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Monday, September 15, 2014

Annals of Successful Parenting: Scout the Parakeet

One of my intermittent fantasies is that I’m an animal-loving, root-chakra, earth-mother with an open-door, anything goes, seat-of-the-pants approach to life. A woman equally comfortable in a put-together outfit and the unnaturally natural make-up look AND with a bird on my shoulder, a dog at my feet, and a steady stream of children revolving in and out of the house while I grind flax and chia seeds in my mortar and pestle for delicious, homemade food.

Then I remember about germs and therapy. But a fantasy’s a fantasy, right? So, the 12-year old wanted a pet. She’s wanted a pet, besides the dog, for a long time. And we’ve had many words and explorations about what kind. A couple years ago, she wanted a chinchilla. I considered this, until I learned that chinchillas live 25 years or more, and require cool slabs of marble for sleep, as well as specially imported volcanic dust for bathing. So she settled for crayfish. Two. Then one ate the other. Then, eventually, the survivor, who had not only eaten his only companion but also had regenerated his own claw, the survivor went caput.

I stopped the husband on his way to flushing Shrimpy. The child, who was 11 at the time, was wet-eyed and red-nostrilled.
"You cannot flush Shrimpy," I said. "She’s upset. She loved him."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Be a father. Bury the crayfish."

And that was it, for a while. However, recently, the 12-year old began agitating for a pet. Fish seemed good, until she found out that they require work. Suddenly they were too boring. Eventually we settled on maybe a bird, one that doesn’t live 80 years, one that doesn’t squawk. One that can’t peck out my eyes. A parakeet.

At that point, I realized I had a real Parenting Lesson in front of me. You see, the 12-year old wanted that bird. Wanted, wanted, wanted that bird. Asked every day. Multiple times a day. Yes, this corresponded to the build up to the start of school. I was aware of that. I was aware that possibly hyperfocusing on this want of bird was much more pleasant than focusing on starting school, especially the challenging math class she’d be doing. But, if my pop psych is too fascile to be true, there is this truth: She wanted something. That something cost money. Therefore, here was an opportunity. Because I wanted something, too. Weeding done. So she had to weed for a certain number of hours at $10 per hour, to pay for the bird. This felt like Good Parenting.

I know I developed a feel for the value of a dollar on the late side. Like around 45, when we bought a house and two cars and had to cancel cable and limit eating out to pizza once a month and I had a mini nervous breakdown. I want my children to do better, but haven’t usually got a clue how to teach them. 90 percent of the time we forget to give them their allowance. So telling them to save 10 percent of their allowance isn’t particularly useful. What usually happens is that when the children want something, we work out some kind of arrangement based on how much allowance they’ve forgotten to collect and I’ve forgotten to distribute. This makes money an even more abstract concept than it already is. And contributes to my conviction that we are raising two grasshoppers, not industrious ants, and since the husband and I seem more grasshopper than ant, I’m going to end up dribbling onto a bib in a shabby nursing home somewhere. State run, if the state runs anything anymore; otherwise, run by some kind of half-assed Samaritan agency.  

So for $10 an hour, the 12-year old weeded. She did a thorough job:

Anyway, three hundred dollars later, we had a parakeet. Scout the Parakeet, the bird paid for by the child, everything else paid for by VISA.

The dog was thrilled. 

Very thrilled. So we borrowed a fence to put around the cage, and worked on finding things even more thrilling for the dog than watching the bird. It was working. We’d gotten to a certain level of calm. That is, when we ignored the bird, the dog did, too. The minute we approached Scout, however, or if Scout got a little flappy, Milo was nosing up to the gate and whining.

So everyone was learning.

