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Archive for January, 2010

Reluctant Inspiration

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Some people aspire to inspire – Olympic athletes, motivational speakers, the odd politician, etc.  But I’ve always believed that the most inspirational figures are those who never intended to set an example; the ones who, due to adversity or tragedy, reluctantly took up this mantle, for lack of a better alternative. 

In my life I’ve been inspired by many people; both public figures and people I’ve known personally.  But lately I’ve found myself inspired by two people who don’t fit either description. 

A little over two years ago Mike and Heather Spohr welcomed their premature and tiny new daughter, Madeline, into the world.  After two-plus months in the NICU she went home and, despite a few hospital stays here and there, lived a vibrant and healthy life.  Like any smiling, joyful baby, Maddie was the sun around which her parents orbited.

It was last April when the game changed.  After a sudden and critical respiratory infection, Maddie passed away quite unexpectedly.  And it was at that time that Mike and Heather’s incredible blog, The Spohrs are Multiplying, went from a happy record of their normal life to a gut-wrenching account of the grief of losing a 17-month-old. 

Most marriages end in divorce after the loss of a child.  Not Heather and Mike.  They have stood together every day since Maddie passed away.  They founded the Friends of Maddie organization that provides support to other NICU families.  And when their blog won a $1,000 prize in December they donated all of the prize money to their foundation – enough to provide 40 families with NICU support packs.   They raised more than $100,000 for the March of Dimes through donations that were made in honor of Maddie.  And in October they traveled to Washington, DC on behalf of the March of Dimes where Heather spoke to members of Congress to help raise awareness about the perils of prematurity.

However.  In spite of all that they’ve done to honor their daughter and fight for other preemies, it is the intimate account of their journey through grief that has most touched me.  They have told their story, in all its dark shadows and glimmers of light, for nearly ten months now.  They have told of being broken.  They have unveiled the facades they wear when they brave the world outside their home.  They have confessed anger and envy and its gruesome supporting role in the grieving process.  But most of all, in the face of sadness and emptiness that I can’t summon the will to imagine, they decided to live! 

One week ago Heather and Mike welcomed their second daughter, Annabel.  Through a grueling and high risk pregnancy that included blood thinning injections, anti-contraction medications, gestational diabetes, and bed rest Heather bravely carried Annie until she was just a few days shy of full term.  She is healthy.  And she is home. 

As has been eloquently explained on their blog, grief is not a process with an end point.  They will never stop mourning Maddie.  But we muddle through heartbreak to find our way to redemption.    I hope for Heather and Mike that Annie’s birth is the light at the end of this tunnel.

It isn’t my pain.  I cannot fathom a loss of this magnitude.  But tiny slivers of Heather and Mike’s pain traveled through cyberspace and into my heart.  I am overwhelmingly inspired by the Spohrs.  I wish I weren’t.  I wish their story were ordinary and uninteresting.  But it isn’t.  And while inspiring is nothing they ever aspired to be, I am grateful that they are.

Heather and Mike, thank you for sharing your story.  I pray that I never know this breed of pain.  But in the event that I do, it is the example of your strength that I will follow.  Congratulations on the birth of your daughter. 

Very sincerely,

Gale

Small Midwestern Liberal Arts College Insecurities

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Ivy League Insecurities, does it?  But it’s where my head is lately. 

Several months ago my parents and sister were in town for a weekend visit.  One evening we spent a couple of hours nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and sipping cocktails in the lobby lounge of my parents’ hotel.  Between talk of holiday plans and IEP’s latest party tricks, the conversation drifted to our collegiate alma maters.

Mom and Dad both attended state universities.  So did my sister.  GAP and I attended the same teensy-weensy liberal arts college here in the Midwest.  And, for the most part, we all had highly successful experiences in undergrad.  We learned academic lessons and life lessons.  We each experienced fun and failure in its various forms.  And we emerged into the “real world” as adults capable of providing for ourselves.  Mission accomplished. 

Almost everyone else in the discussion felt good about their school selection in retrospect.  But I have always had something of an inferiority complex about my alma mater, which is not something that I’m proud of.  It’s a school that is moderately well-known in this part of the country.  People who have heard of it generally think it to be a good school.  It is known for professors who care deeply about their students and spend more time teaching than researching; for an active and devoted alumnae community; and for a student body of reasonably intelligent upper middle class kids from a roughly 5-state radius. 

