Monday, September 30, 2002

An Alaska polar bear

Taking the advice of a friend, I declared today a "Mental Health Day" for myself. I called my client to let them know I wasn't coming, left a message at the office, had breakfast at a little restaurant I know, and then went to the zoo. For some reason I like to go to the zoo once a year, with or without other people, and I love to commune with the polar bears. Since nobody had called with a dire emergency by the time I got to the zoo, I turned my phone off, and wandered around for a few hours, spending most of the time watching the bears.

In an interesting piece of timing, one of my nieces is planning to get married soon, and I talked to her tonight about love and marriage. We used to have a good relationship, but I haven't spoken to her much in the last few years, until tonight. She seemed very nervous, and asked all sorts of questions. In response, besides the obvious questions like "Do you think you love him?" and "Do you trust him?", I tried to share some of my recent experiences with her.

I asked if she and her partner have had any major disagreements, and when she replied "Yes", I asked her more questions about how those went. How did he handle the disagreements? Did she feel differently about him after the arguments?

Learning about people

This conversation and my partner issues at work remind me of an experience I had just after high school. I was working at a local Kmart, and one Sunday morning I was working in the garden center with another young girl, and it was one of those "everything that could go wrong went wrong" kind of days. People who were supposed to come in to work didn't show up, whoever worked the night before didn't do their job, and it was a beautiful summer day -- meaning we were swamped with customers. To this day I don't know if I've ever worked as hard as I did that day.

But I learned something about myself and that girl. After our initial panic, we kept our attitudes very positive. Instead of bemoaning our fate, we took the day as a challenge. I talked our manager into giving us free soft drinks and lunch, and in exchange we moved customers and product as fast as possible, smiling, laughing, actively talking to customers, and sharing a few stories during the very brief quiet moments. We went to high school together for four years but barely said hello then, so it was fun to hear her thoughts about different people in school.

I didn't think about it much back then, but over the years, whenever I look back at that day, I realize that you learn more about people during bad times than you do during easier times. That's one time when a person's true character shows up, and that's what I tried to stress with my niece during our discussion.

(Of course you also learn a lot about people during extremely successful times, when you're on top of your game and everything is very easy, like being a champion in a sporting event, but that's a story for another time.)

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