Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Abundance

As usual, these writings are born from a stream of consciousness that starts with a single thought that bears little resemblance to the finished product.  Amanda and I were talking recently about the elderly in assisted living and nursing homes who literally have nobody visiting them at any time of the year.  How is it possible that someone could be completely alone during the entire holiday season?

Taking stock of what I have and what I haven't (Thank you Irving Berlin), I wonder - how is it that there are people in the world with nobody, while I on the other hand, have ...........

My immediate family - imperfect with their passive aggressive flaws, yet loving and supportive to a fault.   My husband, who will forever be the original diamond in the rough, simultaneously infuriating and endearing, hilarious and politically incorrect.  My daughter, whose has such crazy talent that her biggest obstacle at internships is how to handle the awkwardness of upstaging the chefs.  And she is humble and caring enough to worry about it.   My mother-in-law, who can be annoyingly patronizing, but how do you stay angry at someone whose most grievous offense is that of trying too hard?  These are the people who color each day of my life.

My not-so immediate family - what does it mean when your husband's sister alienates and isolates herself from us, and the byproduct is that of us being embraced by her ex-husband's family?  Whether it be the coming together of people in defense against a common enemy, or just plain empathy, the result is that we are celebrating Christmas day with my nieces - something we have not been able to do for many years.  How can I be anything less than grateful for their extension of such a large and meaningful olive branch?

My Church family - I am in a lot of internal turmoil when it comes to these people, mostly because of my ongoing and ever-growing disenchantment with the faith into which I was born.   I think about my desire to strike out in new directions with respect to my denomination, and I wonder what their reactions would be?  They have seen me visibly angry during some particularly offensive homilies, yet I feel that there would be a lot of bewilderment if I were to leave the Church.   Would they think I was going to Hell? (yes, there are still those who would believe that),  would they miss me, the person, or would they just miss me, The Voice?     I have a feeling that I'm going to find out sooner or later, so for now I must give thanks for them as they are today - the typical church choir:  enthusiastic to a fault, caring and so perfect in their imperfections.

My Chorus family - I can't say much more about this group that hasn't been said.  They are a collection of diverse personalities and backgrounds that somehow mesh in concert in a way that is completely unique, completely exhilarating, and musically fulfilling.   They are so much like a real family that it's almost scary at times.  No group as large as this can circle the wagons, support one another, and bring it to the stage like this one does.  Recently, the words of our founder were resurrected, and I am so glad, because they are so true - "Ordinary people in a Chorus can make Great Music Together.".

My Work family - I swore up and down that I would not allow myself to become emotionally attached to the people I work with ever, ever again.  I really did not have a prayer of being able to hold myself to that vow.   The best way I can think of to describe these people is by saying "these are not your father's financial services professionals."   And because I can say this about them, I can also come to terms with the fact that I fit in with them perfectly and for that, I am very, very thankful.

My Hamburg/Lakeview/Derby family.   How did this northtowns-born-and bred girl manage to insinuate herself with these folks?   They spoke to my heart from the beginning, and I know that I could live next door to blood relatives and not feel this kind of connection with them that I feel with this gang that lives 40 minutes and a Skyway drive away.  I have loved them now for close to five years, but in the past year, they have taught me more about strength, bravery, support and caring than anybody ever has before and probably ever will again.   They have shown me that when there is family tragedy, the better sides of our human nature can turn that tragedy into beauty.  Not ordinary, superficial beauty, but the beauty of caring, of putting their individual needs aside, of sacrificing their futures in order to make a future for their loved ones in crisis.   This is the powerful and beautiful love of this family, and that I am even privileged enough to be able to know this story is something for which I will be eternally grateful.  Their influence on me and mine is priceless and can never be measured.

In times of trouble, I need to think of those who are truly alone, and I must remind myself that I am truly blessed.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Roller Coaster and the Merry Go Round

I find myself, for the second time in as many posts, thinking about and quoting the movie "Parenthood".  This movie is brilliant, as it portrays family life and just plain life in general.  Not with an overly complex story line, but with sheer simplicity.   After almost the entire movie has played out with its brilliant interweaving of plots involving one extended family, the great-grandma (who is perceived by the other characters throughout the story as being somewhat batty and senile), declares that she loves amusement parks, and in particular, she loves the roller coaster because of all of the incredible highs and lows.  She says "some people prefer the merry go round.  What's exciting about that?"  This, of course, is an amazingly accurate analogy of life and the way that we all choose to live our respective lives.

I am all for buying the ticket for the roller coaster, standing in line to get on, and enjoying the ride - the tingle in the pit of my stomach as the coaster ascends, the breathless fear as it descends in a rush, and the exhilaration as it rushes around corners and sometimes even flies upside down in corkscrews.  Life, however is a bit more complex than just choosing between the roller coaster and the merry go round.  We have to make choices about the people we invite to take the ride with us.  We also have to realize that some people choose to ride the roller coaster when they really should be on the merry go round - and vice versa.  Some people are forced to ride the merry go round when they would much rather be on the roller coaster - and vice versa.   People end up on the "wrong ride" for all sorts of reasons.  

