Friday, March 30, 2012

As a big birthday looms, I wonder: Where did I go?

It’s no secret that I’m a little wigged out about being 49. There’s just something about the number coming in December that gives me pause, primarily because one can’t truly define oneself as “middle-aged” when the average person doesn’t live to be 100. So numerically, I’m on the downhill side of things, and that’s not where I want to be.

But today, I was reminded that there’s a whole lot left, and I spent this afternoon mulling over the fact that perhaps I need to stop consigning myself to the rocking chair.

I went with some co-workers to a lunchtime concert by singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff. Although I’ve never been a die-hard fan, I’ve liked her work over the years and have one of her songs on my iPod. My friends and I grabbed our to-go lunches and settled in at the Temple for the Performing Arts – one of my favorite places in Des Moines – and I felt myself shake off the stress of the morning and begin to relax a bit.

And then Karla and her guitarist came out, and I knew I was in a place that would be good for me.

Karla is 60, and I would guess her guitarist, Nina Gerber, to be about the same age. Karla was dressed in an outfit I would describe as a natural evolution of the clothing she no doubt wore in the early '70s – although she was appropriately attired for most any venue, the top flowed and its first few buttons were undone. It was as if Karla were saying, “Yes, I know how old I am, but I’m not about to shop at Coldwater Creek quite yet.”

Her hair was on the longish side, and although she probably dyes her gray, she looked natural and pretty. And Nina? Long, gunmetal-colored hair, and a tunic with a peace sign emblazoned on it. She looks her age, but if I were as talented as she is, I wouldn’t worry about it, either.

In between singing her songs with a voice that’s every bit as pure and strong as it was 30 years ago, Karla talked about her life – about her tendency, once upon a time, to date “the biggest jerk in the room,” but also about how she regrets nothing because from the fiercest pain came the best songs.

And I thought: Is it too late for this part of me?

Lately, my creative side seems to have gone the way of my concert t-shirts and cassette tapes – it’s buried, and I still think of it fondly, but I really have no idea where it is. I blog when I can, but I tend to censor myself; I have kids and jobs, and I’m always conscious of the possibility that someone in my life will take offense to something I write.

So I’ve simply become more … sensible. My clothes are more sensible. My hair is shorter. And I’m a whole lot less fun. Why? Because I guess I’ve somehow been feeling that I had my “fun time,” and now it’s time to settle down and think really hard about things like my 401(k) and my teeth.

I am boring. Karla Bonoff and Nina Gerber are decidedly not. Karla sang of wanting someone to lie down beside her. Nina wrung everything there was to wring out of her guitar. There wasn’t an ounce of silicone or a syringe of Botox to be seen, nor did anyone onstage seem to be worrying about retirement investments.

But then I looked around, and I saw women in corporate attire and men in ties. Some snuck glances at watches; no one sang along or danced or swayed to the music, or even moved at all. Karla and Nina were creating something on that stage; the audience was destined for an afternoon of reports and spreadsheets.

It’s a catch-22. I’m grateful to make a good living doing something that allows me to utilize my skills set, but I have to wonder what’s happening to me. I used to be able to perform well at work, then let my hair down when the clock struck 5. Lately I make myself feel I’m always on the clock.

I needed this today; I needed something to make me think. I can’t do anything about the passage of time, but I can keep from allowing it to define who I am. No one says I can’t wear a tunic with a peace sign on it; no one says I can’t comment about my political beliefs or sing at the top of my lungs to the Black Crowes or keep my hair as long as I want to. And although I can’t play guitar, I can still be a good mother and wife and employee if I undo one or two buttons once in a while.

No one is telling me not to be me … except for me. Perhaps it’s time, as my teachers always advised me, to talk a little less and listen a little more. There’s a small voice, buried somewhere in my cassette box, that seems to be trying to find its way to the light.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What – or Whom – I Want to Be When I Grow Up

When I was little, I really liked a movie called “To Sir, With Love.” It starred Sidney Poitier as a teacher who made a difference to a disadvantaged group of kids. I find myself thinking a great deal about that film this week, because my own personal “Sir” is getting ready to leave.

Let me clarify: This “Sir” is a woman, and she’s not only leaving me, but a couple dozen other folks in the cube farm we call “home” five days a week. And to say we’ll feel her absence is an understatement; Linda has clarified, for many of us, what we want to be when we grow up.

