Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Secret is Attitude

My friend Joe is a baseball player in the Giants’ organization. He plays AA, a minor league level. During spring training he gets to rub elbows with the guys from major league teams, and he enjoys asking them about the factors of their successes. Joe has collected a lot of interesting thoughts and compelling stories, but one thing he mentioned to me caught my attention as being about more than just baseball. He asked a famous pitcher how he spots greatness.
The pitcher replied, "There really are no substantial physical differences in the Majors. They're all great players or they wouldn't be there. The talent is all so top level that you can't see much of a difference between them, except in their results."
Joe asked, “So why is it some of them are superstars and others not? Some are Hall of Famers and others end up selling cars for their brother-in-law.”
The pitcher said, "Well, taking away performance enhancing drugs, the difference is attitude."
He went on to explain that a superstar pitcher wakes up on a pitching day expecting to pitch a perfect game. When confronting each batter, with every movement and every breath he figures out how to blow it past him, or fool him, or get him to ground out. He pursues victory as if it were his birthright. Even if he gets shelled, he walks off the mound certain, truly certain that he will throw a perfect game the next time he takes the mound. And when he can't do that, he starts failing.
For my purposes as a writer and leader, I think there is more to this superstar than adopting a posture arrogance. To decompose it a little, the superstar pitcher, as described by our major leaguer, has laser-sharp focus on the highest possible objective. Failures don’t stop him or slow him down. They're not even speed bumps; they happen and they're gone. They don’t impair his single-minded dedication to perform to his own limits and beyond, right in the here and now. He does not permit doubts to creep in and lower his expectations of himself.
We can't avoid it that our lives are filled with uncertainty. It’s a tough journey and each step is usually a little different for everyone. Completing a journey of growth and change requires many different things that may be hard to control, but one place we can focus, one place we can always use to ground ourselves, even when we’re soaring, is our attitudes.
When we wake up each day, do we hit the mound confident? Are we focused on greatness? When we confront obstacles, are we thinking about “not failing” when we might instead be thinking about blowing it past our opponents? Do we let mistakes linger, get depressed and spend energy assigning blame? Does our mood and commitment and performance drop with setbacks? Do we permit doubt to creep in? Are we shying away from our best performances for fear of disappointing?
It seems to me that a huge obstacle to success is letting the past govern our attitude toward today's challenges. Our assumptions about our limitations are wrong, and our attitudes are what we decide they should be. Just like the superstars in the Majors.
What do you recommend to help us get our attitude exactly where we need it each morning?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cultivating Regrets

I mistrust those who claim to live without regrets. Regrets carve the topology of our souls as much as any actions. When cultivated, they can be so instructive I struggle to grasp how I could cope without them. For instance, I regret paying Tim Lopez $3 to eat that cockroach. He would have done it for $1.25 easy, and the explosion later that day in class would have been no less spectacular. I regret shoving all those stray cats through the dog door of my neighbor's house while they were on vacation. It boggles the mind how much mess and misery can come from a lighthearted prank, not to mention I had to mow their lawn for the next four years. I regret hiding grampa’s false teeth in the lasagna at my sister’s 11th birthday party. Things were said that night, ugly things, that should never have been uttered. That was my bad, sweetheart. It’s safe to eat again. Try the canoli! I regret sleeping with Kim’s mom almost as much as I regret that Kim caught us. I regret I didn’t sell my soul for half of Joss Whedon’s talent, but then again, maybe it’s not too late. To sum up the point, I treasure many moments of my own asinine behavior. These are gifts that just keep giving. I'm bad enough with them, but I can scarcely imagine the idiot I would be today if I lived without regrets. I urge you to go forth and do something regrettable tonight.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Hurricane in Venice

She pulled out a map of Venice and began scribbling.

“Here is farmacia, how you say, medica. Yes. This is church, and museum, very beautiful, very old, you must see, do not, what is word, miss. There,” Francesca made a circular mark, “is grocery.”

I shook my head. “No, no, you don’t understand. We don’t care about those things. We are on a Quest.” 
All photos in this post Copyright Ken Furie, 2013.
Do not use without permission.

“Quest…?” said Francesca.

“Yes! We crossed the globe to find the greatest gelato in the world.”

“Not ‘we’,” interjected my wife.

“Ahh, gelato.” Francesca smiled.

“And pizza. We can’t leave Italy until we find the greatest pizza.”

