Life Lesson #4: We suck at knowing what we’ll enjoy

My coworker just turned to me to tell me a story about his wife. She’s been teaching at Northwestern University for almost a year. This is after putting in half a decade earning her PhD. And get this: She hates it. “It’ll probably get better,” I told him. He agreed. But then he added she “realized she hates talking in front of people.”

Oh. That won’t get better.

This is not a weird story.  If there’s anything weird about this phenomenon, it’s that we’re all guilty of making the same mistake all the time, but somehow can’t seem to learn from it. Research strongly supports my assertion. Now that I’m almost 43, I can look back at my own life and validate this research without even thinking that hard. For example…

I thought I wanted to be an actor. I was a good at it and I really liked it. So no-brainer, right? But I also I hated auditioning and doing shit-stupid work I didn’t care about. And guess what? A lot of an actor’s life is about auditioning, and usually for shit-stupid work they don’t care about. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a grant writer for a theatre company. I’m a writer. I loved theatre. This made a ton of sense. But grant-writing is effing boring and mostly involves researching and cutting and pasting. I did it for 3 months and hated it. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I ‘m a writer. I enjoy learning about new things and then finding ways to share that information with people. But then I sat next to a reporter when I was an editorial assistant and learned that most of her job was calling people up and pissing them off. No thank you. Next!

I thought I would hate being a technical writer. I write but there is such a thing as boring writing, which I learned as a grant writer. And this seemed worse than grants for arts organizations…this is about describing how to use features in software. Yuck! Well, unemployment will make you try anything, and when the opportunity arose, I needed it desperately enough to try it. And guess what? I really liked it. Turns out there’s a teacher-y and technical side of me that I didn’t know about. I enjoyed figuring out complicated problems and then making them easier for people to understand. I even enjoyed the methodical, non-inspired, repetitious writing of the steps. Go figure. And while I’m no longer a tech writer, and am doing work I enjoy even more, I’m still at the same place that hired me for that.  And I never would be here, if I hadn’t taken that risk.

These were so easy to come up with and I deleted some of them because I feel like I’m belaboring the point. (And this isn’t all about career decisions, either!)

Did you notice what they all have in common? You think you want a thing. You’re even rational and reasonable about it. It’s not like “I’m gonna rent a truck and drive it into Lake Michigan.” These are decisions that make a ton of sense. Like if you told me you were going to major in art or animal science. That kind of sense. Anyone listening to me would have agreed with any of my above expectations.

But what else did they have in common? The doing was nothing like the thinking-about-doing. Nothing at all. That’s the part that humans suck at.

And that’s the lesson. That’s the key. I would argue it’s the single most important career lesson I ever learned.  Do make plans. Do have expectations. (Life falls apart without them.) And occasionally life really does go according to plan.

But hold those plans loosely in your hand and always stay more tuned in to the realities of doing. Because ultimately you will not think your way through your life decisions. You will act your way through them.

If you think and don’t act for too long, you will be stuck. (Oh, and if you act without thinking for too long, you’ll self-destruct.) Not knowing what you want to do isn’t really an excuse not to act either. It’s a little like not knowing what kind of lover you’re looking for. Without dating your way to clarity, you’re wasting your time thinking about what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: the more you act, the more you will learn. The more you push yourself to try things that you’re not even sure you’ll like, the more you will learn about yourself–and you may be surprised. In that sense, action becomes your greatest guide.

Happy 2017!!! Top 3 Changes Since Last Year

1-23-2017-4-46-42-pmHappy New Year, Ari! You rang in the new year by staying up all night for the first time in your life to “see the ball drop because everyone at school has seen it but  me!” We kinda saw it. It was disappointing. As it always is. So it was a perfect introduction. And then on the 1st, you sat with  Lily and Jack to watch your parents perform for the first time (in a Neo-Futurist benefit performance of old plays from Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.) Mom danced a Fosse number while she made ants on a log. I smashed fruit. We picked these plays because we thought you’d like them.  You did. (Fist pump.)

