Archive for July, 2011

Beyond Within

My first memories are of being alone; not left alone, not hiding alone, just being alone. Mostly early mornings, spent time watching things happen, playing with toys and forming thoughts in my head. I learned to do things myself; solve problems, go places and do what I needed to get done. There was no neglect by parents or family, I just always cherished my freedom and my ability to accomplish tasks on my own.

I cannot recall ever getting help with homework in school, not that I really needed it. There was the occasional science project where my father would lend some mechanical guidance, but overall I was on my own. I studied in solitude right through two college degrees, interpreting the information into a logic that I could disseminate when need be. It was a process that allowed me to accumulate large amounts of data and knowledge in a very short period of time.

When I worked I also worked alone. First as a newspaper carrier, delivering in the early hours of the morning before most people even awoke, then as a private investigator, spending 70-80 hours each week in my car following people and conducting surveillance. Later, I worked as a surveillance officer at one of several stations in a monitor control room. This was as close as I would come to working on a team without actually being on a team, as I was when I travelled with sports teams as an athletic trainer for the University of Connecticut.

Even now, owning a business that is a skeleton of its former self, I work alone. Clients usually call looking to work with me, I handle most every aspect of their visit, arriving first, leaving last when the office is open for most of the year. It is the profession that I have chosen where I am considered a solitary practitioner.

The majority of my physical pursuits are geared toward long periods of time spent alone; running, cycling, and boxing. I have never been a team player when it comes to sports, as I do not play well with others. I cannot understand why teammates would do anything any other way than the way that I would do it, so I usually played goalie in soccer when I had to be on a team sport.

So what does this all say about the person I am? Well the thing that I am sure of is that I find solitude comforting. The variables involved with interpersonal relations proved to be unpredictable for many years. Eventually I learned to predict, rather reliably, how people telegraphed their actions just prior to initiating them. I also grew accustomed to reading a person’s body language, as well as their facial expressions and changes of tone and pitch in speech to communicate in ways they themselves seldom understand. Taking all of this information in and processing it has allowed me to better understand myself, which is after all, the point.

You see, there are few people that can lay claim to be comfortable just being with themselves. It is not a matter of ego, rather a matter of id. Living alone for the majority of my adult life, I have slowly gained insight into the person I am. There will be no “eureka” moment where it all becomes clear, but rather a mindfulness of living in the moment. Understanding how to communicate with yourself is the first step in knowing how to communicate with others. Slowly, I am acquiring that understanding.

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Happiness

Ask someone what makes them happy. Their response might begin with a sigh before they launch into a description of their perfect day, with every last detail explained through a dreamlike gaze and a smile. Others may have an answer as short a one word; silence. It is difficult to quantify an emotion or a feeling in a way that can adequately described through words at a moment’s notice. Additionally, no one single thought, idea, or object can be assured to raise the same emotion in two different people.

I cannot speak of what makes others happy and I would not care to have them speak for me. What I will speak of is the flighty nature that which people enjoy their happiness. I have seen it so many times; the brief smile given to the sighting of a familiar face, a flash of glee upon opening a special gift, or a tasting of a favorite food. Each time the happiness appears fleeting, remaining for only the briefest of moments, fading back into the melancholic expression of everyday life.

Perhaps I find my happiness in a challenge. There may be no smiles or whooping cheers, but I feel happiness during the task of conquering a challenge. Running or cycling against my previous “best time” on a particular trail or course, successfully moving a number of stones into place to for a wall, or completing a small project in my workshop, can all be considered “little victories” that I find happiness in. I have not always been so task oriented, but I have found happiness in completing tasks as I have grown older.

As I have grown older the tasks have become larger and more complicated. Balancing finances on a daily, monthly, or annual basis has become a series of tasks that I find no happiness in. Completing one of the many projects in or around my house can be a source of happiness, however. I suppose that it could be he perspective that one looks at each task that could decide on the overall level of happiness that it could provide, but for me there has to exist a certain challenge to completion ratio. There also has to be some sort of enduring feature that will allow me to look upon the completed work from time to time and relive the happiness felt at the time of completion.

While some might view this as more of pride rather than happiness, I beg to differ. I can take pride in every task I do, as it is a reflection of who I am as a person. As the saying goes, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. However, these are not the same as the challenges I embrace to illicit a sense of happiness upon completion, rather they are tasks that must be completed and involve others, often for money.

