No Mountains

I find that people can be offensively curious, and we live in society that has become unapologetic about asking the tough questions that would have once been saved for quiet contemplation outside of one’s presence.  “Why are you single?” is one of my favorites, and over the years I’ve crafted a whole bunch of responses I’d like to give to that particularly obtuse question.  “Because I hog all the covers.”  “Because I killed my last husband and everyone I’ve dated since that time has found that to be pretty intimidating.” “Because I have huge, malodorous lesions all over my private parts and no one can seem to get past it.”  The responses I concoct in my head get more and more crass as the years pass by.  I keep them to myself.

My second most favorite obtuse question, which is actually in the same family as the first obtuse question is, “Why did you get divorced?”  Which is really just a slightly more polite way of asking, “What did you do to screw everything up in your marriage?”  Or at least that’s what I hear.  And to that, I do have an answer that doesn’t involve any snark or defensive deflection.  Of course, it’s taken me the better part of 11 years to perfect my snark-free answer, but that is beside the point.

When asked this question (which I must add, you might be surprised as to how often it is asked) I say that I married a man who was a lovely man but who was also a people pleaser. And day after day, year after year, he made a habit of letting people (namely, me) make all his decisions for him. So much so, that we would go to a restaurant for dinner and when asked by the waitress what kind of dressing he wanted on his salad, he would reply to her, “I don’t know.  You decide.” I mean really!  Who does that?  There are many things in life I don’t care about or even have the required knowledge to have formulated an opinion.  But salad dressing?  Please.  We all have a favorite salad dressing.

So anyway, as the story goes, this very lovely man spent 13 years letting others (namely, me and the occasional waitress) make decisions on his behalf and stuffing his opinions (if he had any) deep inside.  And conflict?  Forget about it.  If there was conflict or even the foreshadowing of conflict, he did what any good, stoic man of Scandanavian descent would do:  He swept it under the rug.  And after 13 years of sweeping his garbage under the rug, lo and behold he came home one day and there was a ginormous, insurmountable, irritating-as-all-get-out mountain under the rug. Right there in the living room.

And that’s when the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Yes, as I say, after thirteen years of seemingly not caring about much of anything, he suddenly cared a whole lot. Because he had had enough of others (namely, me) bulldozing him and making his decisions for him and he couldn’t take it for another second.  Once he achieved this realization, it didn’t take long for things to unravel.  Not only did they unravel,  they unraveled in such an unpleasant way.  As  I have looked back and have tried to take the lesson from it all, I know this for sure:  That mountain is a dangerous thing.

It’s a dangerous thing, but it’s an easy thing to contribute to.  As you start a new relationship – when everything is bright and shiny and you are determined to put forth your best self – it can be hard to assert yourself.  But to deny your voice, in the beginning, the middle or the end really, is a dangerous thing.  Because to deny your voice is to contribute to the mountain.   I can’t tell anyone else what to do, but I for one have made a commitment in all of my relationships – especially those that matter the most – that there simply won’t be any mountains. I’ve been there, and in spite of what people might say, the view just isn’t that great.

Do Not Reply

As I get older…and notice I did not say as I mature….I seem to be getting more petty and more flexible in equal parts.  I’m not yet the lady who is yelling at the children to get off her lawn, but then again I’ve not had any children on the lawn so I can’t be sure.  Truth be told, given the chance I just might be that lady.

I am the lady who thinks a lot of people are bad drivers and even though I almost accidentally ran a red light yesterday, I am not one of them.  I am also the lady who has had it up to here with all of the misplaced apostrophes (or should I say, apostrophe’s) and the lady who shudders at the thought of someone writing out a check in the grocery line.  Yep…I’m getting older…and that thing that happened to all those who aged before me seems to be happening to me, too.

So it’s no surprise that the workplace is a hotbed for a bevy of annoyances.  And the greatest of them all, perhaps, is the reckless abandon with which people use the Reply All function on their email.  I’ve thought about this for some time, and I’ve started to point it out to others as well.  Masqueraded as a part of polite society, Reply All is often nothing more than spam.  It was telling when I recently took a day off of work and took a firm stance that my work smart phone would stay at home.  After one day away from the office, I had 86 unread emails.  As I scrolled through them quickly, I realized that there were about a dozen that had information I really needed.  The rest were “thank you” or “OK” or “you’re welcome.”

So in light of this, I’ve started to muster up the courage to talk to my staff and tell them to stop and think before hitting Reply All.  Stop being so dang polite, stop feeling like you need to Reply All for much of anything, really.  Just stop it.  You’re slowing down our productivity.  I’ve even had fantasies of creating a way (or maybe there is a way?) to disable the Reply All function on some people’s email.  And then it happened.  I, the girl living in a glass house, was reminded why she can’t cast stones.  I became the biggest Reply All offender of all.

It was a Monday night after work and I was at safely at home, where I should have been minding my own business and doing something meaningful with my life.  But instead, I was paying more attention than I should be to my work smart phone (which is to say, I was paying attention to it at all.)  I wanted to ignore it, but the light kept blinking.  How can I ignore a blinking light?  Answer:  I cannot.

So my supervisor sent out an email to me and 25 other people – some of whom I know, some who I don’t, some who decide if I live to see another day at my job.  It was a big, widespread, influential group.  She immediately sent a second email just to me and one other close colleague and friend.  And you can probably guess where this is headed – I did a Reply All to the group of 25 instead of the group of 2.

The message I sent was cheeky.  It was meant to be endearing, a little sassy spunk to cheer up my supervisor who I knew had been having a rough day.  But to any reader other than her, it had a nice thick layer of anti-establishment snark imbedded right in the middle of it.  Trust me – it could have been a lot worse.  But it wasn’t exactly my finest moment, either.  It was not the sort of thing that promotions and professional accolades are made of.  I can forget about anyone erecting a statue in my honor now.

