Perfection is Overrated

I’m not interested in perfection especially when it comes to people. Like the girl I had a crush on in high school who seemed entirely too perfect. Certainly too perfect to ever notice me.

Years later I found out out that she struggled through life like everyone else. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but she now seemed far more interesting.

Tonight over dinner my brother shared an experience with me about running a business. He probably doesn’t realize it, but I feel more connected to him than before. He’s always seems so calm, but underneath that exterior, he has the same questions I’ve had during my career.

Being perfect is boring.

Friends and family who go to great lengths to hide challenges and the rough spots end up with less intense relationships because it’s difficult to relate to perfection. And it’s exhausting keeping up the facade that nothing goes wrong.

As a young boy my father seemed perfect to me. I began to wonder if he’d ever made a mistake until I watched a cop pull him over for speeding in his Plymouth Duster, and he let a “damn” fly.

The wrapper of perfection was off, and I began relating to him as my father, imperfections and all, instead of the robo-dad.

I gravitate to bloggers who are not afraid to detail the bad with the good. I wish I was able to balance this better with my own blog, but I seldom feel like writing when a part of my life is spiraling down the drain.

Yet those are the times I should capture and share.

Family Vacation

This is the first family vacation we’ve taken where I haven’t had a boss breathing down my neck, waiting for my input on a critical matter such as the color of our new company shirts.

Or the bored coworker who adds me to the cc: line of every email so I know how hard he’s working in my absence.

Or the client who ignores my OOF and expects me to attend a meeting to discuss a project six months from now.

The most difficult part of this vacation was leaving our 11 year old boxer at home. She has a tumor above her right eye, and we know it will likely end her life. Before we left our home Kim and I gathered the kids and said a prayer asking God to comfort her.

It worked because our neighbors have provided her with excellent care. I know some may shrug, but we can’t wait to see her.

Spending 22 hours in a minivan with four children probably sounds like more nightmare than vacation to many. I knew it was time to pull over for a break when, after watching my 3-year old son toss his flip flops at his sister, I began reaching for my own shoes.

We spent the last week in St. George visiting with Kim’s family. As I sat in the van calling for the kids to get in their seats, I watched them hug their grandmother and grandfather, their arms forming a circle around their legs. Nobody wants to be the first to let go.

That’s the scene I’m replaying in my mind 14 hours later. It helps erase the memories of the arguments over the Nintendo. Or the “I have to go the bathroom” five minutes after the last stop.

One day I want to be the one the grandkids form the circle around.

Trust Issues With The GPS

“Only 799 miles to go”, I said as I looked at Kim who was already giving me the “shut up and drive” look.

I started off our trip to Utah giving mileage updates. Every few miles.

The Magellan calculated 804 miles from our home to Utah which I sort of trust. But it also says the trip should take about twelve hours which means the engineers at Magellan must not travel with children.

And yet I have only myself to blame.

I’ve lived in Seattle for seventeen years. In that time I’ve made the Seattle to Utah trip at least twenty times. One might assume I know the shortest route between these two points.

And yet when the GPS told me to turn right I turned to Kim and said, “Screw it, I’m taking a left.”

That ill-advised left added at least another hour to the trip as we backtracked through towns I’ve never heard of. Kim made sure to read the town names aloud so we’d all know that maybe my directional instincts are not as powerful as a network of global satellites.

The problem comes down to the fact that I don’t trust my GPS. Each year I read about the driver who blindly followed the polite GPS voice right into a lake and drowned. And each time I see a makeshift memorial near a body of water I think to myself, “Another death by GPS.”

So I follow my Magellan just enough to get pointed in the right direction, but not enough that it saves me time or an ounce of grief. I’ll follow the sultry voice like a lemming from my home to the freeway making every right and left turn as if my driver’s license was on the line.

But put me in a city I’ve never been to and I’m muting the GPS, cranking the Zep and proclaiming, “Stand back, I’ve got this one!”

Less than 400 miles from our home, we pulled off the freeway and into the parking lot of Best Western. I called the reservation line and was thrilled to hear they had a room for us. I must have been tired because, when asked how many children I have I replied, “Three”.

For the next twenty minutes our four children debated who had been booted from the family.

Simple Living

In 2004, we sold our home and moved to southern Utah. We rented a small home, owned one car and my commute to work took less than 10 minutes.

We had no mortgage or large loans hanging over our heads.

