Triage

I do not have precognitive abilities of any sort. What I have is an awareness of the many things in my life that are undone or have been poorly managed and an ever-present sense of doom because it’s all going to come unraveled some day, isn’t it? I cannot possibly address all the things that cause me to worry in the few hours I have available each day, so as emergencies arise I make choices. Triage. Mostly I live with low-level anxiety that occasionally peaks in the middle of the night, causing me to wake up, heart racing, panicking about something I cannot or will not take care of in the middle of the night. Pointless adrenaline.

When our second child was two years old, we bought three betta fish from the pet store. Each boy got a fish tank in his room and the adults had one for the living area. The boys’ two bettas died shortly after acquisition due to childish overfeeding and general lack of parental oversight. Though his living situation was barely better, the adult-owned fish, Prince (the Purple One), survived for many years. Prince the fish weathered abominable tank conditions, periods of feast and famine, and road trips for at least three family vacations where we could not find a fish-sitter. I never woke up panicked at the thought of Prince dying, but many a night I took a look at his dirty little tank, sighed a heavy sigh, and went to bed with a quick prayer that he would survive until morning. He did, for five years. Last week our oldest son sprinkled food in his bowl and realized the stiff little guy was no more. Only his plastic plant had kept him from bobbing to the surface, belly-up. His tank was decently clean and there were no signs of foul play. It was just his time.

Nevertheless, Prince’s demise heightened my usual sense of impending doom. I’d been waiting five years for that fish to kick the bucket. Now that he had, my fears were validated! See — he did die! Never mind that he lived a year past the average life span of a betta, he was dead! Thus my worries about our poor fish parenting confirmed. Which worry would come to fruition next?

Cue our desktop computer, older than the fish and, though better cared for, still ever on its last legs in my mind. Once in a while it becomes non-responsive when left idle and has to be manually restarted. Frequently, it is so slow in accomplishing tasks that I wonder if it’s taking a nap. I try to walk away for a minute or two and come back rather than sit and fume at the screen. A few nights ago it was non-responsive and came back up in a halting, maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t way upon forced reboot.

My writing, small amount that it is, is backed up on a flash drive. Most of the software on the computer we either don’t need or could easily replace. But the pictures! Six years of digital pictures only patchily backed up in other places. I had been meaning to buy an external hard drive for more than a year to back up the pictures, but had never gotten around to it.

With the betta in our freezer on my mind, when the computer stalled and stuttered I thought, “This is it! This machine is going to die tonight and I will lose everything!” I packed up my youngest son and hustled off to Target to buy an external hard drive at 9:30 PM.

I should pause here to explain about the gas station. I drive a 1999 Nissan Maxima that used to be my father’s. The Maxima is lovely inside, with leather heated seats, but has at least three dents and a noticeable scrape of white paint from another car on its exterior. During the past few months, I’ve been approached twice at the local gas station by a man who runs a “mobile auto-body-repair service” and will hammer out those dents for me right now, for a very small fee, if I’ll follow him down the street. Both times I’ve politely refused. (This is creepier in the retelling than it was as it happened. I think he just wants to fix my car for cash, not kidnap me. Probably.) The second time it happened, when I got home I asked my husband if he ever had people randomly offer to fix his car when he was at that particular gas station. He has not, but twice he’s had guys knock on our door and offer to buy the non-running beater car in our driveway for cash and/or trade, and he went through a 10-year period where people were constantly trying to sell him speakers out of the back of vans.

Back to Target. My son and I wandered the aisles for a few minutes, but it was late and I didn’t want to take too long, so I asked for help. The clerk walked me to the external hard drives, answered my one question, and walked away. Up came a guy in a leather jacket who had been hanging out in the aisle waiting for prey. He pointed to a 1TB drive on sale.

“That’s a good deal,” he said, “What do you need it for?”

“Backing up my desktop.”

“How big is it?”

“I don’t know.” The computer is old and was never top-of-the-line, so there’s no way its hard drive is a Terabyte. Besides, I mostly just needed the photos. But I didn’t say this, so he assumed I’d wandered into the computer section unprepared.

“Is it an old computer?” he asked.

“Yes, at least five years old. There’s no way in hell it’s a Terabyte. Oh- sorry.” Why did I apologize to him for swearing? Why was I still talking to this guy?

He graciously inclined his head, my faux pas forgiven. “You know,” he said, “I could back this up for you. I have a business fixing computers; I could give you my business card.”

“I’m here now because I need to back it up tonight. I’m afraid the computer is about to die.”

