Sunday, July 31, 2016

Restaurant Life

I recently participated in a professional development session in which we reflected upon leaders we’d had in the past—not only previous principals, but bosses we’d had in our earliest jobs, too.

I thought back, shuffling through the people I’ve learned with and from. 

Rita was march-y—she marched around—march, march, march—and she barked at others to march around, too.  

There was Amy, who was empathetic, patient, and courageous. 

Carol was relentless.  Intelligent.  A motivator.

Dave was Presidential. When he made a suggestion, it was actually an order—albeit a very, very friendly order—and everyone jumped into line, lockstep.   Dave always did the right thing. 

Paradoxically, the one that inspired me the most was a leader who wouldn’t have been caught dead near a school.   Steve was the general manager of a restaurant where I worked as a bartender for a handful of years after college.

Steve had a whole bunch of awful qualities.  He was a chain smoker and ruthless drinker; he cursed like a trucker; and his personal life was a raging mess—evidenced by the piles of hard-looking ex-girlfriends who popped up at dramatic and inopportune moments.  He couldn’t get along with his own bosses, and he had a hard time with patience and politeness.  He came in most days looking ruffled and rumpled.  He seemed to subsist on french fries, coffee, and shots of vodka.  He was a mess in a lot of ways. 

So it would be easy to assume he might have been the worst boss I’d ever had.  Not so.  In fact, I could argue that he was the very best.  Because he inspired me— for no other reason than he loved his work and had enthusiasm that spread like a red-hot flame, making others fall in step with him to get the job done right.

Man, he loved his work.  He was passionate about it.  Nothing made him happier than a packed dining room of hungry customers.  He loved the tonic-like music piping through the speakers; the sound of onions sizzling on a hot grill; the darkening night and unexpected headlights of a late-night bar crowd.  He whooped and hollered his way through every shift, running on happy adrenalin.  He bounced, Tigger-like, from the front of the restaurant to the back prep area, over to the bar, between the cooler, the grill, the dishwashing station.  When things got really busy, he easily slid alongside the line cooks, chopping and sizzling with whirlwind hands; then, he’d waltz around schmoozing dining room customers and fixing complaints. He was hilarious, too. He could find the funny in any situation and whoop about it with the quick wit of a practiced comedian.  His zany, untethered, caffeine-fueled leadership style put him firmly in charge of his crew of misfits—restaurant people are notoriously eclectic and often unstable—turning us into a big, thick, loyal, formidable army.

For a time, I thought I wanted to manage a restaurant like Steve did.  He just did it so well.  It really was a beautiful thing to watch.  And he made it his life.  His lifestyle.  Because running a restaurant is a lifestyle.  It’s exciting, fun, and changes with the moment, and it takes every single bit of energy one has to give.

But it’s also exhausting, unhealthy, and unsustainable. 

Which is what drove me away, ultimately.  Turns out I’m not well suited to world that really gets amped up after dark.

But the same things that drew me to consider a career running a restaurant are what eventually led me to school leadership.  With restaurant management, as with school leadership, there is time, energy, effort, pain, difficult conversations, meeting after meeting, sleepless sights, and lots of anxiety.  There’s fickle “customers,” and there’s the giddiness that comes when everything is working well—when everyone is satiated and full and enjoying the fruits of a job well done.

Not everyone can do this kind of work.  It’s “people work,” which is complicated and fluid.  Not everyone can lead people who are working with people.  It’s messy.  But it is also just about as fulfilling as it gets.  As a school leader, at the end of a day, I often feel like Steve undoubtedly felt after a long shift at the restaurant:  tired, happy, and pleased with how the day unfolded and my role in it.  It’s a pretty good feeling.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Personal Story

This post is more personal than usual.  Quite personal.  It’s a story of my grandfather, though it’s important to specifically point out that it’s a story—not, of course, the story.  It’s my story.  I’m sure there are many others.  I tell it here because, from my grandfather, I learned that leading with anger or fear just doesn’t work. 

My grandfather was a hard and angry man.  There were plenty of reasons for him to be angry; he’d seen a whole lot of awful.  War, for one thing—an ugly, senseless, stupid, terrible war that stole most of his friends.  And then, years later, there was another ugly, senseless, stupid, terrible (and, this time, unwinnable) war that stole the sons of his friends and ruined his relationship with his son—my father—who unapologetically chose to stand by his anti-war beliefs instead of adopt the blind, sheep-like patriotism of my grandfather.  Which was the greatest sin of all, to my grandfather; he simply couldn’t accept it.  Decades passed without the two of them speaking. 

War.  Such a reason to be angry.  And, with public opinion shifted, there in the early 1970s, my grandfather had to spend his life stoically defending why that war had happened, and why people so many people had died.

