Transformed

img_4059.jpgPeek into the toy box of most kids and you’ll find cars, blocks or dolls. Look a little closer and you might discover that hiding inside the mild-mannered car is a powerful Transformer robot ready to save the world. With a few deft twists and turns, the same parts appear to make a new thing. It’s a cool trick, and might be the most important lesson we ever get.

Change is hard, and often made harder when we resist it. Do we stand our ground, defending what we have now, or can we bend, flex, and transform into something new, and hopefully better? I’d like to think I’m flexible with the ability to accept new perspectives, and ideas, but my body reminds me every morning, that flexibility isn’t a given. If I want to continue to be able to touch my toes, I’d better be practicing every day.

When some tasks are done regularly, I fall into a routine, a set way of doing things, because with consistency comes quality control and reliable results – all good things. When someone asks, “why do we do it this way?” I almost say, “because we’ve always done it this way” – but those words catch in my throat. How about, “because it works” but that sounds way too snarky. So I take a breath and start to reexamine a process as an outsider. Are the steps in the most efficient order, are all the steps useful, is the end product still needed?

Businesses often reorganize in search of a better way to achieve their goals. Moving people into new roles so they can question the status quo and find new ways to do things is part of the deal. We’re all challenged to shake the cobwebs out of what we’ve been doing, and learn new things. While rethinking what we do, my joints stretch and my tendons twang. I’m hoping that as I reorder all of my component parts, the end result will be a useful structure.

Start with a flat piece of paper and with a few well-made folds, and you have an origami crane. Normally you’d put that pretty crane on a shelf to admire. But I have to take it apart, smooth out the creases and fold it into another shape, and another, and another. Each time, the same sheet appears as something new that is a better reflection of what is needed.

 

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On Hold

broken-72161_960_720I have to call credit card customer service and I hope that “service” means that someone will help me, but I feel as if I’ve entered the Eight Circle of Hell, surrounded by lies and deceit as the recorded voice says “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I’m experiencing an issue with my online banking site. I enter my credentials and my two-factor authentication code. There are no error messages, but I’m still on the login page. Huh. I try again. Same result. And again, same result. Now I’m worried. My payment is due today and I need to get into this web site.

I call the 800 number on the back of the card. After tolerating the mechanical voice reviewing all of the aspects of my account, I’m finally given the option to talk to an associate. Except they’re all busy, and the wait is 15 to 20 minutes. Or I can select the option for them to call me back. Oh that’s nice, but no, I’ll just stay on the line. I putter around the house while a loop of ads run in my ear, until finally, a person comes on the line. I explain my problem, but the representative apologizes because she doesn’t work in the credit card department and can’t help me. That’s odd, I dialed the number on the back of my credit card, but no worries, this perky representative will transfer me.

I’m on hold again with an estimated wait of 30 minutes, so I opt for the call back and make some lunch. Finally, my phone rings, and an agent comes on the line. I explain my problem, and I am transferred again and on hold. Ugh. By now, I’ve found a phone number on the website specifically for issues with the website. I decide to hang up and dial this number. Of course all the representatives are helping other callers, so I wait. When I finally get an agent, I explain I need website help and she transfers me to the web troubleshooting group.

After being bounced to call centers in three states I’m thinking I’ll have to visit the bank in person, but worry they might not accept a credit card payment in the branch. Now I’m connected to Julie in New York. I explain my problem again, and she’s initially stumped. She asks if I have another device I can use to access the website. Of course I do not – I mean, who keeps a back-up computer for these situations?

“What browser are you using?” Julie asks, and suddenly it’s all clear. My Safari browser version is too old and it doesn’t play well with the website. So I try with Chrome, and voila! I’m able to get into the site and make my payment. As if Julie had brought me a cool glass of water in the deep recesses of Hades, I’m filled with relief.

Random

door-lock-door-door-knob-01bf12-1024Since the spring has remained unseasonably cool and very wet, I’m still using the underground Pedway to and from work with lots of other commuters. The surge of people coming out of the regional rail station makes me feel like a salmon going upstream, but occasionally an anonymous do-gooder will make my day.

The entry to the underground rail station slopes slightly uphill and has four really heavy glass doors that swing both ways. When the doors are swinging towards me I have to stop and brace my arms to catch them and push the other way. This small change in the flow of the crowd becomes a bottleneck pretty quickly. The two “lanes” of traffic are divided by a pillar that is set about 18 inches in front of the doors. One day, I noticed a man wedged between the pillar and the doors. He wasn’t stuck or trying to hide. From his central location, he held two of the heavy doors open so that the jostling crowd could go through unimpeded in both directions.

