Live to Laugh

live to laugh
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, cropped & text added

Last night I watched Amy Schumer crush it in her Saturday Night Live opening monologue. It was a reminder to not take myself so seriously gilded in a series of carefully crafted jokes about baby butts, politics, celebrity obsession, gender roles, and self-image—an eight-minute reflection of gnarly social commentary delivered with a uniquely jaded innocence. We all have issues; some of us have a knack for making them seem hilarious.


The truth will set you free. —John 8:32


Over the last few years I have become infatuated with stand-up comedy—with each comic and his/her unique delivery, choices in subject matter, and willingness to push buttons to illicit the healing power of laughter. More than anything, I am drawn to their brutal honesty. Comedians say the things we are not willing to admit for fear of judgment and ridicule, our own and others’.

Throughout history society has relied on the jester to tell the truth. In the king’s court these clowns were permitted to mock royalty without losing their heads. In the guise of comedy we too can face the ugliest parts of ourselves and laugh at the ridiculous predicaments and subtle deceptions of being human.


As an example, I have been out of bed just ten minutes this morning and I am already subconsciously immersing myself in the illusion that I am not a hairy, smelly animal. I brush my teeth to remove the stink from whatever bacteria have been swimming around my gob. I dress myself in baggy clothes to cover the chunky, unflattering bits and ditch the pajamas that soaked up all my night sweat. I do everything in my power to cover up the fact that I am essentially a monkey with a nice haircut and shoes.


At the end of the day we are an amalgamation of perpetually dying and growing cells—thinking meat bags, if you will. Humans are animals that sometimes seem less evolved than our finned and four-legged counter parts, who at least don’t shit in their own water supply and intentionally poison themselves, yet humans pretend we are greater than beasts. It is high time to start laughing at our illusions with reckless abandon and dispel our hypocrisy whenever possible.    


We lie to ourselves and one another in all kinds of insidious ways. My favorite comedians expose these inner deceptions in a manner we can reflect on without judgment—or at least laughing while we judge, “better her than me.” I’d like to remember this sensible solution to strife, and offer it to others, more often than I do. Laugh at the truth rather than fight it.


This week I urge you to go out and laugh at yourself in public or admit something you knowingly conceal from someone you love because you are embarrassed by the truth of it. Share a secret, admit a habit, submit to your fatal flaws, and chuckle. I will do the same and will we can share the outcome of this social experiment in the comments below. I look forward to your reply.  


Parenting Uphill: Teach Them How to Swim


I was hoping we would be on our way out the door by 4:30—no such luck. In a family of four there are at least four agendas in play at all times. Lord knows I have a hard enough time managing my own, let alone three more. The show starts at 6:00 and we have yet to pack the car and pick up my mom. Ugh.


With years of practice behind me it’s hard to believe I still have a difficult time getting up and out for a show. The residual anxiety about getting there on time and making sure I am comfortable means that I spend lots of time preparing all the right “stuff” in case of weather, hunger, or general discomfort. With kids, I have to be as concerned about their well-being as my own, if not more so.


This is the stuff no one tells you about—the stress of managing two tiny humans while my own high-maintenance self tries to keep his shit together. The kids behave for the most part. We have a brief discussion about clothing and some tears over not being able to wear a summer dress to an outdoor concert in September. My blood pressure elevates, breath gets shorter, and volume increases, but we manage to sort it out with only mild friction. All things considered, not so bad.


Finally in the car, we grab mom at her place and realize, right on cue, that something essential was forgotten. Sigh. Back to the house.


And off we go. It’s an easy drive, and getting into the venue and situated is far smoother than I had anticipated, in part due to the additional hands of ever-capable Bubbi (my mom). I spent the better part of my 20s and early 30s traveling and attending hundreds of concerts, festivals, and gatherings, yet I am still uptight about getting into a venue and getting settled. Being patient with myself often proves more difficult than being patient with the kids.   


