09 December, 2009

The Silver Lining of the Squeeze

Do you feel the squeeze? Can you see it on the faces of people as you walk down the street, the furrowed brows, the anxious, far away looks? These are tough times, for sure – people are stretched thin, nerves are a bit on edge and there are many distractions vying for our attention – like cantankerous siblings fighting in the back seat of a station wagon. The “squeeze” I’m referring to is the sense of people's lives – our society, our culture, our perspectives – being cinched tighter and tighter as if by a belt. Just when we think we can breathe, the belt tightens – sometimes imperceptibly – another notch and breathing gets more labored. And after we acclimate to the new tightness, the thought occurs to us, “just how many notches are in this belt, anyway?”

And yet amidst this season of fear and depletion, can you also hear the hope? What about the faith? The renewed spirit of optimism and a search for meaning? These days it seems to crop up wherever I look – from my clients who are voluntarily leaving their comfortable corporate jobs to lead more fulfilling lives, to the people buying first homes, starting a business, becoming more involved in their communities and giving generously of their time and resources. Like a beautiful seedling pushing itself through the ashes of a forest devastated by fire, there seems to be renewal of life happening as a result of the “squeeze.” For those Dr. Seuss fans, it reminds me of the scene from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas when the Grinch, after having taken every last vestige of Christmas, hears “all the Whos in Who-ville singing” and his heart grows three sizes as he realizes that Christmas lives within each of us, not in all our things. Ah, the power of community at its best.

This feeling – this excitement, this sense of community, of vitality – seems confusing or counter intuitive at times, but it’s piqued my interest. I have the sense that something good is right around the corner for us as a society -- as if I best stay awake because this will prove to be one of the most exciting times to be alive. I find myself saying, “just wait…it won’t be much longer now…just wait…” It feels like a movement or a revolution is afoot. In another time, I would have my ear to the ground, listening for the low rumble of horse hooves moving across the land.

In my mind (and heart), I see it all linked to change and how we’re evolving as a society. Because I work with organizations and individuals seeking to create change, I am familiar with the classic catalysts for change – pain and its not too distant cousin, necessity. Some would add fear to the family tree, but I won’t, and I’ll tell you why a bit later.

Let’s look at pain as a driver for change first. As I shared in a blog written after Obama was elected, there is an actual formula for change that was developed by Richard Beckhard, a behavioral scientist credited with defining the field of organization development. In the “formula for change” he created with his two partners, there are several factors that need to be present in order for change to occur:

C= D x V x F > R

Essentially, this formula shows that in order for Change to occur, the level of Dissatisfaction, combined with the clarity of Vision and the First steps need to be GREATER than the Resistance to (or cost or pain of) change. This formula seems particularly relevant to this cycle of change we are currently in (or coming out of) because it speaks to the level of pain and discomfort we needed to get to in order to generate some action (and consequent traction) to move through this cycle. So accumulating a bucket-load of pain is one way to go about creating change. In many ways this is within our scope of control – we make "pain deposits" through the choices we make (or don’t make) every day: how we choose to see the world, how we choose to be in it, the degree of responsibility or ownership we take, etc.

The cousin of pain is necessity – depending on the circumstances, they can be first cousins or distant cousins. The difference here is that while pain may take many years to accumulate and can be self-imposed, necessity often is defined by a triggering event outside our control – a medical emergency, a job elimination, a tornado or flood. David Kundtz, author of Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going, describes this necessity state I’m referring to as a “grinding halt” – those circumstances which essentially cause you to “stop at the speed of light.” Some of you might have also heard this scenario referred to as a “cosmic 2x4.” Regardless, it is that sort of necessity which can very quickly turn our lives upside-down and catapult us into instantaneous change. The add-water-and-mix sort of change.

Now FEAR undoubtedly exists in both of these scenarios, but my assertion is that fear alone, is never enough to create change. If anything, in my experience fear is a sure fire way to dig in and preserve status quo – to keep us right where we are and resist change. However, when change is heralded in either by pain or by necessity, fear just becomes part of the package. A stowaway in the belly of the plane. Another piece of luggage to be handled.

Whether or not the need to change comes as a decision (worn down by chronic pain) or is forced (necessity of a life event), it’s what happens in its wake that excites me most. When confronted with their greatest fear – losing a loved one, losing a job, losing a home – people are eventually reminded they are alive. They might be lost, adrift, bereft or disoriented, but it is a thing of beauty to watch a survivor emerge out the other side feeling somewhat liberated. Whatever “it” was – they have faced it and discover they are somehow still alive. “It” did not kill them. And that is what excites me about our times.

You’ve heard the classic story of someone who has a near-death experience and then lives to tell about it, right? Someone who wakes up from the brink of death with a new lease on life, completely bound and determined to live life to its fullest. We are that person. Some of our organs may have failed, our heart might have stopped a couple of times, our blood counts might be a bit off, maybe we even have one of those lingering eye twitches, but something about these times tells me we are waking up to the fact that we are alive and kicking. And it’s the kicking that gets me excited.

We hear more and more stories everyday of things tumbling down around us – organizations, institutions, ways of being, health epidemics – and with each quake to our foundation and the subsequent aftershocks, we are reminded of our resilience, our resourcefulness and our endurance. We get bolder, more determined and less patient with the status quo. In my practice, I see organizational leaders and coaching clients alike placing stakes in the ground, taking firm stances around their visions for what is meaningful, fulfilling and right.

Change is coming at seismic levels, I suspect. Radical whole-scale change. Granted, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and, while to some degree that has served me well as an organization development consultant and coach supporting change, I get disheartened sometimes to see how relatively little progress we’ve made over the years with regard women’s advancement and compensation in the workplace. So this feeling – the sense that we are approaching a climax or a tipping point for significant change – gives me great hope.