This man looks stoic; he doesn’t talk to passers-by, smile, or even look any of us in the eye. Whatever his reason for being in the Pedway, he decides to stop and help scores of people as they scurry off to work or their train. The first time I saw him, I was surprised, but on the days when he appears, I try to say thank you (he doesn’t acknowledge me).

This random act of kindness gets me thinking about what I could do to help others during my day. Maybe it’s adding paper to the copier when it runs out, making a pot of coffee in the kitchen at work, or helping a co-worker in another department with something that is not my job. I remember hearing about someone who would feed all the parking meters on a street so that others could park for free. Unfortunately, that idea is foiled by Chicago’s meters which now require you enter the license plate of the car. I try to thank people who are in thankless jobs – the customer service rep who takes my call among a million more, the young man who bags my groceries, the bus driver who pauses long enough for me to sprint to the bus stop.

At a time when people seem unafraid to say hurtful things online, or shout them from their cars as they zoom past, it’s good to remember that we can all do something that is kind, however small. Who knows, it might just make someone’s day.

Teacher

appleFormal schooling, whether it is 8 years, 12 years, or more, conjures up memories of a classroom, a teacher, and the anxiety of being called on. No matter how you felt about school, it’s an experience most of us share, and occasionally relive in our dreams.

You know, the kind of dreams that jerk you out of sleep with your heart pounding because there’s a big test you never cracked a book for, or you’ve been humiliated in front of the class by not knowing the answer, or not wearing pants. Even if those things never happened to me in real life, they are common analogs for any other kind of anxiety in our adult lives: fear of failure, concern over professional standing, not being diligent enough.

I’ve been in many formal learning settings – college, graduate school, professional training: a teacher standing in the front, materials to study and be tested on, class participation to gauge your grasp of ideas, and projects to complete individually or with a team. By contrast, professional continuing education seems to all be computer-based and self-paced. It can be high-quality and efficient, but it lacks the communal element since my colleagues and I are taking the modules at separate times and places.

In-person teachers have the advantage of being more memorable, whether it’s my 1st grade teacher who would read books to us while she crossed her legs and swung one of her shoes from her foot, or my 4th grade teacher who had volunteers line up to give her shoulder rubs. My high school Humanities teacher exposed us to Dante, Plato, art history, and some sentence diagramming when he thought our grammar was weak. In college, I remember a fiery French literature teacher who was amazed that we hadn’t all grown up Catholic and thereby able to understand all the religious imagery in our readings, and an elegant art history teacher who helped expand my interest first fueled in high school.

Of course, learning happens everyday and in many ways. Now the teachers are my co-workers, trial-and-error, and repetition. While I may not be given multiple choice pop quizzes, there’s still the evaluation that comes from how quickly you can find a document hiding in your computer, remembering the steps in a detailed task, or adjusting when you get feedback from a colleague. Every once in a while, I get to be the teacher, showing someone how to solve a problem, or coaching through a challenge. Maybe I’ll be remembered in their dreams someday. I just hope we’re all wearing pants.

Roller Coaster

wildThe Wild Mouse roller coaster is a seemingly tame ride because portions of the track are flat. Even though we’re up in the air in a little open car clinging to a steel track, the flat parts seem calm. And then we hit a 90 degree turn and the car jerks in a new direction while my stomach goes in the opposite direction. Wham! another sharp turn and another until I’m convinced we are all going to die on this ride while a camera snaps a commemorative photo.

Day to day, my life is pretty even-keeled. Listening to podcasts as I go to and from my 8 to 5 job, cooking, reading, exercising. It’s not boring, but predictable and comfortable. Then wham! something flies in from left field. These events are usually opportunities to show flexibility, resilience, and curiosity, but they may come with a heaping amount of adrenaline: a surprise project, a fender bender, an unexpected bill.

Even though I should know that everything is subject to change, I catch myself thinking that things will always be the way they are now. Maybe it’s because I like “now” and it’s appealing to project it into the future. However, during times that were tougher, I worked hard to remind myself that things eventually change – it was a hope to hold onto even if I didn’t see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

When my life trundles along on the flat tracks, I sometimes forget that I’m still on a roller coaster. This week I hear the tick tick tick of the coaster cars climbing to the top of the massive wooden scaffolding. Perched at the top, the view is breathtaking, but in a moment I’ll shriek through the white-knuckle plunge towards the earth. After multiple climbs, drops and sharp turns we’ll come to a stop and the adrenaline will dissipate. And then it will start again.

