Category Archives: The Human Condition

Using your Inner Dimmer Switch

The older I get, the less I am sure I know.  But there are a few things that I feel I know for sure, and one of them is this:  There are a whole lot of insecure people in this world.  Truth be told, they’re everywhere.  Sometimes they’re disguised as the arrogant; other times the woefully kind.  I heard recently that you can assume everyone you know is walking around with a broken heart, and I thought that was a good reminder.  It’s probably good to remember that everyone is walking around with a backpack full of insecurities, too.

Why is it important to remember this?  While I don’t think it’s our job to accommodate the insecurities of those around us, it might be nice to help people work through them when we can.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve made a commitment to highlighting the strengths in other people whenever I can.  Could I do a better job?  I surely could.  But I’m willing to bet that I give out sincere praise and admiration more often than most – even when I feel jealous of the other person’s success.  I think such small gestures have the potential to have a grand impact.

Truthfully, though, we are mostly responsible for keeping ourselves in tact.  We can’t rely on others to build us up, and I’d argue because of those insecurities lurking around in the subconscious of every fearful heart – you can almost count on the opposite.  People who are unsure of themselves and their place in the world often don’t hesitate to undermine somebody else or tear them down.  Because let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier to bring someone down to your level than raise yourself up to theirs.

So one thing I find myself doing – and truthfully I’m not sure how I feel about it – is making good use of my dimmer switch.  I’m a keen observer of those around me.  Understanding what makes people tick is my life’s work, after all.  I can detect the insecure in almost any venue and any form they appear.  When that happens, I find that don’t hesitate to reach behind me and ever so discreetly turn the knob to my dimmer switch a little to the left.  No need to let my light shine too bright in their presence.  No good can come of that.

At the end of the day, I’m left feeling unsure.  Am I selling myself short or being smart?  You be the judge.

The Red Blinking Light

voicemail-messagesI don’t remember precisely when it happened, but at some point in my adult life I started hating the phone.  It probably happened when other, less intrusive options became viable ways of communicating.  There are days where my phone’s usefulness is reduced to being a glorified clock and occasional calculator. People who know me well, know this. They know their best bet if they really want to get ahold of me is to text or send an instant message.  But for those who don’t understand this about me, or are unwilling to accommodate it, I fear it’s become a social impediment.  This strangeness about me has exceeded being cute or quirky.  It’s getting in the way of my life and at times my relationships, and while I generally care very much about the happiness of others, in this case I don’t much care to do a thing about it.

If I’m being honest, I know I have a professional fault or two.  Or three or maybe even four.  And one that I’ve tried to remedy for years is my responsiveness to voicemails.  I’ve even made it a professional New Year’s resolution for several years running.  I will be the first to admit, I find almost nothing more rewarding than several hours away from my desk, only to return to the absence of the red blinking light on my desk phone.  Perhaps I love this feeling because it’s so rare.  But I really think I love it because it equates freedom.  No one needs me.  Everyone is all right. Thank God.

I’ve joked for years that I hate voicemail and the red blinking light that represents it for one simple reason:  It never indicates there is good news on the way.  Oh, contraire.  The red blinking light means someone is unhappy, or has an impossible problem they think only I can solve, or the world is about to end.  I can’t think of a single time someone called to say I just wanted to say what a great job you are doing, or the funniest thing happened today and it made me think of you, or has anyone ever told you that you smell like cinnamon toast, in a good way?  No one has ever done that.  Now that I think about it, they should.

So much like all things unpleasant, I’ve categorized listening to voicemail with the likes of emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the litter box, or going to the dentist.  That is to say, I’ll typically avoid it for as long as I reasonably can.  If it’s on my personal phone, I’ll call you back before I listen to the rambling voicemail you left.  (Yes, I am one of those people.)  If it is on my work phone, I’ll glare at the red blinking light, sigh, pick up the receiver, hold my breath, and cringe when the automated system barks at me in it usual judgy tone:  You have 12 unheard messages.  To play your messages, press 2.  

Ack.  That’s twelve things I will probably wish I didn’t have to know.

The Grace of Acceptance

A co-worker sent me an email, short and succinct:  “It seems like your job has been really hard lately.  I put two cans of your favorite soda in the fridge by your office.  It’s not much, but I hope it makes things better.”  I read the email and felt an instant sense of validation wash over me.  Someone noticed.  They noticed that things had been hard – they had been – and they made a small, sweet (literally and figuratively) gesture to right my world that was currently dotted with wrongs.

Later that afternoon, I took a break from my string of impossible problems to solve and popped open an ice cold can of caffeinated, carbonated Sweet Nectar of the Gods.  For the second time in a day, I reflected on the gesture.  I had replied to the original email thanking the person for their thoughtfulness and I meant it sincerely.  But I didn’t go over the top, I didn’t wonder why or what now or sit with any discomfort.  Rather, I just accepted.

