Bigger Love.

I once met a man who declared his love to me by saying: “I’m bigger than you think!” Almost 30 years later, I’ve decided that this is the best pickup line I have ever heard. This statement came from a man who, at the time, wore Levi’s 501 jeans with a 28-inch waist.

Of course, he didn’t mean he was physically bigger; he meant that his life was more complicated than I knew, and if I wanted to stay involved with him, I would need to keep up.

After I stopped laughing, I said, “I’m in.”

After snow-blowing our driveway for the fifth time in 10 minutes, he repeated the same basic message with new winter-words: “Life is a siege.”

“Yes, my sweet, it is,” I replied. “How can I help?”

“How can I help?” is the new “I love you.” Can I help … start the car, shovel the stairs, take the dog out in subzero weather, haul the wood, start the fire or chop the kindling? Can I help iron your shirt, make a deposit or build a house? All of which I have done to keep up with the man with the very complicated life, whom I now call my husband.

Case in point, if proof is needed:

When I say “build a house,” I mean, other than hiring someone in the dead of winter to trim out the peaks, and accepting hours and hours of help from generous friends who felt sorry for us, we built our own house. Together, we built a house on an in-town lot full of 200-year-old trees.

I knew there was no turning back when I came home one Friday night to a bright-yellow backhoe parked on the side of our new lot.

The way-too-expensive quote from the foundation contractor caused an “I’ll dig it myself” declaration from my husband. The fact that he had never run a backhoe before and commuted an hour to a full-time job didn’t seem to be a concern.

“I’m not paying $30,000 to have someone dig a hole when I can do it myself,” he said.

One hundred years ago, our lot had served as a gully for a populous Portland neighborhood. Everything not consumed had been dumped into this trench we were now calling home. The first scoop from our rented backhoe exposed hundreds of artifacts: shards of every shape, old bottles, intact miniature clay pipes (apparently left by leprechauns), E. Swasey & Company molasses jugs, tiny headless Victorian dolls and always, with every scoop, more bottles.

So many “finds” were found that the neighborhood kids started gathering every afternoon to pick though the dirt. After making sure that our insurance covered all the horrible things I could imagine – children being swallowed by sinkholes, trees falling on neighbors’ houses and the general maiming of anyone not related to us – I told the kids they could keep what they found.

Building a house in the middle of a neighborhood is like setting up a circus: We were on display for all to observe. Small children became big in the time it took to finish our house.

One day I came home to a woman sifting through the dirt on the edge of our pit of despair. She was wearing wicked nice boots.

“Can I help you?” I asked in my least aggressive voice.

Gracious, poised and obviously smart (I could tell by her boots), she replied, “I’m a visiting archaeologist at USM. I take only the shards and never whole plates. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to take a few shards to use for my class.”

“Yes,” I answered, “take as much as you need. After all, whatever you take, we don’t have to move.”

At that moment, I knew that the hole my husband had dug had become a symbol for life moving forward and a community being built.

To my husband, who is bigger than life and smaller than most: Happy Valentine’s Day.

Originally published for Port City Post, Portland Press Herald on 2/14/15

 

 

Listen up.

If you were raised in a large family, like I was, listening is not a skill you walk away with.

Funny how life and work switch things up. Having just started a business, I find I’m doing a lot more listening these days. I’m listening to new ideas, new messages, new clients - along with the ongoing background babble of the dog’s needs and the chickens’ complaints. I’m working from home for the first time ever.

I’m also listening to the news. During the day. The radio is my constant companion as I navigate this new way of working as a sole proprietor.

Right now, the #metoo movement and reports about sexual harassment are in surround sound. It’s on the radio, in my social media feed and in my morning email news subscriptions. It’s loud. Opinions, posts, accusations are popping up everywhere.  And yet, unlike other trends and news, it is difficult to know where to start a conversation about this serious subject.

Frankly, it’s easier to avoid the subject altogether. It’s icy terrain. Right now, it trumps politics and religion on the scale of most awkward conversations.

Last week I listened to a story on WBUR’s Here & Now radio show discussing the #metoo movement. With no one else to discuss it with, I listened, really listened. One simple suggestion and one that I took to heart was, if you are part of a discussion and someone starts dominating the conversation, speak up. If you see that someone has not had a chance to speak, ask them a question. And if you yourself have been interrupted, say something. The discussion suggested that while it can be easy to chalk up that interruption to obliviousness, the act of interrupting may be the red flag signalling an imbalance of power between two people and that paying attention to this one thing could prevent harassment.

