The Blog

The summer I worked construction there was a bad accident on the stretch of highway we were patching. We’d diverted the eastbound traffic into one of the westbound lanes, and had lots of signs warning people not to pass -- in addition to the two solid lines of bright orange tape.

One morning during a safety meeting we got the news. Someone hit another car head-on as he attempted to pass, killing that driver -- a mom, whose kids were in the car with her.

“Someone was impatient,” our foreman told us, “and now those kids don’t have a mother.”

I don’t like to drive on two-lane highways, especially at night, given how many fatals I reported on when I worked in news. But this accident is always in the back of my mind, too. I could be crawling behind someone going forty in a fifty-five mph zone for an hour, and never feel the slightest urge to pass -- if conditions aren’t perfect, that is. It isn’t worth it.

That’s why I’ll never, never understand people who text and drive. The accident I referred to in my last post? I’d bent down to retrieve a sack lunch on the floor of my car. I took my eyes off the road for -- what? -- two seconds.

Bad things happen. They can happen to you. They might happen no matter how careful you are. Why beg for it?

Stay safe out there!

Darrell and I were walking by the information desk at the library on our way upstairs to look at the newspapers recently when he cracked up. The gal working the desk looks almost exactly like her sister, who happens to be married to a friend of ours. She looks so much like her I gave her a nickname that amused her as much as it did Darrell: “Not Gary So and So’s Wife.”

So when Darrell started laughing, I knew why. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Every time we see her it calls up the silly, the same way every time we hear a train whistle it calls up a dreamy family vacation to the Pacific Northwest by way of Amtrak.

Where did my obsession with finding the perfect nickname come from? My best guess? The summer I worked construction. I wasn’t Maureen for those few months. I was Sally. One of my pals from college who was on the crew christened me Sally the minute he realized we’d be working together. He was so cute and so much fun I couldn’t help but bask in the attention. Within days no one knew me by my real name. Months later, when another pal was trying to extricate me from the car I’d just crashed into a guardrail -- and was worried he wouldn’t get me out in time -- he let rip with a terrified, “WTF, Sally?” Except he used those words instead of abbreviating them.

There’s just something about people liking you enough to give you a nickname. It assumes familiarity, which is flattering. What Color Is Your Parachute? author Dick Bolles has never been Dick to Katie, for example. She met him when she was six, and she started calling him Dickie right away.

Darrell has lots of nicknames for me. He even has nicknames for some of the nicknames. I’ll spare you those, but I love all of them. When he uses one in particular it’s reassurance whatever snag we just muddled through is history. There’s no way to hear it and read anything but good.

What do you like to be called?

I learned a lot in college. Mostly during the summers! That’s when I did my internships.

I worked construction the summer between my sophomore and junior year, and I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it was. I’ll never forget returning to my motel room after my first twelve-hour day shoveling concrete. I cried, wondering how I’d survive even another day of it -- let alone the month or more my supervisor had warned me about. I couldn’t help but also wonder how career construction workers kept their spirits up.

Gradually I learned some of them love the work. They love being outside, and they enjoy seeing what they accomplished that day -- a spiffed-up stretch of highway, or a new roof on an office building.

They work hard, they have fun, and they savor the little pleasures. Like me! A random, clueless, engineer-in-training who’d joined them for a few months so they could teach me a thing or two.

I was nothing if not the entertainment.

More on that tomorrow.

I don’t remember much of what I learned in engineering school.

Darrell is quick to correct me. “You remembered nothing,” he says. Every day, it seems, brings more proof of that.
He’s wrong, though. It was in college I learned a disciplined approach to solving problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

I applied it successfully enough to snare a 3.0 GPA when I graduated (which, in deference to Darrell, was a miracle) -- and to this day when I feel stumped, it helps me get my bearings.

We’ve been examining the three prongs of this approach -- given, find, solution -- and I’ll wrap up the series with an observation on the final prong: “What’s the solution?”

