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.


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