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Wednesday
Jul272016

Just Show Up

Empty chairs awaiting actors for a reading of my friend Abby Koenig's new play. Houston, Texas. January 25, 2016.

You don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to do.

So you don’t say anything. Worse—you don’t do anything.

Even worse? You say and do nothing and then you either disappear entirely from the person’s life or you let an unconscionable period of time go by and then, upon seeing them again, intentionally fail to acknowledge what happened and your subsequent silence and absence.

I get it. I’ve done it.

And I was wrong.

In fact, the entire premise for my paralysis was misguided. You don’t have to say anything. You can erase the question mark around what to do.

The next time something happens to someone, however big or small the troubles, show up.

Even just to bear witness. Even just to show them that someone cares. Even just to sit, talk about it, not talk about it, talk about something else, stay quiet. As my Indiana family would say, “Visit.”

While an acquaintance sat at the bedside during her mother’s final days, one of her mother’s longstanding friends showed up and stayed for an hour, perched on the edge of the mattress, rubbing lotion into her mother’s arms and hands and talking softly. Over a decade later, the daughter still speaks of the kindness. And you know what? I’d bet the mother, even unresponsive, felt gratitude, too.

Shortly after I got the news about Ramona and grief racked me, a friend came by, met my pup for the first time, and sat with us on the couch over tea. She stayed only a couple hours. We talked about a lot of nothing in particular.

I still feel the love.

I’ve heard people grumble about going to funerals because a dead person doesn’t know you went. Even still: Show up. Let the people left behind know that the man, woman, or child who died mattered. Share a story. If you didn’t know the deceased person, let your grieving friends or family know you care about them and their grief. Pay respect for a life lived. Provide comfort.

When people go through rough moments or patches, they need community. Community means other people—even people who don’t know what to say or do.

And if you feel like showing up doesn’t mean enough (even though it does), just pick a doing, any doing:

  • Bring food to share in the moment with the person or people in need or food that can easily get reheated in a short time without much trouble.
  • Clean their home or a portion of their home or hire someone else to clean it.
  • Take their kids for an afternoon.
  • Get your friend out of the house and his or her head—plan an activity you know your friend enjoys and go do it with him or her, even if you don’t typically like that type of thing.

Most importantly, do not ask people in distress what they want or need. They likely don’t know and, if they do know, they probably don’t want to bear the guilt or shame of feeling needy and making requests. Telling them to think about what they need and pressing them to ask for something from you adds burden when they need relief. Get it?

And don’t forget: All you really need to do is show up.

When has someone just shown up for you?

Wednesday
Jul132016

The Monthly Postmortem

Setting up in my home office-nook for my monthly postmortem. June 2016.

In January 2014, I began a process of sitting down to postmortem the month just passed.

In writing “postmortem,” I use the same business jargon you may have heard in the office after a project for which the team wants to review what went well, what went badly, and how to apply the lessons from the effort in the future.

My personal monthly postmortem extends beyond business, although I do include my professional efforts in the mix. After all, work takes a lot of space in my life, but work doesn’t consume my entire life—or it shouldn’t.

All this preface to say: You should try it.

The Basics

I schedule my monthly postmortem shortly after the month ends. With so much underway at any moment, I can easily forget what happened only a few weeks before.

Call me old fashioned, but I do my postmortem in writing, with pen and paper. I have my reasons:

  • The process feels more reflective and meditative. I can type much more quickly than I can write anything by hand.
  • I rarely write by hand. Infrequency makes taking the time to sit down and scribe out my thoughts in pen on paper, as they arrive, special. Further, typing and writing by hand have a different tactile sensation and use different motor skills, which rarity makes feel more intense.
  • It seems as though I internalize what I’ve written better when I’ve scrawled it out longhand. Science may back up this impression: Subjects in a Princeton−UCLA study about, yes, studying found that people who wrote notes by hand had a better conceptual grasp of the material.