It must have exhausted him.  It certainly infuriated him.

But there were other reasons he was so angry.  He got sick, right when he should have been at his prime of life as a man.  The mumps.  The illness apparently took a lot of things from him that no man would want to lose.  And then his wife—my grandmother—retreated, dreamily, into her own world of Catholicism and passive-aggressiveness.  So there was that.  And there was this:  My grandfather worked for the FBI, so it was his job to go out and find bad guys.  He was always on the lookout.  For bad guys, sure, but also for all the other scary and unpredictable things he thought may be hiding out there in the world.  I remember him being jumpy.  His jowls sunk with his perpetual scowl.

He was kind to me, as much as he could be.  Our conversations were stumbling, difficult ones, but we both tried.  I only saw him once a year as a child and teenager; my mother would insist we visit them, just she and us kids, each summer.  We’d stop at their house en route to her parent’s house in suburban Washington, D.C.  We would spend an afternoon with them, which consisted of an awkward lunch and some time sitting around sharing stilted conversation. 

In college, I saw them a bit more.  At the time, my sister was living in Georgetown in a darling basement apartment on T Street.  I was pretty unhappy at college, so whenever she’d have me—every month or so—I’d flee the loneliness of my rural northwestern Pennsylvania campus and drive the five hours to spend the weekend with her.  I’d sleep on her couch and poach off of her fun, exciting city life.  On Saturday mornings, we’d run long miles along the Potomac River to muster enough mutual granddaughterly guilt; after a shower and a bagel at the corner bakery, we’d climb into my little blue Reliant and drive along Route 50 to our grandparent’s home in Fairfax for lunch.  We would knock, almost apologetically.  My grandfather would have been waiting for us with his eye on the clock.  Promptness was one of his (many) expectations.  He would open the door and peer down at us over the thick rims of his glasses.  Formal as a knight, he would lead us out to the screened-in porch and point to where we were to sit; we’d dutifully sink into the scratchy plastic seats, waiting, while my grandmother flitted around serving bowls of hamburger soup and plastic cups of lukewarm lemonade.  We’d stutter through clumsy conversation that felt more like an interview than a loving exchange between family.  I shifted in my seat until it was, blessedly, time to go.  And then:  bungled hugs and promises about “next time.”  My grandmother would sneak a clean one-dollar bill and a packet of cheese crackers into each of our palms. 

As we headed back to the city, my sister would lean her head back against the pilled headrest.  We’d both sigh, exhausted.  I always felt rejected, somehow, as if I’d done something wrong.  But I had no idea what it might be.

Looking back, of course I felt that way.  Here’s the thing:  Every time we visited, there was the inevitable back-and-forth in which my grandfather sought to determine what, exactly, I had planned for myself.  He wanted a plan, by God.  A plan that would yield results.  Plans were right up there with promptness, in terms of important virtues.

But I was 20.  I didn’t have a plan.

My sister would talk about her job at Georgetown University and her progress on finishing her graduate degree.  And then:  “And, Jennifer--?  What are you doing now?  And what is next?”

And I didn’t know what to say. 
The truth?

I am miserable at college.
I am majoring in English because it’s the only thing I understand.
I want to be a writer, but anything I write seems unreadable to others.
I’ve been rejected from the two graduate schools I hoped would take me and make me a writer.
I’m broke.
This hamburger soup repulses me.
I’m crashing on my sister’s couch whenever she’ll let me, because she will let me, and I don’t know where else to go, but I have to go somewhere.
My boyfriend smokes marijuana all the time; I’m not sure he’s aware of me.
I am the best waitress I know.  I’m considering making a living at it. 
I know you don’t like me, and I’m trying to remind myself that you don’t like anyone, so it’s not personal. 
But I need people to like me right now. 

He didn’t want to hear those things.   Of course he didn’t.  So I didn’t say them. 

Here’s the thing:  I was terrified of my grandfather, the whole time I knew him.  Most everyone was.  There was just this feeling—that everything inside him might bubble up at any time and detonate, leaving carnage all around.  And he had a distinct lift of his brows, always disappointed, always disapproving.  Always angry. 

Time moved on.  My sister left D.C., so I didn’t see my grandparents much.  They grew older.  And tired.  They decided that living in Fairfax was too hard, anymore; it had evolved from a peaceful suburb to a crowded, powerful annex of D.C.  Everywhere they looked there was traffic, noise, and piles and piles of people.  Even going to the Safeway for milk had become overwhelming.  They moved south to Yorktown, where they would be near my aunts and their grandchildren.  They bought a small brick ranch house on a quiet street—a house creepily like their Fairfax home of 40 years.  And there they lived.  The barely spoke to one another; when they did, it was my grandfather snapping, angrily, and my grandmother trying, as she always tried, not to be hurt.  She prayed hard at mass every morning.  My grandfather brooded and puttered.   I saw them every year or so when visiting my aunts.  Each year, I was struck by their old-ness and by the fact that I still—still!—I couldn’t think of much to say when I sat at their lunch table.   And that I was still frightened of my grandfather, in spite of his bent back and slow, pained movements and his inability to hear a thing I said.

