Tuesday, March 31, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 4)

Here's the last installment of a weekly series I've done this month going into how I've applied three simple principles to stressful situations to make them less aggravating/scary/earth-shattering and more empowering/educational/eye-opening.

Here's Parts 1, 2 & 3

And here's the final (and least insane) story from my life:

Event: Minor Car Accident
Age at the time: 35

This one happened at the beginning of this month.  I was driving home with my husband, Rick from a weekend visiting family.  It had been snowing all day and we'd gotten a late start.  The roads were terrible.

Though I'd been taking it slow and driving carefully (following the guidelines I laid out in this post), I came up to a person who was straddling both lanes and driving painfully slow.  After being stuck behind him for a few miles, I got sick of the pace he was setting.  I waited for him to wander slightly farther to the right and then, throwing caution to the wind, sped up to pass him.

Of course I hit the slush, started fishtailing, couldn't pull out of it, started spinning and ended up in a snowbank facing the opposite direction.  The car was thoroughly stuck and tipped at an angle so the gas gauge immediately sunk down to empty. I quickly shut the car off while Rick got on his phone to call AAA for a tow.

1) Don't play the victim
It would have been so satisfying to blame the driver who chose to drive smack in the middle of the road, but no one had forced me to try passing him.  I could have tried going around him a little slower too, but I wasn't sure if he'd drift back to the left - I had just wanted to get away from him.

It didn't matter the reasons, I was the one stuck in the snow bank.  I was the one who needed to deal with that.

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Oddly enough neither Rick nor I freaked out.  We were both safe.  None of the airbags had gone off; and we had somehow managed to not hit another vehicle while careening in circles on the highway. Other than the initial worry there was a puncture in the gas tank, the car appeared relatively unscathed.

3) Do what you can and then let go
A state police cruiser arrived within minutes - Rick was just finishing up with AAA.  After assessing the situation, the officers asked if we wanted to wait in their car.  In hindsight it seems strange that we declined, but we assumed the tow truck would be there in a jiffy.

An hour later, we were pretty chilly and were thrilled when the tow truck finally arrived to pull the car out.  We did wait in the cruiser for that part.

The tow operator was a surgeon with his pulley and had the car out of the snowbank in no time at all.  We all gave the car a quick look-over.  Now that the car was righted, the gas gauge returned to it's normal reading - no signs of a leak.  A headlight had blown from impact, but the casing wasn't even cracked.  A couple undercarriage covers had been knocked loose, but there was nothing to indicate the car wouldn't be able to get us home under its own power.

Just to be sure, the tow truck driver asked us to follow him up to a gas station at the next exit.  This seemed like a good plan, so we thanked the police officers, knocked as much snow out of the wheel wells as we could, and followed the tow truck to that gas station.

There was a wobble in the tires, which I couldn't figure out if it was a balance issue or just lingering snow we hadn't cleared out, but other than that the car handled great.

We gave our report to the tow driver and had an uneventful remainder of the trip home.

I actually had an appointment to get an oil change and the horn fixed on my car that Wednesday, so I simply tacked a few more things onto that visit.
Turned out that wobble was just snow - which melted in the garage.
The mechanic changed out the blow headlight bulb, reattached the undercarriage covers, changed the oil, and fixed the horn.  The car even passed inspection!

Not exactly a "fun" experience, but it could have been a lot worse that's for sure!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 3)

The third installments of this month's series of how applying three simple principles can help one overcome trying situations isn't nearly as earth-shattering as the two previous posts, but it was stressful none-the-less.

Event: Finding a new wedding venue six months before the wedding
Age at the Time: 34

In one's day-to-day life six months is often some impossibly future date that rarely needs much consideration.  In the wedding world though, six months is practically tomorrow and needing to change one's venue "that close" to go-time can pose many challenges.

Rick (my now-husband) and I had wanted to get married at an Ashram that his father had helped found 50 years prior.  It simply made sense since we were planning a Hindu-style ceremony.  There would have been a lot of restrictions imposed (very limited alcohol, limited occupancy of the space, etc.) but we were willing to work with all that.