Setting Up

To get started for each postmortem, I pull up my goals list for the year as a refresher on my key areas of focus and my calendar in Outlook, which gives me a quick reminder of the month and its major moments. (Even shortly after the month ends, I seem to easily forget what happened during the course of it.)

I have a dedicated notebook for my postmortem musings, so that I can go back and review previous months and see patterns.

The Postmortem Process

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, I start by outlining what I call my “losses,” which can refer to actual losses and setbacks and also can include steps I didn’t take, mistakes I made, and opportunities I missed.

Rather than develop a simple laundry list of woes, I assess each one in turn with the following questions:

  • Why did this happen?
  • What can I list as key takeaways? What can I say I learned?
  • How will I apply my learnings to address or avoid a similar situation in the future? Or how can I ensure important steps in my forward progress don’t fall off my radar going forward?

Starting with the bad gives me the chance to end on a high note—with my “wins.” What did I handle really well? What did I get done that keeps me on course?

As with the losses, I review each win with an eye to preserving the positive:

  • What did I learn?
  • How can I ensure I keep up the good work or behavior?

Results

More than I expected I would, I’ve found that I internalize the lessons from my postmortems each month.

When I flip back to past months to review historical wins and losses, I see that my reactions to given situations have improved—sometimes without my even fully realizing the positive change. Problematic behaviors have eased and good behaviors feel so entrenched that I almost don’t remember reacting in any other way.

Why?

Mostly, I credit taking dedicated, focused time to think through needed changes and externalize my thoughts in writing. I feel the surveillance factor has a role as well. After all, who wants to have to write down the same failures each month? Or, when reviewing past postmortems, see the same missteps over and over again?

Do you do any sort of postmortem?

Wednesday
Jun292016

Identity and Changing Your Mind

Changing minds may take as long as it took for nature to etch this structure out of rock. Sedona, Arizona. April 23, 2016.

Let’s start here: I’ve long realized the futility of religious debates between people of completely different faiths.

Discussing the nuances of interpretation when you agree on general principles works, but when two people have no foundation of religious agreement upon which to rest their elbows during a fine-points arm wrestle, you end up in full-on judo-wrangling mode.

Religion isn’t rational. That’s the point. It’s about faith. You actively choose to believe even without concrete, scientific evidence. The leap of faith is the trust and the test. Without the leap, belief holds no challenge. Without the leap, you’ll never reach the rewards.

Let’s continue here: I’d assumed otherwise general human rationality about political and social stances—the ones at least predominantly disconnected from religion. I’d assumed that, based on new information and perspectives, rational people would change their minds.

Oh so wrong.

Over the couple months I spent getting to know someone late last year—an intelligent person, by the way—I witnessed a forced, willful ignorance.

He would lash out at people who exposed him to facts, perspectives, and ideas that threatened to challenge his long-held beliefs—even when clear, objective facts disproved his thinking. If he changed his mind, he seemed to feel he would admit to having fostered a world view—and, therefore, identity—founded on ignorance or faulty information. And then he’d need an entirely new identity.

Further, his friends and family mostly seemed to share his thinking. He’d gotten it somewhere, after all. Changing his mind might require him to find all new people. Not easy—or particularly fun.

Ignorance kept his cocoon safe.

This interpersonal experience made a hopeful, optimistic, Pollyanna-ish person—me—feel horrified. And then bereft.

Without people openly willing to reconsider social and political perspectives upon exposure to new facts and experiences, change will require a monumental effort involving all age groups, all cultures, and all socioeconomic categories—and all these efforts may not pay off for generations, if ever, and only after numerous large and small setbacks along the way.

Further, when people tie their identities to certain beliefs and stances, they will always waste energy on hate, as hate bonds them with their people and solidifies their tribe.

I should know this.

After all, as I’ve noted, intolerance may have deep roots in human nature. And my study of intellectual history has taught me that people change their thinking either through a slow evolutionary process or due to a major cataclysmic event that, in most cases, affects an entire society or group.

