Counting my blessings

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Art and I like to watch independent and foreign films whenever we can. Usually, we have to leave Rome to see these movies, whose accolades seem to have reached every corner but ours. This weekend, fortunately, the movies came to us, in the form of the Unspoken International Human Rights Film Festival.

We at the Capitol have partnered with Unspoken for a few years, and the film submissions from around the world tell a variety of stories. The common thread, no matter what nation or group the film hails from, is that there are people out there who aren’t content to deal with the status quo of human rights violations. Instead, they—sometimes alone, sometimes with others—stand up and say “that’s enough.” There comes a point where they can’t watch horrible things happen to themselves, their families, or even perfect strangers, and make it a large part of their life to work toward changing it.

The films that I watched spanned many issues. I watch films about prison, about government, about police and the military, about living with a disability, and about healing trauma. Within these larger issues, the documentaries featured individuals whose face could be any face, really. The face of someone you know or someone you’ve met. It could even, but for the grace of a higher power, be your face.

Sure, I’ve known sad times in my life. I’ve experienced the death of loved ones to old age, accidents and disease, the breakup of a relationship, the divorce of my parents, the loss of friends due to changing goals, priorities, and distance. I’ve dealt with clinical depression, a mental illness that makes the lows seem that much lower, and the highs, when they come at all, almost devoid of their sweetness as you wait for the next low to come.

But what I’ve dealt with can’t even compare to the woes others around the world have seen. I watched people continuing to stand up to fight though their friends and loved ones were slaughtered for simply being of a different culture. I watched young people weep with joy at the thought of attending university, after living on the street when their loved ones, all of the adults in their lives, were killed by their neighbors. I watched people around the world fighting laws that allowed loopholes for killing, kidnapping, and other atrocities. But most of all, I watched people who had been trampled time and time again keep fighting, often for decades, to see justice done and make the world a better place.

There are many people who seem to make venting and complaining a way of life. It’s often the little things: restaurant steak not hot enough, mobile internet not speedy enough, car in front of them not fast enough. They complain about things that are often of their own making; money woes because they live beyond their means, being late because they managed their time poorly, “poor” customer service because they themselves are poor customers. Sometimes I wish that complaining people would step back and realize all of the wonderful things that they have, and maybe give a little thanks for the blessings in their lives.

One Weed at a Time

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My in-laws–one of whom I had the pleasure to meet while they were alive, one of whom I did not–were industrious, fastidious people. While working one or more jobs and maintaining an active social life, they were still able to keep on top of the myriad tasks of home ownership. And once upon a time, they planted a trumpet vine…

Fast forward to today, and the trumpet vine has increased exponentially in size, choking many of the plants on the south side of our house and affixing its sturdy plant feet to every available surface of our aluminum siding. Passersby never cease to comment on the vine, especially when it is in full bloom. “It’s lovely,” they say, “how did you get it to look so healthy?” I haven’t the heart to tell them that I’ve done exactly zero to encourage this lovely (it is) and prolific invasive species. I’m sure anyone with a trumpet vine, especially an inherited one, can attest to the trials and tribulations of trying to manage it.

Along the way from past to present, the vine gathered a few hundred of its most tenacious and inventive weed friends, and hosted a block party in our front flower bed (flower bed, of course, being a term born of wishful thinking). When we have lots of rain mixed with lots of sun, the party tends to thrive, especially when most of the sun comes when we are at work and most of the rain comes when we have free time. A few weeks ago, the weeds seemed to literally be eating our house, and with the arrival of unexpected concurrent sunniness and free time, I decided to do something about them.

I have always observed those who have jobs with regular hours with a bit of wistfulness. Every time I think I can predict my day, something will come up that needs to be done, and as our work at the Capitol for the benefit of the public is a higher priority than our house (to the annoyance of our neighbors no doubt; I apologize sincerely), yardwork that could get done often doesn’t. Art is the same way. We have sunk much of our lives and careers into a long-term project that will have a far larger impact on the community than either of us could have as individuals.

