Thursday, December 11, 2008

White Schmite

As a kid, I took in Hallmark holiday specials and department store marketing hook, line, and sinker. This, along with Christmas cards and Christmas songs, led to some pretty serious Christmas anticipation.

The weird thing was that this anticipation didn't dissipate when December 25th finally rolled around. Instead, it gripped me tighter as I found myself waiting for the day to become Christmas.

Sure, I enjoyed the gifts I received. And playing board games with my family was a blast (in my family, the adults and children play together). The food was great, the house was full of laughter, and I was surrounded by people who cared about me.

Despite this, more often than not I crawled into bed Christmas evening feeling defeated. The Christmas I got never matched the Christmas I had looked forward to. It was never white. Since we had no fireplace, stockings were tacked to a wall, not hung on a mantel. The tree stood over only a modest array of typically practical gifts. No one in the family congregated around the piano we didn't have to spontaneously burst into song. The house never had that fuzzy, soft light glamour shot glow. And, if we left anything out for Santa, it would be empanadas!


As an adult, I have come to believe that marketing works to make folks strive to be something they aren't by convincing them that everybody else is. It came to me gradually, but I finally learned to wipe the idea of what Christmas should be off the lenses through which I view the world in order to see (and appreciate) what Christmas actually is (for me).

So yes, my family's Christmas looks nothing like you would ever see in a Christmas greeting card. Thank goodness I finally have the sense to be grateful for it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

When you're ready

With all respect for Buddha, I think the Buddhist proverb "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" is just a little off. In my opinion, it should go something more like this:
When the student is ready, he sees the teacher.
Unlike another common phenomena where you learn a new word and then start hearing it everywhere or meet a new person and start seeing them everywhere, this isn't so much about noticing. It's about projecting*. Unconsciously.

Let's say you are madly in love with a lice-infested, unemployable, ill-tempered, moose of a man. You wonder whether you should stay together though, in your heart of hearts, you are completely confident in your feelings. Everything you hear on the radio points to yes! If the song is about breaking up, you notice that the guy being broken up with sounds nothing like your catch. If the song is about staying together, you notice that the song is about love and commitment and perhaps the guy in the song who is so worth committing to sounds a little like your lousey love interest.

Now instead, let's say your heart of hearts was actually singing a different tune. A song about breaking up would instead be a message, "You should break up!" A song about staying together will help you realize "this is the kind of relationship you deserve and you don't have a shot at it until you drop the loser you're with!"

The words of the song haven't changed. But what you are able to read out of them has. When you are ready to know something, you will begin to run into people / books / road signs that can teach it to you. However, depending on how coy your subconscious self is (or how inattentive your conscious self can be) you may not notice half the time.

At the Museum of Science in Boston a few years ago, I came across a vase on which an optical illusion was painted. If you looked at it one way you would see dolphins frolicking in the ocean. If you looked at it another way, you could see two lovers embracing. (Click here to see an example of this kind of illusion.) The display description that went with the vase mentioned that most adults could easily see both images. It also made the following assertion, which really captured my attention: an innocent child would not / could not see the embracing couple.

What it is that we cannot yet perceive, and therefore learn from, because we are not yet ready?

A world full of teachers surround us. To those we cannot yet see, please be patient. In one way or another, we are innocent children.

*Unfortunately, perhaps due to self-help jargon abuse, the word "projecting" has a bit of a negative connotation. I believe the negative aspects of "projecting" are a result of the student being ready to learn something that is completely incorrect.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Saving something for the swim back

There is a scene in the movie Gattaca where the protagonist is able to beat his "genetically superior" brother in a challenge to swim the farthest away from shore. He explains how he did it with "... I never saved anything for the swim back."

This scene made a big impression on me when I watched it as a college freshman. By not worrying about what was to come later, the underdog was able to pour everything into the current moment and prevail. I thought this was a great catch-all example for how to approach one's life, with some very obvious exceptions.

Based on a few recent conversations spurred by concerns over the economy and job security, I realize these exceptions may not be as obvious as I thought.

To be fair, I think the issue is somewhat masked by our ability to (through credit cards and overdraft protection, etc) to go into debt without immediately being aware of it. So, for the following set up, think CASH ONLY.

Harry is hanging out with some friends in town. He knows that a cab ride home will cost $12. Harry has $20.

At some point during the evening, Harry takes a break from dancing with his buddies, sits down at the smoothie bar, and orders a $5 dollar cranberry/orange juice/protein powder shake. While he is enjoying it, a woman he flirted with on the dance floor approaches him and mentions that what he ordered "sounds delicious." Harry remembers that he has $15 left in his wallet. Can he afford to buy her a shake?

It's my guess that most adults would answer the above question with a "no" since, if Harry buys the cool girl a shake, he will be $2 short on a cab fare home. I think it's also fair to assume that at a cash only restaurant, most folks know to consider more than the price of food shown on the menu when determining what they can afford to order. (They take into account tax and tip.)

But despite this, there are many high-wage earners who, on top of necessities such as food and shelter, spend and spend and spend until there is nothing left of their net income to set aside for an emergency fund or retirement. In other words, they approach finances the way the hero of Gattaca approached overcoming his shortcomings. Any change of plans -- a failing economy or a job loss, for example -- and they are stranded miles away from shore.

My recommendation is to forget you ever saw the movie when it comes to finances. When pondering an expense and asking yourself "can I afford this?" remember the tax and tip, remember that something may come up to force a change of plans, and remember to leave enough left for your "cab fare home".

Thursday, October 16, 2008

the opposite of my mother

I once watched a performer in Harvard Square shuffle big, gold coins between his fingers with seemingly little effort. As people walked by unimpressed, he yelled at them angrily.

"This is harder than it looks!" he sputtered. "Jerks! Jerks! I'd like to see you try it!"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making it look easy

When helping to put away groceries as a kid, it was not uncommon to find a six-pack package of Snickers in one of the brown paper grocery sacks we brought in from the car. Waiting.

Four kids plus two parents meant that six packs were perfect for my family. Somehow (when it came to six packs) the unspoken "one per" honor system policy worked like a charm.

Snickers' six packs were stored in the cupboard above the dishwasher, to the left. When a family member was ready for their snack, they would take their share from the six pack. As the youngest with a voracious sweet tooth, I often found myself clambering onto the counter and reaching for my Snickers within minutes of delivery.

I'm not sure why I would tempt myself this way, but long after I'd devoured my one sixth, I would climb back onto the counter and peek into the cupboard to see how many remained. Sometimes, if I was lucky, there would be one left. This one almost always belonged to my mother.

Inevitably, I would ask my mother if I could have her share. She would say yes and I would run off greedily clutching my SECOND treat.


Fast forward many years. While sitting in my parents' kitchen ready to enjoy some dessert given to me, my then young nephew walked into the room. Seeing what I had in my hand he innocently asked if he could have it.

I gave it to him. I'm embarrassed to admit I felt torn for a few moments -- part of me wanted to take a bite first or ask him for half or to say no!


Shortly after he left the room, I happened to glance up at the cupboard above the dishwasher and it hit me. Not the cupboard or the dishwasher, but the fact that my mom also has a sweet tooth. And that she love loves loves Snickers Bars.