The more personal the challenge, the more happiness I feel upon its successful completion. Reading this, you might wonder why something so secretive, so personal could provide as much happiness as something that could be shared with others, like having a celebration. The truth is that it is the very personal nature of the challenges that provides to me the great feeling of happiness. It cannot be diminished by the intrusion of others. It does not need the approval of others for me to feel the happiness. Instead, the happiness is unencumbered by any classification or validation of outside parties. After all, is that not a more true sense of happiness; one that is so pure and simple?

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Zombie Mode

It happens every season; I try to mingle with the masses, the visiting tourists and island folk. Then there comes a point where I disconnect and go into the zombie mode; minimal interaction with people outside my office, only moving between work and home, waiting for the island to empty out from the occupying invaders. I understand that the island, as well as my livelihood, depends on these people that run amok in our streets; wandering down the middle of Main Street in traffic, riding bikes against traffic on one way streets and littering all the while. The 8 to 10 weeks of chaos provide the financial boost that keeps budgets balanced, for the most part.

Each consecutive year, since the year I arrived, the seasons have seemed to be shorter. Not from the standing point of nature, mind you, but rather the influx of business from the seasonal visitors. The season began in late April, just after Easter but before the crisp nights left the island. The slow build would peak Memorial Day weekend; then explode into the weekend heading into the Fourth of July. From there, the season would bulge at the seams until Labor Day weekend, when a sense of reason would return. The Columbus Day weekend would mark the closing of many businesses until the next spring. Generally the season was sixteen weeks long.

Thirteen seasons later, and I’m looking at maybe six good weeks this summer. I told many people that this might be the determining season whether or not I keep the office. If the current trend holds for this year, I will have no choice but to close the office. The stress involved in this entire business owner thing is bad enough when it is busy and there are things that need to be done, but when there is no business to tend to, the stress is even worse. Perhaps that is the reason that I find the need to disconnect sooner each year, to maintain my sanity.

I have written about this tendency before, but as I have waded deeper into social media I have found it easier to maintain a one-sided line of communication. The ‘delete’ button gives me my fix; erasing emails, texts, instant messages and entire posts on my various news feeds. Still, with every year I make new acquaintances that will wonder where I have gone to. The answer is simple. I am in survival mode, a semi-conscious state of moving through the day in order to make it to the other side of September. Ask any other island business owner, they can relate.

So here it is, just past the ides of July and I have made the transition into zombie mode. A week or more earlier than last year, but then again, this July has been brutal. Aside from the business numbers taking a nose dive, my health has been horrible; I had been dealing with some muscle injuries, but an intestinal virus of some sort nearly had me down for the count. Thankfully, my body has nearly recovered. Now I just need to make it through the next 6-7 weeks without collapsing.

For those of you that have seen me being social for the past few weeks, around the island or online, be forewarned; I’m about to make myself real scarce. See you in September.

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Expectations

In the course of one’s life, there occur times when we all have expectations; a first date, a new job, visiting a new place on vacation, or meeting someone we have not seen for some time. The feelings surrounding the expectations can be varied and extreme; excitement, anxiety, fear, apprehension. Many times these feelings are forged by past experiences from similar situations. Personally, I have become more reserved, if not downright jaded, over the years.

Growing up I was left to my own devices, for the most part. My parents signed me up for little league, but it was up to me to get to and from practice, games, etc. I can only recall my parents going to one game in all the years I played. It didn’t occur to me that they were supposed to go, however. After all, it wasn’t like they were on the team or anything.

On the weekends, I hated Saturday afternoons; as we trudged off to church where a bunch of people listened to a guy in a robe preach only to do exactly the opposite of what he lectured us to do for the rest of the week. It got worse when my parents pushed me into catechism. The classes were in a neighboring town, so none of my friends were there. Several times my parents forgot to pick me up and I walked most of the way home, only to get yelled at for walking alone on the side of the road. (My seeds for atheism being sown)

When my parents decided I needed to work, they found me jobs; working on farms, assisting plumbers or builders, and having a newspaper delivery route. I always did the work, no complaints (for the most part) knowing that it would be over as soon as it started, like most things. My expectations for work was that it was something to fill in time before you did something else; eat, sleep, go to school, etc.

Now, this is not a commentary about some sad or austere childhood, rather an explanation of how my early years became the framework for my low expectations in life. I learned from the mistakes of an older brother that got drunk at an early age, smashed several cars while drunk, and lied incessantly. Little good, if any, came from any of it. I became a student of human behavior, watching people interact, posture, and converse. I watched my mother do business with aplomb and make things work through negotiations. I watched my father avoid tasks and curse while doing them, wondering if cursing somehow made the job easier.

