06 February 2017

10 Things I Need to Do to Win (As Told to 1st Graders)

“Mama, Mama! Can you do this?” my first and fourth grader both waved the elementary school career day signup flyer in my face. I glanced over the requirements, saw that the planners would let us know in a few weeks if we’d made the cut (apparently, it’s a sought-after “position”), and filled out the form. Living in the Washington metropolitan area, with cool parents who defend our country, save lives in hospital rooms, do science experiments, and design catchy ad campaigns, I figured I was “safe.” There’s no way those planners, if they had half a brain in their heads, would pick a “federal government contractor,” and one who is in the business of building business and revenue, for that matter. I mean, how boring could you get?

Then, a few weeks later, the email popped into my inbox. “Thank you for agreeing to come and speak [...].” It went on to detail 25 minutes, incorporating 10 for questions, encouraging bringing things to touch, and assigning me to first grade.

First grade.

That translates to 6 and 7 year old kids. What the heck do they want to hear about federal procurement cycles, account management, and creating winning proposals? Even more, how the heck do I explain that all to them in a way that I won’t bore them to tears? I have a difficult enough time explaining my work world to adults - even those who live in the nation’s capital - but KIDS? Little kids?

Fast forward a few weeks, and, in true federal world form, client deadlines piled up, I got super busy, and I hadn’t done a thing to prepare for my 25 minutes on the (very colorful) carpet. I  arrived in my office pre-dawn, the day of my presentation, as is my habit most weekdays, plotted out my day, and blocked out an hour to create my presentation for my junior audience.

It took me an hour and a half. I researched. I built graphs. I pulled pictures. I realized, as I got started that I could explain, as both H and I do with adults (he’s also in this “world”), that we help the government do its job better. I realized, too, that kids love money, and understand the jobs of the government folks I’ve helped along the way. The federal government keeps us safe (insert pictures of federal law enforcement and the military), helps sick or hurt people get better (insert picture of an x-ray), does advanced research (insert picture of a microchip), helps US citizens travel to other countries (insert picture of a US passport), and builds Really Cool Stuff like fighter jets (insert picture of said fighter jet). I could explain, I realized, that the Government needs help with these things, and that they pay companies for that help.

Needless to say, they got it. First graders got it. I even got a couple of on the spot job applications. (That might have been because I showed them how much money the US government has spent on companies in the years since they’d been born. They want a piece of those billions. They’re smart cookies.)

"Have you ever seen a number with this many zeros after it? That's how much money the government spends on companies. Don't you want to start a company and have them give you some of this money?"

But what really struck me - struck me so much that I used it again 3 days later, when I facilitated a day of account growth training for a client - that the keys to not only doing business in our space (probably in any space) are so elementary, so foundational. You see, I’d made two lists. The second was “10 things I did (and do) to know how to do my job.” The career day planners had asked us to talk about what we had to study and try and relate it to things our audience would do in school. From knowing how to write clear sentences to understanding how money works in a company to “Be polite and respectful to EVERYONE” (we read that one out loud - VERY - together), that list was a hit. Again, they got it.

The first list, though, is the one that stands out. This is the list that I’m going to put in every training, every presentation, and hang up in every office I have from here until my (early) retirement. Here she is, annotated from what I shared with the first graders. Just try and poke holes in it. Just try.

