“Squirrel!” I typed and hit send. My email disappeared into the ethernet. My colleague on the other end quickly responded, “What?” She didn’t understand my pop-culture reference to the distractions that keep us off track. Squirrels, those little pesky little ideas that run around in our heads and distract us like squirrels crossing the street, which way should I go?
Linda Samuels, the person who had responded, recently introduced me to the concept of full-cycle thinking. She explained it like this: We have laundry. We wash, fold, and put away the laundry. Hopefully. This is a full cycle. I paused and thought of my own laundry, that which often sits in a basket long after it’s been cleaned because, well, SQUIRREL!
As a young mother, a doctor explained to me that the inability to remain focused on a single task is considered Attention Deficit Disorder. Clearly, I had a child (well two) with attention issues (remember that mom you saw chasing two young boys through, under, and around the racks at the department store? That was me). What I now know is that I, too, share in this issue. My full-cycle thinking is often interrupted by squirrels—Respond to an email, wait, another email, oh, look an invitation to listen to a podcast, hmmm, who is that guest, oh, what’s an ocularist, I should look that up–oh it’s someone who fits individuals with a prosthetic eye, cool, when did I last have my eyes examined?
My rudimentary solution for this problem is to remain as organized as possible (enter Linda Samuels, my colleague and professional organizer). When I remove the clutter from my desk, inbox, and close the open tabs on my computer (there are currently 18), I stay nearer to my daily goals. Some days I’m amazed I complete anything, and others, well, there is always tomorrow.
As I begin this new year with lofty ambitions, I want to remind myself that setting a realistic bar and feeling success daily is much more satisfying that imagining some distant pedestal that I might one day reach. Goals should be obtainable; understanding our own work patterns helps. Decluttering is a daily task for me, but so is brushing me teeth—both are actions I begin and end each day with. Trust me, decluttering is not a goal, it’s a lifestyle for someone who needs to tame the fuzzy rodents in her head.
Now it’s time to make an eye appointment. Oh, lookie, SQUIRREL!
I ignored the plea and continued to fill the washing machine with white sheets.
I shut the washer door, glancing into the kitchen just in time to see a brown dog lopping toward me at top speed.
“Jameson!” The dog bounded onto its rear legs to give me a full-body embrace: tail wagging, paws on shoulders, nose to nose. The jubilance continued as the dog raced back toward my husband, slopping wet mud with each step. My white dog was covered in muck.
While this transformation from white to brown and back again is easily remedied, Jameson has a sordid past. We lost the last of our three senior dogs the year before, and I longed for a ball of fluff. Once I convinced my husband that he, too, needed a dog, I began my search for a Golden Retriever rescue. Unfortunately, the wait was unbearable.
“Why don’t you check Craig’s List?” my son asked.
I was skeptical. Only bad things happen on Craig’s List—people are cheated, mistreated, and sometimes robbed! I’d even heard a story that required a trade at a police station to ensure top-notch “security.”
But curiosity got the better of me. Just a little search and jackpot! A male English cream golden retriever puppy with papers (for an extra charge) topped the list. I texted the number, received photos of the pup, mom, and dad in reply: all a beautiful soft butter color, floppy ears, and bright round eyes. I grabbed my purse (and son—it was Craig’s List after all) and headed to a nearby Checkers restaurant to get Jameson.
The name Jameson derived from the shade of most Goldens—a goldish, reddish, whiskey color. The name had been a joke at first until it wasn’t.
The woman who placed the ad exited her Jaguar and set a white cotton ball onto the ground. A six-week-old, 8-pound male sweety pie stumbled over the grass to sit on my lap. It was love at first sight and the last puppy! The woman handed me Jameson’s shot record. I slapped a fat wad of $20s in her fist (after driving to an ATM because, apparently, Craig’s List is a cash thing), and Jameson was the newest member of Club Nissen.
At our first puppy well-visit, the tech asked, “Name?”
“No, this is a female.”
“No, it’s a male,” I confidently responded. How could the vet tech be wrong? This wasn’t my first dog; I know the difference between a male and a female.
“Nope, I’m pretty sure this is a female.” She flipped Jameson upside down to prove her point.
My face turned a slow crimson, “Really?”
“You can call her Jamie! And look at this, double rear dewclaws. Sometimes that happens, but not often.”
I left with a sinking feeling. Was something wrong with my pup?
