The Blog

How do you relax?
August 4, 2017

Working for a big company wasn’t my thing. I hated it. Most of what I remember was the endless, unrelenting quest to keep -- as Dave Barry would say -- the blame balloon afloat.

It doesn’t bring out the best in people. Ever notice that? The amount of time spent assigning blame seems inversely proportional to anything good happening.

After a particularly rough week on my new job with a big company, I confided in someone I’d interned for at a manufacturing plant the year before. Let’s call him Frank. “Come down for the weekend,” he said. “It’ll be great.” He didn’t have ulterior motives that I was aware of. He knew my boyfriend, for one thing, from Steve’s internship at the same plant the summer before mine.

So I made the drive from my apartment in Minneapolis to Frank’s house in Iowa City. He was watering his plants when I got there. He offered me some aspirin and a glass of wine. This might’ve been when I started taking aspirin in anticipation of a headache, but whatever. We talked. Then he suggested I take a nap while he got steaks ready for the grill. The pampering was soothing.

We had fun just making salads together. “Maureen,” he announced. “It feels so good to have you here because you’re the one person I don’t feel like I have to entertain.” Can you imagine? Is there a sweeter thing in all the world to have said about you, that you’re easy to be around? To have it come from Frank, a guy I loved -- well, I was healed before the salads were on the table.

Another guy I’d been pals with at the plant came by later, and the three of us joined Frank’s neighbor in that gentleman’s garage. Then the three (or four) of us returned to Frank’s place to listen to Billy Joel albums (yes, I’m that old -- though I hear albums are making a comeback). We talked and talked, may or may not have had another glass of wine, and made plans to recreate the weekend again soon which of course we never did. Frank and I remained long-distance telephone pals for years, though. He was my oasis.

Most of my real and imaginary vacations are in Manhattan. But once in a while, when I’m especially depressed or discouraged or lonesome, I head back to Frank’s kitchen in Iowa City. A few minutes into the reverie it feels like I’ve been to a spa. It occurs to me I could find someone on Facebook to find Frank, but I don’t want to -- and not just because Present Day Frank couldn’t possibly live up to the romanticized version.

I won the friendship lottery in him once upon a lovely time, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Ever watched someone working so hard you had to look away? That’s what happened on my way to get groceries recently. The guy on the construction crew was pounding these big-ass nails (I think that’s what they’re called) so fast and furiously I thought he’d pass out. It was difficult to watch. So I looked away.

A few seconds later the pounding stopped. The guy wiped sweat off his brow as he straightened up and walked toward the other guys on the crew. One minute I’m wondering how I got so lucky, to have avoided this gentleman’s fate. The next minute I’m enjoying a wave of relief, knowing he apparently gets regular breaks.

I’ve talked with and been colleagues with construction workers who wouldn’t trade their calluses for all the screen time in the world. Even from my vantage point the guy I just mentioned had an air of satisfaction about showing those big-ass nails who’s boss. When he wraps up a day at five o’clock or whatever he can see what he accomplished, even allowing for all the breaks he took just to make it through another shift.

How do you know when to quit?

roses“Wow. That was unnecessary.”

That’s what I thought immediately -- and I mean right that very second -- after someone lit into me about a supposedly stupid question a few years ago. It wasn’t objectively stupid, but that isn’t the point. The point was this person’s attempt to shame me, which didn’t work.

I couldn’t get over that. It hadn’t worked. I’m a shame magnet. I can smell it from miles away. It rushes in and sticks to me like whatever they fill bug traps with. I’m trapped, all right. Katie was visibly bored by my choice of conversation topics one morning when we were on vacation five years ago, and I still get this little ache inside just thinking about it. Isn’t that sad?

I’m okay with it, though. If Katie didn’t matter to me as much as she does, her reaction to even the seemingly insignificant wouldn’t matter as much. There’s no wishy-washy with either of us. It’s intense. And fun? God we have fun.

She’s become my benchmark for friendship. The proverbial high bar. Keep me interested, or I’m not interested. I used to think it was a character flaw to prefer the company of people who didn’t bore me, but that was a reflection of the company I used to keep. Now I follow Kate’s example and gravitate toward people who are interesting and kind.

Katie helps me realize how much energy I’ve wasted on people who are thoughtless, or worse. For a while that was okay. For a while that kind of drama -- with no improvement, let alone resolution -- held my interest. Now I’m ashamed of myself. Is it possible to literally bore yourself to death? Just the other day I thought, “This is as close as I want to come to the line.”

I’d like to think there are other problems the world needs my help to solve. Like a good journalist, I’m going to experiment with that idea -- and report in on the results.

It was, for a while anyway, what I would’ve called the happiest day of my life. I still have the video evidence. Almost everyone I’d ever loved had assembled for a special occasion. You can see on the VHS tape how dreamy the setting was, how thick the crowd had become, and how festive the atmosphere seemed. Look a little closer. Do you notice that guy leaning in to talk with me? He’s about to offer some advice.

Which was?

To relax.

I was playing hostess -- and considering how many different people from wildly different backgrounds had assembled, it was not a stress-free occasion. I was trying to make sure everyone was happy because I was young and clueless enough to think that was my job.

