Saturday, October 28, 2006

Things I learned from Randy

When I started my professional career, I worked with an awesome guy named Randy. I learned so much from him that, years later, I thought I'd write it all down so I'd never forget it (my Randy-wisdom is listed below -- I figured the best thing I could do with the gift he gave me is pass it on). I sent this list to him recently. He tells me it's one of the best e-mails he's ever received.

  1. Always put on your suit jacket when you leave the floor where you work.
  2. When you enter an elevator with others, turning your back to the door and facing them is a nice way to show that you're engaged in the conversation. It's also useful if you wish to unnerve people on elevators who don't know you. NO ONE ever expects someone they don't know to turn to face them while you're both rocketing upward 37 floors. :)
  3. Giving your long-time girlfriend a ring in a plain velvet box on a major holiday and then not saying anything can get you in trouble.
  4. Learning to drum is one of the coolest things a person can do.
  5. There's no reason whatsoever to be intimidated by the boss. Or his boss. Or any of them.
  6. Irreverence is healthy. So is laughter. Both can be expressed at work (just use your head).
  7. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your co-worker is introduce them to someone else. ("Hey, you really need to meet this guy I know in the engineering department -- you'd like him ...")
  8. Greeting your colleagues with a smile can turn their day around instantly, especially if you call them "friend."
  9. Hard work doesn't always pay off. So you can't EVER forget to take charge of your own career and find ways to advance on your own, because no one will do it for you.
  10. Keep your chin up as you walk through your office. Take pride in your abilities, and know what you're worth.

Friday, October 27, 2006

What's your passion?

A good friend of mine from Rice recently sent me a simple question. He was struggling with his own answer to the question himself, and thought that if he asked his friends what their answers might be, it would help him formulate his own. The question is, "what's your passion?" It's the very rare person who ever asks himself or herself that, at least with any regularity. It was the single most thought-provoking thing anyone had asked of me in a long time. My answer is below.

** ** ** ** **

Let me say up front that I have had to define for myself the "things I am passionate about" versus "the things that I love." I think there's a real difference. The passions on this list make up who I am. Without them, I wouldn't be me. The "things I love" are different -- I sometimes have to go long stretches without them, and if I could never experience them again in quantities I'm used to, I'd be sad, but still myself. So I thought that was a useful criteria to share.

"People things" I'm passionate about

The first thing I am passionate about is my husband. And I don't mean just in the obvious sense (though that's important to any marriage) -- I really mean in terms of my commitment to him and to what I bring to our marriage -- devotion, energy, enthusiasm for his and our success together, support in his endeavors, and above all, honesty and respect and love. He and I have spent time with a number of couples who always seem to treat each other with real, deep, genuine respect. They're good for our souls, we've found, and they've inspired us to make that a priority. We don't show it and live it in order for others to know it -- but we try to live it every day, and what happens is that our attention to it as something important to us spills over to others, we think, as a coincidental side effect. He has NEVER said anything mean or degrading or "cutting" to me in public or private, in seven years together, neither I to him. And that's an accomplishment we're proud of, considering that any couple will argue and disagree. We've worked hard at keeping our mutual respect and our commitment to honesty (to ourselves and each other) nurtured and growing, and I think it will serve us well -- the love's really the easiest part. Being the wife, partner and best friend he deserves is one of my deepest passions.

I'm passionate about the Baha'i faith (check it out at It's not a people thing, but it's what I believe at my core, in my soul, with my spirit, with all my heart. The idea of unity throughout mankind is what I'm all about, as well as the basic core beliefs that men and women are spiritually equal, there's only one God and we all worship Him (sometimes from different faith perspectives), He only has one plan and He's shared it with mankind through different Holy Messengers, and that everyone should embark on their own personal independent investigations into the truth of faith and God -- those things are the fabric of who I am. I often do a crappy job of living the way God has asked me to, as a Baha'i, but I take comfort in my efforts, in the staunchness of my beliefs even when my deeds are lacking, and in His eternal forgiveness.

I'm passionate about people making connections -- with others, with ideas, with activities, etc. When I'm at a party and there seems to be someone who's kind of drifting on her own, I can feel it, and it compels me to go and talk to that person and see if I can help her feel more comfortable. When I'm having lunch with a friend I haven't seen in a really long time, I want to really click with that person, not just sit in front of each other and eat things from the same restaurant and talk about other people we know. When two family members have disagreed over something, I'm not settled and calm until I've learned they have talked through it and resolved the issue. It's why I enjoy writing -- not for its own sake, but as a means to an end of deeper understanding. So this passion spills into my own connections with family and friends, as well as the connections I like to help facilitate between people I know and other people or things that I think they'd enjoy, or need to understand better, etc. In particular, it means I'm passionate about my core family members and their well-being (are they happy? are they well? are they challenged and growing and learning and excited about life?), and my good dear friends and their happiness (all the same questions).

