But what have you done lately?

The above headline is one of the industry jokes shared among the inmates of the profession of advertising when I was in the biz. It wasn’t really very funny and it basically addressed the fact that regardless of how many CLIO awards you’d won or whatever glowing peer recognition you’d tallied up for being brilliant, you were really only as good as your last ad campaign. The rest of it—regardless of how good your TV and print ads looked in your portfolio—was irrelevant compared to what you had done lately. Maybe a lot of professions are like that. I’ve been away from the business for several years now but I was reminded of this attitude the other day when I visited my mother at her house.

I walked in on her in the middle of the day and found her elbow-deep in clipped out magazine recipes and open cookbooks at the dining room table. When I asked her what she was doing, she sighed and said: “Still trying to find my signature dish.”

I sat down with a thump and laughed until I cried. We both did.

My mother will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a few weeks.

What's YOUR signature dish?

What’s YOUR signature dish?

So it’s officially true. You never stop looking for that one thing that sets you apart, that one gift that will have people remembering you and immortalizing you. My mother was a gifted painter in her day and she was gorgeous to boot: thick auburn hair, ivory skin, hazel eyes, willowy slim. Like many people who’ve lived a long time, she’s done a lot in her life: raised kids, been adored by a special man, (thankfully for us kids it was our father), and travelled the world.

Seeing her at the dining room table looking for the dish that might be the lynchpin of her reputation as a cook was great to see because it reminded me that while I and the rest of my family are in awe (and fear) of her advancing age, that’s not how she sees things.

She sees that she’s not done yet and that reputations can still be made.

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it's "too cheesy" can it really be what I'm known for?

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it’s “too cheesy” can it really be what I’m known for?

I love that about her. In no small part since it helped me to see the world in more cheerful colors, because I’m also still searching for my “signature dish.” I don’t think my mother’s intention was so much in search of a legacy  after she’s gone but to fulfill a reputation right now. She’s looking for the thing her family will think of her today, beyond all her other accomplishments in life.

What about you? Are you still looking for your “signature dish?” The thing that sets you apart and that people will think of when they think of you? Would love to hear!

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.