The day had been perfect. Dreamy. I’d done it. I’d orchestrated what was reportedly a magical experience for everyone. Nothing bad had happened. I hadn’t even remembered the exchange with this gentleman until I saw the tape, and I was struck by how not helpful it seemed. It wasn’t, “Hey, good job! I hope you’re able to take a break from attending to other people to kick back and have a little fun yourself.” It was more, “You’re letting them see you sweat, kid. Shame on you.”

Did he think hearing that would help?

And yes, I learned to relax. Eventually. Sometimes. With less “help” from people like him!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am maniacal about boundaries. Much if not most of what happens in the course of a day or a week or a life isn’t only about me, of course -- and what you read here is with the permission (indeed, blessing) of the other people involved. Even with Katie, I’m loathe to report on much beyond what we directly experience with her. When it comes to her friendships? Forget it. They’re hers to share, or not.

Can you guess what’s coming? Yes! An exception! Why bother with a whole paragraph of disclaimers if you aren’t going to make an exception? I feel comfortable doing that because I doubt the guy I’m going to tell you about reads this blog. Even if he does, I would’ve said this to his face. Someone should.

Katie had built him up a lot. Darrell and I got to meet him. We only had part of an afternoon with him, but what struck me is how often he checked his phone. Yes, I realize how common that is. No, I didn’t see Katie appreciating it. She’d apologized to us about it -- and while I’d felt bad for her, I didn’t linger on it. His friendship was obviously important to her, and that was that.

You can guess what else is coming. Yes! He’s history! I can’t remember the exact wording Katie used when she described how easy it was to move on from this particular friendship, but it was something along the lines of not feeling like she was special enough to rate his even occasional undivided attention.

Interrupting conversations to check your phone won’t kill people, granted. They die a little inside, though. Does that count?

“I have lots of skills. This isn’t one of them.” Isn’t that a sweet way to forgive yourself for not knowing how to hook up a stereo, fix a leaky faucet, or diagnose a problem with your car’s engine? That’s one gift of aging, I think, the increasing willingness to pay people for what they’re good at -- instead of trying to do it yourself and creating a bigger, more expensive, problem for someone else to solve after all.

Once upon a time I relied on someone for help I need occasionally. Let’s call it dentistry. My “dentist” was an expert. His rates were more than fair, and I trusted him.

There was a catch, though. The gentleman threw in an extra I hadn’t asked for, running commentary on aspects of my life unrelated to dentistry. I can’t think of a single observation that didn’t leave me in tears. One day I confided in a friend about it, and I almost laughed out loud at his reaction: “Have you thought about getting a different dentist?”

That’s it. That’s the end of this story. New dentist, no further problems. Makes you wonder if sometimes we’re determined to make things more difficult than they have to be.

Central Park for the blogIf your house was burning down and you could only grab two things, what would they be?

I’ll go first.

I’d grab my purse -- which has a lifetime of memories in digital form on a little computer drive --  and a stash of long letters Katie gave me for my birthday last summer. They framed a scavenger hunt on a sparkling Manhattan afternoon and they chronicled, in delicious detail, how much fun we’ve had as a family.

Can you imagine?

I aspire to express myself so precisely a chord is struck in another soul. Instead I gave birth to the person who can do that! Katie expresses herself with such sweetness and such precision it’ll break your heart. Promise.

Just ask her favorite professor at NYU. She showed me the long thank-you letter she wrote him. I was in tears by the time I finished, and I’ve read it at least a dozen times.

I doubt the guy will ever be the same. Heck, I was only a witness to this -- and I’ll never be the same.


photo courtesy of Katie Anderson

Are you patient?
July 26, 2017

Have you ever worked from home with a toddler underfoot? It’s an interesting way to live. Darrell and I only have the one child, but she added more than enough interesting to make me wonder -- at first -- if I was up to it. My life felt like an endless, unrelenting, fun but exhausting tennis match. “Mom! I need more milk!” Katie would say. “Mom! Your interview’s on the line!” Darrell would add. I transcribed interviews a phrase at a time while they had lunch or Katie watched a favorite cartoon.

And I wasn’t perfect.

Once in a while, when Katie was coloring or whatever, I’d settle in at my desk for maybe twenty consecutive minutes. That’s usually when Darrell hit me up for the answer to a work question, because I wasn’t in the office before and now I was. And once in a while he sensed my frustration at not even having those twenty minutes.

The thing was, he explained, these were either questions I wanted him to ask -- or he needed me to answer. It wasn’t small talk. And he didn’t like this vague sense he’d disappointed me somehow. That hurt to hear -- oh, no! proof I wasn’t perfect! -- but I fixed it. From then on when he needed something I stopped whatever I was doing and gave him my full attention and told him with my attitude he had every right to expect it.

Oh, sure. Over the years there’s been an occasional edge to my voice because I’m still not perfect. But you know what? I’ve owned up so quickly and so thoroughly, and have apologized with such gusto, Darrell’s given me the impression I’m covered for not only that infraction but the next.

I’m not just saying that. I still check in with him once in a while on this point. What’s the use of having someone with the courage to tell you the truth if you aren’t going to handle it?