Sunday, January 19, 2014

Setting goals for 2014: a year of travel, fitness, and fun

Ah, January: the month when, during the long, dark days of winter, we set goals for the year ahead, resolving to accomplish more than we did the year before.

For me, setting goals is more enjoyable than resolutions. While they are, in essence, the same idea, a "resolution" comes with a tinge of negativity—you resolve to do something better, fix something in your life, or correct a bad habit. A goal, on the other hand, is more optimistic. It can include corrections, sure, but I feel it's more thinking about what positive change you want to make.

So, I set New Year's Goals for the year ahead.

It helps me be productive when my goals are measurable. For example, rather than just "exercise more," in the past, I've said I wanted to exercise at least four days per week. It's easier (or harder, depending on your view) to hold myself accountable when the goal is specific. It worked for me, and I now find myself getting a full workout six or even seven days a week.

Oftentimes, my challenge is not sticking with it, but rather knowing when to stop before I get burned out. Discipline is a virtue, for sure, but so is adaptability.

The year is already off to a great start, so my list of goals this year is ambitious!

1. Take advantage of traveling for work. I love my job, and I'm fortunate to have clients located in interesting places: St. Petersburg, FL; Knoxville, TN; and I just gained a new client in New York City. My goal this year is to take advantage of these trips (and the fact that the transportation is covered!) by extending them for personal time. Last week—just 12 days into the new year—I did just that with a trip to Florida. I flew down a day early for the meeting and got an extra afternoon in the sunshine, on the beach. It was glorious!

2. Get out of the office and work remotely. A goal that complements #1 above, this one also includes travel. All I need to be able to do my job is a good wi-fi connection and cell reception. I'm sure I won't always have that flexibility, so I want to take advantage of this while I can. I may visit Chase in Steamboat Springs or my girlfriends in Boston—all the while working during the day while they each work, as well.

3. Walk 500 miles. I keep track of my exercise, logging distance, time, and activity. Each year, I tally the distance traveled (whether on foot or bike), and I love seeing how much I've accomplished that year. I didn't have a specific goal for mileage in 2013, but when I tallied it up, I realized I'd unknowingly increased my distance by 121+ miles—that's 32% more than in 2012! That gave me motivation for a new goal in 2014: I want to cover 500 miles in workouts. I say "in workouts" because I wear a Fitbit Zip to track my daily steps, but I want these 500 miles to come from conscious effort... not trips back and forth to the break room at work.

When I break it down, it comes to 42 miles per month, or 13 days of at least 3.1 miles (a 5k) in that time. Definitely doable. Just yesterday, I registered to walk the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in May. During my time as a 500 Festival Princess, I worked the event as a volunteer, but I've never actually participated. I'll knock out a life-list item and get closer to my 500-mile goal in one event!

4. Build strength through mini challenges. This goal popped up after I found a plan to accomplish a five-minute plank in 30 days. At first I thought, "Hold a plank for five minutes?!" but seeing it planned out in daily segments made it feel much more achievable. I started January 1 and am on track so far! I already have my next challenge planned—50 pushups in 4 weeks—and I'm sure I can find more to do during the year.

5. Be more musical: get a piano and play it. I started playing piano when I was in early elementary school, but over the past few years, I've become pretty rusty. So this year, I want to get a piano for myself—not a keyboard, but a true, upright piano—and brush up on my skills.

6. Read 26 books. Just before the new year rolled around, I started seeing and hearing about this local challenge—but it wasn't until today that I decided to commit to it. A writer for the Indianapolis Star, Michael Anthony Adams, started #Read26Indy to set the goal of reading 26 books in 2014 (one every two weeks) for himself while also using it to get to know more people in Indianapolis (he's new to the area). Readers will use the hashtag on Twitter and a group on Goodreads to share their progress and cheer each other on. I read 23 books in 2013, so adding another three is challenging but doable!

I'm looking forward to 2014 being a year filled with new experiences and accomplishments, and these goals will help me get there. Now it's your turn: what goals have you set for yourself this year?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tolman Ethan: Newborn Photos

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of photographing our family's first baby—my "nephew", Tolman. I put "nephew" in quotation marks because he's my cousin's son, but we're close enough that I fully intend to earn my "aunt" title!

I'm admittedly biased, but he's just perfect—healthy, happy, strong, curious, and content. I'm so happy for this new family, and I was truly honored that they would ask me to photograph this momentous milestone in their lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

5 kinds of friends you can't live without

[Photo: Asparagus flowers, which most people don't see unless they go to the source—a garden or farm.]

