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Unraveling in traveling

It’s nearly 4am here in Germany where my youngest and I are not exactly having the vacation I thought we would.  Every hiccup has sent me into panic, and as with all international travel, there have been hiccups aplenty.  Could it be that I’ve grown fearful with age? (We’ve handled every hiccup with flying colors…but my nerves are shot.). Or is it some health system imbalance? Or maybe when you take a serious break (meaning way out of your daily life for an extended period of time) it’s only natural that you find yourself lost and frightened?

I purposefully have disconnected from most forms of communication and find that I have indeed survived.  That means I haven’t been checking up on work…and about two days ago I was hyperventilating trying to even remember what my daily life and work were all about.  How strange that I couldn’t remember!  

So after a terrible nightmare, I decide to distract myself by checking in (quietly).  Oh my…that was not a good idea.  Suddenly I can’t sleep for another reason.  I believe in work.  I believe it’s quite possibly the greatest thing a person can do in life—provided it adds value.  Am I providing value or manufacturing bullshit like so much of work seems to be these days? 

Meg and I have already visited several major cities in Germany’s South and West.  Munich, Fankfurt and Cologne among them.  And I’ve been completely uninspired by any of it—they’re busy cities just like any other.  They all have churches that make me increasingly uncomfortable about the true role of organized religion for all their dusty golden guilding in their treasuries and edicts and rules. They all have shops and museums to distract you; clubs and bars, wine and beer to anesthetize you; busy streets and beggars to desensitize you; and free wifi everywhere so you can disconnect whenever it gets to be too little or too much.  

It’s only in the parks that I have relaxed enough to smile without any beer or wine to loosen my nerves.

Then late yesterday, we finally made it to the city of my maternal heritage.  Offenburg is a small town on the German/French border.  There isn’t much to do here but hike in the Black Forest just outside the city limits, or walk the Wine Path to the East and North, or visit one of the natural spas.  I think my crisis of this evening hit because I instantly felt at ease—literally the moment we stepped off the train, even though I’ve never been here before and the chances that people we interact with will speak English is now greatly reduced. Maybe it’s the nature of the place—literally surrounded by nature.  Or maybe it has to do with identifying it as a home of sorts.  Or perhaps because we are now exactly halfway through our vacation and this half is all here in this town—no more moving around with our luggage strapped to our backs every other day, catching trains, finding hotels, setting alarms…  No, now it’s about relaxing and finding my roots.  Maybe I’ll finally discover who I am too.

One thing’s for sure, though, the thought of home, my little house with dogs on a quiet tree-lined street in an unassuming neighborhood in tiny Dayton is one thought about returning that makes me almost deliriously happy.  So maybe now I can try to close my eyes and pray for safe, relaxing sleep.

Wee small hours

In the wee small hours of the morning, while the whole wide world is fast asleep, I lie awake and think about how inconsequential my last post really is.  Between the boxer tasting freedom for the first time and listening to personal stories of suffering from WWII (even if from a book), it is such a trivial and possibly mean-spirited post.

I do what we all do now and reach for my phone and find something to distract my thoughts.  An article from the New York Times about “small, happy lives” looks promising, so I click on it and read.  I find more thoughts from WWII survivors.

Is it the deep darkness? Or the resounding silence? Or perhaps the combination of both?  Whichever, I find that everything seems so clear here in the wee small hours. And I wonder if I should give up my day job to live and work in this clarity.  Of course that’s silly.  

So my thoughts wander down the path a little farther and land on a story one of the survivors told about dogs being riled up at the concentration camps then let loose on the prisoners.  It’s a fitting description for my view of the terrorists these days.  And it’s such an ugly description, not just for the imagined destruction, but also the thought that perhaps we see this now as good people who were only looking for some sort of salvation or connection are being warped and twisted into such monsters.

But then my snuggly dog readjusts and scoots up closer to me, still snoring, and I have hope.

The truth of overcoming such horror is also clear…and simple.

Every interaction—no matter how small—every act of kindness, every choice that reinforces our belief in the good of humanity, every smile, every gentle touch, every moment of eye contact, every moment of tough love, every moment of standing up for another…or ourselves, every acknowledgement that raising a child or tending a garden is worthwhile, every time we take or make time to be with or help a friend.  These matter more than, well, pretty much anything else.

Because it’s in these moments we find that we are more than humans, Gentle Penguin, we are divine beings.  As opposed to believing we’re supposed to be living like gods only to feel disappointed by being oh-too human.

