Monday, January 28, 2013

The inexcusable behavior of strangers

Several years ago, I was shopping along a busy street in Portsmouth with a friend when we passed a parked car which had been left running with the windows cracked. Inside, a three or four-year-old girl climbed around on the seats, over and around  the console. All her little light-up sneaker had to do was hit the shift to send the car in motion. 

Without thinking, I tried the door. Locked.

"I'm waiting for the driver," I told my friend.

We stood by the car like sentries, hoping we'd discover that the driver had made a quick run into the dry cleaner, maybe an ATM stop.  The little girl inside the car waved at us.

More than ten minutes went by. My face got warm, my pulse quickened and I knew I was going to initiate something in the next couple of minutes that would be unpleasant.  I suggested to my friend that if a confrontation would make her uncomfortable, she should find something else to do for a moment.

"Are you kidding?" she said,  "I'm not going anywhere."

After several more moments, the stranger exited a Starbucks -  grande in hand -  and I stepped toward her.

"Excuse me," I said. She was startled. "I can't believe you left this child in a running car. What would you have done if she'd put the car in gear?"

The woman ignored me, and searched for her keys.

"We've been standing here waiting for you, and it's actually been over fifteen minutes," I said.

The stranger, rummaging still, said, "The line was long."

"She could have put your car in gear! Or climbed out of the car!" I said.

A little crowd  had gathered and my friend filled them in. Then there was whispering, "What?!" "You're kidding!" "Really?!" "That's inexcusable!" Someone blurted out,  "You don't deserve to be a mother!" and another said, "Some women never get the privilege you know!"  

It was turning into Lord of the Flies with mothers. Without responding, the woman got in her car and drove away, while I considered how crowd-think had ruined my perfectly good intentions.

A few years later, I watched a woman attempt to herd several teenagers through their back to school shopping.  They were raucous and silly and she was already on edge when she came in the store . In only moments one of the teens did something  that  pushed her too far and she began to scream and swear at them.

"Get the f*** in that f****** room before I kick your ass!!"

My face got warm, my pulse quickened and I knew I was going to initiate something in the next couple of minutes that would be unpleasant and so I suggested to my daughter that if a confrontation would make her uncomfortable, she should wait outside. She was gone before I  finished my sentence.

At the counter, quietly, I said to the woman, "I want you to know I am appalled by how you spoke to those kids.  I can only imagine how you talk to them at home." She turned, looked me over, and snorted, "Oh! Really? You're appalled." I thought she might hit me. The teenagers circled like a gang of dogs and when she let loose with a profanity laced rant about people like me who didn't know how to mind their own business in their little worlds where nobody says bad things, they laughed.

Later on, I thought it over.  At arguably some risk, I accomplished nothing. In fact, rather  than inspire this woman to reflect on her inexcusable behavior, I supplied her with a story to tell her friends back in the other little world where they do say bad things.

I vowed never to approach a stranger again on another stranger's behalf. 

I made good on this two nights ago.

I watched a man pull into a handicap parking space , hop from the car, and not walk, not limp, but jog into the restaurant.  Upsetting , yes, but maybe, I thought,  he'd been handicapped until recently and just wasn't anymore and so I checked. Nothing. No placard, no plate.

He just didn't want to look further for a space.

Inside my brother waited to meet me. He suffers from a lung disease which requires him to use oxygen almost all of the time and has a placard hanging from the rear view mirror which he finds humiliating.  Had he not been dropped off,  had he arrived after the man took the space, he would have had to circle endlessly for another or go home.

I watched the man park and leave his car but I said nothing. After I found my own space and went into the restaurant I saw him sitting in a booth behind my brother, and still, I said nothing. Nothing about how those spaces are for others who face greater struggles than limited parking. Nothing about how an unavailable space could spell  the end of the evening for someone who has just spent the day indoors. I said none of those things.

For two reasons: First, because unlike the situation in Portsmouth, there was not a specific victim of this man's bad behavior in sight, only potential ones.  I had no doubt that, had I'd seen him taking the space as my brother was rounding the corner, I would have spoken up. But in this situation,  it was a principle I would have been defending more than a person.

Second, had I approached the man and been met with a response like the mall-woman's it would have ruined dinner for both me and my brother, something we both look forward to each week.

And so, with little reason to act other than to defend my own principles, or the dignity of another who deserves respectful, humane treatment, I said nothing.

And when people learn to need reasons  greater than defending their own principles and standing up for others, to be sure, they will do it less.

And that is inexcusable.

It's wonderful to learn things that will solve problems in the future. After the questions I have asked myself in the aftermath of acting, versus failing to act as I should, I know this:  I may have other dilemmas in the future, but I won't have that one. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Five Minutes

Another little story about getting started on a Big Goal and then I'll talk about something else.

A while back, my daughter, a violist who seeks to perform with a major orchestra, who was moving away from her friends at the time, who had been experiencing crappy luck with auditions, who was worried about money, and who was exhausted after a busy season teaching very small children to play the violin told me she'd had it. "I don't even practice anymore," she said. 

The "anymore" referred to days, thankfully, and not months. 


Big dreams aside, active musicians, like all artists, must practice every day to not only  hone their skills but to stay connected to themselves.  I suggested an approach to help her hop back on the horse and a couple of weeks later she was out of her funk.

I would like to take credit for the suggestion but it was offered to me by my sister-in-law Christine, after our youngest was born and I had fallen into a stretch of such fatigue, I actually dozed in the shower, twice. I  spent all of my time looking forward to bedtime and was on the edge of tears constantly. If it wasn't post-partum depression at that moment, it promised to develop into one.