Looking for a spot toward the back so my posse has space to run amok is made easy by the appearance of my sister-in-law who has graciously staked a large claim for the clan. The kids acclimate more quickly than I do, pulling me toward the stage to start dancing. I am relieved by their excitement and relax nicely into the festival vibe.


My every experience is different now that there are three other agendas in the mix. No matter how good the music is or attractive the surroundings, my attention is divided. My children occupy large swaths of psychological real estate—at two and four they require it.


I used to treasure the opportunity to lose myself in the music and atmosphere—dancing, wandering, being anonymous and part of something bigger than myself. I found a spiritual connection in mass gatherings, shared experiences, and nature. A show like this brings those aspects together with the added dimension of the younglings creating their own story. In many ways I’m along for the ride, a rudder in the ocean.


My youngest likes to wander; “Let’s go on an adventure,” she’ll say. Oh joy, I love an adventure.

It’s dark now, and we wander around the back of the venue under strings of lights that create the feel of a big picnic ground. She is dazzled by the imagery, booths, food trucks, and people, and has no idea where to focus. In the center of the food trucks I see a large, round wooden structure with a little tower in the middle and a bench running the circumference. It’s perfect for climbing and giving me mini heart attacks.


At one point she decides to jump from the bench, a daunting three feet off the ground—as tall as she. She startles as she falls backward almost hitting her head. “Brush it off.” She does. 

Back up on the bench for another go. This time I suggest jumping forward and bending her knees.  She seems laser focused now and hesitantly willing to try. She jumps out and falls gently forward onto her hands and knees. She looks back at me. “Nice work,” I say. She smiles.


In that moment I feel it—a purpose I had not recognized so overtly before. In the Old Testament there are 613 commandments, not just the top-ten list we know so well. If I remember correctly just one of those pertain directly to child rearing: “Teach them how to swim.”


My experience of these gatherings is different than before. Now there are other perspectives to consider and adventures to be had. Perhaps more than ever I am enjoying the experience rather than looking for something special to happen.


The music was great, too.     


Performance On and Off the Court

Halfway through my third conference call of the day my cell vibrates with a one-word text: “tennis?” The weather is a perfect 72 degrees and sunny in Seattle. The courts are just blocks from my house and in less than an hour I will be knocking a fuzzy yellow ball around. Daily exercise has become a necessity. It keeps me performing at my peak—at work, at home, and on the court. Regular movement—and the focus it requires—helps me keep fit mentally, physically, and emotionally.


After my call I race inside to prepare my bag: towel, balls, shoes, snack, and a smoothie to fuel up. I have been drinking yerba mate’ all morning so I am feeling wide awake and ready to roll as I throw my gear over my shoulder and walk out to the car. Preparation is key, and even if I am a little obsessive, I am setting myself up for success. 


We are fortunate today—there is an open court in the sun. The pregame ritual begins—shoes on, stretching, breathing, chatting. Preparing for an activity that requires physical, mental, and emotional focus demands consistency and routine to avoid sub par performance or, worse yet, injury.


We go through our warm up, rehearsing a series of shots from different parts of the court. Our movements are a conversation, a way to make sure we are both on the same page. We exchange shots with few words as we repeat a familiar process.


At first my mind wanders to movies I have seen in the week past, to my workday, and to tonight’s dinner plans, until slowly the only things I think about are the movement of the ball, the placement of my feet, and the angle of my racket. As momentum builds, we change the pace of the game and enter into a new dialogue. In this conversation we hold ourselves and one another mutually accountable for playing at peak level to get the most out of the experience.


Every time we get on the court the expectation is to strive for greatness, even though it is only a game. As we begin to rally I find my mind slipping—my shots are errant and inconsistent. My partner yells from across the court, breaking a ten minute silence, “Are you breathing?”

Of course air is moving in and out of my lungs at an accelerated rate but that is not the question being asked.  Am I being mindful of my breath? 

 “No,” I reply, a little embarrassed that I’m not holding up my end of the unspoken bargain to perform at my best.


Breathing seems like such a simple concept, an action we often take for granted. In this case, inattention to this essential detail means an inability to perform. Good tennis demands that my mind be focused on every facet of the game and nowhere else.


