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three deep breathsFinding Power and Purpose in a Stressed-Out World
By Thomas Crum
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Thomas Crum
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Wrinkle
He probably never would have looked at his reflection at all, if it hadn't been for something his daughter said. He would have done what he usually did—go downstairs, get on his computer, and wrestle with deadlines and dilemmas. But tonight, while he was tucking her into bed, Angus noticed Sierra looking at him intently.
"Why do you have that big line on your face, Daddy?"
"What big line?"
"This big line here," she said, tracing with her finger a line on his brow that extended down between his eyes.
"I guess it's from worrying too much," was Angus's truthful reply.
"What are you going to do?" his daughter persisted.
"I'm not sure."
He kissed her good night and reached to turn o the light.
"When I'm not sure of something I just ask my teacher."
"That's a good idea, Sierra. Now, go to sleep," he said, closing her bedroom door.
"And my teacher says the answers are always there, Daddy," he heard her call out. "You just have to look for them."
That was when he caught his reflection in the hallway mirror.
It answered back unflinchingly.
Behind that professional demeanor and that successful-looking suit, that crisply pressed shirt and silk tie, lurked something Angus didn't like. Something unnerving, like driving a car with loose brakes. The headset from his cell phone was still dangling around his neck, keeping him connected, but connected to what? He focused in on his tired eyes and the wrinkles on his brow. So this was the result of all this striving for success. Angus put both hands on the little table under the mirror to get a closer look. Sure, he had a good job, a loving wife, a wonderful eight-year-old daughter, a nice home. Wasn't he supposed to be happy? What was this miserable feeling and what was behind this sad and bewildered face?
The image didn't look at all like the person he wanted to be. He saw right through the efficient business-suit exterior to the stressed-out, "no time available" man he had become.
What are you going to do about it? he thought. The mirror, Zen-like, reflected back only his confusion.
Angus's cell phone rang, but for once he did not answer it.
Oh, I'm connected all right! PDA, cell phone, Internet, fax messages, 500 cable channels, the whole cyberspace nightmare! You would think if anybody had access to the answers it would be me. But I'm just like everybody else, walking around with a headset on, appearing to be mumbling to myself. It used to be if we were on the street talking to ourselves, we were considered crazy.
If only there were a delete button for dastardly days. Or maybe a do-over one. What was worse, this had been just a typical day for Angus. It had started with the alarm clock jack-hammering the billion neurons of his brain into consciousness. He had reached up in such a knee-jerk stupor that he knocked the clock o the table onto the hardwood floor, dividing it into two clocks, neither of them working. Alarm. That was the perfect start for Angus's day—frenzied —like fire ants in his boxers.
Had he set the alarm for an hour earlier, he would still have sabotaged himself. Some people travel in the fast lane, some are stuck in the slow lane. Angus was stuck in the late lane. Even when he planned extra time, he would squander it away in the shower in a hypothetical debate, bullying one of his colleagues into accepting one of his ideas, until the hot water ran out. Then he would notice the time, and the panic would begin anew.
Angus had rushed through the kitchen and kissed his daughter with the early morning pleasantry, "Sierra, I'm going to make it to your soccer game this afternoon." He went to kiss his wife, Carly, but his cell phone rang, so he answered it instead.
"Hello? Yeah, hello, Robert. Oh yeah? I figured that would happen. I'm surrounded by idiots, that's what I think of it."
Grabbing his coffee mug, he had rushed out the door with an affirmative grunt to his wife's query, "Coffee for breakfast again?" Carly could only sigh, looking down at the eggs she was about to scramble and then helplessly at her daughter.
"Sierra, he's just really busy these days. He's got big challenges at work. Don't be disappointed if he misses another game." She managed a smile for her daughter, and then quickly looked back at her eggs, disguising her own frustration.
But of course, Angus had missed the importance of that moment. He was deeply lost in the oblivion of the preoccupied, roaring down the highway, talking in his annoyed business voice to Robert on his cell phone, jacked up on coffee and anxieties, acting like an NFL linebacker blitzing on third down.
"All right, Robert. We've got problems. I'll be there soon."
He slammed the cell phone shut.
"Don't! Don't you dare!" he screamed at the traffic light turning red. The longest red light in the city, and I have to get it.
He had taken another gulp of his java while simultaneously flicking on the radio and dialing his office assistant on his cell phone. Angus could multitask with the best of them, a skill essential to the chronically late.
"Hi, Kelly. If Sterner gets in for our meeting before I do, tell him I'm on my way. I'm stuck in a major traffic jam!" A lie, of course, but not from his perspective. Everything was always major.