“Yes,” Francesca agreed. “Also the pizza.”

I loved the way she said the word, artfully different than we do in America. She pronounced it “PEET-sah” with a sharp “t”, like they say it in Italy, like they own the word, because we were in Italy, and she was Italian, and nothing is so perfect as saying the word “PEET-sah” with a sharp “t” in Italy.

“PEET-sah.” I said.

“Farmacia,” said my wife.

“Gelato,” said my son, 13 years-old.

It was 3 p.m. We’d been up for 28 hours and were over the edge with exhaustion. Our eyes were sand-papered and burning, and our minds wandered behind a gauze curtain. I was pushing us to stay awake a few more hours before collapsing, just until dark -- that’s my system for beating jet lag.

Francesca babbled merrily, made more scrawls on the map, gave us the keys to our rental apartment, and departed.

Our 16-year-old daughter staked out the best room, while our son stuck his head into his iPhone. My wife stuck her head out the window.

“Venice,” my wife sighed. “So romantic.”

I joined her to see the romance. Our apartment was on the third floor. Below us was the serene, green-hued mirror of a canal. Lining the waterway as far as we could see were splotches of colors: plaster in yellows, oranges, pinks, and red peeled away from the clay bricks of the buildings. Flowers were everywhere, overflowing boxes perched on window ledges. Scrolled ornaments and architectural details graced every structure in sight. My wife sighed again.

I looked back in the apartment and locked eyes with my son. We were two men with but a single purpose: PEET-sah.

A few hours later we staggered back to the apartment. The pizza had been amazing, the gelato even better, but nothing surpassed the prospect of our heads on pillows. My daughter almost cried with relief at the sight of bed, and my son didn’t bother to undress.

I settled into bed with my wife and closed my eyes, never in my life more ready for unconsciousness. But my heart raced and my eyes popped open. I shut them and they popped open again.

I flopped over. Perspiration beaded my skin; it was blazing hot in the apartment. We had the green window shutters thrown open but there was no breeze to catch. I flung off most of my sweaty clothing, but I did not dry off at all in the humidity.

What was this? I thought. I’ve slept through cannon fire and my dog snoring like Sasquatch. And now, after 31 hours, I can’t sleep?

An hour went by and my mind was finally drifting away when I heard the whine of a mosquito at my ear.

By reflex I smacked myself and rang my ear like a bell. A few more buzzes and I went berserk. I leapt from bed, grabbed a t-shirt and stalked the mosquitoes for half an hour. There seemed to be hundreds of them, all smarter than me. I flailed like an enraged gorilla.

My wife stirred and painfully looked up to see me standing shirtless and sweaty on a table. She squinted, so confused it was almost laughable.

“What the…?”

“It’s okay, honey,” I assured her. “You’re having that same dream again.”

Content with that, she resumed her slumbers, and after another few minutes of futile battle I succumbed. I got back in bed and surrendered my body to the demons.

My skin crawled with imaginary insects, now that I resisted swatting at myself. Boat traffic picked up. Our canal was wider than most; it was a preferred throughway for deliveries and groups of party-bound locals. Noises like swearing, engines growling, and hyena-laughing invaded our apartment. Along with the dentist-drill mosquitoes feasting on my flesh, I guessed I would need to take a mallet to my head to get some sleep.

At last my mind tumbled into darkness until I awoke to a sound like the earth exploding. I bolted out of bed and swayed, struggling to stay upright. Furious shouts split the night. I looked at my wife. We both panted, panicked. I checked my watch – 9:30 p.m. The vicious pounding came again, followed by more shouting – it came from the front door. As we stepped up to it, the door seemed to recoil as another bout of hammering hit it.

The shouting was male and utterly incensed. The banging would not stop. My wife and I stared at each other, stunned. Bam bam bam bam bam!

My mind tried to push through the fog of exhaustion. I couldn’t figure out what was happening so I tried to picture it. I imagined opening the door and getting trampled by 25 men who take our money and our shoes and my wife’s bathroom kit bag, which is really cool and she loves that thing and would just kill me if she lost it to Italian thieves. Then I envisioned a man in the hall who happened to own the apartment, telling us it’s not actually a rental and insisting we get the hell out of his place.

Getting robbed or ejected were the most likely outcomes, so I concluded that opening the door was a bad idea. I looked up in time to see my wife open the door.