My attention moves back to breath, footwork, and the point of contact between my racket and the ball. Each time I move toward the ball I audibly exhale to remind myself where my attention needs to be. The results are readily apparent as my shots begin to fall where I want them to and the pace of our game picks up. For a solid 20 minutes we are in the zone, hitting the ball with speed and precision, exchanging winners, and pushing one another to peak performance. Even 20 minutes of strong, focused tennis is a success for my partner and me.


There will always be distractions that take me out of the game,challenging me to stay centered and bring forth my best self even when I slip. Tennis requires us to integrate a strong mental game with the intense demands of consistent physical exertion. At its pinnacle, what is a simple game becomes an integrated, almost spiritual shared experience.


This struggle is apparent in every activity. When I am distracted at work, I walk away from interactions with my clients feeling tired and disappointed that I did not bring my best self to the exchange. When I am on point, I feel energized, connected, and invigorated by the experience. Earlier today my kids were fighting, but as I walked down the hall to intervene I reminded myself to breathe, focus, and respond effectively to the negative stimulus.    


Tennis asks us to prepare with repetition and routine so that when the time comes to perform at our best, we are ready. We train not only for the physical but the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of competition. These principles can be applied to our performance on the court, in the boardroom, through creative endeavors and in our relationships.  My challenge through it all is to remember to breathe.        


Career and Family Success—What it Takes

career and family success

In September of 2011 I was on the tarmac at SeaTac gazing out the window in preparation for a flight to Holland following the birth of our first child. Before Naomi was born I had been traveling to the Netherlands for work 6 to 10 times a year. I looked forward to the flights, which gave me time to quietly read, watch movies, and zone out. But this trip was different—fear and guilt gnawed at my conscience as tears welled in my eyes.


For seven years I had been traveling extensively for work as a consultant and trainer. I spent time in New York, LA, Amsterdam, and other cities scattered across the United States. Thankfully, the tether between my wife and I grew stronger in our time apart, but the birth of my child brought an unfamiliar feeling—I could not bear the thought of being absent now.


I stared at the line of planes, imaging all of the parents leaving their families—military personnel, salespeople, engineers, missionaries, musicians, athletes, adventurers, and countless others—every one of us with a story to tell about where we were going and what we leave behind. I made a choice in that moment—no more traveling until I can find some balance between work life and home life.


Two weeks ago Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld printed an article in the New York Times exposing the intensely competitive work culture at Amazon. While the emphasis of this article is on the demanding work culture at Amazon, I read a more universal struggle between the lines. The story reminded me of the dialectic I faced that day on the tarmac: can I succeed in my career without succumbing to pressures at home?   


After reading the article I was enticed by the notion that I can have the best of both worlds—a successful career and a satisfying personal life—by pooling my resources and changing my outlook.


Amazon is not the only workplace jungle in 2015. Many of us struggle to manage stress, anxiety, and depression as we confront the endless demands of work and family life. Unreasonable expectations reduce some of us to tears while others find the same experiences stimulating and even inspirational.


It took nearly two and a half years for me to fully transition from traveling for work. After being off the road for a couple of months my relationships with my partner and kids became increasingly tense. I was quick to anger and found myself spiraling into a period of depression. My wife and I needed help regaining a sense of balance because our homeostasis was shifting.


We had to accommodate changing priorities. We needed one another to fill in the gaps between work, exercise, childcare, meals, school, and downtime. We had to be creative, collaborative, patient, driven, thoughtful, and calculated to make it all work. These same characteristics are found in a successful, high-intensity workplace.    


The NYT article also points out criticism, competitiveness, undercutting, and confrontation as contributors to a negative work environment. As my wife and I needed time for ourselves, time with the kids, time to work, time to create, and time to relax, our marriage began to feel like that negative work environment.