It had never occurred to me that she was a sacrificing something she wanted for herself back then. I never sensed any hesitation. There were no visible signs that what she was doing was difficult or annoying.
She made it look so easy.
This one thought was followed by a whole jumble of others.
She had made everything look easy! The one trivial glimpse I had via the experience with my nephew was merely the tip of a gargantuan iceberg! I had been a terrible burden! My poor mother!
As these thoughts swirled around my big-selfish-jerk head, it dawned on me: she couldn't have hidden the difficulties put upon her by the trials of motherhood without concerted effort; it had been done skillfully, and more importantly, with intention. This was her gift to me.


Looking down the hallway toward my nephew, I realized I had unconsciously done my best to pass my mother's gift on to him. Granted, I'm nowhere near as gracious as my mother -- but to have something like that to even strive to give is a gift within itself.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Parallel threads

The other day, while browsing through stationary at Papyrus, I came across a Chinese proverb that I was immediately drawn to.
With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.
Wow, huh? Or, at least, I think so. But why is this so compelling to me?

This quote touches on two parallel but distinct story threads that have been calling to me more and more lately. I think of the first as the "Phoenix thread" and the second as the "Stranger Than Fiction thread".

Stories that belong to the first thread touch on the concept that the death of an old self must come before the new self can rise up. Typically these stories reiterate that you cannot tether yourself to some safe, known base; You have to let go of the bird in the hand for a shot at the two in the bush. Caterpillars transform into butterflies, victims bitten by dracula become vampires themselves, water is able to transport itself across the desert -- but only after a scary and sometimes painful transformation.

Stories that belong to the second thread touch on the concept that we can sometimes indirectly contribute to meaningful and substantial change in the world. These stories exemplify the fact that not everyone has to be in the spotlight to have an impact. Who taught the prince how to slay the dragon? Who forged his sword?

Noticing that this proverb struck a chord with me helped me realize that these two threads are running in the background. There are lessons in each that I am trying to learn, lessons I hope I am better poised to take in and absorb than I may have been during previous phases of my life.

But now I wonder. What other threads are back there? And, if I were to weave them all together, what kind of fabric would they make?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The gift of attention

When I was about 6 or 7, I was sent to a week-long, overnight camp along with my three sisters. Immediately upon our arrival to Camp Jo Jan Van, we were separated into our respective age groups. I'm guessing this was the first time we experienced that type of separation from our parents without our grandparents stepping in as surrogates.
There was a crack-of-dawn flag ceremony activity every morning. At lunch we were "encouraged" to eat at least 3 spoonfuls of everything on our plate. At night, we were told stories that involved creepy little girls and hatchets and we sung songs like "The Second Story Window" and "Shaving Cream".

There was a girl we all kept hearing about that was having a miserable time. It seemed that everyone's misfortune was consoled with a one-upper story about this poor girl. Chigger bite? She was covered in chigger bites AND it turned out she was allergic to them! Bug bite? She got stung by a scorpion! Hay fever? She has asthma and can't breath at night!

At the end of the week I learned this girl was not a story made up to make everyone feel better -- she was one of my sisters.
Many of these camp memories are likely based more on the stories my sisters and I told each other after we got back home than on direct recall, but there is one camp memory that is definitely my own. I had forgotten about it completely -- until something this last week dislodged it from the nook it had been hiding in.
A night or two before we were scheduled to go home, I lay in bed and cried; I just couldn't seem to stop myself. Since I was not the kind of girl that got homesick -- a fact I pointed out to my bunk mates through my non-stop sobs -- I clearly was not crying for that reason. But then why was I crying? The only explanation that made sense to me was that I was crying "for no reason at all". How remarkable! Note: this remarkable revelation didn't stop even a single tear.

Last Friday, I found myself explaining that I was feeling melancholy "for no reason at all". This happens sometimes -- hormones, sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, etc... can cause a temporary dip in ones mood.

I'd always considered it a strength to have the ability to recognize this type of mood dip and keep oneself from finding unhappy facts to slap these faux feelings onto. Yay me, right? Not really. It turns out that, this time at least, I was actually just being an out-of-touch idiot.
My sister Sonia was in town last week. (She had made a point of coordinating her trip to coincide with my birthday!) A friend she traveled with made deep fried pickles for my birthday dinner appetizer and Sonia made deep fried Oreos for my birthday dinner dessert. She got to meet some of my friends and we got to celebrate together. We hung out and laughed and laughed and talked and laughed. It was absolutely great to spend time with her.

She left Friday afternoon.

How could I have thought I was feeling sad for no reason? I was missing my sister. Clearly, I was homesick.


Have I been doing this my entire life?

Looking back to my time at camp, I think the possibilities offered did not jive with the image I had of myself. And perhaps what I was experiencing felt different than how I had imagined "homesick" would feel.

To give myself credit, I am often pretty on top of how I am feeling. But sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I am too invested in who I think I am to notice who I am today. Sometimes I am too proud to admit I have a petty side to me. Sometimes I am too self-critical to acknowledge I have an admiral side. Sometimes, in other words, I get in the way of my own seeing.


I'd like to make sure I am not leaving something overlooked out of laziness or worse, out of a fear of what that something would say about me (or how much work accounting for that something would require).

But how?

For one thing, I can drag my river of "unresolved issues" a bit more deeply and without predictions regarding what I will (or will not) find. If something is fished out, I can gently check its fit against my Cinderella foot of a feeling. And, if I come up empty-handed, I can go about my business but check the shore on occasion to see if anything new has come to the surface.

Sounds doable, right? Cross your fingers for me, I'm diving in.

If you want to then !

Writing_hand Today I went to see Jane Yolen speak at Porter Square books.

I was impressed with how she handled children's questions. She respectfully, playfully, and creatively re-stated each question until the child reflected satisfaction that she understood what they had asked. She augmented each question's answer with what the child most likely wanted to know.

She offered three pieces of advice for writers:
  1. Read!
  2. Write!
  3. Don't let critics keep you from writing.

I've been thinking about #2 a lot. It seems obvious, doesn't it? If you want to do something you have to actually do it. There's really no way around it. (Thank you Jane for reminding me out of my over 2 week writing hiatus!)

Jane Yolen has over 280 PUBLISHED books under her belt. Isn't that nuts? Isn't that great?! Although I feel a tinge of sadness that I was not exposed to her books as a child, I am delighted to have access to them now.




Monday, September 01, 2008


I admit it. Sometimes I take completely separate incidents and assume they are related due merely to their coincidence. The results are mixed.


A number of years ago, I worked at a company where the owner regularly brought her dog in to work. He was an adorable dachshund that was introduced to all new employees (and all visiting clients) with a warning -- "Keep your food out of reach!"

Like a little security guard, Cutter would make daily rounds. However, instead of patrolling the outside of the building, he scoured the inside perimeter along the walls and under desks. You could tell if someone had had yogurt that day if you saw Cutter walking around with a creamy ring around his yogurt-container-sized muzzle.

One morning, I brought in a homemade cinnamon roll wrapped in tin-foil. As I prepared to head out at noon I quickly glanced over my desk -- next to my keyboard was my much-anticipated after-lunch snack. Next to that was a document my manager had mentioned he wanted to borrow while I was at lunch.

When I returned to my office, I noticed two things. As expected, the document was gone. But strangely, the tin-foiled package had been unwrapped -- my cinnamon roll was gone as well. My first thought? "Why would my manager also take my cinnamon roll?"

It took me only a few more seconds to unwrap my faulty logic. But I was surprised by how my mind seemed to automatically look for a connection between those two incidents.