"What's that, Kelly? What does Harold want? A meeting tomorrow? Okay, okay, tell him I'll be there. See if you can free up my schedule."
Harold was his boss.
That's when Angus had started to sweat. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. Isn't this red light ever going to change? He could feel his heart pounding. Then he did that thing he always did under stress. He escalated. He took one worry (Why does the boss want to see me?) and created a catastrophic scenario around it (I'm over budget, I'm not meeting deadlines, I'll get fired, Carly and Sierra will disown me, I'm going to die). He had perfected this apocalyptic spiral of despair: he was a world-class down-hiller on a slippery slope.
Angus had been eyeing Eddy, the homeless guy who worked the red-light traffic for loose change. This had always irritated Angus and today it downright killed him. He wanted to yell, "Hey, Eddy, how about lending me a buck? You're even, and I'm down $18,000 in credit card debt!" But the light turned green, so Angus jumped on the horn instead.
The guy in the red truck in front of him made the obligatory gesture, which caused Angus, with a maniacal gleam, to accelerate around him, barely making the right-hand turn onto the freeway. He screeched to a halt behind the slow line queuing up for the freeway entrance. He had saved no time whatsoever, but to him, he had just sacked the quarterback.
But then came the guilt, the remorse, the worry: Somebody could have gotten hurt and it would have been my fault. Anger one minute, guilt the next.
He eventually wheeled into the packed company parking lot, smoldering as he looked for a space. He noticed one up front near his building, as well as a car approaching from the opposite direction with its blinker on. Another quick acceleration and Angus casually swerved into the space before the car could make the turn. It was rude, he knew, so he feigned innocence, although in the rear-view mirror he recognized the driver as an elderly woman who worked in his building.
At least it's not a fellow employee. I'm late and I need the space. This is an emergency.
He grabbed his briefcase and ran to the building.
"Mornin', Angus," came the happy, singsong voice of Daisy, the groundskeeper, who had been watering some small fir trees.
Some days that woman annoys me. Actually, most days. Doesn't she ever have a bad day?
He gave her a professional nod of recognition.
There is just no graceful landing possible from a horizontal position three feet o the ground. The garden hose that tripped him, combined with the speed at which he was moving, launched him skyward like a wounded condor, arms and briefcase flapping for balance. And losing. Prone on the sidewalk and cursing, Angus gathered himself up and hobbled into the building before Daisy, a big, lovable woman capable of carrying the perplexed Angus easily over one shoulder, could get there to help.
"Whoa! That was some flight, Angus! Are you still in one piece?" Without looking back, Angus waved her off. Can this day get any worse?
It did. But there is no need to describe the rest of the misery that Angus created. More pulse-racing battles with time, anxiety rushes, and ego-related tailspins, real and imagined.
Angus had hoped that he could relax at home that evening, but all he saw were rush-hour stand-stills, a hundred e-mails, a disappointed daughter whose soccer game he had missed, and a detached wife who had had about enough of his unavailability.
And that was when his daughter had said, "The answers are always there, Daddy. You just have to look for them." Angus found in the mirror the worry wrinkle that Sierra had pointed out. He traced it with his finger as if to erase it, but it did not go away. In this moment, for the first time, Angus recognized the truth of his situation.
Angus had a fitful night to match his day, this time fretting over his upcoming meeting with Harold, his boss. His conversation with his colleague Robert that morning confirmed a rumor he'd heard that his job as project manager for the new marketing plan was being questioned. Not just by his team, but by his boss. He had obsessed until he dozed o at 4:10 a.m., only to be jarred to attention by his daughter's alarm clock, which he had borrowed to replace the one he had broken the previous morning. The Disney tune was on full volume: "Zippity-do-dah, zippity ay."
No, this is not a "wonderful day"!
Fumbling unsuccessfully for the switch, he yanked the plug.
Angus rubbed his eyes and felt his tired body. He staggered to the shower and was drenched by a torrential downpour of warm water and cold thoughts. He stood aimlessly in the shower for who knows how long. It occurred to him that he was staring at his conditioner in his left hand, and couldn't remember whether he had shampooed or not. In his next fleeting glimpse of consciousness, he caught himself staring into the mirror holding his toothbrush but unclear as to whether or not he had brushed his teeth. Only the mint taste in his mouth gave him some confidence.
The next moment of awareness came while driving down his street. Did I even see Carly and Sierra this morning? The full coffee mug in his hand was an indicator that there had been an exchange, but the specifics were hazy.
If it is true that the world exists only in the present moment, then Angus's morning, full of ruminations about his upcoming meeting with his boss, had been nonexistent for all but an occasional blip on his screen of consciousness, usually associated with a gulp of caffeine.