This has been a challenging year for my family. Just since April, we've seen my brother take "Go west, young man" to heart and move to Colorado; we've dealt with scary health issues for my dad; I've had surgery myself; I've changed jobs; and the family animals (who are family members on four legs) are showing their age with health problems of their own.

Thankfully, things seem to be working out positively in nearly every scenario (knock on wood), but it's been a year of wondering, "How much more can we take?"

Through it all, these experiences have given me a new appreciation of friendship. While it's easy to be a friend when life is sailing smoothly, the more challenging times unavoidably reveal the true depth of a friendship. This year has revealed a lot, but it's also taught me to be a better friend myself. And that, to me, is one of the most valuable things that I've gained from this year.

I've realized that there are certain kinds of friends that everyone should have. Different people may fill these roles at different stages of your life, but we need these people around us:

1. The one who's actively supportive when you're having a hard time. This is the friend who doesn't shy away when you share bad news. It's difficult to know what to say or do when someone is under a lot of stress or is grieving, but I've learned that the "right" words themselves aren't that important. A simple hand on the shoulder with a look of understanding can work wonders for the person who feels alone. Receiving a text message or email a few days later that just says, "How are you? How is it going?" tells us that we've not been forgotten. Those friends who stick around and just show you that they care are invaluable.

2. The one who's really honest. Each of our friendships gives us something different. And while you should feel free to be yourself with every friend (the ones worth keeping, that is), some people are just naturally more at ease with that than others. My conversations with one of my girlfriends, who I've known for nearly 10 years, are some of the most honest exchanges I have. While interactions with other friends aren't untruthful by any means, this friend is just especially honest and open about what she's feeling, and that encourages me to be the same way with her. It reminds me of this clip from Sex and the City 2, and it makes me appreciate it more:

3. The one who asks tough questions. You could call this the "gut-check" friend. I'm a big believer in trusting and following your own gut instincts, but it helps to have some support outside your own head, too. This is the friend who challenges you to think of every angle, who plays devil's advocate, and who challenges you to not avoid a subject because it's uncomfortable. This friend asks questions others are afraid to ask. I have one girlfriend, in particular, who's marvelous at this, and it means that conversations with her are often very thought-provoking and cerebral. She brings an academic, and often progressive, point of view to the discussion. 

4. The one who's been there and truly understands what you're going through. Some people are very good empathizers, but nothing replaces the friend who's personally been there. Finding one of these friends may take dedicated effort when you need it, but it's worth it.

5. The new friend. While old friends are irreplaceable because they've seen you through ups and downs, and you know they're worth keeping in your life, I love the joy that comes with finding a new friend. You meet someone who matches you—whether it's in similar interests or experiences—and you can pass countless hours just talking and getting to know this new person. In many ways, it's a lot like dating, but without the awkward "So, where is this going?" conversations. You get to just enjoy each other. And eventually, this new friend may become a life-long friend. Awesome.

These kinds of friends have risen to the top this year, and I have come to appreciate each of them in new ways. I'm now challenging myself to learn from their examples and make myself a better friend to them, in turn.

What friends have you realized are invaluable, and how have they made you a better friend? 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Lean in: When doing the right thing means breaking the rules

[Photo: An amaryllis just beginning its life—appropriate for the fresh new direction my own life has taken recently.]

Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, has taken the technology and career worlds by storm this year. Her target audience—women—have particularly been talking about it. This Facebook executive encourages women to "lean in" to their lives, meaning they should take active ownership of their careers and decisions.

I count myself among the fans of this book and her philosophy. She echoes many of the ideas that I've believed for years, namely the fact that you should learn to trust your own gut instincts and actively work to change things for the better. And I believe that we should do these things for ourselves even when others may try to discourage us.

In the time since I graduated from college in 2006, my career path has taken a pretty traditional route: my first job out of school was in an area (PR and copywriting) that directly applied to my degree in Integrated Communications and English. I stayed there for two and a half years, until the company was experiencing difficulty and I knew my growth options there had run out.

My second job, as an account executive at a full-service marketing agency, was a great next step. I continued to use my degree (which seems to become more rare the further you get from school), I found an incredible boss and mentor, and I learned skills that are applicable in any field: customer service, organization, time management, etc. I stayed there for nearly four years, until I again realized that my opportunities for growth had run out.