According to Josh Tenenbaum, an MIT cognitive scientist, our minds are wired to notice coincidence and for good reason. Quoted in a July/August issue of Psychology Today, he explains:
"Coincidences drive so many of the inferences our minds make. Our neural circuitry is set up to notice these anomalies and use them to drive new learning."
Co-authors Tom Griffith and Josh Tenenbaum begin the paper "From mere coincidence to meaningful discoveries" with two examples of individuals noticing a coincidence and assuming causality. In the first example, the assumption led to an important scientific discovery (cholera is spread via contaminated water). The assumption made in the second example was just plain incorrect.


This makes me feel better. At least a tiny, little bit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Let's take a lifetime to say

For some reason, one line of "For all we know" by the Carpenters has been bubbling around in my head an awful lot lately:

"Let's take a lifetime to say 'I knew you well'..."

Out of the blue, I find myself humming this to myself. I have no idea why. In fact, I don't even know how I know this song. Regardless, it's had me thinking about how there is always something more to learn about someone you may have been positive you know completely.


Growing up, my mother always reminded me to leave the curtains drawn. I always thought it had to do with the intense Texas sun being in direct conflict with efficient air conditioning. It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned the real reason -- my mom dislikes natural light. What?! I don't remember how it came up, but when it did I couldn't understand how it had never come up before then. I have missed out on years and years of teasing her about being a vampire just because I assumed everyone else must naturally love the same things I do.


I've known my friend Anna for years now. Again, I don't know how it came up in conversation but I remember her asking "Did I tell you about the time I had to walk on people to get to work?" What?! How could this have not come up before? Could it be because a few others of the thousands and thousands of stories that accumulate during a lifetime were queued up in line ahead of this one detail?


Today I asked Ruth if her husband of many years (Brother Blue) ever still managed to surprise her. Her answer was an immediate yes. Recently, they were watching the Olympics together and Blue was commenting on the divers' style, form, and general performance. When she asked how he learned to critique diving, he explained that he used to be a diver himself. That was a surprise to her.

Someone listening in on the conversation asked Ruth how long she and Blue have been married. Ruth's answer was "long enough that I should have known that." :)


I am beginning to believe there is an asymptotic curve toward knowing someone thoroughly. Somewhere along that curve, around the place where you've learned enough to decide whether you want to continue on the curve or just hop off, is the space where you might be able to say "I know you well".

I hope you remember to add, "but I can know you better."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Something I love

I guess you'd say I have an ethnically ambiguous look. For as long as I can remember, people have made a point of guessing at, asking about, or telling me my ethnic origins. When I was three, these words made their way to my mother:

How kind of you to have adopted a Vietnamese refugee.

This is actually one of my favorite stories. However, it highlights the dilemma I had growing up. My mother is Hispanic. So is my father, both sets of grandparents, and a huge percentage of the population in my hometown. As a kid, all I wanted to do was fit in. As you can probably guess by the above sweet stranger's compliment to my mother, my look didn't allow for it. On a daily basis, every feature that distinguished me from those around me was pointed out and pointed at.


I find it interesting that something that used to bother me enough to bring me to tears as a kid is now something I cherish and enjoy as an adult.


Last weekend I was at the National Storytelling Conference in Tennessee. Sure as ever, folks approached me throughout the weekend to guess, ask, or tell.

Hawaiian, right?

Where are you really from?

What's your specific tribal affiliation?

People will linger after a workshop to walk with me on my way out. They wait for a lull in an on-going conversation to introduce themselves. They approach me out of the blue with a smile. Even people who look like they normally wouldn't approach a total stranger can't seem to help themselves.

I love this.


Yes, I stand out a little. And, as long as you do so kindly, you are welcome to come over and tell me all about it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reading what I want into it

For quite some time now, I've been ready to try something different. (Back in June I wrote about feeling that I was holding myself back.) Yesterday, after months of prepping, I made my move.

The moment of transition and the subsequent flurry of activity brought on an adrenaline rush I was not exactly expecting. Running around with a grin on my face, I tied up loose ends. But, just as I was heading toward my car to make my way back home at the end of a long day, the tiredness of an adrenaline crash began to seep in.

I sat in my car for a few minutes, dreading the hour long drive.

Willing myself into action, I started the car and began my commute. The clouds must have shifted a bit as I made my way. I made it onto the highway via its curved on-ramp -- and noticed that directly ahead of me was a clear, vibrant rainbow. And, guess what? I was driving straight toward it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Leaving Room for Magic

Anyone who knows me knows this -- I'm really bad when it comes to the kinds of gifts you're supposed to give. Birthdays, weddings, housewarmings, you name it... To me, the best kind of gift is an inspired one. Picking something that "will do" merely because it's time to pick something drives me nuts! On top of that, I prefer gifts that are personal in nature. A gesture is often more meaningful to me than something I could purchase in a store.

Which means that I often fall way behind on the gifts I am obligated to give. Take Christmas for example. I have been as much as three years behind on gifts to my immediate family.

One holiday season, I must have spent the entire plane flight home racking my brain for gift ideas for my mom. In the middle of this painful exercise, a thought occurred to me -- "How about going to church for a year?" Despite the fact that I knew my mom would really like that, I immediately -- and I mean immediately -- dismissed it.


My parents did their best to raise me Catholic -- they took me to church every weekend and sent me to Sunday school every Sunday. I have nothing bad to say about the behavior they modeled. But, I was an inquisitive kid growing up and it seemed to me that every question I asked during class was ignored or met with a curt "be quiet".

"If Adam and Eve could talk, how come cavemen couldn't?" I'm not saying the questions I asked would have spurred me toward Nobel Peace prize winning research. But being dismissed over and over really put me off.

Week after week I would ask for permission to not participate. Week after week my mother would say that I could do as I pleased once I was an adult. Until then, I had to continue going to church and Sunday school.

Guess what the first act of freedom I relished as an "adult" in college was?


Happy to be home and even happier to see my family waiting for me at the airport, I swept the gift idea dilemma -- the one that just moments before had been causing me such stress -- out of my mind.

Temporarily, at least.

At some point during my visit, two of my sisters pulled me aside. When they asked if I had thought of a gift for Mom, my heart sunk. I hadn't, and now I had even less time to come up with something. They looked at each other and seemed unsure about how to proceed.

I hadn't been the only one struggling for gift ideas. After thinking about this on their own for some time, they decided to put their heads together. To their surprise, it turned out that the same thought had independently occurred to each of them. "How about going to church for a year?"

It was a surprise to me, too.

They originally intended to convince me this would be a nice gift for Mom, but upon seeing the look on my face they realized they didn't have to. Understandably, given my background, they had expected more resistance from me. After I explained that I had had the same idea, they decided to get in touch with our oldest sister.

When it turned out that the thought had occurred to her as well, the decision was made.


When I see a magic show, there is a part of me that wants to understand the trick behind the illusion. But there is also a part of me that wants to be in awe of the illusion. If only I could both know and not know.

I am aware that if I dissect the story and think about it hard enough, I can come up with an explanation regarding how and why all four of us came up with the same idea within approximately the same time frame. But in this case, what would I gain by knowing?

And what is the harm in leaving a little room for magic?