As for my experience there… Well, I loved it.  I loved every moment I spent on that campus.  I was an extra-curricular super girl.  I was involved in the Greek system and student government.  I sang in choirs and led a Bible study.  I was the upper-class mentor to a group of 15 freshmen and a resident advisor in a women’s dorm.  I rarely missed a class and made good grades.  To put in plainly, I flourished in college.

To look at my life today, I am hard pressed to find any aspect of my life that has suffered at the hand of my alma mater.  I met my husband there.  I made some wonderful friends there.  My first two jobs were landed with help from a fellow alumnus.  And today I’m in a challenging and rewarding career that suits my interests and talents. 

So why on earth does it matter to me now how much name recognition my college has? 

I should count my blessings that it was a wonderful experience that I remember fondly.  I should appreciate the connections it afforded me.  I should be grateful that GAP and I crossed paths there so many years ago.  And I do all those things.  But secretly, in my heart of hearts, I wish they’d all happened at a school with a national reputation. 

If that were the case, though, how different would my life actually be?  Vastly different?  Probably not.  I might have matured in slightly different ways; shaped by a different location and a different set of experiences.  But those differences wouldn’t necessarily be for the better.  Sure I might be bolder or more assertive.  But I might also be less confident and self-possessed.  No matter the subtle variances that may have manifested themselves in me, I am still me, not someone else.  The way that I approach life, people, and decisions is uniquely mine, and would not change substantially based on four post-adolescent years.    

This “what if” game doesn’t really accomplish anything.  Quite frankly, I’m likely wasting time wondering when I could be out doing something purposeful.  The fact of the matter is that I made my choice and it has served me well.  I will never know how my story might have unfolded if I’d made a different decision.  So why, oh why, does this little insecurity plague me? 

I suppose we all have insecurities about little things that buzz around in our minds.  We all think about the path not taken; risks not taken; chances not taken.  We wonder where we might be today if we’d picked door #2 instead of door #3.  Might we have found fame and fortune?  Perhaps.  Would we have found happiness?  Who knows?  At least for me, I always think about these scenarios with the assumption that the path not taken would have resulted in something better.  But I’m probably remiss in that assumption.  My life today is pretty great.  And while I’d be a fool to wish away anything that I have, that little “what if” helps me remember to constantly strive to make more out of my life.

Facebook Friend: An Oxymoron?

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Today’s post is the third installment in my four-part series on friendship  For the first two posts, click here and here.

Last summer, after many months of reluctance, and mostly out of morbid curiosity, I joined Facebook.

I don’t know what I was looking for or what I expected to find.  But I joined.  And for the most part I haven’t regretted it.  I have gotten back in touch with people from my past.  And I have stayed up to date on current real world friends whom I don’t necessarily talk with every day.

But since joining I have been perplexed with the concept of the “Facebook friend.”  I imagine most of you know what I’m talking about.  When you label someone with the surprisingly pejorative “we’re Facebook friends,” it diminishes the relationship instantly.  It’s understood by anyone familiar with the site that Facebook friendship isn’t real friendship. 

Yes, many of us have Facebook friends with whom we are also real world friends.  But we don’t refer to those people as FB friends; we just call them our friends.  No, the “Facebook friend” is a different animal altogether.  “Facebook friends” means “I’ve met this person in real life at least once and I didn’t find them objectionable enough to proactively exclude them from the banalities that show up on my FB page.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

So, if FB friendship is so contradictory, why do we bother?  What value does FB bring to our lives that wasn’t there already?  And what are the criteria by which we select our Facebook friends? 

As an example, here is a list of people who are my FB friends:

  1. My sister
  2. My son’s godparents
  3. Some friends from childhood whom I haven’t seen in ages but still genuinely care about
  4. Little brothers of friends from childhood with whom I wasn’t really friends back then either
  5. Former coworkers (only a few… I’m choosy)

And here’s a list of people who are not my FB friends:

  1. My parents (they’re not on FB)
  2. My husband (he won’t accept my friend request and thinks it’s hilarious…)
  3. Our nanny
  4. My in-laws
  5. Any current coworkers (I have to keep some boundaries)

So clearly, there is no correlation between FB friendship status and real world importance in my life.  Zero.  Zip.  Nil. 