At long last, I finally just took a few yard implements and cut everything back over the course of several hours. Though my back was killing me later that night, I would sneak onto the porch to peek and the newly bare flower bed and dream a little about other home improvements. Perhaps there will be another day in the spring when free time and sun align to produce a positive result. I don’t regret my priorities, but once in a while it’s nice to have intentions manifest in a more visible outcome that doesn’t take years to come to fruition.

It doesn’t matter if they like you

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I had a revelation the other day (and no, it isn’t that I should be better about writing this column, though I have also come to that conclusion). I had the revelation that it doesn’t matter if everyone likes you.

Most of my life, like most relatively insecure people, I wanted to be liked. I wasn’t the prettiest or the ugliest. I was fairly smart, but not the smartest. I was, however, often the nicest and the friendliest. It didn’t really take a lot of effort; my parents had taught me to affable and sweet, and the be a caring and sympathetic person. Once in a while I was teased in the way that young people are teased, and my feelings were hurt, but once I got to college, things got better. I was easygoing and low maintenance. Things didn’t bother me, which my friends and acquaintances appreciated. The truth is, I liked people back. I found people interesting.

As I matured and pursued my career, though I still liked people and most people seemed to like me, I was gaining the understanding that people weren’t necessarily as affable as they had been in college. In general, they had more stress in their lives. Sometimes they were short with me, or would raise their voices. Sometimes they would be friendly, and other times they would be nasty. Sometimes they were different in person than they were when I wasn’t around.

I began to internalize these slights, and think it was something that I had done, because I didn’t have the self-confidence to do anything else. Maybe if I had been friendlier or more understanding, they would have been nicer to me. Maybe if I were smarter or more established in my profession, they would respect me more. Maybe if I were…anything else. What can I do to make them like me?

I finally reached the conclusion that it didn’t matter. What they thought of me had no bearing on who I was or what I can offer. As Steve McGarrett said on Hawaii 5-0, the way to avoid criticism is to “say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.” Even if I had been sweet and friendly and accommodating, it wouldn’t have mattered. And frankly, it wasn’t even always about whether they liked me or not. Some people just haven’t gained the maturity to keep from offloading their internal issues onto other people. Honestly, if someone doesn’t like me, it is far more a reflection on them than on me.

This realization, which I just came to the other day, makes all the difference. Ironically, it has given me more confidence. Life is seriously too short to feel slighted by the insecurities of others made visible. I will continue to live by the Golden Rule, and leave others to their own devices.

Coping Mechanisms

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Forgive me, dear reader, I know my columns have been sporadic this year. Life has been throwing a lot at me! It’s hard not to get discouraged sometimes when dealing with the everyday ins and outs of life, and I’ve been doing my best to juggle everything.

Though I hope you’re not in the same boat, I can’t help but suspect that from time to time you may be. We are all humans after all, and though at times we feel superhuman, there is a large part of us that feels overwhelmed sometimes. Though I’m certainly not an expert at responding to life challenges, there are a few things that I like to remember and that help me quite a bit.

Don’t let the actions of other people affect your mood. I have a very empathetic nature, and as such I tend to suck up other people’s emotions and troubles like a sponge. This includes emotions that other people toss out in an effort to get rid of them. Oftentimes, people I know will be fine a short time later, while I am still holding their toxic feelings with me. Though it’s nearly impossible to keep the actions and attitudes of others from affecting you at all (even the Dalai Lama and the founder of Kundalini Yoga admit to having trouble sometimes), it isn’t about you.

I read a great analogy in an article once, offered by a cab driver who had been cut off in traffic and berated by the other driver. He said that some people are like garbage trucks; they hold all of this garbage inside of them and are looking for a place to dump it. If they didn’t take it out on you, they would most certainly take it out on someone else. That is their own issue. Don’t let it become yours, too!

