Going Out for a Smoke in Uncertain Times

One of my most vivid young adult memories is with my high school girlfriend. We were 17, on the verge of graduating, each of our colleges already determined.

My mom was home and we wanted to get away but it was raining outside. With some arm-tugging, my girlfriend convinced me we could find a dry spot to have a cigarette.

So out we went, into the April rain, getting completely soaked by the time the storm door bounced shut. In reaching the curb, we were so immediately wet that the falling rain didn’t matter anymore.

We jumped in puddles, we looked straight up at the droplets coming down and let them fall on our cheeks and into our mouths. We stood under overflowing gutters and let the water pound our heads like hammers, our shirts heavy, stretching to our knees and sticking to our ribs.

We walked a mile. We were more interested in being alive than hooking up.

Without talking about it, we ended up at my old elementary school. With its giant covered walkway out front, it was the perfect place for a smoke.

But our cigarettes were soggy.

We huddled together in a dry spot, not cold, but trembling. We kissed a little but that wasn’t the best part.

The rain hitting the pavement, a million little white splashes exploding and disappearing, the drum roll on the roof, our synchronized breaths, and knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that no one was going to walk by. That’s what made it magical.

We sat in the last chapter of our own story, a silent contract between us, a sad joy in our stomachs, our thoughts already traveling in very different directions, down different highways to different exits, different orientations, different roommates, different cafeterias…

Both of us exactly the same in that moment, unsure of everything, crushed by the complexity of fear and love, hating the real world, hands on each other in cold clench, as if squeezing hard enough would keep it raining, would fill the roads, flood the highways, erase the walk home.

The past, present, and future all happening at the same time, while the gutters filled and the puddles rose.

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I Miss My Gurus

One of the things that make self-isolation hard is that I can’t visit my gurus.

My gurus don’t have websites. They don’t tweet excerpts from their books. They don’t have a thousand likes. They’re usually not available anywhere else but in the world.

And they don’t think of themselves as gurus.

My gurus are hidden in plain sight: the Lyft driver who’s read more books than my English professor, the scuba store owner who has a smile so big on his face it almost does fit on it, the electrician who seems more interested in connecting with me on a human-to-human level than fixing my light, the clergywoman seemingly fine with no recognition at all.

They don’t preach. They live.

They’ve unlocked the room we all want to get into. They have the sun inside them. The things they do are not the person they are. The outer world is like a game; it’s less important where they land or what cards they draw. They’re more interested in the action itself and the action that follows.

Impact and empathy – the ability to truly know someone and go deeper into themselves – is the reward.

I love how I can’t seek out my gurus. I just have to live, trust the world, and let them find me.

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How to Slay Negative Comments

When you’re feeling positive, it can seem like the world is more negative. You notice all the negative things people say, about themselves and about each other.

People don’t mean to be mean; it’s usually just a habit, conditioned by the generally accepted grievances that go with having a job, a partner, a family, a house, etc. It’s totally understandable.

But, you know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to kill these comments right there on the spot, not as the sayer but as the hearer. And you can do just that. You can zap them with your positivity ray and watch them whither.

Ready for the trick? Here it comes.

Smile and don’t say anything.

Without oxygen, a fire can’t rage. Your positivity stays intact, the negative comment dwindles, your counterpart gets to make a decision, and your sacred breaths are reserved to fuel more important things.

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The Wasp Among Butterflies

Early evening yesterday, after looking at a fallen tree in the yard and a deflated basketball, I snapped at my daughter. A loud snap, from the stomach and lungs.

Crap.

I was having such a good day, perfect marks for the peaceful dad – and then BOOM! This happens. There goes my A.

But I’ve been working on this up and down thing so I was ready.

It’s just a snap, I thought. One snap, a fragment of mood that deserves a space among the thousands of other fragments. Though it’s a part of me, it doesn’t define me, nor does it define my relationship with my daughter.

Here’s the best part: I get to stand back and let it pass through, a lumbering wasp amongst the butterflies.

And on with the evening.

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Jogging After the Fireball

My grad school professor, in describing my laid-back ambition said it was as if a fireball were blazing down the street and there I am jogging gingerly after it, big dopey smile on my face, looking around at the sidelines.

