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the builders

The Best Advice So Far - the builders

I was wakened from a sound sleep by the ungodly grinding of a saw cutting through what sounded like concrete or metal right outside my bedroom wall. The whole place shook, setting the nearby jar candles to skittering. It was immediately clear that this was not going to be a situation solved by fingers in the ears or pillows over the head. So I got up.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a loud crunching and a thunk.

That sounds like it’s right in the house, I thought. And then the noise suddenly cut off. Moments later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the construction guys there wearing grubby jeans, a tank top and a backward ball cap. His ears were studded and gauged, and one tattooed arm leaned against the wall of the stairwell that leads up to my floor. “Hey, um… what’s on the inside of the wall we’re working on?”

I knew something very bad had happened. “My bedroom,” I informed him. “Bedroom closet to be exact.”

I led him through the entryway and into the bedroom. I live in an old farmhouse with open closets, so I had used the bedroom closet for storage, placing a low white bench with drawers and storage cubbies in front of it on top of which a full-length mirror leaned back against the door opening. I took down the mirror.

The workers had broken through the outside wall into the room, a five-foot strip of the wall revealing daylight beyond. But that wasn’t what caused the sharp inhale or widening of my eyes.

It was the…

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elevator

Up and down arrows on an old-fashioned hotel elevator panel

Whenever someone learns that I’m a writer, they inevitably ask the following two questions:

  • What do you write?
  • Who is your target audience?

They’re reasonable questions. And you’d think that after a decade of professional writing, I’d have honed my elevator pitch by now. I haven’t. I’ve tried—really, I have. But it doesn’t seem any easier today than it was when I first started.

You know how people will ask you a question and a response comes directly to your mind, but then you edit it by the time it comes out of your mouth because you know that your first thought isn’t likely to be considered an “acceptable” answer? Like when someone you’ve just met asks why you’re still single or what your family is like. I mean, not everything in life has an elevator pitch (at least not a completely honest one), does it?

Funny enough, I don’t even feel awkward in actual elevators. Talking or explaining things isn’t my problem. It’s that my genre and audience don’t quite fit in any one nutshell.

Most of the problem can be chalked up to the connotations of words. For instance, consider the following snippet of conversation between an imaginary person (IP) and me:

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: Yes

Well, that answer is certainly both short and true. But it doesn’t really answer the intended question. Let’s try again.

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: I’m both. For instance, I’m conservative with my money but liberal with my willingness to help people.

OK, well, now we’ve got a bit more of an answer. It’s short enough. Yet while it does relay some important information about me, it’s still not what the asker is expecting. What’s more, given the question itself in isolation, my expectation would be that the asker was looking to place me on one side or the other of a line relative to their own understanding of those terms.

In actuality, if someone were to ask me that question, here’s how it would most likely go…

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choice: the wall

The Best Advice So Far - choice: the wall - dilapidated building inland Bahamas

In my last post, I invited you to celebrate with me the successful completion of a yearlong writing goal I’d set for myself in 2017.

Since that post, I’ve allowed myself a break from all things blog. It was strategic. I knew that if I were to just continue on writing at the previously set “goal pace,” I would have felt locked into it rather than having been able, as I did, to have closure on that goal—and to then begin a new one.

Well, today is the day I begin that new goal where this blog is concerned.

As my focus turns toward writing the next book—currently entitled Tried and (Still) True)—I want to be sure that I continue to give the concepts in The Best Advice So Far adequate development. They are, after all, timeless—just as true and life-changing now as they were at the start of things.

I imagine it’s much the same as having a second or third child: being sure, with all the time and attention that the new addition requires, to continue to love and foster and invest in the firstborn.

An idea coalesced during my short writing break: Why not revisit the advice in every chapter of The Best Advice So Far again, but from an as-yet-unexplored angle or with new stories?

As soon as the notion hit me, it just felt somehow right. Familiar and yet at the same time fresh and exciting. And so, for most if not all of 2018, that will be my new goal and focus. I’m not committing myself to stick stringently to plan, if something outside the express realm of the first book should happen along the way and burn to be told. But I believe it will make for a good guiding force.