What we did have is freedom. We’d signed a month-to-month lease on the home so we felt as though we could pack up and leave at any time. That’s such a wonderful feeling, yet it’s one I’d forget less than a year later.

 ivins

When the air conditioner broke down, the owner picked up the tab. There were no major financial surprises like a $3500 water heater replacement.

Because we lived under our means, I didn’t feel compelled to spend my nights and weekends climbing the corporate ladder. There was no pressure to inflate my billable hours. My work remained at work.

We spent our free time at the swimming pool or the park. And Kim’s parents lived around the corner so we spent a lot of time chatting over dinner. I formed a strong relationship with my in-laws that remains today. I can’t overestimate how much my children enjoyed living close to their grandparents. They would move back today.

A year later we left the gorgeous red mountains of St. George and returned to the Seattle area where I haven’t been as successful living a simple life. I continue to reflect on the lessons taught in one of the most influential books I’ve read, The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs.

I picked up the book over ten years ago on a recommendation from my brother-in-law and have thought back to the many people profiled in that book who had few possessions yet lived happy and fulfilled lives. More than one example has stuck with me over the years, but I remembered one specific story as I spent the afternoon working on my twelve year old car.

Luhrs tells a story about how she saved money by driving older cars. One morning around the breakfast table, her teenage son begged her to trade in her older car for a new SUV. Over the next few days, she test drove new SUVs that would accommodate her family. She got a firm price quote that included trading in her older car. She also called around to find the best loan terms.

Then she gathered her family explained in detail the new SUV she’d found. Of course, the children were thrilled and wondered how soon it could be parked in their driveway.

That’s when Luhrs began to explain how taking on a new car loan and higher insurance premiums would change the family. In order to afford that new SUV, she explained how it would require her to work a few extra hours each day so not to expect help with homework. She also wouldn’t be able to attend their soccer and baseball games because she’d need to work Saturdays.

Her children began to understand the sacrifices they would need to make in order to afford the new SUV. Luhrs presented the facts and allowed her children to decide what was more important: new SUV or time with mom. Put in those terms, their older car didn’t look so bad.

In many ways, I’ve tried return to return to how I felt in 2004. Kim and I often discuss why our family was happiest during this time. I know part of it was living so close to family. That’s a major benefit especially with younger children. But I’m convinced that’s only part of it.

St. George is much smaller than Seattle so we had fewer distractions pulling us in many directions. In Seattle, I’m more likely to spend my free time at a tech gathering or sporting event. In St. George, that time was spent pulling my kids around the park in a wagon.

I wish I were better at finding balance because I know it only gets more hectic as children become more involved in school and church activities. Although it can be uncomfortable, I have to say no more than I’d like. Over-committing myself, be it with work, church or friends, takes the same toll on my body and mind that debt does. They zap both time and energy.

I look at my calendar this weekend, and it contains not a single event or commitment. Maybe I’m beginning to make progress.

Time to pull out the wagon.

Another Father

I was asked to speak in church on Father’s Day. I’ve written much about my father so I decided to share how another father has influence my life.

In the summer of 2005 I accepted a job in Seattle while our family was living in St. George, Utah. The job started immediately which meant Kim and our three young children would remain in our home for over a month while I got settled into my new job and searched for a place to live during the crazy run-up in home prices.

Although I was able to fly back to Utah a few times, it was a stressful time for us, especially Kim who was on her own to pack our belongings and clean our home on top of raising our children. It was August when temperatures in Southern Utah can soar to well over 110 degrees. I lost track of the number of times I scorched my hand that summer while grabbing the car door handle.

We owned one car at the time which remained in Utah. I got around Seattle by bus which gave me a lot of time to reflect on my decision to uproot our family. I wondered if I was making the right decision to move our children away from their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. I wondered if I’d accepted the right job at the right company? Was the timing right? As the primary financial provider for my family, I wondered if making the move would eventually result in a wider selection of career choices. Given the ebb and flow of the technology sector, there were no guarantees.

I called Kim each evening to hear how things were going back in St. George. We’d chat for a while. I wanted to be there to help but couldn’t. But what I didn’t realize until later was that my family was watched over by another father, my father-in-law who lived a few blocks away.