“That bad?” he asked. He started to tell me what to do with my computer: turn it off if it’s going to overheat. If it does die, don’t throw it away; take the hard disk to a professional who can save it for me . . .

I interrupted. “I thought I’d buy this, take it home tonight, and copy the photos I want to save onto it myself.”

“You could do that, but it might be tricky. What are you running?”

“Vista.”

“Hmmm, permissions could be a problem.”

“I have administrator privileges on my own computer. I set it up, after all.”

“Oh. You’ll be fine, then.”

“Yeah.”

“Go! Buy that, go back it up!” He waved me away with a ridiculous air of authority. Did the guy just hang out in Target, pretending to be in charge? What did the employees think?

At home I told my husband this story and concluded by saying, “I can’t decide if he’s an opportunist, like the gas station guy, or if it was because I’m a woman. You know, like I’m baffled by the confusing computer parts and should be grateful for his manly assistance.”

My husband laughed. “Good thing I wasn’t the one buying the back-up drive. I might have taken his card.”

I opened the tiny slip of paper with three-step, picture-only directions for using the hard drive and showed them to him. Step 1: connect the hard drive to the computer. Step 2: run the wizard. Step 3: for more information, look at the instruction booklet or go online.

“This is what he was going to charge me to set up. This.” I shook my head and went to plug the thing in.

Emergency Preparedness

We were standing in the kitchen one night after the kids had gone to bed. My husband leaned back against the sink and asked, “You wanna tell me why there’s an apocalypse’s worth of bottled water in the trunk of your car?”

“It was on sale.”

He looked at me.

“It was on sale. It was ‘10 for $10;’ I bought ten.”

“Ten gallons of water.”

I shrugged. “We’ve talked about this: I was raised to be prepared. I’m not prepared. It makes me nervous. This seemed like something I could do; a small thing.” I sighed and waved my hand in the air, trying to push it away. “Look, it’s the Mormon in me and there was a sale, OK? It’s that simple.”

“We have talked about this. If something happens, I will loot the neighbors.” He said this in a reassuring tone, as if to show he had everything under control.

I scoffed. “You say that. That’s not a plan.”

“It is a plan! It’s my plan. Looting.”

I rolled my eyes at him and tried not to giggle.

“Where are you going to keep ten gallons of bottled water? You’re not putting that in my garage.”

“Well, maybe we could keep five gallons in your car and five in my car. Then, if something happened while you were out with the kids, you’d have water.”

“I’m not driving around with five gallons of water in my car. If something happens on the road, I will loot other motorists.”

I started to laugh.

He held up his hands and finished the conversation with, “Looting: that’s my plan. It’s the Catholic in me.”

The Nuclear Bomb of Personal Change

I turned 40 earlier this month. That same week, NPR ran a story saying studies have shown people don’t anticipate how much they will change in the decade ahead – their opinions, beliefs, personality traits – even when they acknowledge how much they’ve changed in the past. We can’t imagine our future selves as being much different from our present selves. I immediately thought, “Well, it depends on the decade, doesn’t it? I changed much more in the decade from 20-30 than I did from 30-40.”

During the decade of my 20s, I lived in 8 different homes and worked at 9 different jobs. I also:

  • Dropped out of college and went back again.
  • Walked away from the religion of my upbringing.
  • Graduated college.
  • Moved 900 miles away from where I had grown up.
  • Got divorced.
  • Began my career in Human Resources.
  • Explored new spiritual paths.
  • Went back to school (for HR).
  • Got married.
  • Suffered a pregnancy loss.
  • Bought my first house.

That decade was a whirlwind of change. In comparison, in my boring-and-stable 30s, I remained married, changed jobs once, moved once (28 miles away), and suffered another pregnancy loss . . . which reminds me . . . I also had three kids.

BOOM. Parenthood is the nuclear bomb of personal change. How have I not seen that?

I’m so used to thinking of a few years in my 20s as “when I changed” that I haven’t thought much about how I’ve changed since that time. Oh, I’m the first to tell an expectant mom how hard it is to have a newborn, or what that postpartum time is really like — yes, I’m that woman — and I think those sentimental Johnson & Johnson commercials are spot-on. I’ll tell anyone who might listen that having kids changes your life, but somehow I thought I was still basically the same person.

How I spend my time and money? Completely changed. Priorities? Completely changed. The ability to have any time to myself? Nearly annihilated. And I think I haven’t changed much?

