that is the question.

I’m not talking about Hamlet’s existential crisis. I am, however, referring to one of the most basic questions in the universe. A simple, Why?

Why, Mommy? I’m fairly sure this was my first question. I’m also fairly sure that I abused it. My curiosity was, and still is, extreme. I want to know how and why things work. If I see a good movie, I follow up and research the topic until I think I have a good handle on the facts, the speculations, the lore. After reading The Other Boleyn Girl, I spent nine hours researching Henry VIII and his wives. And the Tudors. And Queen Elizabeth. And Mary Scots.

When we’re younger, we use Why to explore and understand our world. But as we grow older, Why seems to take on new meaning. It becomes the default setting, the knee jerk response to anything new and unknown, scary or simply annoying. With adulthood, Why evolves into a challenge and a dismissal. I can’t blame Why; it can be a perfectly good question. When the status quo is working just fine, why bother?

One of my favorite videos on the interwebs is called This is Water. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend not infrequent viewings to remind oneself that we are more than our default setting. The video is set to a well-known graduation speech given by Author David Foster Wallace, and follows your typical Millennial through what can arguably be called the ninth circle of hell: food shopping, after work, during rush hour. My favorite part about this whole setup? It reminds me to just consider, for a moment, before I lose my mind at the utter stupidity of the world around me, that everyone else is in the same boat. And more importantly, to consider that the lady in front of me failing miserably to control her child may just be the angel from the phone company who just yesterday took pity on me and my phone bill. And further, that the possible reason she is having trouble with her son is because he’s going through a rough phase after his father’s recent abandonment. These things are unlikely. But, I remind myself that I have the intellectual capacity to give the benefit of the doubt to my fellow humans in the ninth circle of hell.

So back to Why. A couple of years ago, I was traveling overseas and met with a colleague of mine. She boiled humanity down to one very simple phrase. She said, “There are those of us who ask Why?, and those of us who ask Why not?” Mind. Blown. Intrinsically, I understood this. However, this was the first time it had been voiced so simply and eloquently to me.

There are those of us who are still open to new possibilities and who do not immediately reject any notion which may involve a little more. More research, more effort, more compassion. I can say with complete honesty, I am definitely a Default Setting kind of person. I wish it came easier to me. I really do. There are days when I lack the patience or motivation to ask  Why not? But far more frequently, I remember to pause. Pause when someone suggests a method or idea I hadn’t considered. Pause when a friend invites me halfway across the world for a long weekend of fun. Hell, pause when a friend invites me fifteen miles away for a drink. (The introvert in me really needs to pause on that one.) I pause when someone asks for something that initially sounds completely preposterous.

What do we get when we pause? We may change our minds about the “right” way to do things. We may experience food and culture and arts that would have otherwise been too costly or time-consuming to explore. We may catch up with good friends over bottomless mimosas which will somehow lead to a new opportunity in life. We may discover that a request which seems silly or selfish at first glance, is actually quite easy to fulfill and may carry unimaginable meaning to someone else.

If, like me, you need a nudge every once in a while–or daily–to be the type of person who asks Why not? instead of Why? then remind yourself! The power of mindful thinking. If you’re not into mindful thinking, then this video will do the trick.

Choose your response to life.

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at home & abroad.

Christmas Eve. Fang and I are snug on my couch. Safe in America and only thirty minutes away from the homestead. Such a luxury, to be able to see all of my loved ones, in person, on Christmas tomorrow.

It hasn’t always been so for us, and I feel a little guilty in my contentedness thinking of my friends around the world who will not be with family this holiday. This life of service we’ve chosen truly requires sacrifice. And what other time than the holidays to most feel the sharp stab of longing for the comforts of home and loved ones? Life feels punctuated by all the moments you missed.

Looking back on all of the holidays and special events that were just slightly off –because of our family’s duty to Country–you know, they were some of the most memorable and special for it. Nothing will make you appreciate your family and home more than being away from it during a time entirely devoted to the importance of Family.

There was the Christmas in high school when Dad was gone for months, including Christmas, in order that my parents could afford to buy me my first car. A 1992 green Mercury Cougar. With a red bow on it fit for a Lexus. That thing was a tank and I loved it. But I have to admit, at the time in my teenage angst, I was a teeny bit resentful of his absence. Not until I was an adult, serving my own Christmas in a war zone at the age of 23, did I full comprehend what my parents gave up to provide the best life possible for their children.

At 23, the year I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, my Mom’s birthday, my brother’s graduation from college, and so many other moments. I wasn’t without love. The family we built out there on camaraderie and pure survival saw us through the holidays. My job was basically to serve as the mom for all of my coworkers. Duties included jerry-rigging decorations and nagging the guys to not forget to write to their moms/wives/girlfriends/children.