The physical jolt of the car hitting the curb grabbed Angus's attention, causing him to grip the steering wheel tightly with both hands while grasping the thought that yes, he was driving by Hanford Park at 7:32 a.m., bumping along on a flat tire.
"No! No! Not today!" Angus raged as he pulled over alongside Hanford Park. He leaped out and saw the right back tire had been destroyed. Checking his watch and perspiring profusely, he opened the trunk and took out the jack. He got the lug nuts o and the car jacked up and went to grab the spare tire. He gave it a hopeful test bounce, but it replied with a splat.
Angus sank despondently to the curb, his determination and energy as flat as the spare tire he was staring at.
He pulled out his cell phone. "Kelly, it's me. Middle of rush-hour traffic and I'm sitting on the curb with a lug wrench in my hands, a flat tire, and a flatter spare. I'm a mess. If I look as crazed as I feel, I'd be arrested."
"I'm sorry, Angus," she replied kindly, and added, "But there is no hurry because Robert left a message saying he can't meet with you this morning."
Robert! Messing me up again!
Swelling with irritation, Angus jerked at his tie to loosen it.
"Why don't you take a little time, Angus?" Kelly, his long-time assistant, was trying to be helpful. "It sounds like you need it. You want to be calm and clear for your meeting with Harold this afternoon. You know how important it is."
"I know what I'm doing," snapped Angus, and hung up. I'm fuming, that's what I'm doing.
"You need a ride, sonny?"
He was startled by such a soothing sound; a breath of calm amid the rush-hour traffic. He turned in the direction of the voice. The first thing he noticed was the shoes—black, high-top Converse All Star basketball shoes, vintage early sixties. Then the gray sweat pants, classic old school with the baggy bottoms. Silver hair sprung out both sides of the man's head under his baseball cap. With a fatherly smile and twinkling eyes the old man stood with both feet firmly planted and his hands on his hips, a hybrid of Albert Einstein and Vince Lombardi. He could have been forty or ninety: his dynamic physical presence spoke of youth, but his deep wrinkles could only have been carved by decades of laughing smiles and arduous miles. Hypnotized by the stunning sight, Angus tilted his head.
"Maybe I need to ask in another language?" the old man laughed.
"Oh, no. It's just that, that, oh forget it," Angus stammered. "Yes, I would appreciate a lift. I just need to make a phone call first."
"Take your time."
Angus tossed his spare tire and tools back into the trunk, and called his service station on his cell. He scribbled a note, "Car repair truck on the way," and placed it under the wiper.
That's when Angus's memory kicked in.
"Hey," he said to the old man. "Aren't you the guy I see doing those strange-looking movements in the park every morning?"
"Strange to you, maybe," the old man laughed. "But very familiar to me. Something I learned from an old martial arts master, when I was the one who was needing a lift."
The old man bounded into a baby blue, '57 Chevy convertible in mint condition. Angus opened the car door and sat down. He blinked to clear his focus, and then looked at this strange being in the vintage hot-rod with a yin-yang symbol on the gearshift knob, a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror, and immaculate white leather upholstery.
"I'm Angus. Thanks for the lift." His eyes toured the interior again. "This is some car."
"It's a good ride," replied the old man. And then he said, looking at Angus with piercing blue eyes, "Are you clear about where you desire to go?"
If it had been a normal "where would you like to go" Angus's response would have been immediate. He knew where the office was. He thought he knew where he was. Yet the old man's choice of words, and the way he said "clear," and "you," and "desire" gave direction-finding an entirely new meaning.
"Someplace different from where I seem to be headed," Angus sighed. Then he recovered with the more concrete, "I work at the Jefferson Building on Fourth and Federal."
"Well then, let's begin our journey. First, you need to fasten your centering belt."
"Oh! I know you call it a seat belt. But for me it's far more important than that."
"Centering belt?" Angus asked, bewildered.
"Wise words," the old man asserted.
"Weird words. The wisdom loses me." But Angus realized that nothing in his life was making any sense these days, so why not continue down this strange road?
"Do you have ten minutes before we proceed?"
"Not really," snapped Angus. "I'm a very busy man." Who does this guy think he is? Time is money. God, I hate not being in control, stuck, dependent on this old geezer who probably wants to sell me something useless.
He watched the old man start up the engine without hesitation or argument, his peaceful demeanor unchanged.
Okay, okay. My morning meeting has been canceled. And, well, maybe Kelly is right. I do need to pull myself together.
"On second thought, why not?" Angus responded, annoyed at the situation. "I've got a few extra minutes."
Excerpted from three deep breaths by Thomas Crum Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Crum. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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