For far too long now I’ve believed I’m supposed to somehow save the world with a big hairy audacious goal, something flashy that makes me wealthy.  But day after day, I feel like I’m going crazy, beating my head against a wall, praying that I “find it,” whatever “it” may be. Then I wake up and run around like crazy trying to look and sound important until my stomach hurts, I drink too much and I have no time or patience for my daughters or my dogs.

Laying here in the darkness, I see a touch of light on the horizon, and I feel like I’m starting to see the light.

My mind wanders back to something else I read in the Times article, “to achieve more, tend to what you have.”  I want more love. I want more time. I want more laughter. I want more joy. I want more health. I want more meaningful work. 

Right now, though, more than anything, I want more tea.

Avoidance

Perhaps it’s because I’m listening to Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on audiobooks and loving how beautiful letters sound when read aloud.  Perhaps it’s because I’m overly stimulated with too much travel, too many new ideas and too much drudgery work still pending before vacation.  Perhaps it’s because vacation is so close.

Most likely it’s because I’m avoiding having to deal with the fairy tale writer’s block I’ve run into during the past two weeks.

But this morning upon checking my email, I came across my third romantic solicitation through LinkedIn and decided to respond.  I am so amused, I thought I would share:

[NOTE:  What you need to know first though, Gentle Penguin, is that in a lonely moment after two glasses of wine in a hotel in a different city about five weeks ago, I signed up for an online dating service figuring it would at least help me ease back into the practice of dating.  My one big criteria is that he initiate the conversation.  I know the experts say I should take the reigns and push forward, but that’s not authentic to me, so I figured it would help weed out the chaff.  To date, out of 40+ “matches,” exactly zero have initiated any contact whatsoever.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for an instant ruling out the possibility that I might be disgusting or intimidating or uncompliant because I have less than five photos on my profile.]

Dear sir,

Thank you for your message. Since you stressed the fact that you’re looking for honesty, I hope you will appreciate my honest response to your inquiry.

I am interested in finding a life-long companion with whom I can enjoy a traditional and wholesome relationship, and while I see you have many criteria, I have only few—but they are high.

One of the criteria is that he be capable of and willing to lead.  So I commend you on your reaching out to me directly.  It’s rather rare.  I’m not the type of girl to make the first move, so I can appreciate your having done so.

However, I find this type of personal solicitation over a website meant for professional connections rather unnerving.  I hope it doesn’t mean you believe my services to be intimate in nature…for they are most assuredly not.  I’ve taken the liberty of reviewing your profile and reaching out to several of the “connections” we share in common and find they have received identical messages.  

Honestly, it strikes me as spam, and meat-in-a-can and electronic fishing seem rather unnatural and suspicious to me, so I avoid them both diligently.

Therefore, I’d like to thank you for her flattery I assumed from your outreach, even though I now realize it was meant generally for many women. I’d also like to thank you for confirming that I am quite possibly ready to begin looking for a wholesome, honest, life-long partnership and relationship with a good man.  And I imagine it’s awkward to be soliciting affection from many women you don’t know, so I want you to know I admire your bravery? (maybe) or courage? (possibly) or guts? (definitely)

I wish you the best in your search, but please remove me from your list of possibilities. 

Kind Regards.

First taste of freedom

I don’t normally write this often, Gentle Penguin, but I saw the most amazing thing today, and I wished I could have shared it with you.

Theo, Ollie and I were at the dog park—the one with the giant hill.  The sun had risen well above the horizon, but we weren’t tired yet and with a long day ahead of us, we wanted to enjoy as much of the sunshine and fresh air as possible.  

The other dogs had all gone home.  Except for one.  

A brindle-colored boxer sniffed along the fence line in the separate park area at the bottom of the hill.  Her owner, an older man carrying a newspaper and a coffee mug opened the gate to the North side of the hill and began walking clockwise to my counter-clockwise. 

Our paths crossed at the top of the hill, but his boxer was nowhere to be seen. 

“She’s never been to a park before,” he said as he patiently waited to see if she was coming.  “Never been in a space bigger than a closet.”  

I looked at him shocked, if not horrified.  He nodded looking sad.  “I got her Saturday.  She’s two.”  I thought he might cry then, and being a sympathy cryer, I was afraid I would too.  I turned to look for the boxer.  Theo and Ollie were romping like little boys fighting over a toy truck in the middle of the grassy hill.  The boxer was still on the bottom of the hill against the fence watching them.

