Saturday, February 25, 2017

Prancing on the High Wire

I was never very good at improv. Many years ago in high school I took debate. I remember it was fifth period, right after lunch. I used to be terrified of getting up in front of people.  That meant I couldn't eat on a queasy stomach so would forgo lunch on debate days. 

I compensated for my fear by preparation. I considered every possible argument and my response, then their response to my response and my response to their response for several iterations. I remember index cards filled with facts. Despite the stress, I was good. My debate teacher wanted me to try out for the debate team.  I declined, knowing what it would cost me in both stress and missed meals. The one thing my strategy of preparation didn't work for was improv.  Periodically the teacher would throw us under the spotlight as he lobbed an unexpected prompt and expected us to think on our feet. I froze, the proverbial deer in the headlights. It required spontaneity and that wasn't my skill set.

I have gotten through much of my life on preparation. I was the girl who did her homework, always well in advance of the due date. Preparation takes you a long way. When I used to travel in my job I would not only plan the content for my calls on clients, but also plot my path from one appointment to another, always prepared. I was never one to brazen my way through what I didn't know. I studied and acquired knowledge, making sure I knew that of which I spoke. I considered it a virtue of sorts.

I do not like surprises. They force me to respond in real time. A friend of mine is a glider pilot. He used to talk about how in flight you had to learn how to react in the moment, in real time. I knew I would crash in real time, frozen in fear, and avoided those situations that called on split-second timing.

 In recent years I have delved into new arenas and learned many new skills, often through the process of inquiry. I ask people what I don't know. I study from life and knit together new information that allows me to perform on new turf. Oddly enough as I've learned to respond to the unknown, even if not in real time, my relationship with improv seems to have changed.

I still prepare, especially when I do public speaking. I prepare until it is effortless, until I know it so well that my delivery seems truly spontaneous. More than seems, it actually is spontaneous which I know seems contradictory. It isn't memorized, it is integrated into my wiring. I've gotten over my fear of being in front of people and actually often relish it.

Recently I was giving a talk, a genealogy talk on the theme of solving puzzles. Now I've often said that what unites all the disparate things that I do is they all involve solving puzzles and telling stories. In this talk I began with the hypothesis that genealogists like to solve puzzles and that often extends to such games as Words With Friends. In fact many of the principles we employ in WWF also apply to genealogy. I outlined those parallels and then moved into some stories of actual puzzles and the process of solving them.

I had created a presentation with many images. A friend had given a talk prior, using a flash drive on my computer, and when it was my turn to speak we had a quick change off. I do my talks without notes, my presentation reminding me of where I'm going. The first few slides went smoothly and I had settled into a comfortable speaking rhythm when something strange occurred. An expected image failed to appear. I moved my slides forward and horrified realized that all of my images had fled the slides. Now some elements remained; text boxes summarized information that was now gone, circles around information on an image that had now gone missing and that all important header was there, tipping me off to something that had once occupied the page. It was as if my images had flung their clothes about, then run out the door in haste. Hats and scarves left behind announced the occupant who had been there just moments earlier. Suddenly I was in that real time I had so dreaded.

I contemplated rebooting my computer in the hope that it would resolve, but hesitated to take the time from the narrow window which remained. Every second seemed extended as my audience awaited my decision. I looked at them looking back at me. I felt a bit light-headed, unsure how this would play out.Then in a moment of resolve I decided to do the presentation without images. An odd thought popped into my head. "This could be interesting. I wonder if I can puzzle it out as I talk about it." It was a game of wits, a test of my mettle as slides appeared like soup cans missing labels.  Something in me eased, the release that comes from committing to a path. Could I brazen through this, prancing on that high wire without plunging?

Adrenalin can carry you a long way, weaving a safety net that holds you in its embrace. 
Sheer energy can mask the underlying panic and keep you moving. It doesn't hurt to have prepared so much you can do it without notes. I looked at each slide trying to remember that missing information, telling them what the red circle had once circled and looking for clues to my story.

It is only now as I write this that I realize how appropriate this experience was to the topic,  a puzzle on puzzles. I am also a bit amazed at how far I have come with impromptu performance,for it is indeed a performance. Now I certainly wouldn't seek that experience out, but I learned something about my own capabilities. I am learning to trust my ability to grapple with the unknown as it arises when I least expect it.