10 Things I Need to Do to Win
  1. Listen, listen, listen - I might just leave this one here, with only a reminder to all of us: read it over and over. And then, do it.
  2. Work hard - As simple as it sounds, even the cushiest job has times when you have to scramble. Even if you work to live, busting your proverbial butt to get a task or project done, or, if you’re in a service industry of any kind, to help the client? People remember that. Not only do you get the job done, but you’ve improved a relationship. Relationships pay off in spades.
  3. Follow instructions carefully - 99.9% of the time, first graders do this better than grownups. Bucking a system or the establishment has its time and place, but sometimes, we need to do exactly what someone else asks us to do. In the federal space, especially with proposals, we have to comply with their instructions. But any business has some set of rules or instructions that apply, whether it’s how to calculate your taxes to complying with licensure. Follow them when it’s important to follow them.
  4. Write answers to the customers’ questions clearly and interestingly enough that they want to read the answers - Again, in my space, we respond to very specific US government requirements in solicitations, and they have to read those responses. But being able to respond to clients and customers, whether external or internal, is non-negotiable. If you can’t communicate - the full cycle - clearly and in a way that is easy for those on the other end to follow - you’ll be up a creek without a paddle (as my 9th & 12th grade English teacher probably still says - thanks, Mrs. Byrne!).
  5. Be patient - no matter how fast-paced your industry, no matter how much you might be in charge of your own destiny, there are times to wait. Knowing how and when to wait is, like No. 1, one of the most difficult things for humans to do. Practice waiting.
  6. Be friendly and make new business friends – customers and other companies - People do business with people they trust. Trust begins because there is a relationship. Relationships start because of the simple things: a kind hello, an offer to help (without a string attached), and because the other person knows you care. In business, that “caring” might be about business outcomes, but if a client or partner knows that you have their best interests in mind and at heart when you interact with them, they will come back to you every time.
  7. Stay very, very, very organized - Some environments require this more than others, I suppose, but whether it’s my space requiring me to follow 157-page sets of instructions or a retail business owner who has to make sure stock is on hand that customers want to buy, we can’t do it without staying organized.
  8. Be creative and look for solutions to things other people think are big problems - Remember that “mountain-molehill” expression? Staying calm and thinking through options and even solutions that might be the craziest often turn out to be the most productive times. It could be finding the right business partner to get into a particular market or customer, or it could be structuring your company in a way that allows you to work around obstacles. Never assume “you can’t.”
  9. Do my work on time - ‘nuf said.
  10. Be honest, tell the truth, and do what I say I’m going to do - This one. Oh, this one. My first graders almost thought I was silly for putting this on here, as it’s still core to their beings. Somewhere, though, as we grow up, we lose honesty, and we learn to promise things we can’t deliver. We learn to commit to things we can’t do. Nope. Stop it. Do what you say you’re going to do. Be honest with yourself and those around you, and you will win.

Oh. And the last one? It might help to write a thank you note once in awhile. I didn’t give my first graders that one, but I’m going to write each class a note right now. Remember? On the other list? “Be polite and respectful to EVERYONE.”

26 October 2016

On Costumes and Creativity...and Motherhood

I’m a working mama. I’m a mother who works outside the home. And while I have no time for Pinterest projects, I’ve said from the very 9-years-ago beginning (before there was Pinterest, thankyouverymuch) that there are two things I’ll do: bake and decorate the birthday cakes from scratch and make their Halloween costumes myself.


Because I want to.

Those that know me know my career field has wonky deadlines and can have long hours. I’ve pulled more all-nighters in one - ahem - active - working year than I ever pulled in college. And yet, I refuse to fall for the store bought cake or costume. It frustrates the bejeezus out of H. Every year, as I stay up too late in the days before Halloween, tacking tulle onto an evil queen skirt out or stitching a Batman symbol onto a black leotard, he laments, “Next year, we’re buying them.”


But we never do. Truth is, and especially as this blog has taken a backseat to life changes, my creative outlets are few and far between. I admit fully and heartily that I’m using the Beans as an excuse to take time to create. I tell myself that it’s because it’s important for them, that they’ll remember when they grow up. They might. I do. I remember that my mommy made our costumes from scratch when we were little, and I know that my baking talents come from her. I know that they love giving me a cake theme “order” and watching it come alive because I made it. I know that they enjoy and deliberate over their costume choice right up to the October 1 deadline I give them - in theory because I’m going to take all month to make it (I’m fairly certain I’ve never really worked on a single costume before the week right up to Halloween).