Just then a tern flew low over the boxer’s head and landed about 10 feet away.  The boxer’s tail wagged, and she loped after it a bit.  The tern flew low and landed several more feet away.  The boxer loped after it again.  The tern flew low up the hill toward the northern point of the park.  The boxer followed loping along almost like a clumsy puppy whose feet are too big for its legs.

The tern flew on toward the fence, but just as it reached the fence line, it turned low and slow back over the dog park.  The boxer followed.  

The tern picked up speed, but not altitude and circled over the grassy north section of the park.  The boxer picked up speed and smoothed out her running.  The tern circled again, low, but not slow.  The boxer ran faster, smoother.  The tern twisted into a figure eight.  The boxer continued to follow and began gaining ground.  The tern flapped and zoomed faster into a circle.  The boxer was now running like a champ.  

The tern circled again, this time diving and swooping up with speed that seemed to mock the boxer…until the boxer kicked in, lowering her head, pushing her front legs out and whipping them back under her like a thoroughbred.

My heart squeezed in my chest and tears pushed at the corners of my eyes.  Every hair on my body seemed to cheer on the boxer.  I looked at Theo and Ollie—they had stopped playing and were watching as mesmerized as I was.  The old man was crying—big, wet, silent tears rolling down his pointed cheekbones and falling off his chin.

The tern circled again then lifted and zoomed over the fence to the tall grass beyond.  The boxer stopped at the fence, looked for a long moment, then turned around and ran diagonally across the hill to the old man.  She stood there looking up at him, tail wagging, as if to say “did you see that?!”  

He sniffed loudly, then reached down and patted her affectionately, “good girl.”

Saint Nicholas Ave.

If I had been in the von Trapp household and been asked what my favorite things were, I’d have started with having breakfast on the front porch during a rain storm listening to a mix of international songs from the first half of the 20th century.  On those mornings, it’s not uncommon for me to go through two pots of hot tea and switch to wine while listening to four different renditions of La Vie En Rose before I consider the morning closed…which may be well into late afternoon.

To the North, there are only two porches before the end of our block, but the space between the two houses on the corners seems inconsequential when peering through the porches.  Meanwhile, as far as I can see to the South, I peer through porch after porch after porch…I count twelve before I’m not able to peer through any farther.  Some have porch swings, two have a trellises, one even has a tiki bar.  They all have lights that create our own personal lighted walk in the evenings.  And they have become the new living room of my neighborhood.

  

Another of my favorite things is my changing neighborhood.  When I moved here eleven years ago, the neighborhood was quiet.  Most of the hoses were occupied by elderly couples who were friendly and sometimes a bit bossy about how they liked their neighborhood to be kept up, but they were always there to help, or lend an egg or let me know if anything suspicious was going on.  It was like living next to half a dozen sets of grandparents—it was great!  

But the cycle of life keeps spinning and a few died, others moved into nursing centers or with other family, and their houses passed on to younger couples with young kids.  My young kids enjoyed that, even if the neighborhood became suddenly loud and a bit chaotic.  Tree houses were built, a window or two was broken from ill-hit baseballs, the sidewalks were covered in chalk as often as not.

But these families moved on to bigger houses in better school districts and the houses stood silent for a few years.  Some fell into disrepair.  Some became rather scary with stories of ghosts and crime.  Paint chipped, then peeled, broken windows stayed broken or were covered in ugly boards, and we learned just how high grass could grow if left uncut.

Then two years ago, an immigrant family moved into the house two doors down from me.  They took the worse house on the block and nursed it back to health. It quickly became the best house in the block.  Until another immigrant family from a different part of the world moved in and took the worst house and fixed it up.  And so on and so forth until every house in my block now shines beautiful and welcoming.

Meanwhile, my neighbors are now Turks, Mexicans, Columbians, Congolese, Russians, Egyptian and Rawandan…in addition to a few young couples with young kids, a few elderly couples who we all care for as if they were grandparents, and even a few young professionals.

So let me tell you what I love about the young professionals.  They know how to rock the front porch and have been teaching all of us how to use our front yards, which previously were just for cutting grass.  The tiki bar I mentioned to the South of me—yup, it’s the young professionals, and not only are they out there almost every night mixing drinks, they are often playing the guitar, singing and playing games like pictionary or sharades. 

Their evening parties often spill over into the front yard where they set up cornhole or horseshoes or bocce amidst folding chairs and a portable grill.  On other evenings, they bring out a portable firepit and sit around it roasting hotdogs or marshmallows laughing and telling stories…always with a cheery “hello” as I walk by with the dogs.