But yet, I joined.  And I log in.  Daily.  I don’t post all that much (confession: I’m a bit of a FB lurker…) but I enjoy knowing what’s going on in the lives of my “friends.”  And, honestly, Facebook is about the only means by which I could stay updated on such a broad swath of people at the same time.

To wit, through FB I have reconnected with a dear childhood friend.  I knew when her daughter dislocated her elbow and saw pictures when she turned two.  I had a good friend in college and we lost touch ten years ago when he graduated.  But he and his wife just adopted the most darling little boy and I have quietly stayed abreast of the process via the updates and photos he posted on FB.  Without FB I’d never have been privy to these events, and I was quite happy that I was.  So I will concede… there is value in Facebook.

But how much?

Well, that depends on how you use it.  I’ve come to realize that there is a “wheat from the chaff” process that FB requires.  If your threshold for “friendship” is low you’ll be inundated with a barrage of updates on people and events that don’t matter to you.  But! If you are more selective in your “friendship” habits, Facebook can become a valuable method of staying connected to the people in your life who genuinely matter to you, but whose paths don’t cross yours on a regular basis.

It’s this latter path that I’ve tried to take.  I admit that sometimes it’s hard not to lower the proverbial bar.  Sometimes that morbid curiosity takes hold and I’m tempted to accept a friend request merely to satisfy it.  (And sometimes I do cave…)  But for the most part I have been selective in my Facebook choices and am glad of it. 

So, for me, Facebook serves the role of a relationship butler of sorts.  I tell him who I want to hear from versus who doesn’t make the cut.  And he delivers sometimes charming, sometimes witty, sometimes juicy, sometimes informational, and sometimes fantastically boring (they can’t all be winners…) updates and photos about these people right to my virtual front door.  When I’m particularly struck by such an update I can reach out with a more personal communication.  And the rest of the time I can quickly ingest the information, resting assured that all my cyber-buddies are in good shape, and get on with my day.  And that isn’t such a bad deal after all.

The Capacity Conundrum

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

They bounce back quickly.  They’re so resilient.  They can handle more than we think they can.  These are all clichés that are offered about children.  Some of them are true.  Actually, all of them are true.  To an extent. 

But lately I’ve been wondering what that extent is.  How much do children have the capacity to handle?

I got a partial answer when I came across this article which poses that very question in the context of a particularly heartbreaking situation.  To paraphrase:  The single mother of a 2-year-old boy is contacted by the boy’s absentee father because he (the dad) has been diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer.  His time is limited and he is calling to ask his way back into their lives.  The mother is torn.  Does she deprive the son time with his father to spare him the pain of the inevitable loss?  Or does she give her son the gift of a father he’s never really known and run the risk that a bond develops between them only to be severed? 

You should read it.  I won’t tell you what she decided or why, but it got my wheels spinning.  

IEP isn’t yet old enough to understand death, natural or manmade disasters, or any other of the myriad points of pain we spend our lives hoping to avoid.  But despite our best efforts we do experience pain.  And at some point during our lives we learned how to experience pain.  Ideally we learned such coping mechanisms with carefully crafted purpose from a loving adult who was invested in helping us understand difficult concepts.  But it’s just as likely that we didn’t have someone shepherding us through our pain, and so we developed coping mechanisms on our own.

There is plenty of advice on this topic.  I think back to 9/11 and can recall numerous stories – on the news, online, on NPR, etc. – that addressed how to speak with children about the terrorist attacks.  In the wake of last week’s earthquake in Haiti many such stories are making their way back onto airwaves. 

Don’t tell them too much.  Find out what has caused them to ask in the first place.  Ask first what they already know and base your answer on that.  Don’t be too abstract – answers that are concrete and tangible are easier for a child to digest.  Etc, etc, etc. 

And so this brings me back to IEP.

Right now he is fourteen months of innocent perfection.  His life is simple, and straightforward, and free from the murkiness of complicated questions.  He has never asked “why?” about something horrible and beyond his control.  But someday he will.  And GAP and I are not yet entirely in sync on how we will handle this event.  I fall into the camp of carefully measured disclosure.  GAP is more protective.  Presumably we will find some middle ground.

