Two Japanese Words

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Any time I talk about customer service, I have to break out two of my favorite Japanese words, commonly used in the world of Lexus: kaizen and omotenashi. Kaizen means continuous improvement, an ongoing passion for personal and professional development. It goes without saying that any conversation about customer service will require a constant pursuit of offering better service today than we did yesterday. We must read, learn, try new things. Omotenashi is a little trickier to explain, as I don’t know that there is a true English equivalent.

Omotenashi loosely translated means hospitality, but it really is a stronger version of it. Imagine that your favorite celebrity is going to visit your home: think about how you would put out your best dishes, purchase fresh flowers, and prepare their favorite foods. This level of service is anticipatory, offering amenities which the guest doesn’t even know they want or need. It is a hospitality level designed to delight the guest, help them feel at ease, and create lasting memories. For a company aspiring to the utmost level of the customer experience, one can easily sense that omotenashi is the ideal goal.

In thinking of customer service in this way, I am reminded of the motto held by the Ritz Carlton: We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. I love this phrase, because it conveys a sense of manners and graciousness. It implies that it is an honor to serve others (which it truly is). When I hear about a situation involving a heated debate with a customer or coworker, I think of this motto. Keeping a poised demeanor is absolutely essential, and the more that we maintain our decorum, the calmer the other person will pick up on our dignified presentation and respond in-kind.

In addition to these two concepts, I am unable to discuss customer service without mentioning employee engagement. I believe with my full heart that there can be no ongoing culture of exemplary guest service without a conscious commitment to the internal customer, the associate. It is not realistic to expect team members to be superstars of omotenashi and kaizen without a direct supervisor who embraces those same values. Of the 8-10 responsibilities I have at the dealership, the one which is my absolute priority is caring for the 5 employees for whom I am responsible. I cannot do anything else unless I know that they are ok, and that they have everything they need for the day. I work extra hours to accommodate special schedule requests, ask them about life events, keep communication lines open about their duties and tell them I appreciate them. As we have built our relationship over the years, they have rewarded me with a loyalty that impresses me daily. These amazing individuals provide anticipatory service to the Jim Hudson Lexus customers, seeing things that need to be done for them and jumping in without having to be asked. Ours is a relationship of the utmost level of mutual respect; we watch out for one another and safeguard a positive work experience. When guests comment on the friendliness and service extended by my department, I feel that it is a direct reflection on how they feel about their job.

It has been said that how one feels about their job is 90% related to how one feels about their supervisor. This is why I take my leadership responsibilities so seriously. Considering how much time we spend at work, I have the power to impact someone’s daily life in a significant way. I am sure that John Mackey of the Whole Foods organization concurs: “If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”

The best way to fulfill this obligation is to lead by example. If I instruct my team to be punctual, well-groomed, polite, attentive, hard-working…then I myself must demonstrate those attributes in excess of the level I expect from them. If I am encouraging kaizen and ongoing learning, then I must pursue it, as well. My team and I help one another to be better employees, and by extension, better human beings. As we sustain an elevated level of courtesy and graciousness in our environment, that same optimistic attitude begins to ooze into our personal lives, with positive results. We become a blessing to one another.

Being a blessing to someone is at the core of everything I choose to do in my life. It has become my mission statement, informing every interaction at home, work or in the community. The cool thing about having a personal mission statement is that it simplifies decisions. Anytime I am overwhelmed or in doubt, I ask myself how I can be a blessing to the other person, and the answers and actions flow from that. Followers of my blog will recall how I came to discover this mission statement a couple of years ago, but perhaps do not realize how transformative it has become. Be a Blessing Blog By asking myself how to be a blessing to others, it brings personal significance to the customer service I extend. I want to bring the most beautiful aspects of omotenashi to the guest in front of me in each moment, and I am rewarded with a feeling of actually being in love with my job. I go home each night knowing that the work I am doing is my life’s purpose, and it is more fulfilling than any career I could have imagined for myself 30 years ago when I helped my first customer in my first job almost 40 years ago.

While there are still moments of incredible stress and frustration in my work life, I cannot imagine doing anything else, for any other company, as long as I am physically able to work. Customer service positions have to be the most challenging and difficult of any jobs today, but by embracing two small Japanese words and coming up with a mission statement that resonates for you, I can testify that even a job you have had for many years can become new, fresh, and amazing.

