The Blog

Do you eschew rituals?
December 8, 2015

The first week of my sophomore year in college depressed me. I knew by then I hated engineering, and I had at least three years left. I didn’t know what to do. The thought of quitting turned my stomach. I don’t quit things. But I couldn’t imagine surviving in a major that, as it turned out, I had so little interest in or aptitude for. Now what?

I thought back to the spring semester, and a talk a favorite professor gave about exactly this. I trusted him, and listened intently to his advice. “It’s about now,” he said, “when a lot of you will want to quit.” No kidding. Engineering students, as a friend put it, were dropping like flies. There was no shame in quitting, I knew at some level, and I was allowed to change my mind. “Before you do,” the professor suggested, “make sure you’re running to something and not away from it.”

Bingo. I pressed on. I dropped a class or two, and went on the five-year plan for college. I concentrated on two things the next four years. Getting my degree, and having fun with my boyfriend.

But in the second semester of my fifth year I failed one of my classes. I was flying all over the country on job interviews. What can I say? I failed. I signed up for summer school, started my job with AT&T, and finished the class -- and took the final -- in Minneapolis.

The big casualty was graduation. I couldn’t attend the May ceremony, obviously -- and I didn’t go to the trouble of attending the next one I was eligible for. It seemed silly.

It wasn’t silly. To this day I still have the occasional nightmare I didn’t graduate. For a while, in the beginning, those nightmares were constant. I couldn’t convince my brain it didn’t have to worry about college anymore.

Is that why we’re so devoted to rituals in our family? They matter.

Mark those moments. You won’t be sorry.

“Well, it’s Monday. Maureen’s here.”

That was a friend in one of my engineering classes, saying out loud what I’m sure my professors were thinking. How can you miss so many lectures and still graduate?

I didn’t, actually. I had to postpone graduation, and I’ll tell you about that soon.

I interviewed for so many jobs -- and got so many offers -- I made a chart with the pros and cons of each. I attribute the bounty to a few things. One, times were apparently good. Two, women with engineering degrees weren’t as common as they are now. And three, I interview well.

Looking at the chart I realized right away I’d be choosing much more than a job. I was choosing a lifestyle, shades of how -- whether you admit it or not -- the person you marry is going to have a huge influence on your standard of living.

Did I really want to spend forty or fifty or sixty hours a week in a Procter & Gamble toothpaste plant in Iowa? Doing field work for Conoco in Texas? Managing telephone company technicians in Minnesota?

I chose the last one, because AT&T had promised a series of assignments. I’d be in Minneapolis for a year or so, and if I did a good job I’d get promoted to a different management assignment -- likely in another department, almost certainly in another big city.

I knew before I filled out the chart that’s the offer I’d accept. The chart was a formality, a nod to the systematic way I’d been taught to approach problems. But the AT&T job was the one every engineering student I knew wanted. The pay was amazing and the opportunities were seemingly endless. I don’t know which mattered more -- that I wouldn’t be committed to the same tasks every day for what might be the rest of my life, or that I’d snared what my friends with a 4.0 GPA thought was the best deal.

It’s like I said, I interview well.

Looking back I find it interesting I was interviewing for management positions without ever having done anything. Don’t you have to “do” something before you can “manage” it? I think of the advice often given to writers. Live a little first. Then you might have something to say.
I’m glad I jumped in anyway, though. And, sure. If you Google “fish out of water” I half-expect you to see a picture of a younger version of me, wearing a suit jacket with shoulder pads and one of those silly little ties. But a fish out of water learns a lot if it survives. Namely, how good it feels to be back in the water. More in my next post. No, wait. The post after that.

First I have to tell you why I wasn’t at my graduation ceremony.

TheKaOfKatieFrom the minute we met Katie we’ve had a feeling she was playing us. Not just playing with us, playing us. How many toddlers inspire the kind of empathy you see in this image?

Katie grew up knowing her feelings were okay. All of them. We didn’t grant every wish, but we never scolded her for wanting what she wanted. To the contrary.

A few months ago something Katie’s in line for was delayed by a few months. That was the bad news. The good news? She’s apparently first in line. It took her a couple of hours to admit she was disappointed by the delay, and my empathy was swift.

Too swift, apparently, for her taste. She has a wonderful life. Use whatever metric you want. It’s off the charts. So to her, lingering on the delay felt wrong.

I took the risk anyway, and made my point as quickly as I could. “Just because we’re talking different rooms in heaven,” I offered, “doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to wish you could get into one of them sooner.”

She’s entitled to the full range of her emotions, even as she sails through the stratosphere. I don’t know what that kind of sailing would be like, but I want her to keep doing what got her there -- feeling everything she feels without reservation.

I know. It’s her life. But being a cheerleader is part of my job -- and I’m allowed to want what I want, too!

“You’re going to be Darrin Stevens in the blog today,” I told Darrell. “I’m Darrin Stevens in life,” he countered.

How did he know what I was going to say? I hadn’t written the post! Maybe he isn’t a mere mortal after all. But I digress. And I haven’t even started.

When I was little I was obsessed with a television show called Bewitched. I dreamed of marrying my own Darrin, who’d be as enchanted as he was flummoxed by my superpowers. We’d have a beautiful daughter who was equipped with with a formidable set of superpowers of her own.