There was a moment in 2003 that I will never forget, even as other significant memories from that year fade. We’d been home from the hospital with our oldest child for about two days. Our newborn didn’t eat well, breastfeeding was extremely challenging, and it felt like he rarely slept more than 20 minutes at a time. I had finally gotten him to sleep in his bassinette and stumbled out into the living room, where my husband was folding a mountain of miniature laundry. I sank into the chair, stared at him and said, “What the hell did we do? We’re completely responsible for another human being. Us.”

My husband had been ahead of me on this realization curve. He said, “I know! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

You don’t ease into parenting, no matter how prepared you think you are. The only way is headfirst into the deep end of the pool. Trying not to drown for ten years changes a person fundamentally. My present self and my 30-year-old self would likely have as unsettling and disconnected a conversation as my 30-year-old self would have had with my 20-year-old self.

I can only imagine (and studies say not very well) what changes the next ten years will bring.

The best story from our vacation

We’re driving on I-70 through central Utah, on our way back from a family wedding in Grand Junction, Colorado. Along this route are several scenic view stops, none of which have safety rails or fences. There’s no “nanny state” in Utah – I guess they figure that if you don’t have enough sense to stay away from the edge of a cliff, you deserve to fall off.

Our boys are ages 9, 5, and 2. At half of the stops I stay in the car with the 2-year-old because I’d rather miss the view than try to keep our Little Explorer from running away to his death. One of the safer-looking stops has an expanse of sandstone before the drop-off to the road, so we all get out and look around. The boys watch an anthill for a while and my husband takes pictures of the view. No one goes near the edge of anything.

Then it’s time to get back in the car. The two-year-old needs a diaper change. We’ve been changing him on the front passenger seat of our Toyota Sequoia. My husband says he’ll get the front seat ready if I get the diaper bag out of the back. Fair enough. Once I’m around the back, however, I realize that the enormous SUV now blocks our view of the boys, who were walking back to the car with us. The older boys are fine, but I know that baby can’t be trusted to come along quietly. Why did I let my guard down?

I have to take two steps before I can see around the side of the car. What I see is my 2-year-old’s backside as he runs as fast as he can away from us, towards freedom. Towards the edge of the sandstone ledge. I scream his name, throw the diaper bag back into the car and take off running. From the front of the car, my husband realizes what is happening and follows suit. We are both running as fast as we can from the edges towards a center point: our Little Explorer, joyously free of parental restraint. I yell, “Stop! Stop!” but the disobedient little cuss doesn’t even slow down. Soon I realize that I will reach him before he reaches the edge of the cliff and my panic shifts to anger.

We do not normally spank our children, but as I run, staring at him, I know that I will wale on this kid once he is safely in my arms. He knows not to run away from us! All vacation we have been telling him to stay close to us, to hold our hands, not to run away – and here he is nearly getting himself killed. All my adrenaline channels into fiery indignation: I am tired of being ignored. I am parental justice, hear me roar!

I reach the baby before my husband does. I grab his arms firmly and look up to find my husband. He is stopped a couple of yards away, with the most ridiculous expression of comic shock on his heavily-bearded face. His mouth forms a tiny “o” of surprise. He is pulling up his shorts. They fell down while he was running.

We both start laughing; loudly, a touch crazily. If other tourists weren’t watching our scene before, they are now. I stop laughing and attempt to scold the baby, but it’s no good. My rage has evaporated. The best I can manage is “No! Don’t run away! When Mommy says stop, stop!” I pick him up and we are laughing again on our way back to the car.

There are very few moments in my life I wish had been videotaped, but this is one of them. Panicked parents, a toddler in peril, and a grown man’s pants falling down? Comedy gold.

The Little Explorer in question, one of his older brothers, and me at a different viewpoint.

Empathy

Last week I did this thing – this big thing, which I was anxious about, and had to psych myself up for – and it was hard. I hated it. When it was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment and relief. A few people congratulated me, or said they were proud or impressed. A friend asked me to write about it.

I didn’t do anything important or impressive.

I went without food or water for 15 hours. I participated in a one-day fast with other non-Muslim folks in order to experience what our Muslim friends do every day during the month of Ramadan. That part was cool. Joining others in a new experience, learning about Ramadan, taking another step towards human understanding (regardless of religion or culture) – those things are important, and it was a valuable experience for me.