For us to be successful, both as a family and professionally, we needed the same collaboration and support you find in a successful workplace. Those who succeed in corporate culture excel at prioritizing goals and not taking things personally. Keeping this in mind, we sought a couple’s counselor to help us prioritize family and cooperate more effectively. Therapy asked us to find ways to grow closer and stronger from our struggles rather than letting them tear us apart.


When I stared at the line of planes on the tarmac back in 2011, I knew something had to change to sustain success. I continue today to make changes that bring me closer to my family and closer to my own definition of personal success. Every part of my life still feels like a work in progress as my family constantly adapts and adjusts together. Some days I feel intensely judgmental and full of blame while other days I am full of gratitude and grace. Perhaps what changes most from day to day is my perception.     


Parenting Uphill

parenting uphill

This morning we were faced with the inevitable weekend dilemma: can we get out of the house fast enough to avoid another instance of battery between my kids? We have a limited window of time when we can all hang out in bed or poke around the house while the kids occupy themselves. If we wait too long they will start whining, fighting and someone WILL cry—possibly me.

It is never pretty to see a 40-year-old man reduced to tears by his well-meaning children, so I push the process of getting to the park as fast as possible. In addition, I want the wife to catch a break from the seemingly endless chants of “I want mamma,”and to get some exercise and peace of mind. I lure the little ones out the back door with a promise of adventure and pretzels. 

Weekends offer an opportunity to address housekeeping issues, yard maintenance, garage clean up, and house tidying, not to mention all of the fun waiting to be had. I am a man of many hobbies; I wish my kids would respect that and not require ongoing attention. Goodness, I have no right to complain—my partner is essentially wonder woman when it comes to handling child oversight; my biggest problem is the push-pull of being a big kid and having little ones.

We wander out of the garage, given the decision by both kids to walk versus ride in the stroller.  I would love it if someone were to chauffeur me around in a three wheeled chariot, but not these kids, they long to add an additional element of danger during our stroll through city streets. Obviously they have no idea how wonderful it can be to lay back and enjoy a hands free ride, which explains the extraordinary success of Uber.

Sometimes I feel like a draft horse as much as a parent. Load up the sled and head out with diapers, snacks, drinks, change of clothes, medications, etc. to walk five blocks to the park, turn around, and come back before the sun sets on smile time and the shadows of tired and cranky creep in. Gods forbid we forget anything and endure the public shame of a tantrum.

We wander up the street with no grace or ease. There is immediately a struggle regarding which pair of sunglasses will be worn by either child. The elder child tries to push the stroller but she is not tall enough to reach the handle; not to be outdone, the younger shoves her to the side, which leads to whines and whimpers for control of our payload. We have not reached the end of the alley and are already in need of several interventions to mitigate the power struggle of the younglings.

Fortunately I have had enough caffeine and a healthy breakfast, today I am up for the challenge. In an artful display of quick thinking I manage to have each kid fulfill a role in managing the stroller while we meander up the hill avoiding cars, a massive Akita dog wandering off leash, and an endless series of distractions in every tree, insect, flower, and bush.

Our agendas don’t mesh because I  am focused on getting to our destination while the kids find adventure in every step. I have to almost audibly remind myself that the journey is as important as the destination while we plod up the steep hill. Arriving at the first plateau my youngest wants to celebrate her accomplishment while I point to the looming threat of one more steep section.

We arrive at the top, both kids huffing and puffing for dramatic effect as much as anything else. The mirror my child spawn reflect to me reminds me how melodramatic I can be and is seriously adorable at the same time. I hope they manage to adopt more of my better qualities than the ones I am not so proud of.

I can’t help but smile as we wander into the empty playground. Twenty minutes of climbing and running around the fenced area dispels any lingering desire to be anywhere but here and now.  The intoxicating effect of my children laughing, calling out “Dada watch” and finding extreme pleasure in the simplicity of a climbing structure brings out the best in me.

These are the moments that make parenting simultaneously the most taxing and exhilarating experience of my adult life. Those who really enjoy hiking and biking in the mountains say you have to enjoy the uphill as much as the down. Maybe next time I will be more patient and attentive on the way up, for now I will enjoy the slide down as much as they do.