"Activity things" I'm passionate about

I'm passionate about solitude. Weird, huh? I consider myself to be pretty friendly and engaging. But I've learned that I absolutely must have time alone to recharge. I can't appreciate the fun of being with others if I have not had my own quiet time to reflect, to still the chaos in my mind that a busy lifestyle can create, to find out where my center is and if the craziness around me has shifted it or affected me in some way.

I am passionate about teaching swing dancing. I love sharing something physical with others that I really enjoy and have gotten good at. It can be difficult to do correctly, and I love working with people to find ways for it to "click" for them. Whether that's through a good analogy that means something to them ("your arms should have a nice toned quality -- we call that frame. It's like they're good shock absorbers on a car -- they give a little, but not too much... "), or through physical demonstration, it's a challenge to get that kinetic message across. I love being the reason people's eyes get wide and they go, "Ooooohhh! Now I get it!" And I love watching them progress from hesitant to confident, from slightly clumsy and new to accomplished and smooth. It's such a high to know I helped them learn how to do something that's good exercise, socially engaging and fun to watch. The heart of the matter is that I spent a lot of time as a young person sitting -- either reading or studying or whatever -- and watching athletes with envy at their grace and skill and beauty. And though I'm FAR from an athlete, dancing is the way God gave me to taste the joys of movement and coordination. I'm addicted to that feeling.

I'm passionate about Rice. My husband and I have both grown to taking our roles as Associates very seriously. Last year, we were named two of the "outstanding Associates for the year" and it meant so much to us, and we want to continue to be deeply connected at Rice and at Hanszen, and to be engaged with the amazing young people who come through the university and the college. We're honored by our association with the university in this regard, and I can't imagine how it took me so long to get involved again. I've started to consider seriously a career change that might take me to campus every day for my professional life, that's how much I love Rice. And it's not just "undergrads" in general I'm passionate about helping -- it's RICE undergrads and the Rice experience that turn me on, surely because it meant so much to me and changed me in many ways.

I'm passionate about fiction. I love reading good writing, and will recommend books I enjoyed to anyone who shows the slightest interest. I still dream of becoming a good enough writer to make a living at the creation of fiction. In fact, I'd stretch this to say that I'm passionate about great writing. I've read life-changing books that weren't fiction at all, and poetry that made me want to cry, and even someone's blog that touched my heart. If it's written well, I'm drawn to it.

Things I love

I love food. I love preparing it, seeing it on the plate, the aromas food can generate, the way meals make a house feel homey, the flavors and textures of food, the satisfying feeling you get when you're full. And most of all ... SUSHI! Yes. I could eat it every day if it weren't for the risk of mercury poisoning. :) Someone asked me and my husband recently in a Newlywed Game kind of way, "What two foods would she absolutely require if she were stuck on a desert island and could have only two kinds forever?" The answers? Sushi and chocolate. That's me.

I love music -- all different kinds. My iPod is NUTS with random music back-to-back. I'm cool with that.

I love the movie-going experience. I love how you have to decide what you want to go and see. I love getting dressed up or down to go out. I love the smell of popcorn in the lobby (SO MUCH). I love choosing seats. I LOVE previews for other movies, especially when they're so good or so fun that you temporarily forget what you went to see originally (I do that every time!). I love letting a movie "get in" -- handing over your emotions to the film and letting it take you for whatever ride it is. I love leaving the theater and thinking about it later, and maybe talking about it with friends and discussing the different ways you understand what happened. I love quoting good lines later.

** ** ** ** **

Wow, that's enough. It's a lot to care about -- it's even more to be thankful for. I realize that these passions may seem to be small-scale stuff. Everyone has friends who are passionate about affecting great change in the world and that may lead them to be driven by the need for political reform, long-term commitments to amazing efforts like missionary work or the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity or living among the poor in India. I am amazed and humbled by people who have these passions -- but I've had to accept that this is how God made me. He made me, in His infinite wisdom, with passions for caring most for those around me, for sharing messages on smaller scales, for affecting differences in the circles in which I am already located. Who am I to doubt His intent? I am happy to entrust and support the brave souls who work and are driven in those ways. So I'll keep doing the little things that my life's passions compel me to do.

