Category Archives: Risk and Growth

unplug (kindly)

The Best Advice So Far - unplug (wall socket extension with too many wires plugged in)

Let me say up front that this post may not be for you. Who is it for then? Well, it’s for people like me:

  • who love people and whose natural tendency is to talk with and listen to others
  • who tend to have high interpersonal output most of the time
  • who sometimes find themselves running on fumes
  • who need ways to unplug without resorting to becoming a recluse

If this sounds like you, read on.

There’s a funny thing about me. (Well, there’s a list, but I’ll tell you about one of them.) It’s actually the cause of much astonishment and incredulous shaking of heads in my circles.

People talk to me.

I mean they really talk to me.

I don’t know why exactly, but I could be the ninth person in the checkout line at a convenience store and every interaction in front of me will be some form of predictable script:

A: “How are you?”

B: “Good ‘n’ you?”

A: “Fine thanks. Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

B: “No that’s all, thanks.”

Not so when I reach the counter. I feel like I technically say the same things: “How are you today?” and the like. But the responses are anything but predictable. Let me give you an example in context.

Just last week, I didn’t go into two different convenience stores I otherwise frequent, for the sheer fact that I was unusually busy and pressed for time. Oh, sure, I had time to run in and grab a protein shake and run out. But that just isn’t the way things go, and I know it. A “quick” stop into such a place might have me leaving an hour or more later.

As it happened, however, I noticed that a couple of tires were running low on air. And the only place I knew where I could fill them at that moment…was one of the aforementioned convenience stores I was purposefully avoiding. Still, I needed the air.

I figured it was OK, since I didn’t actually need to go into the store in order to use the air pump. So off I headed on smushy tires for what I couldn’t image being more than a five-minute ordeal.

Well, the air pump requires four quarters. And while I have a large bag full of change sitting right in the armrest of my car, do you think I could find a measly four quarters?

:: rummage rummage rummage ::

Nope.

Alas, only three to be found. I’d have to go in.

Well, no sooner had the sliding apertures parted to bathe me in harsh fluorescent light than the twenty-something store clerk spotted me. And despite the small line waiting to check out, he dashed around the counter toward me, arms spread, joyfully shouting my name: E-r-i-i-i-i-i-k!

This culminated in a bear hug, accompanied by some variety of what I can only call “snuggle noises.”

After releasing me, he jogged back to continue ringing out the waiting line of customers. Soon, the queue had dwindled and I was ready to ask for my quarters for the air pump. (You do remember the air pump, right?)

“So anyway…” the clerk started in, as if we’d only momentarily been distracted from an in-depth conversation to which he was now returning. “I’m going to visit my family out of state soon. I haven’t seen them in a while. But I really need to, because I’ve been depressed. You remember my transgender ex-roommate, right? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but she literally tried to kill me. I still think I’m dealing with all of that drama…”

Thing is, this type of interaction isn’t especially unusual for me. In fact, it’s the norm. Again, why that is, I can’t say exactly. It just is. And so typically, I’d listen and ask questions—and leave an hour later with my quarters.

This particular night, however, two out-of-the-ordinary responses were at work inside of me:

1. While the information the clerk was divulging to me wasn’t the least bit funny, I had the most overpowering urge to burst out laughing at the relative absurdity of the situation from anyone else’s perspective.

2. I realized that I was not only too busy to get into a long conversation at the moment, I was also low on mental energy. So I felt a tinge of impeding panic at the thought of having my limited reserves tapped by either a deep and lengthy conversation or by the energy required to tactfully extricating myself from one.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here by telling you just yet how I managed to leave two minutes later with my quarters. But some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot to say in my book The Best Advice So Far on the topic of “ducking” (i.e., changing your course in life to avoid awkward interactions with people from the past). What I’m talking about here is not “ducking.” I really like the people I interact with at “my places.” I enjoy the sense of community that I’ve invested in building. Ironically, that’s part of the problem.

One of the main topics of this blog and the accompanying book is ways to engage with the other people around you. To go a little deeper. To see people as people and not merely as background noise to our own busy lives.

