Monday, November 24, 2003

Getting Real About Giving Thanks

It's probably no big surprise that I don't exactly do a lot of cooking. Thanksgiving is different somehow though. I think maybe the logistics of getting a massive amount of food all out on the table in edible form at approximately the same time must appeal to my puzzle-loving nature. Whatever it is, I do seem to enjoy it.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was generally a pretty large affair - lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around to play and joke with. If I was trying to study for finals, it made life tough but otherwise having people around who have it as part of their basic job description to know who you are and like you at least a little is a lot of fun.

Once I grew up and started living on my own I became more acquainted with the notion that not everyone has such a nice time over the holidays. I guess I wasn't exactly surprised by that; I just hadn't seen it face to face before. I learned a lot during those years and what I learned has stuck with me for a long time.

For instance, I remember the first time I was invited to someone else's house for holiday dinner. While it wasn't something they had to do, I was very glad to accept the invitation. Instead of feeling alone in my apartment or like an outsider gatecrashing someone else's holiday, I felt included. I really enjoyed myself and enjoyed getting the chance to participate in someone else's traditions.

Another year, there were a whole lot of us who didn't have anyplace to be over Thanksgiving, so we pulled together our own very non-traditional potluck. A few of us prepared the one or two dishes we each most identified with Thanksgiving. It was a truly eclectic feast, one that we all very much enjoyed, most especially because we had each other for company.

When I started hosting Thanksgiving for myself, the gatherings were often quite small and it didn't seem quite right to me. As soon as I noticed that, I remembered those early years when complete strangers had thought to invite me to their home and I started inviting anyone I could think of who didn't have a place to be. I don't always get guests, but I find that some of the most fun I've had over Thanksgiving has been those years when there are at least one or two. Every time I invite someone new to my home, I make sure to find out what that one dish is that makes it a truly worthwhile turkey day for them - and between us, we work out how to include it in our plans for that year.

There is one year that weighs more heavily on my mind. I was working in a border town and found myself assigned to do the standard news story on Thanksgiving at the local mission dishing up meals for the homeless and other down-and-out folks. On my way out, I noticed several of the visitors were wet up to about mid-calf. Though it was clear these people had waded across the river just because they knew they could find a good meal there that day, the nice people at the mission were very happy to serve them. To them, it made no difference - they were there to help whoever arrived, no matter what their circumstances. Someone apparently saw the situation differently that day; by the time I left, INS had been called to deport the illegal border-crossers, many of them before they'd even had their dinner. If that wasn't irony enough, my boss wanted nothing to do with this twist to the traditional story.

Not knowing any better or having any stronger sense of my convictions, I obeyed orders and went back to the shop with the time-worn story they'd requested I do. Looking back, though, I realize it is a rare gift to be able to fully recognize and preserve human dignity. I also know now that it's a gift meant to be shared, not wasted. Rest assured that if I ever find myself without family or friends to celebrate with, I will be volunteering my time helping others. In my mind, it's what the day is about.

What do you find yourself grateful for this season? If you were to set yourself the task of listing at least ten answers to that question, would you find that easy... or difficult? One thing I'm thankful for is to have people like you share your thoughts with me on whatever topics you find important. Go ahead and send them to

Make your Thanksgiving something real. Gather people around you who are special to you and if you can spare the room, include someone who has nowhere else to go. Do what you can to preserve some old traditions... and create some new ones too while you're at it. Remember, it's about a state of mind that includes sharing and community more than it's about spending money we don't have on more food than we can possibly eat.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Learning to Balance

So - the 30-day trial license is about to expire on this Life Balance™ software that I've been trying out. Since I'm such a geek, it's a little tough for me to know yet whether it's really doing for me what I want or whether I just like playing with it. What I can say is that I'm using it and that is a pretty good sign.

I'm finding that there are some things I just don't like to do when they bubble up to the top and what I do about that seems to be the real learning edge for me. I have a couple of strategies that I employ... some with better success than others.

The most basic strategy is that I sometimes just get stuck and don't do anything else. I'll stare and stare at the item at the top of the list that doesn't appeal to me and after a while, I'll sometimes start beating myself up for not having done it. This approach doesn't actually work so well. I don't recommend it.

What works marginally better is that sometimes when something pops up to the top of my list and I don't like it, I'll just skip down to the next item I feel like doing. This way, I manage to at least get something done. This is more effective for staying on top of the list as a whole. It doesn't do a whole lot for the tasks I keep skipping over. As a general strategy, it's tough to recommend but I can see its usefulness from time to time.

As I work with this software and those problem To Do's, I'm finding there's another way that works better for me. Usually the tasks that I don't feel much like taking on are recurring so I have to deal with them regularly. After a while, it becomes apparent that they're a problem for me. Of course, that also means admitting some failure on my part, and that's not exactly comfortable. Here's a funny thing about the notion of failure, though - first of all, it assumes there's a right way and a wrong way; secondly, it also assumes that there's a finish of some sort where we reach "perfection" and are done. Don't we all wish!