 

For Mary Catherine

Most of us spend our teens and 20’s in a decidedly selfish stage of life. We want to party, we care about how we look, we spend money on ourselves as quickly as it falls into our greedy little hands. Looking back on this phase, I see myself mired in a boy-crazy,  superficial slog to adulthood, holding on to the Freudian Id of myself like a sentimental stuffed animal with which I was unable to part. At the time, I imagined there were people who eventually matured and did crazy things like save money or be responsible, but I did not know many of them my age, and my own ambitions were nebulous and egocentric.

As a result of all of this vain immaturity in my youth, it struck me as particularly impressive when I observed my niece Mary Catherine as she approached young adulthood with the poise of someone who had been given a cheat sheet on how to become a good person. She thrived in high school and college, with good grades and great friends. Despite some mild anxiety issues, she found the bravery to join the cheer leading squad, where she was loved by her team. In college, she pursued her passion for teaching with a sincere love of children and a true calling for the profession.

She graduated college last year and became a teacher at Parkway Elementary. It has been so cool to watch her blossom in this role, because she has always known what she wanted in life: to be a teacher, a good person, and one day, to have a family. While she enjoys fashion, she is not obsessed with her appearance, and never pretends to be something she is not. At a time when most people put God on the back burner, she shows commitment to her faith. Authentic is definitely a word I would use to describe her.

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The other words I use most often to describe her include kind, charming and levelheaded. Now, at 23, she once again demonstrates another trait of maturity: exemplary grace in adversity. Because it was her first year as a teacher, everyone thought that her recurring bouts of sickness were from exposure to all of her young students. After a series of tests, the family was stunned to learn that she has Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). She was immediately put in the hospital and is now in the middle of a month-long aggressive chemotherapy which could possibly impede her chances of having children in the future. Throughout it, of course, she is resilient, retaining her Mary Catherine spirit and showing the rest of us, as always, how a healthy mindset translates into a life well-lived.

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In a show of love and support, her friends have started a Go Fund Me page, both for the family burden of immediate medical expenses, as well as the hope of fertility treatments which will allow her to pursue her dreams of a family in the future. I ask my friends to offer your prayers for her strength and health, and/or a small gift to her page. I know that I would not have moved to Augusta back in the late 90’s if it were not for the sweet child I wanted to be near as she grew up. I know that many people join me in saying that Mary Catherine is an inspiration and role model to them, as well. The quote that sticks with me the most during this time is from the movie Mulan, when the Emperor says to the Captain, “The flower which blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all.” MC is indeed that flower, so I thank you in advance for your prayers and support for her.

Support Mary Catherine Go Fund Me page

M is for Maskey

A friend gave me a set of coasters for Christmas, beautiful beige ceramic ones with an elegant gold M etched into the top. I set them out on the coffee table this weekend, and Kevin jokingly asked if the M was for Miller. I assured him that the M was indeed, very much for the name Maskey

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It’s easy to see why he asked the question; he knew that I was still on a Miller buzz after an amazing grand opening weekend. Staff and volunteers for the Symphony Orchestra Augusta had just successfully introduced the revived theater to the community, following a 10-year, $23 million-dollar journey, and I had been blessed with a front row seat on the ride.

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The years leading up to this moment were filled with donated time and money unlike any endeavor I had ever undertaken. I served on the SOA board during the feasibility studies (2008-2011), a time I used to hound project chair Levi Hill IV to let me do anything in order to be involved. “I’ll sweep floors, hang posters, anything you need,” I vowed with awestruck enthusiasm for the impending renovation. Eventually my tenacity and vocal outbursts during board meetings must have convinced him of my passion for the building, because in 2011 he asked me to lead a team of like-minded marketing people to advocate for the campaign in the community. I recruited a group of impressive community leaders and creative minds to serve on the “MMT”,  the Miller Marketing Team. For the next 6 years, the MMT coordinated an ongoing stream of events to create awareness for the fundraising campaign and future construction. As a result of my role in these activities, I would ultimately be asked to serve on the board of the newly created Miller, LLC, and thus began my education in everything from capital campaigns to easement rights.

