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The anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 sneaks up on me almost every year. As I am going about my normal routine, doing what needs to get done, I get on my computer or turn on the television and…there it is. In one second of recognition, I recalled the strangest and most frightening day of my life.

It’s the aftermath of that day on which I choose to reflect. The time immediately following September 11th was one characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability. I had concerns about the likelihood of a repeat attack and wondered what would it take to make me feel safe again. I was reminded that life is short and I noted that some of the people who died that day were just getting started before their future was erased, specifically my friend’s son Bradley who was only 24 years old when he died. I yearned to be with my loved ones (I was in Texas at the time), especially my Aunt Pat who had survived the bombing in 1993 and the Towers falling in 2001. I appreciated the blessing of having such special people in my life.

In the next year it seemed like a change had taken place, as if everyone had rethought their priorities. I observed more parents leaving work early to participate in their children’s activities. I watched my corporate coworkers resign for more fulfilling careers or to work in non-profit organizations. I witnessed friends and acquaintances volunteering in their spare time, resolving long-standing grudges, making time to be with family. At one point I thought to myself that if we had to face such a tragedy and lose so many wonderful people from our lives at least some good had come of it. Our collective conscious had shifted away from money, status, and the acquisition of property to relationships, service, and the enjoyment of life.

For me, the realization was instant even if the course correction took time. I had spent the seven years prior to 2001 working until 9:00pm on most nights. I had lost touch with many people whose friendship I enjoyed. I had let my weight and health condition fluctuate with stress. I loved my job, but I had let it become who I was. After the shock and grief of that day, I felt resolve: something had to change. I made some initial adjustments but, like so many experiences in life, it has been a journey. At one point in 2005, I saw myself falling into the same trap where I was letting my sense of responsibility for my job overshadow my responsibility to my family and myself. I wasn’t the only one; within only a few years it was apparent that many of us, flawed humans that we are, were living our pre-2001 lives; the current financial crisis we are in is clear evidence of that.

Therefore, on each anniversary of September 11th, I first remember the people we lost – the ones who didn’t have the opportunity to finish their lives. Then I reflect on what I have done to keep my priorities straight in honor of them. Have I lived each day fully, like the gift it is? Are my family and friends a top priority and have I taken the time to connect with them regularly? Have I crafted a career for myself that I enjoy while also serving others? Am I donating time or money to those who are less fortunate than I am? Have I taken time for creative pursuits, for the sake of creativity itself? These are the promises I made to myself and every September 11th I take stock to see how I am doing with them. I am happy to report that this year I feel that I am living my promises more than ever, although I always strive to do better.

What promises did you make to yourself in the weeks and months and years following September 11, 2001? Are you following through on them? Today – in fact, every day – is a good time to think about those promises and how you can honor the victims of that tragedy by making the most of the life you have.

Above I mentioned a friend, Frank, whose son died on September 11th. He and his wife, Mary, founded and run a nonprofit organization called Voices of September 11th. This organization provides services and support to those affected by September 11th and has initiated the 9/11 Living Memorial Project to commemorate those who were lost. If you have a minute, please visit their website.

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About thirteen years ago while I was working at Lucent Technologies, I went to a training class.  At that time, Lucent was a huge company and it wasn’t unusual to attend an internal class and not know a single person there.  At lunch, I joined another classmate I had just met, T. K. Srinivas, a man who happened to be Indian.  During the conversation, in my typical fashion, which is “intellectually curious plus outgoing minus any sense of boundaries,” I asked T.K. if he had had an arranged marriage.  He said he had, and of course my follow up question was even more intrusive:  What was it like to marry someone you had just met?

T.K. was kind enough to continue having lunch and chatting with me, despite the fact that I had just met him and was prying into his personal life.  As he answered my question, he said something very interesting, something upon which I still frequently reflect.  I am going to state it here and hope that I do his words justice…

In the Indian culture with respect to arranged marriages, people recognize that being married is a partnership, much like a business.  You come together because you have the same goals and the same values, and then you work to build a life and family with each other.  You focus on discovering all of the things that make your partner lovable, because everyone is lovable in so many ways.

