The Blog

What sobers you?
May 7, 2018

When Katie was five she boarded a bus to kindergarten for the first time. I’d made the most of her preschool years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the hole inside where my stomach used to be. I was sick with grief.

“On my watch, no harm comes,” the driver reassured Darrell and me. I knew Katie would be safe. I just wouldn’t be the one keeping her that way.

Not only that, but no one could keep her safe forever. Not her parents, and not the bus driver. Someday, very soon it felt like, she’d be making her own decisions and I’d be no more in charge of those than someone in the audience is in charge of a movie.

Is this what it means to have grown up? My little girl’s safety mattered more than my next breath, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Life is so sweet and scary.

For a few hours when I was twenty years old I thought I’d never celebrate turning twenty-one. I was staying in an inexpensive motel during a summer in college while I worked construction, and late one night a guy pounded on my door and demanded to be let in. He gave up after a while, but I figured he’d be back -- with a tool that would help him enter my room quietly instead of breaking a window or kicking the door in.

I spent those few hours wondering if whatever the guy had planned would hurt, and I’ll spare you the imaginary details. But I also wondered, sure that night would be my last, if I’d genuinely tried to be a good kid. I thought so. All I wanted out of life, I decided, was to do a good job at it.

“I want to go home,” I thought. “To heck with this job. I want to sleep on the couch in our den with Dad in his bedroom just a few steps away.”

Is this what it meant to be a grownup? Living with my choices?

I questioned my decision to save money on a room so there would be more for tuition that fall. I’d been hell-bent on sampling the life of a construction worker. I didn’t see how I could possibly design bridges and highways without getting a feel for what it was like on the receiving end of an engineering blueprint. In that sense, I’d been mature. By cheaping out on accommodations? Not so much.

Was this what Dad was worried about? Why hadn’t I paid more attention?

highwayFinally it was going on five. Dawn. I grabbed my hard hat and locked the door to my room as quickly as I could. I got in the car and locked that door, too, like I always did -- and sped away toward my generally bright and usually very safe future.

One of the guys on the crew came back to my room that night with me, and helped me get settled in a better hotel. But I slept with a nightlight for the next thirty, thirty-five years -- until my fear of not sleeping well because of that light overtook my fear of the dark.

I’m still wary of strangers. More importantly, I’m wary of anyone who makes fun of people who are wary of strangers. Not everyone has your best interests at heart, after all.

As for the others? The people you love? It’s just so great to have another day on the planet to tell them you do.

In my last post I told you about the guy who tried to break into my motel room one summer. I was in college, working construction, and was renting a room by the week. It was a bargain, I’d thought at the time. And I’d been wrong.

I say the guy “tried” to break into my motel room, but at first that meant just trying to talk me into opening the door. I kept pleading with him to go away, talk to the motel owner, whatever. I told him the owner was in the room next to mine. He apparently wasn’t interested in breaking a window or kicking in the door -- maybe, just maybe, because I’d given him the impression someone would hear him if he did.

After what felt like forever I heard a vehicle drive off. And I was sure that meant one of two things. The guy was trying to fake me out, get me to think he was leaving -- so I’d make a run for it myself, at which point he’d pounce. Either that, or he was leaving to get something that would help him break into my room quietly. It was one or the other. I was sure of it.

So I stayed behind the flimsy door with the cheap locks. I was shaking. Every horror story I’d ever heard came back to me. I knew my luck had run out. Even if my visitor was gone, he’d be back. I was afraid to move. I crouched behind the door, clutching my pepper spray, for five hours.

I was too afraid to think much of anything, but I did try to figure out what I could offer the guy to keep him from hurting me. My typewriter? The TV some friends had loaned me for the summer? I doubted he’d be interested in either. Which meant it was time to make peace with my life being over after twenty years. I’ll tell you how I did that in my last post in this series.

Forty years later, I can still hear the knock. Loud and crisp. Knock, knock, knock. Someone was at the door, and I was terrified. I was in college, working a summer job in construction, staying at a motel that had seemed a bargain.

“Who is it?” I said, starting to cry.

Another knock like the first one.

“Who is it?” I asked again, sobbing now.

“Open the door!” the man said.

“Will you tell me who you are?” I asked again, trying to buy time. I worried I was only making the guy mad by delaying the inevitable. He could’ve easily kicked the door in, that’s how flimsy it was.

“The motel manager,” the man said. I knew that wasn’t true because the manager was in his sixties. This person sounded decades younger. He sounded big, and mean. “Open the door!” he snapped. “Just let me in!”

