A sympathetic ear

I had an interesting experience today.  I was going to change it to a story told in the third person with made up names and such, but that sounded too complicated and I’d probably mess it up.  I am not looking for compliments or kudos, and I really don’t want to bring attention to the other party, so hopefully anyone that may know the person is not reading this.  It just seems like something that may come up for others and it doesn’t have to be awkward.

I seem to be just about equally introverted and extroverted.  Okay, so maybe I’m more of an introvert, but I bust out of that shell semi-often and am perfectly comfortable with it.  Plus, I can totally fake it when I need to.  Anyway, today at lunch I went to a fast-food restaurant, armed with a magazine and a plan to ignore just about anyone I might run into.  It would have to be a chance encounter with a favorite person that I hadn’t seen in ages to tear me away from this perfect 45 minutes spent reading and avoiding.

I placed my order and chose a table and thought I recognized an older lady that I used to see at her job when I was in high school many years ago.  I passed by again to get my drink, and went back and forth in my mind about whether it was who I thought it was.  The quickest way to answer that question would be to ask her.  She could say no, and I’d give the friendly “oh, sorry, you look a lot like her” line and go back to my own business.  I should add here that I didn’t even know this person back in the day, so normally I wouldn’t consider saying anything.  She was a familiar face in a small town.  Not a big mystery and who cares.

However, I happen to know that this particular lady’s son was sent to prison about nine years ago and her grandchildren were ordered to live with the in-laws and since then her husband has died. That’s quite a stack of adversity for one petite little lady to have to carry around.  She looked put together but with a touch of weariness.

So I asked her.  And it was who I thought it was.  And she talked my ear off.  And I let her.
I had every intention of saying hello, mentioning a mutual friend, and wishing her well as I went back to my own table and my solo lunch break.  I ended up bringing my food to her table in the nanosecond that existed between her sentences.*

Do you know how lonely she must be?  I’m sure she has friends, but a lot fewer than she had 15-20 years ago.  Her husband is dead.  Her daughter and her family live hours away.  Her son is in prison.  Her grandkids aren’t here and don’t keep in touch.  She retired from a job she worked at for 34 years and works part time for a little income now.

By the way, her son had a blockbuster trial, so it’s not like she could keep it on the down low.  She said her workmates (at the time) were fairly supportive.  She said her church congregation was not.  How sad is that…….you’d think it would be the other way around.  (Or ideally, everyone would be supportive.)  She thinks her son is innocent, which is understandable for a mom.  I don’t know if he is or not, but it doesn’t matter to me.  I was talking to his mom, who is an elderly woman who didn’t commit any crimes and I’m pretty sure didn’t encourage her son to carry out any heinous acts.  His life happened and affected hers in a big way.

We talked about her son a lot.  It was as natural as if he were working as a real estate salesman or teaching algebra or waiting tables.  She told me how and what he’s doing.  I asked questions and she answered them.  It was as though she had been waiting to have a normal conversation with someone about her kids.

I’m a question-asker.  I try not to go too far or get insanely deeply personal, but I’m interested in people and their lives.  It’s kind of a weird trait, maybe – I’m curious, but not nosy.  I don’t want information for gossip’s sake, but to keep the conversation going and to learn why people are who they are.  I learned from a fifth grader years ago that it’s okay to ask questions.  She asked a person with leg braces and forearm crutches what happened.  I thought I was going to DIE.  He simply responded with what happened (polio) and we all went on with whatever we were doing.  I’m also very open with my own information, so it doesn’t bother me to answer questions.  You have to feel people out, though.  Sometimes they really don’t want to talk about a particular topic or share much in general, so you have to keep it light.

I feel like I may have written about this before, but it keeps happening, so maybe it’s important.  Introduce yourself.  Let the person talk.  It might be therapeutic for them or the highlight of their week.**  Maybe they work hard and go home and have a tv dinner and watch Dancing with the Stars and go to bed and get up the next day and do it again, without feeling like there’s anyone for miles around who would even know if they didn’t wake up in the morning.

