midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “introvert”

On Being Alone: An Unanticipated Thanksgiving

I had moved into my new apartment in Summerville, SC just five days before Thanksgiving and two weeks into a new job, which I took to start a new career in counseling, more than 500 miles from where I had called “home” for nearly three decades, Maryland. It was too soon to fly back to see family for the holiday, and too ominous to face the Thanksgiving Day and subsequent weekend travel frenzies. Besides, my kids were scattered – my daughter in France for her post-college job teaching English and my son visiting his mother in Texas.

So I resigned myself to that most melancholia of situations that Americans seek desperately to avoid – spending a hyped holiday alone. I was too new in my adopted hometown to be taken in as a Thanksgiving orphan – barely anybody even knew I existed here, save for my new work colleagues and one college alum.

I was destined to join those invisible people who had nowhere to go for a holiday that screamed Americana, with its pilgrim, culinary, family, togetherness and football customs, and nobody coming to visit them – the stereotypical widowers, spinsters, shut-ins, homeless, outcasts, infirm, aged, black sheep, oddballs, cat ladies, mountain men, lone wolves, eccentrics, hermits, hoarders , rejects and recluses.

I searched for a volunteer opportunity to serve meals to the less fortunate on Thanksgiving Day, but couldn’t find one. A big meal-serving charity in Charleston already was overloaded with volunteers and could accept no more, and other organizations needed help in the days before Thanksgiving. I settled on volunteering for the Turkey Day Run 5K in Charleston, SC, a big fund-raising event. That got me out at 6 a.m. and occupied me on a chilly, rainy day until 10:30 a.m.

For the preceding week, a common salutation with clients at work, exchanged both ways, was “Have a good Thanksgiving,” or, “So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” constant reminders that I was doing nothing for Thanksgiving and that Thanksgiving, if I stayed strong mentally and emotionally, would be no worse than any other day, but certainly not “good” or “happy” in the traditional sense of celebrating a sacred time with friends and loved ones.

When I returned to my apartment, I did what anyone would do on a rainy day holiday

EmptyApt

My “chair” and “table” in my Spartan apartment

with nowhere to go and nobody to entertain – took a long nap to sleep some of the day away. If spending a uniquely American holiday alone was melancholy to begin with, it was amplified by my current Spartan living conditions. I have no furniture – none. My place is bare, except for the air mattress serving as my bed, a food cooler as my chair and a plastic container as my dining table. I could not fit any furniture in my car on the move down, and I won’t be returning “home” to retrieve furniture and pack a rental truck for another two weeks. Not even a TV or a stereo or Internet. Silence. Just me and books. On my Thanksgiving menu: catfish and frozen sweet potato fries.

When I awoke around 4, I decided to get out of my threadbare confines and bring my computer to the apartment complex’s clubhouse, where I could get Internet connection and watch the football games. I predicted I would have the place to myself, as other residents would be celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family elsewhere. As I approached the clubhouse, I saw a bunch of people mingling inside.

Oh, great. Booked for a private party,” I thought. “Looks like back to my apartment for catfish and a book.”

But I decided to check to make sure.

“Is this a private party?” I asked the woman who greeted me at the door.
“No, come on in. We’re The Misfits,” she replied.

“Are you sure?” I asked, still feeling as though I was crashing a closed event. “I didn’t bring anything.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got plenty,” she replied.

I entered to find about 40 people, from toddlers to grandparents, celebrating around a veritable Thanksgiving buffet feast. Turns out, The Misfits were what my greeter called “implants” – well, she meant “transplants,” not people with dental work – people at the apartment complex and their friends who had moved to South Carolina from elsewhere and had no family nearby. They had been gathering for holidays and other events for several years.

I stayed for several hours, stuffing myself, watching football, and meeting friendly people in a festive environment. It sure beat being alone, and made for a surprising, grateful Thanksgiving.

That said, being alone is not dreadful. It does not equate to sadness, depression, or even necessarily loneliness. It’s not to be feared. I often embrace solitude, and have done and continue to do many things by myself, even though I enjoy social activities, spending time with friends and being a family man. Enjoying solitary pursuits and engaging in social endeavors are not mutually exclusive. I’m an introvert. I am often more inspired by things I do alone than energized by being around lots of people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like a good party or social outings.