Instead, I've been re-training myself to think of my inaction on these items as a red flag for learning, not as failures. So what kinds of things have I learned? Sometimes it's pretty simple - the task items simply just aren't as important to me as I'd originally believed. If that's the case, it's pretty easy just to slide the importance bar down a couple of notches so that I don't see the task quite so often. By the time I do see it, I can usually gumption up enough nerve to get through it.

Other times, the tasks really are important. While I may not like performing them, I do want the end result. If there's another way to accomplish what I want, I'll go for that. Who says life has to be hard all the time? One trick I try is to break the job up into smaller pieces. If the thought of writing some huge report is too intimidating, how about writing out the table of contents first, then a section or two at a time until it's written.

Sometimes it's a matter of finding a way to make it fun. Rewarding myself for a job well done is one way. Hate to pay the bills? It might be more fun if the reward is to have a beer afterward. Sometimes there's way to make the task itself more enjoyable. I know one guy who used to do the Tom Cruise Risky Business dance whenever he'd vacuum. Not that you'd ever want to see that... but it did get the living room clean!

Sure, I sometimes wish I didn't have to play such mindgames with myself to get my work done. At least I'm doing more of it than I ever had before, and that's the general point, right?

What are you resisting - and why is that? Send your answers to that question or ideas for doing things you don't like to do to - it could make for some real useful learning for the rest of us.

Don't like a job? Find a way to make it easier, more fun, or something you don't have to do at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Focus on the Things You CAN Do

"Focus on the things you CAN do, not the things you can't."

It sounds like some trite phrase trotted out by folks who have nothing better to do with their time than to tell others they should be happy with their lot, doesn't it?

While it's worked for me, I know all too well that I've had things pretty easy throughout much of my life. Such a philosophy might be too simplistic for someone facing real difficulties. At least that's what I always thought until I had a chance recently to hear a woman speak by the name of Kathy Buckley.

Her family and her teachers just thought she was 'retarded' and put her in a school for the developmentally disabled until she was in the second grade when all along, her real problem was a hearing loss ("And they call me slow!" she says...). Then after just two years at a deaf school, she was yanked out of an environment where she felt safe and was dumped into the mainstream without any real support. She was in her thirties before anyone helped her understand that she wasn't stupid, she was just hearing impaired.

And that was AFTER she was run over by a jeep and told she wouldn't be able to walk... and later diagnosed with cervical cancer and told she might not live. Not only is she still alive and walking (and dancing too), she's smart as a whip and fall-on-your-butt funny as a comedienne. Sure, you have to get used to how she talks but it's such a small thing to do when the message she has to share is so powerful.

Really, if Kathy can do all that she's done, shouldn't the rest of us be able to overcome just about any obstacle standing in our way if we only focus on what is possible instead of what seems impossible? What would you do if you had someone around who believed in you enough to make you feel it could be done? What if that person was yourself?

"Impossible" is usually just a thing we say to ourselves when we're really just afraid to live up to our true potential. It might be easy for me to say... and now I know from having heard Kathy's story (from Kathy herself) that it's actually true.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

When Stupid Stuff Happens

You know, sometimes stupid stuff just happens.

For no seeming rhyme or reason, someone good gets laid off. Or a really great kid is faced with living with a serious heart defect the rest of his life, always wondering if he's going to need another open heart surgery and all the risk and trauma that entails. Or a skilled, top-notch pilot bends a wingtip - for a second time, possibly ending his flying career. Is it bad luck, poor judgment or action on someone's part, karma, or some divine plan for some greater good we can't see... or is it time to get paranoid that somebody's out to get us?

I've held every single one of these opinions at one time or another. Sometimes several at once or at least in rapid succession. Sometimes life just sucks and that's all there is to it. I used to defend my beliefs in this area and in so doing, came to the realization that the justification that makes the most sense to me is that I hold onto whatever belief helps me out the most at the time. Usually my preference is to use my beliefs to help me move forward (see, no whining for me either) so I tend to think in terms of things happening for a reason and I set out in search of it. Hey, it's good for pulling me out of a funk anyway.

Lately, I've started to moderate my thinking further though I'll be honest in sharing that while I can see the destination I'm charting toward I'm definitely not there yet. My new way of thinking goes something like this - The situation is what it is. Whatever complicity I have in getting myself here, I may be able to learn from it but it can't be undone so forgiving myself and finding a way to appreciate where I am is the only remaining action available to me now. Furthermore, given that life sucks (at least on occasion), unless I want to throw in the "no whining" towel (I don't) or continually beat my head against the wall, it's probably a good idea to figure out ways to enjoy life or at least appreciate it even when things don't go the way I want them to.

Maybe you have some strategies that work for you that you'd like to share - if so, please send them to

Accurate or not, treating situations as the result of some cosmic force for greater good is more likely to get you farther and in a healthier state of mind than any of the other options. Try looking for the benefits anyway and see how that changes your perspective.