That year for Christmas, my parents sent me a camera so that I could document life. Knowing that I have loved taking photos since I was old enough to understand what a camera was and how to operate it, this was a fantastic gift. Or at least it would have been. Mom sent it through the mail system early and I put the wrapped present under a hand drawing of a tree in my hooch and dutifully waited until Christmas morning to open it. The box was empty! I laugh now, but then, I cried like a baby. Getting a gift from Mom and Dad was the closest thing to normal that I had, and it was off. Mom to the rescue; she went back to the store, probably Target, explained what happened, and I got the camera about a month later. I still have it, even if I’ve upgraded a few times since. That thing went through a lot to get to me.

A week later, tragedy struck. How do you celebrate the coming of a new year and a clean slate when you’ve just lost friends to senselessness? There are no words. Twenty four hours after, I was faced with a decision: go ahead with the New Years “party” I had put together in the MWR or cancel it. I went with something in the middle. God knows why, but I’d found a six inch mirror ball in a storage closet and rigged it on string to drop at midnight. I had our cooks make platters of “American” food and had hoarded enough Johnny Walker to toast with. We used the occasion to mourn and move on because there was no other choice. Life and the rest goes on and there is no stopping.

Fast forward to a year later. I decide to surprise my family for Christmas. I worked it out with a close friend of mine to pick up and drop me off in a giant gift bag that I could hide in and get left on the door stoop. Stupid, yes. Cute, absolutely. SURPRISE. My first flight is significantly delayed and I am told that I will likely miss my connecting flight in Paris. Because, Africa. My heart sank and I felt a desperate urge to Just. Get. Home. I ran through Charles de Gaulle and made my flight. My luggage, not so much. Despite the nighttime arrival, my friend was kind enough to drive me to Target to get a change of clothes and a tooth brush. The gifts I’d ferreted in my suitcase wouldn’t make it that year. But the look of utter disbelief on Mom’s face when she looked down the stairs and saw me-priceless. Air France managed to find and return my luggage back a couple months later.

At 25, I was nearly fired over a special event. My little brother was graduating boot camp in mid-January so we postponed Christmas so that we could all be there. I would fly home from North Africa and head down to see Larry at Paris Island before we all went home and celebrated. And then a month in advance, a project comes up that I cannot miss. No, what I was not going to miss, was another graduation of his. At the end of the day, what am I going to look back on and regret-missing being on hand to open doors for a Big Wig… or missing the moment of pride in seeing my little brother become a US Marine? Easy decision for me. Ultimately, I won that battle, which was made moot when said Big Wig cancelled said project at the last minute. We froze our assess off hoping to catch a glimpse of Larry running by in formation and then hugged his skeletal frame in an auditorium full of other families ecstatic to see their newly minted Marines.

So tonight, I am thinking of my dearest friends all over the world. Sacrificing and serving so that I can sit here with Fang on my cozy couch in America. We’re sending you all hugs and licks. I’m also thinking of my family. It still surprises me every time I realize I can just hop in the car and go see them. Especially during this season. The holidays are special and even if you can’t be with family, they are still out there, thinking of and loving you. Waiting until that next time they get to hold you hard enough to make up for being absent on that arbitrary date which the calendar tells us is special.

Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, everyone.

 

four questions.

Given my current circumstances, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to interviews and hiring practices. Looking back on my own experiences sitting on hiring panels and being interviewed, I must say there are good interview questions, and those that don’t quite cut it.

How do you judge if a candidate is a good fit? That they have the goals, morals, ambitions, the technical skills and a demeanor compatible with an organization? You ask questions, of course. These are the best I’ve encountered.

Why do you want this position, and what makes you the best candidate?

This is such a basic question and yet, somehow so difficult to answer. Why do I want this thing and why am I worthy of this thing? There is a line between the simple truth that I want this thing and I think wholeheartedly that I my past experiences and future potential would make me a rockstar in this job…and the reality of needing to show an employer that I have the self-awareness of my own abilities, have done the research to describe tangible reasons why this job, why this company. Until the day that we can look into a person’s mind and translate desire and conviction into concrete reason, this is a pivotal question.

How do you handle stress?

Back to that self-awareness. A company cannot pretend that life and work will always be sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts. And likewise, a candidate must be able to demonstrate their own strength in the face of adversity. Each person handles stress differently, but each person does experience stress. Knowing that a candidate has the maturity and wherewithal to handle stressful situations in a manner that does not obliterate workplace morale–that is important.

