Don’t Fence Me In

I’m running on the peak of a sand dune, each side sloping down to the beach.  Above the dune  is nothing but big, puffy, clouds in an enormous, blue sky.  I run into the wind.  The sand grasses  move to and fro and I can hear the roaring of the beach.  I am weightless, alive, as  I keep running.   I notice  the air turning colder and as I look around, I realize someone is stealing my sheets.

I lie on the edge of the bed, a sliver of a sheet against the blasting air conditioner and my elbow begins to itch.  Coming back from vacation has been tough.  Everyone talks about going on vacation, what they did on vacation, where they went on vacation, blah, blah vacation.  No one who comes back from their little moment in paradise wants to talk about the cruel reality of getting up for work again nor do they wish to speak of the greater hatred of the alarm clock. Oh, how the time that only moments ago was all yours and only yours is now swallowed up by laundry, grocery shopping, and tasks you put off until your return.   The mosquito bites and third degree sunburn I worked so hard to avoid vex me in vicious tandem as I painfully and relentlessly scratch at my arms, back, legs, nose.  Maybe it isn’t hives, maybe it was poison ivy, but it all becomes unbearable  – miserable reality without a midday cocktail and a steady stream of Aerosmith.

I don’t how I complained as a kid on summer days whining, “I have nothing to do.”  Why wasn’t swimming all day enough?  My feet were always barefoot.  My friends were always coming up with new games – freeze, statues, kick the can.  And when the street lights came on, you went home.  Like a pack of gypsies, the entire four block radius was the playground for my neighborhood posse.  Bologna  with ketchup was our filet, tuna fish with pickles our seared ahi, grilled cheese sandwich with American slices our guilty desire.  We woke with the sun, we ran with the wind.  Now I spend  a few measly days each summer attempting to recapture just a little of the freedom I took for granted.  There I was.  Me in my  purple shorts with the red pockets and my t-shirt with my name written on it a hundred times in multiple colors.

If I cannot run weightless with sand dancing all around me , then I must go on somehow in denial that my childhood has ended.  I pack my lunch with low-fat yogurt, 2% mozzarella cheese sticks, and a hint of sodium crackers.  Rebelliously, I include a stuffed bag of cookies .  I  might as well find solace in sugar.  I mean, really, it’s the kitchen’s little beach isn’t it?  It moves like sand, it fills your soul like sand, and brings a little sunshine to chocolate chips and vanilla.  Maybe I will sit in my car at lunch with my shoes off, stare out my sunroof, and listen to Deep Purple.

To Err Is Human, To Fix Is Management’s Problem

I know it is not right to be sick of people.  Particularly the people you work with,  or for you – particularly those that report direct to you, particularly if you hired them.  But at the end of fiscal quarter where every penny is counted, stupid, very costly, mistakes become, well, bothersome.   You cannot punish, hell, you cannot even yell, because most people are harder on themselves then you can ever be regarding work performance.  And bosses that yell are powerless against employees who consider them under duress by a bully manager who has had to correct the employee frequently within the past month.  But how to keep the mistakes from happening at all is still a mystery.   When the mistakes are large dollar mistakes, the mystery deepens.

Maybe I am getting too old for this.  I have been a first line manager for years.  I learned consistent forgiveness and teaching are essential skills not to mention the ability to calmly explain to top management  what issues occurred.   Forgiveness and explanation, however,  doesn’t make the problem disappear and my patience is not my strong point.   I still have to figure out how to fix it or help direct the fix.  This is where  I remind myself why I really get paid.  My salary is not in question when things go well, it just becomes a question when things do not go well.  Many management books will call that “leadership” but it is only leadership if you do it well.  In my terms, I call it survival but these days the fight for survival is not only for myself and my salary but my whole team.  This fiscal quarter is particularly important these days as the company’s new owners stand in judgment of my little team’s future.  I am sure they have a plan but my plan is just to keep my team working as long as possible and so stupid mistakes only accentuate what I trying very hard to avoid.

