Category Archives: In My Life

Email Agony (Sorry J. Kilmer)

I think that I shall never see
an email answered thoroughly.

Replies that answer questions asked
instead of adding to my task.

Concise with information needed
Instead of three-times asked and pleadedsadtree2

And then forgotten with a Huh?
A smiley face, a shrug, a “Doh!”

I hunger for a sentence rich
with information, scratch my itch!

It isn’t hard, first read, then write
Answer the question, end the plight!

-Quinn McDonald hopes Joyce Kilmer will forgive her. He never had to deal with emails that don’t get answered, or get partially answered.

When Authentic Isn’t Enough

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

Digging through my journals, I came across a story I want to include in the book I’m working on. (For now, the content of the book is not important.) The story is about my mom’s struggle with authenticity. She stewed in the perpetual heat of anger. One day, I asked her, “What is it that makes you so angry all the time?” I asked it in the softest voice possible. I really wanted to know; it was a key to our Gordian-knot relationship.

She looked at me and explained, “This is who I am. You always say it is good to be authentic. This is me, authentic. If you can’t deal with it, it is your fault. I am being true to myself.” The fable of the lady and the asp flashed through my head, but I remained quiet.

how-to-stop-your-anger

To this day, I still feel anxious when I hear anger–even if it is not directed at me.

She had a point. Except her anger was so damaging, so painful. But most of her friends–those whom she liked–didn’t feel the sting of her anger. She did have another side. I rarely saw it.

Fast forward to now, when we encourage people not to change, to be happy as they are. What makes me think this? Listen to the language we use:

  • It is what it is
  • That’s you being you
  • Be yourself, everyone else is taken (attributed to so many people I’m not even trying to be sure, although I like Oscar Wilde.)
  • Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard Baruch

We love being ourselves without excuse. “Don’t judge!” we warn. But somewhere there has to be a difference, a line, a distinction between back-stabbing gossip and being authentic.

When we say, “it is what it is,” or “haters gonna hate,” we are not excusing others, we are justifying ourselves and writing everyone else off as envious–lesser. There is then no cause or reason for criticism. We win. And so does everyone else, in their mind.

I beg to differ.  Language shifts our culture, so let’s be clear about the definition of “authentic.”  It is your deepest best self, not the shallow way we behave without thinking. Being authentic takes some reflection, asking, “Who would I like to be seen as? My character is my reputation, how do I want to present it?”

That’s the person we want to be. The person who builds a reputation; the person who is loved by dogs.

–Quinn McDonald spends a lot of time watching how language and culture influence each other.

 

The Universe Has a Future

Yesterday, when I was so bummed that I couldn’t grab an opportunity, I remembered another story from a different time in my life. That story still has value.

That's the right way to break the board--both feet have to be off the ground.

That’s the right way to break the board–both feet have to be off the ground.

Some years ago, I decided that taking martial arts would help me stay flexible and strong. Instead of starting slowly, I visited a studio for TaeKwonDo, a powerful fighting martial arts, in which you can get hurt. Eventually I broke several bones sparring and doing exhibitions, but I digress.

At the studio, Sensei Lee put me through some paces to see where I would start, and put me in the beginner’s class. Because I have always been competitive, I immediately asked, “How long will it be till I am a black belt?” Mr. Lee, who did not take kindly to women in martial arts, sighed.

He then said, “If you make it through all the tests, if you work out three times a week here in class, you will make it to black belt in five years.” It might as well have been till the 12th of Never.

Sparring match in TaeKwonDo.

Sparring match in TaeKwonDo.

I looked at him with disbelief and said, “But I will be 37 years old by then!” It seemed to me that I’d be ancient. And the progress was so slow!

Mr. Lee remained placid. He sighed again. “Yes,” he said. “But in five years, you will be 37 years old anyway.”

It was an important lesson in setting goals and working toward them steadily. It was an important lesson in knowing what you want before you start and planning. But most of it, it was knowing that anything worth having is worth waiting for.

Quinn McDonald no longer practices TaeKwonDo, although she did earn her black belt and celebrated by kicking through four cinder blocks, barefooted.

The Universe Says “No” Sometimes

The dream first. I was standing in a tall building, looking out over the mountains in Phoenix. A voice behind me said, “This is a higher calling.” I looked around, and I was standing in a room of packing boxes. A poetry book was on a box next to me. I’d probably been reading it.