Easy to do, right? Not so. We all have been in situations where someone starts to talk and someone else interrupts and then someone else comments on what the interrupter said and then the conversation is two or three people removed from the original speaker. Sometimes the interrupter is the person in charge, sometimes it’s a play for power in the group - but not always.  

A recent event gave me a glimpse of what this is all about. On one of Maine’s iciest nights, outfitted with spikes on our muck boots, a small group of us scraped our way in downtown Portland to share our opinions about a non-profit organization we all cared about. Introductions were made and then our intrepid group formed a circle and became a temporary assembly.

On this night that felt like the end of the world (so dark, so cold), a young woman started to answer a question and offer a suggestion when someone interrupted her.  I started to comment on the interrupter’s comments when the young woman interrupted me and said,

"Excuse me, I'd like to finish what I was saying."

In that moment, her simple request to be heard radicalized my desire to listen. In that moment, I got a humbling reminder of what I could do to change the conversation and advance the cause -  no matter whether the discussion was about consent or non-profit organizations or why I have chickens, I needed to remember to pay attention. I needed to remember to speak up. In that moment, I was reminded of how the act of listening requires commitment, practice and vigilance. Even when you think you’re paying attention.

The net result of networking.

There's something about the prospect of networking that makes me want to stay home, eat chocolate cake and binge-watch Peaky Blinders (underdogs are my weakness). I ask, as the founder of a new business, do we have to network to be successful, launch a product or get an idea off the ground?

Maybe not.

At least not the kind of networking events that make you want to dive under the covers. Or send you into a cold sweat. Instead, start slow. Start by meeting with people who inspire you. One-on-one. People you know and trust. People who are willing to take time to sit down with you and share what they know.

Ask them to recommend people to meet with. Start making The List of People You Want To Work With and People Whose Advice You Trust. People in the business who are like-minded, generous, open, honest, community minded - and, don’t forget, inspiring.

Sometimes you just have to take a chance and make a call. Send an email. Ask. The meeting may not pay off. The individual may not be like minded, generous and open, but that disappointment is also a lesson. Whatever your business, these are the questions you will keep coming up against: Who do you want to work with? Who do you want to sell to? Who do you want to communicate with? When you’re starting out, networking brings you answers and gives you more questions. At the very least, networking keeps you moving.

You may ask yourself  - What is the difference between good networking and bad networking?

If you feel drained after a networking event, figure out where things went awry. Was it them? Was it you? Was it just a bad day for everyone?  You have skills. You’ve learned how to seek out the least treacherous path on the icy sidewalks (we’re in deep winter here), and you will learn how to navigate the meet and greet in all of its forms – small with coffee to large with name tags. Smarter people than me have compiled lists on how to master the art of networking.  Here's one recommendation. Inc.Video 4 simple ideas about networking.

I could say there is no such thing as bad networking. Just like the old line about no such thing as bad publicity.  Just as long as they get your name right. As the head of a new business, I am feeling like a bit of an underdog. And that’s OK. I’m reading all of the lists and making my own. I’m ready - bring it on -

- Cleaning the Void -

I haven’t written a column since October. Even my mother has given up on me, but not before lecturing me about the privilege of writing a column.  She reminds me, every time she talks to me, that many writers would like to take my place and that no one is going to beg me to keep writing.

I have no good answer to her question about why I haven’t written a column in two months.  But, I can tell you this: If you stop doing something you love it gets harder to do it and in the void left behind is a vacuum cleaner waiting to be pushed.

Cleaning is becoming my excuse not to write.  (You know you are preoccupied with cleaning when you find yourself vacuuming under your 20 year old’s feet as she rests on the couch.  You gently move her legs to reach the scattered pine needles all the while being careful not to disturb her important phone-work).

It’s no surprise that my 2017 Christmas gifts included: work gloves, a carefully selected dish drainer that was returned for an even better one, four striped dish towels, a beautiful chartreuse pot scrubber and one geometric patterned multi-colored mesh kitchen scrubby, pretty enough to use on my face as an exfoliator if I were willing to lose some serious skin.