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Kevin always supported this often crazy journey of mine. I devoted entire weekends to representing the Miller at public events like the Downtown Loft Tour, Arts in the Heart and the Junior League Holiday Market, as well as coordinating our own events, including street festivals, birthday parties, music videos and private tours. Kevin has seen me selling shirts, answering questions, recruiting volunteers, building websites, attending meetings and even gift wrapping to raise money for the cause. He has watched me pour our personal money into marketing materials, event supplies, team lunches and souvenir sales. No matter how thin I stretched my time or money for Miller-related activities, Kevin remained steadfast in his encouragement. Never once did he challenge my level of giving, not even when I passed out broke and exhausted at the end of my many Miller adventures. I imagine most people would have at least had one conversation starting with “Um, honey, are you sure about all this?” Not my Kevin. He even allowed me to plaster Miller art and photographs all over the house, including a 9-foot painting we bought at a fundraiser back in 2010.

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He knew that the Miller journey was not always easy, for me or for the others who were involved. Volunteers and staff came and went. There were doubters, obstacles, learning curves and political battles. My portion of those challenges was minuscule compared to what Levi endured, always with grace and confidence. I tell anyone who will listen that the Miller stands proudly today because of Levi, and I have crazy respect for this charming gentleman and intelligent leader. Somehow the right people always came to us at the right time in the project, and I tend to think they were drawn to Levi’s unwavering faith and charisma. There were too many heroes in this battle to mention, but two individuals in particular felt like gifts from heaven when we needed their strengths the most. Anne Catherine Murray came in as Director of SOA at a time when the boat was flailing a bit, and she was able to maneuver us back on course with her experience and ability to make tough decisions. She was gracious and savvy; she seemed to intuitively know how to focus the talent on deck. Then, as we neared the finish line with much left to accomplish, in flies Marty Elliott, the Mary Poppins of General Managers, with her knowledge and firecracker energy.  What a blessing these three leaders have been, and I credit them and the major investors for the phenomenal structure which now connects the past of downtown Augusta with her future.

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During the opening gala, despite the incredible symphonic presentation and vocal performance by Sutton Foster, I was restless and wanted to walk the space by myself. While the sold-out crowd enjoyed the music, I meandered the glossy arcade and strolled past the shiny displays. It was a surreal moment, remembering what it used to look like and feeling a tiny bit out-of-place. I focused on being fully present in the moment, still emotional after the presentation to Levi which had taken place onstage a few moments earlier. I knew I would remember this night as long as I lived, the culmination of years of efforts by hundreds of people, humbled by the fact that I was a small part of it all, and honored to know that the name Maskey would grace the plaques in this space for generations to come. And for that, the final thanks has to go to Kevin Maskey. I want him to know that no matter what challenge I tackle, that M will always be for Maskey.

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Kev-Ang at the opening gala

 

 

Minimalist Holiday, Wrapped Up

I’ve been thinking about the Minimalists lately. The holiday season is lurking ahead, replete with the dangers of over consumption. It is easy to go overboard with superfluous purchases, falling prey to ingrained expectations and family rituals. This habit of overspending during the Christmas season is born in good intentions but lacks the restraint and thoughtfulness which the minimalist movement embraces.

If you are unfamiliar with the Minimalists, I encourage you to watch the compelling Netflix documentary about a trend towards simplicity and away from the excessive pursuit of non-essential material goods. (Or peek at the website here: The Minimalists ). I saw the film for the first time in January of this year, still high from the massive spending record I had set over the prior few months. The timing for the message was perfect, and in my state of unprecedented stress and debt, the story of Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn resonated with me in a profound way.

I’ve watched the video multiple times throughout the year, and have been aggressive in pursuing the values. The entire house has undergone a transformation, with the exception of my husband’s possessions, which he has patiently asked me to stop donating without permission. My wardrobe is streamlined, our house decor borders on the austere, and my sister’s eBay sales have hit a spike. Whatever missing part of my life I was trying to fill with spending, I now attempt to fill with hobbies, such as writing, reading or gift wrapping. Which leads me back to the holiday predicament.

How do I embrace the values of minimalism and still pursue my passion for the creative outlet of gift wrapping? How do I tweak my approach to the gift exchange traditions which have been a part of my family’s story? The Minimalists offer suggestions in this podcast ( Gift Giving for the Minimalists ), including gifts of experiences, consumables and charitable donations. This last idea hits home for me, since there are so many cool non-profits in the area I would love to support, and I like the message of “hey, I know this cause is important to you, so for Christmas, I made a donation to them in your honor.”

