Category Archives: Age

What People Think

One of our customers, I’ll call him Mark, aggressively insisted that we give him free car washes, even after we discontinued the program. When he purchased a new vehicle today, we asked him if he wanted to include a maintenance plan. He declined, stating that he doesn’t do his service with us, he just takes the free washes.

I would be mortified to demand such special privileges, especially if my loyalty to the company was mediocre. Unlike Mark, I have an acute awareness of what other people might think about me. Mark is more worried about getting a deal for himself; I am more concerned with doing the right thing for the relationship. If it occurs to him that we might be expressing our disappointment after he leaves, it certainly doesn’t seem to matter. I, on the other hand, am so sensitive to what people might say when I walk away, that I have a lifetime of unnecessary purchases to show for it.

People always tell you that you shouldn’t care what others think about you, and for certain circumstances, that is absolutely true. You have to be authentic and let the chips fall where they may when you are following your heart. Yet, when I look back on the significant successes of my life, I realize that they were strongly driven by the opposite motivation. The truly cool things about me grew out of a carefully cultivated garden called What People Think. Marketing people might call it building your personal brand, others might label it nurturing your reputation. Brought down to the lowest denominator, you might even call it good ole fashioned giving a shit. Whatever you call it, it is a skill like any other, and it includes knowing when to put it into play.

Twenty years ago, I suffered from many of the common maladies of youth: procrastination, laziness, selfishness, sloppiness. My main priority was my appearance. I spent an obscene amount of time on my hair and makeup, and fished for compliments in the same way a flower leans toward the sun to maximize exposure to light. I wanted to be the nice person who was also attractive. That was about the extent of my garden. What people thought about my looks was such a big deal, that even if I was exhausted or broke, I would find a way to make sure I was polished and shiny when the moment called for it.

Over time, I starting caring about other aspects of my brand, as well. Worrying about what my co-workers would say inspired me to be punctual, work hard and not take the last cupcake. Concern for what the server would think pushed me to be a heavy tipper and not send anything back. Caring about my friends meant showing an interest in their hobbies and listening more than talking. Awareness of the people around me precluded me from overindulging in cocktails. Wanting Kevin to think of me as a good spouse inspired me to be neat and organized around the house.

As I get older, I care much less about appearance-related opinions and much more about ones pertaining to my character. I think about my legacy and the kinds of things I would want to be known for after I am gone. If descriptors such as hardworking, kind and thoughtful are batted around at my funeral, I will be happy with that. Over time, the motivation of caring about the opinions of others has evolved into caring about people in general. Recently I embraced a personal mission statement that simply states -Be a blessing to someone today. I still care what they think about me, but more than that, I care how they feel. Now that is a garden worth nurturing.

#Thisis50

I tried to do a selfie to let you see what 50 years old looks like, but… never having mastered the art of the selfie, I am afraid that all attempts turned out horribly, frightening me with some hard truths that I would rather not think about. I hope that in reality I look better than what my iPhone shares with me.

At least I can take some consolation that my coworkers were kind in their assessment of how I look for my age. The comments I heard today include: “You look 30!” “I swear I thought you were in your 20s!” and “There is no way you are 50!” Some conversation seemed slightly less complimentary, such as the look of surprise from my boss Bill, with: “I thought you were 30 when we hired you. Have you worked here that long?” Mr. Hudson’s comment also came across as less than favorable, but I am telling myself he had good intentions behind it:”Sorry this place has put so many miles on you!”

Although I am not sharing here what 50 years old looks like, I can share what it feels like. It feels like a bounty of happiness, surrounded by amazing people who fill my days with humor and kindness. I appreciate all of the riches in my life, including my incredible family, husband, job, coworkers, home, friends, community, cats and car. I still chase after all of the grand goals of life at full speed, while enjoying incredible good health (knock on wood), every day. In short, 50 feels amazing.

