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.


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