Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Plastic Scissor Award #1

Welcome to the inaugural presentation of the Plastic Scissor Awards: an occasional (sporadic) tribute to those who fly in the face of convention, reason, and general good sense in order to follow their passions. To those who insist on learning every lesson the hard way, who shamelessly come back for more after getting their hearts broken, and who rely on the courage of their convictions to guide their creative hands -- even when that means decorating the living room with permanent marker or taking apart your parents' radio to see how it works.

Or, perhaps, getting a master's degree to make less money than before doing something you love...

{I originally thought of calling these the "Golden Scissor Awards" but I was a little concerned that people would confuse me with these folks. Besides, I want to stay true to the spiritual origins of the blog and honor those colorful little safety scissors that so many of us used to give Barbie a permanent punk-rock makeover.}

The first award, appropriately, goes to a fellow counselor and Atlanta native: Samuel T. Gladding. Dr. Gladding is one of the most prolific, knowledgeable and well-respected academics in our field. He writes and teaches from Wake Forest University, where I have no doubt there are long virtual lines on registration day to get into his classes.

That's the stuff for which he gets mainstream recognition....

Yesterday, I was referencing my old group therapy textbook, which Dr. Gladding authored, and I noticed something that didn't hit me the first time I read it last year. You know how some books have a title page before each chapter with a picture, inspiring quote, etc.? Well, apparently Dr. Gladding decided to forego the standard natural imagery and inspiring quotes from Emerson or Thoreau, or even Freud or Jung.

No. Beneath the black and white picture that begins each chapter of the book, Dr. Gladding includes a selection of poetry. His own poetry. About the group process in therapy. No kidding. Here are some snippets:

We sit like strangers in hard-backed chairs

at right angles from each other -

On the corners our sentences meet

reflecting our thoughts and our lives

Slowly, messages in our minds

make a move, a personal process
whose destination is undetermined


A fan of Garfield, Snoopy, Calvin and Hobbes

He names his erasers after one he called "Bob"

And further stimulates the group's sensations

By using his growing imagination.

Now, I can't think of a better way to encapsulate the idea of the plastic scissor award than this. To have the courage, in the high-brow world of academia, to chuck tradition and put yourself out there by sharing poetry that is -- let's face it -- pretty terrible from an artistic perspective, but which expresses your creative passion for your work.

Is Dr. Gladding going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature or a Bridport Award? Probably not. I'm not exactly a likely candidate either [and believe me, I've written far worse poetry than this in my day]. But you have to admire the joy he seems get from the process of writing and sharing, and from the work that inspires him to do so.

I mean, when was the last time you felt passionate enough about your vocation that you thought about writing a poem? Maybe we should all be so fortunate. Doesn't a rockstar software implementation deserve a killer song to go with it? Or perhaps an interpretive dance about beating this month's sales quota. I successfully finished a project, I think I'll write a haiku!

I'm only being a little bit fecetious. So many people I know get so caught up in surviving their jobs and their lives that they don't give themselves time to rejoice in the journey and celebrate the victories.

So in honor of (and with sincerest apologies to) Dr. Samuel T. Gladding, and the first-ever Plastic Scissor Award, I'd like to invite readers to comment with a poem, song, or pure exclamation of joy about some part of your job. It can be a haiku, limerick, freestyle or simple A-B rhyming couplets. It can be about the job you have, the job you want, or the really nice breakroom where you work.

If you need some additional inspiration, try this very bad poetry site. Good luck!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Quick Addendum and Advice from the Barista

I guess all that writing about almond lattes yesterday got to me - I was running an early errand this morning and decided to stop in for one. That's when I found out Starbucks no longer has almond flavoring! First they're closing 600 stores and now this??? What is the world coming to??

[By the way, for those who don't know me very well yet, that is totally fake outrage. I actually strongly prefer independent coffee shops to the Seattle Giant, although I'm not so righteous about it (obviously) that I don't use the Starbucks drivethru occasionally for convenience].

Nonetheless, I expressed my surprise to the chick in the green apron as she handed me a cinnamon dolce latte instead.

