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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.

heartbeat

It was late when I finally made it out of the city. It had been a good day. A productive day. An action-packed day.

But, quite frankly, I was feeling rather alone.

It didn’t help that I seemed to be the only driver on this unlit stretch of highway and night closed in around me. I was, it seemed, quite literally alone.  And the darkness was threatening to suffocate.

“Just breathe,” I said aloud.

The Universe must have been listening.

Suddenly, hundreds of red lights pulsed across the horizon as far as I could see in every direction, and with it, my breath was snatched away.

The lights disappeared and the darkness seemed more vast than before, but less oppressive.

Before I could doubt what I’d seen, the red lights pulsed on, steady and synchronized, hovering on the horizon. Then went out.

Another heartbeat, and they were closer.  Then gone.

Then there. Then not.

Then, I was among them.

I couldn’t help the feeling of awe, it bordered almost on reverence for they seemed to be transmitting something important to me that I couldn’t quite grasp, but somehow understood anyway.

Pulse.

Pulse.

Pulse.

On that unlit road, I was not alone anymore than I ever am, which is to say I never am.  At any moment in time, I—and you, Gentle Penguin—are surrounded by beating hearts though we may not see them nor believe they’re there.

But they are there.  And they are more spectacular and breathtaking than a light show…if we let them.

Five minutes later, and farther along the road with the windmills at my back, I find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Men work in varying shades of light. Arms stick out of truck windows. Shadows squirm in seats before and behind me.

And just around the bend, the waxing moon has risen shining red as if in solidarity with the lesson I’ve been gifted by the Universe…and the windmills.

Travel tips

I’ve been traveling for work quite a bit lately, and I’m learning a lot.

For example, tea drinkers are secondary citizens here in the USA.  Actually, I think we’re bottom-of-the-barrel citizens.  It’s not that they don’t have tea, but it’s sweet tea (which I detest) or it tastes like coffee.  Is it really that difficult to make hot water that tastes like hot water?  I doubt coffee drinkers would enjoy having their morning cuppa taste like tea.  So when I drink tea, I’d like it to not taste like coffee.

I am not outgoing.  I thought I was, but I’d much prefer sitting on the sidelines watching others perform.  And while its infinitely more entertaining, it makes it difficult to meet people…although I have some excellent character studies for my next collection of fairy tales as a result.

Thunderstorms are best when they can be heard…and smelled.  And windows should always be open-able.

If you travel with your own wine, leaving it in the mini fridge might mean wine slushies on day two. And more than two slushie wine drinks might be all the impetus you need to sign up for a dating service.  Or all I need.  Likewise, glass water bottles should not be left in mini fridges.  They will shatter in the middle of the night making you think someone was passing out against your hotel door and keep you awake the rest of the night.

Six Oreos from a vending machine at $0.75 creates less waste and is a better deal than a full pack at any cost.

Whereas I used to meet such nice people as I sat alone at a bar while traveling, now the bar is quiet as everyone absorbs themselves in individual magic screens.  Actually, that’s true back at home too.  My local pub used to be a place where people of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, walks of life and interests would gather and talk to others.  I learned so many interesting things at my local pub.  I’ve met some fantastic people.  I made friends.  Now, when I go, I can chat with the bartenders, but even though the bar is full, everyone stares a little boxes in their hands never noticing anything—or anyone—-else while they sit there oblivious.

Nuns are truly mysterious people, especially when they host business dealings or retreats…though, I admit I prefer their spiritual insight to those of priests…and their business insights to those of many seasoned professionals.

Books on CD make great traveling companions, but not in fine weather when the sunroof and windows are open.  Then I rather prefer Katie Perry, or Maroon 5, or OneRepublic. Or maybe Barbara Streisand. Or Air Supply.

With more business trips yet pending, I wonder what else I’ll learn.

Career Enlightenment

When people ask me how I’m doing, I usually respond “my business is doing very well,” with a smile.  My business is doing very well, and by that I mean I’m staying very busy, plus I frequently get to do some interesting work.  But, sometimes, it’s still work.