I immediately saw the contrast between what T.K. described and what I had been living.  In my world, we date by a process of elimination.  We meet someone, get to know them, and, when we find something about them we don’t like, we end it and move on.  A few months prior to my conversation with T.K., I had actually broken up with someone because he said almost everything twice (No really, it was very annoying.  No really, it was very annoying).  But in fairness, it wasn’t just me.  What about Seinfeld?  Remember the woman he dumped because she ate her peas one at a time?  And there were many other examples of people I knew personally who broke up with a potential partner because he or she wasn’t “The One.”  In our culture, we hunt for a perfect person, a soul mate, someone with whom we will live Happily-Ever-After.  The search itself is the challenge – after all, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find that Prince – but once that wonderful and amazing person has been located, all of the problems are solved and the rest is easy.  As Nipsey Russell would say, “Riiiight.”

It was like a light bulb went off in my head.  Of course!  We are all going about this the wrong way!  Focusing on our perfect match makes us miss how many wonderful people are out there.  More importantly, expecting a partner to be perfect likely leads to failed relationships and disappointment in the end, because no one can live up to such unrealistic expectations.  I started to notice examples of an approach to love and marriage that was generally backwards:  romantic comedies (which I rarely watch unless I am pre-menstrual or hung-over) which always end when the two people wind up together; and dating game shows, like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, where someone searches for a person to pair off with and the resulting relationship is just a footnote in a future issue of US Magazine.  In both cases, the difficult search is the point and, once complete, the story is over.  But in reality, once you commit to someone is when the real work starts.  I realized that a myth had been perpetrated on our society and, to a large degree, I blamed the Brothers Grimm.

The implications for this learning are even broader than romantic relationships.  Imagine what would happen if you focused your attention on the lovable aspects of those with whom you have relationships, instead of what annoys you?  What if you didn’t notice your son’s socks on the floor but instead enjoyed how he always offers to help with the dishes?  What if you let an unsolicited opinion from your mother slide, but appreciated that she brings food for you every time she visits?  What if you spent less time caring that one of your employees always comes in at 9:05am and instead valued that he is self-directed and always completes his work before it’s due?  In other words, what if we stopped expecting people to be perfect because they are already perfect enough?

Maybe I am an idealist, and perhaps what I am describing is an unattainable utopia.  I know from my own experience that it is often easier said than done.  Even so, I believe it to be a worthwhile pursuit to focus my attention on the lovable qualities of the people around me, because everyone is lovable in so many ways.  Thanks T.K.!

I feel the need to clear this up, for the benefit of humanity:  Please don’t use air-quotes unless you are being ironic

Air-quotes can be funny or sarcastic when used well, but their misuse is making them really annoying.  I feel it is important for me to set the record straight so air-quotes can stick around for a while and then die a natural death when the time is right. 

The directions for air-quotes are really quite simple:

  • It is fine to use air-quotes when you are saying one thing but mean something else; air-quotes convey sarcasm. 
  • It is not fine to use air-quotes when what you are saying is, literally, what you are saying.

To illustrate my point, let me share a couple of examples of the proper use of air-quotes:

Example 1.A.  When your friend is on his way to hand out fliers in a hot dog costume, you say to him:  Hurry up, you don’t want to be late for your “job.”  In this case, you have employed air-quotes as an efficient way to let your friend know that you don’t consider walking the street dressed as barbecue food to be an actual career choice; the air-quotes are how he knows what you really intended to say.  They probably made him feel bad about himself in the process, but that’s between you and him.

Example 1.B.  When a guy who is a complete Mama’s boy is going to visit his mother, you tell him:  Say hi to your “girlfriend.”  Here you are conveying that this guy’s relationship with his mother is too close to be considered in the normal range of mother-son relationships, but you are using air-quotes to signal that you know he isn’t actually dating his mom.

On the flip side, following are some examples of the improper use of air-quotes:

Example 2.A.  You say, OK, it’s time to get back to “work,” but you are, in fact, getting back to work.  Hopefully the mistake here is obvious.  If  you are saying what you mean, which is that you took a break but now have to finish doing what you are being paid to do, then you are prohibited from using air-quotes.  Now, if you are wearing a hot dog costume when you say this, then you are fine (at least as far as air-quotes go) as explained in Example 1.A.

Example 2.B.  You say, Nice “face”, to someone when you are really talking about his or her face.  Nice face is an awesome insult in that it typically takes the recipient a second or two to recognize that he or she has been insulted.  In this case, the use of air-quotes actually lessens the impact of the insult, as well as puts the user in violation of the air-quote guidance as stated above.