And then, a few months ago, dear friends gave the Bean a flamenco dress their daughter had gotten from other friends. It even has a big, dramatic hair flower. I offered to make a mantilla, at least. (Please let me make something, child. Let me make anything.) She threw me a bone: “I’ll be a dead flamenco dancer, Mama. You can do a dead face with makeup, right?”

“I know what I’m going to be for Halloween. I’m going to be Harper.” My Philly-area heart dropped deeper than my mama heart. Not only is my baby boy a Nats fan through and through, but he’d ditched his Ninjago green/gold ninja (that I would’ve had to Google to copy, but that’s the fun part) in favor of a costume for which we already owned all of the parts. He has multiple Nats hats, white baseball pants, red baseball socks, and, the crowning glory to which I succumbed at the late-season game we saw together, his white Harper jersey. He even has Nats eye black stickers.

I don’t have to make a single thing. I don’t have to sew a stitch. I don’t have to stay up late, trying to follow a pattern that’s more confusing than the worst IKEA directions ever. I can stay up late working on a dayjob deadline with no mama-guilt whatsoever. Zero.

When pajama day and Halloween Week at dance class collide.

And yet, the mama-guilt, though I’m not entirely sure that’s what it is, is strong in this one. That force, the force is strong. I’m itching to open up my sewing kit, but have no purpose. I’d hoped for this day, in a lot of ways, when they get excited about creating their own costumes. I have fond memories of putting my costumes together from things we had in our dressup box. That day is here, but I’m sad. I admit fully, I’m sad. I took pride in their joy and in their glee. I took pride in making their visions come to life.

Those are my feelings, though, and have absolutely nothing to do with their excitement around what is a fun, creative, and silly holiday. My feelings have no part in their experience, and shouldn’t. They’re there, and I’m acknowledging them here. I suppose this is what The Older Parents talk about when they tell us “one day, you’ll wish they weren’t growing up so fast,” when we Younger Parents complain about toddler tantrums or having to tie a shoe for the 10,000th time. They’re growing up. We’re doing our job.

So this year they’ll don their self-designed and self-created costumes. I’ll smear on a little ghoulish makeup; I know that next year, it’s likely she won’t even allow me to do that, that she’ll want to do it herself. I’ll relish this year for what it is. I’ll post pictures. It’s what we do.

And then I’ll go bake a complicated cake. A mama’s gotta have something, after all.

30 July 2016

The Beans Do Blues Alley, or A Parenting Decision Done Right

“Did you get tix for Fri? With kids?”


Crap.


We’d talked with friends about going to see Poncho Sanchez at Blues Alley.


Get online and get tickets tonight, I pushed at H. They’ll love it, I reminded him.


I was in bed, and he was downstairs doing some work. He texted me from the dining room. They weren’t cheap tickets. They weren’t astronomical, but because it’s a supper club, there’s a minimum spend on top of the tickets.


“I’m ok passing on it if you think it’s too much,” I texted back. I paused, then “They won’t have tons more chances to do these things with their grandmother tho. Part of the fun.”


His next text included the confirmation number. “These are the things we must sacrifice for. What will we sacrifice?”


“Lunch out tomorrow. Mine is packed already.” It had been Taco Tuesday, so that was a no-brainer to pack up. “Sprite the next 537 times No.2 asks for it.” Our little one has a Sprite obsession we’ve indulged a tad too much over this summer of summers.


“A waffle maker [winky emoji.]” I’ve been threatening - or rather promising - to look into getting a waffle iron to facilitate homemade Waffle Wednesdays. We can buy frozen.


The next ten texts were H checking out the rest of the Blues Alley’s schedule. Taj Mahal Trio at the end of September. Jody Watney mid-October.


“We need some samba for our boy,” I wrote. No.2 loves the beat. H kept going. Arturo Sandoval, the Cuban-American genius we saw at the Blue Note on our Manhattan honeymoon, then again, not 2 weeks later, when the tour swung through for a stop at Blues Alley. He’ll be there again in December.


H reported back: there’s a samba-bossa nova group playing on a Monday night in September. I got all responsible parent at that point. A Monday night is a school night, so no dice.


