Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Paying it Backward

Stacy Says It - Paying It Backward - Stacy Snyder
Paying it forward rocks!  You’re in line at the coffee shop or dry cleaner and once you get to the front of the line, you’re told the person in front of you just paid your tab.  It’s so nice that you in turn, give up the cab you’ve been waiting on for twenty minutes to the guy next to you that’s in a huge rush.  He then makes it to his business meeting with ten minutes to spare, so he stops and buys muffins for the receptionist at his company.  She has such a great day that she picks up her kids from after-school-care and walks them immediately to the park for a special treat instead of going right home for homework, dinner, and baths.  The positive thinking of good gives way to more good creates a snowball effect of decency.

Have you ever been the recipient or even the instigator of the opposite, where your bad mood influences others’ or your witnessing another’s temper tantrum prompts a meltdown of your own?  I call it the Pay it Backward effect, where negativity breeds more negativity.  Just as it’s easy to be kinder when someone is unnecessarily kind to you, it’s also easy to perpetuate nastiness when you’ve been offered spite.  

Picture it:  the school talent show, 2012, thirty minutes before curtain call.  Parents had been lining up outside of the auditorium an hour before the doors were even scheduled to open.  Attendance was expected to be at an all-time high.   When the doors were opened to let parents in to get their seats, some folks rushed and others sauntered, but everyone wanted the same thing:  good seats from which to see their child on stage.

A section of seats was set aside in the front of the house for the kids who were performing in the show.  The eight rows were blocked off with tape and marked with signs saying RESERVED.  One front row enthusiast not participating in the show decided to move the tape that was separating the reserved seating so that there was more room for her and her family in the public seating section.  Another excited show goer followed suit by setting up camp in the newly unsaved seats left free for the picking with the caution tape now pushed aside.  

As the auditorium started to fill, one of the upper class stage hands working the show noticed parents sitting in the seats reserved for the performers and went to let them know that they’d have to move.  Some spectators quietly obliged, others dialoged with the 8th grader about how it could have been better marked, but begrudgingly moved to new seats, while another woman plainly stuck her ground and said she wasn’t moving.  The teenager went to get someone higher up, like an adult, who apologized for the confusion and the trouble, but again asked the audience member to move, as without her moving, there were not going to be enough seats for the kids in the show to sit through the two and a half hour performance.  The woman snapped and screamed that it wasn’t her problem that there weren’t enough seats for the kids, as she had been at the school an hour before the show started to get good seats and it wasn’t her fault that the reservation tape had been moved.  She wasn’t going anywhere.

The school representative opted to allow the parents to stay in their seats, leaving now just a few rows of seats for the 75+ kids expecting to sit there.  Without seats in the auditorium, the kids were told to stay in the cafeteria until their numbers were to be performed.  The 34 third graders that I had helped coach for their dance number were slated for the grand finale, so they had hours to burn in the cafeteria, unsupervised, along with the other 40+ kids in the show.  A few moms stayed in the cafeteria with their children, but I opted to take a breather and watch the bulk of the talent show from the audience, determined to check on the kids mid-show.

When I finally did make my way toward the cafeteria, dragging my girlfriend and younger child with me, to wish the kids good luck, the show was three-quarters over and our little dancers were not in the cafeteria.  Two of the mothers, whom I’m assuming had been in the cafeteria with their kids for the bulk of the show, informed us that the kids were in the library watching a movie, as they needed something to keep them busy because they were starting to act up. 

“Sounds good to me,” I thought aloud, as we about-faced and headed toward the library.  

Before we’d made the 180 degree turn, one of the moms yelled after us, “I’m so glad they’re gone!  They were so loud and they were driving us crazy.  They were wild!”

I can only assume that this mom had been stressed being cramped up with all those kids by default for hours and had spoken out of frustration, or nervous energy, without thinking clearly, and not intending to be rude.  I’ve spoken out of frustration myself a few times before…OK, maybe more than a few times.  No harm no foul, right?

“But not your Isabella,” she added as an afterthought, “she was quiet as always.”  Unfortunately, I’m the queen of that too…..over-talking in an attempt to cover the err of my ways.  But trying to perform a take-back while referring to my child with the wrong name, does not a smooth-over make. 

