Paper Jams and Perspectives

Have you ever tried to fix a paper jam in one of those huge copy machines that’s the size of a refrigerator sitting on its side? It can also happen on a small home printer, like it did to me the other day. I’m usually pretty good at clearing those jams, mainly because I’m patient.

You have to try everything. When you find that first crumpled piece of paper and pull it out, you may feel satisfied that you’ve resolved the problem. But there is a 95 percent chance that at least one more piece of paper is stuck even further inside.

You go for it anyway: You close the door or tray and take a look at the little display screen. The machine informs you that it is still jammed. So, you try again. And again. Eventually you will find a small, brightly colored handle that you didn’t know existed, and it will open a compartment you’ve never see before. And there you will find a piece of paper so mangled that you have to pry it out in shreds.

When you finally close up the printer for like the tenth time and it stars to hum and you hit start and copies come out, you feel like Jack in Titanic shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

This machine might not end up on the bottom of the ocean, but much like Rose, you will outlive it. One day you will arrive at work and encounter a gleaming new printer that, according to the office manager, will change your life. Wrong. It just has even more places where paper can lodge.

This past year I wrote a memoir about how I got stuck for a long time. As I wrote this book, I reminded myself not to be content with the easy discoveries. Even in the editing phase, I tried to peek into every possible hiding space where the answers might be tucked away. I had to take on new vantage points—to peer at my life from every angle I could embrace.

But sometimes one person is not enough. The possibilities are too vast, and an individual’s frame of reference only goes so far. A team of people working on a project is almost always enhanced when each person on the team offers a distinct set of skills and insight. Welcoming in new viewpoints makes the team stronger.

So, once I completed the third draft of my memoir, I recruited test readers. I reached out to a whole bunch of people because I knew it was important to obtain a variety of perspectives. These folks might spot a weakness that I was too close to observe. Some of them did, and their comments made my manuscript better.

A couple weeks ago I attended a writer’s association meeting, and I shared with the group the progress I’ve made on my book. I was informed that my collection of beta readers was still too narrow because they were all friends, acquaintances, or former co-workers. A member of the writer’s group who I had only just met offered to read my book if I would read theirs.

A part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book forever, and I should just skip this step. That’s the part of me that wants to stop fixing the friggin’ paper jam already. Luckily, that part almost always concedes to the part of me that wants to keep looking. After all, who knows what this new reader will find? What if they locate that final crinkled piece of paper that eluded everyone else?

Each person we collaborate with brings with them a whole host of contexts and experiences that exist well beyond our own. We should think of our self as our first collaborator, and our duty is to push past those early automatic thoughts to get to the deeper stuff. And then, when we are stretched to our outer limits, we can invite in others to help us extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

How else do you think those giant printers came to be?!

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

Let’s Talk About Talking to Ourselves

A while back, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to stop talking to himself. I was horrified—why would anyone want to do such a thing?!

I have been chatting with myself since I was a kid. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room talking to my dolls and acting out scenes. I also had pretend friends with whom I carried on lengthy conversations inside my head.

Decades later, I still speak to myself out loud when no one is around. I do this pretty much every time I am driving by myself in the car and often in the kitchen.

If you’re anything like me, you talk to yourself in order to rehearse a presentation for work or to practice your answers for an upcoming job interview.

In addition to these scenarios, I tell myself stories from my life. Some of these stories are unpleasant, like the events leading up to my friend’s early death. Reliving such memories is like being voluntarily stuck in a nightmare, but at least I know the outcome.

Not all the stories are negative. After I quit drinking, I used to pretend that I was being interviewed on a podcast, and I would go over the steps that led up to my decision and the challenges I faced. I did this over and over, kind of like playing a favorite song.

Clearly I was in need of new material. Brain space is precious, and I was wasting my creativity by repeating the same old stories.

I decided that I would make an effort to explore new ground whenever I talked to myself. At first, I resisted and pouted. But it got easier and more natural in no time, thanks to these three templates:

Kid therapist: I pick something that has been bothering me, and I try to get to the root of the issue. Basically, I act like a little kid and keep asking “but why?” after each answer. The theory is that you should be able to ask yourself at least four or five whys before you get to the good stuff—the real reason why you can’t stop stewing over something. I did one recently that went on for nine whys!

Burner shift: I pick an idea that has been sitting on the back burner of my mind and talk through what would be required to move forward. What could be shifted from the front burners to make room for this project? I try to envision the potential obstacles along the way and how I might work around them. And I envision the potential rewards that I would experience, not just at completion but during the process as well.

Writing detective: Let’s say I’ve come up with a topic for a blog post, but I haven’t stared writing it yet because I’m not sure where it’s going. I play the role of a dogged detective who is questioning me to solve the mystery of what this piece is about. This process almost always helps me locate the main points of the piece, and I usually come up with some good turns of phrase as well.

Recently I was driving, and I caught myself starting to narrate one of my old stories. I was delighted to realize that it had been a while since I had hit replay on one of my top hits.

I will probably keep talking to myself until the day I die. Here’s hoping I manage to keep it fresh!

The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

An Intentional Life: Step 5, Evolution

My hand-drawn version of the color intensity scales I use instead of numeric scales

Other steps: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

Here we are, at the final step in my life-balance course. Have you been working on your activities in The Four Ps? If you’ve reached the end of your measurement period, then it’s time to revisit the categories and document any changes.