The next morning, we told our friend all five of us would see him Friday night at the club - with kids.


As the week progressed, we played You Tube videos for the Beans so they’d know the music a little. Hearing the rhythm, H and I got excited to see Poncho and his band play some true latin jazz - and jazz overall - standards. The Beans were excited about a night out. Because they hadn’t been to a supper club before, and had never heard jazz live, we tried to explain a little:


“It’s small, with tiny tables, and dark. They used to smoke in a club back in the day.”

“Eeew, that stinks!”


“Yeah, it did, but the clouds kind of added to the ambience - to the mystique.”


Even on the way there, driving the back roads through the suburbs and down into the city, I got all “mama’s teaching us again,” and played on their growing musical knowledge, asking them about improvisation, harmony, and - after a good 5 minutes of trying to remember the word - dissonance.


“I don’t know exactly what you’ll hear and see,” I tried to prepare them, “but I know you’ll like it. Pay attention to what you can observe.”


H and I have been going to Blues Alley shows together for close to 2 decades. We have an informal policy of not saying no to any “legendary” performer. H is still kicking himself for not going to a James Brown concert when he had the chance. He won’t even let us talk about it. So we go to concerts every chance we get: jazz, rock, classical, you name it. Our second date was to see the Roy Hargrove Sextet at Blues Alley. He took me as a surprise, telling me, when I asked what to wear, only that I needed to “look cool.” We’ve since seen the trumpeter again there, and countless others: Chucho Valdez, Maynard Ferguson, and the Ahmad Jamal Trio as they performed year after year on New Year’s Eve. We’d go just the two of us, or we’d take his mom with us. For those post-midnight NYE shows, we’d gather a group and go after a massive dinner.


When it got to the point that friends had expected years before, and 6 years into our relationship, he asked me to marry him, writing “Marry me?” on my back with his finger while we sat at one of those teeny Blues Alley tables right up against the brick wall. He pushed a little box across the table at me, and as the Caribbean Jazz Project played, he put a ring on my finger.


2 years later, we married, and another year after that, the Bean joined us. She grew into a dancing baby (Miss Joyce at the Amercian City Diner would play music just to get her to bop around in her high chair), and occasionally we’d leave her and later her brother to go for a show. All we could do as we enjoyed whichever concert it was - from jazz to KISS - was think, “We can’t wait to bring the Beans, they’d love this so much.” It was years, though, before we messed with our long-super-early bedtimes enough and venture taking them.


Finally, last night, the time was right. H held two tables against the back stairs for our two families as I parked and our friends made their way in. The Beans balked as I snapped them walking down the historic alley, and they rolled their eyes at their mama as I made them stand for a picture under the iconic marquee. Then they walked into the club with the confidence and maturity we’ve tried to give them. To the club’s and the other patron’s credit, they didn’t bat an eyelash at four kids under 10 (there was one other smart mama with her daughter).


The seven musicians came down the rickety stairs and waited right next to us to pile onto the also teeny stage. The little people turned, wide-eyed, and gaped as they realized Pancho was RIGHT THERE!, and jumped gleefully when they got a couple of high fives as the band passed.

If you don’t know “One Mint Julep,” you’re missing out. You’re missing out on a composition that, when you hear it, you have no choice but to sing along, despite its only lyric being a long “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey!” Little eyes went big, and shoulders and toes started to move. The music caught and held them, completely absorbed, until the raucous applause after the opening number.

Eventually, they found a place on the stairs above our heads, hands on the rails and faces peeking through the banister. Staff and other patrons went up and down next to them, and not a one said a word about kids not being safe or being in the way. That other mom found a spot on the landing with her younger-than-ours daughter on her lap. We heard solo after solo, and standards like Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” later made famous by Mongo Santamaria. There was an as-yet-unrecorded new piece, and the saxophone player (a local DC guy) turned out to be a wind player, pulling out a flute for “Guaripumpe,” a salsa that, if you can sit still during it, you’re probably dead. Our budding flutist finally believed my year of telling her that jazz flute is some of the best flute.