In the interest of full disclosure, however, I am compelled to tell you that 50 also feels…well, a little sleepy. I am tired more than I want to admit, and I crash pretty hard when I get home each night. In truth, I constantly pine after my next nap in the same way my cat Roland constantly pines after his next can of Fancy Feast. It’s always there, in the back of my mind, calling out to me: “Sleep! You know you want me!”

Despite my fatigue and frightening selfies, I was ok about facing the milestone birthday today. I was hopeful for the normally subdued day, as I prefer as little attention as possible. I turned off the birthday feature on Facebook, and tried to sneak under the radar without a lot of fanfare. Birthdays just are not a big deal to me, and I approached today thinking that this would be another quiet one. Not so much.

What 50 looked like today was a barrage of attention. This morning, I arrived at work at 6am to find a bouquet of balloons tied to my chair, and a collage of paper balloons taped to my window. I nearly teared up reading many of them.

I knew that my sweet assistant Rosanne was behind the festivities; she is truly as thoughtful and creative as they come. In addition to the balloons, cards and messages she corralled from the various 70+ coworkers at the dealership, she also created a special presentation just from her and her daughter Mercedes. The card was a singing one, a purple purse which encourages you to extract pink sunglasses, and when you do, lights flash on the purse and the song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” bursts forth loudly. Very loudly, at 6am. Rosanne also made a basket filled with my nectars of life, namely diet coke and wine. It sat near my desk all day, tempting me with its cruel blend of caffeine and intoxication.

It seemed that every co-worker paused to personally wish me well today. All throughout the chaos of work, a steady stream of pleasantries, hugs, songs and compliments were bestowed upon me. Customers noticed the attention and joined in with their wishes, especially when the arrangements began to arrive.

The first to arrive was a fruit bouquet, a gesture from my Guest Services team. Next was a lovely arrangement from a customer, and then beautiful blossoms from my sweet Kevin and finally a creative collection of unique flowers from my sister, brother-in-law and niece.  Suffice it to say, I was touched beyond measure, and filled with the gratitude of one who knows that her blessings exceed her worthiness.

Sometime this year I’ll try to take another selfie to show you what 50 looks like. For now, you will have to take my word for it. I could look better, I could look worse. But I could not possibly be richer in the things that matter most. #Thisis50.

 

Final Moments of Grace

Michelle wasn’t quite a co-worker to me, nor was she really a friend, but maybe she was something in between. She did seem more significant than just someone who did my job at another dealership. After Mr. Hudson hired her for his new Toyota store, he asked me to drive to Columbia to serve as her mentor, since a Customer Service Manager was still an unusual position in the car business. Michelle and I hit it off during training, which wasn’t surprising, since everyone got along well with Michelle. She had the kind of sweet disposition that was both endearing and sincere. I knew immediately that she would do a remarkable job, one that she re-titled Client Relations, and she did. It wasn’t long before Mr. Hudson and the Toyota team leaned on her for almost everything.

Michelle was very young, very pretty and recently married. One could easily get the sense that her life was just beginning, and that it would be amazing. You could easily picture her staying at her job for years, even as she had children and continued life as a wife and mother. Her potential was limitless, both personally and professionally.She was a devout Christian, but she was inspiring to others as much for her unwavering niceness as for her unwavering faith.

Since I am telling you so much about her potential, you’ve probably already guessed that this is a tragic story and not an uplifting one. At about the same time that we all decided that we loved this girl, she revealed her breast cancer diagnosis. Since I was in a different city and not as close to her as the many Jim Hudson employees who surrounded her, I was not in the loop on her medical journey, but received random updates. I do know that it didn’t take long before I was hearing that she was too sick from the chemo and radiation to work full days. Her sporadic, part-time schedule soon was too much for her, and the dealership figured out a way to keep her job and her office waiting for her, despite reports of her continuously failing strength.