I said, "I can't believe you don't have almond anymore."
And she said, "Yeah, it's actually been gone for a while now."
And I said, "Really? I guess haven't ordered one in a while. I'm surprised."

And she said "Well, life changes. Things get discontinued. You have to move on."

Amen to that, Starbucks Barista. You have to move on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sacred Cows and Lemon-Lime Gatorade

"If you're going to _____, you might as well ______."

There are many ways to finish that simple verbal formula. For example, "If you're going to shoot yourself out of a cannon to impress your friends on YouTube, you might as well buy a good life insurance policy." Or, "If you're going down with the ship, you might as well keep playing the cello with your friends on the top deck."

But however it's completed, for me that sentence is the flagship phrase for efficient behavior. I remember hearing my Dad say that all the time when I was younger, especially during my teenage years. Some simple examples: "If you're going to drive all the way to the mall, you might as well stop at the grocery store on your way home." Fine. Makes sense.

"If you're going to play softball, you might as well practice daily and play it well." Absolutely. As they say, Anything worth doing....

But here's one of my favorites, and maybe where the philosophy goes from being good, common sense to a little bit intense (sorry, Pops): "If you're going to insist on occasionally drinking Gatorade instead of water, we might as well buy the enormous tin of powdered lemon-lime Gatorade from the warehouse club and make it in huge, 2-gallon batches." Ugh!

First of all, if you ever tried the powdered version of lemon-lime Gatorade in the 80's, especially after it had been clumping together in the humid pantry for a couple of months (it was an enormous tin and lasted forever), then you know just how disgusting a prospect that is. What's worse, we had to drink it every time we wanted anything other than water or milk. Can we buy a 2-liter of soda? No, we have that Gatorade at home. Double ugh!

Secondly, it turns out that I didn't want Gatorade for its own sake. I'm not sure I could've articulated this to my dad at the time, and it sounds silly now, but I wanted the Gatorade to be a little more like the other girls on my softball team. At 13 or 14, I was an odd kid already - brainy, overweight, and pale with an awkward sense of humor - and I struggled to fit in with other girls my age.

They always turned up at the games with cute little ribbons in their hair, clear tan skin, and little bottles of Gatorade that their parents had picked up for them at the convenience store on the way to the ballpark. On some level, I thought that if I could just take one tiny step to being more like those girls -- one 16 oz bottle of common ground -- they might come closer to accepting and appreciating the other things about me, too. The huge plastic cooler of homemade yellow-green stuff didn't accomplish it. Of course, as an adult I can look back and see that my attempts to fit in by buying something everyone else had were way misguided. And I've come to love both my Dad's quirky practicality and my own awkward (but hilarious!) sense of humor.

In my professional blog today, I wrote about Sacred Cows (Stealthy Sacred Ninja Cows, actually) -- those value systems that are unspoken but still held high above the others. In our house, that was a special brand of efficiency, not one that saved time (quite the opposite, actually), but one that aspired to never wasting money or effort, especially through poor planning. This is largely due to the fact that my Dad, apart from sometimes being too smart for his own good, also grew up on a working farm where money and effort had to produce efficiently in order for the family to survive.

Aside from the powdered Gatorade, this meant it sometimes took hours to leave for a day trip to the mountains, because we'd have to pack for every contingency: What if it rains? What if we get hungry? What if we have a flat tire? What if we get invited by another family to a formal event tonight, and while we're there, Martial Law is declared and we have to escape and suvive with only our wits and what is in our car already?

Okay, that last one is a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. And as an adult, I find myself falling into those same thought patterns, as frustrated as they sometimes make me. It's completely second nature for me to attempt to plan out every contigency, to follow every possibility and guard myself against any and all negative consequences, no matter how unlikely or minor they might be.

I also find that efficiency of effort has become my personal, inherited Sacred Cow. For example, I work from home a couple of days a week, and I find that during those days it's impossible for me to leave to run a quick errand or dash out for coffee. Let's say I'm working one morning on a new chapter in my book, and I have a craving for an almond latte. There's a Starbucks less than 5 minutes from my house with a drive-thru window and a really nice staff. Easy-peasey.