Throughout all of my years in school, I never missed a single day. I just assumed that was what was expected of me. I did homework, took tests, and most everything else with little or any help from anyone. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to ask for help if I needed it, and I seldom did. I just did what was expected of me.

Growing up, I had several friends that I hung around with, but as the years passed, there was only one that I kept in contact with, though infrequently. Over time there just seemed to be less to talk about between us. I had one or two girlfriends through college, but I never saw a future where they did. I always found it ironic that while some people have such high expectations for relationships, I would rather classify them and quantify them in some way, having minimal expectations for them at best.

Even now, after living on my own for so many years, having worked in so many professions, even running my own business, I have low expectations for every aspect of my life. It is not that I have some secret desire to fail or that I fear rejection; far from it, I have persevered through some of the most trying times I could have ever imagined. It simply comes down to this: I maintain such conservative, if not low, expectations for so many things so that I will be that much less disappointed should things not work out as planned. Should things exceed my rather meager expectations, then I can not only feel a sense of relief, but also a bit more satisfaction, if not joy.

Why so “serious”? Well, considering the number of times I have been let down by people or circumstances that I had been assured would be “just fine”, I have learned or should I say ‘conditioned’ to expect less from others and more from myself. I am willing to work more hours in the office because it is my business. After twelve years, I have not so much as been late for a client’s appointment. If I commit to doing a job or meeting someone, I can be relied upon to fulfill that commitment. I am not saying that I am infallible, but I will do anything and everything I can to live up to my own expectations. I just assume that is what is expected of me. What do you expect from yourself?

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Laugh or Cry

Everyone has reached that critical point at some time in their life, be it personal, academic, or professional, where you must either laugh or cry. The stress of the situation becomes overwhelming, for whatever reason, and we have to make a conscious decision; will we give in and fold or can we look past it and move on?

When I was running marathons, I always wanted to complete a race in less than three hours. That is the gold standard for a ‘recreational’ runner. I had come close, but never done it. On a final attempt, a planned ‘last effort’, I chose a flat course that ran in the fall, when I had always run my best. I did falter a bit with my training leading up to the race, but I felt I still had a good shot at the time.

As the race unfolded, my splits were not meeting their needed times and I was not feeling as good as I would have liked. At the 20 mile mark I was over2:22:00, which meant I needed to run sub seven minute miles for the next 6.2 miles. That was not going to happen, so I slowed to a walk. After the many weeks of training, time invested and sacrifices made, I would not attain my goal. Still, after a few minutes, I began to run again and finished with a time of just over3:44:00.

The lesson that I walked away with (pun intended) was that it was NOT all for nothing. I still finished. I even avoided the utter soreness that usually followed for 36-48 hours after a marathon. Furthermore, I was okay with knowing I had done all that I could on the given day and that it was just not meant to be. I laughed about being passed by runners that were considerably older, later telling people that it was my ‘retirement’ race anyway.

Taking what life gives you and simply dealing with it takes a bit of life experience. I have owned a business onMartha’s Vineyardfor more than ten years now. The first year was by far the most financially rewarding, as the country was still in the midst of an economic boom. Since that time, however, profits have steadily fallen. Each season has been shorter and noticeably quieter. I tried commuting to off-island clients, but that was more trouble than it was worth. I took another job helping coach teams at the high school, but that just helped pay the bills, not increase business.

The simple fact that the economy directly affected my business was obvious. There are few things that I could do personally to account for the decrease of my income to a third of what it had been that first year. But that is the case for many of the businesses here onMartha’s Vineyard. We have a certain number of weeks each season to make a year’s worth of profits or we will accrue debt until the following season and hope for a better season next year.

Should you happen to ask a merchant how it has been, most will say, “Business could be better.” That is the polite answer. Those are the brave or thrifty souls that have managed to survive, perhaps with a little help from friends and family. Personally, I am over it all. Last week a sub-contractor that was scheduled to work for the season left after three days. I pondered the situation for a while, cursed a bit, and then continued on as if it was just another day. The next day I made some calls, found some coverage, and decided it was just another day… and I laughed about it. That’s all you can do sometimes.

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Dog’s Life

Many times when we see people, we tend to “classify” them into one type or another. I tend to define them more as a certain breed of dog. Some dogs are all about fun, others just want to sleep. If you head over to the AKC website, they offer a guide to breed characteristics so that you can better know the compatibility for your particular wants and needs. This makes for a more harmonious household for all involved.