Which would be the more comfortable situation………
1.  Person walks in and everyone stops talking and starts acting weird and fumbling and looking away.
2.  Person walks in and people give her/him hugs and ask how they’ve been, how work is going, etc.

Just pretend for a second that nothing out of the ordinary happened and greet your friend as you always have.  That can be the ice-breaker, and then the conversation and the interactions can go where they will.  I can only imagine that all a person who has endured some epic difficulties wants is a minute of normalcy.  If it has been years since whatever happened, then it really should be back to business as usual.  If you can’t manage to keep it relaxed immediately following, then at least you can take some time to consciously get it together after some time has passed.

If the person’s loved one has died, say that you are sorry for their loss and ask how they’re holding up.  Again, not awkward.  They’re still a human, standing in front of you, wanting a normal interaction.  If the loss is fresh, I wouldn’t go into too much digging and sticking your finger in the wound, but if some time has passed, ask what that person was like.  Say their name.  They existed and are still carried in hearts and minds.

Let the other person pave the way.  Keep your mind sharp and observe.  If they want to talk about it, you’ll know it, like the lady I visited with today.  We each came away from it with a new acquaintance, and maybe a friend.  If you have a choice, feel free to approach if you’re moved to do so.  If you don’t have a choice and a conversation is unavoidable, stay cool and act like you are comfortable.  You’ve got this.


*She was not in any way annoying, looking for attention, sympathy, or anything else that might make me regret starting a conversation.  It was all very matter-of-fact on both of our parts and I just got the feeling that it was nice for her to be able to share.

**I’m not suggesting this might be done daily or anything.  That would be exhausting.

Awkward convo

Listen up

listening JRT


I need to work on my listening skills.  It takes intention and practice.  I come from a family of interrupters, so I don’t even know when I’m doing it.  We know how to communicate with each other and it works for us, but other people who are from families who don’t communicate like this find it rude, I’ve found.**

My sister and I, for example, know that when we have a conversation, we’re both usually so excited about being together and the topic and agreeing and sharing, etc, that we will interrupt each other constantly.  And it’s ok.  And also, we’re free to ask each other to repeat something because we totally weren’t listening.  Like blatantly, mind-elsewhere-didn’t-comprehend-a-word-you-said.  (Also common between us:  “Did you tell me _______, or did I dream it?”)

I’m reminded of my lack of mastery in this area when I’m talking to someone who intensely listens with constant eye contact and undivided attention.  Recently, my boss was doing something and I started to tell her about serious news that was happening in my personal life that day.  This extremely busy administrative officer whose mind is going a hundred miles an hour on a million different things, stopped what she was doing (writing) and looked at me to show that what I was saying was important to her.  Mad skillz.  It meant something to me that should would take a moment.  And I’ve seen her act that way with other people.

It may be useful to note that different people have different ways of concentrating and contemplating.  Just because someone is looking at something else doesn’t always mean they’re not listening; however, it doesn’t send a good message to the speaker.  It’s more polite, thoughtful and meaningful to pay obvious attention.

So, memo to myself – SHOW the person that I care and am really giving my full attention by serious eye contact and by not interrupting (too often!), and if possible, stopping whatever else I’m doing.  Unless I’m driving.  If I stop that, I’ll be sure to pull over and park first.

In the meantime, while I’m still working on this, know that I do care about what you’re saying.  Actually, what you’re saying could be super boring and hardly worth noting, but if it’s important to you, I will care because it matters to you.

**My grandmother does get credit for trying to straighten us out by saying “DON’T INTERRUPT ME, DAMMIT”, in her Boston accent.  Somehow the lesson didn’t take, but it’s never too late to work on it and make improvements.

~~”I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything.  So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”  – Larry King


It’s not me, it’s you

I’ve found it’s better not to blame other people for things.  Either straight up IT’S TOTALLY HIS/HER FAULT, or the more subtle, quieter ways of transferring blame.