So imagine my delight this past weekend when I happened upon a documentary on the Mayan Calendar and the significance of December 21, 2012 that validated this sense that change was coming. Now I assure you, I don’t live under a rock, but it appears that I am the last human on earth to hear about the veritable maelstrom of controversy that surrounds this and other similar prophecies. In short, the Mayan “long count” calendar will complete its 5,126 year cycle on the above-mentioned date. Some believe it will be an apocalypse, but most see the significance as the mark of a new beginning, as the Mayan calendar will reset to year zero. This particular documentary, In Search of the Future, presented the cosmology of native elders, western scientists and visionary futures in such a way as to paint a picture of an “upward evolutionary spiral.” As one elder described it, we are essentially in a transition to a new level of consciousness, a higher level of understanding that will feel familiar, but different in that we will have experienced a fundamental shift in how we think. Namely, that we’re all connected. One scientist spoke of how the chaos theory supports this occurring, citing the “butterfly effect” as an example of how in a complex system, a very small cause can produce a very large effect. But the key will be in how well we transition from what state to the next.

Having personally given birth to two nearly-10-pound babies, I can attest to the pain of a transition phase. My midwife described it – and I whole-heartedly agree – as the point at which all women want to die, run away or at the very least, seriously doubt such a feat is possible. In this context, I can better appreciate the fighting and flighting we’re experiencing at this stage of our evolution. But I do believe – as I did in labor – that that moment of surrender will come and with it, we will stop feeling the squeeze of our own earnest efforts and emerge into a new phase of existence.

That is the silver lining.

And I am already seeing glimpses of it. Organizations are worrying less about precedent and cubicles and are experimenting with new ways of working that might never have made it off the cutting room floor before this economy tanked. Faced with unparalleled dearths in resources – people, time, money – companies are getting more creative, resourceful and decisive. On an individual level, I see people claiming more responsibility for their lives, taking back the reins of control in big and small ways, and granting themselves permission to be the architect of their own lives.

So the squeeze is on. And there is light waiting for us at the end of the tunnel. Of this I am certain, even in the face of all the angst and uncertainty and fear. I choose to believe in that. And I have this strong feeling I’m not alone in that belief. Time will tell. It always does.

20 November, 2009


I have to say right off the bat: I struggle with this. I know in my head and heart that ebbing is part of the natural order – or rather rhythm – of things. I really do. I get that it’s natural and it should be expected. It’s the reason for our cycles and seasons. It’s how the wheel of the year – and our lives – keeps turning. And yet every month and every year I find myself resisting it – kicking and screaming and resisting the ebb tide after a good dose of flowing.

So you know what I’m talking about, right? We ebb and flow just as the tides do. As creatures that are made up of 80% water that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. We wax and wane, we have times of intense light and times of deep darkness. We extend outward and then retract inward. It’s the Yin and Yang of life and it just is – always has been, always will be. And here’s the clincher for me: we don’t have any control over it. The wheel keeps on turning – with our without our permission.

And yet when I hit a period of ebbing, I react in the strangest way. All at once, I am startled, angry, resentful, inconvenienced and thoroughly annoyed – like a petulant little girl stomping her foot saying “No!” And then comes the feeling of isolation. Of having been abandoned. That’s when my fight gives way to panic.

But here’s the weird part: I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I actually got called on it by my coach during one of my most recent hissy fits. I related my experience at the time of standing in the mud flats – not being able to move, feeling really isolated and stranded – with my back to the shore and the water way out ahead of me. The lowest part of low tide. From this perspective, I could sense others like myself situated at various points of the mud flats – some out further as I was, some closer to shore. It occurred to me at that moment that I chose this. I followed the tide out until my feet got stuck and slowed me to a stop. And now I was throwing a fit about it.

I recently listened to a Ingrid Michaelson song (The Chain) that perfectly described this sensation at the peak of low tide:

The sky looks pissed
The wind talks back
My bones are shifting in my skin
And you, my love, are gone

My room seems wrong
The bed won’t fit
I cannot seem to operate
And you, my love, are gone

Viewed from this context, the “love” referred to in this song is my own: self love. I’ve come to see that now. I realize that in the fight and resistance of my own ebbing, I have tended to abandon myself. In essence, I have become a ‘fair weather friend” to myself – truly loving myself only as I flow, but withholding love as I ebb. No wonder I tend to resist the whole journey. I’ve been unconditionally loving myself.

And here’s the thing: I’m not alone. As my practice centers primarily on working with women, I have come to see this is a common pattern among women. I suspect because, unlike our male counterparts, we are built to experience cycles monthly in addition to annually. So we get more opportunities and consequently more practice with the ebb and flow cycle.

I see women in my practice exhibit similar behaviors as ebbing occurs. These are the times that we are heavy with emotion, whether it be angst, anger or sorrow. It is at these times that I hear clients use phrases like “beating myself up”, “can’t get out of my own way”, or “so hard on myself.” It’s a raw time when things seem to lurk just under the surface of the skin. Women expresss a desire to “be gentle with myself”, but struggle to know how to go about doing just that.

Sound familiar?

In trying to understand this pattern – in myself and in my clients – I look to two primary forces: our society and the culture of “flowing” we clearly value and the innate wisdom of our bodies.

In Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slowness:Challenging the Cult of Speed, he maps out the culture we have created and the danger that lurks therein. Quite simply, he drives home the message that our “model” in modern day society is not sustainable. Forced to go, go, go – with little to no time to recharge and restore (let alone reflect), we deplete our internal resources and eventually break down. He uses countless examples to illustrate how this “culture of speed” is an addiction and is destructive in nature. He makes a case for the need to SLOW down – essentially inviting us to rediscover and harness the power of “ebbing.”

Dr. Christiane Northrup is one of my favorite people when it comes to honoring the nature of women’s bodies and women’s wisdom. She’s written countless books on the subject, but one of her recent PBS specials really stopped me in my tracks. She was inviting women – and society at large – to reframe the antiquated and erroneous assumption that P.M.S. (formerly “Pre-Menstrual Syndrome”) be viewed from an entirely different (and ancient) perspective. By reminding us of the power that lives within our bodies and of the inner guidance system that we have access to as a result, she reveals that women are a source of deep wisdom and knowing. In that vein, she suggested we look at PMS – often a time when we are mocked, trivialized or dismissed – with a bit more reverence, suggesting it is a time of “Pre-Menstrual Strength.” It is during this time – the pinnacle of ebbing – that we are closest to meaning in ourselves and the world as a whole. We come face to face with what is unfinished or lacking and gain clarity on what is most meaningful to us. In a way, Dr. Northrup invites us to see this time as “going to our well” – the place that holds our truth.

In my own experience, I have come to refer to this “well” as my Pit of Despair (that particular phrase is meant to be said in a uber-dramatic craggily-voiced sort of way, much like the Billy Crystal character from The Princess Bride.)