But here's where I trip over my own feet. There's a voice in my head that says, "Well, if you're going to Starbucks, there are some other errands you should run while you're out - dropping off the film, picking up that book you've wanted, going to the bank...." And the voice is right, combining errands IS more efficient (especially with gas at $4 a gallon).

I'm usually still in my "semi-pajamas" (sweatshorts and dirty t-shirt), which is fine for writing at home and the Starbucks drive-thru; but it's not how I want to walk into the bank or the bookstore. Which means I need to shower. And dry my hair. And don't I have a bookstore coupon somewhere? Where did I put the film? Wasn't I thinking that I wanted a new frame, too? Since I'll be at the camera store, I should find that picture from Ireland and take it with me.... So now my 15-minute trip to get coffee has turned into a 3-hour event. And my ambitions of writing at home all day have been wiped out by a simple craving for caffeine.

In this case (and hundreds more like it), I would be much better off by resigning myself to inefficiency. Just like all forms or perfectionism, it holds me back by turning in on itself until it becomes totally overwhelming. And if it can turn a trip to the coffee shop into a whole morning affair, imagine what it can do to a bigger task - like writing a book. Sometimes I am so blown away by the enormity of doing everything efficiently that I end up spending more time planning and organizing my attack than in actually working. And when that fails, I typically cave to the pressure by procrastinating or ditching an idea entirely. Now, that's not even a little bit efficient!

Of course I know it's counterproductive. Of course I know that I simply need to learn to say: "I'm going to go to Starbucks and waste a trip out, waste $1.50 in gas. I just am." All I want is an almond latte - everything else will have to wait, despite the lure of convenience and my Sacred Cow of Efficiency.

It sounds sensible and easy, and just writing this out makes me sort of baffled that I find it so difficult to manage my time this way. But that's where my sneaky brain and all those deeply carved neural pathways come into play. Just like a Sacred Cow in a family system, my internal thought patterns are really hard to break. They've served me well in many situations and become a part of who I am, for better or worse. I continue to struggle against it, or at least try to channel it in ways that work for me rather than against me. But the truth is - for individuals and families - it's hard to teach an old Sacred Cow new tricks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just to Brighten up Your Day

Don't worry, this blog is not about to become another myspace page, where I just cut and paste things that I find amusing. It's not the point of this, despite the fact that most of 'youtube' is WAY more interesting than I am.

That said, I found this on my friend Cindy's blog and I thought I would share it again myself. I remember vaguely when this guy was doing this, but I'd never actually seen the finish product.

It's really, well, it's kinda great, isn't it? Sometimes you just gotta dance.

If you want the back story, here it is. Now, go do that thing you do!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

These Dreams...

Maybe it's the hot weather or caffeine or something.

I'm not usually one who has vivid dreams, especially involving cohesive plots, specific people or recognizable places. But I've been having some crazy ones lately. Like the one a few weeks ago where I helped a friend decorate her new house with the monsters and fixtures from "Monster Plantation." Then there was a pretty steamy one the other night involving me with Seth Rogen. Can't say I was expecting that one...

But last night's episode of "Unconscious Theater 3000" was actually sort of intriguing. I had a dream that I was on trial -- maybe it was the end of my life? A midpoint report card? I'm not sure. But I was standing in front of some sort of dark tribunal - two men and a woman - and they were obviously making a big decision about my life and how I've lived it so far.

It didn't feel strange, for whatever reason, to be judged in this way. In my dream I felt comfortable and even confident. What's funny is how they were judging me. There was a large screen in front of me on which images from my life seemed to be passing at random. And I think I expected to be judged on the things that are most important to me. The major things that have impacted me most - both good and bad.

To my surprise, the dream judges didn't choose these things to address. Instead, they went through my life and pulled up what - to me - seemed like very random incidents. Things I haven't thought about in years or barely remember, even now.