Find something you love (that’s not work). Because I love my job, I used to think that that was all I needed to be fulfilled in my life. I would work long hours and weekends in the interest of making a difference and doing something that I really liked. Gradually, because I did it well and our organization grew, my job got bigger. And I worked more. And longer hours. And suddenly I needed an outlet. Finding something that you love that is different from your everyday can make a huge difference.

I began horseback riding, something that I had loved when I was young but had gotten away from in college and as a young professional. Now it is the highlight of my week; I ride more often and volunteer at horse shows. It’s a great feeling to learn and grow in a totally different direction. You may choose something from your past that you had stopped doing, or you may choose something new that you have just seen and want to know more about. Either way, it definitely will make a difference.

Feel free to say no. I recently made the decision to step down from an activity that I enjoyed because my schedule had grown too packed. My enjoyment for the activity had been replaced by the feeling that civic engagement was a chore, something that I had to do because, well, who else was there to do it? The answer is, lots of people. I know so many people who volunteer with the argument that no one else is there to do it.

In many cases, it’s true; some of the most effective initiatives and social movements exist because a few committed people put in the time to bring it to fruition. On the flip side, however, reaching the level of burnout can sour you not only for a single activity, but for many other activities, especially if you are someone who volunteers in many places. Do yourself a favor. As soon as you think you might be burning out, step back. You can always return later if you want to.

I hope these suggestions are helpful to you. Take care of yourself.

Out-of-Town Cheerleaders

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As I write this post, the Capitol is in the midst of its production run of Spamalot, and I can hear the Canalfest fireworks in the distance. The big weekend for Honor America Days has just passed, the Yoga Life Festival will be this weekend in Stittville, Wednesday’s Farmers Market was lovely as ever, and so many great things are happening around town and around the region.  Anyone who says there is nothing to do in the Mohawk Valley must be living underground (though who knows, maybe there are things going on there, too!).

The second weekend in August is always one of my favorites. I am very fortunate to have a job that brings people joy and excitement, and this weekend we will be hosting joyous, excited people from all over the country. Where many people have thankless jobs, I would say I have one of the most thankful jobs that there is.

Capitolfest started as an idea by film festival goers who were seeking to improve on the typical film festival experience. For those of you who aren’t film festival attendees, I would liken film festivals to endurance races: You almost have to train for the long hours sitting on uncomfortable chairs in the dark, watching films that often vary in entertainment value, with short breaks and shorter options for sustenance. Dedicated festivalphiles aim for their personal best each festival, seeing just how many films they can watch in uncomfortable conference center seating before their eyes glaze over and their internal battery dies. One barely has time to socialize with the friends that they have somehow made over the course of several festivals, and they often have to choose between seeing a coveted movie and grabbing a short bite with someone they see once a year. At that, you can’t even guarantee that you’ll be back in time for your favorites; between overwhelmed restaurants and off-schedule sessions, festival time seems like a strange, film-laden rabbit hole.

Our festival founders thought, why not make it pleasant? Guaranteed quality movies, longer breaks, time to socialize, keeping on schedule while seated on comfortable chairs in a real historic movie theatre come together for a wonderful summer treat. Capitolfest has certainly grown from that concept to become a much-loved mecca for early film fans and casual moviegoers alike. Hard-core film fans bring indulgent but interested spouses, long-time film fan parents bring their neophyte children, locals meet up with friends that they’ve made from around the country at Capitolfests past, and everyone has a great time. Nearly 100% of people on our surveys say they will be returning; those who don’t are merely unsure of scheduling conflicts.

As Romans, we’re blessed to be part of a community that our patrons love coming to. Exclamations of the friendliness of Romans, the wealth of history, and the beauty of the landscape and surrounding areas, are all regular occurrences at Capitolfest. On the flip side, our local businesses benefit, as many of our patrons are choosing to spend three days (and often more) exploring everything Rome has to offer. If you see a Capitolfest badge floating around town this weekend, be sure to give the wearer a warm welcome. Judging from the word of mouth recommendations that we are always hearing about when people register, I reckon that these folks are some of our best out-of-town ambassadors for the Positively Rome spirit.

