Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Signed, Sealed, Delivered...By Hand

When I was growing up, the family mailbox was a magic chamber that delivered cards with good wishes, post cards from interesting places and an occasional gift from a far-off relative. Today’s mailboxes, however, often are more of a torture chamber spewing out political post cards, overdue bills and unwanted solicitations. What used to be a daily treat of checking the mail has now become another chore in a busy world.

Think about how you react to what you find in your mail cubby at work or in your mailbox at home. What’s the first thing you automatically throw out? But more importantly, what’s the first thing you put aside to read?
Human nature will likely take us to the piece of mail that looks to be the most personal and least threatening…the handwritten, individually stamped envelope. How many of those do you receive a week? Not many, I’d guess.

When I pull a hand-addressed envelope out of the mailbox, I get a thrill…is it an invitation,  a note from a friend,  a thank-you for a nice gesture? Hand-addressed envelopes say to me that someone has taken time to send me something personal. I always save them to open after I’ve gotten in the house, dumped my work-out bag, and let myself sit down and savor the reading experience.
Handwritten notes delivered to my work mail cubby demand the same reverence. I don’t tear them open in the mail room. I take them back to my desk and delight in the reading experience.

A friend’s young adult daughter recently took on a year-long personal challenge to hand-write a letter a day during her first year in the work world. She said she did this when she first moved to Washington DC after college because she was frustrated that she couldn't keep in touch with her best friends nearly as well as she could when they all lived in the same city.
Over the course of that year, I received several of her “one-a-day” notes, not knowing I was part of her personal challenge process. Later when I found out what she had done, I cherished those notes even more because I knew that she knew how I love to get cards and letters in the mail. Ultimately she ended up writing 472 notes in a year!

This same young woman has traveled a good bit internationally. I love sharing in her experiences through her texts, Instagram photos and Facebook posts in “real time.” However, I really feel connected to her travel experiences through the charming handwritten post cards that have arrived in my mailbox…sometimes days after she has returned from the trip. I keep the postcards and re-read them living vicariously through her travels.
Recently my mother gifted me a file box of letters that had been in my parents’ attic for well over 25 years. When I opened the box, I found dozens of letters neatly stacked in near-perfect chronological order from my late college years through early adulthood. The letters smelled musty and were a bit faded, but what a gift to open that box and get a glimpse of my younger self.

The emotion and connection in the handwritten words floating out of those letters could never be duplicated today by preserving email chains, Facebook posts or text messages, even if someone was so inclined to file them somehow. 
In reading these letters, I marveled at which friends were the most prolific writers. I wondered what questions I had posed to them that prompted a long epistle back to me. I laughed at the things we knew were critical in our lives at the time. I was awed by the insight my friends offered to life challenges we were facing. I loved watching my husband’s notes change in content and tone as we moved from our early dating days through our engagement.
Granted, I don’t practice what I preach as much as I would like to in hand writing notes. I have all the best excuses for not shooting off a handwritten note – can’t find a stamp, I messed up and can’t backspace to fix a word I don’t like, I’m missing the right sized envelope…

And while I can’t say I’m willing to take on my young friend’s “letter a day” challenge, surely I can be more attentive to my aspiration of staying connected through handwritten notes. Writing by hand makes me think in a different way than shooting out words through my fingers on a keyboard. I must be more deliberate. I must allow myself to think through what I want to say and how I want to say it.
As my young friend so wisely told me…hand writing these 472 letters taught her to be “deliberate with your words and intentional with your time.”

Not just good rules for writing letters…but good rules for daily living.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Life Lessons from Jury Duty

Finding unexpected life lesson reminders through random daily situations is always a pleasure for me. I was nudged with several of these reminders during a recent week-long jury duty stint. When I received a jury summons back in the spring, my first reaction was probably the same as the average person - do everything possible to get out of it. I had a work trip the week I was initially summoned in May, so I got a postponement.

But reality set in on a rainy Monday morning in mid-July when I found myself in a courtroom with 298 people who had received the same piece of mail commanding their presence. Ultimately I was seated as an alternate and ended up serving because another juror got sick.

