A House Apart

I walk past dozens of homes in my leafy neighborhood on my way to work or to the corner store. My mind on other things, I notice, admire and immediately forget their many pretty porches, flower gardens and lawn furniture. I don’t often pick up on subtle changes. So, it took me a while to notice one house that had fallen into disrepair and what was happening to it.

At some point, this little one-and-a-half story cape cod started looking scraggly, the crab-grass lawn neglected. I am not sure whether that was before or after it changed owners. For a period of time it was boarded up. Then one day giant trash containers appeared in the driveway. Bit by bit, the innards of the house were removed and the dumpsters filled to the brim. Then the roof was taken away as well as the sheetrock of the interior walls and the supporting beams. After a period of weeks, all that was left was a white brick exterior, which was really red brick painted white, and the chimney. A tall shady tree overlooked these bare bones of what was probably once an active home full of family life. That house on the corner is getting torn down, I thought, observing its pitiful shell.

But that didn’t seem right. I looked again. I noticed slender t-shaped wooden braces supporting the brick in several spots around the exterior. And the layers of paint had been scraped off in a small area by the side door, as if someone had been inspecting the red brick underneath or considering whether to keep the white coat. It dawned on me, this house isn’t getting torn down. It’s getting rebuilt.

I looked at the same empty shell now and I saw it differently. Not so pitiful anymore, this was the beginning of somebody’s exciting new chapter.

Sure enough, fresh lumber was soon delivered to the lawn. The yard filled up with two-by-fours, plywood and stacks of trusses for a new peaked roof.

This scene made me think of the times when we choose to dismantle our life or something happens to dismantle it for us. Many of us have experienced this scary moment of being laid bare — through a career change, a divorce, a health battle or a major decision to start over. I think of when I moved my family to the DC area a few years ago with a newly-minted master’s degree and no job. We owned barely enough to fill half of a cube truck, rode into town on fumes. There wasn’t much left to stand on but our family’s deepest foundation, the outer facade I presented to the world propped up by the slimmest of braces. At a moment like that, just as quickly, you might realize that this seemingly fragile state is actually a sturdy beginning, that you are about to be rebuilt.

The next few times I saw the house, the wood deliveries on the lawn were moving in, gradually becoming a part of a growing home. I saw the frames of the walls going up and a skin of green plywood reinforcing their shape.

And then I saw something more. The new structure is not limited by the boundaries of the old roofline it shed. This house is not just coming back, it’s rising, and will stand a story taller than its former self.

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Life According to Henry

If I get his voice mail, I’ll hear a sweet boy’s voice explaining that I can leave a message, unless I have the wrong number. If I talk to him live, I’ll hear something quite a bit lower with a squeaky undertone, the voice of a young man on his way.

Before he left on a three-week road trip with his dad this summer, I asked my 13-year-old son how we would like to spend a Sunday with me. Henry had two requests. One was to make a pizza from scratch using a recipe he found online. The other was to show me the collection of comic book super heroes and super villains he created. First, we shopped for ingredients and then we spent the afternoon preparing a delicious meat and cheese pizza with room for improvement in the crust.

After dinner, he declared it comic book character time. He sat me down with a portable file box filled with pencil drawings of creatures, robots and people he made up. Ordinarily, tidiness isn’t Henry’s strong suit, but he keeps his comic book characters alphabetized. For each one, he invented a back-story, an alias, a set of super-powers, a costume and relationships to other characters. Some got their powers because of a science experiment gone haywire. Some were alien. Some were super-enlarged bugs or germs. A number of them were organized into leagues. Henry handed me several pages at a time and insisted I read each description aloud. He watched for my reaction. I pointed out the ridiculous. I called several in a row my favorite. He laughed heartily.

That first night we made it through the letter C. We got through the rest of his collection over a period of days and finished just in time to pack for his trip.

While the menfolk are away, I am clearing away the junk mail and old school work and I come across stray drawings of Henry’s, miscellaneous monsters and mutants that didn’t make it into the box. I stop to consider his approach to creativity. At his age, he’s not too concerned about whether his favorite things lead to a marketable skill, although they could. And even though people have been coming up with super heroes and villains forever, he doesn’t worry about whether his ideas are original. He knows they are. And he just likes making them. “Do what you love and you’ll always be happy,” he has told me before.

I set the drawings aside in his room, and give my son a call to see how the trip is going.

“Hi Mom,” he croaks.

By now, Henry is in favorite place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where grandparents, and aunties and uncles and cousins abound as well as Cousins Subs, his favorite sandwich shop. He tells me about visits to Port Washington and Kenosha and going to the beach and watching the film The Lone Ranger. Understandably, I have been out of sight and out of mind.

I tell him that I am thinking of writing about him this week. He chuckles and asks why. “Because you say smart things,” I say. “Like what?” he asks.

“Like that time you said, you might as well like yourself because you have to be with yourself all the time.” He says he doesn’t remember saying that. But I have it written down. March, 2011.

I ask him if he has been reading. I had sent along a set of books on audio and in paperback that I bought for a family book club experiment. The idea is that father and son could read them on the road and our daughter and I would do the same at home. And then later we could talk about them. To my surprise, it’s working. We’ve read Treasure Island so far and have recently moved on to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his father recommended, inspired by something Henry did a couple summers ago.

