called Memory and Forgetting, it highlighted a woman whose photographic memory allowed her to see every single day of her life in crystal clarity, just like watching a DVD. I imagined being able to go back to my own days that mattered and see them clearly, not wrapped in a fuzzy emotional fog. To be able to drill down and point and say, “That was the moment that I loved. That was when I was hurt. That was when I got better.” I envisioned putting my best memories in the fridge under cellophane so I could pull them out for seconds whenever the urge struck.

Unfortunately, my memory is more like a trash compactor, stuff goes in and an unrecognizable blob comes out.

I was reminded this weekend how shoddy my memory is. I was back with my friends from middle school and it was a weekend of “Really? I don’t remember that.” In fact, for years I have believed that this group of friends came together in seventh grade, and I learned instead that it was eighth grade. If I can’t get big things like that right, little details like whose house we slept over at that time or whose car we were driving that road trip don’t have a chance.

But after spending 20 hours talking non-stop to a group of women I haven’t seen in 25 years, I suddenly realized it didn’t matter that I couldn’t remember the events clearly. As we reminsced about our past, talked about our present and dreamed about our future, we started up where we left off, just like we were kids again. And, as we brought up old wounds that needed to be bandaged and shared old stories that had inconsistent details I realized precision and accuracy wouldn’t help.

In fact, it might have hurt.

I came to the conclusion that longevity of relationships is less about memories and more about moments. It’s not about the  watching the crystal clarity of a DVD, but remembering how those moments made you feel, how those people made you feel. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t remember it was eighth grade, not seventh. Or that none of us could remember how many slumber parties we had shared or who was at which one. It only mattered that we had shared some of our hardest growing years with each other — that we had a shared experience. And, sure there had been real moments of pain, times when we had let each other down, hurt each other or been less than we wanted to be. But with 25 years between us and those moments, it was easy to leave those memories behind. After all, why let them infect the here and now? Each of those memories was fleeting and built on the fragile egos and misunderstandings of teenagers.

It was the moments that mattered.

In the end, I wasn’t jealous of the woman with the amazing memory. I wouldn’t want to lose the ability to move beyond the unintended slights or the micro-aggressions. There are everyday failures that need to be left behind with shoddy memories so that relationships can thrive, so that we can focus on the long narrative and not the paragraph. You need to know in your heart that even though you had a reason to be angry or hurt or let down that you can say, years later, “It doesn’t matter now.”

Because life’s too short to say no to a beautiful moment.

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.

Find a Happy Place

There’s a scene in Finding Nemo that I harkened back to this week. Nemo and the fish in the aquarium in P. Sherman’s office are anxiously waiting for Darla to arrive, knowing that when she does it is game over for Nemo. When Darla comes she rushes to the tank and begins tapping on the glass, trying to get the attention of the starfish clinging there. Peach, the starfish, loses her grip a tentacle at a time repeating over and over, “Find a happy place, find a happy place.”

Whenever I am holding on by the barest of threads I think of Peach.

Most of the time I’m focused on mental grounding. I take a deep breath and consider the many things in my life that make me happy: my family, my friendships and my contributions. I recall a handful of my best memories, the ones that I have watched so many times that research would say they aren’t even real anymore, just a revisionist glimpse of history. Sitting in the middle of the crazy I find a way to reboot my brain to thankfulness.

But sometimes, a couple of times a year, I actually go to a happy place. One of the places that are unique in their quiet and lack of expectations. A place where showering is optional, where I can sit without interruption for minutes or hours or a day. Where waking up in the morning is based on the rising of the sun or the lapping of water on the side of the boat, not on an alarm.

I love those places. And as I sit in one of them now, sipping a beverage and reflecting, I find myself wondering if being middle-aged has helped me find it. Is a happy place an idea reserved for people of a certain age? Or, was I just slow to grasp it?

I don’t recall feeling the need for this as a child. In fact I remember that sitting still in one place (especially a familiar place) with no expectations or plans was boring. Really, really boring. That point of view is validated by my own children who have perfected the refrain, “We’re doing that again?” Complete with the nasally whine any parent would recognize.

As a young adult, I sought adventure. I wanted to see the world and understand my place in it. I couldn’t catalog new experiences fast enough, throwing myself into whatever activities I could. Pack up the car, jump on a plane, take any work travel assignment. When I couldn’t study abroad in my MBA program, or when I saw someone else do something cool that I couldn’t do, I felt regret and envy. Like I was missing out on something, some wonderful experience that I would never get to have.

I can’t know yet how I will feel later in life, as I look back on more and look forward to less. I see people who are resigned to aging and sit quietly waiting for the end, unable to enjoy the happiness a life well-lived has earned them. I see people frantic to squeeze in one more adventure, whether or not their physical bodies are able. I see people who isolate themselves and people who surround themselves. I see fewer people in their happy place than one would expect, given all of us are desperately trying to get there.

And maybe that is why I enjoy the quiet of my happy place. Maybe it is because I am aware, in this moment, of the gift I have. I can just sit here on a porch swing in the early morning sun, listening to the sprinkler water my mother-in-laws beautiful garden. I can hear a power saw and a hammer in the distance, two separate projects underway that are not mine. I can watch as a squirrel, cheeky fellow, pops right up on the fence and looks at me, demanding that I interrupt my writing and take his picture.

So, I did.

I’m glad that I’ve found my happy places — this swing, the back of my sailboat and my deck. I appreciate them for what they are: an oasis of rejuvenation and recharge in a world of crazy expectations and an always on life. It took me years to understand the need and to name them; it took me even longer to claim their value.

Now that I have, I hope that I don’t forget.