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To say that I've been in a rut lately would be an understatement. There have been at least five times where I've sat down to write this post and just sat there, wind out of my sails, staring at the blinking cursor on my OneNote, mind wandering to the large jar of almond butter in my desk drawer and how big of an effort it would be to get up to find a spoon. My rut is a mix of writer's block and identity crisis, and it's translated into me trudging through the past couple of weeks basically wearing the same three outfits day in and day out*.

For a few too many weeks, I escaped my rut through chardonnay and (seriously effective) impulse shopping and watching endless strings of Lost episodes on Netflix in dirty leggings. Then I half-heartedly downloaded the Tony Robbins classic, 'Awaken the Giant Within,' to my Kindle in hopes that somewhere deep inside my uninspired, almond butter-filled body there is an amazing, fabulous version of myself who is capable of being so much more than I have been lately.

Although I wish I could tell you that I finished the book and I'm sitting here in my most dazzling outfit, all of my sass fully intact with a new lease on life, the reality is that I've only made it through 35 pages because I can't wake up early enough to read and have been unable to break my string of Lost episodes in the evening. What I'm trying to say is that I'm wallowing, bored, aware that it's all my fault and fully up to me to fix, but I just can't right now. To be honest, I've come to a realization that it's important to let yourself go a bit, to loosen the restraints and loll about for a while.

In the midst of all of this indulgent lollygagging, I have mustered some motivation to make a few changes, and wanted to share them here with you. The first is related to the chardonnay. The second is related to my career. And the third is related to my writing. There are a few reasons I want to share: because I think some of you have similar struggles, because some of you have ideas and wisdom to help, and because it's preoccupying my thoughts and therefore easy to write about.

Change #1: Reclaim my healthiest, most vibrant body

If you've been following along for a while now, you know that being healthy and fit is a priority for me. Yet it's something that's a constant struggle, because, you know, wine and chocolate were invented and "doing cardio exercise" is a seriously, horrifically, terrifyingly awful way to spend 45 minutes. There are a lot of creative strategies that I use (to the dismay of some readers *cough, Jessica's mom, cough*) that work really well for me to balance these competing forces.

Yet there were these nagging little issues building up that I'd been ignoring for a long time. A persistent rash on my face that wouldn't go away. Sores that took way too long to heal. Mood swings and irritability that I'd never experienced before. Fatigue and low energy that led me to have the personality of milk toast by the end of the work week.

Since my dermatologist is basically the only doctor I trust,** I went to go see her and she promptly told me that I had rosacea and signs of chronic inflammation. She prescribed a low-dose antibiotic and gave me the name of someone can only be described as a shaman healer*** who could help me with identifying what was causing all these problems.

So see him I did, give him 11 vials of my blood I did, along with $1,200 of non-reimbursable dollars, and in return was given a list of foods that I was allergic to but eating constantly (like all RICE! And YEAST! And PORK!!!) or rubbing directly on my face (like CUCUMBER!!) as well as a 90-day plan to eliminate dietary causes of inflammation.

You guys, I've been doing it for ~8 weeks now and my problems are COMPLETELY GONE. My skin is as smooth as a baby's butt, my energy levels at an annoying all-time high, and I HAVE A SIX PACK**** for the first time ever because all of this unnecessary flab and bloat has melted off of my body. It's also made me feel strangely powerful and in control of my health and well-being.

If you're having similar symptoms and interested in learning about the blood test and 90-day plan, there's a bonus post on my freebies page for my beloved email list members. (If you're not on the list, but want access, click here to join and I'll send you the link.) WARNING: This bonus post is not for the faint of heart, and has some verrrrrrrry unconventional advice that some people *cough, Jessica's mom, cough* might not want to read.

Change #2: Drive my career with intention and purpose

Have you ever hit a career wall, where you wake up one day and find yourself wondering why you've been doing this job all these years? That happened to me, in almost that exact way. It was after a long period of reflection at the end of my father-in-law's life, where I spent a lot of time considering what qualifies as a fulfilling and purposeful life, and then applied that lens to my own life. And I literally work up one day at 4 o'clock in the morning thinking this exact thought: "I have basically spent my adult life living in a MARRIOTT!! In the panhandle of Florida! In the suburbs of Philadelphia! In Texas and California and Tennessee and other places where my husband, family, friends and dog are NOT!!!" and I could not muster a tangible example of a lasting, important impact that resulted from this investment of my time aside from completed objectives of the projects I'd supported (save for my client BFFs and a strange new skill that I describe as the ability to mentally depart from my body during meetings that are going south).

I realized that I needed to get really clear with myself on a vision for my life's work, and then intentionally drive towards it. So I wrote out the vision I have for my life, in extreme detail, covering everything from where I live to what I do every day. And I've decided to simply say no to things that aren't aligned to this vision, to save myself time and space to do more of those things that matter.

That might sound selfish, but I think it's the opposite. You may have heard that you live your life in moments, and I've started to realize that you have to be intentional about how to spend your moments or they become absorbed in unimportant activities and mindless tasks.

Of course, there's an art to saying no that can occupy an entire post, but it's an absolute necessity to be intentional with your time in order to live the life you want. This little exercise has taught me that what fulfills me has very little to do with my day-to-day responsibilities. It's also not a simple as making the choice between a corporate and creative path. Instead, the things that I love relate to developing others, figuring out how to do something better, more effectively, and doing work that is of value to others.