Linda is of the “a lady doesn’t tell her age” generation, but to suffice it to say her retirement comes on the heels of more than five decades, give or take a year or two, in the workforce. She has worn a number of hats, from writer to project leader to the manager of a store that sold, among other things, whoopee cushions.

And not only has she adapted to her environment, no matter what it’s been; she’s taken it and commanded it and made it her own. Linda takes no prisoners and makes no excuses; she is who she is, and she’s never, ever apologetic. She’s a proverbial force with which to be reckoned, and that’s but one of the things that makes her worth our admiration.

Linda does more in a day that people half her age do in a week. It’s hard to find a spot on her calendar unless you book her weeks in advance; she chairs committees and volunteers on boards of directors, and at her church. She has standing lunches and dinners with various groups, regular theater engagements, and weekends of dressing up in period clothing to interpret at an outdoor museum.

She travels frequently to see her daughter, son-in-law and grandson in Colorado. She rides bikes and fixes plumbing and will probably end up building a new deck with her own two hands.

And yet she’s never too busy to lend an ear or a word of encouragement -- no matter who you are, and no matter how long you happen to need her.

Linda hasn’t been immune to adversity, and that’s one of the things that makes her relatable; she incurred some pretty monumental losses at a young age, and she’s seen her share of struggles. But what I admire most about her –- and what has bonded us most, I think -– is her behavior in the face of adversity. She chooses to be strong because that’s what she was taught, and because there’s no other option.

You won’t find Linda making excuses for anything, nor will you find her relying on any type of crutch to get her through a trying time. A client was upset with her about something? The boss shared a concern? Her response, most likely, is this: “You know, that person had a point. I really should have done such-and-such. I need to remember not to make the same mistake again, and now it’s time to move on.”

She grew up in a matriarchal household and understood the need for women’s rights before the issue became part of the public lexicon. And in a “stand by your man” era, Linda made the decision to leave a marriage that was no longer working for her. (She even found a way to handle divorce the right way; she talks often about the close friendship she and her ex-husband enjoyed till the day he died.)

No one’s perfect; Linda certainly won’t be surprised to see in print that I think she starts chatting too darned early in the morning! But hearing her go from cube to cube, greeting all her co-workers while enjoying her coffee, is something I daresay most of us will find ourselves missing.

When Linda walks out the door for the final time tomorrow, we probably won’t think about the contributions she’s made to communicating about variable universal life insurance, although her years of expertise in that realm will be missed as well. I know that I'll think of her support during my dad’s illness and death. I’ll think about her empathy and her ability to zero in on what makes a person tick -– and her wish that humans in all walks of life would treat one another with a little more respect and a little less judgment.

I guess this is what it means to leave a legacy. Linda, you’ve left one indeed, and your sensible shoes will be hard ones to fill.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Would I like my child to have a 4.0 GPA? I'll take this instead.

Both my kids are nearing the ends of their college careers, and as I took back over the last few years, I wholeheartedly agree with those who say there's more to the "college experience" than earning a degree. I've been reminded lately, as my son prepares to graduate, just how much more college offers than a name in a frame.

Like most parents of more than one child, I have kids who are vastly different from one another. One has taken a straight path to a goal she first identified in fourth grade; the other has taken a roundabout way of finding his passion. And they're now both on roads that are right for each of them. I'm not at the point at which I can look at them and say "My work here is done," but I'm getting closer.

Scott's road has included a lot of diversity; not just in the places he's studied, but in the friends with whom he's chosen to study. He spent an exchange semester in northern California and a summer in England; he traveled to South Africa, and he's hoping to visit friends in Sri Lanka this summer. His girlfriend is from Johannesburg; his close friends are from Qatar and Japan and India and numerous other countries.

I don't know about you, but when I was in college, my friends hailed from such venues as Davenport and Postville; when I went home with my college boyfriend to a Milwaukee suburb for the first time, the fact that the bars stayed open till 4 a.m. was my idea of exotic. So I look at my son's world, and I'm thrilled for him; as he once said, "No matter where I go in the world, I'll have somewhere to stay."

He invited me to an event that was held last night at Iowa State; it's called the Global Gala, and it's presented annually to celebrate the many countries from which ISU students hail. Scott's friends wore elaborate costumes and participated in dances that honored more than 20 ethnicities. I was enamored of the talent and could have watched all weekend.