As an aside -- this was probably one of the best gifts I have ever given my mom. I used the hour per week to reflect and come to terms with my mother's illness so it turned out to be a gift for myself as well. No, I didn't pick up religion by way of this exercise -- but I did pick up more tolerance for religion, which is something I hadn't managed to do when the act of going to church was involuntary.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

You never run out of the number seven

My guess is that it was October 24th of my sophomore year in college, some time after trying to call a friend for her birthday and discovering the number I dialed was incorrect. I called her mother in search of updated contact information.

Somehow this quick check-in with my friend's mom morphed into the kind of exchange that requires temporarily suspending your personal beliefs. Although I love these types of conversations and take most opportunities to engage in them, I was surprised by this conversation's development. But, even more surprising than its development was the profound impact it ended up having on me.


I have no idea how the topic came up, but my friend's mother spoke to me of her religion. She started off by stating that she believes most people interpret the whole bit about man being made in god's likeness backwards. Her point was followed up with some very human characteristics commonly attributed to him, such as jealousy and rage. In her opinion, god is omniscient and omnipresent, not bound by mass. He is infinite goodness, such as infinite peace, infinite kindness, infinite joy, and infinite love. I liked her definition of infinite:
"You can use it, but you can't use it up. Like the number 7."
She wrapped her logic all together in one neat bundle. "If man is made in god's likeness, wouldn't it stand to reason then, that man has an infinite capacity for peace, for kindness, for joy, and for love?"


I have a thing for thought experiments. When you take an idea or belief that's different from your own and try it on for size, you shift some of your framework around and shake things up a bit. Whatever is worth believing will settle in comfortably while whatever is tenuous or unnecessary will be dislodged and eventually flushed out.

I tried this thought on. To be honest, I didn't try on the whole thought as I was still a little too agnostic to be open to it all. Instead, I tried on the part about man having infinite capacity for all these positive things. As I turned the thought over and inspected it, I found myself taken with the idea. It made complete sense to me. Where in my body is the switch that says "Ooops! Too much love here! Gotta stop now."?

This little thought experiment led to self made mantras that helped me make it through college.
I have an infinite capacity for infinite capacity for infinite capacity for humility...
I'm almost embarrassed to admit how long that list of mantras got. Whatever virtue I needed, I imagined I had an infinite capacity for it and reminded myself that there was no physical limitation keeping me from achieving it. I endured countless all-nighters, ego-crushing problem sets, and assignments that seemed to require more than I had to offer with more grace than I could have mustered without this insight. Even now, on occasion, I find a mantra bubbling up inside of me when I need it. I guess you could say that, among other things, I have an infinite capacity for mantra creation.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sometimes We Are the Entertainment

I once dated a guy who, in my opinion, was overly concerned with how other people perceived him. This concern wasn't limited to people in a position to offer him a job or people he may have had a crush on at some point. In fact, it didn't seem limited at all.

This was hard for me to relate to. Not that I don't ever care what people think of me. It's just that more often than not I don't think to think about it.

When it comes to complete strangers, the kind who will likely never ever see me again, I am typically fine looking the anonymous fool -- especially in those cases where being seen in an unflattering way has little or nothing to do with my actual character.

Don't get me wrong -- I do feel embarrassment. But I also realize I am not the center of the universe. Most folks who are around when I'm making a mistake in public won't even see me! Think about it -- how many people do you pass by every day? How many do you notice? And of those that you do notice, how many are you critically judging? (Now that I think of it, the ex was very critical of even strangers. Perhaps it makes sense that he assumed the whole world was judging him just as harshly?)

OK. Sometimes we flub up BIG TIME. And sometimes people can't help but laugh or think we're total idiots. But, in my opinion, they're not responding to me as a person; they are responding to my role as some extra in the background of their personal movie. I'm just the comedic relief whose name (if they bothered to scroll the credits) they would never manage to match up to the dunce I am playing.

What's wrong with being the entertainment in those cases? What's wrong with providing the stranger that happened to witness your belly flop, or skirt flipping up, or spinach sticking in your teeth, or toilet paper trailing down your pant leg a great punch line to use at dinner some evening?

I've been in these situations. Sometimes, in the middle of it all, I begin to imagine the story that someone might end up telling as a result of my misstep. Often the story tickles me so much that I begin to laugh. Then, I imagine that story ".... and then, get this, she just starts laughing..." which makes me laugh more "... like she's nuts or something..." and more "... and then tears are streaming down her face..." until all I am is a gift of laughter ready to be unwrapped.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Self constraint

One year, the company I worked for sent every employee (two departments at a time) off into the woods. Facilitated by "Leadership is Everyone's Business" team leaders, my co-workers and I participated in leadership-building exercises. One in particular made a huge impression.

The exercise itself was relatively inconsequential. Every one put on a blindfold and was handed a piece of rope that had been twisted and looped through into a kind of loose knot. The objective was to untangle everything.

I couldn't see what was happening, but I could hear some individuals calling out suggestions and I could feel the rope being tugged this way and that as folks experimented with different approaches. At some point, a facilitator tapped me on my shoulder and quietly whispered that I could take off my blindfold.

With my newly available sight, I could help the rest of my co-workers! I tried to find ways to make my suggestions sound as credible as they were without disclosing my special privilege. After some time, a facilitator tapped me on the shoulder and quietly whispered that it was time to put my blindfold back on.

A few moments later, I heard my friend Anna announce "Hey everyone, my blindfold is off!" She then proceeded to call out instructions.

DelRioEaster2004 192Where had I gotten the idea that it would be against the rules to explain that my blindfold was off? My mind was reeling. What other assumptions had I been making in my life? How many of the constraints I felt bound by were actually self imposed? How could I avoid this sort of thing in the future?

One of my life goals formulated as a result of this exercise. I want to be limited only by constraints that are real. And, if a constraint is self-imposed, it better be purposely self-imposed!

Friday, July 18, 2008

At a loss

A number of years ago, I shared a three bedroom apartment with two friends I had met in college. Though both of my roommates were heavy sleepers, one really took the cake. On mornings that he had an appointment that could not be missed, I often found myself leaping out of bed in a panic. Only after shaking off the confusion of sleep could I decipher why -- an ear-splitting noise was drilling through my head and into my bones.
No, I was not about to get run over by a truck backing up -- my roommate's alarm was going off (from the other side of the apartment).
But that wasn't it. The alarm would continue to sound with no interruption for the next hour, unless someone intervened. I admit that perhaps I am just sensitive, but according to what I can find on the internet, the noise could have been between 120 - 130 decibels since I could feel pain as a result of it. And it got worse as I walked from my room toward his.

What I would see upon opening his door never ceased to amaze me: my roommate, fast asleep, with his head right next to the offending eardrum enemy from hell. I was at a loss.


Somewhere in our neighborhood, there lived a heroin addict that made his way through life by breaking into apartments, making off with loot, then selling it to folks ("who would never steal" but would happily pay far below what an actual receipt-holding owner's asking price would be).

His MO wasn't elegant, but it got the job done. First, he would ring the front doorbell. If there was no answer, he would knock like crazy, to the point of capturing the attention of neighbors. Still no answer? Then on to step two -- walking around the house to the backdoor, out of neighbors' sight. Step three involved somehow getting the door open. Steps four, five, and six (sweeping through the house collecting loot, exiting the neighborhood with a big bag of booty, and cashing it all in) were the easy parts.


Neighbors reported that this guy yelled and knocked and rang our doorbell like he really needed to reach one of us. What a bluff, huh? To his delight, no one came to the door.