That leads me to last November. I found a new job at a company I'd admired for years—a company that is a thought-leader and pioneer in the digital marketing industry. I knew I'd find many new growth opportunities there! I was overqualified for the position, but in talking with the hiring managers, it sounded like I could make it my own—and I wanted to get my foot in the door at the company. Sandberg wrote in Lean In that a great piece of career advice she once received is that the number one factor in choosing a new job should be potential for growth. In other words, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don't ask which seat, you just get on board." This company fits that bill.

Unfortunately, I realized after just a few months that this particular position at the company wasn't a good fit for me long-term. The environment and opportunity wasn't what I'd expected after my interviews and first days on the job. While I knew that the team had been working hard and had a big undertaking ahead—launching seven websites, in five languages, on one day—I didn't expect chaos and 70-hour work weeks. Over the years, I've learned to recognize that stress affects me physiologically, whether it's through spontaneous sweating, digestive turmoil, hives on my skin, or daily tears. Those negative symptoms were showing up again.

Wanting to improve things, I talked with my two managers about my unhappiness and concerns. One of them initially seemed supportive and encouraged me to give it more time (about a month) to calm down and become more "normal," while the other wasn't so supportive and essentially gave me an ultimatum: I could either get used to it or move on.

At that point, I reached out to HR for support and connected with a great colleague there. She encouraged me to give the job more time and supported my interest in learning about other opportunities within the company. The company's official policy is that you need to work there for at least one year before applying to transfer to another position—but I knew that if things didn't improve soon, I wouldn't make it that long. Nevertheless, I wanted to do things as "by the book" as I could, and working with HR was important.

I took the next couple months to get through the intense period of launching those websites and network with other people in the company. I had coffee with people in my department and other departments and asked them about their working environments, work/life balance, what they enjoyed, and what had been difficult. Finally, around my five-month mark at the company, I knew I'd given my initial job enough time and effort to improve, and I'd discovered another position in a different department that I felt would be a better fit for me. I had support from my HR ally, who agreed to help me "break the rules" and attempt to transfer. Even though employees have an advantage in the fact that they're already familiar with the company and its products, we still have to officially apply and interview for a new job.

Leaning in: applying for a new job

I sat down with my two managers and shared my story: I'd given this job more of a chance, but I knew it wasn't right for me, and I'd found a different position I wanted to apply for. They were initially quiet, wanted to take a couple days to consider my decision, then we met again the following week.

At that time, they told me that they would sign my transfer request and wouldn't block it—but my last day with them would be May 24, whether I got the new position or not. If I didn't get the new job, I would be expected to leave the company. (Luckily, my HR contact had given me a heads up that this might happen—otherwise I would have been taken by surprise.) One of my managers, who'd been silent in that conversation up to that point, then stepped in to air his grievances. He told me that by expressing my discontent so early—both at my 90-day mark and now, at five months—I had disappointed them and invalidated the investment they'd made in my position. He also underhandedly threatened that this move would be detrimental to my career at the company and elsewhere.

This is a point where trusting yourself is more important than ever. I knew I was in a situation that didn't work for me, and following "company policy"—waiting until the one-year mark to make a change—would be bad for both the company (because they'd have an unhappy and therefore less productive employee) and me. I acknowledge that I'm at a point in my life where I can make decisions like this, because I don't have a family depending on my employment if I were to end up jobless. Not everyone has that freedom. I've learned over the years to trust myself and have confidence in my decisions, even if it's not popular with everyone.

I spent my final four weeks in that position interviewing for this alternative role, and it wasn't until I was four days from joblessness that I got the new job and accepted their offer. (A little close for comfort!) My direct manager, during that time, was cordial, but the other, who'd made his disappointment so clear, hardly spoke to me or acknowledged my presence in meetings. And since then, when I've passed him in the hall or on the street, he's given me a brief nod or has turned his head the other way.

And here's the great news: I've been in my new role for a month now, and I know I made the right decision. When someone asks me, "How was your day at work?" I can now answer, "Great!" with complete honesty. It's been a long time since I had that feeling. The department (with its processes and organization), my new manager (with his hands-off, mentoring style), and the role (that lets me actively use my brain in solving problems with a purpose for clients) are infinitely better for me.

By nature, I'm a rule-follower. But I know that by "breaking the rules" in this instance, I made the right decision for myself, my health, and my happiness. What do I hope you'll take away from my experience?