Remote Possibility

IMG_4007There is a monster lurking in every modern American home. Not black mold or radon, this stealthy invader sits quietly on the coffee table and hides its true purpose by looking colorful and cute. The controller of most of our media, and often inscrutable: the remote control and its merry band of many other remote controls for all of our modern devices. When I turn the TV on, I hope to heaven it shows me what I want because I’m not sure I know which button to push.

The TV I grew up with had two and then three (!) channels. Signals were delivered through the air, so antennas on the roof and on top of the TV were critical to good reception. When we wanted to change the channel or adjust the volume there were two knobs on the TV for those purposes. The action and result were pretty straightforward.

Two developments came crashing together to give us “home entertainment” – cable TV (we didn’t have to depend on the airwaves to get good reception) and video and digital recording (now we could record programs to play anytime, or play movies we purchased). Unfortunately, these new capabilities required additional equipment to stack up around our TVs and every one of them had its own remote control. I’m not sure when manufacturers decided that remotes were the sleek way of the future, but suddenly, it seemed, we couldn’t be bothered to get up to touch anything.

A remote can open our garage door and window shades, set our thermostat, and check the surveillance video at the front door. If our appliances were newer, I think the remote could cook dinner. I can even turn my smartphone into a remote. We’re surrounded.

The TV remote should be a useful tool, but I find it enigmatic and a source of frustration. There are so many buttons that we never use. And if any of your components change, you guessed it, you get a new remote and the buttons are all different. People say that the Holy Grail is a universal remote, a “one ring to rule them all” type of device which should warn us off in the first place.

Recently faced with remotes at my mom’s house, I froze. They weren’t like ours at all, and the descriptions were only vaguely informative. I searched without success for an online guide that would tell me more than how to turn the power on and program the remote to the TV. I wanted step-by-step instructions for how to navigate from Netflix to the local NBC station, but I found nothing. After 30 minutes of trial and error, I happened upon the correct combinations, and wrote hasty notes. I really have no idea if I can perform this trick again. Maybe mom will be satisfied by watching the Weather Channel. That’s useful, right? Or maybe it’s time to read a book.

Two Steps Forward

sisyphusI have a high tolerance for repetition. I find comfort in the things that mark the seasons, the activities and tasks that come around again and again. They form a rhythm in my life, give me structure, and if I’m lucky, an opportunity to improve my skills because I’ve done it before. Occasionally I lift my eyes and question everything: am I making any progress or just running in place?

Some tasks, by their nature are never “done” – cooking, cleaning, and laundry are just part of the day. There’s that moment when the beautiful meal is served and we enjoy, and then there are dishes to wash. Our home is clean for about 5 minutes – I glance around proudly – and then life ensues. Clothes are clean and ironed, until – gasp!- we actually wear them and then they go in the hamper.

Running on the treadmill and trudging up the Stair Master at the gym are perfect examples of exerting effort while going nowhere, but I’m focused on the elusive fitness goal. I believe these activities have value because outside the gym, I can scale flights of stairs without being out of breath, and I still fit in my pants. But there’s no such thing as “achieving fitness” as a permanent end state – you have to continually work on it.

Work projects come in cycles. While the named task may be the same, the details vary each quarter, so it remains interesting. I’m on the lookout for the things that tripped me up last quarter so I can solve them this time around. Can I shorten the timeline? Can I achieve 100% accuracy? It’s good to have stretch goals.

Bill payment is a recurring reality and a mixed bag. Some things like utilities and insurance we expect to pay as long as we use them. I’d like to think I can be done with car expense when I pay off the car loan; unfortunately, as long as I use the car, there is maintenance. But the Holy Grail of home budgetry is the goal of paying off our mortgage. Imagine a life without that payment! Then I remember that there will still be our ever-inflating Chicago property tax and condo assessments. Sigh. I guess as long as we plan to live somewhere, we will have to pay for it.

So I press on. As long as I stay in motion, it’s all good. I just have to limit the pauses along the path, or it might all roll downhill.

Something in the Air

birdsI check my weather app before I head out the door (because looking out the window is so 20th century) and today’s conditions give me pause. “Unhealthy Air Quality for Sensitive Groups” it says, but I see no one with a face mask, no toxic green clouds engulfing pedestrians, nothing strange at all. But it’s spring, and no longer the 20th century – I think I know what’s going on.

A few nights ago we saw a huge black plume of smoke on the horizon, floating up and spreading in all directions. The source was a devastating factory fire that consumed the building, while all the workers got out safely. The fire’s out, but particulate matter is probably still sprinkling down in every neighborhood.

It’s starting to feel a little like spring – snowdrops and hyacinth are in bloom, bushes are starting to green, and my sinuses tell me that pollen is everywhere. I’m not an allergy sufferer usually, but the last few springs I’ve sneezed my head off. I keep a fist full of tissues at the ready.