Being alone is about being comfortable with the self, and knowing that it is a condition that one can change if desired. It is about finding things to do that one values and from which one derives pleasure when undertaken alone. It is about feeling worthy and valuable as a human being, even if one is alone, at least temporarily. It is about being comfortable turning inward and exploring the messages of one’s own soul – the often hidden wants as well as the often elusive sense of peace and acceptance, the true self – rather than constantly craving and responding to external stimuli. It is about having the chance to slow down, quiet the mind, reflect and recharge, and direct one’s energies toward passions, free from the pulls and distractions of others’ wants, needs, expectations and demands.

By twist of fate, my 2017 Thanksgiving combined both ends of the spectrum – aloneness and togetherness. I give thanks for both in my life.

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Tennis Teaching and Counseling: Immersion in “The People Business”

This summer, I made the seemingly stark transition from working as a counseling intern in an outpatient mental health clinic serving low-income clients to teaching tennis at a large beach resort . One would think the two jobs would have nothing in common, both in clientele and job requirements, but that’s not the case. What’s the common denominator? Quickly evaluating, working with, and constantly interacting with people and all their personality types, moods, behaviors, idiosyncrasies and expectations.

In my previous job and career in public relations, I could frequently go a whole day with minimal direct interactions with people, if I wanted to. People in those jobs often interact mostly through their computer and e-mail and may even intentionally avoid personal, face-to-face conversations.

But that’s not possible as a counselor or as a tennis professional. Tennis is a form of therapy for many people, a way to escape stress, immerse in a physical activity and release tensions on the ball and endorphins in the body. The tennis pro is the counselor on the court. Part of the pro’s job is to figure out what makes people tick, what they want, how to engage, encourage and motivate them, and how to make them feel good about themselves. And that’s just referring to the paying clients. At the resort, there’s a large staff of tennis teachers and administrative workers, all with their own personality quirks, with whom I must interact personally every day.

I’ve learned there’s also some personality diagnosing taking place on the court, and learning how to interact with people differently. Some players are easy going and just happy to be playing; others are more demanding and have certain expectations – in other words, more difficult to please and more apt to complain or emphasize the negative. Many are happy; others crabby. Many are classic high-achievers; some are overly self-critical. Some players are filled with doubts while others have over-inflated egos. Some players like to talk a lot; others rarely utter a word.

Most parents are charming, but a few can be insufferable, as most tennis pros can attest. Most kids are a joy and are eager to please, while a few find pleasure in defiance and pushing limits. Some kids are more fragile than others. A few kids have emotional or behavioral challenges that present on the court.

While I doubt I will have any significant impact on anybody’s life this summer in my role as a tennis pro, like I felt I did as a counseling intern, I believe I am getting great practice at interacting with strangers and seeking to get a sense of who they are and making a quick connection, skills that translate directly to the counseling environment and relationship.

I never thought these two seemingly disparate professions would have such similarities until I became immersed in the tennis resort environment. In many ways, it has been just as challenging as counseling because of the need to develop fast interpersonal relationships, with both my fellow teaching pros and clients. For an introvert like me, that is a skill I am going to be constantly honing, on the court or in a counseling session. In each profession, I am in “the people business.”

An Authentic Conversation at College Reunion

In a previous post about participating in an author signing to promote Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet at my Colgate University college reunion, I challenged myself to break out of my comfort zone and strike up conversations with people whom I had never met or barely knew.

I’m an introvert on the personality tests, but not so far from the extrovert side of the measurement. I just have to be in the right mood, or make a conscious effort to be more outgoing.

My social experiment went pretty well. I hung out with an old friend I had known since middle school and two of his college friends, who I had not known before. I sold one book on the spot just by introducing myself and talking with a classmate, who got out her cell phone and ordered from Amazon before we departed (at least she said she did).