  • As Sheryl Sandberg says, lean in: Take ownership of your life and career. Make decisions for your own health and happiness, even if they're against standard company policy or don't fall in line with someone else's timeline.
  • If you're miserable, do something about it.
  • And above all, trust yourself. Trust your gut instincts. When they tell you something isn't right, tune in to that signal and listen to it. If we can't trust ourselves, who can we trust? 
I feel my spirit and optimism returning—so I'm looking forward to being back here, writing and photographing, a lot more soon.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Crocus: a sure sign of spring

Over the years, I've come to realize that though small and unassuming, crocuses are some of my very favorite flowers. I think it's mostly due to the fact that they're the first flowers to appear at the end of a long, dreary, colorless winter. They draw me out, bundled up, to crouch down with my camera and shoot them from every possible angle.

These just appeared this week, and I couldn't have been happier to see them!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A chicken education

The average American consumer may expect to open their carton of grocery-store eggs and see a dozen uniform specimens: all the same color, all the same ideal egg shape.

Me? I love opening a carton of farm-fresh eggs and seeing variety.

I stopped by my neighbor's farm on Friday to buy a couple dozen eggs from her, and an hour later, I'd met the hens who lay the eggs I was about to enjoy.

Each visit to this farm is an education. She keeps a couple different broods of chickens; one hardier, larger brood remains outdoors through more of the winter and produces the eggs I enjoy for breakfast. These chickens are large, and while she has many different breeds mixed together, they look like what I think of as a textbook chicken, with smooth feathers and an iconic silhouette.

All those different breeds mean that each egg is different. A carton of eggs includes at least six different shades of brown, in addition to some that are more rosy or even green, and each has its own unique shape.

My neighbor's second brood of chickens stays in a garage through most of the winter, where they're kept warm with heaters and lamps. I find these incredibly interesting—before last summer, I'd never seen chickens like Seramas and Silkies. They're each a third the size (or less) of the hardier egg-business birds outside. The Silkies are particularly striking: contrary to their name, instead of smooth, silky feathers, they instead look like they're covered in soft, fluffy fur. And they're covered in this plumage from the crowns of their heads to the tips of their toes. When you do get a look at the body beneath the feathers, their skin is black and their earlobes are royal blue. Silkies are also known for their sweet, loving temperaments.

A special treat for my visit: I got to hold a couple chicks that were only a week old. They fit in the palm of my hand and only weighed an ounce or two.

I'll be going back to the farm sometime this spring with my camera, for sure. I'd love to photograph these beautiful, interesting birds, in addition to the herd of alpacas that roams outside.

Until then, I'll just be enjoying some delicious omelettes and frittatas!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Seeing winter, dreaming of spring

As I write this, central Indiana is bracing for a record-breaking snowfall: 5-10 inches, to be exact. Last year's winter was unusually mild, so I think we're just paying for it this year. Hopefully that means next year will be normal, and March 24 will actually FEEL like spring.

Until spring actually arrives, I'll keep dreaming. And making big pots of warming soup. Last night's was a delicious Italian Wedding Soup from Eating Well. I'm trying to get past my aversion to handling raw meat, so making the meatballs for this soup was a test of that self-education.

Let these photos of a flower bouquet put a little spring in your heart, no matter what Mother Nature is doing outside.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Buster gets a haircut

It doesn't take long to realize that I adore this little dog. (Just take a look at the fact that I have a tag devoted to Buster, and you'll see dozens of posts over the years.)

At nearly 13 years old, this little Bichon Frise has been a furry, four-legged member of our family since he was six weeks old. Bichons marvelously don't shed, but the trade off is that they require more grooming than many other breeds. Buster needs a haircut every couple months.

Every dog owner probably has their unfortunate groomer experiences to relate, and Buster has had his share. On his last trip to the groomer, she sheared the skin behind his ear and didn't notify my parents. The resulting, hidden wound got so severely infected that Buster had to spend a couple terrifying days at the vet, under observation while getting intravenous fluids.

After a heart-wrenching week, Buster thankfully recovered. Ever since then, Mom has understandably been reluctant to take him back to (a different) groomer, so she's undertaken the task of trimming him up herself. He verbally complains, but he knows she's the boss, and he behaves for her.

You can tell he's looking at me and saying, "Do we really have to do this again?"