*****

Sometime back in the early fall, I caught wind of a great deal on a three-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas. Little did I know at the time, when I booked a cabin for the MLK holiday weekend, that winter in New England would be plunging the region into weeks of sub-zero temperatures. During the worst of it, temperatures dropped to -19°F with wind chill affecting -35°F. Attempting such simple tasks as pumping gas (should one have run out of the house quickly without donning gloves) was not only painful but downright dangerous. And try as I might—whether by standing awkwardly with my toes tucked under the old-fashioned radiators in my home, or standing in the shower several times a day for no other reason than warming up—I was never quite able to thaw the blocks of ice that had replaced my feet.

So when the day finally came, I was beyond ready to walk barefoot on sun-warmed grass or sand, to squint with hand-shaded eyes at a too-bright sky—and to bask in the profligate luxury of feeling too hot.

As it turned out, the day I left for Florida, my own home area had a freakish warm streak approaching 60°, while Florida saw a relative cold spell, with one night dipping into the 40s. Still, their “chilly” was shorts-and-flip-flops weather for me.

The cruise was all I had hoped it would be, a real soul restorer. And yet, again, I was surprised by the abundance of generally bad behavior around me.

Before we even set sail, during the mandatory safety drills which required that all hands (and guests) be on deck, many people were disruptive and outright rude to the staff: crying out angrily in the middle of instructions that it was taking too long, or that they were bored, or that the (extremely patient) muster leaders were keeping them from the bar and drinks they had paid for.

I frequently passed people grumbling (to whom, I wondered) about the overcast sky.

Several cruisers with whom I tried to engage in friendly small talk while waiting in a line or on a transfer ferry (not, God forbid, keeping them from the bar or their drinks) were unnecessarily aloof—even dismissive.

Late one night, after a full day of fun on shore and a posh dinner in the formal dining room, I came up to the main deck and slid, smiling, into one of the large hot tubs. I asked the two other guests sharing the spa—a father and his college-aged daughter—how they were enjoying their cruise. They immediately began to complain:

…about the weather,

…about the “small” size of the (eleven-story) ship,

…about the “inferior quality” of the food.

Within fifteen minutes, able to tolerate it no longer, I politely extricated myself from the conversation in search of cheerier company.

Mind you, there were numerous dining options available at all times, each allowing all-you-can-eat access to, I dare say, several hundred varied and exquisitely prepared foods.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m being generous to a fault as I describe the rude behavior of many aboard the ship. More than once, it was not only sad but uncomfortable, even for me.

*****

On Sunday morning, we docked in Nassau, Bahamas.

It’s not a beach sort of place. Rather, you exit the ship and are immediately greeted by a cacophony of urgent voices crying out from just beyond the iron fence:

“You! You! Taxi! Taxi!”

“City tour! Come now! I show you the best places only!”

“Beads! Necklaces! Good price, mon!”

Security guards usher cruise guests out of the melee and into a long, narrow—and carefully presented—strip of shopping options, where one can buy anything from Gucci watches and handbags to Vera Wang shoes at prices that hint at (if not outright tout) the use of slave labor.

The tourist shopping area pops in bright pinks, yellows and blues.

Walking beyond the shops funnels the wayward invariably toward Queen’s Staircase.

Approaching Queen's Staircase, all was looking picturesque and tropical.
A stone wall topped by long-rooted and lush trees funnels visitors toward the steep Queen's Staircase

The tall, steep set of stairs leads upward to—more shops on the periphery of what alleges to be the central attraction: Fort Fincastle.

A bright red cannon beside the manicured lawns around Fort Fincastle, Nassau, Bahamas.

For those who chose to look only as far as the wall or back toward the port, it’s idyllic:

Two luxury cruise ships (Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) dock at port, Nassaue, Bahamas.

But turn the other direction—to where the majority of the island lay beyond that wall—and the illusion quickly evaporates.

I stood on the barricade and hopped down a few feet to a square landing made of cracked concrete. From this perch, drifts of garbage became visible, piling up yards high against the wall. Peering through the nearest thicket of palms, I was able to just make out a shanty. A young woman slumped on the porch, watching a naked child and a chicken totter about in the dirt. A rope drooped low to the ground, laden with a few articles of clothing hung out to air.

I had no interest in the veneer that had been set up for tourists. I wanted to know the real people of the island. So it was that my travel companion and I decided to venture over the wall and into…

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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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brand you

The Best Advice So Far - brand you

This past Wednesday, I was invited to be a guest lecturer at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, where I taught a group of opticians-in-the-making about branding and marketing.