And if you are interested in that presentation with images, you can find it here.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Letter to Self

It has been slightly over ten years since I gave up a regular paycheck.  After a number of years of consulting, I gradually wound it down and settled into what I guess you would call semi-retirement, basically I recreated myself. It has proven to be a very fruitful time in my life, devoted to meaningful work of my choosing. My work now consists of genealogy consulting, writing, artwork and public speaking, but I do it on my schedule and on my terms. Awhile back in this blog,  I wrote a letter to my 22 year old self, telling the then me what I would later learn in life. Then I was on the threshold of my work life. It occurs to me that there are many times in our life where we could benefit from a word from our future self. So with that in mind, I offer a letter to my 52 year old self, the age I was when I was considering taking the plunge of leaving my job. It was a decision accompanied by some trepidation.  

Dear Self,
Life is good from where I sit.  To get there you are going to have to learn to let go, be open to the unknown and let life unfold, all things at which you are not very good. Don't worry, you'll learn and the rewards are great. You've done a good job of preparing for your future.  The hard thing is knowing when to say "It's time," to let go of titles and paychecks and start to reinvent yourself.  It takes a while to let go of the idea of a paycheck, even when it is more psychological than necessary. If you can't go cold turkey, either because you need the income or merely think you do, do some consulting or part-time work. You'll know when you are ready to let go. When you get a call on a project, ask them to describe it. If it interests you, you will know. You will start wrapping your brain around it, considering how you would tackle it. You will feel a zing. When there is no zing, it will be time to move on.  

But what about income you ask? You forget, I know you, you are a bit of a worrier, a belt and suspenders type. The savings you socked away and a lifetime of living within your means will pay off. By the time the zing is gone you will have learned to trust the time value of money. It really does grow, that's not just theory you know, even if market shocks cause it to drop precipitously now and then.  Just a heads up, it will tank right after you leave your job.  Yep, you'll be examining your portfolio every time the market dips that first year. Relax, everything will be fine. Just stay diversified and live modestly. 

Now you can begin to fully take control of your life and your time. When you are still consulting, you are always attuned to work emails and not fully attuned to yourself. When you leave that behind,you will start by settling into your natural rhythms. You've always been a night owl by nature so pretty soon you'll be pushing lights out to 2 AM, reading well into the wee hours of morning, just because you can.

As a result you will ban morning meetings before 10 AM, yet another reason to reject consulting jobs where they want you in the office in the morning.  If you're invited to serve on a board that meets over breakfast you will coyly tell them that it won't work for you as it sounds slightly impolite to say "I don't do morning meetings" to someone who doesn't have the luxury of that choice.

When the world turns topsy-turvy, you will get involved politically, stating your opinions freely on social media and in your blog. Oh almost forgot, you will join Facebook in 2008 and begin a blog in 2009. I'll explain later what those are, suffice it to say that you are more public than you ever imagined.  Anyway, it will dawn on you one day that you would have felt a bit uneasy being so open about what you thought when you were receiving a paycheck. When you had a work persona you were more careful about expressing political views, even though they tended to leak out around the edges. You were never very good at hiding what you thought. Now you will find that it feels freeing to be open about who you are and what you believe.

You will rediscover a sense of possibility. You remember when you were first starting in your career, how you always felt such a sense of anything can happen, as if opportunities lurked just around the corner. The world felt like a magical place and you discovered your ability to create something from nothing. It was exhilarating. Along the way, that got tamped down. That sense of adventure began to wane as you were called on to perform specific functions. Creativity wasn't the priority and you discovered that a well-paying job, while it has its rewards, doesn't encourage you to use all your talents. You began to wonder if that early creativity was still there. Happily you will discover it is. Your sense of possibility will be reawakened and you will feel re-energized.

Sometimes you will hear of different careers that sound interesting. You will think for a moment "I could go into that!" Then you'll remember that you've already done the career thing and typical careers eliminate flexibility in your life. That of course doesn't mean you can't dive into something new. You can be a writer or an artist or a genealogy consultant or a public speaker or any number of flexible roles. In fact you'll begin all of those paths, sometimes amping up an existing activity, sometimes discovering a whole new direction. Often you will be surprised to discover new abilities you didn't know you had. You will feel freer to experiment with new things because you have nothing to lose, no perch in a corporate hierarchy to preserve. 

