Stuff That Matters

Like most kids growing up along the coast of Lake Erie, I spent a lot of time at Cedar Point. Before I could drive there were family outings and school trips; after I carpooled with packs of friends or on double dates. I remember the excitement of being tall enough to ride the coasters and the disappointment of being too tall to follow my brothers into kiddie land. But my strongest memory was my inability to win a life-sized stuffed animal.

Believe me, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Cedar Point has a huge section of carnival games and I had a talent for weaseling money out of my father. Getting him to hand over bills for the promise of glory was easy, but winning a game designed to favor the house was hard. A couple of years I ended up with a charity prize, but most years I ended up with nothing.

Until one summer during college when I went with my mother.

Brimming with the positivity of a sunny day and great company I smooth-talked mom to the front of the park. We walked along the booths and after carefully assessing the options I decided on the game: shoot an oversized, lightweight ball at three plastic cups stacked in a pyramid, knock all three cups out of the red circle and you win. Sure, I’d lost a boatload of money playing that same game over the years. Sure, it was a sucker’s game with a $2 buy-in and no prize for second place. I didn’t care, I looked up at the huge prizes hanging there and decided — like every sucker since the dawn of time — that this time was going to be different. I paid my money and fired.

And watched, stunned, as all the cups fell.

Over the years I have enjoyed my fair share of accomplishment and every single one has come after more effort, time and sacrifice. But the crazy thing is that none of them has brought me the palpable excitement that I felt when a young man handed me an oversized Buster Bunny for knocking over a bunch of plastic cups. Carrying that huge stuffed animal around — a bright blue three-foot tall sign that I had done something so few others had done — was thrilling. I didn’t even mind leaving earlier than usual when we realized we couldn’t ride anything with Buster in tow.

I felt a little of that last weekend when I discovered Buster buried under the junk of four generations.

Stuff is complicated. Our society whipsaws us with inconsistent messages. Everywhere we look there are signals that we need to buy more, upgrade more and have more. We measure our success by the size of our homes, the make of our car and the brand of our clothes. But, keep your eyes open long enough and you’ll also see evidence that we should abandon our stuff. Buy a tiny house, donate your old books, and purge your junk drawer.

My stuff is complicated. From my vantage point at my writing desk I can see the pottery my kids made in art class and a child’s rocking chair that my grandmother bought for us kids but managed to sit in as an octogenarian. There’s the box of my grandfather’s marine pins, the custom coaster I made for one of our pinball tournaments and a chalk drawing a friend made of my daughter as a toddler. It’s all so random and yet each and every thing I can see has a story, each item a square in the patchwork of my life.

Over the years these bits and pieces of me have moved from drawer to box, from one room to another. Each time I move them I wonder if I am doing the right thing. Is now the time to let go? I ask myself is this flotsam and jetsam good stuff or bad stuff? Is it sentimentality or scrap? Am I caring or crazy? Will it matter some day when I’m gone and my kids and grandkids try to make sense of it?

Damn if I know.

All I know is that I’m writing this blog on an iPad Pro within inches of a 1949 Royal typewriter. It is one of two my grandmother used in bygone years and I rescued it from the barn the same day I found Buster. We put it in the back of the truck and drove home, more useless stuff that we didn’t need. After cleaning it up and buying a new ribbon I sat down in front of it and my heart swelled thinking of my grandmother. My fingers took on a life of their own, words appearing in ink through the physical force of my love. When it was done I looked down at the bright yellow paper and, eyes blurring with unshed tears, I made a decision.

I’m going to keep it; I’m going to keep all of it.

My Tank Is Empty

After a relaxing and enjoyable weekend I came into a challenging Monday. I left several meetings with disappointments or backslides, some small and some serious. On Tuesday I found myself texting as my car dropped me at the airport and giving quick updates via phone after I cleared security. I’ve been in “fight or flight” mode for what feels like months due to the sheer amount of stuff that needs to get done and the higher-than-normal number of obstacles that keep popping up.  In a moment of transparency I texted a colleague, “Help me stay positive. I’m feeling a bit beaten down.” Her response was classic:

“That is scary. You’re the most positive person I know.”

Minutes later I shared that anecdote with my husband and we just sat there with a moment of silence between us on the phone. And then instead of lecturing me about taking on too much (we both know that is true) or reminding me that I don’t have the world on my shoulders (we both agree that I don’t) he simply told me that I’m a rock star and that he wishes he could do more to help. And then we talked about the time when I leave industry and throw out my shingle as a motivational life coach — you know, some day when the kids are grown and on their own. I smiled knowing even without seeing him that he was smiling back and that we would be ok.

