Never More than a Shark

I took swimming lessons every year as a child. My mom was quite serious when it came to our extracurriculars, particularly swimming and dance. Each year my sister and I took our respective classes (she was always older and far more advanced than I in everything), progressing to different levels as we mastered the lessons from the year before.

Swimming lessons were at the YMCA indoor pool. They had the typical levels: Tadpole, Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish etc. The highest level was Porpoise. Before you could be a Porpoise, you not only had to master all of the strokes, including freestyle, breast, and butterfly. But as a Fish, you also had to pass the water survival test, which I only remember as treading water for what felt like hours (it was probably only ten minutes of treading water and involving many more activities). And most importantly, as a Shark, you had to pass a test of endurance.

Shark was the level preceding porpoise. I was a Shark for two years. And I never became a Porpoise. And to this day, I resent the failure and maintain the weakness. As if it is a reflex, when I’m asked how far I can walk or run, I say “I don’t have any endurance.” Even though it’s been years and years.

After being promoted from Fish, the status of Shark was a pretty big deal. At least I felt like a big deal, in the upper ranks, hanging with the pros (of the Lansdowne YMCA). Each class we would swim laps and laps the length of the pool, changing strokes every 2 or 3 laps. I usually would allow my head to get the best of me on the very first one, worrying about conserving energy to last me the whole class. Lap one: “okay, that wasn’t too bad. I can do 9 more. one at a time.” Lap 4: “there’s no way I can take much more of this. just go slower and take one lap at a time.” I would reach the wall between laps and not want to let go. Taking off each time into the incredibly long distance of the pool I was weaker and weaker, and embarrassingly slow. Without the wall or anything else to hold me up, I was forced to rely on wobbly limbs, a racing heart, and a self-doubting mind. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to be lost at sea with those qualities. By the time I was setting out for my last lap, I’m sure most of the students were finished and moving on to other tasks. I, on the other hand, typically required a teacher’s assistance on the way back the final time, gasping for air, abandoning all stroke technique, and sometimes crying (and yes, I’m slightly ashamed to admit all of this). I remember vividly how far away that wall would seem. Almost unreachable, as if I was actually moving backwards. Each time I finished the laps, I felt physically weak and a bit more traumatized than I was in the previous swim class.

This scene played out many times. The more times I failed, the more I knew I couldn’t do it. After I was unable to pass out of shark the second time, I asked my mom just to allow me not to be a porpoise. Our conversation probably went something like, “Mom, could you love me even if I’m never more than a shark?” She accepted me as I was: her no-endurance-having child.

Fast forward to the present day. I’m beginning to think this issue with endurance has been rearing its ugly head in more creative ways in my adult life (probably because I tend to avoid activities requiring physical endurance). As I was walking to work this morning, I was feeling really slow and weighed down. I was conscious of every step I took, as each one felt like a chore. I didn’t want to go to work today. But that isn’t the real issue. The issue is that my eventual last day of work should be close, maybe six months from now (if all goes according to plan). And now that I have a sense of how many more laps I have to do, I have begun to shut down and feel incapable of making it through these final laps/days/months. And sadly, this has happened before. A great job turns to mush and I revert to counting down to when it will be over – no longer enjoying the experience or practicing my strokes, instead reverting back to mere survival, self-doubt, and yeah, some tears too.

So I had a revelation today. Turns out I may be lacking both physical and professional endurance. Only in the professional world, I don’t have a teacher to help me make it back to that wall safely. I’m flailing out here on my own -and it is scary as hell!


Did I Just Do That?

I kinda sorta almost quit my job yesterday.  And no, that wasn’t the plan at all.  Now I may have completely thrown the actual plan into turmoil.

I’m not sure how clear I’ve been about the fact that my job isn’t the reason I have decided to pick up and leave the country.  It’s a factor, considering if I was absolutely in love with the job and felt like I had long-term opportunity there I probably wouldn’t be leaving. But it’s not the only factor.   In fact, it’s been one of the few things keeping me stable for the time being.  Not too long ago I would have said I’m leaving New York in spite of the fact that I love my job.

Fast forward to Thursday, Feb. 11th in the office of the Chief Program Officer (really cool black woman with locs – although it’s taken me until now to fully trust her): “I’m really angry and I don’t see myself staying with this organization much longer.”   I went on to say something along the lines of, “perhaps you will do better simply phasing out my position.”

Crazy talk. Rage talk. Hurt talk.

Perhaps I was a bit too hasty. But life is too short for bullshit. And when I feel like I’m getting shit on, I’m going to make it clear that it’s not okay, while also taking action to get myself into a less stinky situation.   (I say this and must acknowledge the fact that I am in a pretty comfortable position in my office, knowing that I can tell them that I’m pissed and quitting, yet not going to be fired. And I acknowledge that this isn’t so typical.)  So while a less angry self would have waited until I knew I had somewhere else to go, yesterday’s self knocked on the CPO’s door and stepped over the corpse of rationality to get there.

I’m sure I have mentioned before that I work for a nonprofit organization. I believe in the work we do. That’s why I’m there. And my role with the organization was brand new when I took it, allowing me to shape the job description in many ways.  So immediately I was fortunate to have some autonomy and I was trusted. At that time, the organization was really small and I was the only one on my team, not including my boss at the time, who is now the CEO.   Since then, we’ve grown quite a bit.  I now have 3 people over me (including the CEO and CPO), I have been promoted, and 3 people now report to me.  There’s also a newer team of 2 more who report to my supervisor.  Positive growth, for sure.   But now with growth comes power trips, bad decisions driven by fear, instability, and unhappy people.  It’s noticeable from every level within the organization. And since I have been there since the inception of the department, the change is glaringly apparent .