However, the reality is that there are also times when we need to step back. Sometimes, you just have to take the gracious out for the sake of self-preservation.

As Dib and Holly so often reprise in the words of their mom, Carlotta

“Save yourself.”

In The Best Advice So Far, I go into a fair amount of detail exploring techniques for expanding upon a conversation. It stands to reason, then, that doing the opposite will work to keep things short when necessary. Today, I’d like to offer four strategies for disengaging, while still treating others with kindness.

*****

Unplug Strategy #1: Keep things “closed.”

Open-ended questions have…

 

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dwelling

The Best Advice So Far - dwelling - dilapidated bedroom in what appears to have been an old, wealthy home

The phone rang at 9:52 this morning. Unknown number. I didn’t pick up.

At 9:53, a voice message appeared. I listened.

It was “Fabiola from the District Court victim advocacy office,” informing me that the case against the woman who stole my wallet and fraudulently used my debit card last summer was being heard today. It was a short message, which ended by asking me to return the call if there was anything I wanted to add to the case before it went before the judge.

At 9:55, I called back. No answer. I left a message explaining that the local police detective in charge of the case had assured me I’d receive an invitation to appear in court when the woman was tried, but that I’d received no such letter or call. I requested that the case be continued until such an invitation were issued, to allow me to be there, and asked that Fabiola call me back.

I continued to call back every 5 or 10 minutes. Answering machine. Answering machine. I left a couple of other messages with details pertinent to the case:

  • I’d learned that this woman had 19 prior counts of theft and fraud before mine, and yet had never received jail time.
  • I’d lost not only days of my life trying to rectify the stolen funds with my bank and piece back together the contents of the stolen wallet, but actual money by way of lost work hours and having to order a replacement license.
  • The woman had committed these thefts with a child of under four years of age in tow, using the boy as part of the con, involving the child in the crimes and modeling to this child that theft was an acceptable way of life.

Do you think me heartless? Did you imagine that I’d have more compassion, given my lifelong role as a mentor to youth, many of them having made poor choices along the way?

Please know that my first response was compassion. Had I learned that the woman had used my bank card to buy formula, diapers of food staples, I would have shown up to court and advocated for leniency, even offering her my own help where possible.

But it quickly became clear the day of the incident that she was not stealing out of indigence or need. No, she was rushing down my own street (a mark of a seasoned criminal, knowing that purchases near the residence of the victim are less likely to be flagged immediately as fraud), buying cartons of cigarettes here, magazines there, donut gift cards at the next place.

At close to 11:00, Fabiola called back. The case had gone to trial at 10:00 she told me. She was upstairs at the hearing when I’d called back.

I could feel my blood pressure going up.

“Fabiola,” I said, “so what you’re telling me is that you called me eight minutes before the hearing and immediately hung up the phone and went upstairs … meaning you had no intention of hearing my feedback before the case was tried.”

Awkward silence on the phone.

Then the excuses began.

“Well, we sent a letter to you in February.”

“I didn’t receive any letter. What address do you have?”

“8 Meadow Lane …”

“No, I haven’t lived there in over six years. And it’s not the address I listed on the police report.”

“Oh, well, I’m sorry you didn’t receive the letter, but we did send it.”

“Yes, you sent it to the wrong address … which wasn’t the one I provided on my victim statement. Are you telling me that the police didn’t give you my victim statement? It’s not in your case file? Because if that’s the case, I need to hang up with you and go right down to the police department to file a complaint against the detective in charge. Gee, and he seemed so competent …”

“Well,” Fabiola hemmed and hawed, “I didn’t say we didn’t get the report. I just know that we sent a letter to 8 Meadow Lane and didn’t hear from you.”

“And that is because … I don’t live there. Are you telling me you didn’t receive it back from the post office then? Because after I get done at the police station, it sounds like you’re telling me that I need to stop in at the post office and ask why they also screwed up. But what I’m sure of is that you had my phone number, because you called me this morning … eight minutes before the trial.”

More awkward silence.

“I was only just able to find your phone number this morning, sir. But good news. The defendant plead guilty and received probation.”