The one I remember most vividly was this: an image appeared of a woman who I would consider sort of a distant friend, a part of my "outer circle." I've known her for a long time; she was a friend of another good friend of mine starting in middle school, and there was a period back in high school when we spent time together socially.

But over the years we drifted apart, as so many people do. I've seen her two or three times since college, and I know that she's gone through some rough times -- the death of a parent, marital difficulties, and more. Every once in a while I see a mutual friend of ours, and I'll hear a little about what she's up to or how she's doing. But with all the hustle and bustle of my everyday life, she's not someone who enters my thoughts very often (much less my dreams).

So imagine my surprise when it was her image around which the questioning centered. The judges asked me about my relationship with her, and how well I thought I had handled it. There was no critical tone in their interrogation, just simple questions. And I can't tell you what their conclusions were because the sound of my alarm clock intruded on the proceedings before they were over. Like I said, crazy dream.

But, even in my waking morning routine, it left me wondering about those 'outer circle' interactions and minor decisions in our lives. What if those were as important on some level as the stuff that feels major to us? What if the way I treat a distant old classmate or the checkout guy at the grocery store says as much about me as how I treat my husband or my best friend? It's a little mind-boggling.

Of course I can't be everything to everyone - and trying to do that would be ridiculous and impossible. And let's face it, there's a reason we focus so much on the things and people that are really important to us. They're, you know, important.

But I wonder if there would be a benefit to spreading around some of the emotion I currently put on the "Big Ten" things -- those that are always on my mind and my to-do list? By moving a little effort to the outer circle each day, would that somehow push me to be less intensely focused, less self-centered? If I direct a little of my energy to the small interactions in my life, could I lower the stakes and the pressure on the "Big Ten?" Maybe...

And if not, maybe I should just keep an eye on the caffeine before bedtime.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Or it could be Asiago, I'm not sure

I went to dinner with some friends last night, and a friend of mine - who is in Atlanta for the weekend from out of town - made me feel very special when he explained that he reads this blog regularly as one way of keeping in touch with me from afar. Awww.... how sweet.

Then, of course, he went right into giving me some constructive criticism. "You know," he said, "you don't have to write about something so serious every time. It's okay to just write your random thoughts." Or something to that effect. So it really is true - everyone's a critic!

What's funny (or, perhaps totally un-funny) is that these ARE my random thoughts. This is, no kidding, totally the way my mind works. So does that mean the hamster running on the wheel in my brain -- who I always imagine looks a little like Ernest Borgnine in a velour sweatsuit, and has an affinity for strong cheeses -- is actually a frequent guest columnist for Psychology Today? I don't know, but it would definitely explain why I get a huge Gorgonzola sculpture of Carl Jung in the mail every Christmas.

Anyway, in honor of those who love me enough to point out my flaws, today's blog is short and sweet:

For me, hanging out with my friends is one of life's greatest pleasures; in part because they help me remember to not take myself -- or my blog -- too seriously. I am blessed to have so many great people in my life: new friends, very old friends, beer buddies, teammates, co-workers and even one or two old flames.

In my experience, the ones who will make fun of your experimental cooking [btw, deviled eggs with curry - NOT a good idea], point out publicly that you have something in your teeth, and who painfully remind you of every stupid thing you've ever done (which for me isn't so much a list as a mutli-volume treatise), those are the same people who will go to the mat for you when you need them. Every time.

Whether I remember to say so or not, I am grateful for them every single day. Laughing and crying with my friends refreshes my spirit and heals my pain. I know that sounds cheesey, but hey - it's what the hamster wants.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lesson #17: Money Talks, But Sometimes I Need a Translator

Like most people, I've had money on the brain lately. Recession, gas prices, economic stimulus, housing market, job market... if I weren't already meticulously evaluating my financial situation on my own (including, as the last blog indicates, calculating what I pay for the square footage in my storage unit), then the news outlets would still be pushing me toward financial obsession. It seems that every third news story relates to the state of our economy and how it's impacting the average family.