I was also given a sweet galvanized steel bucket that fits perfectly on the kitchen counter and is used for collecting food scraps for our chickens.

I can stand at my kitchen sink and see all my beautiful gifts except two: bath gel so that I will relax -- fat chance and wishful thinking on the gift giver’s part -- and a purple down-vest to keep me warm when I let the chickens out at 7 am. I have decided that a vest makes me feel powerful and safe, so I will not complain about it being the wrong shade of purple or about its goofy hood.   It is my thunder vest for the storms ahead in 2018.

My daughter gave me lipstick and eye shadow.

All of these gifts were, apparently, wrapped by squirrels.

Our small family of three, plus a dog and eight chickens, have completely given up on the idea that wrapping is part of the beauty of gift giving. I am the only one who uses tape and occasionally adds a bow.  Why use tape if you can roll, tuck and tie just like the Japanese? Why buy new wrapping paper when there are seven partial rolls in the closet and one ¾’s full CVS brand tape just enough for me? 

As a mother I feel compelled to place gifts under the tree a few days before Christmas morning, but the gifts given to me are wrapped at 7am and opened by 8 am. 

My husband and our daughter might as well hand my gifts to me at the checkout.  They wrap because they are supposed to wrap.  As I pour my coffee on Christmas morning, I am instructed to look the other way while they smash Santa paper around an awkwardly shaped object.

This year my daughter woke up with a flaming red throat and blue-cheese tonsils. I wrapped her gifts for her dad and he wrapped her gifts for me. The value added by fancy wrapping techniques is worth nothing to these squirrels.  A trip to France would make more sense.

Every two weeks for the last three years, I have been brave enough to write a column.  It’s not easy, as you can see. I’ve just written 750 words about cleaning and wrapping. 

But, lately I’ve avoided that blank screen waiting for a subject and justified it by diminishing its worth: No one is speaking to anyone he or she disagrees with, so why bother saying anything at all. 

Our society seems so angry and so divided that I’d really prefer to leave until it’s settled.   I could easily fill the New Year with things like cleaning the chicken coop, doing laundry and binge watching The West Wing. Activities like vacuuming have become an exaggerated part of my weekend. I’ve started to limit my activities to things that are comfortable and safe. My circle of friends is shrinking.

My advice to myself for 2018?  (I wouldn’t dare offer advice to anyone else).

Listen more. Vacuum less. Save for France. Have dinner with a friend and a foe and wear your thunder vest. 

Happy New Year.

Lucky.

Sleeping in my own bed last night in the middle of Portland felt like a night in the deep woods compared to the three previous nights in my hotel in New York City.

The sounds of sirens and ambulances are normal in the heart of the largest city in the United States, but this past weekend, the level of background din was elevated because of the explosion on 23rd Street – which, for me and my fellow travelers, was just three blocks from where we were eating and on the same street as our hotel.

There was a sound. Yes. A sound that could have been heavy construction or the sound of a gas main exploding or just some garden-variety New York City blast related to anything.

Because of construction work that I assume is scheduled to be completed in two-thousand-never, New York these days is a maze of building sites, security fences, cranes, traffic barricades and pedestrians.

Three of the four of us at our table paused to acknowledge the noise and then kept talking, laughing and eating. I remember glancing over at the next table just to see if they had heard what I heard – a rare moment in a big city when you connect with strangers without needing something from them.

They’d heard what I’d heard but, like us, were not alarmed.

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This beautiful September evening was the first night of three during our semi-annual trade show trip to New York City.

When people recall important events in their life, they often talk about how the time “felt” to them. You might hear, “It felt like it was happening in slow motion.”

According to studies, it’s not that time slows down, it’s that we remember what happened in slow motion. The theory is that during times of extreme stress, our brains record denser or richer memories.

As well, new memories are said to be recorded in our brains in a more meaningful way. For example, kids remember their summers as long drawn-out stretches of time because they are laying down new memories, whereas adults remember their summers as brief pauses in a speeding comet.

A theory that makes more sense to me – one suggested by Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at a university in England – is that during unusual experiences, like sitting at an outside café four blocks from an explosion, distorted time perception is the result of the “dissolution of our normal ‘self-system.’ ” We are used to experiencing life one way, and suddenly an event forces us to experience the world and ourselves in a completely different way.

It was new, it was different and it was scary. And the time between the mysterious sound and the moment that we realized that something bad had happened seemed very long.

