The Blog

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.

I have a habit of apologizing for things that (1) aren’t my fault, and (2) aren’t anyone’s fault.

Katie was determined to help me break that habit this summer, and we came up with a plan. I’d give her a dollar for every gratuitous apology.

It’s been more than two weeks, and I haven’t had to pay her yet.

Which is stunning, really. I’m as prone to preemptive apologies, I’m sorry to say (oops!), as I am to going after my nails while I’m waiting for a page to load.

Not anymore!

Katie and I agreed, going into this experiment, that to break the habit I’d have to pause a second or two before saying anything at all.

We looked at each other.

That’s a dandy practice, we agreed, to cultivate instead. Not only that, but there’s been an unexpected bonus -- and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

When a friend took a tour of our house during the worst of the renovation, she was struck by how pristine it was. There wasn’t so much as a toothbrush out of place.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to concentrate when there are dirty dishes in the sink -- or in our case, the bathtub -- or piles of laundry to fold and put away. My surroundings are as important to me as enough sleep and good food and plenty of exercise.

It reminds me of a baby T-shirt I gave a sister after her latest was born, with “it ain’t gonna change itself” emblazoned on the front. The dishes won’t wash themselves, the laundry isn’t going to fold itself, and since I’ll have to attend to those sometime why have the drag on my spirit by putting them off?

Do it now, and you’re done with it -- for now. Put it off until later and it’ll dog you until then -- wrapping whatever you do in the meantime in a vague, uneasy feeling.

My surroundings are as important to me as enough sleep and good food and plenty of exercise.

The first guy I dated broke up with me by telling me he wasn’t sure he’d found the prettiest girl at our high school. Looking back, I’m surprised I was even in the running. My braces had just come off, granted -- but there were six hundred kids in our grade alone. To have it register as a question was a compliment, actually.

If you can ignore the whole “what kind of person would say that kind of thing” thing.

Ignore it? I couldn’t even see it.

Isn’t that sad?

I’d had a crush on this guy for three years. He was scary smart, but he was also a football star -- and gorgeous. I floated through the summer we dated. I crashed back to earth when we broke up a few months later. I defined myself by what he’d said for years.

You can write this off as just another boring breakup story, or you can find the nugget of interesting that I have. Why, when I had so many good friends, didn’t I confide in even one of them? They would’ve flooded me, I’m sure, with the reassurance I craved -- that I was pretty enough for anyone worth having. But for the same reason I accepted one person’s assessment without questioning that, it didn’t occur to me to get a second opinion.

Now I know better.

Filed under: opportunity wasted.

I’m running on the sidewalk by the beach. A man is walking toward me, right down the middle of the sidewalk. He’s apparently a tourist -- judging only by the camera he’s wearing around his neck. He’s making eye contact with me, so I’m sure he sees me. I’m also sure he’ll move just a bit to his right, the way everyone I’ve ever passed on this stretch has done.

In more than twenty years of running near the beach, I’ve never had someone not keep to his side when he sees me. I’ve surprised plenty of people, sure -- whose eyes were on their phones or their companions or the scenery. But I’ve never had someone hog the sidewalk on purpose.

The man’s getting closer. He’s still looking right at me, but he’s also still ambling down the middle of the narrow sidewalk as if it’s his. I’m running fast at the moment, and I have time to consider three choices. Veer off the sidewalk into the sand where some little kids are playing. Cross over in front of him, up onto the grass, where some grownups are playing. Or keep running as I continue to hug the right side of the sidewalk.

I’m running too fast to consider a couple of other choices. Stop, or slow way down and break my stride.

Nope. I’m doing my part. It’s his turn.

But he doesn’t budge!

And for the first time in my life, I just keep going. For the first time in my life, I feel zero need to apologize for taking up space in the world. I have just as much right to be on the sidewalk as he does, and I’m taking it.

We bump into each other, hard, as I pass. I don’t stop. I don’t look back. I don’t apologize. I just keep going.

It wasn’t much of a bump in terms of worrying I’d hurt the guy. To the contrary. But I’m also pretty sure it’s the kind of thing that would’ve started a bar fight.

So this was an experiment. It’s probably too soon to decide what I learned from it, if anything. I don’t feel good about it, necessarily. But I don’t feel bad, either.

Care to weigh in?

I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The first day of kindergarten, and my teacher wants to know if I’d be able to read my name if she wrote it on a box of crayons.

I nodded. I didn’t mean to mislead her. I was optimistic, as optimistic as you can be on your first day of school when everything from riding the bus to finding the bathroom feels terrifying. But I knew how to read my own name, for crying out loud.

A while later the teacher told us to retrieve our crayons. I looked up at the shelf where the boxes were lined up, and panic set in. I saw a sea of letters that may as well have been written in Chinese, that’s how foreign they looked.

Did I play it cool? Did I stand off to the side and wait for everyone else to retrieve his box and grab the one that was left?

Are you kidding? The thought didn’t occur to me. I was five years old. “This is an emergency!” I decided.

I really believed that. My first test on my first day of school, and I’d failed. It didn’t bode well for the rest of my life.

Except really, it did. I was careful about what I promised from that point forward. Not too careful -- or so I’d like to think -- just careful enough.

And that’s a good thing.