He may not enjoy the grooming process itself, but he does love the freedom that follows. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he sprints through the house, leaps on the couch, and joyfully gets his revenge by rolling from one end to the other.

And then he's happy.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter wonderland

This is what December in central Indiana is supposed to look like: blanketed in white, perfect snow. We sure got it this week!

In the last four days, two storms have dropped a total of about 12 inches of snow on my neighborhood. The first consisted of heavy, thick snow that the family across the street used to make an impressive igloo/fort. The second fell last night in big, fluffy, light flakes that settled gently on everything, with no wind to disturb it.

Not long after daybreak this morning, I took my camera out for a little trip around the yard. Few people were stirring, and the snow plows hadn't come through yet—so the neighborhood was beautiful, still, and the muffled quiet that we only experience with the insulation of snow.

A perfect winter wonderland!

Come January 2, though, I'll be ready for it to be 75°F and sunny again!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eat your Brussels sprouts

As a child (okay, and as a teenager, too), I was one of those kids whose picky-eater tendencies give parents migraines.

We had to pick restaurants that served chicken nuggets or spaghetti—and they had to allow me to have the sauce on the side, in case it didn't taste like Prego.

I carried a Subway cold-cut sandwich into a Chinese restaurant on more than one occasion.

I ate a plain bagel and cream cheese for lunch every. single. day of fourth grade.

When I started college, I decided that I needed to learn how to like salad. Because it's one food that you can find at just about any restaurant, so it would ensure that I could eat out with friends.

So today, when I tell you this next statement, you understand how significant it is:

I love Brussels sprouts!

Many people are scarred by unfortunate experiences with these miniature cabbages. They tell sad tales of slimy, smelly, overcooked vegetables they were force-fed as a child. And I don't doubt that it happened. I don't have anything like that to relate—I just avoided vegetables in general. Thankfully, I now adore vegetables and am becoming a much more adventurous eater.

If you share a similar abhorrence, I ask you to give these beautiful vegetables one more chance—because if you roast these babies, they become sweet and crispy. No slime to be found.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 lb. fresh Brussels sprouts
2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 t each Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano
1/4 t dried Garlic
(or your favorite blend of herbs)
Grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

Cut dry/hard stem ends (usually 1/4") off each sprout, and remove any wilted outer leaves. Slice each sprout in half, or quarters if they're as large as a golf ball. You want them to all be about the same size, so they'll cook in the same amount of time. 

Place cut sprouts in a gallon zip-top bag. Pour in olive oil and add herbs. Seal bag and toss/tumble the sprouts inside, ensuring all get coated with the oil and herbs. 

Dump bag of sprouts onto cookie sheet and spread out in an even single layer.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan and toss the sprouts. Bake for another 10-15 minutes until the edges brown and become crispy. A fork should easily slide into the core of a sprout.

Serve, sprinkling with parmesan cheese.


Thursday, November 22, 2012


This Thanksgiving is an unusual one for me, because I'm literally between jobs.

After nearly four years at a full-service marketing and advertising agency, I turned in my key last Friday said goodbye to many friends. As I made that final commute home, I felt nothing but excitement about my next venture.

Because of that, this week is a true stay-cation: While taking time off at work is always great, this is one week off where I don't have to feel like I'm missing anything or getting behind. My brain is getting a chance to relax and shift gears before I start my new job in downtown Indianapolis next week.

So this year, I'm thankful for change. New opportunities. New adventures. New challenges. New environments. New things to learn. New friends to meet.

Oh, and new foods to try, like this persimmon that has been sitting, lonely, on my countertop for five days while I try to figure out what to do with a single persimmon. (Besides photograph it.)

I'm thankful for free days of few obligations and the chance to let my brain and my body de-stress. I'm thankful for excitement. I'm thankful for optimism.

I'm thankful for little pleasures, like hearing fresh cranberries *pop* while cooking my annual cranberry sauce for our family gathering tomorrow.

I'm thankful for a family who is safe, healthy, and will spend this holiday together. I'm thankful for the health and presence of my four-legged family members, too. Life would be incomplete without them.

I'm thankful for a growing extended family that will include a baby in 2013, making me an aunt in spirit (though not on paper).

I'm thankful I've had the chance to spend yet another year being thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to you! And thank you for being here.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Behind the scenes with lampwork artist Samma Parcels

At work over the last six months or so, we've been going through a testing/profiling process based on the book Strengths Finder. It's a similar idea to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and there are dozens of other tests that companies use when they're hiring people and evaluating teams.