Since the weather changed, I’ve noticed several other families venturing out on thier front porches, and my daughter and I even ventured out into the lawn the other day.  Maybe one day soon we’ll play some croquet there.  For some reason it seems to require some amount of courage to be out there…like being on a stage of sorts.

Which brings me to another favorite thing—the colors that come from living in an international neighborhood.  On my end of the block, there are brilliant purple, orange and yellow flowers at every house (except the Americans’ houses).  They spill over the porches, fill the flowerbeds and even trail out into the yards.  So beautiful, so charming, so inviting they brighten the neighborhood beyond anything I’ve ever seen.  

As soon as I’m finished writing you, Gentle Penguin, I’m going straight to the nursery to pick up some purple flowers of my own.

Ella sings, “Let’s fall in love. Why shouldn’t we fall in love? Our hearts are made for it. Let’s take a chance, why be afraid of it?”  And my Mexican neighbors sing along, now sitting on their front porch drinking coffee and chatting after a rousing “hello” to greet me.  The Russian family tips their coffee cups our way and feed scraps of their breakfast to the cat who lives alternately on the porches of the Rawandas, a young couple and the Egyptians.

Truthfully, I am in love–here on the porch—with my neighborhood.

Human-void

For the past two weeks, everywhere I turn I’m running into messages about robots.  A company in Japan just released a humanoid robot they claim can replace receptionists and information booth workers.  At a conference in Cleveland we learned about robots that are replacing humans in the medical field—including the operating room.  And this month’s Harvard Business Journal feature is on the relationship between man and machine…because we’re going to be increasingly working with them in the future…or replaced by them.

I haven’t read the entire issue yet, but I’ve been asking around to see what others think.  And mostly people are optimistic that it’s 10 years off or more.  Optimistic?  They must not be parents.  Others are thinking the robots won’t displace workers because we will have to manage the robots.  And others think it’s overblown paranoia.

Personally, I can’t help thinking backwards in time to see that perhaps were already more deeply in this issue than we’d like to believe.

For instance,  two years ago during my Ireland vacation I met the loveliest people and drank deeply of fairytale lore.  But there was another story that’s stuck with me and seems to prick my memory much more frequently the further I get from that point in time.

This story is a history.  It takes place in a tiny Irish village during the great potato famine.  People were starving.  Men were losing their jobs.  Times were getting desperate.  Those who could afford to flee were fleeing. And the nuns of this small town knew those who remained were in real great danger of dying.

All they had was each other…and one loom.  

The nun taught her class to weave.  The proceeds from the pot holders and blankets and rugs they made and sold went to buy another loom.  And another.  The nuns taught the parents to weave.  And by the time the industrial revolution arrived in this town, they were famous for not only surviving, but thriving.  But somewhere in the height of the industrial revolution, computers came along—computers that could work looms, even up to ten at a time, with outstanding precision and higher throughput, which is business speak for more goods with few problems.

The business side of me says, “Wow!”

Then you walk back into the mill to see the computers at work.  One person manages 40 looms.  Someone asks him if his ancestors were part of this amazing story that saved the town. “No,” he tells us. He’s from the other side of the island, where he earned a degree in IT.  The people who used to work—and live here—are mostly gone because they can’t find jobs in town.

Even now, I feel such a mix of emotions remembering the long moment of silence that followed.

But it does no good to dwell on it.  I’m a solutions-minded person…or at least I try to be, Gentle Penguin.  So what is the solution?

“You must always start by being clear about what problem you’re trying to solve,” someone once told me.  So I think.  My daughter texts me and asks me to bring her some lunch while she’s working a long shift at a retail store, and the lightbulb brightens.  Personally, I want to make sure my daughters have the opportunity to find fulfilling jobs when they grow up.

So I text her back and tell her, “yes.”  Then I whip up something I know she’ll love (and can eat in the 15-minute lunch break she’s allowed), and take it to her.  On the way home, I stop at the bank, and instead of using the ATM, I opt to go inside and speak with a teller.  She smiles, we laugh about the weather, she suggests a option I hadn’t thought of, and I leave feeling a bit more human.

Silly as it seems, I decide right then and there to prioritize human interaction over machines—avoiding ATMs, self-checkout lines, ordering philharmonic tickets online, gas pumps (well, I might struggle with this one).  It’s small, I know, probably impractical too.  But maybe my tiny touches will add up someday in the future…if in no other way than to help me feel more human.