Step two found him climbing the stairs to our back porch. To accomplish step three, the addict had to break the glass on the back door then reach in and turn the knob. Step four started off in my bedroom as it was the first on the left. A laptop, video camera, cash, and several personal items later it was time to root through the next bedroom. Same story here (if you discount the fact that this roommate had much nicer things). One more bedroom to go!


I sometimes try to imagine what thoughts must have gone through the thief's mind when he saw what was behind the door of bedroom number three: my roommate, sprawled on the bed, unmoving. This is the bedroom nearest the front of the house, with three windows facing the street. In fact, one of the windows faced the porch where this thug had raised a ruckus yelling, knocking, and ringing the doorbell.

The police assume the thief took off to avoid waking up my roommate. My theory is that he high tailed it in fear that he might get nailed for more than just theft.


Once again, I was at a loss.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ethnography 101

Overheard (many years ago) in a ladies restroom
Woman 1:   What's Thai food like?
Woman 2:   It's kind of like Chinese food, but more authentic.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obligation versus inspiration

My father was a counselor at my high school. As a school employee, he was required to arrive at school by 7 am, much earlier than my fellow students. As a school employee's daughter (with no other means of transportation), I was required to arrive at the same ungodly hour.

Making my dad late was not an option. If the span between waking up and walking out the door didn't leave me with enough time to get showered and get dressed, guess who was going to have a very embarrassing day at school? It took some serious hustling to avoid arriving on campus with drool caked on my face.

Unfortunately, I was not much of a morning person back then. I should have know better than to hit snooze again and again in the morning, but I didn't. I often had to rely on a "real" alarm -- my father's audible footsteps echoing down the hall on his way to the kitchen. Yikes! This meant I had to jump out of bed, zoom in and out of the shower, and throw clothes on all in the time it took him to have breakfast and pack his lunch.


One morning, for no reason I'm aware of, I woke up early. With plenty of time left after getting ready for the day, I decided to pack my dad's lunch. When he made his way into the kitchen, we had breakfast together then headed off to school.

I had enjoyed that. So the next day I tried hard to wake up early again. It was difficult, but I managed to get up with enough time for a repeat performance of the morning before. The third day was even more difficult, but I dragged myself through it. Ta da!

Then, on the fourth day, my teenage need for sleep outweighed my intentions and I was back to my normal routine. On our way out of the door, my dad asked "Where's my lunch?"

My heart sank -- suddenly the thoughtful little "bonus" I had offered as a gift felt like something I was obligated to continue. Where was my praise? It wasn't until then that I realized I had been expecting praise and was kind of resentful I hadn't received any. I didn't say anything, but I didn't pack his lunch again either.

I decided then that a gift should only be out of selfless inspiration. As a friend, a daughter, a partner, a good citizen there are plenty of things I do that have the weight of obligation tied to it. There are also plenty of things I do where I expect something in return. But, it's only when my sense of inspiration outweighs any sense of obligation or expectation that I consider something truly a gift.

Looking back, I realize it wasn't much of a gift I had offered my father.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Telling the whole elephant

I would love the ability to demonstrate the difference between reading a story and listening to it. Recently, I was talking to a friend about one possible way to approach this: I could create a written version of a story I normally tell then post it along with a link to a polished, recorded telling of that same story.

"You're going to kill it." she warned me. She went on to describe her experience with this. A story that she once told with ease had become awkward and stilted after she captured a version in writing.

That made me nervous, but I decided to try my hand at it anyway. To be cautious, I picked a small story, something I typically tell as a little anecdote, that I wouldn't fall apart over if I stopped being able to tell it. Writing it was enjoyable, though it took longer than I expected. It felt as if every line I started was actually part of another, bigger story. After trimming those parts out (and placing them in a notebook for safekeeping) I was done!

This last Tuesday, I had a chance to tell it. Awkward and stilted, I stumbled through the beginning. Something was different. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth, but it didn't feel like a story. Usually, when storytelling (even when I'm flubbing it) I feel a connection to the story and to the listener -- I feel as if I am a conduit of some sort. But this time, I felt like I was just speaking. I glanced at the story (sat with it a moment, in my head) and noticed it was just a thin sliver, there was no room for me to walk around! It hit me then, I was thinking about the slice I had captured in writing.

When writing, I am like one of the blind men in the blind men and elephant story. In my opinion, this is fine for writing (or at least, for my level of writing). On paper, there is only so much I can chew or hold up to the reader at once. For this reason, putting on the blind fold helps me focus.

What I learned on Tuesday was that I need to remember to take off the blind fold. I need to tell the whole elephant.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Strangers in the Living Room

My sister and I had full run of the house, which was a pretty rare event. With our parents off at the yearly "Black and White Ball" and our other two sisters out with friends, we were going to make a night out of it.

Which meant we plopped down in front of the boob tube.

Our goal was to stay up late enough to watch Night Tracks. Perhaps not the most inventive or awe-inspiring ambition, but we were dedicated. Until one of us wandered into the kitchen and reported the discovery of Little Debbies in the cupboard. Our mission was aborted.

We spent the next few hours leaving Little snack cake residue on all of our playing cards and board game pieces. When the sugar high started wearing off, we made our way to the far bedroom (the cool bedroom) that belonged to one of our absent siblings. We could tuck ourselves in and sister-talk until we fell asleep. So much for well laid plans.

Sleepiness set in heavier and heavier and our chatter began circling in the space between our pillows like a dog trying to get comfortable. Eventually our conversation rolled to a non-eventful stop. That was when we heard it.

Voices. Of strangers. In the living room.

The voices were muffled, but we could tell they were unfamiliar. As much as we strained to hear what they were saying, we couldn't make out any specific words. Given the lack of decisive information, we did what was natural.

We totally freaked out.

My sister, the one in charge, came up with our only idea: prayer. It seemed reasonable enough. We settled on "Our Father" since every little Catholic kid knows it by heart. Or so we thought. It turns out that, when you're very young and very scared, all the energy you put into not wetting your pants is energy taken away from remembering the Lord's prayer.

We started falling to pieces, but once again my sister pulled us together. She had a new plan: we would investigate. Taking my hand, she led our way in the dark (to avoid detection) through the house (to get into better earshot). From the den we could see a strange glow coming from the living room. From the dining room, it all became clear.

We had left the television on.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Something to Carry in Your Pocket

In sixth grade, I had a theatre arts teacher named Mrs. Stuart. I wasn't crazy about her -- she had a nasally sharp voice, seemed a bit snooty, and didn't seem that crazy about me. I remember her first name, Sue, because it turned out to be appropriate; It seemed that anytime a kid accidentally bumped into her she would scold them "You could have really hurt me. I could sue you, you know."

Despite this, Sue managed to teach me something I consider pretty darned useful. My guess would be that she had no idea I would take what she taught me and use it the way I do. I'm pretty sure she'd be even more surprised to learn that I regularly think about her, with gratitude, as a result of this little something I carry around in my pocket.

To someone who is 11 or 12, everyone over 20 looks ancient. Given that my memories of that time were filmed using 'tween lenses, I can't really say for certain how old Sue was. It's very likely she was around the age I am now. In honor of this, I'd like to share. Kudos to Mrs. Stuart, by the way.

Our class was set on the cafeteria/auditorium stage; our cue was the bell and we made our entrance through the black curtains, upstage right. The setup was minimalist -- three fold out tables and a number of fold out chairs gathered around them set the scene.