With Strengths Finder, you learn what your top five "talents" are, then you can better structure your day and life around building upon those talents. My top two talents describe how I'm interested in many things, like to collect information, and love to learn. It makes total sense: from the time I was a kid watching PBS television, I always loved the behind-the-scenes videos that showed how everyday products like crayons and balloons were made. So when I got the chance to profile a local glass artist for the HCCVB blog and watch her work at her studio, it was right up my alley.

I sat and watched her, completely riveted, while she melted two pieces of glass together to create two gorgeous glass pendants in under 45 minutes.

The first was a heart-shaped pendant, and the second utilized a technique in which it looks like a flower has been encased in the glass. For that one, she worked from the front of the piece toward the back, creating the stamens first, followed by the outside edges of the petals, then slowly melting the petals inward toward the center.

I asked her a ton of questions, and I could tell she's a great teacher, because she patiently answered every one I asked—while continuing to work without missing a beat.

For the first time, I shot video in addition to still photos. I'm still amazed by the capabilities of an iPhone. I love that I don't have to have any other special equipment to be able to do an informal video.

You can read my full profile of this incredible artist on the HCCVB blog.

Hendricks County glass artist: Samma Parcels

Looking for a one-of-a-kind holiday gift for someone on your list? Consider something handmade by a local artist. Not only can you find many great shops around Hendricks County, but dozens of incredible artisans call this area home.

I chatted with glass artist Samma Parcels about her work, and she even shared some of her favorite places to visit in Hendricks County. Read more...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fall colors and fading time

We say the same thing every year, and with every season: "Where has the time gone? How is it already fall? How is it that we've already consumed most of October?"

And yet it takes us by surprise every time.

With the unusual year we've had in central Indiana—an early spring, a scorching hot summer, severe drought conditions—many people worried that our fall would be a lackluster one.

If it is, it's subtle enough that I haven't noticed. Our leaves officially peaked last weekend, and the majority have now fallen, but I'm still enjoying some of the remaining colors.

Burning bushes, like this one right by my front door have always been a favorite of mine.

And I'm partial to red and orange-leafed trees. I photographed this one in a Danville park last weekend while I was researching a blog post for the HCCVB blog. I love the mix of yellow and deep orange.

Where has the time gone?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Inspiring speakers

Remember those days as a kid when the school organized a convocation and brought in an inspirational speaker? Everyone loved getting to skip class and do something fun, but I was one kid [cough cough nerd cough cough] who always enjoyed hearing inspirational speakers. 

I still remember one who encouraged us to answer the question, "How are you?" with something like "I'm great!" instead of your run-of-the-mill, expected, "Fine." It stuck with me, and to this day, I rarely answer "fine" unless it really is a ho-hum, just "fine" kind of day.

Over the last 10 days, I've had the opportunity to hear two inspirational speakers with two very different life stories, and I picked up some nuggets of wisdom from both of them. 

The first: Michael J. Fox

Last week, I attended a conference for work, and Michael J. Fox was the keynote speaker on the opening day. All you have to know is that he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 29, see what he's done in his life in the 22 years since then, and you can't help but be amazed. 

But what really moved me was his attitude toward life. A diagnosis like that would hit anyone hard, but he said that over the years, he's come to recognize this: "I've learned that my happiness grows in direct proportion with my acceptance, and in opposition with my expectations." 

That line has really stuck with me, and it's one I want to remember. Many people never get to that moment of clarity, so I hope I can remind myself of it and start living with that in mind now.

The second: Delia Ephron

On Wednesday evening, I went to the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis and for a whopping $5.00 admission got to hear Delia Ephron speak. (I think I was one of about three people in the room under the age of 50.)

She spoke about her life and career, talking in general about being a female writer, a woman with friends and family, and an individual. She grew up in a family of writers: both her parents were screenwriters. Her mom had a successful career, which was unusual for the time, and she expected all four of her daughters to be nonconformists—and grow up to be writers themselves.

Her mom's unconventional view of the world made an early impression on her. She said her mom liked to say, "Being related to someone is no reason to like them," which can be a hard idea to accept—but she said it has helped her to write real, believable characters who have feelings that are a little hard to acknowledge. 