I imagine there’s something else floating in the air that we cannot see – cell signals from every mobile phone and digital device. More people seem to have wireless ear buds now; their music and podcasts form a snaky line from their pockets to their ears. Computers in the coffee shop are sending packets of data up into the ether. Maybe in the right light we’d see bits and bytes moving like clouds of migratory birds up and over the buildings, bouncing off relays on their way to data centers.

The other thing happening this time of year is online tax filing. Now, the electronic stream becomes an ocean of information spewing from our computers; the numeric summary of our last year, zooming off for the IRS to review. And thanks to the new tax law and reduced tax withholding, I am sending more of my money to the IRS as well. Dollar bills are pumping up though our chimney flue and shooting into the sky on their way to the Cincinnati IRS office.

With all these things swirling through our atmosphere, it’s a wonder we can breathe or the sun can cast a shadow. I’ll be the crazy-looking lady waving my hand wildly in front of my face so I can see to cross the street.

Reentry

reentryEvery movie about space fixates on reentry. Is the space ship coming in at the right angle or might it bounce off the atmosphere and careen into a far corner of the cosmos? Will the capsule burn up as it comes through the atmosphere? When our plane begins its descent I try not to think about our speed as we approach the earth, or how wildly we are bouncing across the tarmac while the pilot is standing on the brakes. I’m thinking about all of the loose ends I left and how I’ll have to pick them all up again.

Vacations comes to an end, and with it, the reentry to your regular life. Unless you’ve literally been to space or the floor of the ocean, it shouldn’t be such a dramatic transition, but it’s definitely an adjustment from carefree days in the sun. It’s nice to come home after a trip and be reacquainted with familiar comforts, but memories of the prior week linger. When I wake up I’m thinking of our Barcelona apartment, our morning search for a cafe before our sightseeing, and the unique sidewalk patterns in our neighborhood.

The first morning back I’m up ridiculously early and full of energy. I zoom off to be the first person at work where I’m confronted by 172 emails. Tasks put on hold are waiting for me now. I had assembled a “to-do-when-you-get-back” list and that’s helpful, but by the afternoon, jet lag is overtaking me and all I want is to go home and sleep.

Actually, what I really want is a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in a little Barcelona cafe, with a cafe con leche and a ham and cheese sandwich. I want to peer up into the blue sky and feel the warm sun. I want to reach into my wallet and find strange currency. I want to take a long walk soaking in beautiful buildings with surprising embellishments. But these memories are fading each day.

I head home on the train looking over a gray landscape and the threat of more snow; I remember the roomy efficient Spanish trains with their “proxima” announcements for the next stop, illuminated maps that showed you where you were, and the green button you’d push to open the car door.

After a few days of regaling my co-workers with the highlights of our trip, we return to other tasks. It’s almost as if I never left, but thankfully I have oranges in the fruit bowl at home to make a glass of fresh juice.

Sun Without End

img_3748.jpgOn vacation, I try to pack for all of the alternatives. Temperatures out of the norm, torrential rains, freak snow storms. Why am I pessimistic? Because my vacations seem to attract weird weather wherever I go.

Our honeymoon in Canada in July was so cold we wore the only sweaters we packed the entire time. For a return trip for our 25th anniversary we had driving rain that soaked us from head to toe. My well documented trips with my mom seem to attract snow. Our trip to Disney with the kids was spent in ponchos (at least the lines for the rides were shorter with the rain!)

So when we planned a family vacation to Spain, I looked at the weather forecast, but didn’t believe it. Sunny and warm everyday? Clearly they don’t know I’m coming. I’m the visitor that will bring the unlikely monsoon. I set out every day in layers, but after a while under the cloudless sky, I’m peeling each piece off and reaching for the sunscreen. We tour the city and I comment on the architecture: tracery, parabolic columns, mosaics, arched window openings, ceramic capitals. These architectural incantations have been know to bring on flurries, and yet, the sky is the clearest, deepest blue I’ve ever seen.

Maybe I’ve lived in Chicago too long. I don’t expect March to be warm. Sure, the odd day may pop up into the 50s, but keep your fleece close at hand because there may be frost on the windows in the morning. Even when flowers and leaves start to peep out, I worry that they’ll get burned by a cold snap. But here in Spain, the leaves are out, there are lilacs in bloom, the ivy is fresh and green, and there are trees with oranges growing on them! People are strolling around in light dresses and shorts eating ice cream. Families and couples are enjoying the breeze off the harbor as the sun sets. It’s amazing. Maybe this is where my vacations were always meant to be. Pass the sangria and more tapas por favor!