You've always done a lot of volunteer work. Now you choose your commitments carefully, engaging in things that have meaning to you and where you can use the skills you enjoy using. If things don't meet that test, you bow out or take a pass. One day you look at your involvements and realize they accurately reflect your interests and values.

You will be surprised to discover many avenues to creating new friends, every interest has a community that accompanies it.  You will be out in many different circles and accumulate new friends easily, friends who share your interests, not just your career path. Writing and speaking publicly introduces you to people you might never have met otherwise.

Now the bad news, that study or closet that you've always figured you'd clean up when you had time. Not going to happen. Stop pretending. Just because you have more flexible time, doesn't mean you will commit it to things you don't like doing. Oh you might do a bit around the edges, enough to hold the chaos at bay, but when you've successfully built your new life, you will much rather spend your time exploring it.

And yes, you are getting older. On a good day, one might say you look good for your age, always that damn qualifier.   All in all though, this is a pretty good time in your life, a growing time. You can almost hear the synapses snapping.

Your Future Self

Thursday, February 9, 2017

In My Family

Occasionally I reread past blog posts, a bit like one might reread a journal, for I have eight years of my life well documented in these pages.  I notice that in many of my posts, I say "in my family we..."

Value education,
Love words,
Write protest letters,
Have strong opinions,
Value creativity, 
Make use of failures,
Speak up...

All defined within the construct of a family, one which now has lost those two central people who created it.  Fortunately my sister had two daughters and so the family continues. My nieces were close to their grandparents and absorbed much of those underpinnings directly, as well as through my sister and perhaps a bit of me.

 I've also written about my grandparents who were immigrants and how that immigrant history informs my politics. Who we are doesn't spring out of nowhere. It is born in a family of beliefs, in a family of experiences that are passed down to us and within a heritage and cultural history. It is one of the most important things we get from family.  Whether we concur or rebel, it influences our world view.

Some of us grow up in a religious tradition that influences our perspective. Mine was as a Reform Jew and it echoed and supported the beliefs of my family, one grounded in questioning and challenging, in speaking up for what we believe is right.  That perspective is
My niece's cape at the DC Women's March
often the wellspring of creativity.  Questioning allows us to see the world through fresh eyes.

We also grow up in a community.  I grew up in downstate Illinois in what was a pretty conservative area. Sometimes we define who we are in opposition. I found little to rebel against in my family's belief system, but I did define myself in opposition to the politics around me. In high school I used to work in political campaigns to meet people who thought like I did. My candidates invariably lost.

We each have a story defined by family, religion, community and our life experiences. We also absorb the experiences of our family as if by osmosis, not always realizing the source, but absorbing the message.  As a reader I have always valued story, it is the focus of my artwork and my writing.  

I've been working on a project for many years that grew out of interviews with Jewish elders. It has grown from interviews to artwork to public speaking and hopefully in time will be available in a book.This project has been important to me because I think it is important to acknowledge and understand the history that defines who we are, that underlies our beliefs which in turn feed our actions. Family history tends to become important to people as they age and begin to lose the people who embodied that history, but even if we don't take that deep dive into family history research, it is important to share our family stories and their embedded values with children and grandchildren. As I explored questions around family history, I ran across the research by Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush.  They work within Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and have found that young people who know about their family history have more effective skills in dealing with life challenges. They call this awareness our "intergenerational self." For this reason alone we all need to be family storytellers, linking past to present and ultimately to future.

But it is not just about the next generation. We also need to remember our stories ourselves, to keep ourselves centered in challenging times, to remember the values and traditions from which we come and to act in ways that are consistent with that which is integral to who we are. In this time of turmoil, I take a deep breath and remind myself, "In my family we value education, we value creativity, we write protest letters, we have strong opinions, we speak up ..." 

*Text on cape: My Great-Grandma Immigrated, so my Grandma could Learn so my Mom could Work, so I can March so my nephews will see women as Equals

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Does Democracy Look Like?

