The Snail, Free Advice and “Music”

The snail greeted us on the sidewalk Imageas we rounded the corner of the cemetery. I thought it was a small rock and nearly walked right by. But Lucy wasn’t fooled. Her nose took her right to the snail’s tiny little antennae. Have you ever seen a snail close up? They are really fascinating and beautiful. The way the shell circles around reminds me of the rug in my grandmother’s bedroom which had lines inside it like lanes in a mini track. As kids, my cousins and I used to run around it and call it the “roundy roundy rug.”

Anyway, the snail was enjoying the moist, sunny morning after a rare rainfall. He cast a tiny shadow and undulated along the rough sidewalk concrete. We watched him for a few minutes, listening to the silence of his slow, methodical journey and then we continued a little more peacefully on our own journey past the cemetery and back home.

Later, after the walk was long over, we left Lucy home sleeping went for a bike ride around White Rock Lake. Very few people were crazy enough to be out since the windchill had dipped into the low 30s. As we rode along the water in parkas and gloves, we passed a man and woman  dressed in ski gear sitting in lawn chairs. A black sign with white letters was propped up against a full laundry basket in front of them.

Free Advice, the sign said.

“You guys deserve a medal!” the man called out to me as we passed. I laughed, knowing that I’d have to stop by and talk to him on the way back. Because how can you not stop and talk to someone who is sitting behind a Free Advice sign when the wind chill is 35 degrees?

“Easy,” my husband said later, after waiting at the car for me for half and hour.

It turns out that Roderick MacElwain has been giving Free Advice to people at the Lake every Sunday afternoon for 17 years. It started as an experiment with a friend who was not good at talking to people. But now it’s a service to humanity. He claims that he has autistic tendencies which allow to him to have certain gifts as well as deficits (and also made teachers and doctors think he was retarded while he was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s), and he experiences everything – people included – in music. Or not actually music, sort of like rhythm and beats. But music is the best way to explain it to people, he told me.

“You give off wonderful music,” he said. “And you make those around you feel it.”

I was struck by his powerful words. Because I felt that same way about the snail I saw that morning. It, too, emitted wonderful music that no one could actually hear with their ears, but until I met the Free Advice guy, I didn’t have the words for it.

After I got home, I Googled the Free Advice guy and found out that many people have been helped by him and his friend over the years. Here’s a story about the two from several years ago. I’m not sure where there other guy was yesterday or who the woman was, but when I have more time and a pressing question or dilemma, I know where to go for advice.

After all, it’s Free!

Recycling Bin Gratitude: Thank You #CityofDallas!

Sometimes people surprise you with the extra effort they go to on your behalf, even when you have made it difficult for them. For example, just a couple of days ago I filled out an online request at the City of Dallas website for a recycling roll cart at my new house. I failed to do my research to find out that there are three sizes of carts and instead I just requested a “smaller size” to fit in my new, tiny garage. It arrived promptly a day later. The two guys who delivered it were very friendly and both smiled when I went to retrieve the little blue cart, which was so small that I called it adorable.

Unfortunately, my husband thought the adorable cart was too tiny since, as a family of four with two teenage boys who have been known to take the entire carton of milk in the car on a 20-minute errand because, “Why not? I’m going to drink it all,” we recycle more than an adorable amount each week. So I went back to the City of Dallas website and politely asked for an exchange to a larger size, apologizing for the inconvenience. Within a few hours, my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize so I assumed it was a telemarketer and didn’t pick up. Imagine my surprise when a man’s voice began leaving a message regarding my recycling bin. With all the needs that the City must get bombarded with every day, someone from the enormous bureaucracy of City government was actually responding to my tiny little recycling cart need? I lunged for the phone and intercepted the message.

“No problem,” he said, when I explained why I needed an exchange. “Just have it out tomorrow morning and we’ll exchange it with a bigger one.”