Colgate University Reunion Torchlight Procession

Colgate University Reunion Torchlight Procession

I talked with one drunk graduate 25 years my junior about his entrepreneurial idea to launch a website to help locally-owned retail businesses in small towns to increase their online sales, and a drunk nurse who turned out to be the daughter of the owner of a popular pub in the college town. I’m counting the drunkards even though they tend to babble on endlessly, just because I stuck with it long enough to learn about them.

But the most interesting conversation of the reunion weekend came out of the blue. I was hanging out with my new buddies in a side room where the soda dispenser was located during our class dinner, not feeling much like mingling in the main hall because I was enjoying the company of these guys. A woman walked in who I recognized. I had never known her well, but I knew we lived in the same dorm freshman year and must have had many mutual acquaintances from that time.

I introduced myself and we wound up talking by the soda machine for maybe five minutes. There was nothing spectacular about that. Anyone can chit-chat about the weather, where they live or their job for five minutes. What was exceptional about this conversation compared to any other I had at reunion was the depth of the content in a time so short that it would normally be reserved strictly for small talk.

She told me she was going through a divorce after about 20 years of marriage and three sons. I replied that I had experienced a similar situation, except with younger kids and a shorter marriage. I asked if she was the one who wanted the break or if it was mutual. She responded that she didn’t want a divorce; it was at her husband’s initiative. I said mine happened the same way. She acknowledged that divorce “sucks.” I asked her how her sons were handling it. She responded that the two older ones seemed OK, but the youngest, a teenager, was having a hard time coping with it.

Then she told me what was weighing heavily on her mind as part of the divorce package: she was faced with selling her house and moving within a month or two. Again, I told her I had been through a similar scenario. I wished her the best in handling a difficult time of life. She knew I had participated in the author signing and expressed an interest in the book, so I took down her e-mail to correspond later.

And then we said goodbye and she left the room. I saw her again at breakfast the next morning, but from a distance and only long enough to wave hello. And that was that. I did e-mail her with information about Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet after I got home, but didn’t hear back.

This woman invited me into the most consequential happenings in her personal life during a brief encounter. Why, I don’t know. We could have just as easily talked about nothing for five minutes, or just said a quick hello and gone separate ways. I was grateful she engaged in a conversation with meaning.

I got to know her – the real person with real life issues – just a little, and it felt genuine to make an authentic connection, as brief as it was. Such authentic conversations in which someone dares to reveal something personal and meaningful are all too rare, and makes life and personal interaction so much more lively and interesting.

Bursting the Bubble at Reunion

Next Friday night at this time I will be driving through North Nowheresville, PA, somewhere near Scranton, corporate home of Dunder Mifflin, on my way to my 30th college reunion at Colgate University in the tiny upstate village of Hamilton, NY.

It’s a seven- to Colgateeight-hour drive from the DC area, and I can’t leave until 5 p.m. because it’s the first day of summer session class for my counseling program. The reunion check-in office closes at 2 a.m., so I’ll be cutting it close and could be spending the night on a bench overlooking the campus pond.

I decided to go last-minute because I’ll have the opportunity to participate as an author in a book-signing event at the campus bookstore, my first public appearance to promote the self-published Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet.

Colgate is a beautiful campus in a picturesque setting, so I enjoy going back, except for the drive. The weekend is packed with activities, lectures and celebrations – the university does a great job welcoming back its alumni. And I enjoy seeing a small group of friends with whom I lived freshman year and with whom I participated on a particularly zealous intramural team through senior year.

But the vast majority of my classmates who will attend will be strangers to me – some people I never knew at all, and others I may have known as acquaintances but certainly not anymore with the passage of time.

So I’m going to try a social experiment during this reunion, especially since I’m going there to be a self-promoter for my book anyway. I’m going to try to step out of my comfort zone and my small bubble of friends and introduce myself and talk to people from my class whom I don’t know or barely knew. You see, everyone will be doing the same thing – socializing and hanging with the same people they did 30 years ago, and for the most part overlooking others who weren’t part of their group.

It’s human nature. Cliques don’t change. There’s comfort in cliques, comfort in what’s known. There’s risk in stepping out.  It’s not easy for a person like me, an introvert by nature but who still likes to be sociable and can flip the extroversion switch at times. I’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll come home with some new friends…and hopefully a few sales.

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