And this is what I typed for you readers, last Friday afternoon, one week after we obtained Scout, shortly before I left to drive the ballet carpool, shortly before I left the 12-year old home with Scout the Parakeet. And Milo the dog:

Currently, I am typing to the gentle sound of Scout cracking seeds in her food dish. This is a positive development, since Milo is sleeping under the table, right by my chair, and not whining and obsessively peering at her from behind the fence around her cage, his tail quivering on high alert. So that’s promising. Next step is to be able to approach the cage and talk to the bird without having him rush up as well. It’s mellowed here, so that he only pays attention to the bird when we do.

Unfortunately, while I was driving the ballet carpool, this learning experience turned into one of those learning experiences parents don’t want their children to have. Of course I take some responsibility. I stifled my last minute warning to leave the bird in the cage until I returned home. She wouldn’t do it, I thought.

Alas, poor Scout is no more. Now the 12-year old has learned a terrible lesson of responsibility and guilt. And regret. Let’s not forget that one. And I had to learn a lesson, too. I had to practice just being there, with the arm out, saying nothing much, listening to the child learning remorse.  

This time, the husband knew what to do. After he dug the perfect grave, we placed the bird in it and said a few words: You were loved; I am sorry; Your life was too short, but it was good.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

7 Tips for Success

7 Tips for Success.
That’s a good title for a post. Did it get your attention? The number 7, and the word “tips” are meant to do that. I’ve learned that they are considered “Click bait.” Post titles with numbers – particularly 7 –are more likely to get people to click on them than other titles. That’s what I gather from the social networks. I have no real proof – and, I’m afraid, no real tips, either. 

I was unsure what to call this post. Maybe 7 Ways I’ve Spent My Time (since my last post). Maybe it should be 7 Ways I’ve Frittered Away My Life, or 7 Habits I Failed to Develop and 1 I solidified. Since last I wrote. Or perhaps the best title would be, Cranberry Juice and Ocean Spray, since this week I returned from the beach and was felled by a UTI. (That’s urinary tract infection, in case you wanted to know, and even if you didn’t, because, as Chaucer said, “Thing that is seyd is seyd; and forth it goeth.” I put that quotation on my high school yearbook page, by the way. It hasn’t stopped me from blurting out private information for public consumption. Apparently.)

At least the UTI gave me an excuse to lie on the couch and watch three episodes in a row of “Pretty Little Liars,” with the 12-year old. Guilt-free, I must add. The 15-year old got us hooked on this drama about trendy high school students involved in a bullying mystery, and we’ve been trying to catch up with her. Perhaps it’s surprising, but I find this type of vegging out by my children (and me, from time to time – ahem – thus the relief of the guilt-free UTI binge) comforting. Compared to hunching over an iPhone, watching TV feels downright old fashioned and wholesome. After all, I spent much of my youth doing so, and look how I turned out.

Well. Don’t look too closely.

Anyhoo, where have I been, you may have wondered, Readers? I hope so. I hope you’re still there. Am I back to my seven readers? I’ve been away on the annual trip to the beach with my sister the psychoanalyst, her husband the psychoanalyst, and my niece and nephew the spawn of psychoanalysts. This year my father joined us, as did his special lady friend, for part of the week. 

This annual beach trip comes with the usual family stuff. There you are, sharing a rental kitchen with inadequate utensils, prewashing everything, and performing that awkward morning gymnastics routine around one another. Your kids want to eat what they’re making for their kids. Their kids want to eat what you got for yours. This sister is skinnier than that sister. Whose sunscreen is whose? And then, Lear like, the white haired father is there, bringing along those undertones of which sister is the favorite?

Actually, this trip was fairly stress-free, I must say. Except for driving there. Traffic on the eastern seaboard is relentless, in case you didn’t know it, so as usual, I arrived at the beach ready to blame everyone in my family of origin for making me drive so much farther than they do.

But nobody made me, I had to admit, so I was forced to stifle my impulse to blame in a lot of cappuccino crunch ice cream. .