Change #3: Take my writing seriously, for the first time ever, and forever

Related to point #2 above, I've been making some changes to carve out more space to do the things I love, and am good at, both in my full-time and creative ventures such as writing this here l'il blog.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is this insecurity that it wouldn't be accepted or approved of by colleagues and clients at my full time job because it is so off-the-beaten-path of what I do for a living. So I've kept it a secret, written it under a pseudonym, and have let it grow organically rather than sharing it for fear of judgement. I think that trying  to take parallel creative and corporate paths while overinvesting in one of them has led me to my current rut, where I'm ready to stretch and run with my writing but also in a place where I feel that I have more to lose in my corporate career.

In tandem, I've felt a lot of pressure to define what it is that I'm doing on this blog, to focus it, to "define my niche." But I am just not a person who can be in a niche. In fact, I think it is essential to be able to talk about my thoughts on Siddhartha and whether or not denim culottes are socially acceptable in the same stream of consciousness. So I am letting go of feeling the self-imposed pressure to decide where I am going with my writing or this blog. Because we're going all over the place, folks. Feel free to hitch your wagon.

The End.


*Four if you count my pajamas. And including the leggings in the picture above. It's amazing what a good trench coat can do for an outfit you've been living in for days, amiright?

**Driven by vanity, maybe, but she has the skin of a newborn baby and my other doctors give me dubious, potentially ludicrous diagnoses. For example, my dentist told me I had a "microcavity" (what is THAT?!) and couldn't give me a straight answer when I asked for a black-and-white answer on whether or not I do, in fact, have a cavity.

***Doctor of Wellness and Oriental Medicine

****Only first thing in the morning, when flexing with a tremendous amount of exertion

Oh, hello there. Made it all the way to the end, did you? Do you have any advice for snapping out of a rut? Are you feeling like I'm overdue to give you the chance to opt in for certain topics? Have any additional thoughts on culottes or Siddhartha that you'd like to share? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments. 

Last week, my mom and I escorted my very pregnant sister and brother-in-law out the front door of their home, excitedly taking pictures of the two of them before they departed for a C-section surgery they had scheduled to bring their second child into the world.

Before they left, my mom told them that if they were lucky, this day would be celebrated in 90 years. We quickly calculated that it would be the year 2107, and that we would either be dead or cryogenically frozen somewhere while this baby we had yet to meet would be wrinkled, wobbling around with a cane and probably eating Betty Crocker yellow cake with chocolate icing and a sparse sprinkle of candles in his new Gold Toe socks if our family birthday traditions continue to get passed down.

I thought it was a very circle-of-life thing for mom to say, and then considered how she must be feeling like the largest size of a Russian nesting doll, responsible for producing all of these other people. Then we sat down at my grandmother's old kitchen table that Karen had shipped to San Francisco after she passed, enjoying our coffee and tea, making plans for brunch and laughing about the cold reality that 19-month-old Emily was about to face as her status of center-of-the-Universe, only-child-in-the-world was about to come crashing down around her.

For a long time, I thought that it wouldn't be possible to love another niece or nephew as much as I loved first-born Emily. She was exciting and brought with her a whole round of first experiences for her parents and our family. Over time, she's recognized her celebrity status and has become accustomed to posing for photos basically any time an iPhone is taken out in her presence. She's honed how to charm an audience via FaceTime and has the ability to fake laugh at the appropriate moments amidst an adult discussion. Now that she's able to wobble her way around the house, she's also become the master of her environment and has developed a saucy attitude that garners her the attention and adoration she's grown to love.

Maybe this is the reason I felt compelled to be there for the birth of the second child, to mark the significance of his entry to this Earth despite the fact that there were fewer celebrations, more hand-me-downs and a matter-of-fact efficiency to the pregnancy and birth that comes with the territory of a seasoned mother. I think my need to be there was really just an act of solidarity, to hold him on the first day of his life and welcome him to the fraternity of middle children that I am also a member.

And I did hold him, the first actual newborn I've ever seen, amazed at his tiny body and microscopic fingernails, staring in wonderment that he had hours before been literally inside of my sister's body. He opened his eyes and looked right at me, and I told Karen that he had inherited our earthworm toes while I wiggled them with my pinky finger. I sat with him, quietly studying his little face while my sister and brother-in-law struggled to order a chicken dinner on the hospital TV menu (which, by the way, is incredibly challenging even for two people with multiple graduate degrees between them). It struck me that the last time I'd been in a hospital room was with my dying father-in-law, and how stark of a contrast it was to be sitting with a human being at the onset of his life after just accompanying another through the end.

When Henry's older sister was born, I wrote her a post that listed out some instructions for life. In thinking about what to write for Henry, I realized that he's not going to need those instructions, because he'll learn them all from watching Emily. Instead, I decided to write him a list articulating the top ten advantages in life he has thanks to his birth order that I've learned through experience. Here it is for your reading pleasure:

