October 29, Again

Gathering_at_Pliners_MomI was reminded the other day of a scene from the movie Field of Dreams, when the main character, Ray, looks over to home plate at his dad who was in the prime of his youth. Ray says to his wife, Annie, “I only saw him years later when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He’s got his whole life in front of him, and I’m not even a glint in his eye. What do I say to him?”

One of my brothers recently shared some old photos that were taken before I was born, and one included my parents. My dad looked just as I remembered him. He always wore his hair in a crew cut and he wore glasses. Other than that, his face never changed. Unless he smiled. What a fantastic smile he had.

But the photo of my mother didn’t look anything at all like I remember her. She was thirty-two years old when I was born, the last of her eight children. In the photo she is young, not quite thirty, with no lines in the corners of her eyes. She has on a necklace and lipstick. And a Mona Lisa smile. She died at the age of 46, on October 29, 1975.

So young when she died, and yet, I only knew her when she was worn down by life. I was only twelve when she became sick and at that age I was just beginning to comprehend that there was a world outside of my own being. I’ll admit I was a sheltered, spoiled brat. I took my mother for granted, but what twelve-year-old doesn’t? Had I known then what I know now…

It’s been thirty-nine years since she died. My memories have faded quite a bit but when I gather an image in my mind of my mom, she is middle-aged. She has salt and pepper hair and a “belly”. She has crow’s feet at her eyes. And she is distracted, not by her eight children but by all of the flower gardens in the back yard. She loved her flowers! And if I ever wanted to find her, that’s where she would be.

Tonight, on the eve of the anniversary of her death, looking at that photo, I can’t help but wonder, if I had a chance to talk with her, what would I say to her? We’d need a lifetime to get caught up.

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Wake up, emergency card!

Raising my four daughters was a lesson in keeping track of “things”. When my youngest was a baby, it was easy to know which socks were hers when mixed in with her older sisters’. But as they grew older and became similar in size, I had trouble keeping track of what socks and underwear went with each daughter. I ended up writing their initials on their underwear tags and on the tops of the toes of their socks. (If you wrote it on the bottom of the feet, the writing would rub off.) They were so embarrassed but accepting of this because there was no way they would be caught dead in a sister’s socks or underwear! When each one turned ten years old, I gave her a choice. “You can get your ears pierced, but you must now do your own laundry. Or you don’t get your ears pierced.” The strategy worked wonders for me and over time I had to worry only about the exponential loads of dirty bathroom towels.

My daughters were healthy kids, but every once in a while an ear infection would show up or some other “regular, normal childhood” illness that needed to be treated with prescribed medicine. As DNA would have it, they each developed different allergies. My oldest daughter is allergic to penicillin but all of her sisters can handle it just fine. My youngest daughter is allergic to sulfa meds and three other regularly prescribed antibiotics, but she can take penicillin. My third daughter cannot take Benadryl, even for allergic reactions. How ironic is that? To this day I don’t think my second daughter is allergic to anything.

If I couldn’t keep their socks and underwear straight, I knew there was no way I could keep track of the medicine allergies. So I wrote them all down on paper and put them in my wallet with my medical insurance cards. As time passed, on more than one occasion I found myself in a doctor’s office or urgent care center needing to call out a daughter’s specific medicine allergy.

Yesterday morning, my husband had emergency surgery to repair a torn retina in one of his eyes. It wasn’t at our usual clinic, so none of his medical records were accessible. As the nurse was preparing the paperwork, she asked my husband if he had any allergies. He is allergic to only one thing and we both know what that is. Easy to remember only one thing! Then the nurse asked, “What medicines are you on?” Uh oh. My husband and I looked at each other. He takes three medicines daily. We know what the medicines are for, but we haven’t a clue of their names without looking at the bottle and we surely don’t know the dosage. We stumbled through the answer enough to satisfy the nurse’s concerns, and proceeded on. He’s fine. His eye is fine. Life is good.

This morning, I pulled out that list I still carry in my purse with my daughters’ known allergies. I figure I created that list about twenty years ago. It’s dog-eared and has a few notes scribbled on it, but it’s still meeting its purpose. But I had to laugh. Two of my daughters are married and a third is currently living thousands of miles away going to graduate school in another country. Clearly I am no longer the person who would take them to a doctor if they were to become sick. And while my youngest daughter still lives at home, she’s twenty-one and “in charge” of her medical records. I thought about throwing away that well-worn list, but instead I put it back in my purse. (One never knows!) But this time I also added a list of my husband’s medicines and the dosages for each. Having that nurse ask her question was a wake-up call. Just because my kids are grown and on their own, that doesn’t mean the need for an emergency card has gone away.