The end was ugly.  When my grandmother got really sick, my aunt told me how it would end, for him, but I told her she was wrong.  “He wouldn’t do that,” I scoffed.  She raised an eyebrow.  “Watch,” she said.  Days later, my grandmother died peacefully (thereby ruining my long-held wish that she’d outlive him and get to spend all his money—as much as she wanted, carelessly, until it was all gone).  He cried at her funeral, but only for a moment.  I saw him; I watched.  After the service, he drove himself home alone.  “I don’t want company,” he said when several of us offered to ride with him.  “Meet at the house.  We’ll order sandwiches.  Everyone.”  We all followed, dutifully:  His children, his grandchildren, all of us doing exactly as we were told.  

Nine days later, before the sun came up, he drove the mile or so to the most patriotic place he could think of—the field where the Battle of Yorktown had been bitterly fought two and a half centuries earlier.  It was now a peaceful, lovely ground, but the ghosts of long-dead soldiers still seem to lurk in the folds between the massive trees.  He parked his Camry and sunk a bullet into his gut.  He did it pridefully, and angrily, and defiantly, which is how he did everything.  He died on his own terms. 

For awhile, I worked to admire what he’d done, trying out words like “courage” and “owning fate,” but it was hard to do; there’s really no way to make peace with thinking about someone we love—someone whose blood runs in our own veins—intentionally and mindfully point a gun at himself and pulling the trigger. 

This story isn’t a fair one, I’m sure.  My father would tell it differently, certainly, as would my aunts and my grandmother and even my sister, but there it is:  this is how I remember it to be.  I think about it when I think about ruling with fear and living with anger.  I think about it when I remember being uncomfortable even sitting in the living room of a man I was supposed to love.  I think about it when I remember my grandfather’s inquiries about my life’s plan, and the irony of it all—that, just about the time I would have been proud and confident enough to answer his questions, just about the time I wasn’t scared of him any longer, he had stopped listening. 


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Balance and Stress

There’s a ton of talk lately about work-life balance.  Which is a good thing, of course.  We’ve collectively recognized that working too much, and not paying attention to things that fill us up—family, friends, silence, thinking, being alone—can make us crappy and crazy.  I’ve thought about it myself, especially when I decide to return an email rather than invest in my relationship with a friend, look my son in the eye as he talks at me, or play another round of CandyLand with my daughter.  (Okay…. Fine.  A round.  I don’t think I’ve ever played CandyLand with her.  I hate that game.)

Lately, though, I’ve noticed the “balance” conversation sometimes turns into a lament about the effort it takes to do good work. We say we want balance, but we might actually mean that we don’t want to work so hard.  We want to be relaxed. We want to feel perpetually energetic, well rested, and inspired.  We want endless, expendable leisure time.  And fun.  We want lots of fun. 

But that’s a different conversation.  Right?  It’s not a “balance” conversation.

Author and psychologist Nienke Wijnants says that the word “balance” has lost its real meaning.  “It’s become a catch-all.  ‘My life’s not in balance’ can mean so many things:  ‘I’m not happy; I work too hard; I don’t have enough free time.’ “

That’s what I notice, for sure, now that so many of us are talking about balance.   A lot of talk about balance is really about workload.  We don’t want to work so hard.  But do we mean it? 

A few years ago, I had a surgery that kept me home for a couple weeks.  I felt too badly to leave the house, so I just stayed home, mostly lying on the couch and drifting in and out of sleep.  When I was better, several friends asked me how I’d done with the sitting and resting.  “It was fabulous,” I gushed.  “I could do it all the time.  Every day.  Quit my job and just stay home and chill.  Forever.”

My friends scoffed, as they should have; they knew, and I knew, that the reason it had been blissful is because I was so dulled by pain meds (and pain) that I couldn’t muster up the energy or desire to go out and hustle at anything.  Now that I was healthy and feeling good again, they told me, “There’s no way you’d make it, just lounging at home.”

And that’s true.  I like to bang around in this world with my wings on fire.  I like working my ass off.  I like the feeling that comes with a productive and exhaustive day.  Sure, my muscles ache from the hustle—but I find pleasure in the exhaustion, too. 

Most of us are like that, by nature.  Wijnants says, “In essence, we are all worker bees.  The best thing we can do for our mental health is to work on something that is attainable but challenging.”  Doing work—whatever kind it is—makes us feel like we matter.  Like we have worth.  Like there was a reason to get up and go.