During hard financial times, we all seem to pay more attention to money and its role in our lives. Well, duh, right? Some people are comfortable with money and enjoy the pursuit of it -- getting a little thrill when a stock goes up, or the savings account reaches a particular goal. Some people are more reticent about money, viewing it as a necessary evil and even feeling embarrassed or resentful that they need it to survive. At both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between, one thing that seems broadly true about money is that it quickly taps into some pretty deep-seated emotions.

I like to think of money as more neutral, almost like a language. It can be used to express strong ideas and values, good and bad, but it isn't good or bad in itself. Money communicates issues that might otherwise have no voice. And in times where money is more scarce, we hear the messages more loudly.

Money expresses our values and personalities. We purchase things that express who we are as people - clothing, cars, furniture, vacations, even our choice of the home in which we live says something about who we are. I have friends who wouldn't trade their enormous televisions (complete with surround-sound home theater system) for the world; and others who can't phathom needing more than a 27" screen, but can spend thousands on backpacking gear or a nice camera.

A friend once told me that "money is a way in which we honor one another's creativity," and I love that idea. When you download a song or purchase a piece of artwork, you're not only bringing something you enjoy closer to you, you're also casting your vote that the artist or musician should thrive and continue creating.

But money means more to us than just the acquisition and consumption of "stuff." It can reflect our feelings of security or fear; prosperity or scarcity; generosity or greed. I've known people who have very little and still give generously of themselves each day -- whether it's contributing their time and money to charity, or just picking up the tab at dinner with friends. I've also known those who have an abundance, but live in constant worry that they will lose everything, that it will never be enough. It seems to me that when it comes down to it, very little of that is about the actual numbers; but can often be attributed to something a little deeper.

Could our attitudes towards money reflect our basic view of the world, even our faith in ourselves? Could paying attention to how we handle financial issues help us create insight about work, relationships, our sense of purpose? Is it possible that when we tell ourselves "I will never have enough," what we mean is, "I will never be enough"?

In the therapy and coaching world, we pay attention to those underlying messages conveyed by currency. Even in the therapeutic relationship itself, money is one of many indicators about how urgent a particular issue is, or how commited a client is to change. When a client decides to save money by cutting back on how often they come in, for example, that is often a sign of something. One possibility is that the process has been successful: things are improving, life has stablized, and the client can now focus on other, more pressing things.

Another possibility is the opposite scenario - the client is not seeing improvements and may be feeling discouraged; or no longer finds the therapy or coaching as valuable as it originally was. Sometimes it feels 'easier' to cut back on therapy for financial reasons than to confront a coach or therapist about not feeling fully satisfied with the results. By picking up on this, and talking to the client about it, a therapist can begin understanding the client's view and possibly take the opportunity to change directions and make the process more impactful.

Any therapist, travel agent, or spa worker can tell you this about money: It is a way of quantifying our priorities. When things are tight, we typically cut the things from our budget that are perceived as expendable. This might mean switching from $4 lattes to home-brewed coffee; waiting an extra week or two for a haircut; or opting for a DVD rental instead of a night at the movies. I've noticed that for many busy people, these cutbacks all too often include lowering our level of self-care -- sacrificing opportunities for recreation, relaxation, exercise, quality time with family or other healthy activities.

So, how do we keep our balance during hard times? Well, I'm still struggling with this one myself. My guess is that part of it is in knowing what is really most important, and putting a priority on keeping our deepest commitments to ourselves and those we love. We can do our best to plan for the long term based on those priorities and spend or save accordingly. And for me, it helps to keep in mind that sometimes, money speaks louder on my behalf than I realize.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can I Rent a Storage Unit for Emotional Baggage?

So one of our tasks for the upcoming holiday weekend is that MDH and I are planning to clean out some stuff we've had in storage since early in the year. We boxed up some clutter while our condo was on the market, and now it needs to come home so that we can save the $80/month we're currently paying to keep it somewhere else. A simple enough task, but I am dreading it as though it's a colonoscopy.