It was late. It was loud. It was tight. It was chilly, then hot. Everyone had to pee at least twice, and no one really ate their dinner. No.2 curled up in my lap during that new piece, a gorgeous slow cha-cha. “I’m tired, Mama,” he said, and I put his blazer over his head, rocking him to the jazz lullaby. And then I turned to H, across that tiny table in the dark, tapped his shoulder, and gave him a huge smile.

“We did it,” I said. Knowing exactly what I meant, he raised his hand to mine. High five. The band finished that salsa number and walked back past us up the stairs. Our newly minted latin jazz fans got a bunch of high fives from the musicians. Then, as we filed out through the bar on our way to get ice cream, the bearded man in the black baseball cap gave stopped us. “High five,” he said, raising his hand to the three little palms. “You did great,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.” They grinned as if they’d been going to jazz shows their entire little lives.


27 January 2016

On Libraries and Thought

The most priceless gift we have as humans is thought. (Perhaps it's love, I know, given what I wrote last, but bear with me.)

My library home, via

From the first moments I was blessed to spend in Bayard Taylor Memorial Library to the hours I spent waiting for our "late bus" in Mrs. McKay's domain, I was in love. I can still feel the rounded corners of the well-loved card catalog on the first floor, and remember the moment when I graduated from the children's space downstairs to the grownup volumes upstairs. I learned flower arranging. I was allowed to play mini flute concerts with my best friend. I poured over the stacks at my parents' alma mater for high school research papers, gleefully going down the rabbit hole of connecting ideas, tracking down the next book from a reference in the one on my carrel.

I stacked them all up on my private shelves, marking them with the index cards I used for notetaking. I lost track of time. I found topic upon topic I wanted to pursue - I wanted to consider. Those low walls were a safe, welcoming cave where I felt at home, every bit the college student I wasn't yet.

The University of Delaware's Morris Library, via

That my college dorm rooms overlooked the library was comforting. Rolling back the shelves to find their secrets, then photocopy their pages to take them back to my room felt almost scandalous. I couldn't throw out my pieces of the library. I have some of them, still.

Libraries are our own gift to us. Maria Popova's ode to them and the space they grant us to think provoked me this morning. I chuckled with ken at the verses she shared. Joseph Mills, lover of free libraries, paid homage to the institutional gift reader and thinker Mr. Franklin gave us when he founded the first free library.

"IF LIBRARIANS WERE HONEST

“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute. They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.
They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can."

25 January 2016

The Power of Love

Thank you to Kathleen Flemming of Majestic Unicorn, for sharing her story and inspiring me to put fingers to keyboard, long overdue, to share mine.


About 2 weeks before the end of last school year, our baby boy started lashing out uncontrollably. Massive fits of anger over tiny little things, unpredictable, but nearly daily. I was the one at home after school with them, so by the time H came home, I was done. I'd try and give him time outs, but he wouldn't sit. I'd try and give him consequences (taking away toys or screen time), but there was no effect.


I couldn’t figure it out. While he could - ahem - make better choices at times, and he’s 100 percent a rough-and-tumble kid, he’d never shown what felt like violence. He is sweet to the core, loving, and affectionate. The kind of Mama’s-working-hard-behind-a-closed-door-but-I-interrupted-her-to-give-her-a-kiss-and-say-I-love-you affectionate a mama dreams of (and yet, it’s still the most lovely surprise when it happens).

Pounding fists upset wasn’t my baby.

Then one day, out of the blue, and at my wit’s end, I uncrossed my arms and lowered my voice. Instead of walking away from his outburst, I walked into it. I walked towards him, calmer than I’d been in ages. I scooped him up, plopped down on the floor right there, and, as he fought me, held him tight.

“I love you, baby. You’re safe, and I love you. I know you’re hurting, baby, and I love you.” Over and over again.

It didn’t feel like he heard me. I was glad for my healthyme journey and the residual strength I had in my arms. I had a tiger cub I was wrangling, trying to keep him safe while he fought hard against the feelings he couldn’t name.