The next morning, I wrote down the dream, and indulged in an ancient kabbalistic meditation on the creative spirit. Then, to work. And hard work it is, writing my new website. I’m on the third draft, and the webmaster is trying hard to stay polite and the account executive is probably going home to stick pins an a voodoo doll of me. I don’t blame her. But I won’t put up a website that isn’t well done. So. It’s hard work.

The phone rings and on the other end is a poet whose books I’ve read and whose writing and teaching I admire. A wonderful conversation later, I discover he teaches a course that sounds as if it were designed for me. Two years and I’d have a certification in healing through poetry. I want to do that. It sounds perfect. It matches the dream!

I check into the price, and it is more than I can afford. Way more. Of course, the price is worth it, that’s not the point. But both of our cars are more than 12 years old, one of them has more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. The family room needs a new floor. The carpet, even when clean, looks like a plowed field waiting to be seeded.

Sometimes the dream is not a sign.

Sometimes the dream is not a sign.

It seemed like a good time to turn over the problem to the Operating System of the Universe. I went back to work. OK, I may have mentioned it whined a little on Facebook. I should have kept my fingers concentrating on the website.

The emails began to trickle in: “Jump and trust. The money will show up as you fly.” “The universe will provide you the money. Sign up!” “This is an investment in the future, just do it.” “The dream was a sign! Go now and the money will come.” “Write a love letter to money!” Oh. I’m not big on blind trust. I noodle some numbers, and nope, it’s just not feasible right now. That happens, too. Even in an enlightened universe. Sometimes the Universe says, “No,” even if you have a dream.

1354416871_4777_tantrumThe next step was also interesting. “You didn’t try hard enough.” “You didn’t trust enough.” “Maybe you didn’t deserve it after all.” “You are playing small.” “Write another love letter to money.” Wow, so if the universe doesn’t deliver, suddenly it’s my fault. What happened to blind trust?

I have a few days left. Maybe the Universe will write me a check. But if it doesn’t, I’ll have to be disappointed. There is nothing wrong with disappointment. It does not reflect on my character, my will or my ability to manifest. It simply means that something I wanted it out of my financial reach. That happens. Even to deserving people.

Tomorrow there will be more webwriting, but mostly workbook writing. Sometimes the Universe helps you by letting you deal with loss and then move on.

Quinn McDonald trusts in the Universe, even when the answer is “No.”

Compassion v. Boundaries

We all want to be compassionate. Unless, of course, the other person doesn’t deserve compassion. Oh, wait, isn’t that exactly when we are supposed to be even more compassionate? But what if the other person is a jerk? What if compassion isn’t working?

images

Boundaries can be beautiful and useful; you have to plan them that way.

That’s what boundaries are for. Boundaries are limits we set for ourselves and other people. It is completely unrealistic to think that you have unlimited compassion, patience, and ability to shift to please other people, even if they are family or friends.

Sometimes, people’s bad behavior, demands, or blame-game is theirs to own. Your job is not to fix, educate, or change them. Your job is to set a clear boundary and enforce it.

Boundaries are not a judgment of others. It is calling them to a higher level of discipline. If they can’t make it, or don’t want to, that’s fine. That’s why boundaries work so well. You can walk away cleanly from abusers. When they try to blame you, you point to the clear boundary.

When you set a boundary, make sure you can live with it.  Not enforcing

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it's up to you.

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it’s up to you.

the boundary is equal to not having a boundary and putting a doormat on your chest and saying, “please walk over me.”

Be clear about the boundary and enforcing it. No fair saying, “if you forget to put gas in the car one more time, I’m leaving you,” and then not leaving. Don’t create a threat you won’t carry through. Boundaries are not threats, they are reasonable lines that show the level of your discipline and self-care.

Saying “No” is your responsibility. When you set a boundary, you can expect your family and friends to think it doesn’t apply to them. When it does, learn to say “No” and mean it.

Steer clear of “If you loved me, you would. . . ” Don’t say it, don’t fall for it. It’s manipulative and untrue. People you love will disappoint you and you will still love them. That’s how you know you are compassionate. People who try to get around your boundaries will use it to push your people-pleasing button. Don’t fall for it. If you do, it will be the first in a long string of manipulative “if you love me. . .” demands. Be firm. “I love you, but . . no, I will not do this.” If their love is defined by how much you do for them that is against your values, you are learning about their definition of love. And it’s not yours.