An example of the former: At the end of “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie mostly set thirty years ago, I thought, “How far we have not come.” An example of the latter: U.S. citizens only fully realized that the world didn’t universally love them after the September 11 attacks; the mind change came nearly immediately, but only after a brutal wake-up call.

Let’s end here: I shouldn’t have felt as surprised and forlorn with disappointment as I did when I witnessed determined, willful ignorance first-hand. Yet your brain knowing something means little when your heart encounters it.

Tell me about when you last tried to change a mind.

Wednesday
Jun152016

Six Great First Dates

One of the vehicles on display for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's exhibit Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles 1929-1940. February 23, 2016.

Most people default to coffee or drinks for a first date.

Meh.

Meeting someone new for coffee feels like networking. First dates feel enough like interviews without having the accoutrements of an actual business meeting.

A first date over drinks makes dinner afterward feel obligatory, and you may not want to risk putting so much time on the line for a stranger.

Further, having drinks with someone can feel overly romantic, and when you meet someone for the first time at a sultry bar and you feel anything but sultry upon first real-life encounter, something already awkward—a first date—just ratcheted up eleventeen notches of awkward, where you’re contorting your body in such a way as to ensure they don’t get the idea for a good-night kiss later.

Take the following suggestions for great first dates from a—sigh—dating veteran:

  1. Visit a museum. Doesn’t matter the subject, a museum makes for a great first date. On first dates, I’ve visited mainly art museums, but science museums would work as well—as would quirky museums like the ones we have in Houston celebrating art cars and funeral history. (Yes, really.) You can spend the entire time talking in a museum—yet the setting makes it so you don’t have to talk nonstop, either. Even better, looking at exhibits together gives you something immediate to discuss with someone you don’t otherwise know.
  2. Go for a walk. I’ve enjoyed jaunts around a few parks and city neighborhoods in Houston; the movement keeps down jitters and the things and people you encounter provide good conversation fodder. Even better, you might run into a free performance of some kind—live music in parks happens on the regular. (Side note: Walks and bike rides fall on opposite sides of the good-idea list for first dates. Cycling’s single-file formation, speedier pace, and road or trail noise do not make for good conversation.)
  3. Take a dance class. Early in a date one late afternoon, a salsa dancing class struck up in the tea shop where my date and I had met. The instructors begged us to join, mainly because they wanted to move our table out of the way. Though I may not have jumped at a dancing date if offered, the lesson gave us an excuse to touch chastely, a lot of laughter, the challenge of attempting to learn something together, and a good story.
  4. Go shopping. I’ve only tried this at a bookstore, yet I figure a mall or a street market would prove just as good a way to get to know someone by discussing items on offer and getting a feel for your date’s purchasing habits. (Hey, can’t hurt to figure out the buying habits of a potential partner sooner rather than later.)
  5. Paint. These wine-and-painting-party places have had passed heyday, and I wouldn’t plan a party at one of them today. For a date, though, the activity feels perfect. You have a job to do, you sit together, you can flirt over painting styles, and the paints and water and aprons and easels lend a sense of play and childhood and allow you to let down your guard just a bit.
  6. Try trivia night. Though at a bar, and so technically in the category of “meeting for a drink,” going to a trivia night adds a little sense of competition—and you can see what kind of sport you’ve chosen to meet. If someone’s ego gets toasted by missing a question at a bar’s trivia night, or if they spew sarcasm at you for suggesting a wrong answer, knowing it first thing allows you to avoid a second thing.

Have any of these first dates turned into second dates? Not yet. The first date my last serious relationship and I had took place over lunch on a weekday. (Hey, low pressure—and therefore not bad as an option.) The first date for the previous serious relationship took place over dinner.

However, I met both men in the real world—not on-line. So perhaps that helped; we’d met and had some level of in-person conversation prior to our first formal date. Allow me to feel wistful for a moment: Sure seems like few people meet “organically” like that anymore.

Tell me about your best first date.

Wednesday
Jun012016

Things I Learned in the Grand Canyon

Self portrait with blue rock. Grand Canyon, Arizona. April 24, 2016.