Ten Reasons Why Being a Middle Child Is The Best

  1. You'll always have someone to support you - a built-in tutor to help you with your math homework, counselor for when you're having a problem you can't solve on your own, personal assistant to remind you that it's your mother's birthday, and partner-in-crime for when your parents are being crazy and no one else could possibly understand [Note to Henry: your mom still texts all her siblings to remind us to call our mom on Mother's Day. Annoying, yes, but necessary for some of us.]
  2. Building on the above point, you will never be the first to do the scary things in life like graduating from college, getting a job, etc. Which by default will make you seem tough and brave. [Note to Henry: watching your mom do all of these things before me gave me an insider look and a boost of confidence that I could handle it (including terrifying major life decisions like moving across the country alone, getting married, having a baby, etc.).]
  3. Because the oldest child will automatically be the perfectionist, responsible people-pleaser, you'll be free to be yourself and become a true original in tune with what sets you apart in the world. Because you don't have to worry about people-pleasing, you'll develop a thick skin and learn to care only about the feedback that matters.
  4. You will be smarter than your siblings, because you'll learn everything they know and observe and avoid their mistakes in addition to learning from your own experiences. [Note to Henry: be sure to pick Emily's brain, often, because that's where you'll find almost all your best tricks and shortcuts. Copying your mom was hands-down one of my smartest moves in life.]
  5. Nothing will ever be completely and totally your fault, since there will always be a shadow of doubt when there are multiple potential culprits. So go ahead and live a little. Break the rules, often. They'll never know for sure that it was you...
  6. Sharing the attention of your parents means that you'll learn to do things to please yourself. You'll be more independent and free to do things by yourself, for yourself - and you'll be happier and have more fun without the pressure.
  7. Having an older sibling trying to boss you around all the time will help you develop a healthy disrespect for authority that will later translate into high level executive functioning. [Note to Henry: you can thank Emily for your ability to remain calm and cool in stressful situations, effectively bargain and negotiate, handle confrontation, and think strategically about how to overcome obstacles. Your mom and other aunts and uncles helped me to develop these abilities that went unappreciated until I started my corporate career.]
  8. Although Emily may get privileges that come with being the oldest, such as accomplishing all of the "firsts" of the family, you will develop the ability to think outside of the box and take a more creative approach to your life. You will push yourself to do things differently, just to set yourself apart. As Stephen Richards so wisely put it, "If you do what everyone else does, you'll get what everyone else has."
  9. Your ability to fly under the radar will serve you well in many areas of life, especially during group chores like yard work and at certain family gatherings. [Note to Henry: when you're old enough, I'll give you the rundown on how I used this to avoid eating my peas and other dinner foods not to my liking, reprimands from my dad, etc.]
  10. Any time you succeed, you will get exponentially more attention and celebration because it will come as a surprise to everyone. It might take a little longer for the world to notice your latent genius, but that will make it all the more satisfying.

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I'm pretty sure the impact of birth order on personality development is a real thing and I truly hope that Henry develops the same middle child syndrome that I benefited from in life. As Procter & Gamble put it with their famed diaper slogan, "Live, learn and get Luv's," middle children really do have it better, that despite the tempered enthusiasm, hand-me-downs and bargain diapers, they get the invaluable benefit of experience. So Henry, welcome to the club. Enjoy Emily's used toys and if you ever forget how good you have it, give me a call and I tell you about all the wonderful things about my life that wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for your mom preceding me in life.

If you made it to the end of this post, hello and thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic and any words of wisdom for the newest member of the exclusive club of Middle Children.

P.S. Sorry I've been M.I.A. and neglecting this blog. Have been making some big changes in life that are stressful in a good way. Also have been simultaneously wallowing in a creative rut that I cannot shake no matter how many Tony Robbins books I read, spending more of my free time than I care to admit watching endless episodes of Lost with my husband (I realize the irony in that statement…), consuming Costco-sized bags of SkinnyPop and wearing leggings as pants. Send help.

We'd wait to eat dinner until my dad got home, setting the table and expectantly waiting for my mom to round us all up in the car to pick him up from the train. Our table was giant, a special order to comfortably seat six kids, two parents and handle the wear-and-tear that comes with years of family dinners, dyeing Easter eggs, carving pumpkins, baking cookies, painting and gluing and glittering things on to construction paper, and even occasionally being climbed on by a sleepwalking child.

After he'd washed his face and changed out of his suit, we'd take our reserved seats at the table, my dad at the head, mine two seats to the right, flanked by my little brother and rotating-favorite sister and directly across from the patio door, which had a tiny Gumby and Pokey standing on the frame to test the observational skills of newcomers to our dinner parties. We'd always say grace a few minutes into the meal, some of us out-of-sync in order to be technically correct in thanking the Lord for that which we had already received. Participation in dinner conversation was mandatory at our house, a lively round-the-table report-out of the day that tended to deteriorate into a number of scenarios, commonly starting with a diatribe against "the liberal Left," occasionally devolving into a tearful breakdown by my not-to-be-named, less-talkative sister when put on the spot to offer her opinion, sometimes extending for hours to allow time for an ungrateful child to finish his peas, and infamously involving a few head-to-head battles that could only be resolved by bringing the dictionary, atlas or encyclopedia to the table.

My mom cooked every night, unimpressive to me at the time and which now strikes me as incredible, seeing as I have no children of my own and a frequent nightly habit of frantically texting with my husband about how to feed ourselves, usually culminating in a Thai takeout order.

After dinner, my siblings and I would embark on our bumbling group project of cleaning the kitchen. As group projects go, some pulled more weight than others. (I will admit to pushing a wet rag over the surface of the table for many minutes longer than necessary to avoid being the one having to sweep the floor.) It was a serious job that ended with an inspection by a thankless, detail-oriented man who had no problem rearranging the dishwasher or demanding a re-sweep of a still-dirty floor, seemingly unconcerned by the self-assessed exhausted and overworked children standing before him in defeat.

We'd then disperse to our rooms, Karen and I in the front, Patty and Meghan next door and my brothers to the luxury of their own separate rooms (or to the makeshift basement computer lab, where my brother would take apart, lay in pieces on the carpet, and then successfully put back together our family desktop for no apparent reason other than to prove he could). The hallway that connected our bedrooms was filled with family photos and mementos that remind me of my mom, Catholic figurines and framed artwork that I'd made in third grade. My sisters and I shared a giant, communal bathroom with a double vanity that was always littered with Neutrogena and Chapstick. We unquestioningly respected our agreed-upon shower schedule for survival purposes (a stark contrast to our no-sharing-clothes contract). 