No matter what assignment I was trying to finish and no matter what exam I was preparing for, the answer to “What’s the solution?” was always: “Get help.”

My boyfriend at the time spent what felt like endless hours helping me understand basic engineering principles.

My other pals spent seemingly endless laughter and coffee-fueled sessions helping me through the latest homework assignment. One of them, who was almost as lost as I was in most of our classes, started doing homework for one of them while I tackled the homework for another. Then we’d swap, crossing our fingers we understood the material enough to explain it to each other.

Occasionally I found myself in a professor’s office, more for mercy than for help. My soils professor, who gifted me with a C on the final -- to lessen the odds he’d see me again the following semester, I was sure -- once asked, “Why are you here?”

That’s a good question for all of life: “Why am I here?”

I was in engineering school -- though I didn’t know it then -- to develop grit. But I also learned to ask for help. I hate doing that. If Darrell had to describe me in one sentence it would be, “She hates asking for help.”

Getting better at asking hasn’t lessened my aversion to it.

With all the sweethearts in my orbit I wonder, “Why?”

It’s a question -- and inevitably, a post -- for another day.

My engineering professors in college insisted we write three things down as we solved problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Something important happens when you write something down. It becomes clear.

What do you need to find?

If you can’t spell it out, what do you suppose the odds are you’ll find it?

Correct! Zip.

The longer I live, though, the more I appreciate the distinction between finding something and discovering it. You find your keys. You find an apartment. But a calling? Career coach Barbara Sher says that isn’t something you find. You discover it.


By noticing when you’re so absorbed in your work twenty minutes have gone by -- but they feel like two, at the most. By having someone tell you “great job” on something that matters -- and basking in that feeling for weeks. By realizing you went to sleep dreaming about your work -- dreaming, not having nightmares -- and sprung out of bed the next morning because you got to do more of it.

There’s your calling!

What are you given?
July 22, 2014

My engineering professors in college drilled it into us. Approach problems systematically: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Let’s think about that first one. What are you given?

How many times do we fight what we’re given? An aversion to certain kinds of people. A partnership with someone who’s contributing only problems at the moment. Fewer hours in a day than we have work to fill them, but by golly if they aren’t the same twenty-four hours everyone else has.

What if we wrote those facts down? You know, made a list of them -- almost like they were ingredients in a recipe -- and told ourselves, “This is what you have to work with. Go!”

We might find ourselves in a more productive frame of mind, that’s what. If you spend your limited energy fighting what is, you’ll have less of it to change what you can.

The Serenity Prayer comes to mind, doesn’t it?

That’s one aptly-named set of wishes, I think.

The blogger Penelope Trunk says she was doing all the right things in her twenties, but didn’t have the confidence to realize it.

Was I?

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild -- which I’m enjoying again in advance of the movie later this year -- makes me think, “Maybe.” Maybe getting a degree in civil engineering was my eleven-hundred mile hike through the wilderness. I chose a path that was difficult and I didn’t quit just because it was difficult.

Life is difficult. College, as it turns out, did prepare me for that so-called real world. My engineering classes gave me a systematic way to approach problems: “What are you given? What do you need to find? What’s the solution?”

Some thoughts on each, the rest of this week.

I’m trying to get in the habit of pausing at least a second or two before I speak. I’m looking for more opportunities not to say anything at all. And in the process I’m paying more attention to that little voice inside my head -- the one that never seems to let up about all the ways I come up short.

I’m more likely to challenge that voice now.

There’s a pile of papers, for example, I haven’t dealt with for weeks. For weeks I’ve been asking myself what the problem is. Why can’t I get caught up on paperwork?

Because we’re spending hours a day with Katie, that’s why. The work -- the busywork, that is -- will keep. The summer’s whooshing by, and now I think of unfinished paperwork as just more evidence I’m doing the right thing. I’m paying attention to our little sweetheart -- right here, right now.