List Maker

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There are eighteen things on my to-do list for today, and that doesn’t count the things I’ll do without thinking or adding them to the list (including this writing). I made the list last night right before I gave up on yesterday and fell asleep. I have another list of things I want to do before snow comes, which could be any day. That list has been in existence for about a month now, to be used as “filler” if I have a free minute. Last time I checked my calendar, I should have one or two minutes available around January second. That’s a Friday, not a holiday, so I guess I’d better request that day off of work. I’ll add that to my list of things to do next week.

About a week ago a friend sent an email to several of us asking if we could all get together for coffee soon. I didn’t know what he meant by “soon” and I figured no one else in our group knew either when there were no replies to the email twenty-four hours later. So I replied. “I can do October 25 early in the morning, otherwise I can’t until November 15.” My friend wrote back, “I guess tomorrow’s out?” The good news is we’re all getting together on the 25th.

I learned a long time ago that I need to write things down or I’ll forget. And lately there’s been so much stress that I’ve forgotten to write things down, which is why I wrote my list of things to do today while laying in bed last night and fighting to keep my eyes opened. I found my list on the floor beside my bed this morning. I still haven’t located my pencil. I’d better write that down, to look for it, so I don’t get stabbed when I crawl into bed tonight.

Another thing I learned a long time ago is that sometimes I need to “ground” myself to the present moment. Despite all the craziness around me and all the tasks I need to get done, I know I will be a lot better off if I stop and listen to my inner spirit for a few minutes. Call it a check in of sorts, to make sure I still am aware of the world around me outside of my hectic life and to-do lists.

And so it was that I started out this week early on Sunday morning, standing at the top of a hill with my camera, ready to snap a photo of a lovely boulevard of fall colors. The colors are gorgeous this year and I was forcing myself to stop and pay attention. I “stole” fifteen minutes from my schedule and drove to an area close to our home that is a bluff above a river. The trees had not yet changed in the river valley below, but the maples sure had great color up on the bluff. As I prepared the shot, up the hill came a man on roller blades, moving so rapidly that I blinked and he was out of the shot. I snapped the picture. He sailed around back to me to make a joke about my having taken his picture. Turns out he wanted his picture taken. He handed me his phone and he insisted on at least a dozen “takes” before he was happy with one. “I’m not good at action shots!” I kept telling him but he didn’t care. He knew what he wanted and he was going to take as much time as necessary to get it. But what about my time? What about my list of things I needed, wanted, to get done that day? I hadn’t allowed for the half hour photo shoot and conversation in my schedule.

So here I am at the end of the week, still trying to tackle some things that have carried over on my list all week long. And I can’t help but think about that man flying up that hill on his roller blades. He told me his name was Peter and he was a retired doctor. He said his daughter who lives in California is always nagging him about whether he’s getting enough exercise or eating right. She doesn’t believe that at 70 years old he is still out and about and staying active so he wanted an action shot to prove he still has his moves. Maybe if I’d taken a photography class I would be better at action shots. I’ll have to add that to my long-term list of things to do.

In our brief conversation, I learned Peter coaches a high school cross-country ski team. He runs or roller blades every day. He also writes and has a part-time job at a clinic. Retirement is the best thing that happened to him, he said, and he wants to make the most of every minute. He talked all about himself and presumed I was a nature lover because I was out taking photos of fall colors. He also assumed I didn’t have a lot of things to do if I was standing in the middle of a street taking pictures of leaves and old men.

It goes without saying that Peter ran circles around me that morning. I can’t imagine the energy he extended and the calories he burned recreating the perfect shot so many times before I finally snapped it. Sorry, it’s on his phone and I don’t have that one to share. But the moment has stayed with me all week long. If I could be so blessed to be roller blading uphill! At 70!

I don’t know how to roller blade. Better add that to my long-term list of things to do.

Unknown Known

It was a long week and I was grateful to be in my car heading home. Every day this week I’ve put a smile on my face as I’ve stepped into the office and showed an upbeat attitude, when all along I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. It was a supreme effort just to get out of bed each day, let alone get into the office and get work done. Getting into my car at the end of each day was like finding a safe room in a storm.