But my one-day, voluntary fast? I can’t be proud of such a meager feat. I chose to go through my day without food or water, but I was surrounded by it. I could have poured myself a glass of filtered water in my air-conditioned office building at any time. My huge accomplishment boils down to skipping a few meals and resisting snacks from the staff table, for one day. During Ramadan, Muslims do this for 30 days. In a row. In some countries women do it wearing burkas in 100+ degree heat.

I’m not saying it was easy for me. The hardest part going without water; I have never been so thirsty. Physically, the biggest lesson I learned that day was I need water. I don’t need snacks, or the second breakfast I typically eat at my desk, or even (though I hate to say it) coffee, but I need water. By the afternoon I found it very difficult to concentrate. If I couldn’t drink or eat, then all I wanted to do was sleep. It was a hierarchy-of-needs experience. My husband called to see how I was doing and at the end of our conversation, he said, “I’m guessing Ramadan is not a real productive time.” (If my one-day experience is any indication, no, it’s not. However, I’ve heard that once your body adapts to fasting things go more smoothly.)

Intellectually and emotionally, the biggest lesson I learned that day was what real hunger and thirst feel like. When I say, “I have never been so thirsty” it’s not a figure of speech; it’s literal truth. Before last week, I had never, not once in 38 years, gone 15 waking hours without a beverage. Before last week I had never gone 15 waking hours without eating. On and off throughout the day I thought, “There are people who live like this every day.” At 2:00 PM when my brain was foggy, I thought about kids in school too hungry to learn and I almost cried. Now I have an inkling, just an inkling, of what that must be like. This is why schools in poor areas have free breakfast programs – or did, the last time I paid attention. Maybe they’ve been cut from the budget.

I’ve never been against school breakfast or free lunch programs, but I’ve never been actively for them, either. Suddenly now I want to make sure my taxes go to these programs. Please, take a little bit of my money and use it to feed children so that they can pay attention to math and reading.

For 15 hours last week my empathy muscles got a workout while my stomach took a break. At the end of the day, a good friend who had also fasted and I broke our fast in an Italian restaurant. We talked and laughed, drank and ate together until past closing time. She kindly drove me to my car so I wouldn’t have to walk five blocks alone in the dark.

On Twitter I’ll sometimes see the hashtag “#firstworldproblems.” It’s a joke; a self-deprecating nod to how good one has it tacked on to the end of a tweet complaining about the barista messing up one’s coffee order. That’s what having to walk five blocks alone in the dark after a restaurant meal with a friend is: a first-world problem. That’s what a self-imposed 15-hour fast is, too.

Do you remember?

Katherine is a teenager in Texas who has been my Twitter friend for almost three years. She is in the final stretch of her Senior year and wrote a fantastic “day in the life” blog post today that you should read if you, like me, are not a teenager. Especially if you (like me) peeled out from the driveway of your own teen years as quickly as possible.

There is a writers’ maxim that writing about the specific makes one’s story universal. I’m 20 years older than Katherine; when I graduated high school in 1991 a different (much shorter) war was ending (and if I had to see one more yellow ribbon anywhere I was sure I was going to puke). I was in Utah, not Texas, and the details of my life were different. The details don’t matter here, because it felt the same: suspended, waiting for this farce to end and “real life” to begin.

That last stretch of school took for – ev – er . . . until it was suddenly over.

Hang in the air with Katherine from tinytowntexas for a moment, and remember your own stagnant Spring:

A day in the life.
The substitute in my first period class reads aloud a Bible verse in an attempt to make sense of recent news. She apologizes afterward. The bell that marks the passing of class periods has been turned off for the sake of AP testing and the weather dips into the fifties, which would leave the student population off-kilter on any normal day. This isn’t any normal day . . . .

Some questions answer themselves

Last night I was complaining to my husband that my latest Women of HR post only had one comment while the post before it had 15.

“. . .Of course,” I continued, “the post before it was about authenticity in social media — being read by a bunch of people who participate in social media –and my post is about systems theory, using a dental practice as an example.”

He looked at me. “Uh-huh.”

In case you’d like to read it anyway (and I hope you do), here’s the link:

The Tale of Discount Dental

At work we offer two dental plans. The first one is the plan you hear jaunty radio ads for; the name-brand plan. Nearly all of our employees choose it. The second plan is the discount, HMO-type dental plan that yeah, we offer, but very few employees select. The second plan has a bad reputation . . .

Writing for my work self

I am proud to be among the contributing writers for the Women of HR blog. It’s a wonderful site run by some smart, funny women I first met two or three years ago on Twitter. (There are a ton of fabulous HR professionals on Twitter.) They’ve run two of my pieces so far and I expect another one to go up in about three weeks.