Well, guess what? I FORGOT! Like an idiot, I got caught up in the crazy afternoon of errands and meetings and dinner preparation and forgot to put the adorable cart out.

So this morning, just as I was pouring my first cup of coffee, the phone rang. It was a vaguely familiar number so I picked up. “Mrs. Richie, we’re out here with your new recycling cart,” a man said. Sure enough I heard the rumbling of an idling truck outside. I felt like one of those vegetable-avoiding actors in a V-8 commercial who needs a slap on the forehead to jog their memory.

I offered a sincere apology and thanked him for taking the time to call me and make sure I got the new cart. He could have easily just driven away and written on his report that the absent-minded citizen had not done what he’d asked. But no, he went the extra mile.

Thank you, sir. I appreciate your efforts and love my new, large recycling bin!

My shiny new recycling cart in its spot next to the trash. They make a cute couple!

My shiny new recycling cart in its spot next to the trash. They make a cute couple!

Lucy Lessons: How an Old Dog Overcame Her Fear

We finally moved.

No more one story ranch house. We are now climbing two sets of stairs daily in a cozy three-story townhouse in the heart of the city. The move itself was the usual pain in the butt. Lucy stayed at the Petshotel because she’s a bit anxious to begin with. And at 12 years old, I thought the move might put her over the edge. So I left her at the PetSmart Petshotel for four days. Don’t think she didn’t love it; she got the Bizzy Bundle package, after all. Who wouldn’t love a peanut butter snack Kong and dish of doggy ice cream at the end of the day after playtime?

By the day I picked her up, we’d unpacked about two-thirds of the boxes. The new place was still a mess, but there were definite walkways to navigate. Lucy was super excited to see me, but when we finally made our way downtown after the school pick up, she was totally perplexed as to why we were in this unfamiliar house.


Where’s the elevator?

She took one look at the staircase leading up to the main level and balked.  Even as my son and I coaxed her with new treats and tried pulling her leash, she would not go up. When I yanked a little harder, her legs didn’t cooperate and she stumbled and fell.  It was as if Lucy had never, ever seen a flight of stairs in her life! And then I realized, she hadn’t. We’d always lived on one story. She had no idea how to climb stairs.

That night, she whimpered in her crate pathetically for a while before finally falling asleep. Anxiety crept into my dreams, waking me up in the darkness. What if she never figured out how to climb stairs? What if moving to a townhouse was a huge mistake? What if she hurt herself?

The next morning, I let Lucy out of the crate and tried, in my most upbeat doggie voice, to make going down the stairs sound like a trip to the squirrel zoo. But she cowered in the kitchen.

I changed my tactics and stood at the bottom of the stairs, calling her and rattling her leash like I used to do when it was time for a walk.

She fled to her crate.

Finally, I went back up the stairs, put the leash on her and coaxed her down by pulling, but she tumbled at the bottom, landing awkwardly with a sickening combination of claws and bone on slate tile. After checking her for injury and determining she was ok, I started to worry that Lucy was only going to be able to live on the first floor. There’s only one bedroom down there and it would be a lonely, terrible existence. It was not an option. We wanted her upstairs with us. She had to learn the stairs.

There was only one choice. I had to bring out the big guns: Cheddar and Monterey Jack.

For several hours that morning, I used little bits of cheese to entice Lucy to go up and down one stair. Then two. Then three. And so on. Then she napped. We did another round of practice that afternoon.

And you know what? It worked! She was exhausted, but she was no longer petrified of the stairs.

Three days later and now she goes up and down with ease. The one downside? She thinks she deserves cheese every time she makes it to the top!

My Yoga Do-Over

I really, really want to like yoga. But every time I go to a class I get annoyed with the sheer volume of sun salutations, over and over and over. I think it’s supposed to be meditative, but to me it’s just irritating. All I can think is, “Ok, I’ve saluted the sun. Move on, already!”