A few weeks ago when my boss quit his job, my first thoughts were, “Don’t panic, be patient.” I trusted the company’s leaders would follow best practices and make wise decisions. But it was strangely quiet in the executive hallway as the days passed. My co-workers began to ask questions about the future and whether we needed to be worried. “There are so many unknowns,” one woman said. Nothing like the word unknown to put my fears front and center.

Growing up, I had never considered that there could be so much emphasis placed on the things we know or don’t know. I mean, really, either you know or you don’t. There isn’t any in between. But that all changed for me during the months after 9-11, when elected leaders and national experts started talking about unknowns.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. 

Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

Those were confusing and uncertain days for Americans. We felt as if the very foundation of our lives had been shattered and we were standing on a bed of pebbles atop quicksand. Mr. Rumsfeld was trying to make people feel better by saying there are things we know and things we don’t know but be patient and we’ll figure it all out. For many of us in that moment, his words just made things worse.

I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that Mr. Rumsfeld came to mind tonight as I was driving home. I was thinking of my new boss “Matt.” He’s worked at our company longer than I have been there, so he’s always been a “known” to me. And yet, he’s not someone I’ve worked with on a daily basis and our interactions have been limited. And for that reason, there are a lot of things about Matt that I don’t know. And now that Matt has decided to earn his pay and get involved in setting our department to rights, there is all kinds of speculation about who he will hire and whether he’ll transfer some people to other departments. The uncertainty just fuels more gossip and tension. There is so much we don’t know. As Mr. Rumsfeld would say, there are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Change is hard! It causes headaches and disrupts long-held processes and patterns. And it will stay that way until enough time has passed without change that we all fall into new habits and we feel comfortable. So, in other words, be patient and it will all work out. I wonder if I’ll live that long.

Powerless in the Moment

I said good-bye to my boss today. He’s leaving. I’m staying.

I had no idea he was looking for another job. He says he wasn’t; that a recruiter called him out of the blue and asked if he’d consider leaving his current job. The timing was perfect because parts of our company are currently undergoing a re-org and my boss’s job is changing. He doesn’t like how it’s changing, so he talked to the recruiter and he negotiated with the recruiter, and got a really sweet deal. On one hand, I’m truly very happy for my boss. How many of us can say we got a call out of the blue and got a sweet deal that really isn’t too good to be true? But on the other hand, I’m really very sad.

I started my first “real” job when I was fifteen, selling ski apparel and accessories for a family-owned sports retailer. Before that, I had volunteered as a candy striper at a hospital. And before that, I babysat for neighbors and for my older siblings who had toddlers. I’ve been in the professional working world for more than thirty-five years, and it took this long before I finally had an opportunity to work with a decent manager.

“Joe” understands the need for work–life balance. He doesn’t feel the need to micromanage and forcing you to follow every step and rule that he does in getting a job done. Instead he can sit back and watch you make each job your own, letting you find the workflows and processes that fit your style. He doesn’t care about the means to the end. He only cares about the quality and the timeliness of a job well done. He believes in capitalizing on a person’s strengths, not trying to improve a person’s weaknesses. Not many managers can do that. And because I had to wait so long in my life before I worked for a “good” manager, I am sad because I don’t think I’ll get another.

With Joe’s departure I will now report to “Matt.” My new boss has a very dry sense of humor and he often makes sarcastic comments that leave you wondering if he is joking or if he is serious. He professes to have a “very hands off” management style, but at the same time he has extremely high standards, to the point of having unrealistic expectations. Matt once told one of my co-workers to cancel a vacation because Matt wanted a project finished earlier than scheduled. He does not have a balance with his work–life. He is not a good communicator, instead answering your questions with non-answers or with other questions.

Most of my co-workers have very little respect for Matt. Everyone held Joe in high regard, and now there is a serious void in our leadership. Joe quietly said, “Shame on the executives for letting me take on all that authority.” He’s right. He was allowed to wear too many hats because others were too lazy or unskilled or unmotivated. I was a rising star under Joe’s leadership. Now I feel as though I’ve just taken a chair on the deck of the Titanic.

Every expert will tell you change is difficult. It is the unknown, and with that comes fear and uncertainty. The trick is in learning to adapt and to find new opportunities within the new realm. An old adage comes to mind: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And another: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am sad to see Joe leave. I am sad to find myself at a new starting point again, with little to show for all of my effort. I am afraid for my future, working for a poor communicator who is not respected and who doesn’t believe that home life is as important as work. And I am angry that I am once again powerless in the moment.