The Stranger

“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself.”

Beryl Markham (1902-1986, first solo flight from London to Nova Scotia-1936)

After a week of “junk” talk about the airport security checkpoint, I do not need to remind you that the experience of powered human flight has changed dramatically since the Golden Age of Aviation. What is different about flight now is that discourses about flight are more often about the security of the commercial passenger than the daring pilot.

After the shoe bomber, we passengers took off our shoes. After the gel incident in London, we packed in three ounce increments. Why is anyone surprised that after the underwear scare of 2009 we are now pat down at the airport security checkpoint?

Markham knew no one else could keep her safe in the skies. All Markham sought was solitude.   “Being alone in an airplane for even so short a time as night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semidarkness..can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.”

We fear the stranger at the checkpoint when the stranger may lie within us. Notice how far we are from solitude.

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“Talk With You Soon”

Last week, an online sales clerk said “talk with you soon” as we brought closure to a minor business transaction. The interaction got me thinking about how I end conversations with strangers, friends, and the in-between.

“Talk with you soon.” Did he really think that we, the online clerk and I, would ever talk again?  Perhaps he was implying the royal “we” meaning everyone who works at his company. Was it a strategy to build consumer loyalty during these tough economic times? Even though the online clerk and I probably both knew in our heart of hearts that we would never talk again, I might talk with his company again.

The call has made me more self-conscious, in particular, about how I sign off with people in other modes of communication.  Because I am often in a Facebook environment, I have grown quite comfortable saying goodbye with my face.  Email is a super training ground to keep in shape with using my goodbye words.

Specifically, I have been thinking about how my choice of goodbye words reflects my intentions about when or if I hope to communicate with a particular person again. Do I bail and just sign off with my name alone? Do I sign off with the rather bland best or cheers? Do I make a full-on temporal commitment with soon or always?  Will I be even more specific like ’til Tuesday or see you next week? What does it really mean to sign off with love because I cannot sign off with like?

Because I am neither Miss Manners nor Emily Post, I have not researched any possible rules for saying good bye with any greater precision. What I do know is that how you say good bye, if only in an e-mail or in a phone call, seems to matter.

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I have discovered a little trick about planning. In order to predict what I hope to accomplish in the future, I call on my past as a guide. If I need to estimate how long an assignment might take, I look back into my past and think honestly about how long comparable assignments took.

If I plan to finish a job by November 3, I look back to October 4 to conjure up all of the road blocks and challenges I faced during the past two weeks. What have I actually accomplished during this particular time period? What kind of unsuspected moments came my way? How did I get things done in the middle of chaos or was I stymied by my busyness?

If I am trying to set a deadline, I look backwards first. My past will help me to determine how long any future assignment will take. If I think I can get something done in two weeks, I look back at the prior two weeks and feel the activity level I experienced and question whether or not I can pull off what I hope to accomplish.

Take time to consider the past before you make big plans for your future.

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If you ever watched Gone With The Wind, you might recall when Scarlett O’Hara said “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Even though Scarlett’s and my that have always been thankfully different, her famous words have provided  frequent permission to put off until tomorrow. Scarlett has given great comfort and solidarity in my procrastination habits. She does not resolve any future actions. She resolves only to think about that tomorrow.

Everyone has that in their lives, the chores, assignments, excursions, and unspoken words that get put off for tonight or tomorrow. The challenge is to figure out how to deal with your that effectively and not just imagine it in the tomorrow.

Sometimes I wonder how I compare to Scarlett in my that habits.  Many mid-mornings during my work week, I set aside or ignore a difficult assignment and put it off  for later that evening.  I “Scarlett” a that for later instead of acting on it now. When later comes, I do not have the same energy I did earlier in the day to tackle the that.  I engage in this practice of that deferral more than I want to admit.

What I hope for myself in the future is to resist the temptation of sculpting imagined spaces of future productivity for my that.   Like Scarlett, I have often organized my time around the myth that there is always a better time than now to tackle my that, my particularly difficult assignments.

Why be like Scarlett, I ask, when I can plow through my that right now?