It’s a pattern we’ve repeated many times over the years.

But, I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been this easy. There was a time when I was younger and our relationship was still finding its way when we weren’t as understanding of each other. I remember moments where my admissions of being overwhelmed by my work turned into anxious questions like, “Are you going to get fired?” or “If it’s so hard why do you keep doing it?” There was a period of time when I tried to keep my stress to myself because it just wasn’t worth the further stress of having a conversation. It felt easier to pretend to be the Mel who was always happy, always under control, always ok. 

But it didn’t feel good

It won’t come as a surprise to readers of Too Much Mel that I’m a sharer. I share victories and defeats, I share ups and downs, and there is no one that I share more with than my husband. If you’ve been on the receiving side of a conversation with me, you know it can be exhausting. So, now imagine that you live with me. Imagine the chatter while getting ready in the morning, while packing up my laptop bag, while watching a movie, while driving to the store, while shopping and while sitting at dinner. Imagine the nearly never-ending podcast references, work anecdotes, self-reflection and story-telling. And now imagine me not sharing at the times when I just didn’t feel like I had enough *oomph* to persevere. Not sharing when my Mel tank was empty and what I desperately needed was a fill up.

Not only did it feel bad, it was bad.

I don’t remember when it changed. There wasn’t some eureka moment where all of a sudden I came to understand that it was inherent in his nature to try to protect me from any and all harm or when he came to understand that it was inherent in my nature to push harder and do more. I read an article recently about marriage longevity and it said that the key is to understand and appreciate the other person’s crazy — because we are all crazy. It’s crazy how much he worries. It’s crazy how hard I work and how much I take on myself. We’re crazy, but we’re crazy together. So, now we can acknowledge quickly when my Mel tank is empty and we know exactly how this particular chapter of our story is going to end: I’ll be exhausted and laying on the bottom of a pit and he’ll pick up the pieces. And thankfully at this point he won’t even tell me I told you so.

Even though we both know he could.

Stop Asking How I Do It

It happened again last week. There I was in a normal business conversation talking about how we were doing to take a project to the next level when my colleague looked at me with both admiration and dismay.  She paused, as if wondering how best to proceed and then let the words slide out, “I don’t know how you do it.” I burbled a response and tried to get out of the conversation quickly. Because as I’ve heard versions of that comment over the last couple of years I have one request:

Not to sound ungrateful, but please, stop.

Each time I hear those words I feel a series of strong and generally negative reactions, including:

  • Guilt. Thinking of all of the things that have been sacrificed to do what I have done
  • Humility. Knowing that I have only done what was required and what I am capable of doing
  • Worry. For the work that remains undone and at risk of failure

The woman who said this to me never intended to make me feel bad. Neither did my brother when he asked the same question a couple months ago or my sister when I connected with her online on Friday. Each and every time the words come up they are in the context of thoughtful inquiry; coming from individuals who respect me expressing sincere appreciation. Strangely, I think that makes it even harder for me to respond the right way.

Because the truth is I don’t know how I do it. And worse yet I don’t know if I should.

More and more I am coming to the conclusion that it really isn’t a choice. As long as I can remember I’ve been wired to have a unique combination of never-ending energy, compulsion to achieve and ridiculous positivity. So much so that a colleague once described me as ‘a six pack of Jolt.’ I’ve used the description recently, but now I tend to talk in terms of Red Bull — it makes more sense to Millennials.

But the problem is that those characteristics are not something I’ve worked on or cultivated; it’s not like I read a self-help book to learn techniques or gain capabilities. In fact, I don’t even make a conscious decision to act on or embrace the tendencies. My husband calls me “a machine” and does his best to pull my plug or get me to shut down for periods of time worried that I will run myself right into the ground. But, to quote someone richer and more famous than me, “Baby I was born this way.” I can no more explain how it works than a bird could explain its ability to fly.

I don’t know how I do it, I just do.

Worse yet, every reminder about what has been done instantly brings to mind what hasn’t been done. With only 24 hours in a day, a choice to deliver for someone leaves someone else wanting. My family, my health, my hobbies they have all fallen behind at points in time. I haven’t cooked a decent meal for my family in a month. It’s been three weeks since I managed to prioritize the time and quiet mental energy to complete a new blog post. Three weeks during which other things got top billing in my life; three weeks of aborted attempts and distracted thoughts. No one can actually do it all and being reminded of it just brings that into stark reality. There they are like suspects in a lineup: Mr. Undone, Mr. Poorly Done, and Mr. Not Yet Done.