Anyway, in keeping with my recent annual tradition…I wanted to talk about the ways in which you’ve changed since we rang in 2016.  And the ways are many. As usual, you’re more  you. By that I mean way smarter and way funnier. You can make me laugh hard. And we’ve had a few dinners out as a family where we all cracked each other up on an adult level for the first time, ever.  It gave me a picture of the kind of life we might all have together if we manage to keep our bond tight during those teenage years.

Otherwise, here are the top 3 ways you’ve changed since last year:

#3. You’re bored with elementary school. While it’s a fact that Mrs. Kersner is just not as nice or engaging as Mr. Pollard, I also think maybe you’ve matured to point where you’re ready for more challenge. You’ve never been a huge fan of school, but for the first time in your life you’re saying things like “uuhhhhhh….I really, really don’t want to go to school tomorrow!” At first we wondered if something bad was happening to you because of the growing sense of dread you seemed to display. It turns out, you’re just bored as crap. I think you’re ready for Middle School. And while you may not know it, I think you’re ready for new friends, too.

#2. You’re showing a tendency toward obsessive worry. It started on Thanksgiving day, 2016, when we came home from Papa’s house and you noticed that your gerbils had been fighting. Teddy’s belly was scratched up and bloody, Marcus had wounds on his tail and both of them had cuts and scrapes around their necks.  You were horribly upset.  After some quick research, we simplified their cage and treated their cuts and they both healed up nicely and haven’t fought again. This was a few weeks after Marcus escaped from his cage and I found him while we were watching TV. Both of these events seem to have unglued you a bit. “I’m worried about the gerbils” has become a daily mantra, multiple times a day. The upside of all of this is that you’re really talking about and processing your feelings in ways that feel healthy and adult. The downside…or more accurately the concerning side…is that your gerbil’s well-being is dominating your thoughts at home in an almost phobic way. You check on them, sometimes, every few minutes. You’ve told us that you don’t want to go on a vacation while they’re still alive. When I come in to kiss you good night, you ask me to check on them on my way in and then again on my way out. You wear earplugs made of cotton balls so you don’t wake up worrying about the noises you hear. You tell us, almost daily, that you’re afraid to feed them because…”what if one of them won’t eat?” (Which is legit. They’re 3. They’re old. This will happen. But that certainty seems to provoke more anxiety in you than surrender.) So what does all of this mean? I don’t know. But it’s new and interesting and worth watching.

#1. You’re becoming less of a tom boy.  I was sitting having a beer with my friend Halena one night, telling her how much you remind me of her. (She is I guess what you’d call a tom boy if we called adults tom boys.) And then the next day you told us you wanted to get your ears pierced! And then you started buying and collecting all these flavored lip balms (and then later gloss). You dressed up like a grown-up looking vampire punk girl for Halloween and then kept wearing the boots you bought that day! You started putting stuff in your hair a few months ago–some kind of oil that you brush in after you shower. And it’s making your hair look great. You seem to have noticed that your hair looks great. You seem to have noticed your looks. And then you bought a purse!  This is all happening fast. And I had no idea how many rights of passage there were for girls. For boys it’s like you get a big-boy bed, you stop playing with toys, then you get a car and leave for college. Girls…I’m already noticing have all these in-between phases that include all kinds of things. It’s crazy! You’re still definitely holding on to your individuality so far. When we bought you the purse, you told me “I like it a lot, but I don’t like the idea of me having a purse.” I can see you wrestling with identity and trying to allow these things in on your own terms.

Christmas 2017 … First cellphone!

cellpics-37It was our first Christmas in a long time where we didn’t have to leave the house. We didn’t drive to visit papa (at his home or at the hospital like two years ago.) We woke, we did stockings, we ate, we did gifts…mom and I quibbled over whether all gifts should be passed out before we open them, or whether we should pass, open, pass, open. We agreed to a compromise. You were Switzerland, although you made it clear you kinda agreed with me.

You got Legos out the wazoo and you loved it. Mom and I began secretly texting each other about when we should reveal your big present, which was hiding behind the TV. Being a fan of theatrics, I thought it should come LATE, like way after all the fun had died down in the late afternoon. Mom thought early, before you got too wrapped up in Lego madness. Again, we compromised.

