Monthly Archives: January 2017

Tell Me About Your First Car

Was it a brand-new Dodge Shadow, because your dad worked for Chrysler? Did you inherit your mom’s old Volvo with 200,000 miles on it? Or did you hand over $100 to some stranger and drive off in his old jalopy? Whatever your answer, it reveals something about you and probably stirs up a memory or two. That’s why asking about that first car is my new favorite icebreaker.

I wish I could take credit for this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was sitting around with my team of fellow volunteer consultants (we’re working with a local nonprofit to develop a strategic plan) and we were trying to come up with a good icebreaker to use with our client in an upcoming workshop. Josh tossed out this idea, and we test drove it.

For a group of people that is not particularly diverse (we were all born within 10-15 years of each other, all have masters degrees from Harvard, all live in Boston, all work in similar white collar fields), our answers were all over the map. One of us remembered a little stick shift coupe she got in college (and the treacherous hill on campus that was the source of many anxious driving moments). One of us never owned a car until he bought a Nissan Leaf about a month ago, having lived mainly in cities. Oddly enough, two of us learned to drive in 1970’s-era Buicks that were so enormous an adult could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat.

I grew up in what’s now known as “flyover country,” a place where most teens got their hands on some kind of vehicle as soon as was humanly possible. In addition to reminiscing about our own cars, we remember our friends’ first wheels. One girl’s dad worked for GM and she had an enviable red Chevy Cavalier, brand new. My two close girlfriends had really cute cars with lots of mileage: a little Honda CRX and green Pacer. The Pacer driver eventually upgraded to a Nissan Sentra hatchback because she played the harp, which actually fit in the back when the seats were laid flat.

Playing a large instrument warranted a special kind of vehicle, so a cello-playing friend got his mom’s old green van (not a minivan – this was pre-the invention of the minivan) with limited seating but plenty of cargo room; anyway, no one cared about seat belts back then because we were teenagers and therefore invincible. One guy even drove an old station wagon which he spray-painted matte black (including some of the windows). It probably wasn’t legal but it made a statement. I’m sure he remembers that car.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve owned a series of forgettable cars. For a time, anything with four doors that could handle car seats sufficed. I shed no tears saying goodbye to a couple of Honda Accords, an Infinity G-35, and my last Subaru Forester (which was actually pretty great but come on – a leaky head gasket at 70,000 miles? Not OK). I’m now in another Subaru Forester, which is totally fine and great in snow but doesn’t turn any heads. Probably because EVERYONE ELSE IN NEW ENGLAND has the exact same car.

The automotive ‘love of my life’ was my 1990 Mazda Miata, black with tan leather interior, with a manual transmission (of course). I drove it home from the dealership (which was CarMax, my employer at the time) on a cold January day with the top down and the heat blasting. I drove that car as long as possible, but in my eighth month of pregnancy I could no longer justify a car with only two seats. As soon as I’m an empty nester, I’m going Miata shopping. Four years, seven months to go. Not that I’m counting.

What was your first car?

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Be Gone, Ye Last Five Pounds!

I didn’t ask for this for Christmas, but I got it – an extra five pounds. Now I have to get rid of it.

To clarify: I’m not whining about being overweight. If you know me, you know that I’m a healthy weight. A fit person. I am satisfied with how I look and feel, despite the extra five pounds, but they must Be Gone.

I pledge this not for the Laura of today, but for the five-years-from-now Laura. Because this Five Pounds of 2016 wants to settle in and become permanent, so that it can later be a foundation for the Five Pounds of 2017. Which in turn would host a welcoming party for the Five Pounds of 2018. And so on. Before you know it I’ll need that seatbelt extender when I fly.

Do I regret gaining them? No, I can’t honestly say that I do. The Christmas season and its many delights were wonderful to consume. The holiday parties with their festive punchbowls and platters of mini egg rolls, pigs-in-blankets, and Cheese Glorious Cheese. The movie nights with popcorn and potato chips and my famous baked Mexican dip. The football games with beer and nachos and more nachos. Yum.

The memories of Christmas dinner itself will last me until next year (they might have to, if it takes until then to lose this weight). We always start with champagne and Southern Living’s famous Crab Cakes with Caper Dill Sauce. We burn the tips of our fingers eating them as they come off the buttery skillet. Then we roll to the table, already full, and enjoy mushroom saffron risotto and homemade gnocchi with Nonna’s sauce (not my Nonna – my best friend’s real Italian Nonna). This starchy extravaganza is but a warm up for the filet mignon and the grilled herbed shrimp. We soak up the juices with fresh baked breads.