I would continue to hear bits and pieces of her battle, which always sounded to me like a medical nightmare. The strategy of her doctors was one of extreme, aggressive therapies, and in vain attempts to kill cancer in one part of her body, the medical team soon faced collateral damage in other parts, including a compromised immune system and a spiral of devastating side effects. I heard so many reports of her declining health that it was not a shock when the corporate HR Manager called to tell me that Michelle had passed away. Young, vibrant, sweet Michelle, newly married and blossoming in her new career, had died.

I’m not sure why I felt so sure in that moment that the treatments did more to kill her than the cancer itself. I am not a health care professional, I don’t have an interest in science and I have an aversion to doctors and hospitals. I just had a hunch that somewhere along the line, the medical practitioners created more suffering than they ameliorated. Perhaps she was always going to die, but I couldn’t help but think that they deprived her of some significant quality of life, especially at the end, when reports from her visitors detailed how brave she was despite the appalling physical decline.

I’m sure the seeds of these thoughts where germinating when I discovered a book called The Emperor of All Maladies, touted as a definitive biography of cancer. Despite the lengthy, science and history-filled 608 pages, I read it as voraciously as if it were a suspense novel. Each chapter confirmed my suspicions regarding the dangers of traditional cancer therapies, and the arrogance which caused the industry to hold on to treatments long after the research indicated that they were counter-intuitive and counter-productive. I was already distrusting of Western medicine prior to reading the book; afterwards, I was convinced that I would rather perish quickly than to suffer in the hands of doctors who obstinately adhered to these frightening and dubious paths.

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Knowing these experiences, you might now understand my fascination with the latest book to admit some flaws in our current healthcare protocol, entitled Being Mortal. In this shorter work (282 pages), Dr. Atul Gawande admits that there is a need for a perspective shift in the industry. I like how this reviewer articulates the book:

“We have come to medicalize aging, frailty, and death, treating them as if they were just one more clinical problem to overcome. However, it is not only medicine that is needed…but life – a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible under the circumstances. Being Mortal is not only wise and deeply moving, it is an essential and insightful book for our times, as one would expect from Atul Gawande, one of our finest physician writers.” – Oliver Sacks

I was so impressed with Gawande’s work, that I did something I’ve only done a few times in my life: complete the book, close it shut, consider it, and then re-open it to begin reading it again at page one. There is so much in the book which is significant and thoughtful, that I daresay it occured to me that everyone should be required to read it.

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The timing of stumbling upon this masterpiece is intriguing. I was helping my husband through his recovery from hip surgery, while managing the house and my job. This 6-week ordeal was not that difficult, but it was all-consuming, and it caused me some trepidation for the future. If I was this exhausted during a short-term, minor surgery recuperation, how I would fare as a caretaker for him if the issue was more serious? I developed new respect for family members who are caring for individuals with more oppressive health needs, especially when there might be financial struggles, as well. I doubted my own character in such circumstances.

This was my state as I stood in the Target book department, slightly tired and depressed and fully prepared to salve my melancholy with personal purchases. Suffice it to say, I was tossing stuff in the red cart with little regard for my long-lost budget. I went to the non-fiction section and started grabbing any hardback book that wasn’t focused on diet or cooking. I would read the first page, and if it grabbed me, I added it to the cart. My selection of Being Mortal stunned me even as I dropped it in. Surely, this depressing-looking book was ill-advised in my current state? It sat on my nightstand for 2 weeks before I opened it. Once I did, though, I was hooked. It is a testament to Gawande’s writing style and personal approach to an otherwise icky subject that I kept reading it, daily, until I finished, and began again.

The other item of note in the timing of this book discovery is my approaching 50th birthday next month. At this time in my life, it is inevitable that I will be soon facing these very real issues, either again with my sweet Kevin or with myself, or my aging parents. I feel grateful to have stumbled upon this masterpiece, as I now feel so much better, armed with some knowledge and perspective which will surely inform decisions affecting the quality of life for those I love.

Although the book speaks much of mortality as it pertains to the aging process, it also touches on decisions for those suffering from difficult ailments such as cancer.There is too much pressure on the healthcare consumer and their loved ones to make overwhelming decisions while mired in the emotions stirred up by the potential outcomes. Having a few helpful “focus questions” and some insight into the experiences of others can surely offer comfort in those stressful times.