He couldn’t name his feelings, I realized. At 5, he had no words for them. As he started to let up, I started to offer him words, “Are you angry, baby? It’s ok if you are.” He wriggled and fought. I kept it up. “I love you.”

I felt a little silly. I felt a little crunchy granola permissive parent. And I listened hard to my instinct telling me to make sure he knew how loved he is. Eventually, it subsided, and my tired, emotional boy went on with his evening and off to bed.


I was spent, nightly, but as I kept it up, the frequency abated. In the opening, I finally had the courage to mention it to his teacher. As teachers of very young children are wont to do, she reminded me that his left arm had left school early for a family trip. The person my baby loved with all his heart and soul, the person he told me repeatedly he was going to marry, and insisted regularly was family, was gone for the summer. They’d been inseparable since they met the year before in preschool.


His best friend was on vacation. His safe place, his pre-K classroom, was wrapping up for the year. We were starting to talk about The Big Move to the suburbs.


My instincts had been right. My baby was confused and angry, lost because his world as he knew it was crumbling. I kept up the hugs, and my patience grew. I understood. Things settled, we went off to his happy place Down Tha (Jersey) Shore for a week, and he healed. Some.


Then we packed up and moved to our new home. We’d talked about his new (own) room and its secret hiding place (seriously, neighborhood legend has it that a CIA operative was the original owner of our 1960-built manse). We’d gotten excited about running out the backdoor and playing soccer whenever we wanted, about watering the garden that was just ours and we didn’t share with anyone, and about catching lightning bugs without having to descend 6 floors in an elevator. We celebrated his sister’s 8th birthday with a huge party, replete with water gun battles, every meat you could imagine on the grill, and running lap after lap around Our House. We were happy.

He took his new job VERY seriously. 

Before we moved in fully, we brought over a few of their favorite things.

Relishing our newfound backyard

And then, once we’d spent about a week in our new home, it started again. The moments were long. They were brutal. He’d grown, it felt like, in those weeks since the last outburst, and was stronger. There were also stairs and a long hallway and a front door and his very own bedroom door to slam. Day after day, it repeated during the witching hour. Day after day, I tried my patience and my love. Some days it worked better than others. Some days I lost it and yelled back. One day, I let my guard down and his angry punch, which I could usually block, connected with my nose.

And then, one day, we were in a restaurant, eating peacefully, laughing about something. He turned to me, looked up, and said, “Mama, I didn’t know what moving was like.”

In that moment, I remembered that there was no way a 5 year old who’d lived in one place his whole little life, who felt things sometimes excruciatingly deeply, and had all of his connections ripped away from him, understood what “let’s pack up all of our things and move them somewhere else and stay there forever” meant. It’s absurd, really.


It took a while, but with a few extra trips to the old neighborhood, some happy camp time (art, music, “regular,” and tae kwon do, since you asked), countless nights falling asleep with his sister or us (he’d never slept alone, another thing we never realized), and a visit from a favorite 15 year old cousin willing to have epic slipper battles at the end of every day on our front walk, and he settled in. We settled in.

Almost too big for the swings he was first in as an infant

That they have these moments...

Craft cocktails two blocks away for weekend brunch? Yes, please.

Little things, like the library carpet in the new school being identical to the carpet in his pre-K classroom, are priceless. He had to sit in his spot and he told me to send this picture to his old teacher.

He still gets upset, and there’s an occasional slammed door. He sometimes tells me he misses our old house and we all need visits to our old ‘hood (it’s only 12 minutes to our favorite bakery - we clocked it), but he taught me to listen. I’m not very good at it, sometimes. Sometimes, I don’t hear what he, his sister, or even my mother-in-law or H (she’s now living with us) aren’t saying, either. Sometimes, I’m angry myself, or I just can’t hear it. But then, I remember. I remember that settling in to love and showing it unconditionally has more power than anything in the world, if we can hear it.