But regardless of the path we choose, IEP will come face to face with injustice, pain, and hardship (if not in his own life, then in the life of someone else) long before we’re ready.  And regardless of our best intentions to couch our explanations in terms that make these tragedies scalable down to a child’s mind, he will pick up things from other places that exceed what we had intended him to know. 

And I suppose that at some level that’s okay too.  Naturally I want to teach him how to deal with pain (his own, or other people’s) in a productive and constructive way.  But I also want him to learn how to develop coping skills on his own.  We won’t be standing by his side every time something bad happens in the world.  And as we teach skills that will help him deal with the good and the bad, I hope he learns some skills on his own as well.  I hope he knows that even without a shepherd at his side, he has the ability to navigate a new and frightening situation by himself and make good decisions in the process.

I Am Not Normal (But Neither Are You)

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Fair warning:  I am not normal.  Sure, I may seem it.  (Or maybe not.  I’m not sure how I come across here.  Perhaps I seem a sheer lunatic.  But I digress…)  Brown hair, blue eyes, average build.  Married, working mother of one son.  Two dogs.  Medium house.  Midwestern.  Etc.  But it’s all just a ruse.  Underneath this wholly normal exterior, I am quite a strange little person (as my husband frequently likes to tell me). 

I bring this up because the other day I was chatting with my father.  I don’t really recall the original thread of the conversation.  (Actually, I think I was bragging to him that IEP had gobbled up barley risotto for supper, which is really neither here nor there.)  But as we were chatting we somehow wandered down the path of “normal.”  Or rather, not normal. Probably because barley risotto is not normal fare for a 14-month-old.  And I spent a little time ribbing him about some of the oddities of my own childhood.   

When I was a child my parents dreamed of having a place in the country.  A little plot of land outside of the city.  And so it was that every week my parents scanned the classifieds in the local paper for listings of land for sale.  Some of those listings would warrant a phone call.  And some of those phone calls would produce an appointment.  And even when there wasn’t an appointment, sometimes we just drove out into the country to cruise section-line roads and scan fences for For Sale signs. 

This is how it came to be that I spent many weekend afternoons of my childhood riding through rural Oklahoma and playing out a real-life version of The Berenstain Bears and the Perfect Picnic Spot.  On Sundays we listened to NPR’s rebroadcast of the previous evening’s A Prairie Home Companion.  We stopped in small-town cafes and ate meatloaf, fried okra, and cobbler à la mode.  We met crusty old men in coveralls.  We listened to oldies on the café jukebox.  My sister and I walked through brush and shimmied through barbed wire while my parents weighed the pros and cons of whatever forty acres we happened to be scoping out. 

It wasn’t until much later that I realized this was all a little weird.  Most eleven-year-olds don’t know Garrison Keillor’s voice by heart.  Most little girls don’t know the difference between a No Trespassing sign that you can probably violate versus one that means business.  Most kids don’t pull into the next town excited to help their dad find the “main drag.”  But I didn’t know that at the time. 

What strikes me about all of this is how I assumed that these adventures were par for the course until my frame of reference broadened enough to understand that they weren’t.  

As children we are prone to assume that our life is normal – that a life any number of standard deviations away from what we know must be the outlier.  Our experiences are normal to us, so we assume they are normal in general.    But as we get older, make new friends, go to college, date, marry, and so on, we become privy to a number of other life paths.  We have arrived in the same place as our friends, colleagues, and partners, but not via the same set of experiences.  And as we share those experiences we discover which aspects of our own journey are universal and which are unique. 

If we are perfectly confident and well adjusted, these discoveries may become empowering to us; points of pride or distinction; or perhaps just privately treasured all the more due to their specificity to our own life.  Or, if we are insecure, these little oddities may be embarrassing; things we henceforth keep under wraps; things that make us stand out when we want only to blend in. 

What I love most about this little premise, though, is that, when you get down to it, none of us is normal.  We share things in common that allow us to relate to each other, to bond, and to commune.  But ideally, we will celebrate each other’s differences along with our similarities.  And we will come to celebrate the path we’ve traveled for the ways in which it formed us.