For years I have dealt unsuccessfully with my own inability to quiet my mind during yoga. I’ll just say it: I’m a yoga failure. But so many people I know credit yoga with both physical and mental fitness, that I’m starting to think I just haven’t given yoga a real chance.  I mean, if Adam Levine, who is notoriously hyper, can quiet his mind during yoga, then I should be able to as well. I think.

So just as I was challenging myself to try yoga again, a blogger friend who writes a great blog about positivity, reached out to me to tell me about a free 12-Day program guide  combining yoga and gratitude from My Yoga Online that she thought I might be interested in. I took it as a sign from the universe telling me that now is the time to start doing yoga regularly in order to cultivate gratitude. I don’t know why I hadn’t made the connection between yoga and gratitude before. On December 10th, when the guide goes live, I’m going to start following it for all 12 days. During this time, my house will be going on the market, I’ll be helping my in-laws move, and I’ll be preparing for all the chaos of the holidays. If there’s every a time to learn to quiet my mind and focus on gratitude, it’s during these next few stressful weeks.


Soon this will be me…
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy My Yoga Online

If you’re a former yoga failure like me, maybe you should join me. All you need to do is sign up for the free membership option at My Yoga Online and you will be able to access the program guide. Two more days. The countdown has begun and I’m gearing up for yoga-induced gratitude!

Keeping Financial Losses in Perspective

We are about to lose money on a house. Our house. The one in which our kids grew from children to near-adults. Sometimes it makes me mad. Then sad. Then frustrated. But then I remember that…

1. The memories made in that house are priceless and will always be with me.

2. Yes, we spent a fortune on landscaping and a furnace and an air conditioner and painting the house and fixing all the windows our sons broke with various balls, and new pool equipment. But didn’t we get to enjoy the warm and cool air provided by those appliances? And didn’t we get to look out those windows into the backyard blooming with yucca all summer long? Didn’t we get to enjoy swimming in that pool on hot summer evenings? And didn’t we get to appreciate the smooth paint job each time we drove into the driveway? Yes. We did. So our investment more than paid off in the amount of six years of comfort and happy moments.

3. Some people don’t have a house. Or any home at all. Boom. That puts it in perspective.

Despite losing thousands of dollars, we are lucky to have enjoyed our house for these last six years.

For that, I am grateful.

Persuasive Communication Strategies

Last Sunday I had the chance to hear Professor Tannenbaum speak at a local Brown Alumni Club event in Dallas. I was so excited because her classes at Brown were always full and hard to get into. I never got to take one. So I felt like I was getting a second chance for a small snippet of what I missed.


The brilliant Barbara Tannenbaum

Tannenbaum is not only a professor at Brown but also a consultant to global businesses, organizations and leaders, teaching the power of persuasive audience-centered communication. She conducts communications workshops at other colleges, such as Wellesley and Dartmouth and regularly helps political candidates communicate and speak more effectively.

Naturally, her hour-long talk was spectacular. Engaging, lively and informative. Here’s what I learned from her talk that can help anyone who has to use persuasive communication, i.e. most of us.

1. Always consider the WIFM. WIFM stands for What’s In It For Me and means that you have to consider what how your audience will benefit from what you’re trying telling them or get them to do. For example, she said that she consults with a large museum in New York. The IT manager was preparing to communicate that he was switching the email program the museum staff used. Barbara asked him what the WIFM was since people hate change, especially technological change. He said that it would save the museum money. She argued that the message of saving money might not go over as he intended. Staff members might then think that their jobs were at risk. More importantly, saving the museum money was probably not the most important thing to the museum’s employees. She challenged him to figure out what would about the switch would mean most to the employees and focus on that. Finally he realized that  changing email programs would allow employees to send larger files and have more storage (something that a museum’s employees would be happy about since they often send large image files) and focused on that as the core of his communications. It worked.