What does Leadership mean to you?

Now, this one. I’ve seen and answered many iterations of this question. However, not all leadership questions are equal. Most often, I’ve been asked about my ‘leadership strategy.’ Any answer to this question is likely bullshit because frankly, being a leader is fluid and flexible depending on the team one is working with, the environment and the task at hand. You will sound like a robot listing off your surefire ‘steps to being a leader.’

Asking what leadership means to an individual is able to capture so much more. How a leader communicates. How team dynamics ensure the success or failure of a project. How a true leader empowers and inspires her team. An understanding that each person has individual needs, style, passions, and hot buttons. How trust is the most important ingredient in a workplace relationship. I don’t need a strategy, but I do need to know the difference between leading and managing, and the equally important acts of listening and following.

What gives you energy?

This. This I am borrowing from a truly insightful woman. What gives you energy? What makes you tick? What makes you want to get up in the morning, Monday through Friday, with a smile on your face? More and more, my generation especially, we want a career that is meaningful. Have a positive impact on others, on the world. We want to work our asses off, see the fruits of our labor and to be recognized for such. For an employer, how amazing to see that spark in the eyes of the person sitting across from you and to start to formulate how you will leverage that passion to further the goals of your company. It is no secret that brilliance occurs when we put our energies towards a project or cause we care about and are given the freedom to pursue ideas and solutions. It’s kismet. Linking an individual and her passions with a company equally excited to put those interests to good use.

coming out of the closet.

Walking back to my desk yesterday, a CD in hand, I felt like that poor anemic-looking kid holding a damn golden ticket. That ticket? My resume. All mine. Free to share with whomever I choose. I won’t start quoting Martin Luther King Jr. just yet, but the feeling is close.

You may have noticed a difference as of late. I certainly feel different. I’ve been trying to decide on an acceptable comparison for my recent awakening. A prisoner released, after 30 years, discovering the wonder of an iPhone? Alice popping out in Wonderland? Dorothy seeing in technicolor for the first time? Let’s go with able to breathe and be myself.

Seem extreme? Here’s an illustration. I got that shiny golden ticket, ready to upload to the world on full blast on the three new social networking sites I’ve joined and on which am probably making all sorts of inexperienced faux pas. I get home and pop that sucker into my Mac only to realize that I’ve never used my laptop for anything other than email and Netflix. I have no word processing because I’ve never had to take work home. No big deal…I’ll just have to make my Mac compatible with my newfound requirements. No so fast, Cassandra. There are approximately one million document readers for Mac. After an hour of searching for an actual MS Word app, I decide that it doesn’t exist. Google is your friend. I realize that, holy hell! MS Office is expensive! I decide on a monthly subscription, sign away my firstborn, and hit the download button. Turns out, I have not updated my operating system in three years. Because, once again, my laptop was used for nothing more than email and Netflix. Falling asleep waiting for the download and install process to complete, I wake up in the middle of the night and go about finally sharing with the world what it is I can do.

I am amazed at the power and sophistication of modern technology. In the span of a few days, I am reconnected with peers, colleagues, friends. I’ve found jobs that I think may energize me once again. I imagine my face when designing my LinkedIn profile as similar to that of my grandmother’s the first time she used Facebook. I’ve signed up to be a dog sitter because you really can’t ever have enough furry friends. Discovered a dearth of online market places to clear out the clutter that has been weighing me down. Using the United app, booked a trip to Croatia for my thirtieth. This blog itself is something I’ve wanted to devote my creative juices toward for years.

For months, I’ve been planning my jump from the severe cloister of the Government to the private sector. Given I have no parachute and am clearly ignorant of the freedom of today’s technologies, this jump is really a leap of faith. But leaping headfirst, I am. And enjoying the hell out of the fall, golden ticket in hand.

 

a murder of one.

gioia /joy·ee·ah/          dolore /dul·ore·ay/

First things first. What is gioiadolore? It is Italian for joy and sorrow. More importantly, it is an idea I’ve been batting about since I was a teenager.

One for sorrow, two for mirth. Three for a funeral, four for birth. Five for heaven. Six for hell. Seven for the devil, his own self.

This superstitious nursery rhyme dates back to Britain circa 1780. The saying contends that you can determine your fate by the number of magpies that cross your path. Here in America, we associate this rhyme more with crows because 1) magpies are much less common, and 2) the Counting Crows modernized the rhyme in the song A Murder of One.

One for sorrow. Two for joy. This song has been my favorite since I first heard it playing on mom’s stereo in 1995. At its core, it is damn depressing. But there is still a note of hope and possibility. Dreams and lost love and finding yourself. Change.