As for my parents’ plot of land.  When I was twenty years old they purchased one.  Shortly thereafter they purchased adjacent plots.  They built a house, a barn, a pond, and several miles of walking and carriage driving trails.  My old show horses are living out their retirement years there.  My sister was married there.  My son petted his first baby lamb there.  It is a place where time slows down, where people relax, where happy times are had.  It is a place that makes me fiercely proud of my parents, the dream they pursued, and the beautiful reality it has become.

Summer sunrise at the farm.

I am not normal.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Trial by Fire

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Today’s post is the second installment in my four-part series on friendship.  You can read the first installment here.

Sometimes I’d just like to throw a punch and get it over with. 

Not at you, clearly.  Well, probably not you.  Do I have any reason to be mad at you?  Because if I do then you had better watch your back.  But once I punch you I promise I won’t be mad at you anymore.

Actually, I take that back.  I don’t have the nerve to punch you.  And honestly, I probably don’t even have the nerve to tell you that I’m mad at you.  That is, if I’m mad at you in the first place.  Which I’m not.

So here’s what brings me to this question of fighting.

GAP has deep friendships.  They are friendships that have been forged over time.  He and his friends have shared athletic glories, professional accomplishments, and nights of folly;  mitigated crises, earnest discussions, and gut-busting laughter.  They have withstood each other’s long political rants and blustering hubris; bailing buddies out of jail, fights about girls, and fights about fraternity house roommates; time, distance, and the inevitable evolution into slightly different people than they were when they met.  GAP can go months without talking to some of his closest friends.  And yet, when they reconnect, the bond has not withered for lack of care and feeding.  It is that strong.

And as I watch from the sidelines, I envy him these friendships.  I think of my own friendships and wish they could similarly prove their mettle.  Because, while some of them are quite strong, I don’t think any of my friendships has been subjected to the same trial by fire that his have.  But why not?

Mostly, I suspect that as a woman I have learned to fight differently than he has as a man.  I think back to junior high and the way that we acted as girls.  Placid smiles veiled venomous gossip.  Sabotage and subterfuge and the elusive defenses against each were all well known to me by the age of thirteen.  Discrimination was swift and unjustified.  And more times than not my only course of action was to find my bravest face and wait for the next unsuspecting adolescent victim to fall so that I could rejoin the fray.

The boys, on the other hand, always had it out in the locker room, or on the football field, or in an alley somewhere.  And then it was over.  No grudges.  No backlash.  Done. 

But here’s the rub.  With age and maturity we women come to realize that these strategies and tactics are heartless, scathing, and not particularly productive (not that back-alley punches ever achieved world peace either…).  And so, mercifully, we leave them behind.  But they are the only arrows in our quivers.  What methods do we have left for dealing with hurt feelings or betrayed trust?  How, as adults, do we marry maturity and confrontation?  I’ve never done it.  Well, not very successfully anyway.  And so my usual tack is to avoid the issue in question until I feel the friction has subsided and then pretend that nothing ever happened.  Sometimes I’m able to let these things slide out of my memory.  But sometimes they linger longer than I’m comfortable admitting. 

So I am prone to wonder.  What would happen if I were forthcoming with my hurt or frustration or anger?  Now that the hot-headedness of adolescence is behind me such situations don’t arise often.  But from time to time one does still rear its head.  So what if I just threw that punch (metaphorically speaking, of course), and stated that I was angry?  Would my friendship withstand the conflict?  Or would it dissolve in front of me?  And if it did dissolve, was it much of a friendship to begin with?  And if it didn’t, does that automatically mean it is something of particular value?

Truth be told, I’m pretty sure GAP hasn’t thrown a punch in the ten years since we started dating.  And most of the other arguing was left behind in undergrad as well.  But the friendships that were formed and shaped before we outgrew the immaturity to fight are of a different caliber than those that have evolved since.  And I am left wondering, how do I bridge that gap?

On the Horizon

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Gale and IEP (6 months)

Earlier this week I was leaving my gym one evening after work.  On my way out the door I passed a little boy, probably about seven years old.  He had dark blond hair, defined eyebrows, and slightly crooked teeth.  He was bundled up, about to walk out into the cold.  He was talking to his dad about his basketball game.  And he was just adorable. 

I rushed out the door eager to get home, not having seen IEP all day.  When I walked in the door I heard IEP and GAP playing downstairs and wandered down to find them amidst a mélange of Leggos.  IEP can’t yet put them together, but he can carry them, bang them, drop them, pick them up, and give them to us.  And that is quite diverting enough for him. 