So every month, without fail, I pack my bags and head to into my Pit of Despair. Some trips are easier than others, but I’m beginning to take some proud ownership in that territory of my life. Here’s what I’ve come to appreciate about those trips:

  • Fighting, whining, dragging my feet, bitching and moaning…it’s all part of the process of me getting ready to go to the Pit. Each distinct emotion and reaction is like a rung on my ladder down.
  • The sooner I get down to the bottom, the sooner I can climb back up
  • There IS a bottom (my mantra when panic sets in)
  • The deeper I go down, the higher I soar up
  • There is something to be said for wallowing – it’s a fine art deserving of some distinction
  • This cycle will happen with our without my permission or help
  • There is a direct connection to the Pit and my creativity
  • The trip out of the Pit (flowing) is SO rewarding and fulfilling
  • There is a renewal of pride and resourcefulness with each trip down and up
  • There is no such thing as a “bad” trip to the Pit – something “good” always comes of it
  • Loving myself at the bottom of the Pit takes a lot of intention and is critical to my health

At its core, ebbing is about surrender – to ourselves, to the natural rhythms of our lives, to our higher power, to our wisdom. It’s about throwing down the reins and allowing ourselves to be restored and “held” by something other than our minds, our muscles or our sheer determination. It’s about letting it all hanging out. It’s about letting our sensitive underbellies show and be vulnerable. It requires a fair degree of humility and a bucket load of faith. It’s about opening our eyes and hearts to what we fear most, while continuing to love ourselves for our humanness and our capacity to feel those feelings and think those thoughts. Paradoxically, it’s a celebration of life and living that can feel like death and dying. Like the archetypal phoenix rising from the flames, we will be reborn from the ashes and once again flow as a high tide.

So at the ripe age of 41, I’m staking some ground around my trips to the Pit. I might still look as though I’m resisting them, but if I were to be really honest about it, my life is much richer as a result.

21 July, 2009


There is a line from one of my favorite movies that never fails to stop me in my tracks. It reminds me of our primal need to be seen…to be witnessed in our lives.

Susan Sarandon portrays the wife of the main character played by Richard Gere. In this scene, she is meeting with a private detective whom she hired to spy on her husband because she suspected he was having an affair. As it turns out, he was discovering a love of ballroom dancing and was too ashamed to admit that it filled a void in his otherwise perfect life. Upon learning this, she asks the private detective, “Why is it that we get married?” Quickly and with much conviction, he answers, “Passion.” “No”, she says, “Because we need a witness to our lives. When we get married, you are saying ‘your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness'.” She ends by saying, “feel free to quote me on this,” so I am.

It’s so true. As much as we preach and practice independence and self-reliance in our culture, there is – and will always be – a profoundly deep need to be seen and to be witnessed in our fiber. It’s part of our humanness – like it or not. It just is.

And if you really think about it…it’s everywhere. The need presents itself at a very young age. We begin as infants: “peek-a-boo….I see you!” We teach our children not to stare, but they are most likely doing so without judgment…it is our judgment that we are most aware of. They are simply witnessing the world in all its many shades and forms. Children don’t avert their eyes, and adults do, causing us to miss the chance to see something important. Something worth seeing. As a parent of two small children, I get how they have an insatiable need to be seen – to be witnessed – as they grow, try new things and master their universe. Earlier this summer, I smiled as my six-year-old yelled (again and again for hours…), “Mommy, watch this!” as he demonstrated various tricks and new skills in the water. My own mother smiled in recognition…apparently I did the same to her. In yet another tactic to be seen, my two-year-old literally placed his hands on either side of my face and steered my attention toward him to divert my eyes away from my ever-present Blackberry. “Right”, I thought, “I am here, seeing you.”

In his work with organizations and systems, Peter Senge, illustrates the power of this primal need with a story about the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa. There is a common greeting that exists among those tribes, much like our greeting of “hello” in English: Sawu bona. It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhona, “I am here.” Senge goes on to say that the order of the exchange is important: “until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if when you see me, you bring me into existence.”

In her book Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of her experience in Bali, a culture that is firmly rooted and oriented in community. She writes of her somewhat shocked and slightly off-put reaction to the Balinese standard greeting, which is a series of three questions: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? And are you married? These questions taken at face-value seem rather intrusive in the context of our western culture. But to the Balinese, she writes, they are simply “trying to get an orientation on you, trying to insert you into the grid for the purposes of security and comfort.” Once these questions are satisfied, you exist in their world. You are seen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this basic human need as it relates to our western culture. How does this play out in our society on a daily basis? How does this need get met today? Or does it? And what happens if it doesn’t get met? What then?

As a working mother and as a woman who works primarily with women and their organizations as a coach and a consultant, I see women witness each other on a regular basis. We do it well. It’s our gift. Kelly Corrigan writes beautifully about this gift in her piece “Transcendence: Words on Women and Strength” (found at the end of her book The Middle Place). “We will confide in each other about feeling anxious or angry or uninteresting or how many pieces of Halloween candy we accidentally ate from our kids’ bags. We’ll confess that we text while driving or that we should be having more sex or that we yell at our kids every day. We’ll admit that we believe in God, Jesus Christ, Heaven and Hell, or that we don’t…” Corrigan touches upon our natural abilities as women to witness, and about how "all this celebrating and sharing and confessing will make certain essential comforts possible…we will rally around and hold each other up…we will cry, as we howl, as we clutch as we circle... we will transcend, ladies, because we did all this..." In a similar vein, I wrote in an earlier blog post about the need we have as women to be reminded we are not alone, we are not crazy and we are understood. It’s a validation of sorts. You exist because I see you and what’s more, I get you. Ah, sweet relief at those words!

Then there is the acclaimed organizational model of Alcoholics (substitute another addiction here) Anonymous that has so consistently demonstrated the remarkable healing power in being seen. Individuals at meetings introduce themselves by their name and then identify themselves by their addiction, “I’m X, and I’m an alcoholic”. The group then responds in unison, “Hi, X”. Simple, but powerful. We see you. You are here. Welcome. There is no hiding in this context, and there is an implicit invitation to claim responsibility for who you are. Scary as it may be – a leap of faith to most – there is a refreshing honesty tothis truth-telling community that has applications well beyond healing our addictions, I suspect.