I drew in a long, slow breath and let it out.

“Fabiola … so, you didn’t use the address on the police report … which also had my phone number printed clearly on it … and you just happened to find my number minutes before trial … after which you left me exactly zero time to even call you back to voice my concerns and requests for reimbursement? And after nineteen priors and involving a young child in her con, the woman received … probation. What can I do at this point to have a say in the matter?”

“Well, sir, I’m sorry you didn’t respond to the letter, but …”

I cut her off. “Fabiola, I’m not going to accept that. I didn’t respond to a letter which may or may not have been sent to an address I haven’t lived at in six years and that did not match the address written on my police report or currently listed for me with the DMV.”

“Yes, well … no, there really isn’t anything that can be done now, because we didn’t hear back from you …”

I cut in again. “… because you didn’t send the letter to the correct address, and then called at a time you knew would not allow me to respond.”

“Again, sir, the case has been heard.”

“Can it be re-opened, so that I, the victim, can be heard?”

“No, it can’t. The judge doesn’t like to keep cases like this sitting around. He wants to just move them through. So once judgment is passed, there’s nothing you can do. But if she breaks her probation, she’ll be in a lot of trouble and maybe get jail time.”

“She hasn’t been ‘in a lot of trouble’ after twenty priors,” I said. “And were separate charges filed for involving a young child in the crimes? This is not in debate. She was caught on camera at three places with the child.”

“I don’t really know, sir. That’s not our field. That would be family court. Maybe one of the employees at one of the merchant locations filed a 51A.”

*sigh*

I was over it. As politely as I could muster, I ended the call with Fabiola.

*****

In my first post of 2018, I told you that my theme for the year would be further exploration of the advice contained in my book The Best Advice So Far, whether by way of different stories, new perspectives or additional thoughts. Here are a few ideas I was planning to revisit in this post:

Misery is a choice.

Worry serves no purpose but to ruin the present.

The sooner you accept that life is not fair, the happier you will be.

And I had originally intended to use a conversation I’d had with a friend a few weeks back as the central anecdote for this post. Little did I know that before it was all over, I’d wind up being my own object lesson for this particular “deep dive.”

I write quite a bit about topics like how to navigate regret, banish worry, and let go of anger before it turns into bitterness. But there’s some related ground that doesn’t get much air time.

I call it…

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big deal

The Best Advice So Far - big deal

This Thanksgiving held changes for my family.

My mom has been putting in long hours for a while now, caring for her own mother, so that my 93-year-old Nana can continue to enjoy the familiarity and comfort of living in her home of more than 60 years.

In addition to being plumb tuckered out most days, mom was also sick heading into Thanksgiving day.

So for the first time ever, we had our small family Thanksgiving out at a local restaurant instead of at my mom’s house. No preparation. No dishes to do afterward. No leftovers to wrap and store. However odd it felt to set aside tradition this year, no one could refute the sense in it.

We were seated at a spacious, horseshoe booth at about 12:30. The meal was catered, buffet style.

Our server was a young woman named Kim. After making introductions around the table, I asked Kim if she would have any time after her shift ended to join her own family for Thanksgiving meal or desert. She paused, smiled in that way people so often do when they are trying to sound positive about something negative, and said, “All of my family has passed away.”

“Oh no…” I replied. “All of them? Or do you mean there’s just no one local?”

Kim sighed, though her half-smile stayed in place. “Well, I have some distant relatives, cousins. But my own family are all gone now. I figured I’d work today so that people who do have families could be with them.”

I took a moment to just hold Kim’s gaze and let that heavy disclosure stand in silence. Then I said, “Well, we will be your family for today. Let us be your comfortable table, no stress, OK?”

Kim was genuinely appreciative as she explained the buffet setup, then went to fill our drink order.

The meal was good. Plenty of offerings. And I was glad for my mother’s reprieve.

Kim stopped by many times to check on us. She was pleasant and did seem to relax and just be herself when she came to our table. After serving dessert, she brought the bill.

“Kim,” I said, “would you consider yourself an open person?”