I cannot say that either of these books would have helped or changed Michelle’s path, or that of her family. I attended her funeral in Columbia, where Mr. Hudson spoke of her heartwarming, gentle ways and steadfast faith. As recently as last year, one of her co-workers took me to her former office in the Toyota store and encouraged me to have a moment of silent remembrance of her there. We hugged, and cried, still painfully and acutely aware of the lost potential of her life.  In that moment I knew that I must aspire to her brand of kindness, her character in adversity, and finally, no matter what challenges may be in the future for me or my loved ones, that I am able to maintain what she had all along:grace.

7 Ponderings from My New Friend 47

There is an expression I like- I believe it is British- to describe when something (or someone) is stealthily hanging around: “skulking about”.  Well, the number 47 is skulking about my life, waiting to pounce on me as my birthday approaches. With full awareness of that skulking, I decided to share a few ruminations from an almost-47-year-old person.

1.  It turns out that junk food really is junk. I no longer experience pleasure in any of it, including Ding Dongs, french fries or candy. It all tastes like chemical-infused crap. I could have never imagined a time in my life when I would have no interest in anything the local Zippee Mart has to offer. I’m not saying I don’t still eat junk food. I am saying I do not enjoy it. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Food Network, or one’s palate really does change over the years, because I used to be a huge fan.

2. I appreciate honesty so much more now. I used to be the Grand Queen of sparing someone’s feelings, sugarcoating the truth, or avoiding the hard conversations. Now I realize it is not that difficult to just say what’s on your mind and move on. Things are not the big deal we make them out to be. The tendency of youth to attach emotion to everything seems like a waste of energy to me now.

3. Listening is beautiful. Slowing down, being in the moment, looking someone in the eyes and really hearing what they are saying is awesome. Even if the subject is mundane, it is such a lovely feeling to be present and just appreciate that person for who they are.  Really look at them. Hear the voice fully. It could be someone you know well, or someone you don’t know at all. Often they will say something sweet or delightful or funny, something that you would have missed if you were too busy thinking of your to-do list.

4. Sleeping in is over for me. One of my employees texted me to announce that she had slept until 11am. My reply was only one character: ! I cannot even imagine it. It’s not that I don’t want the rest; I am simply unable to pursue it. On Sundays-my one day off-I tell myself I am going to sleep in, and I’m lucky if I can slumber past 7am. It may be that I have too much I want to accomplish, or perhaps my body thinks eating breakfast is more important than dreaming. Regardless, if you see me sleeping at 11:00am, I promise you I am either gravely ill, or taking a nap after a busy morning.

5. Learning is as much fun as being entertained. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a great cat video on YouTube or a good escapist novel once in a while, but overall, I like to get something out of what I read and watch. Much to the dismay of my book club, I usually insist on reading non-fiction, preferably something enlightening. With Charity for All is the best last book I read, followed by  Emperor of all Maladies: a Biography of Cancer.

6.  Another formidable life lesson for me has been to grasp The Power of Habit . (Another great book.) Conquering the big goals is simply a matter of creating a habit of activities in small units. Weight loss, fitness, education, new hobbies, closer friendships,  enhanced skills, new attitudes-all blossom under the care of the person who is willing to invest just a few minutes each day or each week.

7. Finally, my 47-year old self admits that the best habit I can nurture is that of gratitude. The amount of blessings that have been jammed into the past 2,444 weeks of my life are ridiculous. I am wealthy beyond measure in the treasures of friends, family, memories, experiences and perspectives. I have no doubt that if I focus on nothing else for the rest of my life, just being appreciative for those blessings, and expressing that appreciation to my loved ones, will carry me graciously through the next 47 years. It would never again even occur to me that the next birthday is skulking around a corner; rather, I would visualize the next number as a welcome new friend, to whom I look forward to becoming acquainted.