So:  we work.  It’s good for us.  And with work comes stress—which is another tentacle to the “balance” thing.  When we’re stressed—and that word means a whole host of things, depending on how we want to think about it—that’s when we lament that we need more balance.  What we mean, of course, is that we want less stress.

But stress--?  Just like hard work, stress is another really good thing.  In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal points out that to try to avoid stress, you’d have to “live in a kind of bubble that excludes all those things that actually give life meaning, including deep relationships, challenging work and opportunities for growth and development.”  She says, succinctly, that stress is an engagement with life.

Thinking about all of this makes me understand that when we seek balance, we’re missing the point.  Life isn’t about finding perfect balance—because it probably doesn’t exist, for one thing, but because balance isn’t really the point at all. Life is about unbalance.  Unbalance is what makes our lives interesting, rich, difficult, horrible, and amazing… in equal, balanced measure. 


Time for credit where it’s due:

I’ve quoted the thinking of a couple people in this post; I encourage you to seek out their work if this is stuff you’ve been thinking about.  There’s another one, too:  A book titled Life Balance is Fiction by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson.  It’s good stuff.  They talk about how detrimental it can be to try to order your life in a perfect, balanced place.  If nothing else, there is comfort in that.

I also got a lot of inspiration from Issue 13 of Flow magazine, which is just flat-out terrific.  Flow is always terrific.  I always get inspiration, reading it.  It’s not cheap, but like anything else, you really get what you pay for.  Seriously, I adore this thing.  When it arrives, I devour it, slowly and over the course of a week or two.  Seriously.  Try it.  And thanks to Brenda at Choice Literacy for gifting it to me.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Happiness... Or Meaning?

The much-younger me thought I would grow up and be happy.  Just... happy.  I wasn't sure what I'd do to be happy, exactly; I just knew that I'd eventually solve all my problems, have enough money, have easy and fulfilling relationships, and float throughout my days in some mode between satisfied (a bad day) and blissful (a regular day). 

That was the goal, anyway. 

Fortunately, I've changed my thinking on this, now that I'm firmly in middle age.   I know, now, that complete happiness is an unattainable goal.  That's just the truth.  I know there are a lot of times I'm not going to be happy at all.  There's the big, wide unhappiness, like the weeks of cold in the wintertime, when I'm exhausted and stressed and depressed.  There's that kind.  But there's also the small unhappinesses that pop up a hundred times a day.  The clanking garbage truck that wakes me too early.  A slew of ants in my cabinet.  The grumpy woman who won't look at me when I thank her for the cup of coffee I'm paying way, way too much for.  The staff member who's really mad at me for no identifiable reason.  All of those silly, bothersome unhappinesses.  And when they pop up, I can't help it; I find myself trying to overcome them.  To deal with each one and find my way back to happy.  

I know I'm not the only one.  Most of us seek happiness.  It's, like, an end goal.  Right?  To be happy. 

And when we’re not happy, we worry:  Why not?  We look around and try to identify what is wrong, and we try to fix whatever we need to fix so that happiness comes back, already.  

Why is that? Or, the better question:  Is seeking happiness a worthwhile and fruitful pursuit?

I sought out some perspective on the whole thing.  In the most recent issue of Flow magazine, I stumbled across the work of German professor and author Wilhelm Schmid.  He’s in a place in his life—mid 60’s—where he’s looking back and thinking about happiness and how it relates to the span of his lifetime—and anyone’s lifetime, really.

Schmid doesn’t think seeking happiness is a wise approach; he says looking for meaning in our lives is something that’s much more important than happiness.  Take being a parent.  Having children doesn't necessarily make us happy all the time—or even much of the time.  But they give our lives meaning.  They help us build a network of relationships that will keep us connected to the world and those around us.  That, he says, is what it’s all about—and what will bring happiness.  

So: This morning, when my son split his sister's lip with a Gatorade bottle during a raucous indoor game of "football," I was anything but happy—but I can give myself a break on that. I don't have to be happy.  In fact, it's okay to be very, very unhappy.  Because happiness isn't the point.  It's the meaning that comes with raising a son who will, hopefully, think twice next time when he considers hurling a plastic bullet at his sister's face.  It's the meaning that comes with dealing with ebbs and flows of sadness, frustration, and depression.  It's meaning:  A life of meaning.  A life of challenges, and crap, and awesomeness, all melded together.  

I'm going to try to wipe the whole issue of happiness off the table for good... and just stop thinking about it.  I'll try to embrace my unhappinesses, big or small, because they aren't the point at all.  Instead, I'll try to seek meaning and experiences.  Then, I'll be happily surprised... when happiness finds me. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...