In any event, we headed off to the library to see the kids, wish them luck, and get them rowed up, since I’d assumed they’d been zoned out in a movie for a few hours, and would need to get their groove back before going out to perform a high-energy dance.  The other mom that I’d partnered with to teach the kids the dance number, had them do some jumping jacks, Simon Says, and some practicing of the actual dance to get their blood flowing again.  We kept them in a padded room and as far away from the stage door as possible, so they could continue to build their energy levels while not interfering with what was currently being performed on stage.  

When they were finally instructed to line up outside the stage door immediately before their number, we quieted them down, with me on one side of the stage behind a closed door with half the kids, and my counterpart mom on the other side of the stage behind a closed door with the other half of the kids.  Our little dancers were excited and ready to perform, but did a good job keeping their chatter and nervousness down to a dull roar.  One of the other mothers from a previous act was also standing at the stage door on my side and she did not agree with my synopsis.  She was visibly annoyed and kept shushing the kids, telling them to be quiet, and looking to me to bring them down a notch.  

I thought the kids were behaving acceptably, but I’d give them an obligatory, “keep it down” every 60 seconds or so for the other mom’s peace of mind.  It was not enough to appease her, though, so she kept at the kids about quieting down, then explained to me that noises the kids made in the hallway could be heard on the inside of the auditorium.  I snapped at her that basically, this wasn’t my first rodeo and that we understood the gig.  I then fully cast my now half-mast Mother of the Year award flag to the side, and purposely started trying to get the kids revved up and bouncing off the walls.

That night, after the show was over and all the congratulations were bestowed, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy for my part in keeping the Parents Behaving Badly episode alive and kicking.   Yes, we’re only human.  We are, however, also responsible for recognizing when said humans could have rolled with the punches.  So you didn’t get the best seat in the house…it’s not the end of the world.  The kids didn’t get to watch the talent show, albeit for the third time in one day… big deal.  They were loud and annoying….who cares?   Someone was trying to manage a situation that we had no power over…..big whoop!  Each one of us could have taken some accountability and let the buck stop with us, yet didn’t.  Next time I vow to throw a wrench into the negativity train instead of oiling up the machine.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

We're Only Human

 Stacy Snyder - parentunplugged - We're Only Human - Bobby Knight throwing chair

There is nothing as memorable as that moment in your life where you lose touch of your groomed, proper, and professional responses and bottleneck into an abyss of irrational thought and behavior.  Some people are lucky enough to do it private, behind closed doors, where they are the only witness.  Others, like me, do it in front of someone or a group of some ones.  The least fortunate of us, do it in outright public where many people can see, or worse yet, someone gets it on video.

I’ve always been enthralled by others’ public meltdowns, which probably accounts for the karma involved in me having more than my fair share of my own semi-public unravelings.  I remember my first taste of it came in the form of Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight throwing a chair in anger across the court during a game against Purdue in the 80’s.  As an Eddie Haskell-ish junior high student at the time, I laughed my ass off!  I joked about it for days and could not get enough of the reruns on TV.  While I recognized it as inappropriate, childish and disrespectful behavior, especially for a role model, I moreover appreciated it for its demonstration of man’s lack of perfection.  He wasn’t a God; he was a man with limitations.  It literally represented to me the saying “we’re only human.”

I don’t know if it’s the alter ego of the perfectionist in me coming out to admonish myself for being such a freak of nature for always demanding everything be exactly right that allows me to so thoroughly identify with people who lose it in public or if it’s just an addiction, like being an ambulance chaser, or watching really bad reality TV shows like Mob Wives.  In any case, it’s been a source of wonder and enjoyment for me over the years to see people, not even famous people, just any people, lose their cool in public.  It can be a mother in line at the reception window of the pediatrician office yelling about the wait, or a business-suited pedestrian giving a thoughtless driver the finger and pounding on the hood of the car to show the driver that he has the right of way, or my own toddler throwing a full-on physical temper tantrum over no more candy.  It all provides the same fodder to me….people behaving badly.  It just plain out happens.  Sometimes you just can’t hold it together.  Maybe it was a bad doctor’s report or an unfavorable work performance review or a cheating spouse or a sick child or a $200 traffic ticket or just a shitty day…who knows what events motivate people to act the way they do, but the one thing I do know is that we all tend to lash out from time to time based on how much baggage we’re carrying around with us.  It’s not right, but it does happen and to me, it’s funny.  