I'm not alone. Storage units are popping up everywhere, and more Americans than ever have so much stuff that we can't even manage to cram it inside our own houses. I'm all for capitalism, but how much stuff do you have to have that you can't even fit it in your house? That means that rather than selling, donating, or tossing our stuff when it is no longer useful (not to mention the horrifying option of buying less of it in the first place), we are renting spaces to store our stuff away from ourselves. And for the extra space, we're paying a premium (we're currently paying $8/month per square foot for storage -- that's 10 times what our mortgage & condo fees cost per square foot!)

As I write that, I'm almost embarrassed. I find myself gawking at my own inability to keep better organized, trim the fat, and lose the stuff. But I also know, deep down, that part of the problem isn't material or financial. It's emotional. I am renting a luxury space for my emotional baggage.

Every time I go to the storage unit, muttering about the ridiculousness of the whole scenario and wildly determined to turn over a new, simplified leaf -- I turn around and leave defeated. I walk out to my car with my tail between my legs and a tiny box of something in my hand that I'm committed to sorting through. Next week.

That's because when I look around my 10-foot-square penthouse, I see so many things I'm just not ready to handle. There are things I bought that are really unnecessary in life; and I'm too stubborn or embarrassed to admit that maybe I didn't need a glass cake dome after all (I never bake, but I love the idea of it). Or that my first softball glove - now rotting from the inside out so that it is almost crispy in texture - is finally destined to work its way to the bottom of a landfill and slowly rot back into the earth.

There are boxes of mementos my mother kept, most of them truly useless now and meaningful only to her. I have no place in my home to put these boxes, and for as long as I've had them, I've only opened them once. And yet, even though she died over six years ago, I find it hard to throw away something that Mom cared enough about to keep, box, and label. It feels almost like a betrayal to veto her decision - she thought this was important, she wanted my brother and me to have it, see it, understand it... and who am I to decide it should now go to the dumpster outside Public Storage? Maybe I'll start somewhere easier.

There's some play therapy stuff I got from another therapist, who was kind enough (and wise enough) to give it away when she no longer needed it. As a student, I gratefully snatched the opportunity to have some really great tools for free; knowing that one day I would have the space and opportunity to make use of them. Even though the possibility is somewhat slim that I'll make tremendous use of them in the next year, I worry that if I give them away myself (a) I'll regret it when the chance does come around to use them, (b) I'll feel guilty that I accepted a donation that could've gone to someone else and now am really acknowledging that I'm not using it, and (c) that if I try to pass them on, the original owner will hear about it and I'll be embarrassed. Hmm... that's complicated, too. There has to be something simple in here!

There's a doll bed made by my great-grandfather. It's sturdy and useful, and both my mother and I played with it when we were little girls. If I'm fortunate enough to have children of my own, I'd like to pass it on to them. But before I can really find a good spot for it at home, it desperately needs to be re-covered in fabric. It was stored in a relative's attic for years, where it developed stains I have no wish to identify. Another item on the "Great Intentions" list that I'm planning to get to.... someday.

So, moving on - a huge box of unsorted photographs. That's a 3-weekend project, easy. Double that if you include all the time I'll spend reminiscing as I try to sort through them and remember names, dates & places.... High school yearbooks, my letter jacket, notes from old friends and boyfriends; gifts and cards from people I loved but who, because of death or distance, are no longer around to hear me say it. How do you say goodbye to such things? How do you acknowledge that the space in your life is getting smaller for those memories, for those people -- and does that also mean that the space in your heart for them is shrinking as well? What will be left to speak for those years of my life - which I already have trouble remembering?

As I stand in the tiny spot in the middle of all this and look around, I feel overwhelmed, sad, and a little dumbfounded. Where do I start? I glance around quickly and opt for the cake dome - I think if I work hard and use a stepladder, I can squeeze it on the top shelf of the linen closet, right next to Mom's huge old punch bowl (which I've used a grand total of ONCE). So one box is taken care of, and the decisions on everything else delayed to another day.

I have to say, driving away, the $80 a month is starting to sound like a bargain.