Either at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon or somewhere near the nadir, I realized that I find hiking boring.

This shocked me. For years, I’ve believed that I like hiking. And frankly, it seems like I should like hiking. I like spending time outside. I like exercising. I like physical challenges. I like to push my limits.

So… Leslie likes hiking. Right?

In this I-like-hiking conviction, I’ve mused about great hiking locales and have even planned and taken hiking trips. I’ve hiked with a close friend in Glacier National Park over a long weekend. I’ve hiked numerous sections of the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, near where my father has a house in Alto. I’ve hiked here and there over the course of many years.

And recently, I had a friend talk me into—without trouble, mind you, because until halfway through this trip I believed I liked hiking—a day hike down into the Grand Canyon, an overnight in bunks near the Colorado River in a camp called Phantom Ranch, and a subsequent day hike back to the rim.

Aside: If you like hiking enough to go without sleep for forty-eight hours, I’d recommend this particular Grand Canyon experience. As for me, I consider the learning that I don’t like hiking my valuable takeaway from the trip.

Along the trail, my friend called out the names of plants and birds. He commented on the weather patterns, geological changes in the cliffs, and the chemical makeup of rocks (lots of different types of metals, of course). We stopped to marvel at vistas along the way. (Without question, the Canyon is far more beautiful looking up from the inside than you could ever imagine when looking down from above.)

We had a lot of hiking time.

We had two entire days and one sleepless night to contemplate life and the experience of hiking.

And during these contemplative hours, I realized that I don’t care what humans call rocks or geologic formations or plants or birds or most wildlife.

Further, I realized that the other people we encountered interested me a heck of a lot more overall and in general than the rocks and geologic formations and plants and birds and other wildlife.

We met a couple from Orange County who seemed about as out of place as I felt and who wondered over dinner at the bottom of the Canyon how long it would take it get out of there—equally as ready as me to have it over and done. We met a couple celebrating the husband’s sixtieth birthday by hiking all over the Canyon for a long weekend. We passed a quantity of French speakers and a few people speaking Chinese.

I talked for quite some time with the Orange Country couple. As for the foreigners we passed, I wanted to know why they had come to the Grand Canyon. I don’t know what compels Americans to do it, other than a sense of patriotism and appreciation for the natural wonders in our immediate midst. So what does the Grand Canyon signify for people who’ve originated elsewhere?

To me, signs of life mean signs of human life.

Yep, as I trudged around the Canyon, I realized that I really like observing people-animals. And seeing what they’ve built and done.

When I scanned my hiking memories to test this hypothesis, the people with whom I traveled and the human life we encountered stuck out the most—not vistas, flora, or fauna.

In the Lincoln National Forest, I got lost in the rain with my boyfriend and the hiking stick he found and we held petty arguments due to ongoing relationship tension and stress over whether we’d ever find our way back to civilization. On that same hike, we saw a high-in-the-sky aerie for a park ranger and got to look out her windows and talk about her life.

In Glacier National Park, a nearby bear forced a good friend and me to talk loudly while quickly hiking down the trail when neither of us felt quite like chatting, given disagreements caused by the friction of travel and the difficult places we’d found ourselves in our lives. On a jaunt later that same weekend, I remember finding our way into a hippie commune and getting a glimpse of alternate lives lived in the wilderness of Montana.

And although I like the outdoors, I like the outdoors in civilization most of all. Watching the runners on the Grand Canyon trails, it dawned on me that I don’t particularly like to run in parks. I don’t even enjoy the paved trails in dedicated urban exercise areas. I prefer to run on city streets.

So I faced it: I like the great outdoors. In the city.

I may rank as a confirmed introvert, yet I haven’t a misanthropic constitution. I find people fascinating. (I just don’t want to interact with all of them.)

After all, I majored in history. More specifically, I majored in intellectual history. If history tells the tales of people, intellectual history tells the tales of how people have thought over time and from whence their ideas sprung. And my favorite classes, other than history? Psychology. Anthropology. The people subjects.

Case closed.

Tell me about your last epiphany.