In the late morning we pulled the whole “what’s that behind the TV” trick. You were really excited–even for you–and gave mom a big hug. Then me. When I complained.

Later that day we left for Chinese food, waited way too long for a table and then the food was only so-so. We decided we’d never eat there again. I partly wrote this down in the hopes that I’d remember.

This was Christmas 2016. Your first Christmas without Simon. Our first Christmas with Bella. Our second Christmas where we ate at that same disappointing Chinese food place. And the day you got your first cellphone.

You told me you had a GREAT Christmas.  Mission accomplished.

Remember when you stayed up late to witness Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech?

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28: A man passes by a Anti-Donald Trump mural painted on a building in Lower Manhattan on August 28, 2015 in New York City. Trump is leading the Republican presidential field in most polls. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)You may remember it as kind of funny–how sure I was. And how it all came crashing down. Mom had expressed worry. Not me. I was confident. We all wore white that day to commemorate the women’s suffrage movement.  I was never afraid. I was never concerned. I never entertained a what-if scenario that included that Big Orange Turd becoming a member of the club that has Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama as members. Never.

It wasn’t until results started to come in that were surprising and states we thought she’d win easily were too close to call…and suddenly all the many ways Hillary could win became all the many ways she could lose. But it happened. When things turned really ugly and you had fallen asleep, mom made you go to bed. You protested as though you were missing out. You missed my shock, flipping between my phone, laptop and TV over and over again, like I was caught in a ghostly loop. You missed mom crying and then going to bed before it was officially over…and then waking up and crying in the middle of the night when I told her it was done.

And you may not remember this, but my confidence was not at all unusual. (If anything mom’s worry was.) Anyone who had done their homework, dug into the data, followed the news, knew that it was a foregone conclusion: Hillary would win. I don’t know know when it is you’ll be reading this but by now you may have witnessed a predictable election or two. Those are normal. Since the age of modern polling, there have really only been two big surprises to-date and this was the first I’d ever lived through. They occurred in 1948 and 2016.

But there we were as a family the next day trying to make sense of it–a day I had taken off and that I thought you’d take off so we could all celebrate. We decided to send you into school instead. Again, you felt like you were missing out. Mom and I were trying to make sense of it for you first thing in the morning, explaining how we thought this happened, what it meant and what it didn’t mean.

It didn’t seem like you were that upset. You were too young to be as scared and devastated as we were.  To you, it was a little like the bully won the spelling bee, beating that nice kid he just gave a wedgie to an hour ago.  It was a vague injustice. The story with a shitty ending. You did ask how it could have happened. But then you were ready to move on. Which is good.

But I do want to be sure you know that this happened here, at this point in your life.

It’s funny because as you’re reading this–assuming you haven’t found it early–you know how this all turned out. I’m writing it and I don’t. I don’t know how it turns out for him or our country but you know. Was he impeached? Was he actually re-elected? I kind of wish you could tell me. And then you could be the parent trying to make sense of the injustice of it all.

Milestone: you got your ears pierced!!

Elliimg_5951 got her ears pierced recently, and has been trending ever-so-slightly mainstream in her gendered ways. It’s got you thinking, and pushing some boundaries you had set fr yourself. And after telling us only a few days ago that you wanted to this, got your ears pierced TODAY. I was totally surprised. And even more so than with the whole bra thing, life is like ALL about earrings right now, dude.

Smella Bella Noodle Bayiates

bella-crop

And just like that we got a new dog. We, the family made up of two slow-motion pragmatists (allegedly in charge) and one act-now-think-later 10-year-old, did something about as spur-of-the-moment as you can get.

I was not ready. You and mom were. But the thing is, getting a dog when you’re not ready yet is nothing like getting a new boyfriend or girlfriend when you’re not ready. If you rebound with a person, the relationship is probably doomed. Rebound with a dog…eventually you get over your grief and at the other end of that tunnel is a super-cute dog that is irresistible to love.  Bonus!