To be honest, I remember little else about the class in general. Instead, almost all of my memory revolves around the time that Mrs. Stuart taught us about method acting. I don't think that's what she called it, but based on what I know now I would say she was teaching us what's referred to as "emotional recall".

She asked for a few volunteers and, after asking them to act sad, demonstrated how sad really looked. She then went on to explain what she was doing. In essence, she was recalling a time when she genuinely felt the emotions she was trying to portray, then letting those feelings charge up her portrayal.

The lesson over, each student returned to their folding chair to work on a class assignment -- sadness. We were to think of times in our lives that we were very, very sad. Looking around at all the furrows and frowns, I could see we were getting somewhere. In fact, after reaping my short life's collection of sorrowful woes, I found I could bring myself close to tears with little effort. Then came our next assignment -- happiness. Again, after hand picking some choice funny moments, I found I could easily bring myself to a grin, a smile, or even to laughter.

She gathered us once more to review what we had just learned. As she described what a powerful tool this was and explained how it could be used to infuse our acting with the emotions of our choice, I had an "Aha!" moment.

Why not use it to infuse our everyday lives with happiness?

At that moment, I committed to collecting positive memories and storing them in my pocket for easy retrieval. It worked! Whenever some negative thought had its grip on me, I could shake it loose by dusting off of my pocket collection. At first I started with funny memories, but over time expanded to include happy, proud, grateful, competent, loved... anything that might help remind me out of whatever dark corner I might find myself in.

If you've ever experienced the dark of a power outage, you know how much easier it is to make your way around if you have access to some sort of light source. The same goes for life's dark places.

Take this second to place a happy memory in your pocket. And, when you're done, practice fishing that happiness out of your pocket and using it. Guess what? Now you have a little flashlight.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Image picking

I have an inkling there is some background process in our brain that is constantly rummaging through the endless stream of images collected via our peripheral vision. Like a thief picking through a poor college student's dorm room, it's trying to determine, out of a ton of meaningless chotchkies, what's even worth bringing home to the big boss.


The other day, while walking past a food court, I spotted a middle-aged man and woman sitting and chatting. Just when this image was about to get chucked, the little thief-like-process noticed something interesting:

The woman was sporting a little round bandaid on the inside corner of her left eye.

Not super interesting, but interesting enough to put in a request for the collection of at least a one, quick, central vision snapshot (for further analysis, of course). I obliged, and as a result noticed something that piqued the big boss's curiosity:

Her conversation partner had the same kind of bandaid smack dab square in the middle of his forehead.

I started wondering. Did the injuries happen at the same time? Was there a sale on little round bandaids? Were the injuries similar, or were those the only kinds of bandaids they had on hand (ala "when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.") Could it be that only one of them actually had an injury but was embarassed and the other, to make them feel better, placed a bandaid in an equally eye-catching location to say "here, now it won't just be you."

I hate that I'll never know. But I kind of love it, too.

Friday, June 27, 2008

the North Pole

Today at work, management let all non-essential employees out early due to a power outage. Upon hearing the news, I waffled a little -- work is about half way between where I live and where my after-normal-work-hour plans required me to be. It didn't help that I felt no strong pull regarding what I should do with myself. I considered finishing up a few things for work (my laptop still had some juice) but eventually settled on finding a cafe that offered wireless internet access so I could write for a bit.

In contrast, most of my co-workers hightailed it as soon as they learned they could go.

For some reason, noticing that reminded me of a time I was hanging out with my friend Anna. We were looking for a parking spot when she pointed out a dog that was walking by. He was looking straight ahead and, as he crossed the lot, he never moseyed off the straight line that was his path. "He's definitely going somewhere," she said, "and it looks like it's a very specific somewhere."

Even the dog knew exactly where he wanted to go.

During a visit home a few years ago, I planned a short road trip for my mother and myself. At some point during our trip, I asked her what she would like to do. She kept suggesting things she thought I might want to do. But I didn't need for anything. I was a blank slate and had no preference for any destination or activity; My only desire was to spend time with her, and unless she opted for time alone, I would be getting exactly what I wanted. It took some time, but the moment I convinced her of this, her eyes lit up and she literally blurted out what she wanted to do.

I had never dug past enough of the "I'm your mother, let me take care of you" strata to get to this particular layer of hers. If I'd had any inkling that this layer was there, of course I would have dug sooner! How could I not have guessed she might have that sort of drive, that ability to think of an activity to do and then crave doing it?

Because I don't seem to have it myself.

I first noticed this about myself the summer after my junior year, while on a plane headed toward Boston. This was something I wanted, something I knew I would enjoy. But I felt no giddy anticipation, it was as if the only moment that existed was the one I was currently in. I remember sitting on the plane and wondering if it meant anything. Was it a premonition? Could the reason I couldn't imagine and look forward to the future be because the plane was going to crash? Over time I've learned that although there are many, many things I enjoy doing, my anticipation button is just a little broken.

Last year, my friend Dan and his wife Linda planned a trip to Hawaii, inviting one friend each to join them. Dan invited me and, when I saw how much it would mean to him for me to say yes, I said yes. He was excited about the trip. On occasion he would ask me if I was looking forward to it. I reminded him of my weird quirk. I tend to not look forward to activities, milestones, or events. I don't mean that I dread them, I just mean that I don't feel that sense of anticipation, that sense of "this is going to be great!" excitement, even for activities I know I will enjoy.

The only caveat I can think of has to do with activities that revolve around a good one-on-one conversation. (The kind where someone learns something new about the other or about themselves, or where ideas volley back and forth, allowed to change shape with each catch and toss, or where someone is listened into a better place, ... )

My theory is that my non-linear life path is a direct result of this.

Other people seem to have a North Pole out in the world, and a big magnet tucked inside them that craves that big North Pole and pulls them in a straight line toward it. I'm coming to believe that instead of a magnet, I have a little north pole inside. And it craves not things or milestones or places, but that magnetic tug of other people.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hold a true friend with both hands

I've been contemplating regret an awful lot.

A good friend got married last year. After the ceremony, in the big tent listening to toasts and being served dinner, I watched 3 years worth of her pictures projected on a screen. Dinner party after dinner party, birthday celebration after birthday celebration, outing after outing flashed by. Although I had been invited to most of the events, I was in only a small handful of those pictures.

I was working on a renovation project that turned out to be a much bigger job than I had expected. I was traveling quite a bit for work. I was working around my partner's schedule to be supportive. I was looking for a house to buy. I was balancing my checkbook. I was sleeping. I was being an absolute idiot.

None of these are excuses. They are just little snapshots of the things I had let balloon so large that other things were set aside for later. Not that I thought these other things weren't important. I just didn't realize how much time was passing. And how fast.

That slide show was a wake up call for me. The way I spend my time should be a strong reflection of the things I value. My friend and I spent much of this last year making time for each other -- I am very grateful for that. She moved away this morning and though I am filled with regret at all the time I lost, I look forward to the time that's yet to come.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


My parents made a point of raising their kids with the concept of regret. Not in a morose kind of way and not about all things. I believe it was important to them that we regularly consider how we might feel in the future about our current actions when it came to the people we loved.