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The Gym

For one week, I accompanied my mother-in-law to her gym.  I walked on the treadmill, rowed on the rowing machine, and pumped some iron as she did the same. I met my mother-in-law’s gym friends: a couple of college professors, retired business men, and young professionals who worked out alongside my mother-in-law everyday at 6 AM.

My mother-in-law works out at her gym five days a week and then attends Mass. Not only does she build physical strength at the gym, she interacts meaningfully with more people before 8 AM than I do on most days before noon. She is sustained both physically and emotionally by the gym and its community.

A recent study has found that a greater percentage of centenarians live in North Dakota and New York City per capita than in any other location in the United States. What the study found is that people who exercise and engage in social networks live longer. They also appear to be happier.  The study tells me my mother-in-law is going to live a long time because not only does she engage in social networks and exercise, she does both at the same time.

The takeaway here is not to go to the gym necessarily. The question is how will you create gym-like experiences in your own life? How will you get out there to interact with others and strengthen your body, all at once or separately?

Since I read the study, I have been asking myself if I have any chance of  turning 100. I exercise and I often exercise alone. I am social and I have not cultivated the gym experience, real or metaphorical, in my life.  Because I want to be 100 years old (and happy), I will consider the barriers to sociality and exercise and try to break them down in my own life.

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I have decided that scolding anyone–child, lover, friend, colleague– is not necessarily morally reprehensible. It is, however, a waste of time.  Blaming people for their past actions, without working toward a viable solution, is bad time management. Nothing positive seems to happen as a result of a good scolding. We save time and make progress when we can communicate in a manner that can be heard.

I scold my children and spouse on a regular basis.  When I find bathing suits on the dining room table or no toilet paper in the bathroom, I scold. I blame. I stomp around.  The kind of scolding I am thinking about, however, extends beyond my home. I call it public scolding.

On Saturday, President Obama scolded Republicans for stalling on campaign finance reform in his weekly address. I don’t disagree with his message and his scolding tone did nothing to further any excitement toward collective action. On Sunday, President Carter blamed former Senator Kennedy for derailing health care reform back in the 1970s. I have no idea whether President Carter spoke the truth and the way he scolded a dead man was unnerving.   His scolding words made it difficult for me to watch the interview. I wanted to scold President Carter.

Scolding is the act of  reprimanding actions made in the past without remembering that life throttles forward. One of my mentors signs all of her communications with “onward.” Yesterday, she added “only way to go.” It’s true.  If we can hope for change, we must fall in love with the possibility of the future without dwelling in the past.

The next time I get ready to scold, I will do my best to ask myself first “What is the point here?” What will scolding actually do?   Sometimes, it is crucial to register concern or upset. I believe, however, it is more effective to communicate without guilt or scorn.

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Before You Were Born

Depending on when you were born, the photograph above will mean more or less to you. Intergenerational communication (like me sharing this picture with you if you are under 25) occurs everyday. It is never quite clear, however, what has actually been shared when people from different generations look at the same image or hear the same story.  That is why I want to talk about intergenerational comments today and how I have seen them at play this fall at UNC-CH.

In my everyday life at UNC-CH, I listen closely to  intergenerational communication. Specifically, I’d like to talk about two comments I have heard recently. The first one is: “This event happened before you were born.” Instructors say this comment a lot when they are about to share some history that still feels like a current event.

This “before you were born” comment is not about ancient history or even the 1970’s. We are talking here about the 1990s. Let’s practice. “George HW Bush had a dog named Millie before you were born.” “Michael Dukakis rode in a tank before you were born.” Basically, anything that occurred between 1985-1995 is fair game for the “before you were born” comment.  Even if one particular student in the back row remembers Millie, he or she was still in pull-ups so the “before you were born” comment still applies.

The second intergenerational comment that can be useful is to talk about something that happened in 1937 such as Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or in 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Pause. Then, look sternly at your class and say “I wasn’t born then either.” If you deliver this line properly, students will laugh. You probably need to be 40 plus for this strategy to work.

Some students may be surprised  you were not born yet  but that is OK.

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