Most recently, I’ve been fascinated by the proliferation of Facebook and Twitter and how, essentially, these electronic networking sites and their “status updates” enable us to witness and be witnessed – virtually or otherwise – by others. When someone responds to a status update or a photo, they are essentially saying, “I see you…you are not going unnoticed.” Having recently embraced both of these virtual networks, I now understand its power. It feels good – sometimes in a self-conscious sort of way – but good nevertheless. Like an itch has been scratched. My own experience with Facebook, in particular, is that it has served on countless occasions to remind me I am not alone. My life has not gone unnoticed as of late, to an increasingly wider web in my community of “friends.”

And yet there continues to be this air of disdain or shame associated with this practice of witnessing. Some refer to Facebook as a “guilty pleasure” and are embarrassed to admit how frequently they check it. Why is that? I was reading a briefing from The Week on Twitter recently and it began by framing the piece with “Thanks to Twitter, millions of people are obsessively updating ‘friends’ on their most mundane activities.” The author likens Twitter to be the “watercooler of the 21st century”, as a means to suggest how it contributes to productivity losses. The piece also claims, “many [of its critics] see Twitter as the latest example of the self-indulgent, 24/7 exhibitionism…” Well, maybe, but aren’t all of those terms (“mundane”, “obsessive”, “self-indulgent”) relative? What is “mundane” to one person, might be inspiring or may resonate deeply with someone else.

And isn’t the proverbial watercooler where it’s at these days? Look at Obama’s campaign. He built his entire campaign on the belief that “Yes, We Can”, banking on the power of people to voice their opinions and demand change. James Suroweicki coined the phrase “wisdom of the crowd” to refer to the universal knowing that can be revealed through the collective consciousness – it’s what powers sites like Google and Wikipedia. Twitter, as a business application, has been credited as offering “the fastest, most honest research any computer ever heard – and it doesn’t cost a cent” (The Week 5.1.09). So it seems, the water cooler isn’t simply a waste of time…it’s a source of wisdom and truth.

What scares me is how we are so very skilled as a society at making invisible or marginalizing people, organizations, differences, by simply choosing as a society not to see something. And by not seeing it, we deem it non-existent. Remember the Holocaust? And there are a number of more modern day examples…Homelessness, domestic violence, mental illness, war. We even can make invisible the good stuff: optimism, kindness, the very young, the very old, our teachers, our mothers. In our haste or our ignorance or our habits, we have forgotten or fallen out of the practice of witnessing each other.

But here’s the thing… I think we’re remembering. Whether we realize it or not, I believe we are returning to a way of being that is very ancient and familiar to us – a simpler way of being. I have to hope that we are learning, once again, the art of simply seeing. Of being a witness to each other’s lives and insisting: your life will not go unnoticed. I will be your witness. The Global Oneness Project sums it up the best: “this ‘seeing’ is essential to our freedom.”

20 May, 2009

The Woman in the Mirror

I had a terrifying experience last year (well, relatively speaking…). I encountered myself and didn’t recognize me – at all. In that split moment, I felt so many conflicting emotions - shame, pride, an acute sort of dislocation from myself and a renewed commitment to improving the accuracy of my self-perception.

Here is what happened. I was in the midst of leading my biannual women’s retreat, Homecoming, last October and I came upon a group of women. One woman was talking in a very animated fashion about this other woman she knew – a woman that clearly had made a positive impression on her. She painted a picture of this amazing woman, rattling off all the qualities this woman possessed and all the things she had juggled and had accomplished. As I listened in, I became entranced about what I was hearing. I wanted to know her. Whoever she was, I was convinced we would be fast friends. I didn’t even know her and yet I admired her. Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer, I inserted myself into the conversation, asking, “who is this woman?”All five women in the circle stopped and stared at me and then smiled, looking at each other. “Lael, it’s you”, the woman said. My jaw fell open and I was speechless. I recovered from my shock quickly, laughing at myself for having been caught in such an awkward bungle. But that experience made a lasting imprint on my nearly 40-year old soul.

While I was still mulling over this experience post-retreat, I came across a blog entry from the amazing Jess Esch that felt like it tapped into the same vein that was pulsating through me.

There once was a wonderful, magical woman
who people looked upon with envy and admiration.
People thought their lives would improve tenfold
if they could be more like her.
But the magical woman's mirror was broken.
She did not think she was special at all.
We are taught to see the best in others.
No one tells us to look inside ourselves
with the same intention.
I think that is sad.
It makes me wonder about the sun.
Does she know of her beauty?
The joy she brings?
The majesty emanating from her core?
Or does she envy the moon?

Both of these events had me retreating inward, convinced that this was my unique experience. Besides, how do you engage in a conversation in which you share how impressed, nay in awe, you were in hearing a description of yourself? It just doesn’t happen easily. But I was wrong. This is not just about me. In telling my own story, I have learned this is a common experience we share as women. Simply put: we don’t see ourselves clearly. I would wage a bet that we only see pieces, and often not the best ones, that create kind of a hodge-podge impression; a far cry from the big, bold and beautiful expression that complete strangers often experience of us.

What’s going on here? Why is this the case? I must admit, I don’t fully understand it (after all, it’s my stuff, too, right?), but I sense it’s really important. It feels like it’s a key that might unlock so many different but related dynamics in women’s lives: our tendency to diminish or underestimate our value (financial or otherwise), our reluctance to ask for help when we need it most, our resistance to stepping up, standing out and playing BIG (however that looks to you), the various health issues we tend to face as women (depression, heart disease, breast cancer), the competition we engage in with other women. A big fat key.

So what IS the cost of not seeing ourselves as others do? One theory I have is that we might come to rely more on other people’s perceptions of us. Do you see where this might lead? Needing approval? Wanting to be liked? Making decisions based on what other’s might feel or want instead of from our own inner wisdom? Playing it safe instead of taking a stand?

Another theory I’m playing with is how it directly relates to the wage gap we face as women. There are countless books (see Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation) and research (see http://www.catalyst.com/) that implore women to “make the ask” and instruct them on how best to do it. If we don’t see the full picture – the full impact – of what we are bringing, don’t we run the risk of selling ourselves short? Or trusting in someone else’s assessment of what is “fair?” Yikes. I’m beginning to believe this is one of the most universal ways we give away our power as women – by not taking responsibility for calculating our own worth. The irony is that women are known for being quite shrewd and savvy with money. After all, women make over 80% of the household buying decisions from groceries to cars and everything in between. So no excuses.