I’ve also tried to take blame when it wasn’t my fault, and I don’t recommend that, either.  I figured I could handle the repercussions better than the other person.  A friend advised that I never do that again, especially in the workplace.  I didn’t lie about it, but probably implied that whatever it was had been on me.  Grown people need to accept responsibility for their own situations, but sometimes it’s hard not to try to protect them, especially when it’s your nature to do so.

I wasn’t always that way, though.  I’m not sure exactly when I realized blaming others was a crummy thing to do, but in about third or fourth grade, I was apparently a blamer.  I was sitting next to a boy in class and bothering him on purpose….throwing bits of paper or tapping him or whatever, and he lashed out.  Of course I was doing this quietly and his outburst brought the teacher over.  And I was all


And he got in serious trouble*.  And I let it happen.  Horrible.

In the decades since,  I’ve come to realize that whatever the consequences, I cannot in good conscience blame someone else, especially if I had anything to do with the incident.  I haven’t even forgiven 9-year-old me for throwing my buddy under the bus, so I’m not going to add more shameful memories to the catalog.

This is infinitely harder when in a disagreement with a significant other.  I am still trying not to use the response of “oh yeah?  well, YOU ___________________”.  This happens naturally and is very hard to stop.  It doesn’t even seem like blame to me at the time, but more of a tool to win an argument in the heat of battle.  Still, it’s pretty weak and immature and no doubt unfair.

Nothing happened recently to bring this to mind – I just was reading something or reminiscing about my stint as a Terrible Child (this was the era before Irritable Teenager).  I also keep a list of topics that make life better for me, and this was one of the bullet points.

So, Nathan Saul, wherever you are, please accept my heartfelt apologies and I’ll totally stay inside for recess and write lines.

*This was the ’80’s, so it may have even been physical punishment.

“What can everyone do?  Praise and blame. This is human virtue, this is human madness.”   ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Faux pas, anyone?

Back on track with another aspect of living a charmed life…….let’s talk about one form of grace.

How do you handle an embarrassing situation? 

I vote for trying not to dig yourself deeper into the trouble you’ve accidentally found yourself in.  An apology may be in order, so start with one of those.  Try to keep calm and think clearly and use as few words as possible going forward so as not to make things worse.  Make an attempt to smooth things over simply and honestly instead of bursting into tears and running out of the room, never to be seen again, which is what you would LOVE to do.  [If someone else has created the awkwardness in your presence, you may or may not want to help them out – it’s not your problem, but if something helpful comes to mind and they’re struggling, you might offer up something to lighten the mood.  This does not mean you can make the offender look bad instead.]

I was thinking this morning about a situation I found myself in several years ago.  I was at an event where 10-20 people had gathered to listen to a speaker.  There were refreshments either before or after, and I was attempting to be friendly and make small talk with a young lady serving herself ahead of me.  (Small talk, ugh.  But it must be done.)  I had noticed she had a limp, and I asked her if she had hurt her foot recently.  She politely informed me that she had a prosthesis.

facepalm statue

I somehow did not disintegrate into a pile of dirt like I felt I might and wished I would, and instead said something like “oh, I’m sorry; wow, you’re doing great, then”.  I may or may not have asked what happened to her foot to cause her to need a prosthesis – I probably did, but I honestly don’t remember.  You have to have a sense of the person and how they might feel about a continued conversation about it.  If they have been offended and spoke to you in a curt or accusatory tone, don’t keep asking questions or making comments and trying to converse about it to make up for your embarrassment.  But if, like this young lady, they are carrying the cross they’ve been given to bear with dignity and balance, they may be willing to discuss their unique situation.  No doubt I was not the first person in her life to refer to her slight limp.  Another person in her position could have been sick and tired of explaining for the umpteenth time to yet another idiot that she didn’t have a flesh and bone foot and whydon’tyoumindyourownbusiness.  I’m happy to say she seemed on good terms with it, did not act sorry for herself in any way, and did not shred me verbally for bringing it up, which allowed me to struggle less to keep my cool and my own dignity.