Eerie, huh? Anyway

When I was a kid and my parents left us with a babysitter one night when Bewitched was on, I was surprised to be sent to bed. Seven brothers and sisters were tucked in and had drifted off. Why couldn’t I stay up? Why?

I’ve forgotten the reason. But my tears left that babysitter unmoved.

I was heartbroken. And then I was furious. Because she turned on the television and started watching it herself.

The nerve!

What should I do? What could I do? “I know! I’ll tiptoe out to the hallway and hold my breath while I make not one peep. I’ll sit down and watch from there. I’ll settle in directly behind that stubborn babysitter head that’s blocking part of the screen.”

Which worked for about a minute. She apparently had eyes in the back of her babysitter head.

Back to bed I went.

I’ve never forgotten the indignation. I’d like to think it made me a better mom. I may have gone a bit overboard, but you can be the judge after you read tomorrow’s post.

“Great picture of someone I do not know!”

That was a friend’s reaction to a photo I sent him of Katie on her first day of the big internship in Manhattan this summer. Darrell and I both laughed out loud -- hard -- when we saw it. Because he nailed it.

In eight words.

The last photographic update we’d sent was in February. It was of our globe-trotting college sophomore, sporting a flower crown and about to devour (if you can believe it) a scorpion on a stick. She might as well have been wearing a sign that said “studying abroad and loving it.” She looked about as far (so to speak) from a Manhattan businesswoman as it’s possible to be.

Now here she was, shoulder-length hair ironed straight. Understated makeup. Sleek black dress under a classy white jacket. And a tote bag that looks like a briefcase! You couldn’t have paid all the professionals in the big city to have pulled off a more stunning transformation.

Which is why our friend’s word economy had such an effect.

Compare that with what Katie once told Dad: “Again with the extra words! Put those away!”

We’ve laughed about it many times since, but all three of us keep each other in check. If Darrell hears one more word about my fascination with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from the perspective of Scott Adams, he might not be as kind as Katie.

The other day as we headed out for a run a couple of gals driving by wanted directions to a restaurant not far from where we live. I backed off while Darrell happily obliged. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. What could’ve been taking so long? A few blocks behind them, they could see nothing but lake out the driver’s side window. The restaurant’s on the lake, too. You have to go ever-so-slightly out of the way to get around the park that juts out a block or so, but the lake isn’t going to suddenly pick up and move somewhere else. Why didn’t Darrell just tell them to follow the lake?

I waited until he finished. I smiled. Then I leaned in and said, “Or you could just hug the lake for another mile or so. You’ll run right into the restaurant.” They laughed. I made the touchdown gesture. Darrell forgave me.

It’s like I tease him when we’re in New York. I love how much he loves maps. It gives him something to look at while I feel our way to the destination!

Do you travel light?
December 3, 2015

If you look at life as a mountain to climb, you’ll shed provisions as you ascend. It’s an energy and oxygen conservation thing.

Productivity expert Barbara Hemphill says eighty percent of what we keep we never use. Eighty percent! Can you imagine the drag on your spirit? Not to mention the dusting.

Barbara says it’s simple: less clutter, more life.

She amused me when she said the average inbox has three thousand messages in it. Darrell heard that and checked his tally: 2769. Mine had one. From Barbara.

I’m easily distracted, so I keep distractions at bay. It helps me notice what works, like writing in the morning before the day descends on me -- or how much better things look in general when I’ve had enough sleep.

There’s magic in lightening up, metaphorically speaking. You’ll miss fewer signs -- and scenery!

snowI was probably in elementary school when I started asking myself what I had to show for myself. Casting director Jane Brody, who graced us on the show recently, makes me think: “Good move.” She says a lot of people drift through life as if their stories don’t matter.

I don’t get it.

What could possibly matter more?

How do you want the world to be different for your having been here? Ask yourself that question more often, and don’t be surprised if eighty percent of what you’re consumed by starts to feel silly.

Which is great. You can fix that!

“If I’m stumped by something I see, I substitute ‘because’ for ‘despite,’ and see if a proposition makes sense.”

That suggestion by Gretchen Rubin might tickle your imagination as much as it has mine.

I used to tell myself, “Despite indulging in junk food only one day of the week, I continue to be hooked on it.” Then I realized, “Because I indulge in junk food one day of the week, I continue to be hooked on it.” Junk food kept calling because I kept answering. One day a week was enough to cement its hold on me. When I decided “no junk food on any days of the week,” I licked it!

Let’s try something more current. Let’s compare my routine to Katie’s.

Katie’s taking a full load of characteristically brutal classes, working not one but three jobs for a total of approximately thirty-five hours a week, hanging out with friends -- going to concerts and Broadway shows and the cute little dessert place everyone’s raving about -- and auditioning for roles way beyond the classroom and the office.

Versus me. My life isn’t as exciting at the moment. I’m doing the usual. Some housework, lots of work -- writing and radio and speaking -- and the regularly-scheduled workouts. Manageable, as opposed to (Katie’s) crazy.

“Despite having a more manageable schedule,” I could say, “I don’t have as much to show for myself as Kate.”

What if I put it this way? “Because I have a more manageable workload, I don’t have as much to show for myself.”

Eureka! I accidentally proved this adage: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” And Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The other day instead of paring down my to-do list I added to it, and pretended there was a real penalty for not getting through it. Besides, you know, wasting my life. And guess what? I hit the pillow feeling great about what I’d accomplished.