November 11, 2008

On Breaking Stride

Our movie rental vehicle of choice these days is the Red Box, a ubiquitous, $1/night DVD vending machine available at any grocery store or McDonald's in Utah. The system's most obvious flaw is also it's greatest asset: limited choice. The machines contain mostly family and horror titles, appealing to the impulses of the broadest of instantly-gratified audiences. But there are often some sleeper movies mixed amongst the Kung-Fu Panda's and Saw III's. Last night we settled on Smart People and hoped for the best. Overall the movie was unremarkable, except for the painful awkwardness of each of its main characters. I would classify the movie as delightfully dysfunctional along the lines of Dan in Real Life or Little Miss Sunshine.

As a brief synopsis, Lawrence, Dennis Quaid's character is a bitter, pompous widower who half-heartedly and numbly teaches literature at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (perfect location). His two children carry excessive baggage, hiding in intellectual pursuits while Lawrence's underachieving adopted brother moves in to help out after Lawrence has a trauma-induced seizure and cannot drive himself to work for six months.

What stuck with me was how each character hides in his or her routine to cope with the pain of life. Rather than feeling anything, each character shuts out the world and focuses on areas in which they excel. Each experiences hollow successes they can't bare to share with the family for fear of becoming vulnerable. I find that to be a powerful social commentary. I won't call this a major revelation but rather a "huh." moment. Especially with winter on the horizon, I think we could all stand to step back and figure out how to avoid setting life on auto-pilot, make life memorable, and feel something real every day. Each of us have ways of coping with the world, the economy, the strains of family, the responsibilities of work, and the potential lamentation of a life under-lived. And while I do not profess to be a life-coach or motivational speaker, I think I can offer a few ideas how you can stay human.

At Work
I assume you do what you do because you love it. No? Then WTF are you doing there? But if you still fundamentally love what you do, then here are some ways you can preserve that naive passion.
Appreciate Greatness – Make time every day to find something inspiring somewhere in your industry, that forces you to rise above mediocrity. In my case it's easy to visit various design award sites each day to see something amazing. It also influences me to do work worthy of such recognition, and submit it for approval...the trick is not to become obsessed with recognition.
Learn New Tricks – Keep an eye out for career advancing opportunities such as conferences, seminars, courses, online tutorials, or even blog posts. We're never too old or too advanced to learn new tools to help us deliver a better product. I recently attended An Event Apart in Chicago and left with ideas spewing from each of my 3 remaining brain cells. Learning new skills improves your marketability and renews your commitment to your craft.
Improve Your Environment – Buy a lamp. Paint the walls. Add a plant. Clear your desk. Change your desktop wallpaper. DO ANYTHING you think will give you ownership of your immediate environment. Employee mental health is a leading factor of morale in a workplace and it's something we all can control to some extent. If your environment doesn't please you, it's YOUR fault. Take control.
Teach Someone – You presumably have had the benefit of someone with greater experience than yours, handing down knowledge, voluntarily or accidentally. Reaching out to help a younger colleague not only gives your youthful counterpart a leg up, but it gives you a self-esteem boost. Also, it adds to your managerial capacity while giving you a new, youthful advocate. Plus it reaffirms what you know, giving you a renewed sense of confidence. What's the downside?
Take a Mental Health Day – Unless you're an ER doctor, there's no reason to place so much emphasis on your job that it takes priority over your lifestyle. EVERYONE should be afforded the opportunity to live on their own behalf. Plan ahead. Get your work done early, log in remotely, call in to a conference call from a "difference office", or just play dead. But once in a while, it's OK to sneak off and enjoy life. Tell them Joe said so.
Go on an interview – Even if you're perfectly happy with your current job, there's nothing wrong with seeing what's out there. Take the time to consider other opportunities. It'll keep your interview skills sharp, your résumé polished and it'll renew your perspective on your current situation.
Find a new job – If all else fails, there are other jobs out there. Everyone has bad days but there is absolutely no excuse to be unhappy at work constantly. If you can't find some nugget of virtue in your job, it has ceased to be an asset in your life and it should be sacrificed as soon as you can make a safe transition.