Nobody saves room for dessert but we eat it anyway – chocolate cream pie and this concoction called Oatmeal Cake which sounds healthy but is mostly butter. And caramel and coconut and pecans and eggs and maybe a teaspoon of oatmeal somewhere in there, to satisfy the letter of the law.

I forgot to mention the wine and the coffee with real cream (the Bailey’s Irish kind). It’s a wonder that the damage was limited to only five pounds.

But the damage was done, so now comes the time of reckoning. What am I willing to do – or not do – to kick this five pounds to the curb?

I’m willing to:

  • Add an extra mile or two to my runs.
  • Exercise almost every day, even when I don’t fee like it.
  • Walk past the potato chips in the grocery store without so much as a glance in their delicious direction.

I’m not willing to:

  • Skip meals. That’s uncivilized.
  • Ignore my favorite stocking stuffer, the Trader Joe’s One Pound Chocolate Bar with Almonds. I get a few squares a day until it’s all gone – that’s my tradition.
  • Eliminate entire food categories like sugar, dairy, gluten, carbs, alcohol, or caffeine. A balanced diet is important, and coffee is especially important.

All of the above starts today, so wish me luck. As always, I’m guided by the wise philosophy of a very dear friend:

Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

 

 

 

 

Swimming With Ray

When my fellow middle-aged, amateur swimmers and I came up for air after a particularly hard workout, the last thing we wanted to hear was “swim an easy 50 to cool down.”  We wanted to rest and recover. But Coach Ray believed in recovering while we swam. He said it would boost our stamina and endurance.  This turned out to be a brilliant foresight. 

 The first time I met Ray, he made me feel right at home even though I was a nervous wreck on the inside. I came to him because I wanted help leaving my comfort zone.  I feared I had reached a point in my life where I might never again learn a new skill, which was depressing. I was an old dog in search of a new trick.

 That’s why, in my mid-40’s, I finally mustered the courage to sign up for the Masters Swim team at my local YMCA. I was shivering but determined as I walked gingerly across the wet tiles toward the edge of the pool. I admitted to Ray that I was a total novice with no swimming experience. He was nonplussed.  

 He told me to get in the pool and start swimming.

 I soon realized what Ray’s other swimmers already knew – the guy was a genius when it came to coaching.  He knew exactly what to say to get a better result out of each of us. With the patience of a saint, he tried to correct my lifetime of bad habits.  Pretty soon, this former-band-geek-with-absolutely-NO-athletic-ability started to think of herself as a swimmer (I’m still not sure about the “master” part).

 As we gazed up at Ray between sets, he flailed his arms and swung his hips from side to side in surprisingly helpful demonstrations of perfect technique. He shared anecdotes about other swimmers he’d coached; he was especially proud of the youngest ones. He could not hide his love for the sport, and for his swimmers of all ages.

 In the moments between our drills, we also got to know one another.  Relationships formed gradually as we exchanged breathless tidbits of personal information during our 30-second rests between laps. We all had different reasons for being in the pool, but Ray was absolutely determined that we’d all get faster. He was our biggest champion and an eternal optimist about our swimming abilities.

 One of his favorite drills allowed for no rest at all, but rather an ‘easy lap’ between one set and the next. “Recover while you swim!” he bellowed.   He knew we could do this because to Ray, our hodgepodge collection of lawyers and professors and consultants were real athletes.  Because he believed this wholeheartedly, eventually we believed it, too. We swam, we recovered, and we swam some more.  

 But then Ray didn’t show up one morning, or the next. Worries were shared; inquiries were made, until our absolute worst fears were confirmed. Ray had passed away at home. He was only 57.

 Sometimes when I swim, I let my mind lapse into a gentle rhythmic complacence as I stare at the black line on the pool bottom for lap after endless lap, focusing only on my next breath.  Like that black line, Ray was always there to provide direction and guidance.  His presence was as certain as the rising sun, until it wasn’t.

 I am devastated that my coach is gone, but I’m not alone in my grief. I have my team.  We are strong; we are athletes now. At our first practice after Ray’s funeral (standing room only and overflowing with his young swimmers), we traded memories of the sets and drills he had taught us over the years.  With no choice but to get back in the pool, we mustered the stamina and endurance Ray had built within us. 

 We recovered while we swam.

 

masters-photo-august

Ray (in red) with members of our Masters team. In his memory, we re-named our team “the Rays.”