A few months later, my beautiful Jameson, dressed in a pink collar, started to show signs of other Golden defects. A tail that didn’t hang right (it curled!). Long froglike hind legs, which turned inward at their ankles. Was that the beginning of hip dysplasia? Almond-shaped eyes. A body covered in dark pigment spots and her fur—a pure white—unlike her creamy Craig’s List parents. We were concerned.
Eventually, a random comment from a West Texas campground custodian said she resembled an Akbash. “An Ak what?” we asked. Then we found her Google siblings: The frog legs, the curled tail, the pure white fur with biscuit colored ears, double dewclaws, and a spotted underbelly. Akbash, a rare Turkish herding dog. Her brethren were bred as Livestock Guarding Dogs to watch the herds and warn of danger. Jameson would make her ancestors proud when she sits on the stairs and howls at passersby.
Our neighbors might disagree with her assessment of what danger they possess, but nonetheless, she deserves an A+. Even digging (to keep themselves warm or cool while working) is considered a natural tendency for these independent, patient, watchers of their flock.
While at one point, I longed for another Golden Retriever (with papers!), I’ve learned a valuable lesson. That my dog—no matter the breed—is perfect for me. As for Craig’s List? I think I’ll leave my experience in the parking lot of Checkers.
“That is the ugliest piece of pottery I have ever seen!” My ceramics teacher glanced at the basket I held in front of me as he turned on his heel to talk to the next student.
The comment was brief, brisk, and cruel. My beautiful woven clay Easter basket with bright, cheerful yellows and pinks and baby blues sat in my hands exactly the way I wanted it. I envisioned it stuffed with overflowing green Easter grass, some hand-painted eggs, and my mom’s smile on Easter morning.
Instead, I headed toward the paints to select every angry color I could find. Metallic blacks and browns haphazardly brushed onto every crevasse covering the pale pastels. I wanted to keep painting repulsive red, grungy green, bitter blue. My vision smashed by one sentence, as if it were a bowl tipped casually to a cement floor, broken into a thousand shards.
I no longer cared about my basket or the class or the teacher. I would be a high school graduate in a few short months and told myself I would never look back again.
The next day, my creation sat next to all the others as students picked through the various pieces to find their own designs. It wasn’t as ugly as I had hoped. There was a copper shimmer that caught the light and a reflective nickel that created movement if you tipped the basket left or right.
“Much better,” the teacher said as I, once again, held the basket in my hands.
Maybe my teacher wanted me to be an artist. Maybe he hoped that I wanted to be an artist. Maybe all I wanted was an easy class to while away the time prior to the next chapter of my life.
For years, the basket sat on a shelf in my parent’s guest bathroom, the perch it received after I presented it to Mom on Easter morning. It had never been filled with eggs dipped in happy colors. To me, it was filled with a reminder that words have power. They have the power to scorn as well as the power to shine.
My parents no longer have that house, and I no longer have that basket. But if I did, I’d fill it with my collection of ceramic Easter eggs, each lovingly made, each with a craftsman’s signature. My basket was designed to hold pretty things, not painful words.
That gives me an idea…maybe I should sign up for a pottery class.
“So, Al, what are you going to do with an English degree when you graduate?”
“Dad, it’s a liberal arts degree, everyone will want to hire me.”
My dad’s advice fell on deaf ears. I was too big for my britches, and my dad knew it. He encouraged me to contact alums to investigate career options, but I didn’t follow his advice. Instead, I stormed the real-world with my inflated ego and landed a job as a receptionist at a stock brokerage firm in Dallas.
I hadn’t thought much about that first job until recently. After a quick Google search, I discovered the firm was still in business, and my first boss now donned an impressive title. Actually, he was my second boss. After one week of answering phones with a smile, I received a promotion to sales assistant. I felt like Melanie Griffith in the movie Working Girl as I rode the bus downtown in my cheap business suit with my high heels tucked into my oversized purse.
My tasks included crafting correspondence (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to clients and a teachable moment on writing. It’s the type of lesson that transformed the trajectory of my life—and I’m sure my former manager would have zero recollection of ever offering it.
He instructed me to write a letter informing a client to “pay up or else.” I wrote, “Client, you must pay or else.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but my boss, rather than chiding me for the harsh tone, said the letter sounded as if I pointed a scolding finger toward the client, who only needed to pay an invoice, not hire a lawyer. Once again, I’m paraphrasing, but I took the lesson to heart: never alienate the reader.