I don’t mind work, in fact, I like working as a general rule, but I often wonder whether I shouldn’t pursue some “dream job.”  What? I don’t know.

Meanwhile, my dad retired this morning.  He spent his career as a draftsman engineer designing propellers for fans and other “air-moving devices.”  For 43 years.  All, but one year, at the same company.  I doubt anyone of my generation will be able to say that.  And I can’t help wondering why.  Is it that companies aren’t loyal to their employees anymore?  Is it that employees aren’t loyal to their companies anymore?  Or is it both?

I ask my dad—who is, of course, the wisest man I know—if he thinks people in my generation, or even my daughter’s generation will ever be able to retire from a long career at one company.  He agrees that it’s not likely.  But why?

“Because your generation thinks you have to love what you do every day.  That your worth is measured by what you do and how far you go.  My generation knew that the meaning of my work wasn’t in the work itself.  It was in knowing what you worked for…and I’m not talking about a mission statement or your strengths profile.  I’m talking about the reason you work in the first place.  Mine was to provide for my family.  And every day at 5 o’clock, I could come home and enjoy my reward—a good dinner with my family in our nice home which we owned, a garden in the back to grow some food, and sharing it all with the people I cared about most.

“Your generation has been told to work for fame or fortune or both, and you care too much about how you measure up to everyone else in this race.  That’s not a reward you really ever enjoy.  If you want a good career, then ask yourself, ‘what do you work for?’  If you know the answer, then focus on that.  If you don’t, figure it out.”

What do I work for?

I sat very still for a very long time thinking about this last night.  And when I seemed to be going nowhere, I pulled out the dictionary.

Gentle Penguin, did you know “career” comes from the old Latin carrus which means chariot?  From there, the word went on to mean a course for racing and then later to the course of a working life.  Somehow this idea of a career being a vessel for movement through life or a track within life comforts me.  It’s not life—a condition of being–or even a legacy—to be sent on a mission.

But I still don’t know what I work for.  What I do know is that I can safely and confidently say that if I change the world, it won’t have been through anything I got hired to do.  But in being hired, I will most definitely find the means.

Does that mean I’m giving up on the dream?  Or am I growing up and, perhaps, maybe, finding my way a little closer to enligthenment?

Shaping up.

For months and months I’ve been shaping up and working out and struggling to do anything to return to my former athletic glory.  Yes, it’s true, I used to be an athlete when I was younger.  But somewhere along the way of running my own business, I fell out of shape.  (I can’t even blame being a single mom, because I used to be athletic then too!).

Actually, I’ve decided that “falling out of shape” is not the proper term.  It makes no sense.  People may fall out of love, or fall out of bed, but it’s not likely that you fall out of shape.  It’s more like people sit out of shape.

For instance, my shape went from a nice hour-glass to round.  It didn’t happen because of a fall.  It happened because of a couch, quite frankly.  True, it happened over a winter or two (with a spring, summer and autumn in between), but it was really the couch that caused it.  A snuggly, comforting, warm couch that enfolded me when I was tired, cold, lonely and depressed.  And I sat there.  For a year.  Or maybe more.

Then around Thanksgiving, I was talked into taking a ballet workout with a friend and that convinced me that the couch wasn’t nearly as comforting as I thought.  Not compared to working my muscles to the exhaustion.  And the four hour endorphin high that came with it.

So I threw myself into finding my shape.  Unfortunately, every inch I fought off became a battle I waged against myself–body, mind and even soul.  It sounds so violent!  But if you could read my thoughts while I’m working out, you’d know I do feel rather angry about it—angry for sitting so much, for eating so much, for not caring so much.  Angry at how much harder it is to lose weight now that I’m getting older.  Angry at how my life is NOT set up to be healthy.

It’s all my own fault, I know.  No one forced me to sit so much, or eat what and how much I’ve eaten, or set my life up this way.  It was a choice.  My choice.

Then, last week, I was lecturing my youngest about something, and she said “aren’t you the one always saying that ‘it’s the thousand choices you make every day that determine what your life is going to be?'”  Yes, I say things like that to my daughter.  And I do believe that’s true.  I just don’t like it when it’s used against me.