He’d had a rough go of it at supper and GAP had opted for Leggos over bath, which was fine by me.  I joined in the play for a few minutes until the eye rubs became more frequent and a yawn or two passed his lips.  Then I scooped him up, nibbled on his plump cheek in just the way that makes him laugh, and carried him upstairs to get ready for bed. 

Once he was tucked in and talking himself to sleep my mind drifted back to the little boy at the gym.  With my sweet baby nodding off in the other room I wondered who he will be in five or six years’ time.  Today he is active – not high strung, but always going.  He loves our dogs.  Loves to take toys away from them just to give them back.  He loves spinach and hates meat.  He is outgoing and flirtatious.  He is a good sleeper.  But what of the future? 

Will he play basketball?  Will he a class clown or a hard worker?  Will he be an alpha on the playground?  Or will he follow his friends’ leads?  Will his hair stay blond, or darken with age?  Will he have brothers or sisters or both?  Will he like for me to read his bedtime stories, or will he want to read them himself.  Will he be talkative like his mom, or reserved like his dad? 

The story goes that when I was a baby my mom was holding me in her arms and said to my dad, “I wonder what she’ll look like when she’s grown.”  My father aptly responded, “She’ll look like Gale.” 

I think about that story, which I’ve heard dozens of times, and sometimes it helps to quell my curiosities.  IEP will be just like IEP.  I’ll never come home and not recognize him.  I’ll never hear his voice and not relish in it.  I’ll never feel his cheek against mine and not want to melt right there in that moment.

He will surprise me.  He will get into trouble.   He will make me laugh.  He will disappoint me.  He will change just a little bit every day.  He will always be mine and I his – inextricably linked forever, whatever may come our way.  

There are times – many times – when I want to jump ahead in this book.  I want a sneak peak.  A glance over the horizon.  A chance to glimpse the little boy (and eventually bigger boy) that he will become.  But I stop and remind myself that he will only be 13 months old for a few more days.  And he will only be 14 months old for about 30 days after that. 

Aidan posed this question of reading the pages of our lives a few weeks ago.  And for me, along with most others, the answer is, no, I would not like to see how the story ends.  But for IEP, my curiosity is stronger.  I still don’t want to skip to the end of the book, but perhaps just to jump ahead a chapter or two.  And were it not for the debilitating fear of missing the present I might take that chance if offered. 

But as it is, that offer has not yet availed itself, and presumably will not.  And for that I believe I am grateful.  Time should march at its own pace.  And I should table my curiosities and appreciate that pace for what it is.  For I’m sure my regrets would outweigh my curiosities if I missed one moment of the now to look into the future.

Something to Show for Myself

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Sometimes, in the recesses of my mind, I dream about being a painter, or a sculptor, or a brick layer, or a florist.  Sometimes I think rather longingly about these types of professions.  I see the palette of colors in front of me and I picture the canvas as the scene emerges.  I feel the clay in my hands, cool and damp, and the way it takes shape slowly and deliberately.  I feel the rough texture of the brick scratch against my gloved hand as I set it into its place in the wall, and I hear the scrape of the spade as I wipe away the mortar.  I smell the flowers around me, and I arrange them into something beautiful, harmonious, and organized.

No, I’m not having a massive identity crisis. 

But here’s the thing about my career: It is completely and wholly intangible.  I am a marketing director for a medium-sized company.  Each day I spend hours tweaking spreadsheets, writing strategic planning documents, building consensus, and planning new “features and functionality”.  When I leave the office each evening I walk out with the same darling brown poka-dotted computer bag that I carried in several hours earlier.  My office looks the same, the building looks the same, I look the same. 

If I do my job well, in about 15- to 18-months’ time, my company will have envisioned, created, marketed, and sold a new product that will be used effectively by members of our industry to help better the lives of their end-customers.  

Huh?  What does that even mean? 

For reasons of privacy, I’ve been intentionally vague in my description.  But even if I’d gotten into specifics about our market, our clients, and their customers, the net effect of the statement wouldn’t be that much more concrete.  The fact of the matter is, my job is incredibly abstract.  Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me at all.  I enjoy the problem solving, relationship building, and priority juggling that I do every day.