Contrast that, again, to when I was in college. "Foreign students" lived in a dorm all their own; I'm sorry to say I didn't know any of them personally, but the ones I remember strapped on their backpacks and walked quickly to and from their classes, not taking the time to participate in many extracurricular activities. I'm ashamed to think of how little I did -- nothing, in fact -- to extend a welcome to these students who were so far from home.

This semester, Scott has visited his friend Ahmad's apartment to eat Qatari food. He cooked an Italian dinner for a group that included not only Ahmad and Scott's girlfriend Katleho, but also Shun from Japan, Onalie from Sri Lanka, Nidhi from India, Ashok from Malaysia, and others I'm forgetting. I look at the photos from that night and see a bunch of really happy young adults reveling in the company of one another, and I'm thrilled for my child.

I'm liberal in my world view, and it's easy to talk about embracing and learning from and respecting other cultures; it's another thing to realize that you yourself have never really taken the opportunity to do that. I'm a white girl from Iowa; with a few exceptions, the people with whom I associate are white people from, if not Iowa, the Midwest. I had Latina friends in grade school and exactly one African-American friend in high school, but since then, I've not found -- or is it that I've not sought out? -- the diversity I've always wanted my kids to experience.

That's why when Scott warns me that he's probably not going to live in the United States -- and certainly not in Iowa -- I really, truly get it. "There's so much more out there," he says, and I know him well enough to know he won't be happy until he experiences it.

The homebody in me wants to gather my kids -- and eventual grandkids -- around the table for Sunday dinner each week. I'm hoping beyond hope that Caroline's career allows her to stay close by, but there are no guarantees; she has a very bright future ahead, and her skills could be in demand elsewhere. So Sunday dinner may entail eating with my husband as I Skype with my kids wherever they happen to be.

Tuition payments haven't been cheap. But as I looked around last night, I realized I would have paid twice as much for my son to construct the world he's built for himself. And I'd best be racking up those frequent-flyer miles now.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Why others' opinions of us sometimes should count more than our own

My very (non)-favorite (non)-singer, Rihanna, has a song out now that’s one of the most irritating I’ve ever heard; something about “I found love in a hopeless place.” Well, last night, Here’s what I found:

Grace. In a place not at all hopeless, but altogether unexpected.

(This post has nothing to do with Rihanna -- thankfully, as I cannot stand her -- but sometimes a writer can’t figure out just how the heck to lead into something. That didn’t quite work. But here we go.)

I currently serve as the chair of a nonprofit group that helps support the fine arts at Drake University, my alma mater and the university my daughter attends. (Keep reading. This isn’t a pitch, I promise.) I love Drake, and I believe wholeheartedly in this group and everything it stands for and accomplishes. We meet once a month, and between meetings, I typically work a few hours a week on issues relating to our efforts. I have a binder and notebooks and a system that works for me.

Only it doesn’t always work, though, as I realized this week that I had dropped the ball on something pretty big. A reminder about a deadline had come to me while I was having one of the surgeries I’ve seemed to enjoy so much lately, and although I had made a mental note to take care of this issue, I hadn’t addressed it. At all.

So the result was this: One of our tried-and-true, high-profile fundraisers – one that helps raise money and awareness for the programs we help to support – isn’t going to happen this year. Period. No adjustments can be made; I missed the deadline. End of story.

To say I was absolutely sick when I realized my oversight doesn’t do justice to my feelings of panic and dread; I emailed a couple of officers in the group right away, but knew I’d have to face the entire committee yesterday to issue a mea culpa. As the agenda items ticked off, I broke into a cold sweat. Then it was time to tell the group what I had done.

I was honest, taking full responsibility for the mistake. As I yammered on about the details, I almost started crying. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I finished, and there were a few seconds of silence. And then the most amazing thing happened.

This group of about a dozen people immediately set about making me feel better. My predecessor, who now serves as vice-chair – an amazingly busy but always-together person – was the first to say, “We’ve been wanting to ‘go rogue’ on this for a while now. This might just be a great opportunity to see if we can do that.”

At the end of the meeting, we had a plan: One of the committee members is going to determine if we can host our own similar event outside the auspices of the umbrella group with which we had been working. The group was energized and excited, and I was surprised and humbled.

Like many busy people who wear a lot of hats, I tend to be hard on myself when things don’t work correctly; in this instance, a few things could have transpired differently to ensure that the deadline was met, and not all of those were on my plate.

But still, the buck stops with me. And because I tend to take on too much and end up beating myself up, I had spent 24 hours feeling pretty darned worthless and low.