I am not a protester by nature. Well that's not strictly true. I have strong opinions and I don't hold them back.  I prefer to do it with the written word from the comfort of my home, allowing me to be thoughtful in my approach. In real time, I can be a bit of a hothead. Most of the time my Midwestern roots kick in and I bite my tongue. Still my husband has watched me nervously in airports when I've not been happy about how things were unfolding, worrying a bit that I might push my displeasure too far.

Part of my aversion to "in the streets protesting" is that I don't like crowds. It is not just the discomfort of crowds.  I don't quite trust a crowd mentality, on the left any more than on the right. I prefer nuanced well-thought-out and articulated ideas and those come from a different channel. In today’s environment, I am rethinking my resistance to crowds and protest. 

After the election when we both were deeply distressed, my husband did a lot of preaching to the choir. That's me. Fortunately, we share the same views and the same distress. I kept saying, "We should all be out in the streets!" This choir was ready to sing, albeit a tad off key. My crowd aversion was quickly forgotten. When things are so wrong, my instinct is to take to the streets to declare it.

It was a small step from that sentiment to attending the Women's March in DC and that caused me to reassess my crowd aversion. It was a joyous and inclusive crowd, driven by the same instinctive awareness of wrongness that drove me. There is a time to take to the streets and this is it. Marching to the chant of "Tell me what Democracy looks like.  This is what Democracy looks like" felt absolutely right deep inside.  I chanted with fervor, believing those words. I believe in democracy and inclusiveness and yes, kindness.  Those are the things for which I am comfortable protesting.

You know it's bad when Ole and Lena protest
You know it's bad when Sven and Ole protest
The action against immigrants and refugees upset me more than anything prior and between choice, health care and the environment, that is saying a lot.  I think it is because we can clearly see the impact on people. To me, it feels personal. My grandparents were immigrants and fortunate to have immigrated in the early 1900s. Had they waited until the middle of the century, they would likely not have escaped. Jews were not welcome in the United States and many were turned away and sent to their death. Many of my family did not make it out. With fifty family members murdered in the Holocaust, I am well aware that in another time, I could easily have been trapped on the other side. I also realize that it takes a certain comfort in one's safety and place in the world to challenge, to protest. I imagine that few of those detained felt that safety. For that reason, I have a responsibility to protest on their behalf.

Responsibility. That is a lot of what it boils down to.  Lately my husband and I have talked a lot about personal responsibility. We are fortunate to have flexible time and the financial ability to support causes that matter to us, to grab a flight to join a protest in DC or elsewhere. That underscores our responsibility and eliminates many of the excuses we are often prone to for not engaging.

This feels like a pivotal point and I have been trying to find the best ways to respond. When the news broke barring immigrants from seven Muslim countries, I wrote to my senators and congressman. My congressman, a conservative Republican, gets a steady stream of notes from me. He needs the most prodding. I gave money to the National Immigration Law Center, I signed a petition and posted information, all pretty small steps. 

I was greatly heartened however by the protests at the airports. There is something about showing up that feels important. It is how we say "This is not normal nor right".  Our biggest threat is if we allow these government actions to become the new normal, if we post on Facebook and then move on with our everyday lives. Protesting requires our bodies to follow through and there is something about that physical action that kicks the rest of us into motion.  It is the difference between a spectator sport and actually playing.

You know it's bad when Susan and Marty protest

The United States has not always inspired pride.There have been times when it was mired in isolationism and bigotry, much as is threatened today. I hope we can help our country be one of which we can be proud, but I know it takes critical mass and I can't make it happen by myself. So tonight, I did something about it.

My husband and I went to a political protest this evening.  We first stopped at our studio to make a sign, then joined at least 5000 people in downtown Minneapolis. When we first arrived, I spotted an artist friend. She told us that she had gone to the Women's March in St Paul, her first protest. Her friend commented that this evening was her first protest.  That is what I find remarkable. People who would normally never protest are stirred to action, so disturbed that they are taking to the streets. Tonight, I chanted loudly, half dancing down the streets of downtown, feeling the energy of the crowd and grateful for our shared passion. 

This is what Democracy looks like.