Trainspotting

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I’m writing this column just past Amsterdam, enjoying a cloudy day on a southbound train. I’m on my way to the annual League of Historic American Theatres conference.

Maybe it’s the idea that I’m attending my favorite conference of the year, traveling on my favorite mode of transportation, or maybe it’s the idea that for the first time in several years I don’t have the added stress of being a presenter at the conference, but I feel absolutely content. This year’s conference is in New York City, and while I’m there I get to meet with donors and colleagues of the Capitol, which is always fun and worthwhile. I’m also taking in some exhibits and riding horseback through Central Park before I come home. It’s going to be a great trip.

There are faces to New York that can only be seen by train. Oftentimes the tracks are so near a river that it can be surmised that more animals than humans have ventured onto the space between. There are old factory buildings, built during a time when function and beauty could happily coexist, and these sturdy buildings still stand, sometimes empty, sometimes repurposed by those who couldn’t stand to see them laid to waste. I always sit on the river side when I can, and the view is always different, while staying comfortably the same. I listen to music and solve logic puzzles (my very favorite kind since I discovered them as a child). I like to go early, as the towns are waking up, and watch them come to life as the train goes along.

I people watch and sometimes I work, but it always feels very relaxed on the Empire Service, a train that is rarely overcrowded as it comes through Rome and a line (like many that Amtrak offers) who staff are refreshingly friendly. Though I am more apt to keep to myself than chat, when I do choose to socialize, train people are my favorite. They are folks who made a conscious choice not to take the fastest route, nor the cheapest, but the most pleasant! And they often have a personality to match. It starts at the Rome station, chatting with familiar faces and neighbors I’ve just met, and extends to complete strangers riding the rails from around the country.

I certainly hope that the rail improvements that Amtrak is rooting for come through. I can think of few better investments than rail service, and
I hope it’s popularity will only increase as time goes on.

Out of Service

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I’ve been going going going the past few months. I am a hereditary workaholic, so it isn’t anything to write home about. But the idea that I wanted to stop working myself so hard was rather novel. I voluntarily decided to take two of my vacation days right before the 4th of July, partly to relax, and partly to get ready for an upcoming conference trip without having to scramble at the last minute.

As I clocked out on the eve of my vacation, I felt pretty good. I had put together a list of the things that needed to be done, had made a few social appointments (it was vacation, after all) and set out to have a leisurely several days.

With a broad expanse of days off ahead of me, I figured I could take it easy at the outset. I did some things, but I frittered a lot—read books, took naps, lounged about in general. I invited my mother over for a leisurely cookout on the 4th.

But the morning of the 4th, I woke up with a pretty sore throat. Art had one too, so I didn’t think much of it. It seemed like a good day to have bad allergies, so I just went with it. By that evening it hadn’t gone away. The next day it was worse. Just when I should have been ramping up my efforts to get things situated and completed, my constitution was backfiring on me. As I needed to be more productive, my body wanted to sleep constantly, ached all over and was over-sensitive to pain. My head was splitting, a cough had joined the sore throat, and I was officially “Out of Service.”

Had I been wrong to deliver cough drops to my sick sister and her husband a few days before? Should I have been more careful around my sick coworkers? Should I have taken better care of myself in general, eating more healthy foods and drinking lots of water? Probably. Almost certainly. But hindsight is 20-20, and I would rather do something nice for someone else than choose not to because they might be contagious.f

The moral(s) of this story? Maybe something about best laid plans, being more organized in the first place so that I could delegate, yada yada yada. But I think the biggest takeaway is this: Don’t worry about it. Life happens, and the world isn’t going to end because everything isn’t crossed off your to-do list as you would have it be. Things have a way of sorting themselves out, and paring themselves down to the essence of what is really important. And in coming to realize that, I have probably accomplished more than I set out to do.