I don’t do it all, not even close.

Regardless, maybe it isn’t fair to make my discomfort the world’s issue. Next time I will take a deep breath, say thank-you and remind whoever asks that whatever I did, I didn’t do it alone. I have a talented team at work, a network filled with friends ready to step up and a family that is there no matter the cost. And if that isn’t gift enough, I have a true partner on my journey who lifts me up every day, running beside me to pick up what he can and to catch me when I fall. Recently I had an issue at work that required me to go in late at night — he drove me. The next morning I was exhausted from too little sleep and I forgot my laptop — he brought it to me. No critique, no condescending comments, just support in the moment so I could do what needed to be done.

And maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the words, “I don’t know how you do it.” I don’t do it, not really.

We do it.

(Special thanks to Idealist Mom — I snagged her graphic. And, if you want more on this topic, check out her great blog on the same topic with a mom twist here.)

Show up and Play

Years ago I was talking to a good friend of mine over lunch. A professional musician, he was telling me about being asked to sit in with the local symphony orchestra at a summer performance. I was immediately intrigued and started asking questions. How long have you been practicing? What is the music like? Are you doing a technical rehearsal? He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “I’m getting there a bit before the show and we might go through some of the pieces once.” Some? Once? I was stunned and my face telegraphed it.

“Mel,” he said, “It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

When I graduated with my MBA in my mid-20’s I came out brainwashed. I thought I was capable of doing just about any job and my early experiences reinforced my thoughts. I would go into the assignment knowing exactly nothing about what needed to be done and come out understanding the critical tasks and risks. Years passed and the data points added up, each one confirming my simplistic view that I could make any job work.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Yes, I still believe in the power of the learning generalist. I would still pick leadership skills over deep technical knowledge every time. But while I’ve been dodging from one business and function to another other people have made their craft a lifetime journey. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I started sitting across from those folks in meetings. I started listening closely to their clear articulation, started hearing the obvious depth of knowledge within their words. Over time my thinking shifted from, “Hell, I could do that!” to “Holy crap, how do they do that?” I am not sure when it happened, I only know it happened.

In fact, yesterday I listened to an executive peer present to a large group. She spoke simply and easily about a technically complex topic. She talked in a way that made it clear that the task she had taken on was hard and the pitfalls serious, but that the success was predictable. Ten years ago I would have listened with a hint of envy, envisioning how I might have tackled that challenge and what it would be like to stand there having been successful. Five years ago I might have said, “That could be me.” But in that moment I felt only two things: a certainty that I would not have been prepared to take it on and an appreciation that someone I deeply respected was.

Maybe my younger self didn’t realize it, but my today self knows that there is something affirming in recognizing that not every job is possible, that even as a smart and capable person you would struggle to be successful in some situations. Does it mean that I have given up on the big dreams? Does it mean that I am giving into limitations, that I am becoming practical and risk averse? No, it doesn’t. It means that although I am capable of many things in some situations other people are more capable than me. I don’t find that upsetting; I find it awesome.

If I stood on the same stage and talked about a topic that was framed seamlessly in my own experience, I suppose others might feel the same way that I did listening to my colleague. As crazy as it sounds, some people might listen stunned thinking, “Wow, she really knows her stuff. I could never do what she does.” And maybe, if I find myself answering mundane questions about my work across the lunch table I will be confused by their stunned expressions. Thankfully, I already know what to say.

“It’s no big deal, I just show up and play.”

I’m Done with That

I’m not very good at Twitter. I’m a relationship builder and it feels like Twitter is more transitory — I might invest in reading 140 characters from your heart or I might not. It depends on my mood and whether you made me laugh last time. Follow. Unfollow. Like. Retweet. I’m not capable of bounding relationships that way.

I don’t have many followers.

When by some weird circumstance someone does choose to follow me I am immediately intrigued. How did they find me? What encouraged them to click the button? What are they looking for from me? I respond to any follow request with a quick personal message asking them their why…why did you follow me? No one ever replies which just reinforces the absurdity of my being on Twitter — it is not about building relationships it’s about building followers.

And yet this week a couple of my new followers led me to a great little article on Forbes that highlighted things that smart women are ‘done with’ for 2017. I like the idea of being ‘done with’ something. Although it starts a bit negative it ends with a strong accountability message: you can make choices to let things go in spite of evidence to the contrary. Like the older woman in the article who was ‘done with’ 7-inch platform shoes that are ‘more comfortable than they look’ we can all choose to be done with things that have outlived their usefulness.

