Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Few Words on Words

“Because even the smallest of words can be the ones to hurt you, or save you.”
I had an English teacher who insisted vehemently and often that English was one of the hardest languages on the planet and anyone who mastered it as a second language was a lot smarter than any of us sitting there with him.  There is the it's v. its, their v. they're v. there conundrums.  Then there's the read (reed) v. read (red) issue, and is it properly either (ee-ther) or either (aye-ther)?  And that's just if you're trying to speak the King's English.  What about keeping up with slang?  I once drove through a McDonald's after a concert where the young man working the drive through thought it was great fun to talk to me only in Eubonics.  Since conversing with someone about your french fry order is not highly technical, I was able to get through the process without seeming flustered or off-put I think, which I hope denied him the sense of satisfaction he was looking for from tripping up the seemingly square white lady in the Soccer Mom Subaru.  But, we all use slang, and every generation twists language around in order to stamp their own brand on it.  Can you imagine someone from a foreign country back in the 90's being told something is "phat"?  Shoot, can you imagine saying that to my mother or someone from her generation? But you could probably have asked her if she ever went to a juke joint and she'd have known you were essentially asking if she ever went clubbing.

Then there are the things that have multiple meanings that, taken out of context can be confusing.  I can't stand for that, for example.  Does that mean I protest something on principle to the point where I'm going to do something about it, or does it mean I literally can't stand up for something because I'm injured?  You need the inflection to be sure, or the rest of the context maybe.  I can't stand for that!  I can't stand for that!

"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” 

And sometimes mere inflection is not enough to really understand someone's meaning.  Not the deep seeded hidden message between the lines.  Sometimes you need to see the look in their eyes and to know something about them to really understand what they are saying.  And perhaps more importantly, to know how to really listen to what they are saying.  

“I've learned to get really good at this - say one thing when I'm thinking about something else, act like I'm listening when I'm not, pretend to be calm and happy when I'm really freaking out. It's one of the skills you perfect as you get older”

I have been thinking about words and their power because of a work relationship I have.  The person is extremely nice and I think believes that I am an okay person as well, but we struggle with one another because we come at the art of communication from two very different places.  One of us writes as though we had a zombie on our tail and has to get the message out as fast as possible, so complete sentences are not a priority and there is a working assumption the other person will understand the context in which the response is coming from and therefore be able to fill in the blanks.  The problem with that, of course, is they might fill in some blanks all right, but without a more robust response, sometimes it is a dead on guess and not always right.  The other person in this relationship cannot do anything simply and has to over explain everything, which aggravates the reader who doesn't have the patience to wallow through all the verbosity to drill down to the core message.  You can take a guess which one I am in that relationship.

When we try to cut through that and just try and talk to one another, it does not always get better.  Primarily because in a world where multi-tasking is highly valued, it is hard to get someone's full attention.  I am currently, for instance, working on two screens and have two phones sitting at my side while listening to the radio.  The last time I spoke to this individual, I sat on the phone while they ordered their lunch, so I knew that while I was trying to explain what I needed, half of the attention I wanted was lost on whether or not they wanted ketchup with that.  That just made me repeat myself several times to make sure the message was getting through, which in turn just meant the person stopped listening at some point because I was a broken record.  And so round and round we went.  Whose fault is that?  Both of us.  No one is blameless in a failure to communicate.

"Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.” 

It's almost as though the most valuable asset a person can have to effectively communicate is a psychology degree.   Or a crystal ball.  Really, what you realize is that it is flat out hard work.  You have to set aside you own prejudices and predispositions to try and understand the other person and how they are, what their background is that made them that way, to try and help understand what they are saying now.  And sometimes you have to be sensitive to what they are going through to know that the humanity of their circumstances colors their words, but we are trained to try and siphon that off our work relationships.  Problem is, we're human.  So, we cannot divorce that completely from our thought processes.  For example, when I learned about some personal challenges the other individual is going through, it really helped me be more sensitive to how flighty they come across to me and more patient with it.  That's a fine line, of course.  What is their own private business versus what I need to know to help our business relationship is a hard call.  So, what I have to consistently tell myself - and I'm not always successful - is that we do all have personal lives outside of work, which means we always, always, always have challenges we bring to our work day, try as we might to leave them back home.  I certainly do, so I just need to accept that others do too, and when they are making me nuts, I need to have a lot of patience and realize it may be because of things I do not understand.

Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” 

But, ultimately, as I've thought about all of this lately, I have to realize that I find myself in a really precarious position with my long distance marriage now.  All these same issues will come into play but maybe more so, because you allow the people you love to hurt you so much more deeply than anyone else.  Granted, we know one another pretty well, but we'll no longer be able to look into one another's eyes and see what is going on inside the other person.  We won't know the kind of day they've had or their immediate fears, tears or joy.  If I call Greg needing a favor, I won't know if I'm getting him at the end of a horrible day and when the question gets a negative response and I'm feeling as though I've been stabbed through the heart, I won't understand that it has nothing to do with me - or not much anyway.  And vice versa.  We're in many ways not really a couple right now.  We're two people with a bond that is thinly stretched over many miles.  My needs aren't his needs in many ways right now.  And his circumstances are completely foreign to me.  And, as I struggle to communicate in business, I realize that communicating effectively with my spouse may be the biggest challenge of this whole separation I have to face.  It's not the lack of proximity really, it's how to use words like a bridge over the distance rather than like swords that pierce one another's hearts.

“Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless. . .” 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Those Little Moments

Saturday was a beautiful day.  Temperate with just a hint of a breeze and none of the humidity that often plagues the city with three rivers.  I allowed myself a few minutes to sit in the lawn chairs I have out in the middle of the yard and prop my feet up on the idle fire pit and admire my just mown yard before the cursed tree that straddles the property line between me and the Mikes began dropping leaves all over it again.  I looked up at the back of my house and thought how I had fantasized about doing this very thing when the house was nothing more to me than a series of pictures my Realtor sent me.  I pondered how the house stacked up against my fantasies and had to admit that it holds up pretty well.  Despite being one of five red brick tiny post-war boxes in a row, it's a nice little house with some unique features that set it apart just enough from the others that I don't feel like I live in a cookie cutter house.  And because of the slope of the yard, the perception of it from the back, where one is looking up at it, is that it is much larger than it really is.  So, for a few moments, I considered my view of my little cottage - looking up at the sun room where I like to sit on Saturday mornings and read, or my dining room that I hardly ever use, but have always wanted and, of course, the kitchen window leading into the world's tiniest kitchen.  But, from the back, you don't know that.  What you know is that this is someone's home in Pittsburgh.  And that someone is me, and for a few moments I was content.

The moment passed as the reality of the rest of the weekend pressed in:  errands to run, finances to juggle, and trying to find creative ways to care and maintain that 61 year old little dream cottage.  The truth is, I can barely wait for this horrible summer to end.  Summers are never my favorite time anyway:  it's hot, it's humid, there's no football, there's no hockey.  What's to love?  Then add to it the challenges of this particular summer, and I really want to put it behind me.  Yet there are moments to hang onto:  the Rush concert in Cincinnati, the day at Kennywood with Marissa and her boyfriend, and the moment she became a college graduate.  But there were other smaller moments, like the time I turned around from my computer to find three of the dogs lying peacefully together in my office, or the time Greg and I strolled together along Walnut Avenue on a pleasant sunny morning the last Sunday morning he was here, or just a moment ago when Charlie cuddled on my lap, or those stolen five or so minutes when I considered the view of my little house and realized I own real estate in Pittsburgh.  Over time, the memories of staring at the computer screen trying to find creative ways to manage our finances as Greg moved back to Texas and looked for work will sort themselves into the bucket with all the other memories of the challenges we've faced as a family.  But, it's the other moments - the memory of seeing a firefly briefly flicker in front of me as Geddy Lee began a song on stage a few hundred feet away from me, or of watching my daughter walk across the stage at her graduation after overcoming both an eating disorder and an addiction - those are the moments that sustain me.  

