Blog

What My Starbucks Apron Would Say

I broke up with Starbucks last year (who can afford it?), but every once in awhile, we get back together. The barista taking orders today had on this glorious apron that said, “Coffee Master” underneath the Starbucks logo. I asked him what he had to do to become a coffee master. Apparently, it involves a nomination and a year of training.

The barista making the coffee, a kind older woman, (she offered me extra shots of espresso–why not?) had nothing written beneath her Starbucks logo. She told me that nobody has nominated her yet. I cupped my hands in a whisper and told her I had a sharpie in my bag. We could write “Coffee Master” on her apron and nobody would know the difference. She laughed out loud.

As I watched her concoct my drink, I wondered about Starbucks. Why is Starbucks so unapologetic about what it’s good at? Why can they, without any hesitation, ask employees to boldly display a claim like “coffee master?” The concept resonated with me because I just finished teaching two classes on memoir writing. I asked students to write down ideas about some experience they’ve had that allows them to offer wisdom or insight for another person. So many students said, “I’m so boring. I have nothing to say to anyone.”

Not flair. Not flair at all.

Don’t most of us feel this way? But what if I had to wear an apron to display what I was best at, what I knew I could contribute, what I’m sure could help others? What would it say? And why is self-esteem so troubling for us? Finding what we’re good at seems so hard, and yet, I practically wrote an essay this morning at kindergarten registration when the form asked me to tell them what my daughter’s “special talents” are. Could I have written with the same enthusiasm about myself? We so easily find the good in others.

Starbucks has never had a self-esteem issue. Maybe they could market personalized aprons for the rest of us.

People are coffee masters, grill masters, yoga masters, master craftsman. Couldn’t I think of just one thing I could put on an apron that signified my contribution? Maybe it would be “master of the dishes” or “master of bedtime snacks.” Maybe I’ve mastered suffering or mastered survival. Whatever it is, I want to be unapologetic about it.

Living with flair means I think about what my life experiences qualify me for, and I can celebrate that like the Starbucks barista who knows she can make a great cup of coffee.

Share

Finding the Flair in Trash

You’d think that my trying on a fancy dress with sparkly shoes (I’m in a wedding) or going to a nice lunch out today would constitute flair. I’m amazed with what doesn’t trip the flair sensor in me. I’m stunned with what does.

I wake up each morning, and I start looking for my flair moment. I can’t wait to discover it. Surprisingly, none of these moments have had anything to do with dresses, shoes, or even food (and I love food: I’m still remembering an amazing carrot cake cupcake I ate).

It’s always the common thing seen in an uncommon way. Flair erupts from the banal, not the sparkly.

While in the Lowe’s parking lot a few hours ago, I saw a man notice a piece of trash in his path. When he bent down to get it, the wind blew it just out of his reach and in front of my car. I braked and watched him scurry after the trash, lean down, nearly reach it, and have the wind swirl it out of reach again.

It felt like I was watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. After two more attempts to hold the piece of trash with his foot, the man finally grasped the paper, held it up in victory, and went to find the trashcan. I rolled down my window and screamed out, “Nice job! You did it!” He held his fist in a cheer, laughing with me. It was a small victory, but so important. Maybe it would be the only battle he’d win today. I had to celebrate it.

Living with flair means I celebrate every small victory. And I mean celebrate (you have to cheer with somebody–hold up a fist and pump it in the air). Cheering with a stranger about picking up trash was flair.

It wasn’t sparkly at all. I didn’t even have to pay for it. In fact, the stuff I want to wear or eat or buy seems like counterfeit flair to me. It’s not the real treasure.

Living with flair means I can find joy in trash because that’s the treasure.

Share

Student Excuses and Flair

I receive some fantastic excuses about why students miss class. Usually these involve recovering. (Cancun recovery, Birthday party recovery, first day of Spring recovery).

I have an unusual teaching philosophy. I value flair, so if you’re going to miss class, you might as well do it with flair. This means I want the true story, rich with sensory detail. And by all means, use a semicolon somewhere.

Today’s flair moment arrived in the form of an email in which a student describes the scene of his car breaking down: anti-freeze spilling everywhere, profuse smoke, a behemoth truck! (all his wording). I wasn’t mad; I was proud.

I have ten classes left to teach 50 students how to write with flair. Today I reminded them of the romance of the semicolon, the whisper of the parentheses, the shout of the dash. I talked about flavor and tone. Writing with flair means I turn each sentence into a masterpiece.