But sometimes, at the end of a day, I wish I had something to show for myself. 

And so it is that I love to cook.  I cook, well, a lot.  I cook from scratch.  I cook from recipes.  I cook from ideas that spring into my mind out of nowhere.  I bake bread and bagels.  I sear chicken and sautee scallops.  I stir risottos and soups and bechamels.  I freeze ice creams.  I temper chocolate and eggs.  I whisk salad dressings into perfectly smooth emulsions.  I know that a soft-boiled egg is perfect after four and a half minutes.  I know that pork tenderloin is medium rare when pulled from the oven at 135 degrees.  I’ve made marshmallows, for crying out loud.

And at the end of the process, there is a completed product.  I see it in front of me – something I whipped up all by myself.  I didn’t have to wait a year, or even a full day for it to materialize.  I didn’t have to form committees, or build credibility, or write a planning document (unless there’s a party involved, in which case I’m a sucker for a planning spreadsheet…)  It is immediate, and tangible, and my very own.  And there are many things to love about that.

I get to show off my talent and my labor.  I get to eat things that taste good.  I get to make people feel special.  I get to nourish myself and my family every day. 

Most nights GAP makes a point to tell me that dinner was yummy.  (I’m not going to lie, there have been some duds.)  Even IEP readily favors the dishes I’ve made myself over the those (very few!) that came home from the store ready-made.  And while the praise and approval of others isn’t anything to shake off, it’s only a small part of the reason I spend so many hours in my kitchen.

I need to see something completed.  I need to have something to show for myself.  And I need to feel that it was worth it.

As I think about it, I don’t know many people whose jobs provide tangible results.  I wonder if I’m the only one with this gap to fill; this need to create something I can see, and touch, and smell (and eat!).  I wonder if I’m the outlier here, or if others are addressing the same need via other creative outlets.  Either way, I don’t plan to stop cooking any time soon.  Despite being psychologically fulfilling… it’s delicious!

BFF

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Today begins a four-part series on friendship.  For the next four weeks I will dedicate one post each week to exploring the many facets of friendship.
 
There are many kinds of friendship.  Probably as many as there are people in the world.  And I don’t claim even to begin to understand them all.  But throughout my life, my own friendships have tended to fall into one of two categories: immediate and intimate, or slow and superficial.  Perhaps I should elaborate.
 
Immediate and intimate.  I call these the summer camp friendships.  A strong bond is formed early and they develop quickly after that.  Intimate depths are explored.  I feel like I’ve known this person all my life, but yet wonder how I’ve made it this far without her.  Given the ferocity of the connection, and the intensity that develops over a matter of mere weeks or months, I’m always quite sure that this will be an enduring friendship; one for the ages, for certain.  And yet, the summer camp friendship almost always flames out.  You leave camp, or Yellowstone National Park, or your summer internship, and without the artificial trappings that birthed the friendship, it fades.  Perhaps you stay in touch via e-mail, or if you (and the other person) are very dedicated, a periodic phone call.  But ultimately you go back to whatever your normal life is, and that person just isn’t a part of it.  And you aren’t a part of theirs.  And the friendship that seemed so elemental to your life just a short while ago, has become nothing more than a BFF at the end of a letter written in four different colors of pen (if you’re 12 and just got home from camp) or an annual Christmas card or birthday phone call (if you’re 32 and BFFs are a little passé). 
 
Slow and superficial.  This category holds the majority of my friendships.  These are the friends from school and from work, the neighbors, the people you see regularly.  And you trade books, recipes, parenting tips, and birthday lunches.  These friendships are reliable and consistent and throw very few curve balls.  And everything is polite and pleasant and really there’s nothing to complain about.  But yet the friendship lacks that visceral connection, that feeling of simpatico.  You want to dive into the summer camp friendship depths – to confess your biggest dreams and frailest vulnerabilities.  But you’re afraid.  You don’t want to walk out on that limb alone.  So you continue to play it safe, and so does the other person.  You appreciate the steadiness of the friendship, but you yearn for it to be more.
 