Without waiting to be asked, he stopped by our home each day. One afternoon he replaced a burned out light bulb on our porch. Another time he brought over a phone when the battery ran out on our cordless model. And when I reminded Kim that the next morning was trash pickup she went outside to find that her father had come by, taken the cans to the curb, and returned home without saying a word.

My father-in-law stepped in to provide assistance when I wasn’t able to. This is an example of one father who understood that fatherhood requires leadership and offered it unconditionally to his extended family.

Time Well Spent

A couple of weeks of rain had my kids asking to see my iPhone to check the weather app for the first sun filled day of the month. Saturday rolled around, and I carefully selected an activity that included one part fun (water) and one part work (clean the van).

I filled a bucket full of sudsy soap and water, and it wasn’t long before Anna was sporting a bubble beard. You’d think four kids would spread out and each take a section of the van to clean. But no, they huddled around a tire to watch a ladybug.

We’d been outside over 30 minutes and only the tires and front grill were wet let alone clean. We’d hadn’t even looked at the inside of the car. I stood back and watched the kids play wondering how much longer we’d be outside and how I was going to explain to Kim why the kids were soaked.

We eventually cleaned the outside of the van, and I considered sending them to the backyard to play while I cleaned the inside on my own. That way, I’d clean it my way in a fraction of the time. Without any shenanigans.

Later that night I found the only couch in the house not already inhabited by kids, dogs or dolls.  Before long Kim began to play the piano in the same room.

I watched as she played a song she’s been working to perfect. I never tire of listening to her play, and I don’t mind hearing the same song over and over as she learns each note and adds her own nuances.

With about a minute left, Kai jumped on the piano bench and began banging out a tune of his own. My first instinct would have been to gently remove him or at least try to block his little finger from the keys. I liken it to someone taking a black Sharpie to a painting that’s minutes away from completion.

But didn’t Kim didn’t react as I would have, and this is yet another reason our kids will be OK as long as she’s around.

She continued to play. Kai continued to do his thing while reminding her that he was there to help.

I thought back to earlier in the day as we cleaned the van. I decided to allow the kids to help me clean the inside.  I would have vacuumed first. They washed the windows first. I would have cleaned from front to back.  They started in in the very back and cleaned the vinyl cargo insert. They did it their way which was different than how I would have done it.

They saw firsthand what happens when an ice cream cone scrapes the ceiling or how a Swedish Fish melts into the seat if left in the sun. On reflection, the extra time was well spent.

I’m not at patient as Kim when it comes to including the kids in these type of activities. But I’m learning as I go. And maybe, next time, I’ll be the one running from Kai and the hose.

You Must Have Your Hands Full

The comments don’t bother me anymore. Those that don’t immediately roll off my back provide laughter on the ride home from Target or Taco Time or whatever public place we’ve brought our kids to.

It’s easy to look back and laugh at the Target checker who asked, “Were you trying to have this many?” as she loaded bags of diapers, wipes, and Gerber jars into our cart.

I doubt any answer I could give her would suffice so I smiled. Of course, the person who asks such a personal and unsolicited question like that one, isn’t looking for an answer as much as she’s providing commentary on the size of our family.

Come to think of it, that remark was made before our fourth child arrived. We’d blow her mind today.

Kim and I give people the benefit of the doubt when we encounter awkward comments about the size of our family.  It’s easy to laugh off comments such as, “I could never handle that many kids” because I still feel that way at times.

Our youngest daughter turned seven yesterday. To celebrate, we went to the movies. The young son of friends joined us while his family was out of town giving us one inquisitive five year old to watch.

I kept the kids off to the side of the line while Kim purchased tickets. “Two adults and five children”, she said this through the glass divider. And then a women behind us let out a loud sigh and said, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.” as she glanced over our children. Maybe she was also planning to see Rio and was concerned our children wouldn’t behave.

But when Kim pulled out her wallet and paid with cash, it was too much for her. “Oh, come on!” she said, loud enough for everyone in line to hear. She panned her head back and forth, glancing again at all five of them.  They were excited to see the movie but not out of control by any means.

We made our way inside the theater where our children sat in their seats for the 96 minute movie. Kai managed to sandwich himself between the folding seats one time. Otherwise, they all behaved well.

And I know this will embarrass Kim but I’m going to write it anyway.

Halfway through the movie, a women had a seizure just outside the entrance our theater. While her frantic husband kneeled next to her, guess who sat on the floor calming their four children and keeping them entertained while medical personnel worked on their mother?