Martha’s Vineyard is know for being very “dog-friendly,” with dog parks, water bowls outside many stores, and of course stores that sell “dog stuff.” People bring their dogs here when they visit and take them everywhere they can. For the most part, people know where their dog will and will not be happy and act accordingly. Often, you can tell a good deal about the person by the dog they own and how they treat their dog.

When I lost my dog, many people asked when I would get another. My answer was, and still is, “I don’t know.” I did not view my dog as “just a dog.” I did have to place him with a family when I had to leave the island at one point and it was one of the toughest things I had ever done. The only thing tougher was when I actually lost him.

My view of a dog is similar to that of a child. They need to be monitored to keep them safe, they need more than just food and shelter, and they should be happy. Anything less would be unacceptable and you should not have a dog. (Or children, for that matter.)

All of that being said, I favor Labrador retrievers for my situation and lifestyle. They are friendly, obedient, and have a love for all things playful and food related. When I was not working, I took my dog everywhere. More often the case, I would plan the places I went based on bringing him and spending time running the trails, visiting the dog park, or going to the beaches that allowed him to romp and swim. He was happiest in water; the ocean, ponds, pools, or puddles. (Much to my chagrin.)

Now, I began this installment matching types of people to types of dogs. While I favor the companionship of a Lab, I would not classify myself as one. In fact, I took an online quiz one time that defined the taker as a breed of dog based on your behavioral characteristics. Turns out I am a German shepherd: task oriented, focused, aggressive, and obedient. I’ll own that and more. I prefer work to play and love a task that I can complete, confident that I will be successful in its execution. I even look at my recreational activities as something to be completed in a given time and manner.

Often I notice that dogs and their owners are well matched. I notice that these pairings occur at locations where both dog and owner are happy. The point of being there is not so much out of duty, but one of wanting to be there. Other times I see dogs and owners that are not well matched. Perhaps the husband is walking his wife’s dog or the dog was something that the kids wanted, only to forget after the puppy cuteness wore off. The latter is a sad situation that I rue to see.

My dog was my alter-ego, allowing me to be a bit more relaxed and not so fixated and serious. He was a big teddy bear of a dog that would do anything for food, not that I wouldn’t. Living on the vineyard with a dog gets you into social circles that most “dog-less” people will breach. You might get a smile from a fellow dog owner in a store where others get scowls, especially in August.

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The Question

There comes a time to understand what you have not yet even considered, to look deeper and answer the questions you have not dared to ask. These questions might be of a personal or a professional nature, but that matters little in substance, rather it has more to do with timing. Knowing when to ask the question is almost as important as understanding the answer when you have it.

Several times in my life I have had to time the questions before the point of no return in relationships. When a friend appeals to you to do something that you are definitely not comfortable doing; is that person taking advantage of your friendship, can that person really be considered a friend if they insist on your participation when you protest, would that person do the same for you if the roles were reversed? Should you continue an intimate relationship that is unstable, with constant conflict and arguments over details, irrational accusations and lack of trust, little or no effort for meaningful communication?

In my professional careers, of which I have had more than a few, the timing was more planned and the questions more specific, with the answers leading to greater changes in the long term perspective. Understanding that leaving one place, mental or geographic, for another will not be the easiest thing to do is a key factor to a successful transition.

For me, the question has always been simply stated, but multi-faceted in the answer. “Am I happy?” Seems easy to answer, right? What is happiness and can it be maintained, or is it a passing emotion of the moment that no more constant than the stormy weather of New England’s winter? Should you ask that question too often, in too many aspects of your life, you will be labeled as someone that cannot be satisfied and might result in people distancing themselves from you; professionally and personally.

As a rule, I find the time to ask this question comes when I do not look forward to the business at hand, ever. I recall sitting in my car, wondering what “crisis” was awaiting my arrival home. Would there be yelling, glaring, slamming doors? Would there be anything at all? Not the kind of home life to live, especially if you have a choice. By the way, you ALWAYS have a choice.

There have been other times when the question needed to be asked, even though things were not “bad”. I had a rather easy job that had great benefits, decent salary, and was close to home. Problem was, there was nowhere to move up; I was just doing time to earn a paycheck and look forward to days off. Again, I was not really “happy” or enjoying any aspect of my situation other than its security. Those are the times when one’s true spirit shows itself. To settle or to strive, one must decide.

So the next time you find yourself pondering a situation, think of the question that you should really be asking yourself. The answer has probably already made itself known.

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