The bad part of the trip was that one of my wonderful uncles died, after a long illness. My sister and I drove back to Washington for his funeral. That was obviously sad. On the other hand, I got to spend time with my sister the psychoanalyst, who suggested that being a therapist might not be the best outlet for my creativity. When she said that, I had an insight that perhaps my recent mania for French chic and wardrobe, make-up, and hair was my current expression of creativity during my (also) current drift away from creative writing. Hmmmm. Strokes chin with Freudian flair. Peut ĂȘtre. Perhaps.

Other highlights of the past few weeks, in no particular order, include the following:

1. I lay on a bed of nails in Charlotte, NC.  We were down south to retrieve the 15-year old from her ballet intensive and stopped off at the Discovery Center, a hands-on science museum. The bed of nails was kind of freaky. I recommend it. The Discovery Center, that is. If you don’t want to go inside, you can use the outside whisper tube and measure yourself with the invisible measurer that announces your height to everyone at the bus stop. I was glad to find I’m still half an inch up on the 12-year old. I’m rooting for her to top me, though. Why else would I mate with a man a foot taller than I, if not to provide my daughters with a chance to move out of the Petite department? There are really so many fewer options in Petites.

2. Had a haircut. I know, this is momentous. My more serious-minded readers might just skip ahead now. Ahead to something serious, I mean. Like the New York Review of Books. Or the Financial Times. Something substantial. Because I am not. Or I am. I mean, I care about my hair. And this is a big deal for me. I had a second haircut by a new stylist, Donna. Why is this news? Well, it means I’ve left my old stylist. I feel guilty about it. I may have mentioned that he walked out on his old salon, which he supposedly co-owned with his sister, and now he’s got big dreams to start a new one. And I followed him, and listened to his dreams, and was loyal. And got a couple of terrible haircuts. So I turned to a recommendation from someone else, who took me out to lunch, bought me a glass of wine, and drove me to her stylist for a consultation. So I’m leaving my guy, who has rented a chair at some random salon, and is dreaming of starting a hair school. Maybe he will. And maybe I’ll go back to him one day. But right now, I’m loving Donna.

3. Saw the 12 year old perform in her end of summer theater camp production. Krazy Kamp involved several subplots that went nowhere, and a main plot that I can’t recall. There were delicious baked goods at intermission, some of which I had baked. Then I paid to eat them. Support the arts!

4. Got a little education on Israel's history from my mother-in-law. I’ve been assiduous in avoiding knowing too much about this current war, because it’s so distressing; but now I know more. Knowledge is power, according to Auntie Mame. I’m not so sure, in this case.

6. Purchased new sunglasses. I’ll let them speak for themselves in all their awesomeness.

And, lastly, I ate French candy that looks like olives.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sad Clown

The news, official and social, is full of Robin Williams’s death. Consequently, I just don’t feel right posting the rather trivial blog post I had (almost) ready. I mean, I’m not personally touched by his death, nor do I know anyone who has been. Nevertheless, I do feel sad about it, and even a tiny bit shaken.

I’ve known my share of suicides. A childhood friend. The grown up sister of another childhood friend. My mother. Sometimes I have felt contaminated by these suicides, as if knowing them made me more likely to be one myself. I suppose it is true of my mother. I’ve read that suicide can run in families. After all, if someone you know has done it, it seems less impossible. My mother’s suicide I’ve always attributed to her terminal cancer. Even considered it a courageous choice, to end her life on her own time and terms, rather than let cancer do it. But there’s the other aspect of any suicide that can’t be rationalized away. To do it, to kill yourself, you have to be damn miserable. Because there’s nothing else afterwards. Most of us would rather live than not. It seems, thank goodness, inconceivable to prefer not. That’s what shakes me up about Robin Williams, I guess. His death reminds me of how different things can look from the inside, and how sometimes you just can’t escape yourself.

Of the many pieces I’ve read about Robin Williams, these two are my favorites:

This is a link to a very honest response to RW’s death, written by a local writer, Amy Biancolli, whose husband succumbed to suicide recently.