It’s been a change for me to write about Human Resources, because I usually write to escape Human Resources as a self-definition. I’ve heard that in Jane Austen’s time it was considered terribly rude to ask what one did for a living and that’s one of the few things I wish had survived from those days.

I’m not ashamed of the work I do, don’t get me wrong – HR is important and most of the time, I think I do it well – but inside of me is a teenager who insisted her high school keyboarding class was a complete waste of time because it wasn’t like she was going to work in an office. As if! I write to keep that girl quiet; to help her feel proud of herself once in a while.

Thanks to the Women of HR I’ve had a chance to write creatively about my profession. I enjoy it. Here are the two pieces I have up so far, if you’re interested:

The Female Version of John Wayne – On businesswomen who thrived before EEO laws were in place/enforced.

On Labor and Chocolate – How the story of Cadbury chocolate reminded me of the importance of the labor movement.

If you go, stick around! Don’t just read my stuff. Everything on the site is well-written and worth your time.

Killer Instinct

We’re at our son’s indoor soccer game, watching him wander around the court as if in search of flowers to pick. So far it’s been a mediocre game: two teams of 2nd & 3rd grade boys and girls, some running after the ball, others standing around or wandering like our son. Occasionally someone kicks the ball towards a goal. I think each team has scored once, though they don’t post the score, so it’s easy to lose track.

Suddenly this kid sweeps towards our team’s goal from the far side of the court. He’s one of the larger kids: not fat, but solidly built; his dark hair is trimmed close on the sides and sticks up bushily on top. In one gilding pass he sinks a goal and arcs away from it, towards his side of the court, back towards the bleachers where we sit. Now that he’s facing us I can see the look on his face: he’s mouthing a primal scream of victory worthy of professional sports. Wearing that look, his haircut becomes defiant instead of bushy and he seems at least three years older than his teammates. This kid is cool.

I laugh and turn to look at my husband.

“Did you see that look?” I ask.

He nods, grinning. He shakes his head and says, “That’s the kind of killer instinct I wish our son had.”

I look back towards the game. After a moment he adds, “Do you know who had that look as a kid? Your brother.”

I laugh. “My brother was born with that look!” This may actually be true; they didn’t videotape deliveries in 1976, so we’ll never know for sure.

“I had that look.”

I’m skeptical. “You had that look at age 7?”

“I did.”

“My mother probably has ten pictures of my brother with that look. No, more than ten.”

He points at me. “You never had that look.”

He blames my genes for our son’s lack of sports interest and instinct. The year I played high school basketball, my entire team stood up and cheered on the single occasion I fought another girl for the ball. Standing 5’10” at age 14, I had only joined the team so that my dad would pay for ballet lessons. I had no interest, no killer instinct.

I shrug. He can blame me, but it’s got to be a recessive trait because my family is full of jocks and sports fanatics. When I was a year old my mother broke her leg in a highly competitive game of backyard volleyball. That would never happen to me, because having a one-year-old is a perfect excuse to sit any game out.

“I wonder if our three-year-old will have that look,” I say.

“He’d better! Otherwise this baby is our only hope.” He holds up the baby and smiles at him. “Yes! You would be our only hope. Are you going to have that look?”

I have a hard time imagining it. I think he’d better pin his hopes on the three-year-old.

Why the baby doesn’t have a name yet

Our third child, a boy, is due in April. My husband and I do not have a name picked out and likely won’t by the time he arrives. With our two older sons, we brought a list of possible names to the hospital and named each baby the day after he was born.

A couple of nights ago we had a long (and initially productive) baby-name discussion. This is how it ended:

I said, “I still like Grayson. Or maybe just Gray. Something like—“

“Something Batman-esque?” He asked.

“No, I didn’t think of that, but there’s your comic-book connection.”

“Something that says, ‘My parents were doomed acrobats?’”

“Shut up! Are you going to let me say—“

“Something that says, ‘boy ward?’”

“SHUT UP! What I’m trying to say is, ‘Something like Grace, but for a boy.’”

“Something that indicates a possibly inappropriate relationship with my legal guardian and benefactor?”

I ignored that, but was suddenly struck by his earlier comment: “’My parents were doomed acrobats!’ God, you’re a dork!” Then I laughed for about five minutes straight.

Somewhere in there, he said, “Nice delayed reaction.” I laughed so hard I had to pee.

When I came out of the bathroom, he said, “I’ll let you name the kid Grayson if his middle name can be Nightwing.”

“No.”