Her eyes were curious. She nodded. “Yes, I think I am.”

I stood up to face her. “Good to know. Because… [click link below to continue reading this post]

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what to say (reprise)

The Best Advice So Far - what to say (reprise)

Back in the spring, I introduced you to my writer-friend Diana by way of a unique book review with a personal twist. (By the way, this four-book series, The Rose Shield, would make a perfect, no-fail gift for any choosy Fantasy readers you may know; and Diana’s also just released a beautifully illustrated children’s book, Grumpy Ana and the Grouchy Monsters, for the little readers on your list.)

Grump Ana and the Grouchy Monsters

Sally Cronin of Smorgasbord revived one of Diana’s previous posts entitled “Write and Change the World.” It was written nearly three years ago, before I came to know Diana. As I read it early this week for the first time, it felt current. It reminded me of important things. And I would have missed it, had Sally not seen the value in shining the spotlight on it again, these years later.

*****

A couple of days ago, I treated myself to a meal out. It’s second nature to me to ask the server’s name and give my own, and then to ask at least one others-centered question that has nothing to do with waiting ts.

Holly told me she was a Christmas baby … well, her due date was Christmas, but she’d been born on the 21st. My light non-server question was this: “What’s one thing you love to do in your life outside of work?” She smiled broadly and talked about spending time with her Long-Haired German Shepherd, including pictures of “her baby.”

You’d have thought I’d given her a $100 bill, the way she responded to that simple moment of exchanging names and showing even that little bit of interest in her as a person, outside of her role — of what she could do for me. She just kept shaking her head in wonder that anyone would think to do such a thing, thanking me at least three times thereafter when she came back to check on my table.

It struck me once again that what feels quite natural to me … isn’t, for many people.

This interaction with Holly, on the heels of having read Diana’s wonderful post from yesteryear, got me thinking. I’ve been blogging now for nearly seven years. When I first started, I was posting daily (how I ever managed it, I really can’t fathom); and yet that first few months was when my readership was new and quite small. In other words, most current visitors to my blog have never read those early posts, though they were the foundation upon which the entire blog since then has been built.

Add to this the slate gray sky and rain that has presided over the last few days, and waking mornings to find the car encrusted in frost, and my mind was made up.

This week, I’m [click below to continue reading this post]

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traffic

The Best Advice So Far - traffic

You’re a contestant on an episode of Family Feud. You’re starting the round, facing off against your opponent, your palm hovering tensely above the buzzer. The host presents the next challenge:

“One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board … Name something that causes people to feel angry of impatient.”

:: BZZZT! ::

What’d you guess?

I have a strong suspicion as to the Number 1 answer on the board.

Despite the host of major issues happening across the globe at any given time, it seems few things in life routinely get people worked up quite like traffic.

In fact, this is so much the case that I wonder if we’ve conditioned ourselves at this point to start seeing red once the brake lights ahead of us get to glowing.

Likewise, in becoming comfortable with viewing frustration on the road as “normal,” we justify the bad behavior that so frequently accompanies it.

I’ve seen some of the most mild-mannered people I know get Manson eyes (Charles or Marilyn; both apply) in traffic…

Charles Manson and Marilyn Manson

…hands flying off the wheel in all sorts of interesting gestures as they [yell / screech / curse] at all the other people who dare use the same roadway and make “me” to have to sit in this @*$#! mess.

Which reminds me…

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fear: two

The Best Advice So Far - fear two

The previous post wound up being a sort of flight of ideas on fear. I had no intention of taking it further than that when I hit “Publish” last week. But the theme of fear has continued to rear its … well … rather common head in the time since then. So it seems worthwhile to take another walk on the dark side.

*****

I wound up getting to the gym quite late last night — 4:15AM to be exact. (Yes, that was late, not early, considering my usual arrival is between midnight and 2:00.) As you might imagine, the place was pretty empty. Other than myself, there were only two people working out.