Living with flair means I turn my life into a masterpiece. It means I find some flair even in my highway breakdowns. Besides, the world needs more true stories of why we aren’t where we’re supposed to be. There’s a story there, ripe with flair, that makes what’s important not what event we missed, but what experience we had while we were trying to get there.

Share

The Flair Disaster

Today in church, during the most reflective part, a little girl in a soft pink Easter dress spilled her grape communion juice. It trickled down her dress and pooled on the floor beneath her sandals. I was sitting two rows behind her.

Quickly, her grandpa and grandma (who happened to be the pastor and his wife!) found a cloth and began to wipe her dress and the floor. Her father joined in, trying to minimize the damage. And then, her mother–hawk-like and decisive–turned from her seat at the end of the aisle and made her way to where her daughter sat.

I felt myself bristle. Would this mother scold? Would she grab her daughter and drag her out of the church, shaming her for distracting the other worshipers? Was the Easter dress expensive, and would the little girl be punished for staining it?

The mother leaned down to her daughter. I couldn’t see the daughter’s face, but she had her head down, shaking.

The mother took the child’s face in her hands, firmly, tilting the chin up.

Then, looking clearly into that little girl’s eyes, she kissed her cheek and smiled.

It’s Easter.

Something about the way that mother held the girl’s face, something about tilting a chin up, something about that soft kiss overwhelmed me. It was a picture of God’s grace: choosing to love and not shame, lifting a face, covering a stain with a kiss. It was Easter flair.

Maybe I was so struck because I studied the emotion of shame in graduate school. When we feel tormenting inferiority because of a shortcoming, the body’s response is to look down. We hide. We cannot endure the gaze of an audience.

But this mother tilted the child’s face up. By refusing to allow the shame response, this mother locked eyes with her daughter and gazed with love and unconditional acceptance.

Later, I saw that little girl laughing and running around at an Easter egg hunt. The bright stain on her dress made no difference to her. But it could have.

Living with flair means I take a face in my hands (even if it’s my own), tilt up the chin, and choose to love regardless of the deep stain. Who isn’t walking around with grape juice on their clothes? Who isn’t that child? Who doesn’t need a love like that?

Share

The Throw Back

There you are, eating a burrito or picking at a hangnail, and all of a sudden, it happens: You have a thought.

I wonder about this. I read recently, in a Richard Selzer account, that “a surgeon knows the landscape of the brain but does not know how a thought is made.” Does anyone? Does anyone know how a thought begins? It’s a mystery to scientists.

Today, as I was drinking coffee and watching sunlight filter through the potted tulips, I had a thought. I wondered what great thing I might do in my life. It was a nanosecond of a thought.

I closed my eyes and thought about the great people I know. I concluded that every great person I know has sacrificed deeply. They live for a mission that’s bigger than their own comfort. As I sat there (very comfortably) on my couch with my just-right coffee, I wondered if I could rise to the challenge of mission. What would it take? And why do people do this? Why some and not others?

I sat there, reflecting on a life’s purpose. What does it mean to reflect? Is it useful? Reflection means to pause in the day and contemplate what I’m doing and what it means. A reflection literally is a light or sound wave being thrown back from a surface. I want to let things I observe and experience be “thrown back” in my face; I want to consider them deeply and fit them into the narrative of my life.

If a reflection is a “throwing back” of light, I wonder what I throw back to people when they observe me. What do I reflect, what do I teach?

My moment of reflection stirred something up in me. But I almost lost that thought in the rush of life. I could have ignored it altogether. (I mean, even at this very moment I’m thinking about 20 other things including but not limited to: how to manage the ladybug infestation in my house, how many calories are in a serving of ham, or why all the kids like that Iyaz “Replay” song). That greatness thought, like some shooting star across a dim sky, was barely there, embedded in the mush of neurons. I just had to figure out a way to hold it in place, let it do its work, and honor it today.

I want to be more reflective. I want to teach my children to develop curious, reflective minds. I want to be able to ask them, each day, what they wondered about. (I’m not sure how to guarantee this. I briefly considered sending the children to their room to meta-cognate before lunch.)

Living with flair means I let my experiences “throw back” something to me.

Share

Luring the Turtle

Today I tried to lure a hibernating turtle out from underneath my back porch. I actually devised an elaborate plan. Coaxing turtles into the open isn’t necessarily extraordinary, but why I did it felt like flair.

My elaborate plan involves calling to our turtle and leaving fruit around the yard. I realize this is ridiculous. But still.