Significant square footage of our house was reserved exclusively for my parents, decorated with our baby pictures but not welcoming of our presence. We were invited into their bedroom or office only when we'd done something wrong, or had a genuine need for a private conversation (which did not include inter-sibling disputes unless they involved blood or fire). The dining and living rooms were invite-only, and it was usually just Karen who made it to the adult table during the parties and get-togethers my parents threw often. My most potent memory of time spent in the living room was the night I got engaged, sitting in there with my sisters and my parents, crying and laughing and drinking too much wine in front of the fireplace, welcoming Wes into the fold.

At our house, Tostitos were a food group, Christmas decorating a sport, and Sunday mass mandatory. The acre of yardage was meticulously maintained on a weekly Saturday morning schedule by my disciplined dad and his crew of free and somewhat unreliable laborers. On lazy weekends and summer days off, my grandma would come over with a coffee cake and we'd have hours-long brunches that lasted until the second pot of coffee ran out.

My parents worked with an architect to design the house to the exact specifications they needed for their large and uncontemporary family (including one design flaw which they learned about twenty years later when we explained how we used the basement stairs into the garage to sneak out past curfew). It was their dream house that they'd saved for years to build so their small children would have the space to grow up, to be the backdrop for all of our childhood experiences and family memories. They built it when I was in second grade, and I remember visiting it one night with my dad right before they finished construction. The base cabinets had just been installed, and he lifted me up to sit inside the cavity where they were putting a wall oven. It's funny to flash forward from that vantage point and moment in time, remembering everything that would happen in that soon-to-be-finished house. The day we moved in, my youngest brother cried and later told everyone that he would be painting his room black and sharing it with my mom.

Every time I walk in the door, I revert back into the 17-year-old who'd last lived there, my stress melting away in the comforting familiarity and sense of security that comes with it. My parents sold the house today, downsizing to a place perfect for spending the warm Chicago months in retirement. It's just a house, and that cheesy saying about home being where the heart is and all that stuff is all true. But I was surprised how sentimental I was at saying goodbye to the place that served our family for decades, and how much I wanted to set down roots and buy my own home with Wes when my parents told us they were selling it.

As my childhood home was renovated and staged for sale, Wes and I did buy our own place. It's taken on a life of its own, becoming the new family gathering spot and the place where we gather to eat Tostitos and drink cheap wine and have brunches that never end. It's a work-in-progress that I've been focused on designing and improving, forgetting that there's much more involved in making it a home than what meets the eye. A few weeks ago, I did a little DIY video tour of our progress on it to post here on this blog, but revisiting that video today, I realized that there's some Catholic paraphernalia, family photos and children's artwork missing that needs to be addressed in the coming months and years in order to give this place the kind of character and personality I grew up with on Garfield Avenue and didn't fully appreciate until today. More to come on that...

Ok, that's all I have. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, especially if you felt the same when your parents sold the place you grew up.

P.S. If you want to see the video or just hear what my voice sounds like after reading my typing for hours on end in your time following this blog, I've posted it on my downloads page for your viewing pleasure. (If you're on my email list, you can access it via the link at the end of my last newsletter. If you're not on the list and want to see it, you can join here for access.)

P.P.S. I know, a couple of sappy posts in a row. Thanks for staying with me. Something fluffy and fashionable coming soon... and I promise to set up a reader preferences survey as soon as I figure out how to do it, so you can choose which topics you care to receive!

He looked like one of those wax figures at Madame Tussauds, where the cloned bone structure and lifelike features could fool you if not betrayed by a peculiar yellow skin tone. Aside from the slight puffs of air that escaped from his lips, my warm, witty, larger-than-life father-in-law was nothing more than a shell of a human being.

We held vigil at his bedside in hospice in the days leading to the end, watching him wither away, placing our hands on his chest, feeling every single one of his rib bones beneath the thin blanket. I held my husband's hands and his father's limp, lifeless fingers as we timed the pauses between his breaths. Waiting with eerie expectation for the moment he would finally slip away and leave behind the scarred, worn-out body that carried him for 70 years, a lifetime of memories spread over generations of family and friends, and a ghost of a future filled with grandchildren he'd never meet, family trips he'd miss, Thanksgivings and Christmases he wouldn't attend and a retirement spent traveling the world with the love of his life that he'd never enjoy.

We knew the end was coming for months, a steady decline with chemotherapy being the last bleak hope of an upswing that never came. My husband, an only child, left his job in January to go back and forth to North Carolina to be with his dad, knowing that their days together were numbered. Wes had a complicated relationship with his father, made more so as he watched his mother transform into a primary caregiver, shuttling his father to doctor's appointments, carrying him and his wheelchair and his anger, holding and feeding and rescuing and counseling her thankless charge, administering medication to her unwilling patient while losing part of herself in the process. My husband and his mother had watched helplessly for years as the rock of their family lost himself, his mind, his ability to walk, and finally, his will to live. It was messy, marked with daily battles and marred with regrets on all sides. The end was a mix of acute sadness at the loss of the man who once was, and a dull relief to surrender the human being who took his place.

How the value of a life is determined

My father-in-law, the man who once was, can only be described as a character, the kind of man who went through the trials and suffering required to have such strength of soul, clarity of vision, and inspired ambition. He was adored as a true original, a salt-of-the-earth pragmatist and a scrappy, self-made multimillionaire who built several businesses in Los Angeles using his Southern accent as an asset in negotiations with what he referred to as "slicks" (which we interpreted to mean "businessmen in expensive suits"). He used his quick wit, common sense, sound judgement and ability to outwork anyone, anywhere, at any time to his advantage. I could spend paragraphs describing his shrewd ventures and dogged determination to succeed, but in the end, all who knew him described the value of his life in terms of service: to the United States Navy, to his friends, family, employees and customers, and to the son he adopted and raised as his own. In the context of this service, his humility, sense of humor and unusual intelligence set him apart.