So what's YOUR passion?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fear, food ... and finally, freedom

I started eating when I was 10.

I must have eaten before then, but I have no memory of any food passing between my lips before I turned ten and started to plan the next opportunity I could eat something. Sure, I remember meals -- meals of fresh sweet corn and home-made pickles with my grandparents, food so fresh you had to dust the garden dirt off of it before you cooked it. I remember pan-Asian spreads of barbecued pork, snappy spearmint leaves and plates of tender rice paper at my father's family's home, meals with so much food that each family would leave with a packed grocery bag, double-lined and tied at the top in a knot that would be pulled so tight from the weight of the leftovers that it had to be cut open when we got home. I remember cafeteria food at school -- rectangular slices of flat pizza which I inexplicably loaded with additional salt before cutting into twelve square bite-sized pieces with my dull knife and fork. All this I remember with no sense of taste, because it happened before I really cared about it all.

When I turned ten, though, I remember realizing that food was good, food filled you up, food made you feel full and happy and safe. I remember looking forward to each meal, then to snacks -- later I would begin planning out snacks days in advance, even without knowing whether or not I'd actually be hungry. If there was food at school that someone had brought in to share, I had some, even if I had just eaten a full meal. Years later, if a colleague's work meeting ended with leftover bagels or cookies, cheese or fruit, I'd snag some to munch, no matter what time of day or what my own stomach told me it needed.

That was the problem. My stomach was mute. Every now and then, it would send up a weak signal that it had had enough -- other than that, it seemed indifferent just how much I crammed into it. What I listened to was something else -- heart or brain or mouth, it kept telling me I needed more. And it wasn't a blood sugar problem. It wasn't that I was too scrawny and wanted to become voluptuous and curvy -- it wasn't that I hated myself and wanted to sabotage my own attractiveness. It was that I was afraid.

*** *** ***

Here's how most people know they're hungry. A few hours after their last meal, their stomachs are empty, and begin to send signals to their brains. "Hey!" they shout, through nerves and synapses and bloodstreams and brain cells. "Wanna do something about this situation you got down here? We're empty!" Acid begins to build up in the stomach -- acid that can cause rumbling very soon. In a matter of time, the acid builds to uncomfortable levels, and begins to etch away at the stomach lining, slowly but surely. With nothing else to digest, it's just doing what it's supposed to do.

Here's what happens when most people get scared. At the onset of a sudden traumatic or alarming event (say, a voice is raised in anger, a hand is raised in violence, an item is thrown in rage), the adrenal glands atop each kidney ready the body for self-preserving behavior by flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline. This is the famous "fight-or-flight" response -- you get ready to either run for your life or duke it out to protect yourself and the ones you love. It's an age-old response, and it's very compelling -- there are numerous examples of people doing superhuman things when caught up in the chemistry of this powerful moment. One of the side effects of that influx of adrenaline, though, especially if you don't use it up through vigorous activity, is an increased production of stomach acid. And what do you know -- stomach acid doesn't care WHY it was released into the stomach -- it just knows it was. So it starts searching for something to break down and process. In the absence of food, that good old stomach lining will work just fine. So if you're afraid all the time (say, when you're ten or fourteen or twenty-four), turns out that the easiest way to treat your stomach pain is with food.

At some point, food became safety to me. Not only did it keep me from hurting, it was the only way I indulged in anything. My reward for any kind of achievement was always food (think about your own life -- birthday cakes, graduation parties with groaning picnic tables of barbecue and potato salad, work get-togethers catered by Italian restaurants ...). So it really shouldn't have surprised me that I was tied up in eating in ways that were deeply ingrained, but completely unhealthy.

A few weeks ago I started a new eating program. With the help of a national weight loss program, I'm eating smaller, balanced meals three times a day, with healthy snacks in between. I like the program. It's working for me. I'm shedding pounds, feeling stronger, working out like a fiend three to four times a week, eating healthy, feeling better in my skin. And yet I think about food a lot, missing foods that are definitely not on the plan (like French fries, and movie popcorn, and big, juicy burgers with cheese and bacon and guacamole). I imagine it will take some time before I'm able to completely decouple what I eat with how I feel about eating.

God willing, I'll get there. Freedom from that connection between eating and comfort is near. I just have to work for it.