As planning progressed though, the relationship with the planning board grew increasingly cold and rigid.  They were becoming inexplicably less willing to work with us, imposing more fees, never quite getting a written contract together, demanding numbers of guests who'd be staying the night on-site (even though formal invitations weren't being sent out for another few months) and over-all growing less and less welcoming of the idea of hosting our wedding on their grounds even though there's a wedding there at least once or twice a year.

After a very frustrating meeting with the coordinator they had assigned to us (whom we'd never met before or since despite her assurances that she was well acquainted with the planning board, many of whom we know personally), we finally cut ties and chose to look for another place to hold our wedding.

1) Don't play the victim
No hard feelings, we still love the Ashram and still visit as frequently as we're able.
Would I have preferred they just tell us straight up from the beginning that they didn't want to host our wedding? Yes. We would have thanked them and moved on, saving us a fair amount of headache of finding a new place and informing all our guests that they'd be traveling elsewhere for the big day.

(In case you're curious, the issue apparently came down to money.  They weren't comfortable charging us the amount they would have needed to compensate for not being able to rent the space for some other more profitable event)

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Where was this fabled "elsewhere" going to be though?
The possibilities were overwhelming even within our limited price range and criteria of:
~Preferred outdoor ceremony
~Reception on-site
~Electricity and means of cooking food
~Parking and restrooms to accommodate our 100+ guestlist

Obviously it needed to be in easy driving distance for Rick & I.
Bonus if it was easy driving distance for the rest of our guests and close to an airport or two.

The biggest stipulation I put on finding a new location was that I didn't want to change the date of October 4th.  We had already sent out the save-the-date cards and I didn't want to confuse people by giving them a new location and day to show up.  I liked our date, and I wanted a fall wedding without getting too close to Halloween.
I decided I'd use the date to help narrow down our options.

3) Do what you can and then let go 
There were a lot of late nights on the phone with my planner friend, surfing the web, looking at state parks, Elks Lodges, historical sites and the like.

Nothing really felt right though.

Driving to work one morning I was suddenly struck by the idea that we could do the wedding at Howe Caverns.  It'd be perfect: being a tourist location, they're well-equipped for large quantities of people.  They're located right off a major highway that most of our guests were well-familiar with.  They have on-site food service, lodging and they are used to hosting weddings.

I called them up and asked if our date was available.
It was!

The price also ended up being right within our budget.
We had a new wedding venue!

Though a little slow to start, Howe was wonderful to work with.
Not only were they happy to work with us, they seemed eager to.  I think having an unusual wedding ceremony in a "safe" place like Howe Caverns helped put our guests at ease as well.  Many of the local folks had been to Howe in their childhood and had fond memories of the place.
Having it at the Ashram would have been an added level of "unknown" that likely would have made people uncomfortable and less able to have fun.

Our wedding was lovely, the food at the reception was great and everyone had a good time.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a series started last week about how I've applied three simple principles to help deal with stressful situations that have cropped up throughout the years.

I feel these principles can be used no matter what life throws at you.

1) Don't play the victim
2) Keep calm and vigilant
3) Do what you can and then let go

Event: Quitting job a month after buying a house
Age at the time: 29

A year after graduating college I got a job with Lockheed Martin working in a graphics groups that made training material for the Navy.  Though the environment wasn't what I'd call ideal (more on that later) I loved the work and the pay was great.

About six years into this gig I decided maybe it was time to start house-hunting.  In November of 2008 I finally closed on my first house.  A month later I unexpectedly quit my job with Lockheed.

I suppose my leaving wasn't terribly unexpected, just untimely.  True, the work site with its chain link fences topped with razor wire patrolled by guards with guns wasn't really my bag.  I also was never a huge fan of working for one of the largest defense contractors in the country (I'm just too much of a hippie I guess), but I could have lived with that.  Being a subcontractor was endlessly frustrating, as was the semi-annual corporate training to remind all employees not to sell secrets to foreign governments or sexually harass co-workers.  All this was wearing but tolerable.