Suddenly, a development opened the door to a solution for my dilemma. My friend Crystal has a new job with Augusta Animal Services, and told me about a donor who is willing to match any contribution made during the first two weeks of November. When I heard this good news, it seemed like an ideal way to try to get the “donation as gift” concept out there. I told her that for anyone who makes a donation to her organization on behalf of a loved one, I will offer to gift wrap a custom message so that their recipient is still able to experience opening a present. Free gift wrap and matching donations might just be the platform we need to do something positive for the furry friends in our area, and satisfy my personal challenge to give gifts with more meaning and less material consumerism.

If someone on your shopping list has a passion for animals, this might just be the unique and thoughtful gift you have been seeking. I will customize the look of the gift to the style you think they would enjoy, such as a natural, craft paper wrap or an upscale, high-gloss presentation. If you have a hard time with the complete lack of a physical object, I can include a pet-based holiday ornament, so there is some small keepsake memento of the gesture. (While not a strict minimalist approach, I could still get by with it by building a case for the ornament adding value to the overall gift-opening experience. 😉 )

Feel free to message me on the contact form on my wraps website ( Orange Cat Wraps  ) if you would like more information. I will likely stress a minimum donation around $50, because of the quality and time of the wrapping, and the urgent need for the spay/neuter program which will benefit. I am flexible, though, because I want us all to feel like it is not how much we give or spend, but how much thought there is behind the gesture. Hopefully the Minimalists will approve.

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P.S. If the animal donation is not a fit, but you like the idea of charity-as-gift and want the complimentary wrap, I will also wrap for donations to other non-profits in the area, including (but not limited to) such organizations as the Miller Theater, Golden Harvest Food Bank, SafeHomes, Fireside Ministries, Salvation Army and Child Enrichment. Let’s chat.

 

 

How Many Stars? Just One.

The past decade with Kevin has turned me into a bit of a hotel snob. We both work incredibly long hours at stressful jobs in the car business, and when we travel, we want interesting stories and an embarassing level of luxury out of the deal. When my coworkers talk about hotel prices, they throw out numbers like $200 per night as an obscene extravagance. I stay pretty quiet in those moments, not wanting to divulge that Kev has no reservations (pardon the pun) about dropping $500 or more for a night in a luxury resort.

Early on in these hospitality adventures, I started keeping the extra key card as a souvenir. Eventually I was able to make a collage out of the plastic keepsakes. On the plaque, you will notice a few for Chateau Elan, a wine resort outside of Atlanta which often hits internet lists as one of the most romantic getaways in the South. It is a sentimental favorite for us, one of the first luxury hotels we visited and the place we chose for our wedding ceremony. We like to return for our anniversary weekend, and they always put a nice note and bottle of wine out for the occasion.

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Such gestures are clearly a part of the luxury hotel experience, but our motivation to drop hard-earned cash on what is essentially a bedroom and a bathroom has more to do with creating memories. We love to have stories to share from the places we’ve been, and get a kick out of observing how each place has a unique personality. We are frankly just happy to escape, and to be together.

There are some Kev-Ang escapes when it is not practical to visit a 4 or 5 star establishment, but we always find a place which is very clean and safe with a name we trust. I heard a comedian once refer to a hotel by saying “I won’t mention the name of the place, but there were two trees involved.” I’ll borrow that approach and tell you that this past weekend’s stay was at a recently built property in Asheville, affiliated with a commercial that hypnotizes the viewer with a simple “Bada Book, Bada Boom.”

Kevin and I probably have never stayed in a BadaBook hotel before, and it was certainly satisfactory in the grand scheme of things. It was very bright and clean, the service was good and the room was spacious. The price was $200 a night, which seemed fair enough, and was geographically close to the places we were visiting. Staying there, I started thinking about what the various stars denote in the hotel classification system, so I looked up the hotels.com definitions and found them to be very helpful. Based on their summaries, our BadaBook was definitely a 3 star. Nice pool, nice free breakfast, free internet, suites with furniture, decent art and many pillows.

