The Blog

Once upon a time I had everything. From the outside my life looked pretty sweet. Use whatever metric you want, personal or professional. I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone.

So why was I miserable?

Miserable? Who said anything about miserable? It didn’t occur to me I wasn’t happy. I had everything you were supposed to want. If that left me feeling -- what? -- restless or even empty, clearly it was my fault.

On a whim I signed up for a freelance writing class. I got an A- on my first assignment -- a piece about telemarketing -- and lots of constructive criticism. “The lead is, I’m sure, appropriate for the audience,” the instructor wrote in part, “but it still is kind of dull.” He had to leave early the evening he returned our papers, but told us to stay behind and read what the rest of the class had written. The university choir was practicing down the hall and the music felt like the soundtrack to a movie, my movie. Getting published had been a lifelong dream. To finally be going for it was almost too much happiness to process.

From then on, everything revolved around that one evening a week. I sang in the car all the way to and from class.

My so-called perfect life imploded years later, but I found something in the pile of ashes I carry with me to this day -- a better idea of what “perfect” means to me.

Turns out it’s true what they say about happiness. It’s an inside job.

It’s official. The better my guest on the talk show, the better I sound.

You don’t have to look very far to find the career lesson in that one, granted. But thinking about why I love one of our friends so much -- you don’t have to tone down your happiness around her -- reminded me how important my surroundings are. I do better work when my desk isn’t littered with notes and dishes. I sound better on the show when I dress as carefully as I would for a presentation. And I feel better about life when I’m not surrounded by people who are pulling against me.

You can’t excise everyone who makes life interesting for all the wrong reasons. I’ve come to think of them the way someone once suggested, as the bitter ingredients without which a dish wouldn’t be nearly as tasty. Most recipes, though, call for a pinch of this or a dash of that. No one suggests you separate out the bitters and make them the main course.

If you’re not living up to your potential perhaps it’s time for some housecleaning. Moods are like colds. You can catch them. Unless you have some kind of armor I don’t, keep a safe distance from people who bring you down.

You can love them, after all -- as someone else pointed out -- from a distance.

Life unfolds at its own rate.

Ever notice that? It’s why I’m amused by people who talk about surrendering to the unknown -- as if they have a choice. The unknown’s kind of in charge that way.

The other day Darrell and I reminisced about how badly I wanted to go from “intern” to “anchor” at the Minnesota News Network. I came close. Not getting that job hurt a lot. But had I snared it I wouldn’t have met Darrell and there wouldn’t have been a Katie.

Whew.

The experience taught me to grip my dreams more loosely, as my friend Becky Blades might say. It’s eerie, really. The worse something feels the more delight there is around the corner.

Which reminds me I’m not the only one writing my life story.

And, you know, thank heavens.

I have a dream. Nothing too ambitious, mind you -- not this one. But I think it’d be pretty cool to fit everything I care about -- stories, photos, and quite the audio archive of memories -- on a jump drive in my pocket.

Barbara Hemphill makes a living helping people see clutter for what it is, postponed decisions. The last time she joined us on the show I shared my dream with her, and she told me it’s an effort to cope with emotional clutter.

Busted.

Sometimes I wonder how I accomplish anything with all that emotional clutter, a veritable wasteland of inverse success principles. It’s interesting in there, though. Darrell’s amused by my ability to sit for hours -- in the car, for example -- with nothing to entertain myself but my thoughts. I remember working in a restaurant many years ago and hearing the hostess announce a table for someone who was dining alone. After that person’s name she’d said, “Party of one.” And I thought, “That’s me! I’m a party of one.”

The task is to keep it a party -- soothing voices, a festive mood. Not looking up from the latest reverie to see a mountain of paperwork I haven’t dealt with helps.

What helps you cope?

Detroit LakesIf you had to describe me in one word it would probably be something along the lines of excitable -- in a good way? -- as opposed to, say, unflappable. That’s because you haven’t seen me driving through Manhattan during rush hour. Darrell’s too busy freaking out -- which isn’t generally his style -- to notice. Katie’s impressed, though. Of the three of us, I’m the one you want at the wheel -- and I’m not kidding.

Bedlam feels like home. It’s relaxing. It requires focus, which is soothing.

It isn’t boring.

One thing people in our small town notice about me is how rarely I strike up conversations in the grocery store with anyone who’s not already a close friend. One thing Darrell and Katie notice about me when we’re traveling -- especially to big cities -- is how likely I am to have a meaningful exchange with a stranger. That’s because I won’t be asked to update that stranger on the exchange every day for the rest of my life, which would happen if I did it here.

Which isn’t bad, unless you’re me. Then it’s claustrophobic.

Yeah, I know. No one’s forcing us to be here. You know what’s funny? I barely remembered we lived in a small town before Katie went to college, that’s what a sweet and all-consuming distraction she was. After she left I suddenly realized, “Oh, that’s right. I hate this!”

We haven’t sent a change of address form to the post office just yet. It might be a little while. But that’s okay. Knowing it’ll be on the to-do list someday is excitement enough for now.

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photo courtesy of Katie Anderson

When we travel it’s difficult to eat as many fruits and vegetables as I do at home. When we stop for gas I’m not really on the lookout for a bag of broccoli. Call me crazy. I’d rather have a few pumpkin seeds and head back down the road.

So before we leave I bulk up, so to speak, on broccoli and spinach and frozen blueberries. There isn’t room for much in the way of whole wheat pasta, for example, or New England Brown Bread.

Then something unusual happens. My energy -- which rarely flags, not the way I live -- shoots up to borderline disturbing levels. I’m not kidding. How I feel without bread and pasta is as different as how I felt years ago after giving up junk food. I have so much energy I have to cut back on coffee or it would take me hours to fall asleep.

I’m not sure what to make of this yet, but you can bet I’ll be chewing on it for a while!

Ever notice how little criticism you get from happy people? If you haven’t, I invite you to think about that as you move about your day. When people fire shots from the sidelines, consider the possibility they’re bored or angry. That’s their story. It doesn’t have to be yours.

When it comes to letting people be, Darrell’s the master. I’ve learned so much from him. I’ve warned him this move or that one isn’t going to increase the happiness levels of people outside our immediate orbit, and he’s smiled. “You’re probably right,” he says. With a shrug. As if, you know, whatever.

That’s it?

Yep. That’s all it has to be.

You can’t keep everyone happy. It’s impossible. People disagree with each other.

It’s just math.

I’ve practically made a career out of downplaying the 3.0 GPA I graduated with when I got my degree in civil engineering. As if, you know, the professors gifted me with B’s to make sure I got the heck out of there. Perhaps they were rewarding me for keeping things lively by wearing Mr. Bubble T-shirts to class and posing seemingly silly questions.

How Not to Be Wrong author Jordan Ellenberg challenged my version of that GPA on the show recently. Stereotypically but also statistically speaking, he says many more women describe their grades with some variation of what I just described. Men are much more likely to look at a B average as more proof of their intelligence.

Suddenly I remembered the three initials I could put after my name when I graduated besides BSCE: EIT. I was an official Engineer-in-Training. I passed the exam engineering students take as their undergraduate work winds down. The people who graded my exam, I suddenly realized, couldn’t have padded my score because they liked my smile or were amused by what I wore that day. They weren’t in the room with me.

No. I passed. Fair and square. And it’s time to give myself credit for that.

Thanks, Jordan!