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place for me during a conversation at one of my most recent circles for women leaders. The topic was “stepping up and standing out” and – BLAM! – out came the theme again of not fully seeing or appreciating ourselves. The new piece for me was how this was all tied up in our notion of “the ego”. Specifically, our fear of it. There was this palpable sense of not wanting to be seen as too confident, too knowledgeable, too assertive, too (insert your own fear here). In this circle of women, we discussed that our default antidote to mitigate these concerns was to either diminish (“it really wasn’t a big deal..”), disclaim (“this is probably a crazy idea…”) or distract (“it was actually the team’s idea…”). What is it in us that prevents us from saying, “I did this!”, “I’m right” or “I’m worth this?”

For my part, I’m practicing some new behaviors. I’m nodding more as people share their experiences of me. Sounds like a simple thing, but I’m a blurter – I tend to sweep away the words of any compliments or praise while they are still being spoken. And before you catch me in a contradiction (about relying on others’ perceptions), let me assure you that my nodding technique is simply a trigger for me to ask myself, “is this true for me?” and then notice how it feels to recognize myself more clearly. To own myself – who I am, what I bring and how I show up in life – more fully. I am nodding myself into awareness.

I’m also saying “you’re welcome” more. As a mother, I am vigilant about teaching my children to acknowledge, receive and give thanks. But now I’m aware of the oft silent sibling of “thank you”….”you’re welcome”. Saying this gracious phrase signals to me that I have taken in and received more information about myself, for myself. Again, it may sound simple, but try it out. I wasn’t aware of how often I smooshed other words around that phrase, effectively burying it.

Finally, I’m practicing putting a period at the end of my statements. In my graduate program, I had the privilege of having this amazing professor who gifted me with the practice of putting a period after a statement. Up until that point, I was unaware of how often I would let my sentences straggle to a conclusion or taper off. Worse yet, I would diminish the impact of what I was saying by, once again, letting my message get lost in a cascade of other words. I remember watching her pinch her pointer finger and thumb together – as if she were literally picking up a period – and place it in front of her to signal she was done. Period. It got my attention then and I’m hoping to use that technique to get my own attention now.

My main message is this: fix your mirror. Don’t have one? Find one. Clean it off. Get one. Give yourself that much respect – you deserve to be seen by you. You are worthy of clear and enduring admiration, so be the first to get in line to witness yourself in all your glory. We owe that much to ourselves – and the world – as women. Period.

07 April, 2009

Loving Your Core of Rot

I once had a colleague who insisted that at the heart of every organization was a “core of rot”. He was a hilarious cynic who’s acerbic tongue often spoke the truth others denied. I remember vehemently denying his theory, as I pushed my rose-colored corporate glasses further up the bridge of my nose and sipped my purple cool-aid with a bendy straw.

For me, his notion struck a similar chord as that age-old existential question: “are people essentially good or essentially evil?” In case it’s not blatantly obvious, I’ve always been a devout member of the “good” camp. But I was so wrong. It’s not about good or bad or essence at all. It’s about wholeness. It about embracing and seeing the gifts in all the pieces that make us (and organizations) who we are – not just the ones we like. Ultimately, it’s about the courage to look our worst fears in the eye. And then befriending them – taking those fears out for a beer, hearing their side of the story and learning from their wisdom.

People have talked about this phenomenon for ages in a multitude of manners – Carl Jung talks about “our shadow”, Debbie Ford calls it “the dark side”. Open our eyes, and we see that our attempts to run away from or – worse yet – deny the existence of the darkest of those polarities are an exercise in futility. The Chinese culture teaches us about the need to acknowledge our wholeness in terms of Yin/Yang. The very planet we live on demonstrates this principle through the ebb and flow of the tides, and by witnessing the dance the sun and the moon do every day to give us both light and dark in our skies. And still we resist. Or at least I do.

Countless writers – including this one – say that it is part of our humanness to resist discomfort. We like peace and harmony and, well…light. Our dualistic culture has done a great job in reinorcing that notion throughout history, embedding those fears into our stories, archetypal myths and social constructs, making “darkness” synonymous with “evil” or “danger.” There is a reason witches wear black hats and monsters tend to come out at night. I’m touching upon a loaded topic – one that is better suited for a piece on diversity and how people and groups of people become marginalized. But for the purposes of this piece, my intent is to illustrate this point: darkness and shadow – and everything associated with it - get a bad rap and because of that our fears cause us to miss out on its gifts.

If you really think about it, it’s actually quite absurd. It’s like denying that a tree casts a shadow in bright sunlight. In that context, it just is what it is. It’s not good or bad, it’s simply part of the picture. Part of the whole. The light and the darkness provide context and perspective for the other to exist. They are both serving a purpose.

Let me first be very clear on what I mean by “darkness” and how that relates to the whole “core of rot” title. What lives in our shadow or the darkness are those pieces of ourselves that we find most distasteful – even shameful. Those pieces that are hard for us to be with; hard for us to find value in. The parts of ourselves that we keep close to our chest, like tightly-guarded secrets (like being judgmental, wickedly jealous, spiteful, needy or insecure. All the things that are not listed in the Book of Virtues. Get it?

We would like them to go away. And so we do our best to make that happen. And in doing so, we often spend ridiculous amounts of time engaged in fruitless attempts to chew our own leg out of the trap that is ourselves. At first we might deny those feelings or traits and then when (surprise!) they return we might resort to berating ourselves for being so petty or trite or small-minded or cruel for even having them to begin with. If that doesn’t work (which it never does), we run. We run as fast as we can into one of our comfortable happy places. We get busy, we create situations in which others need and depend upon us more, we distract ourselves, we isolate ourselves or we numb ourselves. So you tell me…who won this battle? You or your fear? Who is the fugitive in this scenario?