People who stay in these places on a regular basis might be suprised to learn that the free breakfast is not something we normally receive at hotels with more stars, and that is fine with us. We would rather go out into the city and find our own fun breakfast to purchase. Aside from the breakfast difference, here are some other ways the hotels vary, based on our experiences:

  1. Bedding. I like to think I have some decent writing skills, but I am not sure I can fully articulate how it feels to get into the sheets at a luxury resort. I know that after wasting too much money trying to duplicate that feel at home, I finally realized that you cannot purchase this level of smoothness at your local Target or Bed Bath and Beyond. I had been playing around with triple digit threadcounts without realizing that I needed something closer to thousand-plus, Egyptian cotton fabrics to reach what we were enjoying in the plush hotels. Kevin and I have spent entire afternoons getting the best sleep of our lives in the huge, supple beds and pristine crisp bedding of a upscale resort. Like many luxuries in life, it is hard to go back to the basics after you’ve been spoiled like this.
  2. Service. Since both of us deal with the public for a living, it is important to be offered the level of service which mandates some form of training and polished manners. We have walked out of hotels with front desk clerks who were curt and perfunctory, snapping at us as if we were errant children in a grocery store. At the 4 and 5 star places, we are greeted by well-groomed valets opening our car doors and helped by polite professionals at the reception area calling us by name. We appreciate this critical component of the resort experience and consider it to be essential if we are going to shell out the big bucks for a nights sleep.
  3. Environment. A well-appointed room is a joy to enter. Whether modern and artistic or traditionally elegant, I enjoy the process of roaming through a new hotel room and seeing how it has been designed. I once stayed in a hotel with birds thoughtfully perched along the wall. Another place had a message written for us in lipstick on the mirror. Dual showers with rainfall showerheads, garden tubs, fireplaces, breathtaking art and elegant furniture allow you to feel that you truly are escaping everyday life into another world, one in which neither of us will have to listen to anyone yell at us that $60 is too much to spend on an oil change.
  4. Amenities. I am never one to care much about a free sample, and often leave them sitting untouched on the marble vanity of our hotel room. What I do enjoy is the quality and creative assortment of the toiletries. At a 3 star hotel, your free hair care comes in small bottles which spew out an insufficient amount of watered-down conditioner. In contrast, I’ve returned home from a 5 star hotel so in love with the smell of the shampoo they gave me that I went online to purchase a full size bottle, only to discover that it costs $75 for the set and has to be shipped from London. Sadly, this is out of my budget, so I returned to my normal products and will save those indulgences for my travels. But it’s nice to know that this level of excellence is out there. Additionally, we have stayed in places with complimentary champagne or bourbon in the room, or a courtesy happy hour in the lounge.

In the end, the extra stars at the hotels are a rare treat, which, like a first class airline ticket, are best saved for special occasions. The really cool thing about this past weekend was that Kevin and I had such a nice time together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. He is such a delightful travel companion, open to adventure or laziness as the day unfolds. We had a lovely time in a fun city, enjoyed amazing food and music with friends. Although our 3-star BadaBook hotel had only one overworked elevator and less than stellar hair products, the place was very nice and met all of our needs. Kevin and I reconnected, slept well and came home refreshed. I guess it is less about the stars of the hotel and the more about the one Superstar right beside me. Luxury or simple, with any number of stars, the best part of any hotel experience is Kevin, and with him there will always be a fun memory to take home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memory Lane

The Saturn dealership where I used to work is now a Kia store. There is alot of red trim on that aging building on Gordon Highway, nestled in between failing businesses in a declining part of town. I picture the interior of that structure when I drive by on my way to Sconyers, or the airport, or the flower warehouse, wishing I could pull in and just nostalgically walk around. I spent 60 hours a week for 6 years in that building; I knew every inch of that place. I was involved in so many aspects of the business that the Saturn IT guy had to call me at my new job to get the password to the network computer. A former friend who worked there years after I left said he could still see evidence of my work on bulletin boards in the hallway.

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The Saturn building on a snowy day

 

The primary motivation behind my desire to snoop around is sentimental. Kevin and I worked there together in the late 90’s and early 00’s, during a time in my life when I was in what I call my “bad boy” phase, dating guys who were not compatible with me. Kev and I got along well as co-workers, a relationship of mutual respect. I never thought of him as anything except a kindred workaholic spirit, except for one day,  standing in his office, watching him juggle stressful situations with grace. He reached into his drawer and ran a quick brush through his hair while saying something that made us all laugh. In that moment, a thought occured to me: if I ever do decide to stop fucking around with guys who are all wrong, I need to find myself someone just like Kevin.