At the time, Christine was a personal trainer or in the process of becoming one. "Why aren't you exercising?" she asked.

"I'm planning to," I said.

"If it were your child who needed it, you'd find a way. It's just as important for your own health."

But it was hard, I explained, to be up at night with the baby, taking care of the other three, feeding everyone, getting them out the door to school, etc. The thought of putting on workout clothes and lifting weights just made me feel guilty and irritable.

"So," I said, "I will when there's time."

Tell a fitness zealot something like that and they will respond by offering you a solution that you can have in place before dinner.

"Do what I do," she said. "On days when I feel gross or tired or just not into exercising, I give myself five minutes. That's all. That's enough. I figure if I go through the prep to do something and want to quit after five minutes, it's fine. I just make it a goal to start.   I have yet to not finish my workout."

I took her advice. Five minutes a day became ten, then  twenty, then thirty. Days became weeks and it's now been over a decade since I wondered how to fit this into my life.   

We all do this, become enamored of a goal that we picture in its finished form. Eventually we think about the work that's required to get there  and if that isn't overwhelming enough, the distance  between  then and now  is defeating.  We don't abandon the goal, we just don't start.

My Big Goal of finding an agent requires a series of tasks - readying a manuscript, submitting and editing it and starting all over again. It will take great patience and perseverance and there are times when I'd rather do laundry. Or load the dishwasher.  Or call Bank of America for any reason. I use the five minute approach to get to the page, but I've modified it in that I quit after five minutes whether I want to or not. Very soon my eagerness to do more takes over, and my project and I trot off on our horse together.

Identify the tiny little attainable  goals that comprise the larger ones, pick one and resolve to give it five minutes every single day. You'll  train yourself to stay on course, you'll feel a sense of accomplishment in spite of yourself - knowing it's more, and not less, that you can accomplish.

To our minds and our bodies and more important, to our self-respect, it's critical to feel we're moving toward something. The  goal of starting, rather than finishing, works.

Five minutes.   You can do anything for five minutes, and more.

Monday, January 7, 2013

When good advice is bad for you

It's only been 2013 for a few days and I wonder how many people have already veered away from their resolutions to change everything from their hair color to their marital status.

I have a  theory about why this happens to dreams and plans - the big and the little -  but first, a little story about imagination and knowledge featuring Reality, Romance and Capacity.  

I dream of one thing other than being a better person, parent, spouse, friend, sibling,  daughter and politically informed citizen and that is to publish a novel. Before I knew better, here is  what I thought I had to do:
Write a story I'd like to read myself, send it out and figure out who would play my characters in the movie.
"Guess what I'm doing?" I said to my friends.

Like everyone else who had this idea before me, I read Stephen King's "On Writing" for inspiration. Yes, I thought, I could do 1000 words a day. Five pages, give or take? Sure. Others would take it from there.

They are called literary agents, I learned.

And then, while I was still honeymooning with my dream I learned that:

Writers often write and submit multiple novels before they get published
...get rejected hundreds of times before they get published
... need to be published before  they get published.
... need to read the authors represented by their target agents
... have a website and a following
... join writer groups
...attend conferences
...and probably will not get published

Everything I wanted would  take years of preparation,  practice and patience in addition to those 1000 words a day. And then, it was only possible that I'd find an agent and even less possible that the book would sell.  

Hello Reality, here is my friend Romance. I don't believe you've met.

I sulked for awhile, then I got busy. Then I got serious.

A couple of years later, when I was not even close to finding an agent and predictably discouraged, I met Capacity when an author-friend told me that if I were really serious, I would be sending out fifty manuscripts a week. I would be following through with emails. I would be chatting up agents at conferences and writing an article here and there to submit to four or five national newspapers. Maybe lobbying the local newspaper for a regular column.

If I were serious.

At the time I had four children at home who needed rides and dinners and counsel and clean clothes, and the thought of managing such a crazy-ass number of submissions stunned me into silence. 

Worse, it made me question my drive instead of respecting my capacity.

It isn't that we don't need solid experts who can tell us just how monumental our goals are.  Or that husbands, friends, parents and children should not give you constructive advice.  The thing is  the timing of it. We seek input when we're unsure, just as our instincts are beginning to speak to us, when we aren't quite aware of our financial and emotional limits and when we  need to imagine more than we need to know.  With help from loved ones or from experts at the wrong time,  it's easy to confuse "naive" with wrong.

And give up.

The early life of a dream is like these first days of 2013 when you are still imagining the great things that lie ahead. Your enthusiasm is fresh and spirited and will urge  you from bed in the morning  like a puppy who needs to go. This is not when to broadcast. This is when to protect your dream, plan for it, learn what's involved and then figure out what you can do about it at a pace that fits into your life .

Capacity is a real thing and not only crazy-ass ambitious people make dreams come true.

So dream your dream and visualize your goal and  understand what you're taking on. But do not fail to understand that all you can do - is enough.  Do not fail to understand that if you can't do as much as some, your commitment and patience will bring you to the same party, if a bit later on.


When you do go public, be ready to hear good advice, all well-intentioned, all steeped in realism - the antidote to a dream - and prepare to ignore it.  Because nothing will kill a dream, plan, resolution, goal, idea faster than listening to others instead of that little voice inside who was there first. 

Be serious about your dreams. 
Every single day, do what you can. 
You'll get there.