If you made it through that post, and came back, thank you. If you skipped that link, that’s just fine. Here’s a different bit about Robin Williams. Thank you, Karen, for letting me rip this off your Facebook page. Karen is a wonderful painter and friend I met when we lived in NYC. Her work ethic is astonishing. And her paintings are for sale. Her website is She shared this lovely memory:

You do have a lot of famous people sightings in NYC but very honestly the only one that ever fazed me was when, walking with my very young daughter who was in her stroller we walked through a movie set by our apartment building. We approached a group and suddenly someone said: hey, everyone - move aside, there's a baby coming through. The people peeled back and Robin Williams emerged, way shorter than I would've thought, and with that amazing smile came up to us, asked her name, and after asking: may I? leaned over to kiss her forehead, saying: what a beautiful child. She just started up at him and smiled back. As we left I told her that she was humanely blessed by a truly profound artist and sensitive soul, one of the best. We now lean over and kiss your forehead back Mr Williams. You are a beautiful child.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tips from Baba Wawa

A quick note before I retrieve the 15 year old from her summer dance intensive. We’re getting ever closer to 11th grade over here, and I’m experiencing trepidation. You’re shocked, aren’t you, Readers? After all, I usually face challenges with total equanimity. A veritable Dalai Lama of calma. That’s me.

For the journey, I’ve fortified myself with Barbara Walters’ first book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything. I’ve decided I need a better approach to small talk – better than turning myself into a dog-and-pony show of self-deprecating neurosis. I’m thinking there might be more to conversation than that. Perhaps enquiring about the other person ostensibly listening to me? I’m not sure. I’ll have to see what Barbara says. Or said. She wrote this in 1970. Her intention was to help women – men, too, but women – because women had just recently begun moving out into more visible roles in the world. Interesting, at least to me.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Baba Wawa’s book, attributed to “Mrs. Eugene McCarthy, during a television interview I conducted with her at the time her husband was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.”

I am the way I am; I look the way I look; I am my age.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Lingerie of Success

I’m having such a block about writing a blog post, Readers. I don’t know why. That’s not entirely true. I do know why, in part. Because of me. Me and my tendency to lock myself up in internal conflict. Which is why I began this success blog – to unlock myself. That I’m still prone to locked internal conflict these many months – okay, let’s be honest, years – later, is discouraging. To put it mildly.

I’ve just come home from our local coffee house, the one with dozens of Dave Matthews Band posters framed along the walls, the one with the sunny back room and the darker, cooler front room, and the patio, with the music and the wifi and the mellow vibe. I had coffee there with a new acquaintance, let's call her Kay. Kay graduated a few years ahead of me from my alma mater. We met a few weeks ago at a local alumnae gathering. I was discussing whether I wanted to continue writing or go in a new direction, maybe back to school for a Ph.D in Positive Psychology, or an MSW, to become a therapist. And she invited me out for a coffee to talk about changing tracks, which she had done. She completed her Ph.D about four years ago.

Her take on the Ph.D: don't do it unless you really need it. 

Do I really need it? No.

Of course, eventually, I asked her how she defines success. “To be happy where you are in your life,” she said. After a second, she added, “But I don’t think many people define it that way.”  She told me one of her classmates wouldn’t contribute to class notes for the alumnae magazine until she worked for the State Department, because she didn’t feel like her life had been worthy of note. When she got that State Department job, however, she began contributing. She wrote things like,“My husband and I travelled to Far Off Place with the State Department. Our daughter is in private school in New England.” While these things were technically true, they finessed a couple of important details. Such as, that this woman was a secretary at the State Department, not Under-Secretary of State. Such as, that the daughter did attend private school in New England, but it wasn’t a fancy prep school, it was a school for disturbed students. Minor details adjusted to make her life sound golden.