I love teaching. And by all indications, I’m good at it. But as a rule, I’m more interested in people than I am in imparting information. As such, I found myself naturally sliding into the role of mentor throughout the two-and-a-half-hour class. Whether these students ever wound up becoming opticians or not, I wanted them to go away from our short time together thinking differently about life, themselves and how they interact with others.

It’s actually not all that big a stretch to get personal when talking about branding and marketing. After all, in essence, every single one of us is an individual brand.

That is, whether we like it or not — or are even aware of it — we are constantly engaging in the same core functions as any business where marketing is concerned. We face similar challenges. And we are therefore subject to many of the same “rules” concerning success or failure.

Maybe you rail against commercialism. Maybe it gets your blood up that I’d be using capitalistic terms as a comparison in interpersonal matters. And that’s all well and good. But I’m afraid it won’t exempt you from experiencing gains and losses all the same, based on the foundational principles that follow.

Or perhaps you’d claim that you really don’t give a flying leap what anyone else thinks about you. And that may be true. Nevertheless, just as any company operating with such a mindset would suffer negative consequences, so will an individual who doesn’t qualify that statement and adjust accordingly.

Allow me to share a few terms from my Wednesday class, as well as some thoughts on how they might apply to brand you


fake: part two

The Best Advice So Far - fake part two

The week before last, I shared with you a post containing  a bit of uncharacteristic rambling about fake things I like as well as a few I don’t personally care for. The central premise was that just because something is fake … doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

Thing is, as I got toward the end of that post, some deeper thoughts began to tickle the fringe of my sleep-deprived mind. But they would have taken the post in a completely different direction (if I could have even managed to grab hold of them in that state). So I just decided to write a follow-up post.

Well, here we are. And so I shall.

In the comments section after that previous installment, there was quite a bit of interesting discussion about “fake people.” We all know them:

The too-loud laugher with the glistening perma-smile that never quite creases the eyes.

The party guest who enters with fanfare, kisses the air beside both cheeks with an ostentatious *muah!* and always seems to be standing in camera-ready poses.

The co-worker who profusely issues compliments and nods heartily in agreement during conversations — and yet somehow always seems to be at the center of office gossip, drama and controversy.

Today, I’d like to offer some thoughts on fake people (and, quite possibly, ourselves)…


golden ticket

The Best Advice So Far - golden ticket

I’ve got a golden ticket
I’ve got a golden chance to make my way
And with a golden ticket, it’s a golden day …

OK, so the ticket wasn’t golden. It was orange.

And it wasn’t a free ride to the Chocolate Factory. It was a $40 ride to the poorhouse.

I drove up to Boston recently, to take part in a celebration dinner for a graduating class of opticians I’d taught as a guest lecturer back in the fall.

Driving in the city doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s the parking that gets me. I’d only ever been to the location with my best friend, Dib, who drove each time. And even with her knowledge of the area, parking had never been easy. So I’d set out two hours before the event, to give myself more than adequate time to find street parking or a nearby garage.

To my surprise, I found an open spot by a meter, not even a block from the school.

The digital message on the meter informed me that operational hours were 6:00AM to 6:00PM. It was 6:05. Kismet!

Still, ever the conscientious sort, I inquired of a passerby who said he lived in the area. “This meter says it’s only operational until 6:00. Is there any reason you can think of that I shouldn’t park here?” The man assured me that I was good to go.

However, when I returned to the car after the event, there it was: the bright orange ticket, placed under a wiper.

I was aware of my pulse rising, feeling it in my throat, just under my Adam’s apple. I unfolded the citation: Resident Parking Only. $40.

Resident Parking Only? With furrowed brow, I looked both ways along the sidewalk. Nothing to the rear. Ahead, perhaps 30 feet or so, was the metallic back of some kind of sign. I walked to it and read the other side: Metered parking 6:00AM – 6:00PM. Resident Parking Only 6:00PM – 6:00AM.

I’d done my due diligence. I’d even asked a resident. How could I have guessed that a back-to sign way up the sidewalk applied to a metered area … or that the metered parking became resident parking after a certain hour?

Here, I faced a choice …