Boundaries are healthy for your own well-being and help those around you be clear about what they can expect from you. Think them through and set them. Then enforce them. That is true compassion.

—Quinn McDonald is still learning the difference between “No” and wanting others to approve of her.

The Joy of a Trashy Novel

imagesPeople who work on airplanes are admirable. I watch them take out their laptops, open documents and work as if their lives depended on it. Maybe they do. Then there are the game players who hold their iPads like steering wheels and race through narrow lanes on their screens. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the people who are watching a movie on their iPhone. Seriously, I would not want to watch a movie that expanded across a big screen shrink down to the size of my phone. I’d keep wondering, “Which one is that? Was he the driving the getaway motorcycle or was he the guy who crashed through the window in France?”

On airplanes, I bring a book. The kind you don’t have to put away until you are at 10,000 feet. The kind the flight attendant doesn’t ask you to turn off until the Captain tells you it’s OK to read. The kind that makes you look like a matronly grammar teacher on her way to teach a class and . . . let’s leave her alone.

These airplane-reading books are a slice of heaven. I keep my eyes glued to the pages tPile-of-Bookshrough turbulence. Ignore the man in the next seat whose head is on my shoulder and he’s drooling. Ignore the squalling toddler who is kicking my seat.

For I have the trashy novel and am loving it. I pick them carefully. They have to be well-written and the plot has to capture my attention. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if the main character is flawed in a believable way and has to struggle to solve his problems.

When I say “trashy,” I don’t mean bodice-busters or Fifty Shades of Gray. I have standards. There are genres I don’t like (but not many).  Give me a good mystery with an interesting protagonist, and I’ll have to be pried off the plane like a dried-on diaper from a baby that’s been asleep since we passed over Cleveland.

pile-of-books-1During the work week I often read non-fiction books on writing, coaching, critical thinking. Art books and magazines for fun. But I do have a weakness for novels, and audiobooks have made many a car trip not just fun but deeply satisfying. Airplane books fall into that category. Yes, I’ve read Middlemarch and Moby Dick, Light in August and The Gulag Archipelago, but I don’t read classics on an airplane. I read books that hook my interest and my imagination. Some of them may even be literature. But all of them hold my attention.

My latest airplane novels:

Inferno by Dan Brown. More of the same, but if you love Italy or are a folklorist, there is a wealth of interesting information buried in the so-so plot.

A book of short stories by Neil Gaiman. That led me to reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then onto American Gods and The Ananzi Boys. Not trashy, incredible. Some of the best story-telling I’ve read.See where a book of short stories can lead?

Several by Jodi Picoult. She writes page-turners with interesting characters and interesting plots.

Peter Robinson writes about an English detective, Inspector Banks, who is flawed and troubled and a very stubborn and a good detective. The books are always interesting because they weave the personal life of the characters into the crime plot.

J.A. Jance now lives in Seattle, but she’s from Tucson. She wrote a series that takes place in Tucson (Joanna Brady and another set featuring Diana Ladd Walker and Brandon Walker)  another in Seattle (J.P. Beaumont),  a few where the detectives from each town meet. Then there are some about a woman newsreader who gets bounced from TV because her face is starting to look old (Ali Reynolds). J.A. Jance is prolific and a kind and generous woman who once comforted me with a funny story that made a clever blog. And she writes page turners. If I finish one on a plane, I put a note in it recommending it and leave it in the airplane. Someone will be delighted.

You don’t have to get on an airplane to read an interesting novel you like. Good writers almost always are also voracious readers–of anything. Enjoy an old-fashioned book. You won’t be disappointed.

-Quinn McDonald reads books in bed. Her iPad hurts too much when it drops on her face as she falls asleep.

 

It’s Random

Consider this: The Raptors, a baseball team, has won the last four games played on a Tuesday, but only if it rained. No rain, no win. Rain? They win. Today is Tuesday, and it is raining, and the Raptors are playing. Should you bet on them to win?

It's not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

It’s not rain, but a forest fire behind a high-school game in Colorado. I found it randomly.