And so it is that I have come to accept female friendship as one of the great challenges of my life.  I find intimacy that flickers and fades.  Or I find something on solid footing that never digs deep.  And I struggle with how to bridge the two.  Should I work to elongate the summer camp friendships into something more enduring?  Or should I take a leap with the everyday friends and hope I don’t cross some unstated line of propriety?  The fears either way can be paralyzing.  With regard to the former, it goes something like this, “What if it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me?  What if she’d rather just leave it behind?  Do I seem needy and desperate if I try to sustain it?” And with regard to the latter the monologue goes, “What if she doesn’t want this kind of friendship?  What if I freak her out?  What if I put myself out there and she doesn’t reciprocate?”
 
Despite one or two valued and enduring friendships, it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve had any success with a happy medium.  I have a group of girlfriends from graduate school with whom the gradual evolution of the friendship has taken on more depth and significance with time.  Perhaps this is due to a greater level of maturity in our 30s than what I experienced as a teenager and younger adult.  Perhaps it’s because pregnancies, childbirth, career transitions, and all other manner of joy and strife have put us through the trial by fire which forges something true.  Like most of my friendships, I don’t entirely understand why it works or doesn’t.  But it seems to work.  And for that I am utterly thankful. 
 
I continue to wonder what other people’s experiences are in this realm.  And I wonder if it is something specific about me that has led to this set of experiences, or is it more universal than that?  I’m sure I’ll continue to search for the answer, even if the search continues to be fruitless.

The Road to Nowhere

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Across the street from my office building is an empty field which is being developed.  I know it is being developed because for the past several months bulldozers and all other manner of heavy duty construction equipment have been building a road on that land.  It started out with grading equipment, drainage runoffs, cement trucks, and so on. Now it has curbs, streelights, and a sidewalk.  But at the end of it is, well, nothing.
 
It strikes me as strange to build a road with nothing at the end of it.  I suppose I would have expected them to build some sort of temporary passage - a gravel access road, perhaps.  And as the project has progressed I’ve continued to be surprised at all the finishing touches that have been added, especially since it continues to lead to nowhere.  Why on earth should they go to the trouble to put in sidewalks and streetlamps when clearly this road is getting no traffic?  My curiosity has been further piqued by what will be built at the other end.    
 
And then I got to thinking about this construction project as it relates to my own life, metaphorically speaking, that is.  How do I go about building my new roads in life?  When I want to try something new, do I pick a destination and then build the roads that will get me there?  Or do I start preparing the land and let my destination be determined as the road evolves organically?  And further still, is one way better than the other?
 
As with many things, there are probably pros and cons to either approach.  On the one hand, having a destination is probably more efficient.  I am going “there.”  So I should put an intersection here and an off-ramp there.  I know what my end goal is and I can map my course accordingly.  With a goal in mind I will not be deterred by rough terrain or inclement weather.  I can organize my toolkit for this journey at the outset.  I can be prepared.  I like this approach.  I like to be efficient and pragmatic and all manner of similar qualities that lend themselves to the making of spreadsheets.  
 
However, what do I miss in the process?  Without a destination I might discover things I didn’t know about.  This road-building thing is tough.  Lucky for me I found this nice shady picnic spot to stop and take a break.   I might discover new things about myself if given the opportunity to wander.   I might stumble upon something wonderful that I would have otherwise passed in a blaze of goal-oriented fury.  I might meet new people.  I read an unusual book.  I might, say, start a blog!  And I might find those things to be fruitful and satisfying.  A pleasant surprise, if you will.
 
As I mentioned before, in looking at my own approach I definitely fall into the destination category.  I’m a planner, a list maker, a goal-setter.  But why?  How do I know that the plan in my head is the best one? The right one?  And what if my vision is too small?  What if I create a plan for myself that seems attainable, but could be so much more?  (And if I am happy in my life am I just disturbing the peace by asking these questions?)     
 
My life so far has unfolded in much the way I might have guessed had I been asked for my prediction fifteen years ago.  A few route changes here and there, but no major diversions or course corrections.  Does that mean that my original plan was perfect?  That there was no room for improvement?  I struggle to accept that this could be the case.  And as I consider what other paths I might have taken I’m curious about what I’ve missed along the way.  Might I be happier if I’d strayed from the original map?  Might I be curled up in the fetal position on the side of the road? 
 
I don’t know.  And I won’t.  And that’s hard for me.  But it spurs me to look for unexpected turnoffs as I move forward.  Perhaps I will find that pleasant surprise.