We all do this, myself included. But I’ve recently been playing with a new way of looking at this juggernaut. Envision that each time you cast off these unwanted pieces of yourself, seeing them as unnecessary, unproductive and worthless, you begin to form a pile. Over time, that pile gets bigger and then begins to rot from the inside out. Over time, it begins to stink. In many ways, it can be likened to a compost heap – a repository for all the pieces of scrap and leftovers that didn’t make it into the body. And what do we know about composting? That’s right: with a little turning and churning (some might say loving), it turns into a powerhouse of nutrient rich soil, capable of growing just about everything. Like you. The best version of you possible.

In a similar vein, author Debbie Ford writes about an exercise she went through that invited participants to fill up a bus in their minds with all of their “sub-personalities” and then go on an imaginary bus ride, during which you would get to know all those people on your bus – especially the ones you wanted to most avoid. Turn and churn… Some of her characters included Big Bertha Big Mouth, Angry Alice, Trashy Trixie and Resistant Rita. The idea, she asserts, is that each one of these passengers has a gift for you, but because they each represent a piece of yourself that you have spent a lot of effort and time ignoring, you never receive that gift. Her story was that as soon as she accepted her new friends, they stopped showing up in her life. They felt seen. Known. Valued.

The reality is that many beautiful, powerful and important things have been born out of darkness. Artists and writers talk about the dark places they must go to manifest their creations. As you’re reading this, you might be reminded of particularly horrific incident that enabled something beautiful to emerge – like a phoenix from the flame. Indeed, most of us are brought into this worlld by going through a dark and constricting birth canal. Into the light. And life.

Debbie Ford’s story reminds us of our own resourcefulness. She believes – and I wholeheartedly agree – that “we’re brilliantly designed to heal ourselves and return to wholeness.”

Now, I want to just pause here and acknowledge that this sounds all well and good, but it’s not so easily done – especially when it’s your pile your being asked to turn and churn and you’re the one who is itching to run at a break-neck pace from it (whatever “it” is for you). But to encourage you to stand your ground and begin to break the cycle of denial and resistance, here are some relatively simple and effective techniques to help you peer into your darkness and perhaps get a some rich soil in return.

Name It
Simply put, that without a name is capable of looming larger than it ought. If you can attach a name to it – anxiety, jealousy, whining, insecurity, self-doubt… - it becomes much more manageable and can be dealt with accordingly. Start with, “what is it I’m feeling?” or “what is this behavior I’m doing called?”. Once you can categorize it, you can make a choice about what you want to do with it.

This is a fabulous technique I learned at The Coaches Training Institute. It’s similar to naming it, but in a much more get-on-with-it-already fashion. In this technique you simply call it like you see it – sometimes hitting the nail squarely on the head. You might say, “okay, so I’m controlling” or “Yup. I’m a perfectionist”. This simple statement reminds you of your imperfect humanness, and invites yourself to not take yourself so seriously as you step over it and get on with your life.

Go There
One of my wonderful clients has this phrase I love. As she rallies herself to have a particularly challenging or confrontational conversation, she’ll say, “let’s have this conversation.” Directed at yourself, do you see how that firmly pins the topic against the wall? Who is the fugitive there? This technique invites you to come out from behind yourself and into the conversation – in an honest, direct and committed fashion. A couple of great resources to support this technique are Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (just apply the principles in her book to yourself.) and the Morning Pages exercise in Julie Cameron's book The Artist's Way.

So the next time you are feeling the darkness descend upon you and the lightness fade, grab a flashlight and a shovel and go out to your compost pile. If you stop playing the fugitive role long enough to churn up your cast off pieces, you might just uncover something waiting to be born that will enable you to be more whole.

25 March, 2009

Spare the Spider

Want a wake up call? Listen to this story, and see if you can hear your own story in it.

Okay, so there is this spider that, after laying her eggs, lays down in the center of them and slowly begins to decompose. By the time her eggs hatch, she has reached such a state that her body – the one that just gave birth to these baby spiders – now is their sustenance. They feed off her dead body until they can fend for themselves and venture off into the world on their own.

A powerful metaphor for the selfless and all-consuming nature of a mother’s love? Certainly. A reminder of the “circle of life” that connects us all? Yeah, that too. A gross and familiar example of how easily we can give of ourselves until there is nothing left? For me it was. I have been that spider more times than I care to admit. It’s easy to be seduced into the romantic notion of dying for a good cause. But I’m getting better. That spider is my inspiration. My muse for self-care.

Is that a true story? I have no idea – I can’t remember where I read it and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the story it kicked up for you. Much like the flight attendant schpeel that reminds airplane passengers to put the oxygen mask over themselves first before assisting a child, the story of this spider calls us all to keep our martyring-ways in check. No matter what your “children” are – your job, your family, your volunteer work, your friends…. – she looks at us with an “are you serious?” glance and asks us point blank: “is this worth dying for?”

As added fuel to the potency of this story, the spider is actually a powerful symbol of balance – in fact, its body is literally the shape of a figure eight which, when laid on its side, forms an infinity sign: reminding us of the need to walk between and integrate the past and present, death and rebirth, physical and spiritual and masculine and feminine. In this context, the spider calls us to stay whole amidst the polarities that can pull our lives (and us) apart.

So why am I talking about this? For one, it is a constant struggle of mine as a working mom, a semi-recovering perfectionist and a woman of many passions who is driven, driven, driven to grow, learn and experience all that life has to offer. I call it “sucking the marrow of out the bone of life”. Well, duh! What happens when the marrow is sucked from the bone? The bones get brittle and snap. End of story. So this is personal for me. It’s about periodically slowing down and using my experience and wisdom to make conscious choices. That’s the easy part. The hard part comes before that moment: admitting I can’t have it all and do it all. Right now. I have to choose. And sometimes (cringe) I have to wait or (heaven forbid) say no outright.

On a related note, I see this pattern repeated everywhere – with my friends, family, clients. People are tired – especially the women I know. They give and give and give of themselves. They do it because they care, they believe and they are committed and loyal. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at some point – and we all know when this happens for ourselves – we pass the tipping point and we give too much of ourselves. Sometimes we even lose ourselves. It can happen suddenly (like a “cosmic 2x4” upside the head) or it can happen very, very gradually until we wake up one day and realize we’re far, far away from where we wanted to be – from what fulfills us.