The two most important things I took away from her presentation were: 1) she's living proof that it's never too late to change the direction of your life, and 2) having a support system of girlfriends and family will help give you the courage to make those changes. (It's a very Oprah-show idea.) I mentioned that she and her three sisters are all writers—but what I loved hearing was that one sister didn't become a writer until she was 39, and another just started writing at 49.

She came across as an open, earnest woman who would be a great girlfriend. Her new book is The Lion Is In, and I'll definitely be picking it up.

Have you heard any speakers who inspired you? Who said something that has stuck with you for years, no matter how small? 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Road trip with my grandparents—and a new understanding of family

Royal and high-ranking families around the world keep painstakingly accurate records that preserve their ancestry and chart their lineage. The records document thousands of years of history and are worth safeguarding forever.

But if you’re not a member of one of those prestigious and few families, chances are the best knowledge you have today of your ancestors dates back just a few generations at most. That’s the case, for me, on the paternal side of my family. But the maternal side? It’s an entirely different—and amazing—story.

One of my second cousins on my mom’s side of the family, along with his wife, has spent years charting the Halcomb/Cobb family. They’ve traveled around the country tracking down leads, visiting libraries, monasteries and historical centers, all in the pursuit of documenting our family’s story.

It’s truly incredible. They’ve traced our roots all the way to William I, more commonly known as William the Conqueror, who was the first Norman King of England from 1066 to 1087.

I can hardly wrap my mind around it!

This past weekend, I took a road trip with my mom and grandparents to the Cobb family reunion in southeastern Kentucky. The reunion is held every year, but this was the first time I’ve been able to make it.

It’s something that’s very important to Grandpa, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday this month. While he speaks with many of these family members on a weekly or monthly basis on the phone, this annual reunion is generally the only time he sees many of them in person.

I’ve known that family and the associated gatherings are important to him, but it really wasn’t until recently that I realized just how important it is. Part of it is a generational difference, I believe, but it’s also a testament to the region where he grew up.

One of the sites I was most interested to visit on this trip was the old house where he spent much of his youth. The house—that he built himself—is still standing, structurally sound, and looks like it could be liveable with some TLC. The house is nestled in a valley (or “holler,” to use the regional lingo) alongside two barns, one tobacco, one livestock—that he also built himself—and is only accessible by an off-road vehicle with four-wheel drive.

Just around the corner from the house, a little farther down the one-lane, gravel "Bull Creek" road, is the family cemetery, which was our second stop. Cemeteries generally don’t mean much to me. I find it interesting to see especially old dates on headstones, but my interest usually ends there. But in visiting this cemetery last weekend, it did help me see how important it is to Grandpa, as well as the rest of the family who still live in the area. The graves are maintained by family members themselves, who take up a collection at the reunion each year to help pay for the mower’s gasoline and the flowers. My great-grandparents are buried there, along with dozens of other family members.

(It also helped me understand why Grandpa wanted to show me his own burial plot and headstone a month ago. It’s ready and waiting for him—all it needs is the death date and the actual burial. I found the experience weird and unsettling, but I could tell it was significant to him.)

The following day, the actual reunion didn’t start until 11:00, so we drove to the Cumberland Gap. We spent some time wandering outside and inside the Visitor’s Center, which included a small museum that documented the importance of this pass through the Appalachian Mountains. Daniel Boone helped to widen the trail through the Gap in 1775, making the passage to Kentucky and Tennessee easier for settlers to manage. Today you can drive through it via a ¾-mile tunnel.

(I should say that I actually spent most of my time at the Visitor’s Center wandering through the Southern Highlands Craft Guild’s store. That alone was worth the stop.)

At the reunion lunch, Grandpa was more social than I’ve ever seen him, and he made a point to work his way around the room talking to various people. He’s a revered figurehead in this family, known and respected by multiple generations. Several men and boys of the family are actually named after him.

To me, he’s always been Grandpa: honored WWII vet, skilled woodworker, sports enthusiast. But to the family in Kentucky, he’s the man who quit college to move home and help his mother after his father lost his eyesight. He’s the man who built his family’s house and barns. He’s the man who essentially raised his nephew when the boy’s parents proved to be incapable. He’s the patriarch. They’ve known him for decades longer than I have, and since he’s someone who doesn’t talk much about his life (without determined probing), I saw a side of him I never had before.

He may be days from his 92nd birthday, but his mind is still sharp as can be. It made me happy to know I made him happy by going to the reunion. I’d had the feeling that it was something I really needed to do, and I’m glad I got the chance to make the trip.