We often think of the world as having givers and takers, and I suppose some of that is true.  And if it’s true, I want to be remembered for being on the side of the givers.  I am – I know I am – and it’s one of my most important values to be generous in spirit.  But giving is an art form, and what I think people forget or perhaps don’t understand, is that giving has an ever-present faithful companion at its side. That companion is the grace of acceptance.

To accept, no matter how small or how large the gesture, you are knowingly making yourself vulnerable to the giver.  You are saying, without really saying out loud, “I am okay with you taking care of me.”  You are acknowledging that in that moment, you just might have needs and doubts and insecurities.  But by accepting their gesture, you are giving the giver the gift of joy that can only come from helping another person.  I believe that to be truly generous – generous at every level of your being – you must also learn to gracefully receive.

I know in my heart that the person who left me two sodas in my workplace fridge has been the recipient of my kindness many times over.  It has been a kindness and a generosity of which she was most deserving.  I have no doubts that she will be the recipient of it again in the future – it’s just the nature of our relationship. But what she gave me on this day was far more than a dollar’s worth of soda.  She gave me the reminder that accepting is lovely and important, too.  For that – more than for the soda – I am grateful many times over.

No Apology Necessary

My friend had meticulously planned a party and it seemed she had attended to every possible detail.  Banners were hung, thematic cocktails were lovingly prepared, a loop revealing fun facts about the day’s event was playing over and over on TVs in several rooms.  Even the hand soap in her bathroom had been ordered online weeks prior to accommodate the theme for the gathering.  She loves hosting, and it showed.

In the kitchen, I helped her with some last minute details as the first guests were arriving.  (I was uncomfortably among the first to arrive and the last to leave – hardly a trademark I strive for, but one I embraced that day.)  I went to grab something from the fridge, and the magnetic dry erase board affixed to the front of it caught my eye.  The board was a list of items entitled “Family Meeting” and it went something like this:  1)  Healthy beverage choices; 2) Wiping; 3) Fun summer activities.

Not being able to resist, I made an inquiry about the second item on the list, and wondered aloud if this item pertained to Dad or one of the children.  We laughed as we noted the irony that this was in fact “number two” on the list.  My friend explained that her youngest child had taken a stance that wiping was optional, and said stance was “just gross.”  I told her that I loved, loved, loved that she kept the list front and center on the fridge for her meticulously planned party. She said she thought about taking it down, but then thought, “Why bother?  It is what it is.”

As I reflected on this later, I thought how much I admire this about my friend. She’s right!  Maybe we don’t all have problems with wiping (God help us if we do), but we all have something.  In fact, I would argue that we all have a whole lot of somethings.  Why we do bother trying to hide any part of ourselves from the people around us, especially those who care? My friend may not even know it, but her decision to be herself, unapologetically – to not only accept “what is” but to hang it out there for the whole world to see – is the perfect depiction of freedom.  It’s a freedom I think might look good on all of us.  Let’s try, shall we?

The O.G. of the O.G.

My friend Matt and I seriously love us some Olive Garden, and our friends like to poke and jab us about it.  You know what, though?  We don’t care.  We scoff at their ribbing and give each other a knowing shrug as if to say, “Haters love to hate.”  We are comfortable with basking in mediocrity.

So tonight was one of those famed O.G. nights, and there was a lot to catch up on.  We had a new waitress and we had to bring her up to speed:  1)  We need lots of extra vegetables in our salad; 2)  It’s funnier if you pretend to be our tour guide on the Tour of Italy; 3) We will ask you if you have ever known anyone to get married in an Olive Garden (because apparently this happens, who knew?) and 4) We also need lots of extra chocolate mints at the end of our meal.  We are a demanding duo, but we do it with a smile so that makes it okay.

This particular evening we were chatting with our newbie waitress, and we mentioned that she had a lot to live up to if she was going to be counted among the likes of our favorite waiter, Maurice.  Her eyes lit up and she said she knew Maurice, that he was in the restaurant tonight and that everyone was sad because he was moving to Florida.  Given this utterly devastating news, we had her send Maurice over to the table right away.  This was some serious business.

Just so everyone understands, Maurice is the kind of waiter you can banter with, and that is my favorite kind of wait staff of all.  He is not stuffy or stodgy, and he goes above and beyond to make his customers happy.  He is also, as the kids would say, “totes adorbs.”  He is probably twenty years too young for me, but even that hasn’t put him outside the realm of possibility in my mind as a future love interest – he just that cool. Or I’m just that cougarish.  Or whatever.  I digress.  My point is, Maurice is the man. We love him.

Tonight, Maurice made my night, my week, maybe even my month or year.  Upon greeting us, he gave us big, genuine hugs and proceeded to tell us about this news that he is moving to Florida.  He had been approached to go to the Orlando corporate flagship Olive Garden to be on a fast track for management. This was no surprise to me, because after all, the kid’s got it.  But then he said the most astounding thing.  He said that a couple of months ago, there was a staff meeting of all the Olive Garden staff, and the managers read aloud a Yelp review that I (yes, me!) had written.  The review was a mediocre review of Olive Garden (I mean really, it is Olive Garden) but a glowing review of Maurice.  He said, “I’m a pretty tough guy, but when they read that to me and all the staff I thought I was going to cry.” He said that restaurant reviews and comments come in on the corporate website all the time, but this was one of the first glowing reviews a staff person had received on Yelp, making it all the more noteworthy.