The decision we were charged with making would change the lives of everyone connected with this case. It was a wrongful death case involving the driver of an 18-wheeler and an admitted drug user who was the mother of two small children. Bottom line was the truck driver ran over and killed the woman.

The outcome of this civil case would be determined in terms of dollars and cents rather than guilt or innocence. We had to decide what her life was worth and how the company that owned the truck should compensate the woman’s family for the loss of their daughter and mother.

Over this week of emotional testimony, detailed questioning of experts on topics I knew nothing about and a good bit of red herring fishing, I walked out of the courthouse that Friday afternoon believing we had reached a fair decision. Plus I felt thankful for the reminders about good lessons for daily living I got over the course of the week.

I figured out pretty quickly that Monday morning I was in this for the long haul. It was clear the two parties had no intention of settling.

Since phones weren't allowed in the courthouse, I had to be satisfied with only a small legal pad and nubby pencil to doodle with as we waited in the jury room while the lawyers worked on legal issues. This was a startling reminder of just how tethered I am to my cell phone. I discovered it’s now instinct to reach for my cell phone the minute I finish doing something – walking out of a meeting, coming back from the bathroom, finishing a hall conversation.

No cell phones in the courthouse meant I had nothing to do with my hands and no way to have contact with the outside world. I felt paralyzed the first couple of days. But after that, it was almost liberating to loosen that tether and just doodle on my legal pad. It also gave me the patience to think about the details of why I was there and what my role in the process was -  definitely not a bad thing.

I was reminded many times of how fortunate I am that paying my rent didn’t hinge on physically being at work all week. Several of my fellow jurors didn’t get paid while they were serving which meant immediate financial ramifications for them. Most brought lunch from home because the $10 we got paid each day barely covered a sandwich and drink at a restaurant on Main Street.  I also quickly came to accept there is no such thing as a true jury of your peers. If that were true, diverse perspectives would never be heard during a deliberation. The varying opinions, insights, perspectives and arguments that came out during our deliberations reminded me that just because I have a college degree, a secure job and live in a safe neighborhood doesn’t mean I have all the answers.

It was the 20-year-old young man who is working at his father’s body shop who reminded me that there’s more to life decisions than what I see in my little life bubble. This young man was eloquent in his discussions, persuasive in his arguments and confident on his feet during our deliberations. He had all of the attributes of a good lawyer, including good grades in high school. But when I mentioned the idea of law school to him, he said it was too much for him to dream about…his family just could never afford it and he needed to learn the family business.

I went into the courthouse on the first day of the jury duty week determined not expend mental energy resenting the fact I was there. I decided I could make the days interesting by trying to learn what I could both from the case and from the people I was destined to share a small space with for the week.

I was reminded how much I can learn from a situation just by listening, observing and using my instincts rather than mindlessly surfing on the phone when there’s nothing else to do. I never would have picked up a great pound cake recipe, learned about getting rid of bed bugs, found out about a new shoe store on the other side of town, or reacquainted myself with the word game “hangman” if I had been engrossed with my cell phone during the endless hours in the jury room.

I had to accept I had absolutely no control of my daily activities that week. We were told when to be there, where we could park, where we could go in the courthouse and which bathrooms we could use.

The bailiffs were our lifeline to the outside world. They, and only they, locked and unlocked the jury room door. They were our conduit to the judge. They determined if we got candy or crackers at the breaks. They were the keepers of our cell phones and the filterers of information.

I also had to accept that justice is slow. There are so many rules to consider. This process is as fair as it can be when no one except the lawyers really want to be there. Some people are natural whiners, natural nay-sayers and natural downers. I had to accept this and figure how to tune out their negativity without the benefit of technology to distract me.

Everyone affected by this case had already lived through a life-changing situation. By the end of it all, I felt the jury came to a much better collective decision than I would have come to on my own. I was grateful that my fellow jurors listened to me when I had something to say and that I listened to them when they raised questions.

It was a grueling week that made me better by the fact I got through it without technology ...using my instincts instead of Google to answer questions ... and using patience and tolerance instead of technology to keep me engaged in what I was doing.

