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There’s been one thought repeating itself over and over in my head the past couple of days. It occurred to me on Wednesday as I pulled my almost thawed turkey out of the refrigerator and struggled with it in the sink. It echoed again as I sat yesterday with my family. And even today – Black Friday – it is with me. And that thought is this: it is amazing how one little (or in some cases, not so little) turkey can bring people together. Of course there is that saying that “if you feed them, they will come.” I believe that’s true. But if you think about the number of Sunday dinners you’ve missed, the number of times you’ve skipped a meal to do something that seemed a little more important, I think you’ll have to agree with me that there is something about the turkey that’s magical. Because, after all, to skip the turkey would be almost unheard of, right? I mean, you’d almost have to be on your deathbed to call your family and say, “Hey…you know what? I’m gonna skip it this year.”
So why is that? What is it about this one meal, once a year, that beckons Americans to a table with people they may only see once or twice a year? I think the answer is simple: tradition. And so I’ve also been carrying around another thought this week. Actually, it is more of an emotion than a thought. It is a profound worry that as a society, we are ambushing our traditions and shortchanging ourselves in the process. And I think we are all aware that it’s happening.
Think about this: Labor Day comes and the summer is over. But then, BAM! Before we know it, Halloween candy is lining the shelves of our grocery stores and costume shops are popping up in strip malls. And while we are running our credit cards through a machine to pay for the sugar, retailers are already putting up turkeys and advertising cranberry sauce. We are preparing our Thanksgiving dinner to the sound of Christmas carols (OK, that last one is kind of nice). And now, we are shopping on Thanksgiving night as if a month is not enough time to purchase all the gifts we’ve convinced ourselves are necessary to adorn the bottom of the tree. A lot of people comment about this rush. Many share my concern. And yet, it continues to happen, every year at a more alarming rate. If we’re not careful, we may someday see Santa abandon his winter apparel for a sexy little ensemble from Fredrick’s of Hollywood, and “Ho, ho, ho” could easily turn into a new Valentine’s Day slogan.
Tonight, I will warm up the Thanksgiving leftovers and we will again enjoy all the fixings. It will be delicious. Some even say that the leftovers “are the best part.” Maybe that’s because for one more moment, they allow me to hold onto the tradition… to savor not only the taste of Thanksgiving, but the feeling it gives me to gather with those I love. The leftovers remind me that someone spent an entire day preparing for my arrival. I can recall how beautifully the table was set, as if I were a very special guest. And the smell in the house will make me feel more at home than any present under the tree this holiday season. What will be “leftover” will be my feeling of connectedness…to my family…to my friends…to all those I love.
Amazing what one little turkey can do.
Today was “Bring Your Dog to Work” day in my office. Yes, you heard correctly: bring your DOG. When the opportunity to bring our four-legged friends to work was announced, there was a variety of responses. Some said, “How fun!” Some said, “That will be interesting.” Some said nothing, just grumbling under their breath (these are obviously not the dog owners). And others commented, “Guess there won’t be much work actually happening.”
As the mom of two pugs (Calvin and Lucy), I had no hesitation about bringing my pups to the office. Did it disrupt my day? Of course it did. Did I have to take more potty breaks than usual? Yes. Did I get any work done? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
You see, not one of us could honestly say that we got the normal amount of work done on a day when wagging tails and slobbery kisses dominated the workplace. We’d be lying if we claimed that the presence of dogs – of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions – didn’t change the dynamic in the office. But what I can say for sure is that the KIND of work that happened today probably did more for long-term productivity than anything we could have trained on or studied.
That last statement was a bold one. But here’s why I make it: If you came into my office today, what you would have observed were people engaged with each other around something they hold in common. As we guarded our pups, carefully watching to ensure that they “played nice with each other,” we, too, learned to engage with each other in new ways. We were all reduced to a common level (figuratively and literally) as we crouched down to pet, nurture, and play with dogs. We shared stories, we extended care, and we spoke in voices that are usually reserved for home. From the CEO and down through the ranks, our shared goal was to get a tail wagging. It was team building at its finest.
And if you watched the dogs, the lessons were obvious:
1. Be inquisitive. Poking your nose into a situation isn’t always the best idea, but give something a good sniff to see if you can somehow be useful. You might just learn something new.
2. Be brave. New situations or environments can be scary. But sometimes it takes just a little bit of courage to realize a new home away from home.
3. Know when to back down. You can continue to make your point until others consider you to be obnoxious. Sometimes, taking the less dominant position wins you greater reward.
4. Use positive reinforcement. Everyone likes a little praise. Be sure to give others a pat on the back every now and again.
5. Ask for what you want (or need). Sometimes, the best approach is a direct one. Others cannot read your mind or automatically know what you need to be successful or happy. Before you give up and just pee on the rug, be sure others know what you need.
6. Be enthusiastic about the simple things. Your energy will be contagious to others.
Of course I don’t think bringing a dog to work everyday is a good idea. I am honestly exhausted tonight. But I don’t think it’s because I had to manage two pugs in the workplace. I believe it is because I spent the day engaged with other people, getting to know about them and sharing something about myself. No matter where you work or in what industry, isn’t it always the relationship building that takes the most effort? Collaboration is hard. Who would have guessed that 15 dogs of different breeds and backgrounds could show us how it’s done? Maybe “going to the dogs” isn’t such a bad thing after all.
(My female pug, Lucy, is pictured above. She is obviously a go-getter in the office. Calvin takes a more casual attitude about work.)