So I pouted and then thought about it, then started looking at every one of the choices I make in a normal day from the time I choose to get up to the time I choose to go to sleep.  Of course, what followed was a good half day of arguing with myself about what belongs in each day and what doesn’t.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot of crap in between those hours that doesn’t belong there, but I defended all of it to myself because…well, I don’t really know why.

Exhausted from my mental arguments, I went to my Pure Barre workout and judged myself in the mirror until I was so shaky, sweaty and exhausted that I began to bargain with myself instead.  “You know, you could be running instead,” I heard one thought say and my body responded by toughening up and holding on to the butt shaping exercise more desperately.  I hate running.

“You could join Cross Fit with some of your friends,” another thought said, and somewhere deep inside me something shrieked in horror.  I know others love it, but I’ve tried it, and it’s NOT for me.

“You could go back to karate,” said another thought, and I pondered how ballet training and karate are actually very similar.

In the next 40 minutes, a hundred other options crossed my mind from creating my own circuit training to giving up.

When I climbed back into my car enjoying the post-workout bliss, I was debating whether I could give up life as I know it and become a wandering hermit who just walked.  Probably a little dramatic for the situation, I decided.  That’s when the Blue Zones crossed my path.  I’d read about them a year or so before, but somewhere in the comfort of my couch, I’d forgotten the lessons.

  • Move Naturally–build a life that nudges you to move, especially movement you enjoy and walk
  • Know your purpose and ascribe to a greater purpose
  • Eat wisely–mostly plant-based diet, only to 80% feeling full and a little wine every day (whew!)
  • Connections matter most–family first, then a tribe that supports you

Most of these lessons fit my idea of living well–meaning well as in healthy and well as in great.  I don’t intend to be a supermodel, or starve or kill myself for fashion, or to meet some societal judgement, or anything else that’s not natural.  I merely intend to live naturally and well.

So I look over the Blue Zones list and zero in on “especially movement you enjoy,”  mostly because it’s at the top and probably the most revolutionary idea on the list.  “You mean I don’t have to run?!  Or join Cross Fit?!” I think excitedly.  But what do I love to do?

Before I can answer, the answer presents itself.  My playlist changed, and once again I stopped all thought and just imagined dancing to the lilting tune.

I love to imagine myself dancing.  I do it almost all the time that I hear music playing.  I think about what kind of dances would work with the tune, which steps would be best at differing points in the tune, who I’d like to dance with, and sometimes even what kind of dress I’d wear.

“Why don’t you go back to dancing?!” my mind asked me excitedly.  “Because the only time I get to dance I have to pay—and pay A LOT—to have someone to dance with.  It’s just not natural!” I argued.  I laugh.  My grandparents would have tsked-tsked me for saying that.  Dancing was something they did all the time.  It was a common social practice, and everyone knew how to do it.  There was no need to pay anyone to dance with you, and I’m not talking about bump and grind, but dances like the waltz and tango and swing dance.  Oh, how I long to East Coast Swing!!!!

Isn’t dance why I’m in the Pure Barre class and own a dozen ballet workout DVDs to begin with?  Wasn’t ballroom dance always the best workout I ever had…mainly because it never felt like a workout?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dance again?  YES!  YES!  YES!

A song from Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance comes on my play list and I smile thinking of myself gracefully floating across the stage then stamping out a complimentary rhythm.  Maybe I should take up Irish Dancing!  I mention it to my youngest later, and she laughs.  (And laughs.  And laughs.)  But then again, she laughed at my doing ballet.  And ballet has been great for my shape.  But to fly around the floor in someone’s arms and climb inside of music—well, that’s my idea of a great time!

That night, in the darkness of our very first thunderstorm of the year, I go back to dreaming about dancing and thinking about making choices.  I can choose to continue arguing with myself, judging myself and feeling angry about sitting out of shape.  Or I can choose to make better daily choices.  If dancing is the way I want to shape up, then by-gosh-by-gum, then who am I really to argue with myself.  Now, I just need to find a partner.

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