Fast forward 31 years and I still consider this the best advice I’d ever received. Without invested readers, writing would be a fruitless endeavor. What I want “you” to think, to feel, to believe drives my writing content and determines how I connect with the audience. Writers can open doors as quickly as they can close them. Revealing the rising fog as it slowly lifts from the marshy bayou in late spring sets the mood. What I say matters as much as what you read.
Even though I might not have thought about my first “real-world” job in a while, the lesson that the audience matters is one I have retold many times. It matters when writing a blog article, posting social media, or telling a story. We are the creators of what others view, and it helps to have an ideal audience in mind whether it is a client who needs to “pay or else,” novice bloggers, or a roomful of college students. Audience always matters.
Today, my audience is my Dad, the man who made practical suggestions to a girl who believed she was “all that” and the gentle lesson that if the britches don’t fit, try on a smaller ego.
At 9:00 pm, I received a text from my husband. Our son needs to be home by Friday before the European Corona Virus travel ban begins.
For years, I pushed our children to explore the world, study abroad, expand horizons. Our youngest finally did by participating in a Transitional Economies course, which included a week in the Czech Republic, visiting corporations, attending lectures, and sightseeing.
I hadn’t fallen for the COVID-19 hype—I had an adequate amount of toilet paper, plenty of bleach, and an extra bottle of Dawn Ultra with 50% less scrubbing and 3x the grease cleaning power—until my child was about to be stuck in Europe for a month.
As an experienced traveler, I hopped on the internet and within a minute, acquired the ticket he needed. But the date was incorrect. Ugg. No problem, I bought him a second ticket one minute later only to discover he’d been waitlisted. Wait. What? No. NO. NO!
I felt my hands began to tremble, just a little. I called the airline: “We are experiencing higher than normal call volumn.” I fumbled with my computer mouse. My clicks weren’t connecting as panic slowly started to bubble inside. I Googled the airline for information. Nothing. I called another number. Busy. I felt myself falling apart until a little voice said, Alison. Stop. Breathe.
So I did. One inhale in. One slow exhale out. A few calmer clicks later, my world traveler was booked and on his way to the airport.
When I look at the craziness all around me: schools closing, markets falling, baseball postponing the season, I imagine this is what pandemonium looks like. I realize it doesn’t take much to be swept up by hysteria—regardless of how much toilet paper I have. I will count myself lucky that I have that little voice to remind me to breathe, to recalibrate.
As everything seems to fall apart around me, I am going to make one simple suggestion to the world: let’s give ourselves a pause. Let’s stop and breathe. Really, it’s quite amazing what a slow inhale and exhale can accomplish. Now, where is hand sanitizer?
Asking for help often gives me anxiety, you know, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dry mouth. But when someone asks me for help, I am flattered. I thank them for asking.
Yes. I thank the asker because it’s an honor to have someone ask.
Instead of thinking only about my discomfort in asking for help, I need to remind myself that it is an honor to be asked. And that fact alone makes asking for help easier.
Here are some quick tips to help you get out of your head and ask for the help you need:
1. You are not a burden. People like to help. If we don’t ask, we deprive them of the opportunity to help someone. Think of it as your duty to humanity.
2. You are not weak. As an overburdened caregiver, I told my friends, I could handle “it.” I couldn’t. They brought me food. I ate. Win-win.
3. You are not stupid. We’ve all thought it, “They will think I’m stupid. They won’t like me anymore. It will be the death of me.” Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but if I’ve thought it, chances are you have, too.
4. Ask the right questions. If you ask me about the best time to plant lemon trees, I’ll shrug my shoulders and suggest “Spring?” But, if you ask me how to write a speech, I will entertain you with endless suggestions to help you on your journey because I’m super excited to help someone on their pubic speaking path.
So, the next time you need help. Ask. It’s good for you, it’s good for them, and it’s good for humanity. Win-win.
Alison Nissen wears so many hats she should own a shop. Alison is the president of the Flordia’s Writer’s Association, a professor, and a ghostwriter. She does so much we had to ask how she balances it all in one day.
To answer that question…you’ll have to listen to find out! (There’s even a Facebook Premier, November 22 @ 6:00p.m. (est). Facebook Premiere
The And I Thought Ladies, Wilnona & Jade, produce magazines, conferences, book festivals, podcasts, Roku TV and a docuseries.