How do we react when we encounter these people?   Our reactions, or lack thereof, are what can ultimately determine the quality of our own ride.  The thing is.... it's all about the choices that each of us make - not just the choice of which ride to get on, but what to do once we're on the ride.   Every roller coaster connoisseur knows that riding in the front car offers a whole different experience than that of riding in the middle or back cars.    Even the merry go round has horses that go up and down and horses that remain stable.   The other choice we have to make is this - who are we going to invite onto the ride with us?   Sometimes even the people we care about the most belong on the other ride - but in the amusement park known as life, we have the ability to ride different rides and meet up at the game arcade after an hour or two.

Probably the worst scenario is when you are on the ride that is perfect for you, but you are stuck dealing with someone who thinks that they are on the right ride when they really are not.   If you are someone who loves the roller coaster, you probably don't want the ride to stop midway and get stuck at the bottom of the hill.  But.... that's exactly what happens when you are in this scenario.  People who are part of our lives who are dragging us down will inevitably keep us at the bottom of the hill.  Wouldn't it be great if we could just pitch them over the side?   Sometimes we can...... <sigh>..... usually we cannot.   When this happens, it is up to us to either allow these people to drag us down or to rise above them.  How do we rise above them?  By focusing on life at the top of the hill.   If you close your eyes, and concentrate, what are your "top of the hill" experiences?   Your wedding, the birth of your children or grandchildren - and all of their milestones, that excitement you feel as you line up and process into a concert venue - the feeling of an amazing concert performance when you and the conductor are of one mind and voice, or that feeling of satisfaction and that giddy high following that kind of performance.   How about just being with family and friends who elevate your mind and spirit.

Sometimes nature will take its course, and the person or persons who are keeping you at the bottom of the hill will change rides of their own accord.  Sometimes they will adapt to the ride they are on.  And yes, sometimes the other people on the ride will oust the person from the ride for his or her own good.  But in the end, we make choices - and we can choose to allow these people to drag us down - or not.  We must always remember that there are people who were meant to be on that roller coaster with us - people who will ride that ride with us to the bitter end, sharing the incredible highs and lows.  Focusing on these people can sometimes help us gain clarity to deal with the others - if not clarity, they at least make us feel like the ride is worthwhile taking - no matter where it takes us.

Great Grandma's amusement park musings brought difference reactions from the husband and wife (played amazingly by Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen).  Steve Martin's character goes on and on about what a batty dim-wit Great Grandma is.   Mary Steenburgen's character simply says "I think she's a genius."   I agree with Mary Steenburgen's character.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Parental Guidance Required

Lately I've been given cause to think about parenting.  There are all sorts of parents and parenting styles out there.  Yet another favorite movie quote of mine is from the movie 'Parenthood', in which the teenage father-to-be expresses his feelings about his abusive father: "You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish.  But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father."  Abusive parents are, of course, the extreme.   Model parents are the other extreme, and somewhere in the middle is where the rest of us can be found.  We are a mixture of environment, genetics and luck.

What is it that causes some people to be great parents?  Fundamental goodness and values, of course... but is it more than just that?  What if parents seem to do the "right things" but their children can't seem to connect with them in a real and meaningful way.  It's not any one's fault, is it?  Isn't it just the hand of cards that each of us is dealt, and just maybe it is what we do with those cards as adults that tells the real story.

I loved my parents.  But I was not ever friends with my parents, even as an adult.  There was something inside of me that felt like I was always a child and always trying to measure up.   I don't ever remember hearing words of encouragement from them.  Expectations were set and it was assumed that I would live up to them.  Anything less was an inconvenience.  Their focus was mostly on my performance in school.  I was ranked in the top 20 in my class and was in the National Honor Society, but I don't remember hearing praise or encouragement, because I was merely living up to expectations.   Same thing with college.  My Junior year in college was incredibly difficult and I remember practically giving myself an ulcer for weeks before I got the courage to call my parents to tell them that I simply could not maintain 18 credit hours of classes and also work  -even part time.  There was minimal understanding in my mother's voice when she gave me her approval to quit working.    I remember hanging up the phone and feeling like a failure, even though I had just been offered a spot in the National Honor Fraternity for undergraduate accounting students.

