To watch today’s video post, just click the button below to hop on over to the main site. I’ll see you there to explain three simple tips for turning 20 minutes into a mini-vacation … any time.
To watch today’s video post, just click the button below to hop on over to the main site. I’ll see you there to explain three simple tips for turning 20 minutes into a mini-vacation … any time.
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:
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 ::
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.
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.
Open-ended questions have…
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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:
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.”
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 call it…
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“You always have a choice.”
I’ve spoken or written this central message of The Best Advice So Far literally thousands of times by now. And yet, I still feel and see the power in it as much as I ever have—the power to transform the way we view and live life.
In the first chapter of the book, I introduce you to Chad. You can read his full story there in the book (or HERE, right now and for FREE, if you like); but I trust you’ll get the gist from this snippet, even without the full context:
You see, even an ultra-optimist like Chad fell apart and was completely overwhelmed and despondent, because he’d forgotten a very important truth. He was immobilized, because he believed in that space of time that life was happening to him, and that he had no say in the matter. Yet, once he was reminded of this key truth, he not only rebounded but began to take the world by storm.
THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.
Chad did not need to be a doctor. There was no rule that said he must struggle through a schedule of classes he hated, or even that he needed to remain at that university. Chad had choices.
If you don’t accept this truth—that you always have a choice—if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice—now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person—you—can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.
We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.
We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we cannot change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.
And yet, I realized recently that, much of the time, the stories I feature center on macro-level change:
In essence, each of these is a way of saying, “You can stop doing that—right now—and make a whole new choice.”
And that is 100% true. You can.
But it isn’t the only option. Not by a long shot.
Today, I want to explore another possibility…
You see, staying is also a choice. Sometimes, it’s even the best choice—one that involves countless other choices that have the ability to breathe new life into a tired, difficult or even painful situation.
I’m in the process of writing my next book, entitled Tried and (Still) True, which seeks to revitalize some very old pieces of popular wisdom that have sadly gone out of use. Among them is this gem:
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Rather than just read over that and move on, leaving it as no more than vague notion, let’s do some visualization together.
I present to you Exhibit B (for “Baby”).
When most people hear the word “baby,” they envision a wide-eyed little wonder like the one on the Gerber label.
Awww. Babies are adorable (even when they aren’t really). Babies coo and giggle. Babies think everything we do is hilarious. We want to cuddle them and talk gibberish to them and smell their baby-head smell.
Thing is … babies also poop.
In fact, sometimes, babies poop a lot. It’s remarkable, really, how such a tiny body can even… [continue reading this post at the main site by clicking the button below]
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.
Walking beyond the shops funnels the wayward invariably toward 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.
For those who chose to look only as far as the wall or back toward the port, it’s idyllic:
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…
I finally got my tree this week.
The front lot at Hanson’s Farm up the road glistened with new-fallen snow. They had fewer than a dozen trees left, having started with nearly two hundred just three weeks ago. This actually worked in my favor, given my longstanding tradition of choosing the Charlie-Browniest tree I can find — the one least likely to be picked due to some flaw or other.
Some I had to rule out on account of their being too tall or too fat to fit in the space, nestled between a window, the bookshelf and the low pitched ceiling in that corner of my second-story farmhouse living room.
Yet even with the further reduced selection, they all seemed perfect. Too perfect.
I gave them a second looking over and then a third, before deciding on the only one that appeared to have any gap at all in the branches — a little Fraser fir.
The owner, a kind-faced farmer with weathered skin and calloused hands, sold me the tree for just twenty dollars, including trimming the trunk by half an inch and settling my purchase into the trunk of my car.
It started to snow again on the drive home — that kind of gentle snow that looks like tiny perfect circles and falls straight down.
Once home again, I hoisted the tree onto one shoulder and edged my way up the narrow, steep stairs, seemingly without losing a single needle. As I settled the base of the tree into the heavy cast-iron stand, I noticed that the trunk was actually bent. I’d have to work a bit to get it to stay upright. I smiled. I’d chosen the right tree after all.
Lying on my back, branches outspread above me, I steadied the tree with one hand while turning the three keys bit by bit.
Tighten this one three times.
Loosen that one twice.
As I worked, my face mere inches from the stand, something rather magical happened. So cold was the tree still that, though the room was plenty warm and cozy, I could see my frosty breath.
At last, the tree was standing plumb.
I gave the frigid tree a day for its branches to settle. And by the next morning, the house was already permeated with the rich scent of evergreen. All of the water I’d poured just the night before was gone, having slaked the thirsty tree, and so I added more.
It was time to string the lights.
My lights are white, never the colored variety. No LEDs. No blinking. No fading. Just the old-fashioned, steady white bulbs — the kind where the whole strand goes out if one of them fizzles.
It’s very important that the lights wind deep inside the tree as well as to the tips of branches, as opposed to simply wrapping them round and round the outside. It gives the tree depth. And as much as possible, wires should be strategically hidden, since they break the magical effect.
Once the lights were in place — with just the right number remaining to weave into the wicker star on top — I gave myself an evening to enjoy the tree in that simple state.
Friday night, serenaded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, I decorated the tree with ornaments spanning a lifetime.
A set of six intricately painted Fabergé-style eggs, unpacked from their rectangular, satin-lined case.
Cookie-cutter shapes — a holly leaf, a stocking, a gingerbread man and others — each made by hand with nothing but applesauce and generous amounts of cinnamon, and smelling exactly as you might expect them to.
Classic glass bulbs, their crackled gold paint casting multiple reflections.
And, of course, the candy canes.
Actually, the candy canes are the first to adorn the tree. There are only five left from the set of twelve that first decorated the tiny tree in my dorm room during my freshman year of college.
That makes them exactly three decades old this year.
And, yes — they are real candy canes.
When Chad was still in high school, I had a group of his peers over around Christmas time. The crowd was bigger than anticipated, so I ran out quickly to grab some more food. When I returned, Chad told me, a look of comical disgust on his face, “I think something’s wrong with your candy canes. I ate one of them. It tasted gross and…[click the button below to continue reading this post at the main site]
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…
…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…