Of course not. Winning and the rain are not related. It’s a coincidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Which is a compact way of saying that the rain, Tuesdays, and winning are not related to each other. Even if it happens four times in a row. It’s random.

Random is much easier to accept if it’s in your favor. When things go your way for a while, it’s easy to pat yourself on the back, tell yourself how much you deserved it, and how you are smarter than your idiot competitors.

When things go wrong, of course, we look for the idiot who screwed us up. Sometimes we blame ourselves and beat ourselves up.

This is a good time to make sure what went right and what went wrong wasn’t random. If you were involved, good to see how, admit it, fix it, take credit for it, or cheer.

© Scott Adams

© Scott Adams

If it was random, and it often is, don’t spend another second looking for secret reasons, lessons from the universe, a ghost in the machine, or divine retribution. Correlation does not imply causation. What’s your next best move? Time to get busy.

-Quinn McDonald knows that over-thinking “random” resulted in the Salem Witch Trials. They could have spent the time better overcoming fear of outsiders.

 

The Power of Stubborn

When I was very young, I became a mom. It was not unusual in those days–people were often grandmothers by the time they were in their late 30s. Like mothers of those days, I was pushed out of my job about halfway through my pregnancy. There was a war in Vietnam, so I was alone when it was time to drive to the hospital. My son was born at 4 in the morning, and one of the nurses had a staph infection, which she transferred to my son. And then everything went bad.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.

He went downhill fast with the infection. His liver stopped working. He turned yellow.  He lost half his birth weight. The doctor noticed that my baby had a single line across his palms–in those days called “simian creases.” It accompanies many terrible genetic diseases–among them Down Syndrome and Kleinfelter syndrome. The chaplain made it to my bed before the doctor and began to discuss picking out a coffin. The doctor followed and told me my son would most likely be low-functional, and never have a normal life.

I was young and alone. I was not allowed to see or hold my son, who was attached to so many tubes I could hardly know he was a real person.

Both sides of the family became silent. I learned what it meant to be alone. I saw a life of incompetence and struggling ahead of me. I was scared. Even at a young age, I was good at sucking it up and moving on. I was sent home 12 hours after the birth, and returned with breast milk the next day. For the next weeks, I stayed at the hospital until they threw me out, and sang to the little bundle amid the tubes. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.” I have no talent for singing, and one nurse told me it would damage the child, and I should let his last hours be in quiet. I hated her.

He lived. He was stubborn and tough. He came home. No one gave me referrals or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He didn’t sit up until he was 8 months old. He walked late. He talked late. I tried to be brave. He kept me busy. And then he began to talk. In full sentences. Every night, I read him stories and sang to him. At 23 months, he read the stories along with me. At 25 months, he would put his hand over my mouth and say, “You are singing it wrong.” And I was. I can’t sing. Not even hum.

yale1-1

Yale University

A doctor examined him and told me, “Mothers of retarded children [that was the term in those days] often think their children are brighter than they are. You must accept what God has meant for you.” I don’t believe in a vengeful God who punishes children or their mothers. I was a little older and a lot tougher. Ian and I  left the office, both stubborn. He was reading chapter books before kindergarten.

I took him to a new doctor and didn’t mention the past. In a time without computerized medical records,  it was easier to lose the “retarded” label.  Over the years, it turned out that he was amazingly bright, determined, focused and impatient. He often didn’t understand that others weren’t as bright as he was. Bright children have their own struggles, and we muddled through.

When times got tough, I’d think about those first hard months. And those days were the first thing I thought of when he phoned me two years ago, to tell me he had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor at Yale University.

It has not been without hardship, loss, sadness and struggle. But it has also been with laughter and growth and  just plain pride.

Today is Ian’s birthday and those memories are still strong. I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on, ” even when it got tough. I love you.  You have made me so very proud.

-Quinn McDonald is the proud mom, no matter how old the birthday boy is.

Questioning Your Motives

When I was first married, I had to learn my husband’s family’s Christmas customs. There was a lot of gift buying, and because we didn’t live close, a lot of gift shipping.

As December flipped onto the calendar, I began to panic. My husband hadn’t purchased gifts for his family yet. We had decided it was his job to do that. He enjoyed it. Because Christmas starts in August, by early December I was in high panic. My husband has a different view of time than I do, and he wasn’t concerned.