Sometimes, for those of us who have been tasked with the burden of caring for others or have lost one or more of those we love despite our best efforts, it's hard to figure out a way to carry on.  For me, personally, at first I just powered through.  I look back at this blog and realized I was writing long, rambling entries every couple of days.  I would tell myself they were for others, but who was I kidding?  That was all about trying just to reason out what had happened.  But you do eventually sort of find yourself living life again and finding a way to a new kind of normal, but - as I think I've said before, it's like you were broken and you've been glued back together.  You are now weaker at the breaking point and subject to falling apart again with just the slightest hint of pressure.  So, when do you give up and say you've had enough?  Time to just throw away the pieces.  It brings to mind some of the people I come into contact with in my line of work - people who want to tell me their tale of hard times and want me to help them.  Sometimes the stories break my heart, sometimes I'm not as impressed.  But for those people who are willing to work within the limits of what I'm allowed to offer them, then I'll help them all I can.  Others don't find that help acceptable, they simply want a hand out.  I can't do much for them.  What I want to say - but never do, rest assured - is that life doesn't just hand you a break because you want one.  You have to toil and persevere, and eventually time will work like it does and heal some of the wounds and things will pass.  We'll be wiser for the experience and can take pride in working on through our struggles.  And we'll have those brief moments to cling to - the little gifts that Life leaves us to help us along.  So, when I think back on this summer, I'm going to choose to think of those little moments and try not to dwell on the rest.

Dreaming of when the back of my house looks like this again

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Life in the Single Lane

I think I've been too elusive about our life circumstances and confused some people, so let me try and clear up any confusion.  My husband has moved back to Texas, San Antonio specifically, to help care for his brother as he makes the long journey back from a head injury suffered right after Thanksgiving last year.  He estimates he'll be gone two, maybe three, years.  So, I'm not buckling done for a slightly long vacation.  I'm buckling down for a notable separation.  I won't insult military families by likening it to someone being deployed, but there are elements that are similar.  You're not separated in terms of your marriage vows (if you catch my drift), you're not immune from the joint expenses you've always shared, but you lack that physical presence of the other person that causes us, as a species, to choose to mate to begin with.  It's not just sex that I'm talking about.  It's having a "helpmate".  I've said this before in this blog, it's about having the ability to turn to someone and say, "I'm out of milk (cat food, dog food, chocolate, whatever...), do you mind running down to the store and getting some?"  It's being able to turn to someone at a moment's notice and say, "I don't want to hang here tonight, let's go to a movie (baseball game, dinner, whatever...)." And maybe above all else, it's about having someone there when you're sad, mad, glad or whatever and being able to share that emotion and have them know where you're coming from.  So, as I make the adjustment - much different emotionally from the separation we had when I moved up here by myself for several months - it's likely that my posts will focus on that adjustment to being a not really single person, but not really not either.  If that seems like an awkward sentence, try living the life.

Anybody remember The Mary Tyler Moore Show?  If you do, you've dated yourself, so if you don't, you're probably in the ever-growing majority, but I do.  I was 10 when it came on the air as a groundbreaking series:  a show about an attractive, smart female choosing to live as a single career woman in the big city.  It was groundbreaking because it was using a woman to carry the series, but maybe more than that it was about a woman who was living on her own and being emotionally fulfilled doing it.  Or that's how I remember it anyway.  There had been other series in the sixties that centered on women, but there was always something to mitigate their single status.  That Girl had a committed relationship (even I at the age of six wondered why she never actually married the guy) and The Flying Nun was, well, a nun.   The difference was that Mary Richards was centered on her career, had her own circle of friends and had her financial independence with no man in the picture.  I remember her being so tidy.  Always neatly dressed in a lot of polyester and scarves, with perfectly coifed hair.  And I remember her apartment being so white.  I'm not sure it really was, but that's how I recall it in my mind.  Nothing ever dusty or dirty.  So, at an impressionable age, I was subjected to this image of what a modern woman should look and act like. Truth be told, I was always more attracted and in tune to the Rhoda Morgenstern character because she was boho chic before there was such a thing, and she was allowed by the writers a little more freedom to be a hot mess (again, as I recall it).  Anyway, I thought of the show the other night as I looked out at the big backyard I've inherited sole care of in the upcoming autumn months when leaves fall like ample rain and thought, if not for the dogs, I could really dig living in a little downtown loft because that's a much easier way to meet people.  But, that was just a passing thought, really born out of the dread of keeping up with all those leaves, work, football, hockey and more work and more leaves.  It came, it went, and I settled back in to liking my little cottage in the 'burbs.  Yet, the thought of the social significance of the show and it's impact on me, and millions of girls like me, lingered.  I've already pondered in here about the weight my generation carries on their shoulders of the feminists who came before us.  Well, it was shows like that where we cemented into our heads what single success should look like.
Rhoda played by Valerie Harper