At Home
We all have passions outside of work. The trick is to make sure those passions remain a priority. Can you put life before work? Maybe not always. Can you do it more than you do now? Probably.
Plan Your Weekends
– Sarah and I generally try to plan our weekends by Monday at the latest. It gives us something to look forward to, but it also gives us something to reflect upon. Big weekends mean big memories; big bragging rights; and big precedents. No one drives around with an "I'd rather be bowling" sticker. Life is defined by nuance, not routine. Mix it up.
Mix It Up – So you like to clubbing....etc. REFUSE be defined by what you know. I know that as the snow falls, I'll probably ski all winter. People expect to see pictures of me skiing and THAT's OK. I love it. But it's the unexpected that makes my free-time memorable. Try something new. Doesn't matter if you hate it. You'll remember it, right?
Make Impromptu Plans – Every Thursday, Sarah and I rush home for The Office and/or Grey's Anatomy. We don't have a DVR (yet) so we take turns watching one show live and one via or something. However, DVR or not, if a friend offers to have us over that night, we're not saying no. Life happens. TV can re-occur at any time.
Pick Up a Hobby – I'm sure your good at stuff. But how'bout trying something you suck at? I started skiing only because my girlfriend (at the time) told me I could either learn to ski or be lonely all winter. As it turns out, my life has re-arranged itself nicely.
Leave the Dishes in the Sink – Once in a while, it's ok to just enjoy a nice dinner/dessert/case of beer and leave the repercussions till tomorrow. Procrastinating has value when used as a method of preserving the extraordinary, vs. prolonging the inevitable. So make today extraordinary and you never have to worry.
Get Up Early – Assuming last night wasn't epic, make a habit of getting up early to add extra flexibility to your day while you have the capacity and flexibility to enjoy it. I'm not a morning person. No one is. But getting up early allows me to perform the "3 S's" (Sh**, Shower & Shave — guess which takes the longest) and still have time for the rest of my morning routine, pleasantly set to music via our kitchen iPod speakers. Subnote: sing along like the world will never know...because they probably won't.

With Your Spouse/Sig. Other/Dog
You may very well have a commitment, for better or worse to enhance someone's life. You have the opportunity to make someone else a better person. You have the ability to be a better person. But how?
Show Appreciation
– Sometimes, saying "thank you" or "I love you" isn't enough. We all have well-rehearsed gender roles. And although I don't believe in those as a tradition, more often than not, Sarah ends up cooking because she doesn't suck at it. However, it helps to switch things up once in a while. I'm culinarily challenged but I've learned to grill (a little bit) and have discovered a few (emphasis on few) other recipes I can execute as readily as honey-nut cheerios. At the very least I try to help in small ways (I'm allowed to grate cheese and open wine). But sometimes I insist on stepping in, and Sarah's appreciation always preempts her distaste for my inept effort.
Go For a Walk –Whether you live with a person or beast, it is certain that you all would benefit from a brisk walk. Be it around the block or up a mountain, the pure endorphin release alone is worth the time and effort. But surely the caloric processing, the adventurous spirit, and the uncommon nature of the event is sure to spark new life into your weekly doldrums.
Get in a Fight – Sarah has nightmares that I've somehow become indifferent. I assure her, that that's the last thing she needs to worry about. Our intense personalities often clash, testing our trust and unconditional love. Yet fights are often the cumulative result of communication failures and while they're a last resort, they can be the pathway to real communication. Many useful revelations come from fights. Boundaries are set and improvements are implemented. All you have to do is make up. PS: Never underestimate the intimate power of making up.
Have a Dance Party –Don't turn on the TV. Pop a bottle of wine and share your latest MP3 acquisitions, turning your kitchen/living room into a private dance club. Pull the curtains, and dance like no one's watching. Forsake all inhibitions and general inclinations toward dignity and just freakin' go for it. Few things can release as many pheromones as a single dance session. What's more, chicks dig it. So consider this the elusive foreplay session you've been googling.
Go Out on a Date –Plan a special night. It can be 5-star or it can be take out. Just make sure that its intention begins and ends with quality time. If a friend calls with last minute concert tickets, too bad. Tonight is about eye contact, flirting, and hoping to hook up, like a first date.
Shock Them with Affection –It's Monday morning. You're both exhausted; fumbling for a clean travel mug; trying not to trip over each other in the phone booth you call a kitchen. Maybe you commute together, or maybe your syncopation ends in the driveway. Regardless: make it a point each day to kiss with intention before parting ways. I'm not talking about a quick peck. I'm not talking about a "don't mess up my lip balm" lip-check. I'm talking about sentence-stopping, lip-sucking, tooth-paste-tasting, Mary Chapin Carpenter "passionate kisses" every god damn day. It's not always possible, but if you have access to a pair of willing lips, there's NEVER a reason not to start a day this way.

But what do I know? I invite your suggestions on how to fight the melodrama of dark seasons and the numbness of day-to-day life in the comments to this post. Any ideas?

1 comment:

mgnsbrk said...

This is a great post! Very insightful and oft forgotten reminders to remember the little things in life that make it all worthwhile. I love the demand that you start the day out with a passionate kiss!