I kept crying. I started pleading with the man to talk with the guy next door. I didn’t know if anyone was even renting the room next to mine, but it couldn’t hurt to put that idea in this man’s head. Maybe he’d reconsider if he thought someone could hear us.

“What’s his name?” the guy said, growing more impatient. “He owns the motel,” I said. “I’m sure he could help you with whatever you need. Will you please go talk with him?” This was a lie. The owner wasn’t in the room next to mine. He was in the next building -- which may as well have been on the other side of the world at the moment.

Why did this guy keep asking me to open the door? Why didn’t he just force it open himself? It wouldn’t have taken much. I worried about the wisdom of making him work to get inside when that was a given, but again I decided to keep pleading with him. As long as there was a locked door between us I had a chance.

“Um,” I said, still sobbing. “I’m really scared. Will you please just go away?”

We went back and forth for what seemed like forever but was probably only a minute, maybe two. And it wasn’t just this guy’s voice I heard, either. It was my dad’s, before I’d started this summer job -- none too thrilled I was putting myself in what he was sure was harm’s way.

To be continued.

When I was in college, majoring in civil engineering, I spent one summer on a construction crew that was repairing a stretch of the interstate near Grand Island, Nebraska. I was staying at a little motel in nearby Alda, a town so small I don’t remember a single stoplight -- and there weren’t any streetlights illuminating the motel, either. It was dark. Trust me.

It was the first time I’d lived alone, this was back when cell phones were science fiction, and my room didn’t have a landline. So I did what any skittish young woman would do. After a twelve-hour day shoveling concrete or flagging traffic, I’d cruise a grocery store for dinner and whatever I planned to have for breakfast and lunch the next day. Maybe I’d talk to my boyfriend from a pay phone, do a little reading, whatever.

Then I went to bed early. Every night. I kept my pepper spray close, and crawled way under the covers. I didn’t want to be awake when it got dark.

One evening there were tornado warnings for Alda, so I drove to Grand Island to wait out the storm in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. I didn’t realize a tornado would be the least of my worries. I’ll tell you more tomorrow -- and later this week, what I learned from feeling sure there wouldn’t be a tomorrow.

stick galIn the course of some personal and professional development recently I was in a small group that compared, just to cite one exercise, how we felt about ourselves every day for a week. The hope was that we’d become more comfortable with some pretty admirable qualities. Competence, energy, that sort of thing.

By the last day the trainer was baffled. I was obviously, for example, one energetic woman. But on the surveys I’d taken every day for a week, it wasn’t reflected. I could’ve run circles around the other participants, energywise, but I couldn’t bring myself to score myself high on even something as innocuous as energy.

“What’s going on?” my sweet trainer asked. I told her it was my way of “knowing” my place, not coming on too strong, never thinking I’m “all that.”

This had been one amazing, eye-opening week. Talk about energy! I felt more than equipped to scale the next mountain, careerwise. I’d also learned to tell the truth about my life, or so I thought. Yet here I was. I couldn’t even cop to being high energy on a survey.

People who pull against you can leave a mark. Don't let that define you.

I was a Girl Scout for a year when I was nine. That’s also the year my mom had her eighth and final baby. Yep. Eight kids in nine years. And, yes. I was already being tapped for lots of babysitting.

Have you ever tried keeping seven little kids accounted for, let alone happy? You develop leadership skills quickly. It was probably inevitable another scout would notice. She didn’t mention anything about my “skills” as a “leader,” though. She said I was bossy.

I was so ashamed. Instead of embracing it the way my mother had suggested -- she’d supplied the “leadership” spin, after all -- I vowed to be the person no one would dream of describing with that adjective.

It worked. Fifteen years later I was at a professional development workshop for the management training program I’d joined just out of college. In one exercise we took a list of twenty project steps and put them in the right order. Then we got together in small groups to come to a consensus. “Almost always,” the instructor said, “group scores turn out better than individual scores -- and the lesson is obvious.” In our group, however, my score was much higher than the team’s. So we talked about why I was “underutilized.” It would’ve been easy to blame one gentleman in my group, who could best be described as a brick wall. But the real fault was mine, for letting that embarrassed nine-year-old run the show well into my twenties.

You know what’s worse? She’s still running the show. I’ll explain tomorrow.

Sometimes, depending on the item and especially the store, you might need to show more than a receipt to make a return.

That’s because some businesses have more of a problem with fraudulent returns than others.

How can a sales clerk make a request for more information less annoying? By explaining what I just told you.

“I need you to do this” is one thing. “I need you to do this because (insert good reason here),” wrapped in a smile, maybe a bit of a shrug to acknowledge you do hate to ask, will likely inspire only empathy right back.

Advice for the sales floor, advice for life.