Irony and Hypocrisy

I was so thankful the room was dark and the spaces were plentiful so I didn’t have to sit crammed up against anyone else and could pay full attention to the speaker in complete anonymity.  Quite happily and comfortably I wrote notes in my notebook, jumping between quoting facts and adding connections from my own thoughts.

Then the dreaded words, “now, turn to the person next to you and share your thoughts about this.” 

Not only did I groan (perhaps aloud), I felt suddenly nervous and irritated.  The lights brightened slowly, and I begrudgingly turned to the person on my right.

The irony was that I was sitting in a professional summit titled “empathy amplified” listening to Richard Frankel, PhD—a foremost authority on how important empathy and human connections are to health.

The hypocrisy was that I’m a HUGELY passionate champion for person-to-person, in-person connections.

“I dread these ‘sharing moments,'” I said.

The person to my right laughed. “Well, you’re at the wrong conference then,” he said.

Ironically, it’s the first conference I’d attended (ever) where I’ve felt like I’d found “my people.”

I told him so. 

“Then why do you dread sharing?” he asked.

I didn’t know, but that didn’t stop me from answering anyway, “probably because I never know what I should say.”

That was dumb. I’m not in school. This wasn’t a test.

“You should say what you think.  What do you think?” he asked.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you hear someone talking, you look around and realize it’s you? 

“I think relationships—not romantic—well, I mean those too, but more broadly any definition that involves people engaging and connecting with one another—have become like American food.  Manufactured and over-processed, fast and cheap, and combined with too many distractions so that ultimately they’re not only not satisfying, they’re actually killing us.”

Oh. My. God.  Why can’t I just keep my mouth shut!?  I wanted to roll my eyes at my own self.

“That’s interesting,” he said, and I imagined him looking quickly for the nearest exit.  Instead, he pulled his chair closer and looked me in the eye.  “How do we fix it?”

Of course I paused and gave it great thought and consideration…wait, no I didn’t. I blurted out, “I think we need to drink more.”

He laughed.

“No, seriously!” I said, truly WITH great thoughtfulness this time.  “When you want to have a real conversation with someone you would ask them to coffee, right?”  He stopped laughing and looked me in the eye again.  I continued. “When you want to be part of a community, you have a beer—whether it’s in your backyard, tailgating or at a pub, right?”  

“Go on,” he said still looking me in the eye.

“When you want to celebrate or get to know someone more intimately—I don’t just mean romantically, either—you open a bottle of wine.  And when you want to comfort someone, you put on a kettle for tea…well, maybe you specifically don’t, but some people do. I do. I know others do.”

<pause for dramatic effect and maybe a little sweating on my part>

Wait, I believe all that!

“I call it my Thirsty! theory,” I said with confidence.

Our “sharing moment” time was up.  The speaker was asking for our attention again, and so I began to turn back around.

His hand touched my arm lightly. 

“You shouldn’t ever be afraid to say what you think,” he said. “I like your Thirsty! theory.”

I smiled.

His hand squeezed my arm.  “Want to have a drink tonight?”

I have to tell you truthfully, Gentle Penguin, I almost said “no.”  Fortunately, my mind seized hold of my tongue and pinched it tight.  Then it tipped my head up and down in such an awkward fashion I felt like a robot. Only then did my mind release my tongue.  “I’d love to,” I said.

The irony—we left the session without setting a meeting time or location.

The hypocrisy—I felt relieved.

To punish me, at lunch the Fates forced me into the most uncomfortable position of having to find myself a single open chair at the myriad of full, round tables in the adjoining ballroom where people had already begun to eat. After some serious thought about skipping lunch, I found an open seat and asked if I could join the group.

They welcomed me, I introduced myself and then fell back to listening to them talk.  However, the lady to my right persisted with questions until I found myself enjoying a lively discussion with her about books, and what motivates people to have preventive screening tests, and the changes in providing care coming down the path.  

My faith in myself was restored and for the rest of the afternoon, I chatted with several more people rather joyfully.  As a reward, I gave myself permission to skip the loud and overcrowded gala to go to a nice quiet restaurant, ask for a table for one, banish my iPhone and order something delicious.  

Ironically, the Fates stepped in and seated a large tableful of boisterous women who were also sporting conference badges next to me.  They promptly invited me to join them.  Which I did…on the condition that I be allowed to buy a bottle of wine for the table.

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