In preparation for 6th grade, Henry needed summer school for math. Each day, he dutifully caught the bus to a nearby middle school. Each afternoon, I asked what he was learning about math. “Not much,” he would say. Only after the last day when he brought his stuff home, did I discover what was going on. Initially, the teachers led him to the wrong room and he never bothered to correct them. So, he spent the two full weeks studying English, a favorite subject that is already a strength, instead of math, which he dislikes. Afterwards, we introduced Henry to the word “scam” and explained that it was not a nice thing to do to your parents. His dad compared him to Tom Sawyer and Henry didn’t understand the reference, then. I think he does now.

“How far are you in the story?” I ask.

“Well, I am past the part where he paints the fence,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say, amused. “Me, too.”

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Amy Ambrose, amy@faceyourtalent.com

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Summer Resolutions

It’s the first week of July, half-past 2013. Do you know where your resolutions are?

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to ballroom dance. I forgot about that until just now. I’ll have to come back to it. I also resolved to work on writing and telling true inspirational stories. Toward the second goal, in addition to launching this blog, I joined the Toastmasters Club at my office building. This is a club for public speaking. I recently gave my second “prepared” speech to the group.

It’s not that public speaking is something I haven’t done before. I have addressed crowds of several hundred people on many occasions. But sometimes I find it nerve-wracking and sometimes I find it effortless and the difference has to do with how often I speak in front of groups. So one of my goals for this year was to make a habit of it.

At my first meeting of the Toastmasters a few months ago, I was struck by how structured it was. Our club meets every other Wednesday over a lunch hour. At each meeting, two or three people give a scheduled, 5-7 minute prepared speech. A member of the group times each speaker, using a lamp with three colored bulbs in a row — green, yellow and red, to signal how much time the speaker has left. Another Toastmaster counts the grammatical mistakes and another person does an evaluation for each speaker. In addition to the prepared speeches, each meeting includes table-topics which are prompts for spontaneous two-minute talks. Each meeting also has a theme for the day and a word of the day, which speakers are encouraged to incorporate.

I spent my first several meetings observing this process, avoiding any chance to speak and deciding I didn’t like this at all.

Did you hear the table topic I got? It was too weird. I can’t believe they actually tally up the ‘ums’ at the end of the meeting. How annoying. And that timer lamp is the worst. The Timekeeper reports the exact minutes for each person, not just the prepared speeches. And then someone else evaluates the whole meeting, even the evaluators. It’s a bit much. I really don’t know if this is for me, I said later to anybody who would listen. It’s a cult. And the schedule is a bother. I have other places to be at lunch.

Fortunately, even though this was my first Toastmaster’s experience, I have actually been here before. I mean, deciding to try something new and then listing all the reasons not to. There is a part of your mind that is an expert excuse maker and it can be very manipulative. That voice will make every complaint sound legit, when it’s really just the sound of you getting in your own way, to avoid a bit of effort or risk. But you can outsmart your excuse-making self. You can set up a commitment device from the get-go that will hold your goal steady until you get past this phase. In my case, I paid membership dues for several months and right away set a date to give my first prepared speech.

When you join Toastmasters, you get a handbook with 10 speech ‘projects’, suggestions for prepared speeches that you can give when you are ready. At the end of completing all ten, you get a certificate. Each speech has a focus such as body language, organization or using visual aides. The first one is the Ice Breaker, and the job of the speech is to introduce yourself.

On May 1, I was one of three people giving prepared speeches to a crowd of about 20 members. I told a story about my family of origin (which I then used as an early blog post) as a way of explaining where I was from. Though I knew the story by heart, I practiced it several times at home in the days before. The audience ate it up. Fellow Toastmasters wrote their reviews on little slips of paper and a few stood up to give their feedback. The Grammarian said he was so into my story that he forgot to count his ums. The Timekeeper said I could have talked all day. I was pumped. I wondered if this was beginner’s luck and right away scheduled my second speech for June.

On the day of my second speech, the theme of the meeting was summer resolutions. I hadn’t thought about summer this way before, but it’s a time for setting goals, too — things like working toward a fitness target, completing a household project or maybe just savoring every day. I like the idea of breaking a big goal down to the bit that you can accomplish in a season. Summer is also a chance to take a look back at the first half of the year and recalibrate. I recently began a daily meditation practice, something that wasn’t on my radar in January. I hope to be able to meditate in full lotus for ten minutes by the end of the summer. At the moment, the meditation class fits my schedule more readily than ballroom dancing, which will have to wait. As for the public speaking goal, that one seems to have stuck.

For my second prepared speech, I shared a story that I have written about on this blog, about going from Wisconsin to Harvard. This one I hadn’t practiced as much and I learned a valuable lesson. When I don’t practice the speech, I over-talk the first-half, and wind up hurrying through the conclusion when I see the red timer light go on. I also use filler-words more. I said ‘um’ six times in nine minutes and had one other grammatical correction. Despite this, the comments were once again very encouraging. One seasoned Toastmaster began her note by saying, “Amy you have quite the gift.” She recommended that I ask for more time at the start, rather than cutting material.

I made a mental note of the helpful criticisms, and then immediately tossed out the little papers they were written on. No need to dwell.

That last note I pinned to a bulletin board near my office computer, where I would see it often. It’s possible this reviewer was just being nice or that she says that kind of thing to everybody. But, no matter. I have decided to add one more resolution to the pile, and I recommend it to anyone. That is to believe the nice things people say.

When it was time to decide about continuing my Toastmasters membership, I noticed I was all out of excuses. So, I rejoined for another six months. I haven’t yet scheduled my third prepared speech, but I hope to do so in July. And now that I am benefiting from the process, I figure I might as well do my part. So, yes, at our next meeting, it’ll be me in charge of the timer lamp.

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Story by Amy Ambrose, Amy@faceyourtalent.com

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