This morning, I went to the funeral of a 45-year-old woman. She was a wife, a mother, a best friend, a PTO leader, a community activist, and a beautiful person. The church was standing room only, filled with people whose lives she touched – either every day or tangentially. There was not a dry eye there.
The service was a typical Catholic mass. All the expected parts were there. But I also found something unexpected.
I went to the church with a friend (don’t we all need friends in times like this?). Although we arrived more than half an hour early, there were very few seats open. As we discussed just standing in the back, the priest announced that there were, in fact, a number of open seats in the front. Of course there were. No one likes to sit in the front. But, familiar with the length of a Catholic mass, my friend and I abandoned our decision to “just stand” and made our way forward. The front pew was – sure enough – wide open. Granted, it was a side pew (the seating was sort of in the shape of an octagon around the altar), but nonetheless, there we were. Right in the front.
Our unobstructed view soon revealed two things for us:
1. The faces of the congregation all around us were clearly visible; and
2. That included the faces of immediate family: a husband and three grieving children.
I found myself unable to look away from them. The children sobbed on and off throughout the mass… sometimes prompted by obvious moments of reflection, and sometimes from what appeared to be a more private memory of their mom. But their dad stood stoic, strong and unshaken. He was a beacon for them. He held his son’s hand for almost the entire mass. And when his daughters broke into tears, he pulled them into him as they nuzzled their heads into his chest. He looked ahead, a blank face with eyes often diverted to the floor. One thought occurred to me – and sticks with me still. This man not only has to grieve the loss of his wife – his best friend, but he has to watch his children grieve. And I’m guessing that at some point (probably many times a day), he has to try to find words to help usher them through their grief while band-aiding his own. In the next day, the next week, the next year, he will be called upon to demonstrate character…to be stronger, better, wiser than he ever dreamed.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Character develops itself in the stream of life.” But, does it take death for us to truly realize a person’s fortitude? What’s likely is that we don’t really think about it until death comes. We go along with our own lives and sometimes even take for granted the kindness, generosity, and selflessness of others.
But I have to wonder. If we would more often choose the front seat – the one with the unobstructed view – what would we see? My guess is that we would see beacons of character rising all around us, beckoning each of us to be greater than we ever thought we could.
(In memory of Jennifer Stagnaro)
Almost into the office this morning, I came to a familiar corner with a 4-way stop sign. I will premise this story by saying that I’ve always thought – and often commented – that 4-way stop signs are a bigger hazard than they are worth. This morning’s incident only reinforced that conviction for me.
The stop this morning started without incident. The cars in front of me rolled forward and stopped, as did the cars at the other three points of the intersection. And then in sequence, each driver took his turn. It was all perfectly timed and expertly maneuvered. But soon the exact time of arrival and departure was thrown out of sequence when one of the cars arrived just a little later than the others. The driver looked left and looked right. No one moved. So the driver proceeded to make his left turn. At the exact moment he took his action, a large pickup truck to the left also decided it was time to move straight through the intersection.
Gasp! Whew. Accident avoided. But what came next was perhaps more shaking to me than a collision would have been.
The driver in the faded red pickup truck laid on his horn as if he were announcing a grave emergency. And then, in one quick swoop, thrust his middle finger up in the air at his fellow driver. Separated by closed windows in different cars, I obviously couldn’t hear the actual sound indicated by his moving mouth, but as clearly as I now hear the radio in my office, I heard an abrasive “efff you” roll from his tongue.
I wonder who that driver was. I wonder if he was already having a rough morning, or, for that matter, a rough life. I wonder if he’s ever taken a turn that wasn’t his. My guess is that he has.
And I wonder if the other driver was as offended as I was. My guess is that she was not; that she just continued on her way. Maybe during the course of her day, she stopped to comment about how rude that pickup driver was to her. Maybe she didn’t think about it at all.
All of this morning’s events led me think about the turns I have taken in life: a turn to be happy, a turn to be sad. I’ve taken a turn to celebrate and a turn to mourn. I have had my turn in the spotlight and I have spent time in the dark, feeling less than wonderful about myself. I believe that people have given up their turn for me from time to time and I know that I have also volunteered to go last for someone else’s benefit.
But I’m left wondering about that middle finger. And every day when I turn that corner, I will wonder if having the right of way is worth that kind of compromise to character. If we have to insult another to take our turn, might it just warrant a second of pause to ask “Who’s turn is it anyway?”
This is my first blog post here on “Characteristically Speaking.” And so, you may wonder about the name. As I considered names, I read many articles that talked about the best ways to name a blog. If you know me, you know I do my research. Some suggested using your name in a playful way. Other suggested teaming up words that represent your interests. Other just said to be creative. So, all that considered, I thought about why I’m even starting a blog. You can read more about that under the “About” section of this site. But about the name: Have you ever heard the saying, “He’s/She’s quite a character!” That was my inspiration.
As a writer, the characters I develop live with me. From the time they are “born,” until well after a book breathes life on a shelf (virtual or otherwise), the characters I create become a part of me. I hear their voices (I know it sounds crazy) and I consider my decisions based on what they would do. And while my characters appear in works of fiction, all of them have pieces of real people in them. The most interesting characters, in my opinion, are those who are complex, who don’t fall into a mold, and who surprise us (sometimes even me). Every interaction I have with people has the potential to help me build a character. And so, this blog will reflect on the characters I meet … and the characters I create. I hope you find them as entertaining, as lovable, as shocking, and as grotesque as I do. I look forward to hearing from you. Your input and reactions may just shape the next main character!