I fret. I worry.  I eat chocolate.  I eat anything that is sweet, crunchy, or within arm’s reach.  There has to be a cadre of lower level managers that are severely overweight.  Better to stick something in your month than spit out the continued frustration you are feeling.   I think of my company’s health care emails telling me to watch my blood pressure, exercise regularly,  and maintain portion control yet never do they mention my health is directly related to work responsibilities.  I could be on a great bike ride if I wasn’t sitting in front of a computer screen trying to figure out how to fix a disaster.  At least my bag of Hershey Kisses understands my difficulty and they don’t judge.

So, I try to wrap my mind around reality.  When compared to people who lead divisions, companies, military units, hospital emergency teams, or nations my little problem is infinitely small.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Chocolate.  Breathe in, breathe out.  I practice a new mantra.  People make mistakes.  I make mistakes.  I will need to help fix.  My team will learn more by fixing their mistakes.

Tomorrow will require composure and a solution.  I am still sick, but no longer  of people.  I am sick of the Hershey Kisses and I put them away.   Time to just drink some water and develop a method that will keep the mistake from ever occurring again and figure out a way to explain it calmly when asked.   It is going to be a long week.

Dog Days of Spring

I wake up a little after 3 am every night.  My dog used to stand in the hall and shake his dog tags at that same time when he was still with us.  Years of letting him out, waiting for him to return, and listening to him fill up again at his water bowl has created an unalterable  internal clock.  A friend says he sometimes wakes in the night expecting his dog to be sleeping at the end of the bed even though his dog passed away years ago.  At least he can fall back asleep in a pleasant. warm memory.  Typically,  I just lay there trying to keep my eyes shut, quietly counting breathes much like I used to do before our dog would catch on that a human being was coherent enough to turn a door knob.  But now I just lay there and wish he was there to give purpose to my 3 am awakening.

Last night I awoke from one of those never-ending dreams of mine where I am organizing numbers or forgetting to put something very important in a report but not remembering  what report or why it is so important.  The task just keeps repeating over and over.   I always feel exhausted the entire following day.  I started to panic I wouldn’t fall back asleep and I needed to rise earlier to take my car back into the dealership.  Then,  I was really awake.   Tossing and turning until 5 am, I managed very little shut-eye and when I did, there I was, putting something in another column of a spreadsheet, regretting that I forgot to put whatever it was I suppose to put in an agreement.

By the time I made it to the service center, only three cars were ahead of me.  The shuffle of cars was slowed as the painting of the shop floor over the weekend meant early morning connections of computers, printers, and finding the correct clip board.  Rubbing the sleep out of the corner of my eyes I waited patiently until they heard my sob story of having to bring my car back in a week after they supposedly fixed brakes and everything under my hood.  The masochist, or was it the mechanic, filled out my paperwork and sent me on my way in a loaner.  I’m late for work.  It’s humid.  It’s raining. Construction is everywhere.  I have a report due and I just know I will forget something.

The day continued with the air vent directly above me on full blast and cold.   If a sink hole opened below me, I would have understood but instead the bad news of my car which needed what amounted to open heart surgery quickly swallowed my wallet.  I thought about the movement of money to pay for the bill and I wasn’t really even sure what I was paying for.  I sat quietly hoping no one would know I was awake at my desk but a knock on the door was followed by the phone ringing which was followed by the onslaught of emails.  I had to join the day which meant I had to open my eyes a little wider and look lively.

By night fall, I was ready to sink back into the safety of  comfort food and music to lessen the day’s annoyances.  I caught a glance of the remaining dog biscuits still sitting on top of the refrigerator.   I haven’t been able to throw them out for whatever reason.  While my husband watched hockey after dinner, I opened the back door and sat outside studying the backyard.  I imagined my dog rolling around on the grass kicking his feet in the air.  He would know how I felt, I was certain.  And if he didn’t he would wait until morning to make me get up and start another day whether I wanted to or not.