On a larger scale, I can even see the decomposed spider in organizations, government and educational institutions. Organizations committed to following a path, a plan or a strategy that has long-since lost its luster or outlived its relevance or usefulness. But nevertheless, the leaders and management in these situations tend to hold on even tighter – like a dog on a bone – for lack of …what? A better idea? A new focus? Courage to say that the emperor has no clothes or to admit failure? Most of us have experienced this or at the very least read about it in the news. You know it’s happening when people start talking about “bleeding” for the company. Again, the spider asks: “is this worth dying for?”

At the heart of this spider story is an invitation to be honest, to take responsibility and to make change. The embedded premise is that you are worth saving. You and your life are valuable. Caught up in the traps of our own minds, the spider taps us on the shoulder and reminds us to take responsibility for ourselves – for our lives – as much as we take responsibility for those people, circumstances and situations around us. She points at her decomposing body and asks, “is this really what you want?” Put another way, the spider reminds us of our responsibility to ourselves – and to our world. The spider insists, as Marianne Williamson once did with her famous quote: “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is and a host of other books, does some amazing work around poking holes in our limiting (often suffocating) belief systems that call us to unnecessary suffering. Starting with our thoughts, she asks 4 basic questions:
· Is it (our thought) true?
· Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
· How do I react when I think that thought?
· Who would I be without that thought?
By taking a hard and steady look at our stories we hold of “reality”, Katie gently (and not so gently) brings us back to ourselves and asks us to take responsibility for what is within our control. All the stress we feel, she boldly asserts, is caused by arguing with what is. She teaches that there are three types of “business” – yours, mine and the universe’s (or God’s). In this context, Katie cautions that our stress is often due to “mentally living out of your own business”. So next time you feel stressed (or feel the call to decompose), ask yourself who’s business you are in mentally. Watch how that question can bring you back to yourself and what you can control.

As we enter this season of birth and renewal, I invite you to take inventory of you and your life as you’ve created it. Are there parts of you that need to be resuscitated? Where do you need to breathe new life and love into yourself? And before you say, “I have no choice”, ask yourself if you are prepared to die as a result of that decision. Don’t be the spider. Choose to spare her and see what happens – to you and the world around you.

02 February, 2009

The Women

Last July, in a sea of 3,000 women, I experienced my first all women's sprint triathlon. The Danskin Triathlon - the longest running women's triathlon series in the US (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year )- was designed with women like me ("the newbie") in mind. The hook that got me was the promise that I couldn't come in last. The founder, Sally Edwards, makes a point to come in last in every single leg at every single event (there are nine in cities across the country). I was scared witless, but I knew I wasn't alone. I was with my sisters, that much was clear.

As we all convened the day before the mammoth event to get our various pins and numbers and stickers and chips and directions...Sally Edwards took the stage and said two things that will forever be burned in my memory. First, with a big grin on her face, she said "this is what 60 looks like" (wow!) then, "as an all women's triathlon, we do things a little bit differently..." I was inspired. I was so grateful I had acted on my instincts that led me to this event. Most importantly, I was moved to tears of gratitude that I was born a woman. And as I scanned the room - taking in the sea of women of all ages, sizes and fitness levels - I pledged my support to their success. I was hooked.

Fast forward four months. I am sitting in a movie theatre next to one of my best girlfriends watching The Women. With a power-house all women cast, we were primed for a great movie. And it was. But it left me a little deflated...even shamed. On first blush, the movie felt centered on the materialistic, catty and, well, mean, side of women's relationships. And yet it stayed with me. So much so that I bought it. After watching it a second time - and seeing the special features that highlighted the history, cast perspectives and all-women production culture - I saw it very differently. To me, this film captured the potency and complexities of women's relationships - the loyalty and devotion, the competition and "rules" and the ability to validate and "get" each other.

So how do both these experiences - Danskin and The Women - intersect? In my mind, they both pull at opposite corners of the same blanket, causing this tension or upset somewhere in the middle. Perhaps "tension" isn't the right word...more like "conflict". Tugging at opposing corners of a blanket like that tends to pull it out of square over time - compromising its integrity. We (women), by the way, are the blanket in question. Let me explain...

One corner represents our unequivocal and infinite capacity to support one another. When we are in need, we call upon each other. We see another stressed mother shopping with her kids in the grocery store and we nod at each other knowingly. We make each other laugh. We cry on each other's shoulders. We tell each other our stories. We love each other when we forget to save enough love for ourselves. But then you know all this already. Still, it bears repeating because it is indicative of the power we hold as women. It is our gift. Perhaps the best expression of this ferocious and unwavering love we have for one another was captured by author Kelly Corrigan Transcending Words on Women and Strength. If you haven't seen this YouTube video yet, I highly recommend it.... It takes my breath away every time I watch it. Again, it makes me so glad I was born a woman. It makes me burst with pride.

The other corner of the blanket represents our competition with one another - our tendency to compare, contrast, take away from or otherwise size each other up. If the former corner was about "getting your back", this one is about "stabbing your back". It's the corner we don't talk about as women. Unfortunately, it feels like this is the corner of our blanket most frequently highlighted by the media - showing women fighting with each other, being deceitful and catty. This is where I wince. This was what made me partially slink out of the movie theatre after seeing The Women. And yet, it's what we know as spiders sharing a web. We are constantly spinning, shoring up, assessing, redefining and repositioning ourselves in the context of a complex network of understanding. And so what if we compete?

While attending this amazing women's leadership retreat last summer on Isle au Haut (check out Eleanor Days), one woman (and I adored her for this) blurted out, "competition gets a bad rap with women". I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I heard this...no longer feeling the need to safeguard or qualify my competitive nature. In fact, as I engaged in this conversation last summer I was training for the Danskin Triathlon where I would put that belief to the test along with 3,000 other women. After years of competitive running - and competitive living - it was not until my Danskin experience, at the age of 39 that I officially owned it. I am a competitive person. There, I said it. The difference is that I feel like I'm no longer hiding under this shroud, pretending. I've made friends with my warrior - or so I'm trying. What helped me on this journey was a healthy reframe of competition given to me by a wise woman many years ago. I'm not sure who the source was, but it went something like this:

You are my adversary,
But you are not my enemy.
For your resistance gives me strength.
Your will gives me courage.
Your spirit enables me.
And though I aim to defeat you,
Should I succeed I will not humiliate you.
Instead I will honor you,
For without you I am a lesser person.