He taught me skills I'll use for life - like how to service a car engine and change a light fixture - but the biggest gift he gave me was his practical wisdom, shared in tidbits over the past seven years we’ve known each other.

I wish he'd have stuck around long enough to tell his future grandchildren that it's a gift to be underestimated, because your competitors will never see you coming; that there's no need to rush, because you've got the rest of your life to get where you're going; that becoming successful requires you to do things no one else will, because if it were easy everyone would be doing it. I wish he'd have stayed here a little longer so I could tell him how much he inspired me with his strong sense of self and conviction that everyone is a Jeff Gordon fan even if they don't know it yet; his utter disregard for popular opinion, his deep belief in the power of a dissenting voice, and his passive resistance against waste and abuse in government; his abhorrence of pretentiousness and associated love of Sutter Home Sweet Red; his dichotomous personality, including his penchant for wearing a $15,000 Rolex with Carhartt coveralls, work boots, women's reading glasses, and an ancient cell phone on a lanyard around his neck; his mental shortcuts that Wes and I will forever quote, including referring to all women whose names he could not recall as "Petunia" (as in, "I saw Petunia from the school board in line at the bank") and referring to all persons whose competence may be in question as "Nematodes" (as in, "Let me tell you what that Nematode married to Petunia from the school board did this time"); and his joyous, boisterous bouts of laughter and genuine love of all people (minus the aforementioned slicks and nematodes, of course).

What death tells us about how to live our lives

He passed away on Saturday, after a years-long struggle with an illness that not only ended his life but absorbed what they say is supposed to be the best years of it. Sitting next to his bed in his final days, it struck me how we exit the world in much the same way that we enter it, surrounded by friends and family in waiting, anticipating the brief presence of some higher being that both gives and takes away life, focused on the potential and value of the life in question. In death, we recognize our own mortality and it brings into sharp focus what we should be doing with each day we're given, making us conscious of the fact that we're not guaranteed another one. If there's any silver lining to an early death like that of my father-in-law, it's the salient reminder to those left behind on why we're all here. Whether you believe in God, or Universal Intelligence, or simply feel that there must be something beyond this life, we're all judged in the end not by our worldly accomplishments or what we may pride ourselves on, but by how we've touched and served others. Someone who my father-in-law deeply touched left a beautiful note on his obituary with a quote that I think says it best: 

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" - Clarence the Angel, It's a Wonderful Life.

I think that awful hole is related to the meaning of life. It's a concept that I've been struggling to define for myself recently, after coming to the stark realization that I've allowed years of my time and attention to be absorbed without taking a step back to examine what it's all for, anyway. If evidenced by nothing other than reflections on my father-in-law's life with the people who knew and loved him, the key to a meaningful and fulfilling life is directly related to how you've channeled your talents and abilities to make the world a better place. There's a quote jotted in one of my journals, captured when I was first starting out in my post-college life. It found me today during a hunt through memory boxes for photos of my father-in-law, inviting itself to be added to this post for it's perfect articulation of the criteria for evaluating a life:

"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Although the last years of his life were blemished with the heartache, regret and grief that accompany a protracted decline, my father-in-law was a living expression of joy and kindness who left all those who came to him better and happier. (In particular, a 24-year-old girl who will never forget how she was wholeheartedly accepted by him the moment they met, despite her being the daughter of a slick Yankee Catholic lawyer and having a dubious appreciation for Nascar and Southern cuisine.) His legacy lives with those of us left behind, especially in his only son Wes, who has more of his father in him than he knows. My husband and I have our work cut out for us to honor the life of this man, to follow his footsteps in fostering, adopting and loving unconditionally a child in need of a family; to listen to his guidance and use it to build something of importance and significance; and to internalize his wisdom and teach our future children everything they will need to learn from the life of their imperfect, incredible Grandpa Walt. 

How to define the purpose of your life

My father-in-law's final lesson, shared through his death and the gaping hole he left, was the importance of living a purposeful life: to define what makes you unique and what you're naturally good at, to seek ways to use it to help others, and to strive to be the best version of yourself every day. Easier said than done, of course, as it wouldn't be a worthy venture otherwise. There's a little prayer that I say when I feel lost on that purpose, and thought you might find it to be a helpful reflection whether you believe in God, Universal Intelligence or something else bigger than ourselves:

"What would you have me do? Where would you have me go? Who would you have me be?" 

Somewhere deep down, you probably already know the answers to these questions. Because of my father-in-law's example, I'm convinced that figuring out those answers and finding the courage to act on them will lead us to live purposeful, fulfilling lives; to use whatever challenges life throws at us to develop strength of soul, clarity of vision and determined ambition; and to help us to be the best versions of our unique selves to serve the world in our own way.

To my father-in-law, who among everything noted above also made sure to tell me he loved me every chance he had; who started calling me "Annie Oakley" instead of "Darling" after teaching me to shoot targets fashioned out of rival Democrat campaign signs; who raised my incredible husband and gave him a sound work ethic, strong character and a side-splitting sense of humor (and bragged about him behind his back to keep him humble); who married and loved deeply an extraordinary, intelligent and virtuous woman who reciprocated his love until the end, quietly and nobly honoring her marriage vows as they relate to sickness and health, even when it seemed futile and impossibly strenuous to continue; who we'd hoped would grace us with his company, his laughter, his stories and his wisdom for the next 20 to 30 years of our lives: I forgive you for leaving so soon. I'm sorry I didn't call more often, visit more often, and sit through the races with you more often. I love you more than you will ever know. We will miss you forever.