2. When public speaking, project confidence through your stance and the amount of space you take up. We did an audience activity where she told the women to sit like men and the men to sit like women. What happened? The women spread their legs and took up more space while the men crossed their legs and took up less space. She said that women are often perceived as less confident because of this tendency we have to contract into ourselves. We should sit with legs uncrossed, especially in an interview situation. And she said that if your skirt is too short to do that, then it’s also too short to wear. She had us stand up and stand with our feet hip length apart and told us that this is how we should stand when speaking in public. No crossed legs. No fifth position ballet stance. No leaning against a wall. No hands clasped in front of your crotch. Hands by your side. Also, don’t wear distracting accessories like earrings that dangle when you move or bracelets that clink. She said solid colors are best and then she can get away with addressing more edgy topics if she is conservatively dressed.

3. Repeat important information two to three times. She said research shows that once is not enough and that four times is too many and starts to annoy people. I noticed that when Barbara was telling us about Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy’s interesting TED Talk (which is truly fascinating and if you struggle with public speaking or confidence you must watch it) about how your body language shapes who you are and how you are perceived, she mentioned Cuddy twice in a row, and then a third time she spelled Cuddy’s last name. I’m remembering it here two days later so this technique must work since I’m notorious for forgetting people’s names, especially right after I’ve just met them. For this problem, Barbara recommended repeating a person’s name when shaking their hand and looking in their eyes to determine their eye color. This avoids the dreaded “politician’s greeting” where someone shaking your hand is looking over or around you for someone more important to talk to.

I am so grateful that I finally got to take a “class” with Barbara Tannenbaum.

The Gift of Hope

A few weeks ago I visited with a woman who was helping coordinate book sales for an author visit I was managing at my son’s school. Normally we only talked by email. But my emails hadn’t been answered lately and I ran into another parent who mentioned that she’d heard the woman’s daughter had been having health issues. The other parent and I immediately went to see her and found out that she’d taken her daughter to the pediatrician multiple times and the daughter had been given antibiotics. But her symptoms hadn’t improved. In fact, she’d just had a biopsy done the day before on the mass on her neck. And they’d found a tumor in her chest during a chest x-ray. The doctors were thinking cancer. Lymphoma.

Fatigue allowed the worry to show in the woman’s eyes as she tried and failed to keep her voice neutral. Professional. Tried to care about the author and the book sales and the spread sheets.

I knew that voice. I knew that fatigue. I knew that difficulty concentrating.

My fingers instinctively flew to the scar on my own neck, now barely visible 14 years later.


Me in the hospital, newly diagnosed and about to start chemotherapy.

“That was me,” I said. “I had that same thing.” I showed her the scar on my neck. And told her that I’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma back in 1999, when I was 28.

“Wow,” the mother who’d walked over to see the woman with me said, “Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I’m so glad we went over to see her. You were able to provide her with some comfort during such a scary time.”

A few days later the definitive diagnosis came in. She sent me an email. Her 14-year-old daughter had Hodgkin’s, stage two. I wrote back immediately.

“That is exactly what I had,” I said. “Same stage and everything. And I’m still here and doing fine. It’s going to be a little unpleasant, but she will get through this. Please let her know I’d be happy to talk to her about my experience and give her a hug.”

The next time I saw her the woman gave me a hug. Her eyes were still fatigued but there was a new determination in them. She was now in the fight. Her daughter had started chemo and was in the hospital feel crappy, but on the road to recovery.

“I showed your email to my daughter,” she said. “It was so uplifting. Thank you.”

Cancer has given me the ability to be grateful for so many things, from tiny to huge. But one of the best it has given me is the ability to help other people newly diagnosed with cancer by giving them hope. I remember when I was first diagnosed and a friend of mine put me in touch with a woman named Sarah, who’d had Hodgkin’s during high school and was then 30. That ten-minute conversation did more for my psyche than anything else had. I clearly remember Sarah saying, “I barely even remember it. I haven’t had to go for checkups in over ten years.” I clung to those words over the next 8 months of treatment, during all the ups and downs. They were a gift.

I’m so glad I was able to give someone else the gift of hope.