So, in honor of 2017, here are three things that I am done with:

Not Being Good Enough

Every single person I know has moments when they feel like they aren’t good enough. Seriously, even people that I know who are at the top of their game, who live lives of grace and dignity and get up every day to do their best still sit in judgement of themselves and how they are not good enough. I do it to myself every time that I have to pull myself up, dust myself off and try something again. So, I’m done with feeling like I’m not good enough. I won’t give up the need for self-reflection and self-improvement, but I will try to allow myself to be imperfectly human and have that be good enough.

Escalating Negativity

There were points last year when I struggled to maintain my positivity, when I felt that the anger I saw would grow so hot it would burn people to char. I’ve learned that it is easy to reject something or someone that you disagree with, easy to turn their own words against them and focus on the fear. I felt myself getting that way, not just in big moments but with my own family. No, I may not agree with every opinion or action that people have or take, but more than opinions and actions I believe in people living authentic lives of purpose. So, I’m done with escalating the negative, there are enough people who do that. I’m going to try to escalate the possibility.

Weekend Thinking

I started to slip into a horrible habit last year, falling regularly into a countdown to the weekend. Five more days, four more days, three more days, two more days, one more day… like the gasping breaths of a swimmer desperately pulling their head above water in between flailing frantic dips below the waves. It’s a pattern I’ve seen followed by people for months, years and the length of a career. They watch the sand slip through the hourglass, never finding a way to enjoy the bulk of their days because they are filled with work. I’m going to remind myself that I have chosen my work from many things that I am capable of doing. I’m done with thinking that the only hours worth living are the hours from 5:00pm Friday through 5:00am Monday.

I’m sure there’s more to be done with but I’m only 43. As I get older I hope that I learn more about how to jettison what doesn’t bring happiness and fulfillment to my life. I’ll need to have something to save for later.

Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be done with Twitter.

The Magic of Music

I really enjoy the Barenaked Ladies. I have a soft spot for cerebral songwriters whose songs have thoughtful and complicated lyrics. I like to tease out the meaning, understand the story and wonder what the artist was thinking during the song writing process. It plays to my love of words and language.

Even cooler, as BNL has aged I find that their lyrics continue to resonate with me. On every new album I can find at least one song that makes me smile and think, “Man, how did they get into my head?” On their last album, it was “Odds Are” an upbeat jam that pokes a bit of fun at the fear of low-probability, high-impact events. On their most recent album “Get Back up” is all about getting older and living through the speed bumps of life — we may not win, but that’s not the point. The album is called Silverball and the title song is an homage to pinball, the hobby my husband loves.

To me, the variety of music is a lot like literature. There isn’t a bad genre, even if there are some genres I like better than others. I may not lean toward rap, but I can appreciate it’s historical context and enjoy the elements of the best examples. Country music is not a favorite, but my toe taps just like the next person when a perfect line dancing song comes on the radio. I rarely listen to opera, but the strength of a soprano aria is bewitching. Whenever a new artist comes out, I try to be open to the possibility, even though at this age I find myself going more and more back to the artists that fit me best: smooth upbeat rockers who tell a story.

The truth is, all musicians are amazing to me. Music can instantly change my mood. Once I was in a deplorable mood, sniping at my husband and kids. My husband said, “Why don’t you take a drive?” Whatever, I thought resentfully, like that will do any good. But I listened and stomped out of the house seething. I jumped into my little red convertible and started driving. About 10 minutes in, Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ came on the radio. As I started singing out loud and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, the pent up tension flowed away and I found myself in a new place. The underlying issues hadn’t changed one iota, but my ability to deal with them was 100% improved.

And, that’s not music my friends, that’s magic.

At various points of time in my life I have bemoaned my lack of music ability. During a summer as a camp counselor at Interlochen Arts Camp, I was surrounded by talented young people. Each of them had more talent and musical ability then than I would ever have and some of them were in elementary school. One of those young people later went on to found and lead an ensemble music company and win a prestigious national fellowship. Ahhh, the talent. Talent that you can demonstrate to adoring fans and family at a reunion. Talent that has the potential to take one cranky person and give them back their humanity.

So, I respect musicians and the talented people who create music and lyrics out of nothing but imagination. I appreciate it and I envy it. Most importantly, I pay for it because I recognize that every craftsman should be paid for his labor.

A dollar feels like so little to pay for a moment of magic.

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.