A Chicken Foot In Every Pot

I dreamt a chicken’s foot came out of my nose.  An entire foot.  I walked back to the dining table where  colleagues from my former job were in after dinner discussion.  I opened my hand  and showed them the foot and they nodded but weren’t too concerned.

The odd thing is I know why I had such a bizarre dream.  It was a combination of the article I read this week about a 44-year-old British man who sneezed out a toy suction cup he had stuck up his nose as kid.  I found that immensely amusing considering he didn’t remember and his mother recounted her panic at the time.  After examination and x-rays, the doctors had told her they couldn’t see anything and 44 years later, it pops out of his nose.  Not that I put a chicken foot up my nose as a kid but if a maroon crayon or glob of Play Dough suddenly appeared in my tissue, I wouldn’t be too shocked.  Overnight, my nose was  stuffy from the change of seasons so that could have been part of why I dreamt what I did it but I think it had more to do with – you guessed it – television than anything else.   Before bed, I had watched a PBS documentary  on Cecilia Chiang, a restaurateur who had left communist China and became wildly successful in San Francisco with her Mandarin Restaurant.  To be honest, I didn’t think I watched a great deal of it – my eyes had closed and I feel half asleep listening to the long, blissful segments filmed while dishes were prepared.   There was no voice over that I remember just  the soothing sounds of  chopping, sizzling, boiling, knocking pans, and people shuffling in the background of a busy kitchen.

At two points, however, I was wide awake.  In English, Chiang had discussed how important food was to her large family while growing up.  It was a wonderful memory filled with love and caring.  At another moment, she discussed in her native language going back to China during the fanatical Mao Tse-tung era.  At the time, President Nixon was attempting to build cultural bridges into China.  She had been selected to be part of diplomatic group which she had leveraged to visit her family.  She was shocked to see her father and siblings penniless and bound by despair.   I have met others who left the East during the ’60’s and early ’70’s.  One person I knew was a child of teachers who were forced to leave during the Cultural Revolution.  Another was Vietnamese, whose father was a translator during the Vietnam War.  When the U.S. evacuated they had only a few hours to find their mother at the open public market and gather everyone onto one of the last helicopters out of Saigon.  My friend’s father lived with the creed of never to own more than one could fit into a suitcase.  Recently, I worked with a Chinese auditor who was educated in the U.S. and worked tirelessly to be certain of a position with a firm that would sponsor her.  Others I have met who did not leave Hong Kong wanted to just have more than one child.

People can visit China today and obviously the country has changed with time.  I recall hearing that when you visit, the natives will want you to eat a chicken foot so that they can shock you and have a little fun since chicken feet are eaten regularly.   Thus, I think, the source of my dream.

Funny how the world works.  Moments of meals, of family, of safety are changed by government direction.  So much of what is left after violence erupts, power is fought over, and land is occupied is only poverty and desperation.  I suppose if I was leaving northern Africa I would want to go to Italy, too, hoping to have a spectacular meal with as many of my family as I could.  Full belly, beating heart, healthy soul.

Penzy’s spices had a slogan recently – “Heal the World, Cook Dinner Tonight”. Maybe that is truly the peace that is needed.   Just a good, safe meal with a possible chicken foot but only if it isn’t out of one’s nose.

Night on the Town

I did my civic duty last night in an effort to avenge for a prior showing.  I  attended the 10th annual pot luck and silent action for the Nature Society, an event I had dragged my husband to a few years ago and we have strategically relived ever since.

I discovered the event after being invited a few years ago due to my involvement as a volunteer  on  another community committee.  For a short time,  I had attempted to contribute my limited talents to my city through a fund-raising committee.  I did not do too much, quickly learning that a pool of individuals tied together by years of commonality – neighbors, kids hockey teams, teachers, church groups, or friends – pretty much handled organizations and political matters.   What I had also learned is that a great deal of energy goes into local politics and a huge amount of money is needed to keep things running.  The task can be daunting particularly for this city with a population boom drawn to its nightlife, a growing downtown,  and additions of high-rise condos.  Coming from a small town, I have a soft spot for organizations that plant the flowers, hold the parades, set up the 5K’s , and try to keep a spirit of pride in the town they call home.  I support the city organizations where I can but my charitable intent  goes out the window  when a silent action is involved.  Then it just becomes  savage.