If you've made it this far, thank you for reading and I hope you took something away from this post (even if only a newfound love of the name Petunia). I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

One thing that really gets under my dad's skin is wedding toasts. Granted, the man has a lot of pet peeves, but this one is so true. Your typical wedding toast goes something along the lines of this: "Sam and Sally's relationship is so amazing, their love is so rare, she is his perfect match, he falls all over himself to do anything she wants, they are blissful 24/7 and being in their presence depresses me because it reminds me that I'll never find anything that can possibly compare." This brand of wedding toast is based on the premise that no one in the entire room has ever felt love before, assuming that 200+ guests are all just a bunch of miserable old farts who hate their lives and wish they could be like Sam and Sally but they can't so they'll drop a $500 check in the glittery box on their way out in hopes that the next generation might be able to do it better.

To me, the cheesy wedding toast perfectly encapsulates how our culture treats the topic of love. Like it's a special magical golden unicorn that only the truly lucky can find. The reality is that anyone can fall in love and it's not really that special (see 'Teen Mom,' 'Brangelina,' and 'Conscious Uncoupling'). Staying in love, however, is a true skill. Putting two fully functional adults into a scenario where they are perma-roommates with vastly different interpretations when one of them says something such as "we need to clean our home" or "want to watch an awesome movie" or "give me 5 minutes" is really a perfect formula for the kind of head-butting that you can't possibly imagine while enacting the cliché of stuffing overpriced cake into each other's faces and haphazardly kissing it off in a haze of bliss.

This is why we are all so deeply touched when we see a couple of octogenarians slowly shuffling around in the park holding hands. "How have they kept it alive all these years?" we ask ourselves in wonderment, suddenly acutely aware of the text message we sent to our true love about his insulting suggestion of Chinese takeout for dinner when he knows full well that we've written off chicken fried rice for life. We don't assume that they're hot and heavy because they just met at Bingo night at the nursing home, because we understand that the kind of love that overcomes decades worth of trials and tribulations is at once aspirational and achievable.

It's aspirational because we know that it's the real, genuine, and hard-won thing that everyone wants to have at the end of life. I want my old, bald, bag o' bones husband there with me on that park bench in 60 years and I can't even explain why sometimes other than the deep belief that life is better when shared with someone who knows you inside and out and can make you laugh harder than anyone. It's achievable because somewhere deep inside our souls, we know that it is completely within our power to build that kind of marriage despite what the next several decades may present.

Why it's hard to stay in love for the long haul

Have you ever heard the saying that love is a verb, not a noun? It's so true. Although it's easier to think of love as something abstract and out of our control, derived from unique chemistry shared between two people, it's actually much less complicated. In reality, love is a culmination of choices, actions and habits that are sometimes profoundly easy to do, and other times extremely difficult (such as when you are deeply annoyed by the way the dishwasher has been loaded). Those actions and habits inspire the feeling of love, but the feeling in and of itself means nothing when not backed by the choices themselves. It is my firm belief that anyone married more than a few months has learned that there is a very thin line between loving and loathing your spouse, and the deeper you love someone the higher the propensity you have to throw things when angry.

For me personally, it was a painful process to learn this in my own marriage. I'm convinced our first year was a challenge because I was benchmarking my relationship with Wes against an impossible cultural standard, and it took time to learn that the golden unicorn of a picture-perfect marriage like Sam and Sally's wedding toast didn't actually exist. In fact, I'm pretty sure anyone who claims to have a perfect relationship is just married to a bad communicator who deeply detests them. (Sorry.)

What you can do to keep the love alive

They say no marriage is alike, but based on my research (ahem, late night Googling…) there are some common truths to making the love last that are well within our reach. A lot of it is good old fashioned, somewhat antifeminist Mom advice. Most of it is basically just reminding yourself to stop being crazy. (Which we all are, by the way.) All of it is about how the quality of our relationship is 100% within our control, despite what we would rather believe.

If you're interested in the best-of-the-best of what the interwebs and my mom's friends have to offer on making love last, please join my email list for access to a bonus post on 8 tried and true tactics for making love last. It covers the basic rules of happy marriages and some delightful anecdotes that you may or may not find entertaining, but will likely make you feel less alone in the world when you inevitably find yourself seething in your car over something you logically understand is utterly stupid but emotionally CAN.NOT.DEAL. (We've all been there.)

Ok, that's all I've got. It was a little risky to write this, mostly because I kept having this nagging little thought in the back of my mind that maybe those marriages of sunshine and rainbows we see all over social media are actually the real deal and it's really just Wes and me who can't get our act together. But according to surveys of my mom and her gaggle of girlfriends, and most of my married friends and colleagues who answer my probing personal questions, they're not real and our struggles are the same.

Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts on this post in the comments!

P.S. If you liked this post, you'd probably like this one on what nobody tells you about marriage, and this one with instructions for living a good life.

P.P.S. Yes, I am still asking for your email address. Just like when people don't really want to be my friend in real life, they eventually break at my merciless persistence. If you've been reading this blog for awhile and reluctant to sign up, it's only a matter of time so you might as well just cough it up now. (I promise you won't regret it.*)

(*You can always unsubscribe if you do.)

Last week, a group of low income students visited my consulting firm to participate in a day-long business skills program. I hadn't met the other volunteer coaches before, and was impressed by a junior staff member who kicked off the program by addressing the room with the poise and perfectly tailored outfit of a seasoned partner.

As the day progressed, that same consultant was called to present to the group again - and it was only then that I was surprised to learn that she wasn't a colleague, but one of the students who had come for the coaching! She told the group about her challenged family background, her struggle to balance supporting herself on a low wage job and attend classes part-time at a community college, and how one organization opened doors for her that she hadn't thought possible. 

The organization was Dress for Success, a nonprofit you may have heard about before. They hooked her up with a suit (complete with heels and a bag) and two weeks of professional outfits that enabled her to land not only an interview and ultimately a position that lined up with her professional interests, but the confidence to show up at that job every day looking the part.