Kim made it back to us to catch the last five minutes of the movie. Not once did I have lean over and quiet any of the children. I expect a certain amount of noise when I watch a movie marketed to children. The two women who sat behind us were by far the loudest distractions in the theater. And when they weren’t chatting they texted like teens until the manager told them to stop.

That night we took our family to dinner at Red Robin. All seven of us.

If the kids were going to get away with anything, this would have been the time. Kim and I were tired, but we decide to sit across from each other instead of corralling them with one of us at each end of the table. The kids downed pizza and macaroni and cheese while Kim and I wondered what happened to the mother of those four children.

Our server brought the check. The kids grabbed their jackets. I retrieve a handful of crayons off the ground that contributed to the pre-meal artwork.

As I reached for my jacket, I felt a hand pat my shoulder and looked up to see a man and a woman looking at me. My first instinct was, “Oh no, were we too loud?” Or maybe Kai threw a french fry that landed in their food.

Before I could say anything, the man said, “I’ve been watching your family, and I want to tell you how impressed am with your children. They are well disciplined and I wanted to tell you that before we leave.”

He had no idea what we’d heard earlier that day. Or that our plans to see a movie together took an unexpected turn. Kim and I sat at the table for a few more minutes. We were stunned.

I don’t know what this man saw in our children that encouraged him to approach our table.

He couldn’t have known his kind words were what we needed to hear after a challenging day.

Recalibration

It’s easy to focus on what I don’t have when I’m out of a job. But it has more to do with the constant reminders than anything else.

“Hey, heard your company crashed and burned”

“Sorry to hear about the job”

“Let me know if I can do anything”

When I mention that Ox Consulting and a few consulting gigs are keeping me out of the cheese lines, the comments take another slant.

“Medical insurance with four kids must be a killer”

“Must be stressful trying to create something on your own”

And my favorite, “You know, 80% of companies go out of business in their first year”

Change is difficult. Not only for me, but for those who know me if only peripherally. If I were a recent college grad in my 20’s, I bet most people would shrug their shoulders. That’s the agreed upon age to take risks, dive into new adventures, and follow your wildest dreams.

Once children arrive, my thoughts are supposed to turn to career stability, 30 year mortgage, 401k, health insurance, and the size of my office. I still chuckle when friends who have worked at Microsoft over 10 years tell me they moved to an office with windows. That’s how longevity, and success to some extent, is measured in our culture.

This past week, I visited my parents in North Ogden. They recently built a home after living in the same small brick house across from Weber State University for nearly 40 years. My father’s computer was acting up, and we spent a couple of days selecting parts and getting his music, pictures and documents moved over to a new i7 system.

Maybe I should have stayed home and continued my job search.

But I have no regrets because I got to spend hours with my father. We took a trip to the University of Utah bookstore and purchased matching “Ute” hats. We had lunch together, and I told him how much I appreciate his friendship. I don’t believe I’ve ever told that him that face to face. It’s not hard to thank him for the kindness he expresses towards my children. I’ve thanked him numerous times. But I’ve never sat across the table from him and told him how much he means to me.

I was able to sit next to my mother on her bright red leather sofa and listen to her explain how she’s dealing with her latest stroke. Her body has deteriorated, but her mind and wit is as sharp as ever. We had breakfast together each morning. She prepared for my arrival by purchasing a box of Captain Crunch Berries, my favorite cereal.

Visiting my parents forces me to slow down, and that’s exactly what I needed this week. I have a number of decisions to make about my career and my family over the next few months. I didn’t realize it at the time, but on the drive home I felt as though I’d recalibrated my life.

Close relationships have a way of doing that.

Committing to Less

“Yes” is a dangerous word. It sounds polite and helpful on the surface, and in many instances it is. But it can also lead one down the road to over-commitment and exhaustion.

It’s difficult to say “no” once you’re expected to say “yes” to every request, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

Over the past few years and especially since we started a family, life has become more complex to the point where it’s difficult to keep track of responsibilities, commitments and schedules for six people. Kim and I discuss our coming week’s schedule on Sunday evening. And yet by Monday night I’m asking, “Now, what do we have going on tomorrow?”

This past year something changed.

 blueberrieskim
Kim picking blueberries in Auburn, WA

In an attempt to gain a modicum of control of my schedule and maintain my sanity, I began turning down requests for my time. This has not been an easy adjustment. I seldom remember my father saying no. He’d run from one assignment to the next. I have friends that are able to function with this level of chaos. I’m not one of them.