Maurice left our table and Matt and I looked at each other simply stunned.  Matt remarked that my Yelp review – a review I wrote in jest as a dare from another friend – might have changed this guy’s life. Now I can’t say that for sure, because Maurice is pretty amazing in his own right and was going places on his own without any help from me.  But someone else taking the time to notice his greatness and point it out? That probably didn’t hurt.

And so, on the heels of yesterday’s observations in Every Little Thing, I must say this:  Not only does every little thing we say matter, we must always remember that every little thing we say can be incredibly powerful, too.  Maurice – our Original Gangster of the Olive Garden – just told me so.

For the slightly more curious, feel free to read my Yelp review.

Rocking Chairs and Gold

When my sister was five years old, she used to sit at the old upright piano in our formal living room and belt out made-up songs for hours on end. The fact that she was not able to read a note of music or carry a tune did not dissuade her in the least.  The songs ranged from the pragmatic “School Bus” (lyrics:  “School bus, school bus, here comes the school bus!”) to the soulful “Rocking Chairs and Gold” (lyrics:  “Rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold”).  Her songs would reverberate throughout the whole house, and even though they barely made any sense, we all knew one thing:  they came straight from her heart.  Since the songs didn’t really make sense, we could assign our own meaning to them.  I believe that the classic “Rocking Chairs and Gold” was about holding close to you the things you love the most.

I must say, that’s what I love about my sister: she does everything with heart.  Not one to mislead you in any way, Jess calls it like she sees it.  She gets away with it, because she does so with love. But one thing is certain, you can always count on her to be honest. She’ll tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth, if those pants do in fact make your butt look bigger, if you are being an unreasonable diva or if that man is all wrong for you (all things she has probably told me at one time or another in the 35 years she’s been part of my life).  I find great comfort in being surrounded by such plain truth.

I find great comfort in it, because if I know one thing for sure it is this:  I don’t know it all.  Nope, that’s right – you heard it here first.  I don’t have all the answers.  And so, knowing that, I find it rather important to surround myself with people who will put me in check.  Now I’ve worked with leaders – plenty of them, in fact – who really dig being surrounded by a chorus of “yes men.”  They dig it so much that they seem to insist on it.  I guess it somehow strokes their ego to have everyone one around them telling them how brilliant they are.  But here’s my take on it:  If you are agreeing with me all of the time, then you must be lying at least 50% of the time.  And the problem with that is – I don’t know which 50% of the time you are lying.  So then I don’t know what’s real and what’s not, and everything has very quickly become a jumbled up mess.  Who needs it?

So I say, save it for someone else.  You want to give me a compliment? OK, but please make sure it’s sincere. But in the next beat, don’t be afraid to tell me like it really is.  It might hurt my feelings (I am a sensitive soul, don’t you know) but I promise you I’ll get over it.  And right after I get over it, I’ll be grateful you had my back.  Anybody can blow smoke up a skirt, but it takes real fortitude and character to dish out some tactful truth. But that, my friends, is what you do when you really care about somebody.

And to that, I say:  Rocking chairs and gold, baby.  Rocking chairs and gold.

You’re Not the Boss of Me

I had to get a flu shot today, because my employer has made it mandatory.  Had to.  I hate doing pretty much anything that is preceded by the words “have to.”  It evokes a response in me, an immediate “you’re not the boss of me” mentality.  I hate being told what to do, even if it is in my own best interest.  Even if thousands of well-educated others are doing it.  Even if…anything, really.

And why is this?  I think it’s fairly normal.  No one likes to be told what to do.  As adults, we like to think for ourselves.  We like to think that we have free will and that no one is in charge of us but us. But the truth is, we all have to answer to someone.  In fact, most of us have to answer to a whole lot of someones.  There is no life that I know of without fences or boundaries or rules.  The idea of only answering to oneself is a fantasy, or maybe even a delusion.

I do my best to keep my oppositional defiant tendencies in check. I try to only exercise them when there are no real consequences.  I am deferential to my boss, I don’t get mouthy with cops (anymore), and I follow the bulk of the societal rules.  It’s boring, but it’s also survival.

To not be a rule follower is honestly more trouble than it is worth most of the time.  I’m not suggesting I won’t pick my battles – trust me, I do.  But I learned a nugget of wisdom from someone once:  “You have to live another day to continue the good fight.”  So with that in mind, I assess carefully before I draw my lines in the sand.  And if need be, I don’t just eat a slice of humble pie…I bake the dang pie myself and keep eating it until the temptation to let my ego rule passes.  Is humble pie tasty? Not particularly.  Does it contain what I need?  Most of the time, yes.

All of that being said, you’re still not the boss of me.