I think of this jogging metaphor often.

It’s widely believed that sprinting is better than jogging. You get there more quickly, which means you can move on to the next thing more quickly, which means you get more done, more quickly.

All true, but there is a problem with this thinking.

When you’re sprinting, you focus on the finish line. You miss out on the buildings and the trees going by. You miss the woman standing in her doorway watering plants. If running fast is the goal and you’re not looking around, you may miss the shadowy alleyway that cuts through the block, and gets you where you’re going more quickly.

You miss all these things. Your life becomes a series of finish lines, met and unmet. Everything else falls away.

With jogging, you get the finish line, but you also get the wind, the shortcuts, the city, and the kind, lovely people cheering you on.

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The Same Memory at the Exact Same Time

I sing songs to my daughter as part of her nighttime ritual.

My wife does it too.

She sings show tunes.

I sing rock ballads and alternative – Aerosmith, Poison, Radiohead.

I don’t get the lyrics right but she doesn’t seem to mind. The music quiets her down more than anything else, more than books, more than baths.

Sometimes she sings the chorus with me but, usually, she just lays still, eyes wide open with 4-year-old thoughts, fresh ponderings to figure out the important things in life:

Which stuffed animal do I hold?
Why can’t I let the pigeon ride the bus?
Will I have raspberries in my cereal tomorrow?

I’ve thought about playing the actual songs by the real artists but decided against it. I wanna delay that moment. To be honest, I’m hoping I’m not there for it. I think it will be better that way.

My daughter, in her future bedroom, surrounded by friends, someone puts on a retro track from the ’90s and her body tingles. She knows the song but she’s never heard it before, she can’t quite place it, and then it hits her and she says it out loud before thinking about what everyone else will think:

My dad used to sing this to me.

And all her friends say “Awwwwww” at the same time. And, maybe, sometime after the end of the track and the teenage thoughts that inevitably follow, after her friends dissipate into their own worlds and the silence settles back into her room, maybe she’ll come to me and tell me about that moment.

And, amidst all the change and uncertainty in her life and mine – the life of a teenager and a middle-aged man – maybe we can defy the odds and hold onto the same memory at the exact same time.

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The Best Networking Question

Nobody likes an elevator pitch.

It doesn’t reveal you. It sells you, or, rather, someone like you.

So don’t do it. Don’t rifle out a prepared speech full of buzzwords nobody uses in real life. You won’t be remembered. Your business card will be one of many left in a pocket, on a desk, until it slides off behind it.

You’re better off just telling someone about your day or commenting on the lighting or sharing your excitement for what you’re going to do after the event.

That’s how people really get to know you. That’s how you build interest and earn the right to be remembered:

By seeing your heart.

My suggestion for an opening line at networking events, at parties, at friends’ houses, on first dates is simple:

How was your morning?

This way, you get them talking, you get them into the present moment. They will step out of their professional self and, whether they admit it or not, they will appreciate you for it. You will learn more than simply what they did and what they plan to do. You will surface their values, their priorities, their wants, wishes, and loves. You will gain a glimpse into their worldview. It’s impossible not to.

Be patient; you’ll see it.

Synergy comes after authenticity, never before.

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The Great Intermission

A global pandemic is as big as it gets.

Bigger than a tectonic shift (an earthquake only affects a city or two).
Bigger than landing on the moon. (Only a few competing nations care about that.) Bigger than a political scandal, a stock market crash, and the fall of an empire.

The whole world is involved. This is the first time and probably the last time that this will happen while you’re alive. (A dress rehearsal for global warming, perhaps.)

All the world has, indeed, become a stage. And we’re at intermission. Creatures in black clothes against black curtains, running to and fro. Our props, our sets, our neighbors are being carted away. The lights have shut off, the music turned down.

Unlike a theater performance, however, there is no person over the loudspeaker telling us what’s happening, thanking us for coming, and giving us suggestions on what to do next.

And we don’t like that.