We mused on why our education did this to us – created this need to come across as successful in a particular way. We came to no conclusions. However, I did recently listen to a Philosophy Bites podcast about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social philosophy. Apparently Rousseau, writing back in the  mid 1700s, believed that to feel good about one’s self, one needed to have self-love (self-esteem) and the approval and admiration of others. Amour de soi and amour propre, to use Rousseau’s terminology. It’s French, after all, and you know how I’m into French Chic. So here’s an example of success chic, dating all the way back to before the Revolution. An eternal and classic definition of the underpinnings of success. The lingerie of success, one might even say. Amour de soi and amour propre. The French chic definition of success. Times and fashions may change, but this is eternal, apparently. Just like French style. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Trusting that You Care About My Thoughts (Excuses)

Can Miracle Gro fix this?

Hi, Readers. Things have gone on. I’d like to offer you insights, but really, I don’t have any. I haven’t been meditating. I’ve been doing Kegels. If you know what those are, well, you know. If you don’t – well, there’s always Google. I haven’t been reading the paper. I’ve been reading my Twitter feed. I haven’t been reading about success. I’ve been reading Flowers for Algernon for one book club, and A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, for another book club, and The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, for a third book club. And Gunn’s Golden Rules, by Tim Gunn of Project Runway for fun. (Lots of meow in that one.) I haven’t been writing my blog or my book proposal, I’ve been writing for pay. Meagre pay, I hasten to add. Very meager. Embarrassingly so, in fact. But it’s pay. 

Then, just when I thought I was getting myself together, the husband fell apart. Appendicitis. Appendectomy. Hospital stay. Thank goodness for friends, who took the kids and fed them and offered them shelter for the night, and who walked the dog, and mowed the lawn. And thank goodness for morphine. For the husband. And Xanax. For me. Because, in case you hadn’t heard, hanging around the emergency room is a real blast. The sounds and sights of psychotic breaks, the hacking and barfing, the suicidal teenagers. I’m not cut out for that crap. Although I was prepared for the shackled prisoners and correctional officers because I watch “Orange is the New Black.” And the husband on post-op meds was kind of amusing.

I might as well come clean. The other thing I’ve been doing is ordering a lot of clothes online, trying them on, finding they don’t fit, and collecting the boxes to send back to the store. Who has time to write a blog when there’s a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress half price at Nordstrom, and it fits - but the 15-year-old objects to the eye-popping graphic design? This eye-popping graphic design might be the reason the DVF classic wrap dress is half price. It just might be too much for my 5’1.25” self. But I can’t decide. Not deciding takes time. And I have to wear Spanx to try on the dress – and Spanx take time. And in short, I haven’t shown the dress to the husband or the 12-year-old yet, because there has to be a moment when the lighting is good, I feel like rolling on the Spanx and wrapping the dress, and the moon is in the seventh house - and moments like those are few, especially when one or the other of us insists on falling apart periodically. It’s hard to fit it all in.

Also, the 15-year-old left for her summer dance intensive earlier in the week, and preparing for that took a lot of time. The preparations also encroached on my workspace – the dining room table. There were a lot of leotards. A lot. I was thankful that she could travel with a friend and the friend’s parents. Since I have that meager paying work, it was not a good time to fly south myself. However, I spent a lot of time and energy feeling guilty that I wasn’t going and guilty that I was relieved not to go. These emotions required naps to alleviate. You know how it is.

Since I’m clearly not one of those single-minded, monomaniacs driven to pursue one goal nonstop, I didn’t squeeze efficient writing work into all spare moments. I used those for surfing the interwebs. And for watching “Orange is the New Black” with the husband.

Now is the time of year when I usually post something complain-y about my garden. Well, this year I’ve had the perfect excuse to let everything go to hell. The husband’s appendectomy. However, that was two weeks ago, and now the weekend approaches and there are so many weeds. Just so many. I might as well report that I haven’t been totally negligent about the garden. However, I seem to have killed a hanging basket of something lovely purchased at the farmer’s market. Also purchased at that market: four baby kale plants, which I planted. Yes, I did. I planted them among the surviving rose bushes that once lushly flanked our patio. The next day I noticed that the little plants were leafless nubbins. And the day after that, I saw a cute little bunny loping past.
Kale nubbins, rose nubbins, tomatos
Tularemia, I thought. (Google it.) I used to love bunnies, but not now. Tularemia. I think I’ve mentioned before that I ought not to read the Diagnosis column in the NYTimes. Yet, I seem unable to resist it.