But growth and a gradual decline wouldn’t lead me to want to quit my job on the spot.  All of that silliness has been going on for months, making it easier to plan to leave, but not creating any immediate urgency. It’s when I returned from vacation and learned that the entire department had been pulled into a 3-day retreat that included strategy planning directly related to my team. The 3-day thing was planned and announced 1 or 2 days before my vacation would begin (and also right before a big event my team and I were hosting) and messaged as some type of re-training. That alone caused me to call bullshit, but mostly because I didn’t want my direct reports to be subjected to something I didn’t think they needed (to be spoon-fed by the CEO).  I had no idea they were planning to have substantive conversations and make decisions regarding future direction in my absence, knowing the entire time that I would be absent.   If I didn’t feel under-valued and disrespected before, I certainly do now.

I’m not sure how much of a surprise my reaction could have been to the higher ups.  When they conjured up this plan, it must have crossed their minds that the one person they were not including in this 3-day emergency session, the same person who supervises half of the team, may have some negative feelings once she learns what she’s missed.  And if it didn’t cross their minds, that’s an even bigger problem.  Regardless, I let them know. Honesty and transparency are important, right?

I don’t know what to expect now.  The CPO reacted very positively, expressing both understanding and support. She wants me to stay and they may make an effort to convince me to stick it out.  But now at least they won’t be surprised when I turn my “I don’t see myself staying” into “I”m leaving and xx-xx-10 will be my last day.”

Looks like this journey just got a bit more rocky.

The Life List

Vacation in Mexico was enjoyable. It was great to be out of NYC and winter weather, even if just for a short time.

Prior to leaving for vacation, I was inspired by one of the newer reality shows on MTV (honestly, I watch most of them…but few of them actually inspire me), the Buried Life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a group of white guys who travel the country in an RV, accomplishing everything they’ve previously decided they want to do before they die. Some people refer to a list of such tasks as a “bucket list” (what you want to do before you “kick the bucket”). I didn’t see the movie by that name and I’m not particularly fond of the whole bucket reference. So while I was inspired by the MTV show, I decided to create my own before-i-die list and call it a “life list.”

I put a lot of thought into my life list while I was in Mexico. And when I returned home, I actually wrote the list on paper. As we all know, once something is written on paper (in ink), it’s official. Official, but not complete. I plan to add to the list as new ideas come up. Perhaps I’ll eventually need to factor another person into these plans or I’ll simply discover brand new dreams. For now, I have 17 tasks on my life list. I figured I’d share a few:

*Meet Oprah Winfrey and respond to a question she asks me. I don’t know many people who would turn down an opportunity to meet Oprah. I thought for many years that at some point she would interview me on her show about something amazing I had accomplished. But now that she has announced this looming 2011 end date, the dream of sitting on that stage has fizzled. She simply isn’t giving me enough time to accomplish that amazing something. So instead, I am willing to settle for a brief encounter, during which she may ask me something as simple as “what time is it?” or “are you the one who slipped past my security?” As long as our meeting consists of Oprah asking me a question and expecting an answer, I will be satisfied.

*Experience genuine, authentic, romantic love. I have said “I love you” in several relationships (okay, four). I believed I was in love each time. But I also knew I was only capable of being in love to the extent that I understood what that meant. And my understanding of love has changed over time. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not sure I’ll recognize the real thing when I experience it. But I can say, with relative confidence, that I have yet to say the ever so important three words with any sort of accuracy or legitimacy. I feel confident that I will one day.

*Drive across the country (in either direction). This is just one of those classic things you have to do at least once. For all the time I spend on planes, one might think I had experienced more of this country. But my domestic travel experience is not so impressive. And since I don’t need to spend tons of time in most of those states in the middle, driving through should be sufficient. Both times I changed coasts (Philly to Oakland then Oakland to Brooklyn), I planned to drive. And both times the plan changed for practical reasons. I would prefer to make the trip under more leisurely, less stressful circumstances anyway. And although taking a vacation alone is another item on my life list, I wouldn’t want the cross country drive to be the alone vacation. I think this one would be best shared.

* Take an international vacation alone. I spend tons of time alone. And fortunately, I enjoy my own company. So that’s not a bad thing at all. But being alone under certain circumstances can become a personal challenge. Eating in a restaurant, going to the movies, buying a house. Big and small things can feel different when you experience them alone versus with another or several others. I have conquered the restaurant and movie thing many times. And I have taken tons of work trips alone that require solo hotel stays and dining. And I even spent a couple of months in Greece, visiting islands and exploring, most of the time by myself (and I was oh so happy to have visitors during that time). But I have never purchased an international flight and hotel with the intention of going on vacation for and by myself. I don’t feel the need to check this one off the list right away. I’m saving it for a time in my life when I will be seeking an opportunity to appreciate the alone time. I’m sure I’ll know that time when it comes. Hopefully the people in my life at that time will understand.

So there’s a sampling of my life list. So far I don’t have anything too off the wall. The list isn’t for shock value or to compete with other list-makers. It’s just for me. The things that will help me make the most of my time here. And since I’m a master at wasting time, I’m pleased the list is written in ink, official, and putting on the pressure.