You can help me in this effort.  The next time someone inappropriately invokes air-quoting, you need to call that person out.  Try this with the second example above…

Nice “face”?!  Are you talking about this?  (Point to your face.)  Because if you are, I think you meant to just say: Nice face, sans air-quotes, dumb ass.

You don’t have to say it as as angry as I did above, but it helps.

I fear I may be too late, because even as I am writing this I am realizing that I have pretty much given up on air-quotes already.  I am not sure that air-quotes can be saved.  Air-quotes have gone the way of the slang term “D.L.,” which at one point was only used by those in the know, but is now often spoken by people in their 60s (no offense, Mom and Dad) and on commercials.  Since air-quotes are almost over, I guess I will have to resort to using inflection to communicate the same sarcasm that I could have much more easily conveyed with air quotes, as in “Say hi to your mom.”  It’s disappointing, but I guess what’s done is done.

P.S.  Just out of curiosity, I went to Wikipedia to see what it says there about air-quotes, lest I am inadvertently being unoriginal by writing this post.  I confirmed that I am fine, at least in regard to having an original thought, and in addition I got a wonderful gift in the form of the photo accompanying the air-quotes entry.  Priceless.

UPDATE:  My friend Joannie shared this awesome website with real-life examples of people using printed quotes improperly:  www.unnecessaryquotes.com/.  It’s hilarious.

I was in a desperate place last week.  I was about to turn 40.  We were having a party to celebrate.  I was still in the process of losing weight from my pregnancy.  It was going to be warm out after months of cold weather, so I knew I would have to wear something that showed my legs and/or my arms. 

What would any woman do in that situation?  Go to the tanning salon.  Duh.

All weekend, I couldn’t figure out why it was hurting to nurse the baby.  My nipples were so sore.  Then I put it together.  All of you breastfeeding mothers heed my advice:  don’t go to a tanning salon while you are nursing.  Or, if you go to a tanning salon, put something over your nipples!

Today is my 40th birthday.  I feel like I should say it is hard to believe but that would be untrue.  I keep track of my birthdays like a child.  And I celebrate them like a child too, often for weeks at a time.

I always joke that I don’t feel old because I am so immature, and when people say I look young I explain it’s because I don’t have kids to worry about.  After having been a teacher, I know how being responsible for young people can age someone!

Maybe I don’t feel old because I really try to maintain an attitude of “it’s never too late”.  When I was turning 37 and just coming out of a very rough personal crisis, I decided to do three things:  throw myself a birthday party because I have no shame, buy myself a drum set because I always wanted to play, and start dating someone 12 years younger than me because that’s what you do when you are having a mid-life crisis.  The party was a blast and the relationship didn’t last more than a couple of months, but I still play the drums.  I always had wanted to play but never tried it, and once I started I couldn’t stop.  I would rush home from work to play, which was challenging considering the job I had at the time, and every time I was done practicing I had a huge smile on my face.  The bonus was that by picking up the drums I ended up meeting my husband.

Since my last birthday, I got married (actually right before my birthday), started the consulting practice I had dreamed of for almost ten years, had my first baby, and moved into a new home.  Yes, it was exhausting.  My life is now 100% different than it was when I was turning 37, and 250% better.  All of this happened because I didn’t feel like it was too late to start playing the drums.

The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to do or try anything.  Around the time I bought the drums I felt a little self-conscious about it, which led me to make jokes about the decision.  One day I joked about it to someone in a cafe while we were waiting in line (Jersey City is friendly like that) and he said, “Don’t feel weird about starting the drums at 37.  My mom started her Masters degree at 40 and she always said that in five years she would either be 45 years old with a Masters degree or 45 years old without a Masters degree.”  If that isn’t a great attitude for embracing life, I don’ t know what is!

Try something new!  It’s never too late.

About Me

The purpose of this blog is purely self-expression - being creative for the sake of being creative. It has evolved into a collection of non-fiction essays.

All of the anecdotes and incidents you read in this blog are completely true and not exaggerated, no matter how sad, pathetic or unbelievable they may seem.

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© Operation Peace and Serenity, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Operation Peace and Serenity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.