From history.org

From history.org

Finally, in week three of December, he said he was finished shopping. I took a day off work, and, unasked, spent the entire day furiously wrapping, labeling and packing boxes for his family members. I then loaded the car and stood in line at UPS for hours waiting to ship his packages. My credit card took a serious hit on rush charges. I came home feeling virtuous. He owed me now. He would look at me as the hero I was and heap praises on my head. I could taste my victory and it was sweet.

I strode into the house, filled with more that a touch of vindication. “Your packages went to your family today, and they will make it in time for Christmas,” I said, pausing for praise. When it didn’t come, I prompted, “I used a vacation day to get them all out.” When I looked at him, I saw. . . hidden anger.

Available as a poster from http://www.topatoco.com

Available as a poster from http://www.topatoco.com

“What’s wrong? I took a whole day off to do this for you! I stood in line and put a lot of rush shipping on my credit card!” He looked at me and said simply, “I didn’t ask you to do that. I had planned to take tomorrow off to do it. I like doing it. You don’t. But mostly, you did something you hated so I’d appreciate it. And instead, you deprived me of the joy of listening to Christmas music and wrapping presents while you were at work.” I was furious. How could he be so selfish?  I had taken a day off and done a whole day of furious work for him, and I did not get one word of appreciation.

With time, I realized my totally inappropriate level of control and, well, wrong thinking. My husband was right.  Wrapping and shipping the presents was not my work to do. I took it on without asking. I did the work not because I enjoyed it, or even because I wanted to do it. I did the work to be appreciated. Instead of focusing on holiday joy, I focused on what I didn’t have: time, appreciation, enjoyment.

And the trouble with focusing on “What don’t I have?” is that the answer is always “I don’t have enough.” Always a sad realization.

In the years that followed, I learned to do things for others because someone asked me to help, or because I wanted to. Occasionally, I did things because they needed doing and no one else was available. But I no longer do things to be appreciated. It’s a losing proposition, every time.

—Quinn McDonald appreciates giving help and asking for help, which allows others to feel generous. She does the work that is hers to do.

 

Know Yourself, Be Yourself

The girl was walking toward the river when she saw a snake sunning itself on a rock. The snake was beautiful, but the girl knew it was a viper whose bite kills.

0The snake spoke to the girl, “Little girl, I cannot swim across the river, and I cannot row a boat. I need your help. You are kind and generous. Will you carry me across the river in the boat?”

The girl was taken aback. “No, you are a poisonous viper, and if I pick you up, you will bite me and I will die.”

The snake looked aggrieved. “Little girl, I must cross the river to get back home. You would offer me a kindness if you helped me. What reason would I have to bite you when you are helping me? If I bite you, we will both die.”

The girl thought for a moment, then agreed. Kindness is the best choice, she thought. She picked up the snake, laid it around her neck and headed toward her small rowboat tied to a post in the river. Before she could untie the boat, she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The snake has bitten her.

The bite was deadly.  The girl was confused. “Why did you do that? I offered to help you!” The snake dropped from her shoulders. Before he disappeared in the grass, he hissed, “You knew who I was when you picked me up.”

That fable always upset me when I was younger. Kindness was not rewarded, generosity and trust was punished. But there is another concept at work here. The snake stayed true to form. The girl, who was smart, ignored her own brains and let the snake sweet-talk her into doing something she knew was a bad idea. She acted against her own character.

Had the girl remained true to whom she was, she would have trusted her native intelligence and walked away from the snake, no matter how charming it was.

Know-YourselfThe real point of this story is the importance of self-knowledge. You know who you are. You know your skills. You know what you do well and what you are horrible at. And yet, it’s still so tempting to take the wrong job because the money is good, to start a relationship with the wrong person because of looks or wealth, to try to fit into a group that you have nothing in common with.

Make the most of who you are. Honor your own wisdom. If you aren’t sure of your values, there are tests like Via (you can take a free test here) or Myers-Briggs (you can take a free Jungian test here) that can help make it clear. Play to your strengths.

Knowing yourself is the first step to being yourself. Fighting against your true nature is a hard battle. You can choose to grow, to change, to become who you want to be. But start with who you are.

–Quinn McDonald helps people know themselves and thrive.