I can tell you:  it doesn't look like that.  It looks like you with your hair tied back in a ponytail because there's no way you've got time to fix it.  It's shoes strung randomly from one end of the house to the other.  It's dirty dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor.  It's not really knowing what to do to stop the leak in the basement sink, so sticking a bucket under it so you can at least not waste the water.  It's deciding what's more important:  a day at training camp or cleaning the bathrooms, because there's just not time for both (hint:  the winner is NOT the bathroom).   It's being exhausted a lot of the time because there are only 24 hours in the day, and you've got to sleep at least five of them.  It's having a list a mile long of things you need to get done and can't quite seem to get to  And maybe more than anything it's being lonely sometimes and scared even at others.  But it's a life.  And it can, despite and maybe because of all the trials and travails, be a good one full of adventure.  So, as I embark on this new chapter in my life, that's what I think I have to realize.  This will be messy, but I've got to make it good as well.  If I can.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Agent of Chaos

Oh, to be thirty years younger and to have been in college when The Dark Knight was released.  I'm pretty sure I could have pulled a full four years worth of college level papers out of the social and political themes interwoven between dazzling car chases and explosions.  One of the themes could have been the very fact that the villain in the film is a self professed "agent of chaos" who swoops in and shakes up the normalcy of the lives of the people of Gotham, and how that havoc is feared above all other corruption, crime and desperation that exists there.  I think I could make a compelling case that the underpinnings of that character's personality versus the "heroes" of the story is that we, as a society, fear anything out of the ordinary, even if the ordinary is not so grand.  We're a society of routine driven individuals.  We may not all see it or fully accept it, but even when we do things "spur of the moment" we're following a type of routine for us.  Think about it.  If you want to take a vacation you have to plan for it.  You don't just pick up and go.  You have to arrange to take off from work, make sure the dogs are fed and the plants are watered.  If you do something new and different every weekend, that's still a routine:  the routine of doing something different every weekend.  Betcha you're like me, however, and you also have to balance your weekend playtime with the chores and errands that you have to tend to on your days off because you can't during the work week.  I'm not denigrating it.  Not me, the woman who gets completely bent out of shape if she can't get the exact same parking space each and every time.  I just have thought about it more than some people - maybe even most - and I accept that I'm that way.  I may have fantasized about what it would be like to live in a world wiped clean by a super flu à la The Stand, but the reality is, I'd be one of those people Stephen King wrote about that, having survived the disease, died stupidly because they were just too dense to adapt to the new harsh reality of the world. Color me Dense.  And shortly thereafter: Done.  Most of us would be the same actually.  We need structure.  We need the comfort and safety that the confines of our lives bring us.  We need food in the freezer that we can pop into the microwave and have ready to eat in under four minutes.  We may not know it, but we rely on it.

Problem is that Life is an Agent of Chaos and it likes to throw wrenches into our routines.  Like when a family member passes suddenly or someone moves 1,400 miles away.  So, this is a very long way to say, if you're wondering what the ensuing week has been like since my husband pulled out of our driveway and headed back to Texas, it's been all about trying to re-establish a routine as quickly as I can.  And have that routine resemble as much as I can make it the routine I had before - just with one less key element.  (And at moments along the way have a little fun - like when my daughter and her boyfriend treated me to the historic amusement park Kennywood.)  There have been moments where I felt like I have some control and things are going to be okay.  Other times I have looked about the house - where dog toys are strung from one end to the other - and realized that control is a fragile thing.  And mine is broken.  Most of today that was the prevailing opinion. Tomorrow may be different.  But, I have to realize it'll be like that for a while.  It's only been a week.  There is some trial and error that has to happen before things settle back in completely, and I find my rhythm again.  But, I have to look at it this way:  the house is still standing, the dogs are all still okay.  And I found something to microwave in under four minutes for dinner tonight.  I'm the Man with the Plan!