Get out the list of goals you developed for each category. Check off the items where your actions evolved, even if the end result didn’t reach your original target. Feel free to add notes about any surprising discoveries, struggles, or accomplishments.

Now, take a look at the scales you created and the movement you hoped to generate. Let’s say you wanted to move from a 3 to a 5 in Progress. You didn’t check off all your goals, but you did start taking guitar lessons, so you decide to give yourself a 4 instead of a 5. Do this for each category. And remember, these measurements are entirely up to you. No one is judging you, and no one is benefitting from this process but you, so be honest.

How do you feel about the balance of activities in your life now? Less stressed? More stressed? More active? More fulfilled? Kinda frustrated?

Where can you adjust your goals to assist with your continuing evolution? Scale your goals up or down as you wish. If you are excited by your development, you can always increase your goals (but be sure to respect your limits—we all have them). Or, maybe you bit off more than you could chew and got overwhelmed. There is no shame in tweaking your goals and giving it another try.

It’s important not to get down on yourself if you didn’t make much (or any) movement. For many of us, balancing our time and activities is hard, otherwise we would already be crushing it. Ask yourself what is standing in your way and what it will take to remove those obstacles. In the places where you did see movement, celebrate your progress, and look for clues to your success.

Even if you started and stopped the process or if you’re only reading through the steps right now, you should be proud that you’re open to thinking differently about how you spend your time.  

If you did complete the course, don’t forget that balancing your life is an ongoing process. That’s right—this is not the end!

Change your Four Ps depending on the season, the weather, family needs, new opportunities, whatever. This is all about finding a balance of activities that best suits your unfolding life.

Feel free to repeat these exercises and reset your goals as many times and as frequently as you wish. You can back up and restart at whichever step makes the most sense for you. Step 1 or Step 3 are good places to restart.

Here are some tips and words of encouragement for the road:

It’s ok to be right where you are.

It’s also ok to want to grow, stretch, and evolve.

It’s ok to invest in yourself through self-reflection.

It’s ok to move at your own pace.

It’s ok to respect your own energy levels.

It’s ok to respect your own capacity for performing under pressure.

Don’t worry about reaching your goals: Just keep making progress, no matter the amount.

Ask: What can I learn from this?

There will be times when you won’t be able to work toward your goals due to personal commitments, economic demands, and societal conventions; but do try make intentional choices during the time when you are in control.

I believe in you! I believe in us!

Get started or start over: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

When Plans Change

Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes well up. They aren’t so much tears of sadness as a release of frustration. My upper lip trembles a bit, but no gasps or sobs emerge. “Worlds Away” by The Go-Go’s is playing, and it turns out to be the perfect song for a gentle, wistful cry.

My highly anticipated trip to Florida, which is two weeks away, is about to be deferred for the third freaking time.

I first booked this trip back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic got serious in the United States. One of my best friends had just died suddenly, and I was going to visit our mutual friends so that we could share memories and mark her passing.

But I was sick with giardia, and it was taking its sweet time going away despite the antibiotics. I did not want to get on a plane while this intestinal infection was lingering. So, I moved my flight to April, hoping that the coronavirus would blow over quickly.

You know what happened next. Businesses in our state started to close, and it was clear that a stay-home order was coming soon. In late March, I canceled my flight and accepted an open voucher from the airlines.

About a year later, I finally got vaccinated and started re-planning my visit. We settled on the end of July and booked a place on the beach for a long weekend.

Once again, nature stepped in. This time it’s something called red tide—a toxic algae bloom that is hitting the Tampa Bay area hard. Trucks are removing tons (literally, tons) of dead fish that have been washing up on shore. One of my friends, who lives in St. Petersburg, says it smells terrible. She is experiencing awful headaches and breathing deeply is a challenge.

So, this morning we decided to put the trip on hold. For the record: This gathering has been obstructed by a parasite in my intestines, a worldwide pandemic, and a “fish kill” in Florida. Ok, ok, I get the message!

As I hop in my car later, I decide to explore what caused my tears this morning. Yes, I am sad that another couple months or possibly a year will go by without seeing my dear friends. But I will eventually see them—I’m not worried about that.

And, if anything, I’m a little relieved that I don’t have to fly while the latest COVID variant is spreading and people are acting out on planes.

Before I reach my destination, I settle on two main causes for my irritation:

Control. Many grievances come down to control with me. I really don’t like it when things don’t turn out as planned. It reminds me that I do not have complete control over my life, and this scares me. I talk through this fear as I drive, and I remind myself that I have a pretty decent level of control over my life right now—perhaps more than I’ve ever had. I encourage myself to be grateful for the control and the abilities that I do have, like how easy it was to jump online and cancel my flight with the click of a button.

Stories. Of the many stories I have running in my head, one of the oldest is: I have the worst luck. I’ve repeated variations on this theme countless times. For so long, I was convinced that bad things always happened to me. Because I was stuck in this story, I couldn’t see how the good in my life clearly outweighed the bad. The result of this story was that I had a built-in excuse to give up, because why bother anyway? Ironically, I claim I want more control over my life (see previous paragraph), and yet I’ve used the power of this sad-sack story to relieve myself from taking control.

I’m still mad that this trip has been delayed three times, and I hope that I won’t have to wait too long to see my friends. But today I chose to explore my tendency to wallow in disappointment. As it often does, this kind of self-reflection got me out of the doldrums and onto my laptop to document these insights. The more consistently I do this, the less I get caught up in this kind of self-pity in the first place.