The straw that broke the camel's back was a new supervisor who wanted to make this little graphics group all his own.  He micromanaged and made sweeping changes and decrees that seriously rubbed me the wrong way.  At my December performance review he stated that my work performance was great but my attitude was bordering on insubordination.

We'd been having rows for weeks now and I was through.  I told him firmly that he could have my letter of resignation on his desk the next morning.

"Why not now?" he asked.

So I typed it up right there with hot tears of rage streaming down my face.

1) Don't play the victim
It was so easy to blame the supervisor but really he was just the nudge I needed to get myself moving.
When I first took the job I had misgivings for all the reasons I stated above, but I made a promise to myself that I'd only work there for as long as it took to pay my debts off.

In the late summer/early fall of 2008 I completely debt-free.
In six and a half years I had paid off my car and my student loans.  I had racked up a fair amount of credit card debt, but thanks to the gentle financial tutoring of my future husband, I'd completely paid that off as well.
I gotten braces, and paid them off and had even managed to do a fair amount of travel simply by saving money rather than putting it on credit.

I had fulfilled my promise and the universe was simply reminding me of that.
However, I now had a house to "feed and care for".

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Though there was a certain amount of worry over being an unemployed new home-owner, nothing about searching for or buying a house had sent up caution flags for me.  Neither did leaving my really well-paying job.  I took this all to mean that it was simply meant to be and all I had to do was watch it all unfold - while doing my part of course.

I needed a new job and I needed it fast!

3) Do what you can and then let go
I hadn't job-hunted in seven years and even then it was under unusual circumstances, so I had only the vaguest understanding as to how to go about it.  I did what any person with a 20th century mindset would do: I hit the phone book.

Two or three days a week I'd get up at eight or nine in the morning, eat breakfast and then sit in front of my computer with an open phone book.  Each day had a theme: one day would be calling advertising firms, another would be TV stations (for their graphics or video editing department).  One day would be caregiver and unskilled hospital jobs, another day would be temp agencies.  I'm trainable in just about any field of work and can squeeze enjoyment out of nearly any task, so picking themes wasn't overly difficult.  I of course would prefer something just challenging enough to be fun, preferably somewhere near my field of training, but I'm never picky when it comes to work.

I'd go through a list in the phone book and if a company looked promising (was in driving distance for instance), I'd look up their website.  If it tickled my fancy further I'd give them a call to see if they were looking for people.  I'd make these cold calls until about noon when I'd break for lunch.

Sometimes I'd hit the phones again until two or three, but usually that about all the energy I had for cold-calling.  I honestly knew no other way to look for work - it never occurred to me to use job-search websites.

I was unemployed for only six weeks (but it felt a fair bit longer!)
On a whim I called a sign company one day and scored an interview which led to a job.
It was a major pay-cut but I needed the work.  It was a small sibling-run business and was just what I needed at that point in my life.  Though I was only with them for three and a half years, my time there opened the doors to many other opportunities one wouldn't have expected.

I'm endlessly grateful for my time there and with Lockheed.  They both served their purposes and they served them well.  I learned a lot and am still living in that house I bought.

Post Script: that supervisor who'd given me so much trouble left that division of Lockheed a month after I left the company.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 1)

A long time ago I once mused sadly in conversation that the universe had never picked me up by the scruff of the neck and given me a good shake.  What I meant was I felt that nothing terribly bad had ever happened to me to test my mettle and ability to cope with unusually stressful situations.

"What are you talking about?" my future husband (Rick) asked surprised.  "What about the time you were almost homeless?"

Really? That silly little "incident"?

He pointed out that because of how I had handled that situation I never perceived it as something terrible.  Instead it was a rather empowering and door- and eye-opening experience.  Not one that I'd wish on others of course, but one of those character-building events that can change the course of one's life.