To plant those kale plants for the bunnies, I had to weed part of the rose bed. Even though I wore gloves, I developed some kind of itchy rash on my arm from something nasty. So, forgive me if I’m just not that enthusiastic.

I have to say that I do love a garden. I even love planning a garden. It's the gardening part of gardens that I find troublesome. So the husband’s surgery has been a handy excuse in that arena. Silver lining and all that. However, now he’s better, and the weeds are bigger, and the weekend’s approaching, and there are no more good excuses. Except –hey, I have one: I’ve gotta work on my book!


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Update on Bunny

Well, I've been dragging my feet about publishing a new blog post. Maybe it’s just time for a quick update on what I’ve been doing instead of working on my success book.

  • Avoiding my freelance writing assignment until almost too late and telling myself I was working on it internally - letting it percolate. A better analogy would be to ferment, since fermented foods are enjoying prominence these days as super-nutritious, promoting digestive health, being pre-biotic, stuff like that. Improving by sitting around in their own juices. Just like writing. Just like it, I tell you.

  • Skipping appointments for my mammogram because of mixed feelings about whether the benefits of annual screening outweigh the risk of extra annual radiation exposure. This reminds me that when we went through security at Newark Airport to fly to Italy, the TSA personage handed a special magic paper to the 10th grader that excused her from the full body scanner. I don’t know if she was chosen at random, but I suspect that magic paper had something to do with the recent scandal that TSA personnel were looking at those full body scans of young women for non-official purposes. Thanks to that paper, and because we were clearly a harmless, typical vacationing family with a mom carrying a bottle of Xanax in her purse, we were all allowed through the good old-fashioned metal detector, instead of going through the somewhat humiliating hands-up-like-a-criminal machine.

  • Marveling at how much some of my readers loved my two blog posts on beauty and style. One of my earth mother friends was inspired to have her eyebrows waxed! Another one wants to go shopping. So, okay! I feel like less of a schmuck for thinking about maintenance.

  • Skipping my morning exercise to take a nap and then going to my first appointment for accupuncture for my hive-prone skin - and for anything else that would benefit, really. I chose Dr. X off the Internet because she studied at Beijing University and was chief of her department there for a long time before coming to the US. Or so her website says. Stab in the dark, so to speak. But I wanted a Chinese trained acupuncturist. She took my history, felt my pulse and commented that I have very low energy. That morning nap was on my mind. Dr. X had me lie on my back, and then she put needles in between my big toe and next toe, ankles, calves, one wrist and arm, a bunch on my stomach, on top of my head, and at my third eye. She directed a heat lamp to my belly, turned off the light, and left me. I anxiously asked how I could alert her if I needed her and she said, “Just call.” She said she would check on me, which she did about every ten minutes, I guess. After thinking about my strange willingness to expose myself to a total stranger, I eventually relaxed and left with flushed cheeks and feeling very good. And since then, I’ve had exceptionally good energy and haven’t needed a nap.

  • Bidding on Mad Men style dresses on Ebay for a friend's upcoming birthday party. 

  • Shopping with the 10th grader for an outfit she can wear to a work function of her father's. We found one - dress AND shoes. And both mother and daughter love both. This led to the following comment from her over soup at the food court: "We had a goal, and we met it. We were successful. If we hadn't had a goal and had bought these things, maybe we would be sitting here saying, 'I don't know if we should have spent money on this - will it ever get worn?' So you need to have a goal to be successful."

Look at that - I worked in something about success. Something that came unbidden from my own child

Speaking of things that came, look what arrived this weekend, via my MIL. As is fitting, Grandma is the heroine of the story!

That's Italian packaging