One of my favorite recent examples of public breakdown was Chicago Mayoral candidate Carol Moseley Brawn’s televised mayoral forum last year, where in an angry outburst, she accused an opposing candidate of being “strung out on crack” for not noticing her in her twenty years of office.  She DID NOT!  I didn’t just smile or cover my mouth in shock or even giggle.  I had a full-on belly laugh for ten minutes where you can’t control yourself or even attempt to stop…the kind that makes your stomach hurt the rest of the day because you used muscles in your gut that you didn’t even know you had.  Even now, a year and a half later, I don’t even have to watch it on YouTube to remember how it hit my funny bone.  Again, I realize her comment was offensive and unprofessional, yet so insanely hilarious that I just can’t let go of its ridiculousness.  Like Bobby Knight, Carol was forced to take responsibility for her actions by losing face and credibility.   That’s how it goes.  

Having had one of my own “memorable meltdowns” just months before, I could completely empathize with Moseley Braun; I’ve been in her shoes, though on a much smaller scale.  I’ve been in business long enough to have established quite a polished set of acceptable daily verbiage that’s not reserved just for business.  It should be used for everyone, as you never know when your neighbor or yoga partner may become your client, your child’s teacher, or your boss.  However, recent years of being a stay-at-home-mom have dulled my skill set, to put it mildly.  Since most of my daily interactions are on the personal level and rarely breach the professional standing, I’ve lost touch with my aforementioned business communications.

What happened in an altercation two summers ago can only be described as what insurance and warranty companies always refer to as a Force of Nature.  My normal personable, complimentary, yet factual and persuasive style of doing business stroked out to a temporary loss of control over my words and actions.  It was over something trivial, which in my opinion, is always the way it goes down:  some small, insignificant event or conversation that sets people off, which is really just a cover for a whole shitload of pent up anger, or your emotion of choice.

I had rented an apartment in Chicago for my family, after having owned my own home for the previous six years.  We had enjoyed living in the apartment for almost a year when the rent was raised by, what I thought to be, a substantial amount for the upcoming year’s lease.  Having just moved my family across the country less than a year before to this apartment in a new city, I was not stoked about moving again, so thought I’d do some research on the current rental market in the area and use the results to negotiate the rent with the landlord.

The data dictated a new course of action, though, as the going rate for apartments in the area was running a good $400-$500 less per month than we were already paying on the old lease.  We decided not to renew, found a new apartment, and arranged for movers.  I knew the landlord was a stickler for details, so when it came time to have the apartment cleaned, I didn’t even consider hiring a cleaning company as I would usually do in a case like this, as I knew they wouldn’t clean thoroughly enough to appease the landlord.  I decided to do it myself, and I got my family settled into the new apartment and headed out early one morning to clean the vacated apartment rental.  I spent the day cleaning the apartment top to bottom like it was my own home.

When the landlord showed up to do the walk-thru, he complimented me by saying I’d done an incredible job cleaning.  He said there were, however, just a few things to review.  While the list was short and easy to accommodate, I felt the list petty.  I was physically and emotionally tired after moving and cleaning, and when the landlord unintentionally struck a chord with me, it in turn initiated my Fight or Flight response.  The Fight overpowered the Flight and I snapped with the force of a speeding freight train.  I told him he was crazy, a nitpicker, and that all he cared about was money.  I told him he had a shitty reputation on the street, he acted as if his property was the Taj Mahal, but that he treated it like Sanford and Son.  I told him all he ever does is take, take, take and expects everyone else to give, give, give.  I mimicked him, I screamed and cussed at him, and then I mocked him by telling him I’d meet him back same time tomorrow for the white glove test after I took care of his list.  I had literally lost my entire touch with reality.  My rant was probably two minutes in length, and I probably could have kept going for a while longer, had it not been for my family waiting for me in the car downstairs.  The landlord and I sparred with words for a while, but finally the look of shock on his face pulled me back into this stratosphere.  In his eyes I could read his recognition of my craziness.   I had lost my damn mind.

Of course I hyena-laughed for almost an hour that evening at myself because of my ignorant rant.  Just like I laugh at the public mess-ups of others as a way to process our own human fallibility, I also find it soothing to broadcast my own acts of coming undone.  As Wayne would constantly tell Garth, I was forced to “take my Ritalin.” I apologized the next day and the situation blew over.  There’s no doubt, though, that I lost credibility, even if just with one person, for a period of time, if not indefinitely.  There’s also no question, that I lost credibility with myself for a time.  For me, though, an obsessive and sometimes compulsive person, it’s just a wonderful reminder that I’m human and it’s OK.