I walked out of the courthouse late that Friday afternoon more thankful than resentful of the experience and shored up with several reminders of important life lessons I may have overlooked on other situations.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How old is old?

When I was a child, my definition of old was my parents and their friends. Anyone who had kids, went to work, drove a station wagon or kept a weekly beauty parlor appointment was old. I always assumed that when you "got old," you always wore stockings, never slept late and got your hair done once a week.

I grew up with a frame of reference about age that revolved primarily around grade levels and ages of siblings. I went to the same relatively small school from seventh until twelfth grade. The caste system was strict among age groups and grade levels. For the most part, there wasn't a lot of socializing between grades other than a few dating relationships where the boy was almost always the older one of the pair. Rare was the lasting friendship that crossed the grade level boundaries.

I'm guessing this was due in part to the fact so many students had siblings at the school. It definitely wasn't cool as an older sister to have friends in your younger sister's class. This experience made me very conscious of the term "my age" growing up – that meant exactly my age within a few months and in my grade. We lost a couple of kids who were held back through the years. They no longer were "my age" – they became "younger."

This perspective worked fine in high school because I always liked distinct boundaries and definitions. Once I got to college, I quickly found the age lines blurring. I joined a sorority where my pledge class was divided equally among freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Much to my surprise, those juniors who would have seemed "old" to me by high school standards were in the same position as I was negotiating the challenges of first year sorority membership.

When I got my first college job working with adults who expected me to act like them, I adjusted my definition again. They were old to me but asked me to call them by their first names and actually assumed I was mature and competent. My college jobs made me understand that "old" people (adults) expected "young" people (me) to behave like them in the workplace. I was to look and act "old" (respectable, knowledgeable, competent), and they really didn't care I was 20 and they were 40.

In my first real world job, some of my parents' friends became work colleagues. The discomfort with calling them by their first names was later eclipsed by my extreme displeasure several years later being called "ma'am" for the first time. But I still wasn't old because I was hanging on to my definition of old that meant driving a station wagon and losing the ability to sleep late.

Marriage and acquiring an extended family further muddled my definition of old. I married at the same age my mother was when I was born, and she had been a regular on the weekly beauty parlor circuit for a number of years at that point. I still wasn't getting my hair done weekly at the beauty parlor, and I surely didn't feel old, but the lines continued to blur.

My husband's oldest brother is 12 years older than I am. The brother's oldest son, Jimmy, is twelve years younger than I am. Jimmy was in first grade when I graduated from high school…literally a lifetime of age difference. The gulf between my 28 and his 16 hadn't narrowed much when he was in our wedding 23 years ago. Today his 40 to my 52 makes him "my age-ish." My husband and I have friends younger than Jimmy is, but I still have a hard time considering him a contemporary.

One night, we met up with Jimmy and several of his friends to listen to music. I visited with one guy a good 20 minutes thinking he was "my age" based on what he looked like – a few crows feet, some grey peeking out around his temples – only to discover he was 12 years younger than I was and would have been in the first grade when I graduated from high school. This quickly halted the "do you know" conversation about mutual college friends.

Then I was introduced to another friend in the group as "Jimmy's aunt." I laughed and said "aunts are old people, I'm just Reba." I realized when he looked at me he was seeing someone "old" by his definition. He said he was looking to date a "cougar" and asked if I could introduce him to some of my friends…ouch on several levels.

Today I hear myself at work saying "I know this might sound old but…good writing skills are critical to every job…a handwritten thank you note is a necessary part of the interview process…" But I also find myself more open to the "not old" scenario of learning new skills from my younger colleagues who I have trained to call me "seasoned" rather than "old."

So for now, I've decided old will not be a number…it will be a state of mind. I have old friends who stopped learning and growing before they hit 40. I have young friends who went sky diving at 60 or had triplets at 42. The number really doesn't matter.

And possibly I need re-evaluate the beauty parlor thing. A friend told me a great story this week about her 95-year old mom who still goes to the beauty parlor once a week, and that's keeping her young. So maybe that weekly trip to the beauty parlor isn't such an "old" thing after all!