As much as we resent our routines – our assigned seat in the audience, our role in the play – as much as we complain about not having time and space, we, as the human race, struggle much much more with initiating and following through with Change.

We fear losing what we have and that keeps us standing obediently on our X’s and staying in our seats.

But change has come to us. All of us. Whether we want it or not.

It’s taken our jobs, it’s taken our kids’ activities, it’s taken our Friday nights, our Sunday outings, our long drives, our morning commute, our evening happy hour. It’s pulled us away and pushed us back inside, behind closed doors. Without the deep voice over the loudspeaker, without our assigned parts and the cues of others, we’re scrambling.

It’s understandable: this Intermission isn’t ending. It’s becoming our Second Act. And there is no script. We have to make up the lines ourselves.

We’re like typecast characters that get to choose our parts for the first time in a while: it’s a freedom we wished for but struggle to embrace. We really do get to dance like nobody’s watching. Because nobody is watching. We get to build, to create, to cut out little useless carvings, to make paper dolls.

And when we’re past this thing and the lights go up and we’re all standing in bizarre contortions and configurations with new trophies in our grasp, and some of us have left the building while others have kissed the back of their hands and sprayed graffiti in the bathroom, absolutely none of it will be held against us.

All will be revered. And all will be forgiven.

Because… we were all involved – an earthquake heard ’round the world, the same sky falling onto every one of us.

Don’t worry about the scraps of paper that are falling around your feet, the piles of sawdust forming, the pencil shavings. Keep tinkering. See what you come up with.

Our messes will be excused.

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Surviving Unsolved Mysteries

Mysteries drive us… to peace and to madness.

Sometimes, we can never truly know the source of our pain.

Losing someone, falling out of love, getting laid off, being ignored. These things hurt us deeply. They stab at us in the most tender of places, and the pain persists because we never get to solve the mystery. We never get to find out why.

Why did she leave?
Why did they let me go?
Why won’t someone call me back?

The answers exist in another person, and, for whatever reason, we don’t have access. But, still, we ponder and so the pain continues.

One-sided conversations have a way of picking up speed and straying from the truth, like a child losing their adult in a crowd and running in all directions out of sheer panic, not for the sake of rescue.

What’s happening to me?
Where am I ?
Will I ever get back to where I was?

Not knowing is painful. Losing and being lost is terrifying.

Some mysteries will never be solved, some relationships will never be understood, some responses will never come.

It’s hard.

But we can ask our feet to stop running. We can ask our mind to stop racing. We can let go of the one-sided conversations that are hurting us.

When you’re feeling discarded, when the faces seem strange, try to find comfort in this: our breaths are always within our control, our first steps, hurried and impulsive, may not be the ones to follow, and home is not always where you left it.

Be well, everyone.

Hey, job-hunters! If you’re feeling lost and far from home, check out my new book, hot off the press: It’s Not You, It’s Your Job Search. Get found again.

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What We Are: The Songbird and the Oak

A friend of mine said it and we both became small:

We are a species.

Yes, like a Songbird or a grove of great Oaks.

Homo Sapiens:

Upright, even-toothed descendants of the other species that didn’t make it, one of the most pervasive, diverse, and dominant species in existence, occupying all spaces, representing all emotions, constantly introducing new methods to reshape and reinvent the minerals we’re stuck with.

We often forget how connected we are.

When one of us dies, many around that one die a little bit too. We wilt because we’re rooted in the same soil and, therefore, susceptible to the same poisons.

Seeded in that connection, across continents and conversations, is our unique prowess, our exponential ingenuity, our robust love, and our downfall.

The timeline is not clear but, blessed with consciousness, compassion, and opposable thumbs, we can manipulate its length. Like the songbird, we make music, but we don’t just chirp notes, we write symphonies. We don’t just build nests, we design them.

We have access to Fate. That’s right. We can call up the composer of this precious life and put in our vote to change the tempo, to add more bars.

And like the Oak at the onset of winter, sometimes silence amongst the chorus is more important than individual growth. Sometimes dormancy is called for, to store our sugar, to let gravity pull our collective vibrancy down into our roots, supple, resilient, and delicately intertwined, so we can outwit and outlast the poison.

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