We were on our way back from your riding lesson. And you brought it up. We had looked at dogs at Felines and Canines online and we did know there was a cutie named Bell there that was part BT and cyugly-as-all-get-out. I said I was open to driving over there. Mom said sure…and before you knew it we were crouched down in front of cages “looking” at forlorn little pooches. I will say, for the record, I was sure we would adopt then.  Mom may have truly thought we were just looking–I will never know. But I knew.  The two of you move faster than I do, and you were ready. And if you’re an animal lover, “just looking” at dogs is a little like “just looking” at gourmet chocolates. You will not merely observe. You will partake.

The first time Bella (then Bell) saw us, she dropped her ears and sat, submissive. We melted. The first time we met her, she jumped upside down into my lap, committed several acts of acrobatic cuteness around the room and I thought: I love this twiggy clown! Mom was not that impressed, though! Her energy was a little too extreme that day. And we went home to get Zoe so we could take them both on a walk and see how they interacted. For the record, on the drive back to the house, I thought the adoption I was so sure would happen…was now off. Because, generally, as I’m sure you know, when momma don’t approve…well…end-of-story.

But Zoe liked her. You liked her. I liked her. Mom took a risk. We paid a fee and minutes later we were home with a new dog. If we ever do anything this impulsive again, from the time this happened to the time you read this…I will be astounded. And I hope I remember to record it! Because this is not how mom and dad roll!

To my surprise though, it’s been YOU more than us, who has shown regret for acting too quickly! You like Bella…you even love her…but she has bonded very closely with mom, and she has a few issues that she’s getting over. And I’ve watched you keep her at arms length. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it will pass. Maybe not.

Maybe you weren’t as ready as you thought you were…as for me, my grieving heart is already melting.

Simon Chester Gallo Bayiates 6/19/04 – 8/5/16

img_5769It was a Friday. Hot. Sunny. An otherwise nondescript August day. I decided to work from home on a whim. And I saw the first symptoms in the morning while I worked on my laptop. Old Man Simon had asked to get on the bed. I’d picked him up like football and put him down next to me while I typed away. But he couldn’t stay still. He panted. He stretched. He shifted. I smiled, even giggled a little, called him a dork. Because Simon–you may well remember, was so unpredictable and odd, nothing out-of-the-ordinary was alarming.

You were downstairs with nana and mom.  And like almost every day of your life, you woke up a little after Simon did; ate your breakfast in front of the TV, not long after Simon loudly snarfed down his food in the kitchen; sat and enjoyed your show while Simon snored next to you on the couch, or tick-ticked from one side of the room to the other. You probably held your nose because he farted that morning and said “Oh Simon!  That’s nasty!”

And then at one point in the early afternoon…I already forget when, we all began to notice his behavior was not normal. Stretching. Pacing. Panting. Unable to lie still for even five seconds. First we thought he was hot. We put some water on his back to see if that would help.  No change. And then we observed him more carefully. The stretching looked funny–half a downward-facing-dog stretch that came on fast, and seemed involuntary.

Nana was visiting and she wondered if maybe it was his back, or his stomach, but I know mom and I were thinking about his brain–something about the spasmodic nature of each stretch, the panting and pacing that followed.  A tortured conversation ensued about whether or not you should go to camp, and if so, how we might pick you up if things looked bad.

Several minutes later, nana and papa were taking you to camp and mom and I were at the vet.  They really weren’t sure what it was, and to rule out a back problem, they gave Simon a shot for pain, and some steroids–and in a weird way, to me, it felt like that was when Simon’s life was over.  Simon stopped being Simon from that moment on. The pain medication made him loopy and drunk-legged for 30 minutes or so, but the steroids–those made him a thousand times more restless, hungry, panting, edgy.

And the stretching continued when we came home.  His paws began to curl. A sure sign he was having seizures.

While nana and papa were retrieving you early from camp, mom and I were speeding down I-94 on our way to the emergency vet in Buffalo Grove. Simon was in the the back seat with me, seizures following on top of each other with the regularity of contractions…though for a spell, he almost seemed relaxed…his last moments of relaxation.