It's easy to forget the impact that our appearance has on those around us, and I'm grateful to that sharp young woman for reminding me and inspiring this post.

"How you do anything is how you do everything" - a wise person, who was not wise enough to copyright this statement

Have you ever heard that quote before? It's one that I think perfectly articulates why "dressing for success" matters in the workplace. There are some fundamental behaviors and characteristics that translate into success for any job, in the history of all jobs. These are the things that your parents were attempting to instill in you when they made you brush your teeth, go to church, do yard work and practice the piano - activities that require conscientiousness, discipline, and attention to detail. These 'success factors' are simply habits that we develop in our personal lives, and they tend to dictate how we approach literally everything we do - including our work.

Whether you like it or not, others tend to determine whether you've got those successful habits locked down by evaluating your outward appearance. The image you choose to portray expresses a little bit about who you are, what you care about and pay attention to, and how you approach life - in essence, how you approach everything.

If you're disciplined, conscientious and detail-oriented, you likely have a good routine down for taking care of yourself and your well-being and regularly invest time and resources into how you present yourself to the world. This translates into a healthy, rested person who's taken time to do her hair and makeup, invested in quality clothing that fits well, and feels good about herself and her abilities to do other things, too.

If you work a full-time job, approximately 70% of your decisions about how you choose to present yourself are for work. Paradoxically, it's the area where many of us struggle for a few reasons:

  • Dress codes can be hard to interpret, especially for women: even if your company claims to embrace a specific dress code (business formal, business casual, creative, etc.), it's important to figure out how to interpret that particular dress code in the way that works for your company's culture and for your personal style.
  • Closets and bathrooms usually present an overwhelming amount of choices that we are not prepared to make at 6 o'clock in the morning: rummaging through dresses, trying to remember if we picked up our favorite pants at the dry cleaners, and staring at our bedhead in the bathroom mirror without a plan for wrangling it into submission eats up valuable time and leads us to be late and look harried.
  • Work days tend to be treated as something to suffer through, rather than embrace and enjoy: hitting the snooze button on your alarm five times, dreading the day, and allowing yourself to indulge in a negative mindset about how much is on your plate, how frustrating your co-workers are, or what you'd rather be doing saps energy, lowers self-esteem and demotivates you from doing the necessary things to be successful.

Even if you've got some work to do on your own personal habits, it's easy to overcome the daily conundrum of getting ready for work with a little bit of thought and planning. Understanding your dress code, organizing your closet and bathroom to support a streamlined morning routine, and re-thinking your workday as a gift rather than insufferable torture are the basic steps to showing up at work every day looking, feeling and performing at your absolute best.

My 80% travel requirement for work has helped me to refine the art of getting ready, and doing it as efficiently as possible. It has required me to learn how to quickly assess and understand the culture and dress codes of my various clients, plan (and pack) my outfits ahead of time, and find ways to get excited about my work and show up as my best self even on days when it's easy to feel stressed, exhausted and negative. Although there are still days when I forget my own rules and struggle to get out the door, refining a system has truly helped me to build a work wardrobe - and a daily routine - that truly works for me.

You may have already mastered the art of getting ready for work, so if that is the case I salute you and hope you'll leave some of your habit-building and time-saving tips in the comments. If you're one of the many of us still struggling in this area, I've put together a short guide (really, more of a bonus post) to dressing for success that includes:
  • How to interpret your company's dress code - and the key pieces you need to dress for it
  • How to organize your closet and bathroom to get you out the door faster every morning
  • How to establish a successful mindset every morning to perform at your best

If you're interested in my 7 Step Guide to Dressing for Success, join my email list for access!

P.S. Current members of my Rolodex, I so appreciate you! You can access this guide at the same link, or just sit tight and I'll be sending it out to all of you with my next email update.

P.P.S. You may have noticed that I've started a little campaign to collect all your emails. This is because I secretly want to drop off all social media one day and need to be able to reach you from my cave.

P.P.P.S. Can I just say that Dress for Success, the actual organization, is amazing? I think we should all figure out how to give a little bit of our cool, overflowing closets to help them help others. And at the same time absolve ourselves of guilt over poor past purchasing decisions.

Ok, end of post scripts... would love to hear your thoughts on some of the challenges you've had (or seen others struggle with) when it comes to this topic!

Before diving in to this post, I'd like to acknowledge that the American media and general public are currently in the throes of the Comey testimony and the timing of this topic is not a coincidence. If you're anything like me, you've probably had a building sense of exhaustion at the news cycle and may share my growing outrage that we've allowed the attention of our entire nation to be directed to tweetable stories, at the cost of enabling (and maybe even encouraging) glaring leadership failures. Such as collectively freaking out about allegations of Russian hackers interfering in our election, meanwhile allowing the leader of one of our most critical federal agencies with access to the most highly classified information to intentionally feed salacious information to the media before and after the most contentious election in recent history. (Remember how he decided to go ahead and tell everyone that he found some more Hillary emails just days before voting? And we're focused on Siberian teenagers with virus-ridden desktop computers from the '90s.)

That said, this post has been forming in my mind for months about how our media has officially parted ways from the hallmarks of journalism that have served the American public throughout the course of our history - and none of us are recognizing the problem, thinking for ourselves, or doing anything about it. (In short, this post is basically a sales pitch to bring critical thinking skills back in style.)

A friendly reminder on the role of the news media

My favorite professor in college was a former Washington Post journalist who was "old school" in every sense of the phrase but most notably in his strict adherence to the fundamentals of the science of reporting. His class was twice a week at 9 o'clock in the morning, the crack of dawn for a 20-year-old who lived on the opposite side of campus. 