I wondered, though, why I had underestimated these people. They’re all high-achieving, busy, and passionate about the causes they believe in, and chances are each one of them, at one point or another, has mucked up something important. Why had I anticipated their wrath rather than the kind, affirming responses I received, most along the lines of “You do a great job – stop being so hard on yourself”?

Because of the way the world is, I think – because of the way we’re always moving too fast and sleeping too little. Because our emotions are fraught and we’re pulled in too many different directions. And maybe because some people – ones with whom we come into contact all too often – are quick to lash out when things don’t go their way.

Everyone who makes a mistake should have the privilege of coming into contact with – and being embraced by – the good people who had my back last night. After all, reactions such as theirs are extra motivation not to screw up next time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stop smelling like smoke.

My husband is a smoker, and I love my husband. He has tried to quit umpteen thousand times in just the few years that we've been married, and I've seen him really, truly struggle. And, full disclosure: In my younger days, I was a social-smoking kind of girl.

So to a degree, I understand -- or used to understand -- the allure of a freshly lit cigarette; it was something to focus on, to hide behind. I was never addicted, but that doesn't mean I'm somehow better than people who are.

Which brings me to my rant. If I smelled like cow poop or nail-polish remover or ether -- not just smelled like it slightly, but smelled as though I'd been rolling in it, rubbing it into my scalp and massaging it under my cuticles -- I would expect someone to bring it to my attention and perhaps ask me to improve my personal hygiene. So why is smelling of smoke -- no, reeking of it -- absolutely OK?

I love to ride the bus to and from work. I can't do it every day because sometimes I have to go straight from the office to after-work commitments, but on days I'm able to ride, it gives my day an extra lift. Cheesy as it sounds, there's something about knowing I'm saving money and doing the right thing for the environment that puts a little spring in my step. I climb on and relax for half an hour, often reading or playing Words with Friends as I travel from park-and-ride to office and back again.

I'd been riding a certain route for several months when it occurred to me that another park-and-ride was closer to my house; in addition, it allowed me to travel east -- the direction of my office -- instead of west, which takes me out of my way. So, armed with a route map and a smile, I drove to the new park-and-ride a week or so ago, climbed aboard the waiting vehicle and settled in for a relaxing trip to work.

But it wasn't relaxing; unbeknownst to me, I had chosen what appeared to be a smokers' bus. Passengers weren't smoking, obviously, but they smelled as if they had been enjoying an unfiltered Camel in a very small, closed bathroom, then stubbing it out just as they hit the bus steps.

The riders were perfectly nice. They smiled. They chatted amiably. But the staleness made my stomach turn, and I actually smelled of smoke myself, as a co-worker told me, when I arrived at my office. Because of the aroma issue, I've had to make the decision to return to the less convenient route. And that irritates me.

This isn't just a bus issue by any means; one of the guys at my bank reeks of smoke, as do a couple of servers at the restaurant Kevin and I like to frequent. A hairdresser who was a heavy smoker used to cut my hair years ago. I've smelled smoke on physicians and nurses and ultrasound technicians and cable-TV repair folks, and the few times we've been to a casino, I've headed straight to the shower as soon as I've gotten home.

So I don't really enjoy smelling smoke in any venue, but there's something about the odor when I'm moving that turns me more than a little bit green. Yes, it's absolutely a person's right to smoke. But isn't it my right not to have to smell it?

Kevin is a considerate smoker. He smokes outside and does a good job of airing out before he comes back in. Do I smell smoke on his clothes and in his hair? Occasionally, and I'll often say "You reek" or something similarly adorable to drive him to the Febreze. I'm not about to tell total strangers they reek, so what's the answer?

There isn't one. This morning, the bus driver commiserated with me; he doesn't like the smell, either, but it's not as though he can ask his riders to change clothes before they hit the steps. Thankfully, there are other buses to ride; I also can choose to change bank branches or not sit in the sections of waiters who historically have smelled like tobacco.

I guess I just want people to know this: If you smoke, you smell. You may not think you do, but you do. So if you're going to be around other people in an enclosed space, please consider not lighting up until you're done being around them. If you agree to that, I promise I won't roll around in garlic or mothballs or paint thinner until we've parted ways.

(Disclaimer: If you're thinking of riding the bus, don't let this post dissuade you. I'm talking ONE bus in a fleet of hundreds. Statistically, chances are that if you rely on DART to get you where you want to go, you'll arrive at your destination smelling like a daisy.)