I was mostly convinced that he had developed a chronic condition because of his Cushings disease, and that it would be treatable…until I saw the look on the vet tech’s face when I told her he was having seizures. Then I knew.  They took him in immediately, an IV went into him and we waited.

You arrived with a headache and car sickness from the ride with nana and papa, and shortly after, you threw up in the waiting room bathroom. Mom bought us some food and we ate what we could while we waited. Nana and papa went home. You were hopeful, I’m sure, because you’re not a negative person, and you’re always ready to try, never inclined to give up.

This is one reason we had you leave the room while we discussed options with the vet. This is also why we tried the IV of antiepileptic medication, and why we were willing to take pills home with us and see if we could treat him with those. But when he came back from the IV treatment and immediately had another seizure, when they became more and more frequent, when he urinated during one…hope was lost.

Mom was a rock. (This is something about us you may have noticed. You’ll never know which will be the strong one, but one of us always manages to hold it together. Today it was mom’s turn.) I was a wreck. I choked up in front of the doctor. I cried when you came back in and we told you what was happening. You shouted “no!!!” and you and I clung to each other and wept.

Mom was stoic, resolved–a calm came over her that was clinical, practical and in some ways resembled relief. His long, tortured decline would come to an end, and he would be at peace. You and I were immediately in the thick of grief, and could only seem to console each other.

We were ushered into a small room that was carefully designed to help families let go of their pets. The lights were dim (which was good because your head was still pounding.) There were pictures of families with pets that had passed. A large, comfy dog mattress that could have fit a German shepherd, and a shelf full of picture frames and bric-a-brack.  Our job was to love on our dog and find enough peace to say goodbye. And with the steroids that coursed through Simon, this was a challenging mission. He paced away from our hugs. He sniffed low when tried to kiss his head, and climbed the shelves and knocked over the bric-a-brack when we tried to keep him still.  Your thoughtful mother gave Simon her Red Robbin sweet potato fries and we giggled while he inhaled them from their cardboard container.  He was still hungry.

How do you know when you’re ready to kill your dog? This is an impossible question, but at some point we seemed to have an answer without trying and we pressed a little button that summoned a vet. We knelt down next to him, and listened to the doctor’s careful, soft-spoken explanation. We saw him drift off into sleep and we hugged him, kissed him, dripped tears on his jowls while we watched his tiny black and white belly rise and fall, rise and fall in a medicated sleep. And then again we were asked if we were ready for the final injection. We nodded, held hands, petted our Simon, and watched his belly go still.

I can still hear your tears. A tiny being with such an outsize personality, an expulsive, snorty, smelly, loud, ridiculous little animal, suddenly as still as a stone, as lifeless and invisible as end of a deep woods winter breeze. Gone. Just like that.

She carried Simon gingerly up and out of the room. We packed up our things, and left the hospital. While making our way through the waiting room, we were a walking tableau–two parents on either side of their 10-year-old daughter, her face tear stained, the family’s faces ashen. In the little girl’s hands, she held a dogless leash and collar.  The story told itself. One empathetic owner’s gaze after another met ours as we made the slow walk to the car. We said little during the long drive home. You and I left the car and were headed out of the garage when we noticed Mom wasn’t with us.  She was bent over the steering wheel, crying. Now it was her turn.

Zoe greeted us from the couch, her head hung low, almost submissive, but she seemed to read our sadness and enter a state of mourning–not knowing why, but joining us nonetheless.

We talked that night about your feelings. While we were still in the hospital you described the peculiar mix of emotions you were having, and we told you it was “grief.” “What’s that?” you replied. We had a lot of interesting talks over the next few days about what grief is and how you have to welcome it or else it overwhelms you.

What I’ll never forget is that you were as much a comfort to me as mom was.  It’s the first time we ever went through something like this together, as equals.  You didn’t become so inconsolable that we had to shift our attention to caring for you before mourning ourselves. Instead, you mourned with us.  We all needed and leaned on each other.  Through all this pain, that was something kind of beautiful.