When I was younger I thought that being one meant sadness but that having a pair meant automatic joy. I’ve even considered for my second tattoo a pair of crows. One light and one in dark.

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria. – Dante Inferno, Canto V 

“There is no greater sorrow than while remembering a time of happiness in your misery.” In college, I was a bit of a Dante nerd. When I came across this gem in Inferno, something struck. The scales are not as black and white as a magpie. One, you get sadness. Two, you get bliss. It is a balance. There is not one without the other.

At the heart of what I’d like to say here, in this forum, is that it is Ok to rage and cry and laugh and experience joy. All together. Recognizing the nugget of joy within the sorrow, within all things is a daily struggle. But it is a worthwhile fight.

what is it with Aberforth and goats?

There is wonder in opening a new book. Possibilities. New friends. New adventures. Reasons to cry and to laugh. Fall in love. Loathe.

Opening a favorite book is like going home. Mom, dad, the pets are all there ready to welcome you and catch up. So familiar and yet slightly changed each visit. New perspectives, a bit more wisdom. Make you fall in love just that much more.

Like many, Harry Potter is a dear friend of mine. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t dream up a better sister and friend than Ginny Weasley. She’s a badass who makes me smile and cheer and gives me strength. Conversely, Umbridge has my vote for the most vile literary villain. The very thought of her makes my heart pound with absolute disgust and anger. She hits that place in me which has always felt overwhelming empathy for those who are unjustly wronged. And my response to that woman hurting my friends is visceral.

Last month, I decided to re-read the seven Harry Potter books. My goal was to really pay attention to the thoughts I had about the story-the things I noticed and discovered. The emotions I had and which themes emerged for me at this point in my life. I devoured all four thousand two hundred and twenty four pages in fifteen days.

I made some quirky observations about JK Rowling’s frequent use of the word “seriously” in Prisoner of Azkaban. Did some calculations about the size and capacity of the student body of Hogwarts. Does the wizard population remain constant or do many little wizards and witches get shafted on their eleventh birthdays? If boggarts’ true form is unknowable because they always take the form of their viewers worst fear, why not just ask Mad-Eye to look through a dark trunk with his magic eye and reveal the big secret? What is it with Aberforth and goats? Siriusly.

Wondered if the innuendoes were intentional. I mean really, who else was SURE that Ginny caught Percy masturbating in Chamber of Secrets… and not just making out with Penelope Clearwater. How about Mr Dursley asking Dudley in horror if Harry used “his thing” on him in Order of the Phoenix? “Wands are only as powerful as the Wizards who use them. Some wizards just like to boast that theirs are bigger and better.” Wise words, Hermione.

I was once again ravished by the deaths of Hedwig, Sirius and Fred. But this time around, the loss that caused the most anguish was that of Tonks and Lupin. They’d only begun to figure out life and love, had become parents. That Teddy would grow up without parents. That they struggled like the rest of us and death came and screwed it all up. Despair. It brought out all the usual fears in me. What if I finally find a partner that doesn’t care if I have purple hair every now and again and then there is a terrible accident? Or we couldn’t conceive? Life is a raging bitch.

Most surprising was the amount of foreshadowed characters and events that I caught because I know this story. A dusty locket in a cupboard is not just a locket. A ghost flitting by Ron’s sickbed isn’t just another ghost. Harry notes that the barkeep at Hog’s Head is “vaguely familiar.” Realizing that Fred and George’s bewitched snowballs were really hitting Voldemort was a personal giggle moment.

As love grew between Hermione and Ron, Harry and Ginny, I mostly registered disbelief that these folk found their true life partners in middle school. I mean, their relationships are adorable and long-lasting. I just imagine Hermione kicking herself fifteen years down the road for shackling herself to a lug like Ron. We are not the people we were as teenagers. Ok, I’m maybe jealous.

Perhaps the most disturbing crossover between the world of Harry Potter and our own comes from Grindelwald’s slogan “For the greater good” etched into the Nuremgard prison and Hitler’s “Arbeit macht frei” guarding the gates of concentration camps. Grindelwald saw Muggles as inferior and therefore sought to dominate them. Later, Voldemort took that doctrine further to include Muggle-born wizards. An obsession with pure blood. A fear of cultures not our own. Under the leadership of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Ministry of Magic systematically increased the persecution of Muggle-borns starting with a registry, moving to accusations of falsehood and trials, and ending with mass roundups and disappearances. I will say that the similarities to the current mood in America is striking.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. — Edmund Burke

Wherever I got my love of books, I am thankful. Being able to disappear into other worlds is a gift. Being able to use those worlds to help me understand my own is priceless.