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Police cars, fire engines, motorcycles and an enormous white van, which I assume was the bomb squad, sped by our tiny table of four. For just a second I believed it was a motorcade. It was the Big Apple, after all.

When we could not deny that something bad had happened, I said, without thinking, “I want to go home.” I sat on my hands, waiting for the end of this part of our evening.

Our student friend, Alyse, on the other hand, was as calm as any veteran New Yorker. Her comment was not “I want to go home.” It was “I’m surprised we are not on lockdown.” By “we,” she meant her school. This 20-year-old had grown up in the decade of lockdowns.

My sister took action right away by telling us what we were doing next: We would walk Alyse back to her dorm, just a few blocks away. Then she and our friend and employee, Erika, would walk with me (the only one not staying in that area) until I could find a cab. Then the two of them would walk back to their hotel, located just two blocks from the explosion.

As we all walked in the opposite direction of the blast, we ran directly into another police barricade. I asked one officer why they were there, and he said that there had been another bomb threat. Instead of feeling panicked, I took comfort in the fact that there were hundreds of people around me. We couldn’t all be making the wrong decision.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, who was not young enough to be in a stroller was on their phones madly scrolling for answers. I wondered what it must look like from the sky, and then my sister hugged me and threw me into a cab.

Lucky. We were just lucky.

Prince.

I believe we all have secret celebrity soul mates. We keep our celebrity soul mates in the periphery of our everyday experiences as a reference and a comparison as we grow older. We check our earthly bodies against theirs while accepting that we are not even in the same universe.

We choose them based on their age, gender, appearance, birthplace and life circumstances. It’s not a random selection. When they succeed, we take note. When they misstep, we notice.

I have two celebrity soul mates. Prince is one. Madonna is the other.

Prince, Madonna and I are the same age. We are summer babies, U.S. Bicentennial-year high school graduates and rock stars.

OK, we are not all rock stars.

At 5-foot-4, Madonna is the tallest among us. We are Gemini, Cancer and Leo: In June, July and August 1958, respectively, we arrived on the scene.

Prince and Madonna are my touchstone celebrities, lingering in the place in my mind where I keep track of my progress or regress – my missed opportunities and my missed calamities.

The attachment to these two superstars is not romantic. I don’t want to sleep with Madonna or Prince. I want to be Madonna or Prince. And if I can’t be Madonna or Prince (I think that ship has sailed, Jolene), I would like to simply hang out with them.

I’m drawn to their raw edges and imperfections. Becoming Madonna and becoming Prince was not easy for them. As working-class kids, they stuck to a path until the path stuck to them. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone became “Madonna” and Prince Rogers Nelson became “Prince.”

I’m drawn to their swagger, their courage and mostly to the way they move. After all, I was the first person on my block to learn the Twist. I made it my business to learn the Pony, the Dirty Dog and the Swim. I think if they could just see me move, they would hire me as a backup dancer. As the young Billy Elliott said, “I just want to dance!”

Prince, Madonna and I each became parents around the same time. I learned today that Prince’s child, Boy, did not survive. He was born Oct. 23, 1996, and died a week later from a rare condition called Pfeiffer syndrome. Madonna’s first child, Lourdes, was born Oct. 14, 1996. I learned today that she is now a model. My own daughter was born in May 1997. I learned today that she needs more money deposited into her savings account.

When we love someone’s life’s work, we naturally look for connections to him or her. If our connection is our age, then we would like to believe that we listened to the same music as adolescents and hung the same posters over our beds. We bet that we loved the same Monkee.

We fantasize: What if? What if I had moved to New York in my early 20s? What if I had been named “Queen Ann McGowan” or “St. Ann McGowan”?

Dinner conversation would be easy with my celeb soul mates. I would mock them for some of their creative choices. I hated the movie “Truth or Dare” and wish Madonna would drop the British accent, but I admire her bravery and her biceps.

Today, I learned that we lost Prince. Fans young and old posted their reactions, tributes and love for this small man with the giant talent. But unlike when David Bowie passed, I felt protective of him in a way that was more like a friend than a celebrity.

The circumstances of his death are still not known as I finish this post. As sad as it is to lose him, I’m hoping that the flu got the best of him and that he was not hiding an addiction.

We want the best for our celebrity soul mates, even in their death.