Hey, wait!  So the grace can go both ways.  If you are the potentially offended party, try not to overreact and make the speaker feel worse than they already probably do.  Remember that at some point, you’re going to be the one winning the Bonehead Award.  Give them the benefit of the doubt, be confident that it’s not what they were going for, and let’s all live happily ever after.


~Every moment is a fresh beginning.  -T.S. Eliot


Take Note

You know what I find to be fun?  Scrolling through memories I’ve stored in the Notes section on my iPhone.  When someone says something that I don’t want to forget (especially if it’s funny), I take a few seconds to type and save it.  My sister does the same thing, which we found out about each other randomly.  Now occasionally we’ll compare notes and laugh about things all over again.

This can also be done by hand with pen and paper, of course.  I also carry a little notebook in my purse for note-taking, I just have found that the phone option is more handy.

Here are a few random notes from my phone:

  • My mom:  “get the hell away from me”.  My sister thought she was talking to a wasp.  She was talking to me.  (In her defense, I was most likely bothering her on purpose.)
  • My aunt, while visiting NM, wanting us to look at the scenery:  “Are y’all craning your necks?”  (Apparently if we weren’t craning, we weren’t really trying.)
  • My aunt, referring to a lady from my childhood:  “She was a pretty dry stack of hay, I’ll tell ya.”
  • My mom, regarding my aunt:  “she can blame the tequila, now that she’s had some”.
  • An elderly businessman friend, regarding not visiting certain parts of Mexico during times of strife:  “All they want to do any more is kill people or hold them for ransom.  I don’t believe I need that aggravation.” (Hahaha!  Yes, being kidnapped or killed is definitely an inconvenience.)

You kind of have to know these people to get the full effect, and you also have to have a warped sense of humor like I do, but you get the idea.

I also use it to remember nice things, like an expression on someone’s face, a lady singing a hymn to herself, a tough-looking guy praising his tiny dog on a leash, a young man who worked at Goodwill pausing to thumb through a children’s book……..things that make you smile or that seem a bit unexpected.  I might never remember exactly how I felt at that moment unless I make a note of it.

There are a few random ideas listed that I probably will never do anything with but also don’t want to lose, just in case, such as something to write about, something that needs to be invented, or an idea for a piece of weird art.

It’s sometimes annoying to type or write the note, but it’s totally worth it later.  I hope you have a lovingly crazy family to reap hilarities from like I do.  Leave a comment if you do something similar and if it’s priceless, please share.  🙂





Not feelin’ it 100%

I’m not my usual jovial self today.  Outwardly, I seem fine.  Inside, I’m stressing out about money, lack of time, how I have way too much to do and don’t know where to start, the weather is crap and it’s going to be worse tomorrow, etc.

This made me think about how part of living a charmed life is the practice of not unloading your crummy mood on others.  Are you having a heart-felt conversation during a long lunch with a good friend?  Feel free to discuss your problems.  But don’t bring it up to everyone you meet in passing.  “How are you today?” does not mean they really want to know how you really feel today.  It’s simply a greeting.

Everyone has some sort of stress. Can you imagine if everyone unleashed and complained all the time?  The negativity would be overwhelming.  I’ve known people who have had such incredible health issues that if it were me, I’d be on disability and never get dressed.  Yet they get up, get ready, get out, are productive and somehow remain pleasant and upbeat!  Wouldn’t you rather associate with this person than with someone who whines about their lot in life?

I’m not suggesting you never have a genuine thought, feeling, or interaction.  Just that the whole aura around you will be so much better and you’ll be more apt to attract positivity if you put on a happy(-ish) face.  At least it won’t make your mood WORSE and you won’t bring down the people you associate with.

It takes self-control, but you can rein in your anger/frustration/apathy and not take it out on those around you.  They are probably not the reason you’re in a foul humor, so don’t make them pay for it, and if they are, the current moment may not be the best time to address it.

Think good thoughts, work as efficiently as you can, read or watch something funny, and know that you only have to hang in there for a while – change is always around the corner and here’s to hoping that it’s good.  🙂