I know he’s in there. Last fall, I fed him tiny slices of fruits and vegetables. Then, in a bombardment of freezing rain, winter came early. The turtle burrowed deep somewhere in my yard, and, since we couldn’t find evidence of digging, we assumed he went where it was warmest: under the porch near the house.

Spring is here. Let the turtle emerge!

Today, I circled the yard, looking for that beautiful box turtle. As I walked among all the green shoots in the garden, I knew in my mind that the hunt was completely useless. Our turtle most likely departed for the woods long ago. Chances are slim he’s anywhere near my yard. He might be in another state by now.

But my heart–and the glimmer of childhood left in me–focused my eyes to spy any hint of that brown and yellow mosaic turtle shell. No turtle. But I’ll wake up tomorrow wondering if today’s the day I’ll be drying dishes at the kitchen sink, look out across my back yard, and see him lumbering towards the apple slice I’ve left for him.

I’ll circle the yard tomorrow, too. It’s good for my soul.

Living with flair means I hunt, despite the odds, for what might be.

Share

A Hand in the Wind

Sometimes flair bursts into our lives in obvious forms: a promotion at work, good news from the doctor, a first date, or an unexpected gift. Other times, we consciously create flair. We do something out-of-the-ordinary like take a vacation, enjoy a nice dinner out, or challenge ourselves to try some new sport.

Today, I tried to plan my flair. It involved taking the girls to a beautiful creek. And while the whole morning made us smile as we splashed in a creek collecting rocks, it didn’t create that stop-me-in-my-tracks reflection moment so characteristic of flair.

What did was the split second I decided to thrust my hand out of the car window to feel the breeze as I drove home from the creek. I spread my fingers out, then did that undulating wave-like motion to feel the air flow, and finally, like some large awkward bird, I actually started flapping my arm in the wind. (If you happened to be driving behind me and wondered who that crazy woman was on the road today, yup, that was me.)

Soon, the girls copied me. The older one said, “Are we allowed to do this?” and the little one just said, “Ahhhh! That’s feels nice.” There we were, driving down the road, flapping our arms. Fully alive, fully enjoying the rush of wind on our hands. We couldn’t help but laugh.

Flair does that.

It was a small decision to enjoy the wind with my hand. And it made me think about other tiny gestures of the body. Maybe today I could stop, lay down on the warm grass and turn my face toward the sun. Maybe, no matter how stressed I feel or how trapped I am in a schedule, I could open a window somewhere.

Living with flair means I let my hand enjoy the wind.

Share

Going on the Radio with Pearls

Today I’m going to be on the local NPR radio! My “I Believe in Flair” blog won a contest, and so I get to read the entry about Michael Jackson on the air. I’m wearing my pearls. My student today reminded me that it’s radio, not television, so it won’t matter how I look. But still, I put on the pearls. Besides, I’ll know how I’ll look.

I’m going to be on the radio! I’m going to use one more exclamation point.

Here: !

Excitement manifests as exclamation points in my world. Some might say I’m a walking exclamation point.

My daughter’s the same way. I woke up to her asking why the other neighborhood kids’ Easter Bunny hides their Easter baskets. She wanted a hidden Easter Basket, with clues, on Easter morning. She was gesturing with her hands and reenacting the hunt she’d go on to find her basket. She suggested that I write a kind note to the Easter Bunny to explain the new hiding-the-Easter-basket ritual. I agreed.

“And mom,” she said hurriedly, “make sure you use lots of exclamation points.”
“Why?” I asked, rubbing my eyes and trying to shake off a nightmare I had about my high school.
“Because then the Easter Bunny knows how important this is. He will know how much you care about this.”

I thought about how right she is. Exclamation points do signal excitement, passion, flair. In academic writing, we never use them. In fact, my grammar book on writing with flair doesn’t even mention them. It’s almost as if the exclamation point drains out of us as we age. We lose things to be passionate about (perhaps because it’s not sophisticated to be enthusiastic). Sometimes I ask students to make a list of 5 things worth arguing for. Since they have to write rebuttal essays, I encourage them to pick topics that really move them. We are all surprised with how hard this task is. We’ve lost some flair and replaced it with apathy.

Most children exude passion naturally. They learn apathy. On the walk to school, I’ve witnessed some serious throw-downs about which website ranks higher (Club Penguin, Poptropica, or Webkinz). I see kids willing to go to the grave about whether or not it’s pizza or bagels for school lunch. I’ve seen them literally not stop talking for 20 minutes about Legos or Star Wars.