One of them was a woman. We were busy at opposite ends of the gym, but I noticed her. She was quite thin, perhaps in her mid to late fifties. Her gait was unsteady, hinting at a neuromuscular disease. And she was tearing the place up (in the best of ways). She moved non-stop between machines, taking only minimal breaks between sets before she was back at it.

By the time I moved that way to use the cables, she was on the mats doing bicycles (an ab workout) for durations that would make me cry. I thought about wandering over, introducing myself and telling her that she was putting me to shame. But she was wearing headphones; and so I kept my admiration to myself for the time being.

We both finished up about the same time. The sky was still black with just a hint of cobalt on the horizon as I headed out to the parking lot, only a few yards behind the woman. I walked a bit faster, thinking now might be a good time to introduce myself. Perhaps hearing my footsteps on the pavement, she cast a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder and then turned abruptly, quickening her own pace.

I decided to let the moment pass, heading for my car instead. By the time I got my things inside and was finally situated, the woman was in her own vehicle and slowly rounding the corner in front of me. Just then, she hit the Caution: Pedestrians crosswalk sign. There was a * thunk * as the plastic yellow tower tipped to the side and scraped along her rear fender before righting itself. She stopped, her face worried. She craned around backward but still couldn’t see what she’d hit.

I knew that getting out of the car and back in would be no mean feat for her. So I hopped out to tell her there was nothing to worry about, that there was no damage to the sign or her car. Our eyes met in her rearview mirror. Her brow furrowed more deeply, so I smiled and waved, moving toward the side of her car where she might be able to see me more clearly.

She gunned the gas, tires chirping, and hightailed it out of there.

As I stood there holding my good intentions, it felt odd to consider that anyone would see me as a threat — that I could ever strike fear into someone.

On the drive home, an interesting thought occurred to me…

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fear

The Best Advice So Far - fear

Today, if I’m being honest, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed with things.

I’m starting with a broad topic: fear. But beyond that, it’s all vague notions at this point, shifting shadows on the walls. Or maybe it is clear notions — just too many of them.

All I can do is invite you to buckle your safety belt, place your seat backs and trays in the upright position and enjoy the ride, trusting that this flight will eventually land.

*****

Wednesday of last week, I was out at a local snack shack with one of the kids I mentor — a young lady I’ll call Hailey. Other than us, there were only six other customers in the place. One elderly couple sat at a small table not far away, chatting quietly. A group of four teens huddled near the counter, placing their orders.

If you’d been there, you would likely have thought the place was “dead.” Hailey, however, looked panicked. Her shoulders were hunched, body rigid, as wary eyes darted back and forth between the other patrons. I could hear her tense breaths going in and out.

When one of the young guys wandered in our direction to grab a straw from a nearby dispenser, Hailey cringed away as if he were wearing a black ski mask and brandishing a weapon at her. “I don’t like this,” she murmured in a ragged whisper, her lips pale and barely moving. She swallowed hard. “I really don’t like this.”

In that moment, Hailey was experiencing intense fear.

Until recently, Hailey had always met me at my house for our sessions. When we first started five years ago, fear engulfed her. She barely spoke, answering me with gestures where possible; and when words were absolutely required, her voice was so timid that I had to lean in to hear her, even though we sat a mere two feet apart on the same couch.

We took baby steps.

I had her work on speaking with gradually increased volume.

I helped her learn to smile. And her mother intimated to me that she’d never heard Hailey laugh out loud before her visits to my home.

I’d have her sit just outside my door where a passerby might hear her while we continued talking (though I don’t know if any ever did).

Her parents worried and wept, fearful that Hailey would never drive. Never graduate. Never be able to work a job.

I’m happy to say that Hailey received her high school diploma this past May. From side streets to highways at rush hour, she drives (and parks, I might add) like a pro. And she’s even worked a few jobs already.

But fear still limits her. So now, we do “field trips” out in the wide world. Little by little, I’m exposing her to small doses of the things she’s afraid of — unfamiliar people, decision making in public, and more — all carefully meted out with the safety net an inch further away each time.

*****

I have a close friend who used to have to open her front door, close her eyes and count to three, then run to her car, ducking and squealing the whole way. Why? She was terrified that…

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