Skipping our typical Friday night out with dinner and drinks, we hit the old Elks Lodge near the expressway  a few minutes after the advertised start.  The large room included 10 to 12 round tables of what seemed to be a sea of white haired individuals engaged with dinner.  Scattered around the edges of the room were longer rectangular tables covered with bright green, yellow, orange and blue plastic runners where items to be auctioned were presented.   To the back, another table was lined with  a spread of pizza and pot luck dishes straight from every family’s well guarded recipe books – casseroles, lasagna, sauerkraut, pirogues, fried chicken,  rice dishes, and assorted desserts.   The trusty Lodge bar was in the far corner and a line had already formed.

We had entered a different era, unlike what I had noticed in the previous auctions.  The average age was 65 to 70.  No one was playing with their phone, music wasn’t playing in the background, televisions were nowhere to be found.  The room was warm.  With stealth, middle-aged speed I was certain this was our night.

I headed to the tables, my husband to the bar.  We were determined to vindicate ourselves from our last auction where the newly elected State Representative swooped into most of our bids at the last possible moment to write in a slightly higher bid.  I guess that was his unfortunate way to always have us remember his name on election day.  The first walk through indicated no one had bid.  Evidently, eating was priority.  I upped the ante on some items just to help the cause hoping what I really did not want would be outbid.  Historically, the bids were always too low and based on the age of the night’s crowed I envisioned the worse, potentially impacting the Society’s ability to raise funds.  I could sense that somewhere in the crowd, there were women peering over their glasses watching and cursing me while my wing man was filling his plate.

It was impossible, however, not to walk away with a something wonderful.  Members had donated species from their gardens, old prints, even pottery.   Although the local merchants’  generosity was everywhere, other items such as a monthly delivery of  homemade pie made the event particularly enduring.

The award ceremony abruptly began as I was told to “move away from the table” for future picture taking.  The night’s Host of Ceremonies spoke through the sound system as if addressing a crowd of ill behaved junior high school kids, knowing their names, directing where he needed to direct.   I stood against the back wall where the temperature was cooler as members were acknowledged and thanked.  One senior woman, dressed nicely,  with a serenity that you would have to be blind not to sense,  was thanked for her years of organizing the event.  Earlier, she had presented to the only 7-year-old in the crowd the 1st annual award for  children’s poetry.   Another man was thanked for his endless dedication for cutting down the brush in the many parks, maintaining the fences deer had destroyed, and fall clean up.  I took another look around the room.  Maybe they looked older, but they were a well oiled machine.  These were people who gave back and devoted a bit of their lives to a changing community.  They were the ones who made the city look nice, feel safe, and cared for.  Thinking back to my past experience, I realized their generation was truly the only ones represented in most of the city’s organizations.  I never felt I was contributing anything but on this night I understood why.  They had it under control and worked together to build what they wanted to see.  I felt a tinge of worry for the first time as I  watched their slow movements and expressions.  I wondered if younger citizens would see the value in the dedication to societies, clubs, and organizations that seamlessly brought life to a sprawling suburb.  I am not certain I could.  My mission for a successful  silent auction suddenly became just a footnote to the evening.

The tables closed one by one, color by color.  My compassion for local theatre landed me with four tickets to two different shows to be used in the next few weeks.  My early enthusiasm also bought me a Paint Party for two, drinks at a local bar,  dinner at local hot spot, and golf lessons.  Apparently the bidding up did not quite work completely as planned since bidding stopped with my higher entries.  The top auction items for the night were in the categories of grocery stores as well as a locally crafted sofa table.   We laughed as we left, recounting the odd night and the funny comments by  others yet I couldn’t help but feel that this may be one of the few wonderful moments of a fading yet immensely important generation.  No bid could ever match their worth.