There are times when I feel bad saying no, but it’s better to be upfront and deal with a little discomfort than partially commit. That’s what I used to do. I’d say, “I’ll try to make it” and when I didn’t, it was a bigger disappointment than had I said no from the start.

This past year I’ve said no to some travel for work. I’ve taken on fewer projects at work and church. I’ve turned down opportunities to meet up with friends. We even cancelled our summer vacation to Utah because we felt overwhelmed at the time. We needed some time to catch our breath. So we picked blueberries and spent time doing absolutely nothing at the beach.

But I’d like to believe there’s much to gain by saying no and committing to less. For example, by committing to fewer projects at work, I’m able to give my full attention to the two or three projects that will provide the most value to my team. Picking a couple of projects forces me to weed out all the clutter and really focus on projects that will drive results. It’s actually much easier to complete a bunch of crap projects than one that’s difficult yet comes with a large payoff.

That reminds me of the first time I went through the review process at Microsoft. My manager had left the company so the job of reviewing our group fell to the VP over Office. I’d spent the past six months planning one event and was certain he’d dock me for not completing more tasks. But he surprised me when he said, “Your manager’s job is to overwhelm you with projects. Your job is to figure out the one or maybe two that must get done and ignore the rest.”

I’m not saying it’s a particularly smart move to ignore projects that come from your boss. But you can explain why completing fewer but more critical projects beats finishing a dozen of dubious value.

Committing to less allows me to carve out time with my spouse and children. That results in life balance that’s difficult to obtain when you say yes to everyone. Look for a manager who values results instead of sheer number of hours spent behind a desk. I’ll take the employee who spent two hours writing a script to manage the backups over the one who spends four hours each weekend doing it by hand. Find a manager who appreciates the first type of employee, because that’s probably you.

I still struggle finding that balance. But I’m able to recognize when I’ve let the pendulum swing out too far in one direction. Sometimes there’s very little I can do about it. But I know it’s there and I’m always striving for it.

Twists and Turns Along the Journey

I find that as I get older I experience fewer peaks and valleys. Maybe I take fewer risks because I have four children and a spouse who rely on me to provide for them. That’s probably a good thing because children gravitate to people they can count on.

But fewer lows means fewer highs, and I miss the highs.

Could it be that I’m becoming more stable?  More mature? Or more boring. It’s probably a combination of many factors. I turned 43 this year. I’ve now been married and out of college for nearly half my life. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are in both areas. When I was younger, I fought against those weaknesses by ignoring them. When I realized that wasn’t working I began to focus on them. But over the past few years I’ve come full circle to the point where I try to spend my time doing what I do well.

I pick fewer fights. I’ve learned that only a few topics are worth taking a strong stand on and those are usually family related. Let others battle it out over the mindless details and let karma take care of those who treat others poorly.

What I’m finally beginning to understand is that I like myself for who I am. A number of twists and turns mixed with with a few roadblocks along the journey can make a person wonder if he’s heading in the right direction. I second-guessed myself a time or two, and I shouldn’t have.

Last year at this time, Kim and I discussed cutting back in a number of areas including activities that kept our family from spending time together. That’s resulted in the kids occasionally having to choose between a school and church activity. It’s meant that Kim and I have spent fewer nights and weekends doing our own thing. When we’ve had free time, we’ve spent it together as a family. We’ve stopped feeling lazy because we participate in fewer activities than most of our family and friends.

This past summer, we spent several weeks visiting the coastal towns and beaches of Washington with Kim’s parents. We slept in a tent and fell asleep listening to the waves crash against the sand while our kids slept in sleeping bags next to us. No rushing from one exhibit to the next. Just simple living and spending more time together. Remove most of the distractions and time seems to slow down.

My father came to stay with us for a few days. We used to spend a good portion of his visit going around to the various Seattle attractions. But today he took the kids shopping.  As I pushed our 3-year old in a stroller, I watched how my three oldest children laughed, hugged and basically mauled my father for a couple of hours. I don’t know who was happier to see each other. I have no doubt neither would want to be anywhere else. Sure, the kids enjoy the new clothes. But it’s the time he spends with them that can’t replicated.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 20 years. But after watching my father, I hope I’m doing exactly what he did today.