Whenever I acted disrespectfully, my parents would remind me that they wouldn't be around forever. This must sound morbid, but they didn't bring it up in that way. They weren't threatening, they weren't whining, they weren't trying to guilt me into "behaving". As I grew older, I understood more and more about what they were doing -- they were coaching me. By prompting me to reflect, they were helping me clear a path toward an adult life with less regret.

This part of my childhood is probably one of the reasons the hospital scene in Terms of Endearment caused me to bawl my heart out. In this scene, the main character is in the hospital, dying of cancer. She is with her two boys, saying her goodbyes. Her oldest son Tommy is being very distant. She says to him:
I know you like me. I know it. For the last year or two, you've been pretending like you hate me. I love you very much. I love you as much as I love anybody, as much as I love myself. And in a few years when I haven't been around to be on your tail about something or irritating you, you could...remember that time that I bought you the baseball glove when you thought we were too broke. You know? Or when I read you those stories? Or when I let you goof off instead of mowing the lawn? Lots of things like that. And you're gonna realize that you love me. And maybe you're gonna feel badly, because you never told me. But don't - I know that you love me. So don't ever do that to yourself, all right?
What sort of grace enables you to look beyond your own hurt and offer such a gift? I can only hope it's the sort of grace that I can pick up piece by piece as I grow and learn.

Even as a teenager, I didn't roll my eyes whenever my parents' reminder made its way into our conversation. I could hear the personal experience in their voice, I could sense the regret they were sheltering me from.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Piano Story

My first storytelling feature was August 20, 2002. Surrounded by friends and family, I introduced the set of stories I was about to tell by telling "the piano story". My parents were in the audience that day. They flew to Boston from Texas because I let them know how much it would mean to me if they did.

Now, whenever I think of this story, I remember the experience of having told it to them. Because of this, it's become one of my favorites.

A number of years ago, I decided to learn to play the piano. As one who works extensively with computers, I went about this in a way that made the most sense -- I bought a computer program.

With some regularity, I would perch my laptop atop the piano, run the software, and walk through exercise after exercise. On this day, the lesson was "Joy to the World". I was terrible -- I couldn't play to tempo and I was missing quite a few of the notes. Then my mom called. She asked what I was doing and when I told her, she was very enthusiastic.

My mother loves music. Loves loves loves it. It also makes her sentimental. Since her brothers were very musically inclined, music reminds her of her family growing up.

When she asked me if I could play for her, I had to be honest. "I can't. But I will." I put into practice what I had just been learning and again, it was horrible. I was slow, I was off, the tune was hardly recognizable. But I could hear that my mother was listening with her mother's ear. "Oh, that's so beautiful" she told me. I knew her well enough to know she wasn't lying.

Shortly after this episode, I learned that my parents had started referring to me as Liberace. My father would ask my mother "How is Liberace doing?" and my mother would respond with something like "Liberace is busy today." I took this as permission to launch a little joke campaign of my own.

I decided to have my friend Rich who can play the piano (really, really well) sit at the keyboard. I called my mom and said "Hey, I've been practicing." You must realize, only two weeks had passed by this point. I asked my mom if she'd like to hear what I've been up to. I told Rich to hit it, he started to play -- it was a rich, beautiful, complex piece and he was performing it perfectly.

I was expecting my mother to guffaw. But no, she was just listening. She called out "Honey, honey come to the phone!" Suddenly my dad was on the line too, and they were both listening!

A joke just isn't funny until someone gets the joke. I had to interrupt. "Mom, Dad. That's not me! Of course that's not me!"

They paused for a second before admitting, "well, I guess that would make more sense."

When I hung up the phone, I realized something about myself. I grew up with this unfaltering faith in what I'm capable of. On one hand, it's an incredibly strengthening source. But on the other, I have no idea how many times I've disappointed my parents. (I can still hardly play Joy to the World.)


This is a link to a poor quality recording of that first, 2002 rendition. Critics, please note this was my first feature and the first time telling in front of friends and family. In case you're wondering what the hiccup sounding noises are, that's my mother sobbing!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Checkbook oops

When I left home for college, my parents set me up with a checking account and an American Express charge card. The understanding was that, even though they might send me money on occasion, I would be solely responsible for the two accounts.

Responsible. What a loaded word.

Many of my friends were on the same boat, but they seemed more savvy. Instead of keeping tally on their checkbook, they called their automated teller whenever they wanted to know their balance. I considered adopting this practice until I realized the balance reported was sometimes inaccurate; There was no way for the automated teller to know that a check had been written if it hadn't yet cleared.

While I was busy feeling proud of myself for avoiding this possible disaster, I walked right into another.

Expenses I paid for with my American Express card didn't seem real. Although I kept track of ATM withdrawals and checks written against my account, I didn't pay much attention to the American Express charges I incurred. According to the American Express website: "Unlike Debit and Credit Cards, with an American Express Charge Card you can enjoy no pre-set spending limit and you must repay your full balance at the end of each month giving you total control over your expenses."

No spending limit
+ full balance due at month end

college student without the funds to foot the bill

In my desperation, I found a loophole. My American Express for students card allowed me to defer travel expenses, interest free. That is, the card acted like a miniature loan for travel expenses and a charge card for everything else. Problem solved! The money my parents sent me for buying plane tickets home went directly to paying off my over-budget spending.

This was great! For the next couple of years I overspent, conveniently by about the same amount my parents were sending in plane ticket money. I didn't give much thought to this growing travel debt. So, by the time I accumulated enough curiosity to check the card balance, I was in for a shocker -- it was over $1500. What had I been thinking?

Reality set in around then. By upping my hours at my part-time job during the remainder of that school year, curbing my spending, and saving as much as I could during the following summer internship I was able to eliminate that debt.

Determined to not play the fool twice, I changed the way I balanced my check book. Instead of only keeping track of direct expenses, I began to also keep track of "virtual" expenses.

DescriptionReal BalanceVirtual Balance
Starting balance$1000.00$1000.00
ATM withdrawal-$40.00-$40.00
Remaining balance $960.00$960.00
LANES membership (Amex)$0-$55.00
Remaining balance $960.00$905.00

The virtual balance, depicted above, is what I learned to live by. It let me know how much of my "real balance" was available for spending. In other words, even though my "real balance" was $960, if I spent $55 on my card that I had to pay off at the end of the month, $55 of my "real balance" was off limits as it was reserved for that purpose.

Although my checkbook habits have evolved since then, I still live by a virtual balance and recommend it heartily. I believe it's played a major role in steering me clear from debt. Thank goodness for my first checkbook oops -- It led to one of the best lessons I learned in college.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Responsibility 101

Growing up, my sisters and I got a once-a-month allowance from my parents.

Often, as the errand sidekick, I would ride along as my mom or dad drove up to the drive-through teller to deposit their paychecks. This was before the days of the ATM -- my parents carefully calculated how much cash they would need until the next month's pay date. With their receipt came a little, white envelope of crisp bills.

When we got home, my parents would line us all up (in age order, as always) and hand out our month's take.

I don't remember how old I was when my parents started this practice, but I do remember that my sisters got more. I asked my father about it, shortly after realizing this fact. His answer struck me, he did not feel I was responsible enough. Me? Not responsible? Clearly my father didn't know what he was talking about.

Sure, he would sometimes have to remind me to put my money in my wallet instead of just holding it in my hand. Or not to count my money out in the open when I was trying to figure out if I had enough to make a purchase. Or not to leave my wallet lying around unattended.