He required each of us to come to every class with a compilation of five grammatical, spelling, reporting or AP Style mistakes from national publications with the current date. This meant that I spent every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m. poring through the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal with a fine toothed comb. All 15 students came to class each morning with a neat package of that day's failings of the journalism industry and left that semester with a habitual, spasmodic ability to spot errors (to the detriment of our future spouses and direct reports... see meme below).

We also came to abhor and judge reporters who broke the fundamental public trust of the trade by editorializing, inserting their own opinions, using unnamed sources, or failing to investigate alternate viewpoints to offer a balanced and fact-based story. Our professor taught us that words matter, because they incite thoughts, beliefs and actions - and a reporter's job was to present the facts in a way that enabled the reader to think critically about the story and come to his or her own opinion.

Fairness and accuracy are the foundations of ethical journalism, meaning that stories must be written with facts and balanced perspectives. Journalists are ethically bound to honor their duty to the public by reporting the truth, acting independently, providing transparency, and omitting their own biases to put the principles that guide their work first.

Why the role of the news media as a public servant is gone

That same professor is the reason that I never took a job in journalism, despite my love of writing and annoying yet uncontrollable penchant for striking up conversations with strangers. On the last day of class, he stood before us and pronounced that newspapers were dead. "Media is changing rapidly," he explained, "and transforming how information will be collected, reported and shared in the future." He made us promise to protect the fundamentals we learned in his class regardless of what our work would look like in the future. (Instead, I opted out and went down the road of corporate communications which has conveniently enabled me to pontificate on this subject from the point-of-view of a detached outsider.)

As my wise professor predicted, journalism has been transformed by social media to a point where it's almost unrecognizable. Real-time updates are shared online before there could possibly be time to check the facts. Anonymous phone calls and Facebook posts have become cited sources. Dubious and shabbily reported stories go viral on Twitter and YouTube. And the American public eats it all up without stopping to think about what it is they're hearing and subsequently believing. The majority of our news industry has transformed from one that used to encourage opinions and healthy debate, into one that discourages any perspective that represents a diversion from the court of public opinion. 

I think the shift in how money is made when it comes to sharing information has got to be one of the primary drivers of the decline in trustworthy reporting: newspapers used to sell information to audiences, and today media outlets sell audiences to companies. The problem with this shift is that facts and balanced perspectives don't win likes, shares, comments and follows on social media. Organizations that develop and distribute "news" are incentivized to do things that grow their audience, meaning that driving user engagement takes the place of adhering to the fundamental ethics of journalism. It no longer matters if the information is true, but if it is popular.

How this is dangerous for all of us 

We all know what catching our attention looks like. Our feeble human brains are wired for survival, meaning that we enthusiastically tune in to shocking information that either a. threatens our lives (e.g., natural disasters, terrorism, the great debate on eggs and heart attacks, etc.); b. threatens our identities (e.g., opinions on education, family and relationship norms, politics, whether or not there is life on Mars, etc.); c. feeds our voyeuristic urge to watch disasters happen to others (e.g., the Bachelorette, 15-car-pileups on the highway, coverage of Kim Kardashian's attack in Paris, etc.); or d. is purely entertaining. 

So here we are in a time where popular opinion has replaced truth, retweeting puppy videos and consuming snippets of Comey's testimony that relate to Russian hackers electing the president and blabbing about our poorly structured thoughts on the matter to all of our equally uninformed yet strongly opinionated friends and colleagues. (I think you get the idea.) Amidst all this chaos and distraction, there is still a government collecting our taxes and waging wars and making decisions on our behalf that affect our country, our lives, our children's lives and we don't have any reliable insight into what is actually happening nor do we really seem all that interested anyway.  

What you can do to be better informed

So what to do about this in the event you've made it this far in the post and haven't been distracted by a gif of a cat hanging from a ceiling fan? I suggest you shrug your shoulders, sigh, and turn on House of Cards to temporarily placate your utter despair at your powerlessness. Just kidding, of course. I've been trying to answer this question myself for a while, and decided to do a few things to better educate myself and take a more proactive approach to staying informed. The most important of which has been cutting out any publication that violates the fundamental principles and ethics I learned in my college journalism classes (looking at you and your "anonymous sources," CNN) and reading all information with a critical lens.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind that can help you to identify better and more trustworthy information sources…

#1 Actively consume information with a lens of balance, asking yourself two key questions while you're listening or reading:

  • Can I tell what the reporter personally thinks about this story or situation?
  • Can I understand at least one other point of view in this story?  

If I can't answer "no" to the first bullet, and "yes" to the second, I tend to disregard as unbalanced and poorly reported.

#2 Apply doubt to everything you hear, listening for the facts

This is the good old "prove it" tactic that you already use on a daily basis when people are trying to sell you on something. A healthy dose of doubt never hurt anyone and in fact probably helped you to invest in better anti-aging creams and index funds. Might as well apply the same principles to what you allow to take hold in your mind, right?

#3 Consider the source

A time tested tactic that should never have gone out of style. Trustworthy sources of information are independent, meaning that there is nothing influencing the information other than the desire to present the facts in a balanced way. When newspapers first came online, they offered subscriptions to access content in order to enable them to remain independent. This tactic was criticized, but it's allowed the ones that stuck to their guns to continue to hold themselves to the highest standards. This model relies on viewers to value independence, and be willing to pay for it to be better educated. Which is something I'm realizing is well worth the cost.

Ok, that's the end of my rant. I'm a believer that if you complain about something, you take on responsibility for helping to fix it, so I hope that this tirade did something for you. If you took something away from this, or have thoughts on the topic, please leave me a comment, shoot me an email, or share this post.