Of course I didn’t know what I had done until I hit send and 15 seconds later I got an out of office reply from someone on the list of 25.  My thought process went something like this:  “What?  Wait, WHAT?  OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?”  I cannot describe for you the panic that set in.  I felt like I had been punched in the gut, but the irony was that I was the one who threw the punch.  I spent about ten minutes frantically trying to discern if I could reasonably recall the email.  I then spent the next twenty minutes crafting a sincere and exasperated apology to my superiors who were part of the fateful 25 and were sure to not be impressed.  My apology was not enough, and it was also all I could do.

I spent a good day or so deeply resigned to a well-deserved spell of self-loathing, but the dust settled quickly. In time I was able to sit comfortably with my own ugly, awkward humanness.  The good news was, no one got hurt.  I still had my job, and I seemed to still have the respect ad admiration of the people who matter to me most.  And yes, I still had my Reply All function on my email, but you can bet I won’t be using it much anymore.

Billy Joe

He taught me everything I know about grace and humor, and I miss him every day.

In short, he was the coolest cat I ever met, and while most of his family called him “Billy Joe,” I was lucky enough to call him Dad. There are so many things I admire about him, that I am not sure I can put them all to paper. He was funny and patient and tolerant of the most trying of circumstances–far beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Born on October 1, 1941 to Harold and Kathryn Swearingen, Billy Joe was the baby of his family. (One of his all-time favorite jokes: “They named me Bill because I came on the first of the month.”) There is something about being the baby of the family that lends to a special brand of charm, and he had oodles of it. He just had an easy way about him, and was always the life of the party. Need a spot-on impression of one of the…

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The Competitive Edge

At the risk of sounding like a crusty old crank – and let’s face it, it’s a descriptor that isn’t all too far off some days- the generations younger than me are getting more and more entitled.  Perhaps it is that they are the output of helicopter parents who structured every minute of their time (unlike my upbringing, which was of the “free range” variety), but I worry about our future knowing this is who we are relying on to care of us as we age.  I’m terrified, actually.

I’ve been watching the workforce get younger and younger over the years, while impressively I seem to remain the same age.  Funny how that happens.  I’m forced to contend with the fact that I have to hire, train, lead, inspire and develop this younger crowd.  It’s no small task, and there are days I wonder how I will manage to pull it off.

I would estimate that in my 24 years in the adult workforce, I have probably interviewed no less than a few hundred people.  Interviewing and hiring is actually my favorite thing to do, and arguably it’s what I do best.  I’ve often said – and I have sincerely meant – that the only important thing I have to do is hire well.  The rest will follow, and I know this because it’s been proven time and time again.  And so when I am in the midst of a search, which is honestly almost always, I take it very seriously.

Part of my strategy in hiring is to simplify what I am looking for.  That is not to say that I will simply accept anyone – quite the contrary, actually.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am famous for quipping that “I only hire stars.”  But how do you find a star, a proverbial diamond in the rough?  You find them by knowing exactly what matters.  And for me, I really only care about two qualities for any key candidate:  a positive attitude and an ability to learn.  That’s right, kids.  Yes, you have to have the right qualifications to get in the door.  But more letters behind your names or rings in your tree trunk won’t get you far with me.  Because truthfully, once we get you in the door we can teach you anything.  Almost anything, that is.  We can’t teach you how to have a good attitude or a desire to learn.

What I’ve noticed over the years, however, is a complacency -an entitlement I want to call it – that is disconcerting.  It’s as if no one really cares.  If I bring you in for an interview, I want you to treat it like it’s a big deal.  It’s like going on a blind date.  You are checking me out, and I am doing the same to you.  We have to establish if we could have a good thing going, if we should take this to the next level.

So now’s the part where you should sit up straight and listen.  Because it’s everyone’s favorite part – the part where I dispense unsolicited advice.  If you want a competitive edge in your job search, you don’t even have to work that hard.  This because no one is working hard.  So to stand out, you just have to be a little better than the rest.  My advice is this:  Dress one step above what you would wear to the job.  Show up five to ten minutes early.  Be polite to the receptionist.  Silence your cell phone.  Bring a folder with clear, crisp, perfectly formatted and spell-checked copies of your resume and your reference list.  Read the company website ahead of time and interject questions about company initiatives in the interview.  Come with a list of your own questions and make sure they aren’t just about things that are self-serving.  Be bold, but not arrogant, in selling yourself.  And, here is the one thing that will set you apart from almost everyone:  Send a thank you note within one day of the interview to everyone who was part of your interview process. I swear, give me a hand written note that makes me feel like it is your goal to be part of my team, and I’m practically a puddle. Because it almost never happens.

Now I’m guessing you just read all of my unsolicited advice, and you thought to yourself, “Well, duh.”  Well guess what?  Hardly anybody does all those things.  Remember that every decision you make in the interview process – which really isn’t that big of an investment of your time – is an opportunity to impress, or not.  Don’t be the girl that showed up to an interview with me with half (and only half) of her nail polish picked off.  I took one look at her and knew she was not of the star quality I was looking for.  It would have taken her one minute to clean up those nails with some polish remover and make them uniform and neat.  But when I saw the mish-mash of a mess on her hands – which was the only thing I could see –  I thought she either doesn’t care if the gets the job, or she’s so lacking in attention to detail she might not know the difference between Zantac and Xanax.  Next!

And believe it or not, that’s really how it happens.  You get one chance to make a first impression, and a whole series of chances after that to get it all right.  It’s all up to you.

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.