There's been other "scruff of the neck" instances in my life that I would like to share with you throughout this month.  My purpose in recounting these tales is not to brag about how "awesomely I overcame adversity", but rather how I applied three very simple principles that turned potentially catastrophic situations into positive opportunities for growth.

These principles are:

1) Don't play the victim
2) Keep calm and vigilant
3) Do what you can and then let go

With those three ideas in mind, here's the first "Scruff of the Neck" occasion:

Event: Almost Homeless in Pittsburgh
Age at the time: 19

I'd been going to college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a year by this point and enjoying every minute of it.  I was living in the school-sponsored housing on the North Side and walked to and from the city every day for school and my part-time job.  My financial aid only covered the first year of housing and I couldn't afford to stay for the second year (I was in a two-year program).

No worries.  I had managed to hook up with a group of 1st quarter students who were going to rent a house.  I put in my share of the security deposit and had even gone to look at the house.  Everything was looking good.

Right before the quarter ended however the students disappeared.  No one returned messages and I never saw the security deposit again.  The school was no help and my parents, though certainly not indifferent, couldn't do anything being hundreds of miles away.  When the quarter started back up in two weeks I would officially have no place to live.

1) Don't play the victim
I certainly could have wailed and moaned, "Oh woe is me!  I've been robbed and have no place to go!"  But I didn't.  Was I annoyed? Yes.  Frustrated? Sure.  Victimized. No.

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Instead I approached the whole thing with a calm detachment.
In my naive little mind I had no viable reason to be in college in the first place.  I was miraculously doing this all on my own with scholarships, grants, loans and the tax money Mom and Dad were getting back for me attending school: my parents couldn't afford to help me out any other way financially.  We were poor.
The last person in my immediate family to go to college was a great-grandmother who had passed away a few years before.  And yet here I was.

The way I saw it I was going to school purely on God's grace and there was no freaking way I'd have to drop out because of something silly like not having a place to live.

I had complete faith that if I didn't spaz out then something would turn up.

That didn't mean I could just sit back and wait for all the cogs to align for me; I knew I had to do my share of the leg work.  I'd have to keep my eyes open and do what I could to find a place to live.

3) Do what you can and then let go
My roommate at the school-sponsored housing offered to let me "hide" at the apartment until I found a place.  Touching, but the place would get cramped pretty quick with a new roomie arriving with all her things as well.

This may sound appalling (and maybe a bit terrifying), but I was honestly eying a hole under the 7th Street Bridge.  It was well above the river, looked easy enough to get into and was sheltered from the weather.  I was even making mental plans on how I'd keep my clothes clean (in large garbage bags that I'd be able to snag from work), and how I'd keep myself clean (spit baths in the bathrooms at school and the occasional shower at my old place).

I found this whole plan oddly exciting and would have had no qualms with following it through.  Of course it never once occurred to me at the time that someone may actually already be living in that hole or how I'd keep my stuff secure during the day while I was at work and school (the blinders of youth are a blessing sometimes).

Resolution: I had been getting rides back to my parents' house in between quarters with Rick, who was also attending AIP (this is how we'd met initially as our parents lived near each other).  He knew of my situation and said he had a friend whose parents would likely let me stay with them until I found a place more permanent.

Sounded much better than the bridge actually.

So when it was time to return to school Rick drove me out to their place and I met the family.  They'd just had a bad experience with a roommate and weren't eager for a new one, but I was so wide-eyed, meek and courteous that they decided to let me stay for a month or two.

That "month or two" stretch out to the remainder of my time in college.
They even moved into a bigger place to accommodate me.
I helped with the dishes, cleaning and walking the dogs in lieu of paying rent.  I served as a crying shoulder and a friend.

No, it wasn't always happy rainbows and sparklie unicorns, but it was a safe place to live while finishing off my degree.  And an experience I would never have had otherwise.

Call it "luck", call it "grace", I call it being willing and open to see opportunities.

Stay tuned for another fun story next week.