A few years later, my shitty romantic habits were beginning to concern me. I was teetering toward 40 with no real sense of why I sabotaged healthy relationships in favor of drama-filled ones. I had been in this place before, and even sought counseling about it, but always disliked the therapists I met. One therapist was fresh out of college and had a look of panic when I shared my feelings with her. Another was a nerdy type who left me feeling judged. Despite these failed attempts, I thought I would give it one last try, calling on a therapist who knew both of my parents, as well as one sister. I figured it would save us some time if I didn’t have to describe my family dynamic with her. Let’s call her Dr. Liz.

When I called her office to set an appointment, the receptionist stated that Dr. Liz was not accepting any new patients. I would not be deterred. “She has to see me!” I exclaimed. “She already knows my whole family and I need her help!” The young woman put me on hold, returning a few minutes later with the good news. I started therapy the following week.

I don’t recall much about the short time I visited Dr. Liz, except her office filled with books and one of those small flat dishes filled with sand and a tiny rake for nervous people who want to move the sand around in a meditative way. I do know that I was happy to finally meet a therapist I liked, who was cool and stylish and non-judgey. I didn’t see her very long, as she would finally determine that there was really nothing wrong with me, including my proclivity to sometimes “live in the past”. She explained that some people just spend more time than others thinking about the past, and that it was perfectly fine. She also told me it was perfectly fine if I never settled down, and not to worry about it. Maybe it will happen, maybe not. The main thing was just to always be honest about my feelings.

It was such an enormous relief to hear someone I respected give me a diagnosis of “you are ok.” I stopped worrying about life so much after that, and terminated my toxic relationship. Years later, when I heard that Kevin was getting a divorce, I felt like it was a sign that I should reach out to him. It took a bit of convincing for him to go out with me, but once we found a slow, comfortable way to get to know each other, the foundation was formed for something healthy and lasting. Early in our courtship, when Kevin still worked at Saturn and neither of us had cable TV at our respective apartments, we would stop by Zaxby’s on Sunday evenings for dinner to-go, and head over to the dealership to drink wine and watch Brett Michaels in VH-1’s Rock of Love.

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The lounge where we watched Rock of Love. Was the TV really that small??

 

 

So yes, thinking of those fun times with Kevin, I do still feel a bit of fondness for the past, and that is why I feel the pull of that old dealership with the red trim on Gordon Highway. I yearn to walk through the halls where I used to spend so much time. I could see the office where I first thought of him as a person instead of just a cool co-worker. I could see the customer lounge where we used to eat chicken fingers and watch reality TV. I could visit the ladies room where I cried over icky boyfriends and know that I never have to feel that way again. My memories during the years when the building still held the Saturn logo set the stage for the life I live now. And though I don’t think I really “live in the past”, I do feel an immense gratefulness for those years, when I grew up a little. It’s because of my time in that building that I was able to find something better for myself than what I had. I not only found someone just like Kevin, I got the real thing. And it is even more amazing than I imagined it would be.

Book Club Quandary

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I’ll go ahead and admit that I was focused on the carrot cake and not fully listening to Brenda. She talks often in our book club meetings, so I thought it was safe to tune out a bit and think instead about people who are into cake. Cake discussions invariably address moistness, sweetness, and cake-frosting ratio, and this particular carrot cake was scoring high on all counts. While there were no worries of me running to the Dutch bakery to buy more of it and blow my diet, I certainly was “in the moment” and savoring this generous slice of carbohydrates while Brenda relayed something of interest to the group.

There were 7 of us at the round table, a normal turnout for the monthly meeting of our 10-year old club. If you’ve ever seen the clever cocktail napkins with a drawing of a book and a bottle of wine, you likely have a sense of the ethos of our gatherings: a wine club that reads books. Most of our time is social; we are as likely to spend a couple of hours talking about vacations or grandkids as we are discussing the month’s book of choice. Nobody leads the discussion, there are no pre-arranged questions to keep us on topic, and the selection of next month’s book is as random as deciding on a title that someone stumbled upon recently in a Facebook post.

This club casualness explains why I was suprised when I tuned back in to the topic at hand at our last meeting. I looked up from my glob of cream cheese frosting and realized that Brenda had ventured into a monologue about how reading a book you might not like initially can be a character-building experience. She proclaimed that the whole point of a book club is to open one’s mind to titles which would not normally draw you in. “We learn from what we read,” she continued, “and unexpected worlds are to be found in a book that may not typcially be appealing.”