Things went from bad to worse when I embarked on my new career.  I began my new job as a staff accountant at one of the 'Big Eight" accounting firms in September of 1987.   I immediately discovered that accounting professionals were expected to maintain a certain standard of living even at the entry level positions.  Our starting salary was $21,000.   Not awful by 1987 standards, but not exactly a prize salary when, as I soon found out, one was thrust into a professional world with high standards.  More expectations that I struggled to meet.    We wore those hideous "dress for success" suits, and only tailored suits and crisp cotton menswear blouses from Kleinhans or Joseph Banks were acceptable.   Cha-ching! Then there were the cars.  Certainly we could not be seen in "starter cars".  Honda Accords, Mazda 626's, or Toyota Camarys  - these were the standards for us.  I reluctantly purchased my very first Honda Accord, and I remember so clearly the nervous rat chewing at my insides when I signed the paperwork and was handed the payment book.  Yes, nervous..... because we also were not allowed to bring our lunches to work - ever, even if we were working in the office instead of being out on an audit.  CPA's don't do bag lunches, I was told.  We ate at places like the Glass Abbey or other sit down restaurants.  Cha-ching!  On Fridays, it was expected that we would meet after work for dinner and drinks - cha -ching!  In the summer came the joys of the Accountants Softball League, and if you didn't play, you were expected to attend and be a cheerleader and go out for food and drinks afterward, once or twice a week - cha ching!  And really, I still had friends that I wanted to socialize with now and then.... and I rationalized that I really wanted to have a good time with my real friends who were my escape from the horrors of a job that I detested.  Cha-ching!

I had been working for about a year when my parents dropped the bomb that I was being given six months to find an apartment and move out of their house.  I thought about my mounting credit card bills, but there was absolutely no way I could tell them how scared I was or that I needed help of some sort - not when my father hd completely flown off the handle when he saw the bill arrive in the mail the first time I even used a credit card a year and a half earlier.

I found an apartment with my best friend.   And as exciting and exhilarating as it was to be out on my own, calling my own shots,  I knew I was in trouble.  But I thought - "OK, I can do this if I just find ways to change some things and not spend money."   I was actually feeling pretty optimistic when the next shoe dropped.  My employer had lost a large client shortly after I was hired.  A year later, for some unfathomable reason, they hired another big pack of college graduates.   Result - I was laid off along with four other people.  I had just moved into my apartment.  Truth be told, I'm sure I made the choice easy for them.  I hated that job, and I was like a square peg in a round hole, and everybody knew it.  I had a terrible poker face even back then.   So, while I was relieved to be gone from that place, I was thrown into financial turmoil.   The bottom line for me was that my parents could never, ever know that I had been laid off.  The very thought of telling them turned my stomach into a thousand knots, made my pulse shoot up and made me break out in a cold sweat.  I gamely applied for unemployment and embarked on a search for another job - doing what, I didn't know, for I surely did not want to be an auditor in an accounting firm ever again.  My friends were sworn to silence, and my plan was that I would find another job and tell my parents that I had moved on voluntarily to a better opportunity.  What I could not handle were the bills - car payment, credit cards, rent, utility bills, food ......???

I recovered from all of this.  The timeline went something like this - girl finds new job.  Girl meets new boyfriend.  Girl starts spending too much money again because of the new job.  Girl and boyfriend get engaged, and only after this does the girl have a nervous breakdown in front of the fiance when she confesses her spending and debt issues.   Fiance puts girl on a budget.  They are married and live happily ever after.   I finally learned, at the age of 25, what it was like to be able to confess to someone that - yes -  I screwed up, without fear of feeling like a total failure.  A little understanding and compassion goes a long way, but I think that this was a foreign concept to my depression-era parents.  They both went to their graves never knowing that I was laid off from my "dream job" and that I had an out-of-control spending habit fueled by my desire to keep up with the Joneses.  To this day, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't found another job right away and hadn't met my husband.   Even now, the thought of actually telling my parents the truth is completely incomprehensible to me.  Never an option.

So this brings me back to my musings about parenting skills.  I know that I made mistakes with my daughter, but the one thing that we drilled into her head was that she could come to us with anything, and we would work it out together.  You see, my parents..... they just didn't want to know about problems that I might be having, and if they found out about anything that they perceived as being a problem ........   I was made to feel ashamed, as though whatever it was that I had done (or not done) reflected poorly on not just me, but that it was inconceivable to them that their child had done ......  or not done..... whatever infraction it was that I had committed.  Everything was like the end of the world.

My parents were not abusive by any stretch of the imagination.  But they succeeded in taking an already shy girl and raising her to be a cowardly adult.   Too cowardly to succeed and scared to death to admit failure.   Yes indeed, parenting is a complicated business.   And no, parents are not supposed to be their children's best friends while they are raising their children.   I might be oversimplifying this but, is it as simple as trying to remember that your children are human beings and not little clone robots?   Maybe.  Things could have gone so badly, so much worse in my adult life.  I just think that I am so lucky to be surrounded today by people who treat me like a human being - imperfect, flawed but me.  Just me.