Of course I was responsible. All these little things were just minor details. Every month that passed where I received less than my siblings, I felt cheated, misunderstood, and under appreciated. I couldn't believe my father couldn't see that I was at least as responsible as my sisters.

Then one month, after what seemed to be many months, my dad called me aside before handing me my allotment. After he explained that he believed it was time for me to demonstrate how responsible I could be, he handed me a full allowance. A full allowance! I was elated!

I was so elated that I went outside to play, ride my bike, and who knows what else -- with this deliverance gripped firmly in my hands. Or so I thought. Who knows how long it took me to realize my hands were empty, but when I did, I began to look around frantically. I looked on the street, under the car, in the grass, between the couch cushions, all the while trying to escape the notice of my father. It was already bad enough to realize he had been right about me before; I didn't want him to know that I had failed his test

My father caught on. He called me aside and explained the ramifications. Since I had demonstrated I wasn't ready yet, he was going to revert me to my original allowance.

Many more months passed. But instead of feeling it wasn't fair each time I received 1/2 the allowance my sisters were given, I remembered that I hadn't been able to demonstrate that I could manage more. Now ultra careful with my money, I hoped he would notice and looked forward to having another shot at showing him I could be responsible.

As frustrating as the experience was, I am grateful for my first chance failure. For one thing, it was my first lesson that I cannot just assume my own competency. More importantly, it helped me realize that I wasn't entitled to to my father's trust and that he wasn't obligated to give it to me.

When my father eventually gave me a second chance, I was able to meet his expectations and earn his trust. Over 20 years later, I still have it and have every intention of keeping it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Today, my mother is receiving her first IVIG infusion as a 65 year old. On top of that, this infusion is being administered in Del Rio, where she lives. This time, there is no need for a 7+ hour drive to Houston or a hotel stay!

This is truly something to celebrate. I've written about it before, and talked about it even more -- getting to this point has been no easy task. But we're here. We're here!

Now to see how this iteration goes...

I save like my father

I don't believe my father ever formally sat me down to tell me his thoughts about how to manage one's finances. But, based on what I saw and stories I was told, this is what I gather to be my father's approach to saving:
  • Always pay yourself
  • Pay yourself first
  • What you pay yourself should never decrease
When my oldest sister was born, my father sat down with my mother to discuss a plan he had. He would like to set aside a certain amount in CDs every month, just for my sister. My mother agreed it was a great idea, but when it came to his suggestion regarding how much to set aside, she reminded him of their intention to have additional children; Whatever amount they agreed on had to be an amount they could, with certainty, set aside for each child. Being reminded of himself, my father modified his recommendation and they started with 1/2 his original proposal.

My approach to saving is firmly founded on my father's principles. My first paycheck out of college was dissected into two parts -- the part I would spend and the part I would save. But, as eager as I was to save, I made sure to pick a conservative savings target. I knew that if I went overboard with "savings", I may end up dipping into it for bare necessities which would only blur the line between the two parts of my paycheck. Besides, it was important to me that my savings rate be maintainable and have only an upward trajectory.

I'm not sure why this was important to me. Perhaps it's because I grew up thinking it's a smart thing to do. Or because I tend to associate financial stability and independence with personal freedom. Either way, I like that it's at least one tangible way of incorporating my dad into my every day life.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In need of a compass

Or perhaps "In need of the ability to read a compass". Or more aptly, "In need of the motivation to get off my duff and move in the direction the compass is pointing".

A friend once offered me the opportunity to paint his truck. Anything would go -- his truck was one beat up specimen of transportation. No doubt, paint would have helped it stay in one piece a little bit longer.

I thought and thought and thought. Which meant I delayed and delayed and delayed. At some point he confronted me.
"What, are you afraid you're going to do it wrong?"
That hit me pretty hard. Unfortunately, it also hit me a little too late. By the time I gathered up my equipment, my friend had taken off for a pretty extensive trip.

Is it possible to say you've learned a lesson if your actions since the moment of learning don't demonstrate your new knowledge? In theory I know that life isn't about getting it right the first time. When presented with choices, I don't believe only one of the options is the right one. I love this quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.”
but feel I am often holding some part of myself back -- tethered to a safe base -- to avoid missing big or having to start over from scratch. It's not intentional. It's not intentional!

I'm beginning to realize I don't have enough imagination to plan my next big adventure. I think I need to just start and see where the road, when it rises to meet me, leads.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Today is Christian's graduation ceremony. This calls to mind a speech he gave a couple of years ago about the stacked and recursive nature of liminality. "Stacked" due to the fact that waiting at the finish line of one set of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal phases is a completely new set. "Recursive" because any individual phase could also contain a preliminal, liminal, and postliminal phase.

He used college to explain:
  • preliminal -- separating yourself from your every day, deciding to embark
  • liminal -- taking classes, learning
  • postliminal -- graduating, integrating back into the world as a changed person
The graduation ceremony, part of the of the postliminal phase of going to college can also be dissected into three phases:
  • preliminal -- separating yourself from your every day, donning a gown
  • liminal -- walking, receiving your diploma
  • postliminal -- being introduced to the world as a graduate

Today was a great example.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Open mindedness

I proudly labeled myself open minded at an early age. As with many of my young peers, each passing year brought new knowledge and understanding. Inevitably, this new vantage would turn my definition of open minded on its head. I would smugly comment on my recently younger self, "Ha! Back then I only thought I was open minded" confidently adding, "But now ... now I actually am."

Rinse. Lather. And repeat.

Although I'm often not intelligent enough to avoid entering into patterns, I can sometimes recognize the patterns I fall into. It took some time for me to recognize this one, and now I know -- I like to think of myself as open minded, but I'm merely a work in progress.

I've come to believe that one's level of open mindedness can be measured by the nature and breadth of stories that cross one's path. As an adult, I find individuals sharing their life beliefs with what appears to be little reservation. However, I have no doubt that what people will be willing to share with me 10 years from now will help me look back and understand how much people are currently holding back.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stranger to a stranger?

When I walk out into the world among strangers I forget I am an unknown quantity. Although I know how to wear my heart on my sleeve, I don't know how to wear my history or my story.

For one thing, something about the way I look elicits a story about me out of people -- but it's a story that has nothing to do with me. Instead, it has to do with some "exotic" culture that I have no knowledge of.

By looking at me, there's no way one could tell what my relationship with my parents is like. Nor could one tell that I am educated, have a fondness for double entendre, believe at the core people are good, or a number of other things about me.

Despite this, for some reason, I forget that I am just as much a stranger to a stranger as they are to me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Thank you, Michelle!

Great news -- My mother once again has access to treatment!!

After many months of trying to traverse the confusing world of pharmaceuticals, health care, insurance, and patient advocacy I was able to connect with Nancy Falkman, a Program Director at AccessMed. She, in turn, connected me with Michelle Mainor, a CSL Behring Programs counselor who has worked diligently on my family's behalf. Since July of 2007, Michelle has tried approach after approach demonstrating a great sensitivity to my mother's situation and a determination to help.

Many, many thanks to Michelle for her patience and dedication.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Economics 101

Christian and I went for a bike ride today. Along the way, we stopped at a nearby park where I overheard a father talking to his little boy. When the boy ignored his father's request to not play (stop playing) with a little plastic wagon another little boy had parked behind me, his father responded with:
"Hmm... You want to touch everyone else's things, but you don't want anyone to touch yours. That's quite an economy, son."


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