It reminds me of the biggest surprise I encountered during the Danskin. The unbelievable feeling of support in the face of fierce competition. During the swim, among all the "sorries" for the accidental kicks and whacks, you'd hear, "Come on, you can do this!". On the bike route, you'd hear "Girls ROCK!!" on the hills. But on the three mile run - the last leg of the triathlon - you actually got a chance to look each other in the eye on the out and back course. You'd get close enough to see the markings they'd put on themselves for inspiration along with their required number: "Molly's Mom", "Girl Power", "Survivor". Women would high-five each other the entire run. My hand was sore when I crossed the finish line.

So what if we took this notion of competition back to our competitive corner? Play with it long enough and it starts to look (and feel) like "support", doesn't it? Granted, I know I might be walking on a fine line of interpretation, but what if I'm onto something? What if we could have our cake and eat it, too? What if "competing" with another woman wasn't about pushing her down, but was about pulling her up? To new heights? When she needed it most? Because we can. Because we "get" each other. Because we care.

Maybe our blanket could be square and keep its integrity after all? Or maybe a little tugging and stretching is good for us. Perhaps our blanket was never meant to be fully square, but more imperfect. Like a web.

24 January, 2009

Simply Play

I played in the snow with my six year old son today. These are his post-play "glittens" - a cross between mittens and gloves, given to him from our dear friend Rosemary. They must have weighed five pounds each after our adventures in the snow. As they sat dripping on our radiator cover, we smiled at them over our hot chocolate - knowing we shared an understanding and a mutual appreciation for the "work" it took to get those mittens to that state.

As January nears its end, I am sitting with notion of "play" and its role in my life - and its role in all of our lives. Does it have a role? Have we found play a place? I had not, it seemed - despite the ease with which I laugh and my general love-of-life nature. Most recently, I have come to the disconcerting conclusion that I relegated my intentions to play to the shady and overstuffed box labeled "when I have time". Fortunately, I have children. And as anyone who has children knows, they tend to have a way of keeping you honest and discouraging you from taking yourself too seriously.

As is my custom, I began the new year with my annual tarot card reading - one card for every month - with the amazing, Karen Wyman (anyone who attended last October's Homecoming Retreat will remember Karen's talent...). The card I pulled for January was Play. Coincidentally, it was the same card I had pulled at the retreat with Karen. At that time, I had earnestly asked Karen, "what does that mean....exactly?". She smiled, rolled her eyes and replied, "Ah Lael...it means to play". "Oh", I said...still not sure. Then it showed up again for January. It seems to be following me - dogging me like a homesick puppy eager for a belly scratch. But, as with each of my monthly cards, I dutifully carried that notion around with me for the month of January to see what it held for me. I found it today. Indeed, in reflecting on January thus far, it found me - but good.

The snow - and having children - has helped tremendously. What adult doesn't love the notion of a "snow day", where everything cancels and we're given complete permission to play, loll and stay in our pajamas all day? In this month, I've gone sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. I've baked, read voraciously and knit hats and socks and scarves. Last night, I even went on a date (with the above mentioned six year old) to the Nathan Clifford elementary school talent show - a unforgettable treat that left me misty-eyed and inspired by the courage and conviction of youth. Today, we made sophisticated sled tracks in the snow pile at the end of our street - taking care to name each one, articulate the merits of each and devise sophisticated engineering solutions to improve performance.

Kids get it. Adults were kids once, but like all the classic movie plots (The Polar Express, Mr. Magorium's Emporium...) remind us, we eventually forget the art of play. Because we are good at achieving and reaching and get sucked all too soon into the hurry/do/go of our culture, we forget to see the magic in moments. And in doing so, we forget to see that the magic outside us also lives within us. I know I did.

In this age that is marked by countless "dis-eases" and ailments, there seems to be a return to the basic premise - the basic goodness and restorative nature - of play. Carl Honore writes about the critical importance of "challenging the cult of speed" in his phenomenal book entitled In Praise of Slowness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another favorite of mine, called this "finding flow" - the need to slow down enough to notice and engage with life in more meaningful and fulfilling ways. Abby Seixas invites us all to regularly access the "deep river within" as a means to restore, ground and recalibrate ourselves according to what is most important to us.

Take a quick trip to your local book store or do a search on the internet and you will find the topic is reaching even into the inner sanctums of board rooms and austere corporate offices. Granted, it might not be called "play" - executives and marketers opt for the more sophisticated concept of "improvisation" or "creative retreats"... but they're really playing. And here's the cool part: they're finding this practice positively impacts their bottom line. A consulting colleague of mine, owner of BossaNova Consulting, specializes in bringing improv comedy into the consulting world. People love it. I know of organizations who have paused during their mid-winter strategic sessions to have snowmen building contests. At a board retreat I facilitated for a women's organization last summer, we carved out a two hour chunk of time for play and invited women to take advantage of the beautiful venue at this lakefront home. You could hear the laughter and splashes as they had cannonball contests.

What if more organizations took this approach. What kind of a world would we live in then? Peter Senge and his colleagues in the book Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future assert that the spaciousness and surrendering nature of play allow for "letting go and letting come"; by putting down the reins of control, we open ourselves (and the world) up to what is "seeking to emerge". Imagine the power - and ease! - in that.

Here's what I've come to appreciate about adults and play:
  • We all remember how to do it...we might just need a little reminding

  • It's paradoxical: it makes time seem to stop and yet it makes time go by fast

  • It's highly productive, satisfying, fulfilling and entirely healthy

  • There is an incredible return on the investment of play

So why is play so far out of our consciousness as adults? Why do we tend to resist it? Scoff at it? Because we are a hardy lot, raised on the western ideals of working hard, being industrious and ultimately, "fighting" for what we believe in. Hmm. We're good at rising to the occasion, rallying and "picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off", as Obama called out to us all in his recent Inauguration speech. Granted, I am a huge fan of our new leader and I responded accordingly. Because I'm good at that. Responding. Acting. Doing something. Getting busy. But aren't we all? Ask me to rise up and I immediately take the bait with a resounding "yes". But invite me to play for while and I hesitate or, worse yet, panic.

It seems I am not alone. We are a nation fundamentally out of balance. Perhaps it's time to revisit that age-old notion of "work hard, play hard". We're got the "working" part down pat. Now it's time to play!