I want to be able to talk about things, with passion, like that.

Living with flair means I encourage the exclamation point. I draw out the passion in others; I ignite it in myself. So I’m really excited to go to the radio station! Did I mention I’m wearing my pearls?

Share

Doing the Thing I Don’t Want to Do

I did something I hate today. But the not-flair morphed into the flair. Let me explain.

Several things tempted to destroy flair possibility today: cleaning dishes, dressing reluctant children, driving to the gym to meet my nemesis (the arc trainer machine), and figuring out what to make for dinner. I don’t enjoy these things. Couldn’t I just do what I want to do today? My impulse tells me to sit on the couch all day, eat chocolate bunnies (have you tried the peanut butter ones?), and play Ms. Pacman.

But I remembered something a wise doctor once told me. You can tame the part of the brain that demands its own way. You don’t have to respond to your impulses. Neuroscience suggests that if we practice doing something we don’t want to do everyday, we can essentially diminish the power of the brain’s pleasure center. We actually feel better, over time, when we do this. By starting with small decisions to do one thing I didn’t want to do, I could gradually become less impulse-driven.

Everyday, I can embrace some not-flair. I could make the bed when I don’t want to. I could do some push-ups. I could scrub a toilet. And in that genius irony that is most of life, the thing I hate could become a source of energy and pleasure. Funny, that brain.

Runners know this. My sister runs miles before I’m even awake; she can run for an hour while I eat at the same pace. That’s some flair (I mean the running, not my eating). My sister always understood the mind game of running. Sure, the body resists. Sure, you don’t want to do it. But then you choose to tie your shoes, greet the day, and run around the block. And before too long, you experience, ironically, pleasure beyond pleasure.

Today I chose to exercise on “the beast.” The arc trainer terrifies me. If you’ve never been on one, it’s an improved, more demanding version of an elliptical machine. 30 minutes on the arc trainer, and I think I’m going to die. I start mentally planning my funeral. I start writing out my will. But today, I remember my doctor’s words. Do one thing you don’t want to do. Suddenly, I’m happy and full of energy. I finish the workout by saying “no” to the impulse to get the heck off that machine and run far, far away from that gym, never to return.

Living with flair today means I do some things I don’t want to do. And I enjoy them because I recognize the value in being less impulse-driven. I know that scrubbing my toilet can be flair. . . if I choose for it to be.

Share

15 Minutes of Flair

So far, finding daily flair hasn’t been too hard (thank you Michael Jackson, seashells, doughnuts, crab teething rings, and worms), but today seemed profoundly flairless. I walked to school, taught classes, held office hours. All good things, but nothing extraordinary stood out. I did see someone wearing the brightest blue shirt I’ve ever seen–it was practically glowing–and I thought about stopping him, taking a picture, and asking if he minded appearing in my flair blog.

But then, my cell phone rang. My husband was picking me up from campus, and he’d be 15 minutes late. I stood on the curb, wondering what in the world I could do with 15 minutes. What can anyone do with just 15 minutes? It’s exactly the sort of time increment worth wasting away doing absolutely nothing.

Instead, I called my friend (I knew her office was across the street from the coffee shop).

“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said.
“I have 15 minutes,” I said.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“By the coffee shop,” I said.
“I’m coming,” she said.

For exactly 15 minutes, I drank a skinny mocha (I put that in just in case my Weight Watchers friends are reading), sat outside of the coffee shop, and had a wonderful conversation. In 15 minutes, we covered the topics of men, teaching, clothing accessories, children, procrastination, spirituality, over-committing, class presentations, sandwiches, and, finally, my husband’s new glasses.

This friend knows how to create conversation flair. She knows the art of asking great questions to draw me out quickly. I’ve noticed that she asks about my day, but she’ll do so in a way that encourages me to tell a story about it. She’ll say, “tell, me more,” or “what was that like for you,” or “what is that making you think about?”. She’ll mention things she’s observing about my life by saying, “I noticed this about your daughters,” or “you seem to really enjoy this about teaching.” And then I ask questions and make observations of her in return. We laughed together, expressed sadness with each other, and most of all, celebrated our day. We talked deeply, with flair, for 15 minutes, exchanged a quick hug, and then I was off to deal with groceries, grading, play dates, and laundry.

Living with flair means I turn any moment into a worthwhile one. It means spending time building relationships through meaningful conversation whether I have 15 minutes or 15 hours. Deliberate questions, connecting deeply. That’s flair.

Share