I shook off my sugar buzz and started paying closer attention to her speech. Without naming names, she seemed frustrated that someone would come to book club meetings and be dismissive of many of the featured works. I looked around the table and suddenly had the thought: she is talking about me!

It’s no secret in the group that I have little interest in many of the books everyone reads and reviews. I am not a huge fan of fiction, and am a snob about non-fiction, which leaves little else to consider. If I get overly stressed in my life, I find that I barely have the attention span for magazine articles, much less full stories. If I start a book and it doesn’t captivate me with wonderment in the first 3 chapters, I thoughtlessly abandon it right into my box of Goodwill donations. I rarely suggest titles at the meetings, and seldom chime in to book-related conversations. I don’t even participate with bringing food very often. In short, I am a sub-par member of the group, and up until now, it seemed to be ok. People still seemed to enjoy seeing me, periodically asking about something I was reading or doing in my life, and I believed that my lack of participation was a non-issue, at least until it occured to me over carrot cake that I might be a dark cloud in the otherwise jovial proceedings.

Suddenly, my philosophy of “life is short, read what you like” was called into question. Sure, I have read some books I would not have otherwise as a result of the club, and I have tossed in a few comments and suggestions here and there, but truly I am the only one in the club outside of my BFF (who rarely attends) with signficant detachment from the task at hand. I love to read as much as anyone else in the group, but I don’t read as often or as many genres as my club cohorts. I am only motivated to read things that inspire or delight or intrigue me. Anything else feels inauthentic, giving me flashbacks to my college years when I suffered through pages which failed to captivate my mind.

If I absolutely HAD to read the book in order to attend the meeting, or thought I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t, I would have dropped out years ago, finding it all too obligatory and taxing. From the moment I realized that I was the subject of open criticism (I wanted to proclaim, “I’m right here!” as she was speaking), I’ve been contemplating stepping out of the club completely. If I am not adding value, perhaps I don’t need to be there, despite my affection for all of the members, Brenda included.

In the aftermath of this mental debate, I stumbled upon a book in the bookstore and immediately fell in love. This is the kind of immediate, visceral reaction I crave from a book, causing me to feel that all other books are just blind dates gone bad from which I need to escape through a bathroom window. The author of the book, Will Schwalbe, is astonishly articulate, with a keen intelligence and clean style. The topic of the book spoke to my book club quandry, and drew me in with the author’s charm and relatability. Titled Books for Living, it echoes Brenda’s passionate plea that an unexpected book can be life-changing, but it also addresses the dynamic, personal relationship we all have with the works we read. The opening of Schwalbe’s masterpiece engaged me with a description of a dream about not having anything to read on a plane, an intense fear that surpassed any other possible discomfort of the flight, and proceeds to explain books which have impacted his life in some way. I was indescribably happy to have discovered this literary jewel, and found myself walking along downtown streets reading the delicious pages without concern for anything else in the world.

In Books for Living, Schwalbe encourages us to bring books into our daily conversations, asking strangers and family members about what they like to read instead of always leaning on the mundane topics of work or weather. Books are a significant part of our lives, not just a source of knowledge or entertainment, and I know in my heart that this message is what Brenda was trying to convey while I sat feeling judged and confused. We all seek answers to big questions in our lives, and there is no greater source of comfort and insight than the millions of books which have been written by people with similar conundrums.

There is a notable amount of randomness with which we discover books, and a great deal of personalness to the questions we bring to each one. We’ve all found such gems in a casual stroll past a display table at the bookstore, a conversation with a stranger on a plane, or a book club conversation over carrot cake. The trick is to be open to the process and what works for you. I may be a little quicker to the draw on deciding whether or not a book speaks to me, or jump out the bathroom window if it feels like it’s not my thing, but I am as fervent as the next guy about seeking books which might be significant.

I’m not sure yet where I stand on my book club questions (the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” comes to mind), but I’ll ruminate on it. Perhaps I will be so inspired by Books for Living that I will feel compelled to go so that I can share this treasure with my friends. Perhaps I will step up my game and read more uncomfortable genres. Or maybe I’ll take a hiatus for introspection about why I give up so easily. Either way, I’m sure Mr. Schwalbe will have some reliable advice, as important books often do.