There stood a man and woman, along with a girl who was obviously their daughter. The man stood in front and yelled at my wife in Italian. He was relentless. We must have murdered their infant child or something worse. On and on he went, not waiting for a reply.

“STOP!” I bellowed, loud enough to interrupt him

They all looked at me in shock and it dawned on me that I wore nothing but my underwear, soaking wet from sweat. I considered feeling embarrassed, but decided I was too blasted to dive for cover.

“English only,” I said.

The woman uttered something, likely quite rude, and she pushed the daughter toward us. My wife and smiled at each other in relief. The Italian parents smiled too. Brilliant! The daughter spoke English! Yay! At last we could get somewhere. We would finally understand the problem, bring the dead infant back to life, fix whatever it was, and get some sleep.

The daughter took a breath and jabbered in Italian.

“It’s great she speaks English,” I said to my wife, as I gripped the door frame to keep from falling.

“She doesn’t.”

“Isn’t that English?” I asked.

At that moment we caught a word: “Is a hurricane! Si, si! Hurricane!”

“Hurricane?” I said, and they all three nodded in unison. I scratched my head. “That’s an English word, right? Hurricane.”

I looked at my wife. She looked at me.

“Okay, good job, everybody,” I said, and closed the door. I threw the deadbolt and started walking back to the bedroom where my mosquitoes, who loved me like nothing ever has before, jealously awaited my return.

“But there’s a hurricane!” said my wife, following me to the bedroom.

“PEET-sah,” I said, lying down in bed.

“Are you seriously going to sleep? With a hurricane coming?”

“We shouldn’t eat? The mosquitoes get to eat. The hurricane eats. Oh look, the insides of my eyelids are all darkish. What color are yours?”

She climbed into bed. “Maybe there’s a flood or something. Shouldn’t we do something? What do you think they were carrying on about?”

“I may be wrong but I think they were saying something in Italian.”

My words came slower and slower as exhaustion pulled me under.

Twelve hours later we sat together, more-or-less awake, at a canal-side table under a scarlet awning. Before us were graceful porcelain cups brimming with foamy cappuccinos. Morning pastries stuffed with chocolate and as fresh as dawn awaited their fate on white plates. The sleepy canal seemed to welcome us as old friends. I smiled with the pleasure of the moment.

“This is just awful.” I sipped my drink and it was perfect. “I’m glad there’s a hurricane coming because I can’t take this place another minute.”

My wife’s phone buzzed and Francesca let us know that the incident of the night before had to do with the huge amount of noise we were making, since those people were in the apartment directly below us.

“But we were all asleep!” protested my wife. She listened some more and then hung up. “It seems we should sleep quieter.”

“It was your Sasquatch snoring,” I remarked.

She frowned, unamused.

I rolled on. “It wasn’t us, it was the mosquitoes. They were as big as pelicans. I’m down a pint of blood. So what was the hurricane thing about?”

They were trying to say we made as much noise as an earthquake. By the way, they think you should wear pajamas and not answer the door sweaty and naked in the middle of the night.

“Shows what they know. Hurricanes in Venice. Crazy.

As we spoke, several tiny elderly ladies shot me identical evil-eye stares as they inched their way past us in succession. They all looked like cousins, with steel wool hair and backs bent over double, dragging their purse-dogs behind them on string-like leashes. A shirtless boater rode past with skin charred a cancerous brown.   

My wife sipped her drink and I took a big bite of the pastry. I chewed very, very slowly, savoring it.

“Good God! I think this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” I said.

“You said that about the gelato yesterday,” she replied.

I set down the cup and took my wife’s hand in mine. We breathed deep, enjoying the caressing warmth of the day and the silky sighs of the canal in front of us. Water lapped at masonry with a sound like a lullaby, and the dull waters reflected all the colors of the spectrum from around us. The ancient city bloomed in the morning light, fully content in its beauty, unsurpassed on the globe. Soft pinks and oranges warmed the buildings all around, and ornate bridges invited us to wander and lose our way amidst narrow alleys and sudden plazas. In a small square to our left, vendors were erecting stalls with white canopies for a neighborhood day-market. Men laughed and joked, carrying crates of fruits and vegetables to the stalls.

Venice awaited us like a pastel dream.

“Let’s go wake the kids,” I said. I motioned at our breakfast, at the canal, at the ancient city opening like a flower. “This is the way you beat jet lag.”