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Friday, May 22, 2015

Moolah

So, Readers, now that we are safely out of the range of New Year’s resolutions, I have another resolution to tell you about. I made it quietly. It wasn’t a sneak-up-on-you resolution like the one I eased into about morning sun salutations. This one is an actual resolution I made, and kept to myself. I know, that’s amazing, right, considering how many things I do tell you? Well, this one was bigger and scarier to me, so I had to keep it quiet, until I was ready to do something about it. I made a promise to myself that I would get a grip on finances. You may recall, from earlier posts, that I have a little problem dealing with finances and moolah. Perhaps I mentioned that under professional advice, I stepped away from paying the bills and turned that over to the husband. This wasn’t because I’m incapable of paying them. It was because I was having panic attacks every time I considered our financial situation. Indeed, under professional advice, I  even stepped away from the husband when he paid the bills, because I had to sit someplace soft with my head between my knees. 

Healthy, no?
NO? 
Well, we could argue about that all day. The fact remains that I was instructed to leave it alone for my own sanity, and so I gladly did. However, that was a few months ago - a few dozen months ago, if I’m honest - which I am, to a fault. As a grown up feminist female, I feel that part of success is handling moolah. So I quietly and silently promised myself that I would take it up again. Look into things. At least check our bank balances. 

I know, a major step. Perhaps you are sputtering at me through the Interwebs. You are sputtering, “Hope, you don’t even check your bank balances?” I am wiping your judgemental spittle off my cheek, Readers. I can only do my best, and even if that best is quite poor, well, it is my best. This goal, getting a grip on the moolah and finances, is a multi-step process. 

So with that in mind, I am proud to tell you that I have just returned from an event called High Anxiety: New York Gen X and Baby Boomers Struggle with Stress, Savings and Security. I went for three reasons:
  1. What I said above - to prove I can begin to take control.
  2. A writer colleague who helped organize the event lured me by saying it could be blog fodder
  3. The husband and I have an appointment with our accountant this afternoon (yet another positive development, I might add,) so I figured I could debrief there.
4. I had to dress nicely, which is something I enjoy.


So, pat, pat, pat. I have taken another step towards financial bravery. 

Ok, to come clean, this event was hosted by the AARP. Which I am apparently eligible to join. (Shhhh, don’t tell the husband. He thinks I’m thirty-nine.) That in itself is embarrassing. Oh, bother, why go there. 

The event was part of a campaign by the AARP to promote a state-facilitated retirement savings option for everyone. The idea would be that part of every paycheck would go into these accounts automatically, the way it might go into a pension if you were lucky enough to work someplace with a pension. This would help keep millions of senior Gen Xers and Boomers off of public assistance in their declining years. Something like that. Basically, the kind of thing that usually sends me into my handbag for the Xanax. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this, but one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to spend my final years impoverished and alone in some state-run nursing home, propped in a collapsible wheelchair dribbling onto a paper bib. Well, the event went over the results of a survey about how worried Gen X and Boomers are about being able to retire.The upshot is that apparently, I am not alone in my anxiety about finances. Apparently 74% of Gen Xers and 67% of Boomers are worried about not saving enough. But the bad news is that there is reason to worry. We are not saving enough. 30% of GenXers in NY have no retirement savings at all.

However, I came away not rattled or needing a Xanax. I came away even more determined to figure out this financial stuff. 

So, pat, pat, pat, I pat myself on the back.

I also took the 11th grader to the bank and opened a new account for her, instructing her to deposit at least 10 percent of her allowance into savings every time.   


Baby steps for you, Readers, perhaps, and baby steps for me, too, it turns out. But - steps. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Motherhood Check-In

So this morning started out well - and by well I mean poorly. I rearranged the carpool schedule to make it to a physical therapy appointment at 8 am, at a place twenty minutes away, because everything is twenty minutes away from me, except the coffee shop and the library, the reasons I liked this town; anyway, I arrived, parked askew because I was a minute late, and discovered that my appointment was for a different day. Yup. 

Then I had to decide whether to drive all the way home and then back out again for my next appointment (dermatologist for annual skin check), also twenty minutes away, or whether to go somewhere for coffee. Naturlich, I had no book with me, because I’d been running late. So I had to buy a magazine. So I went to the coffee shop near my next appointment and read Psychology Today

Well, so here’s a thing. Never one to miss an opportunity for reassurance, I finally did ask the dermatologist about my itchy feet. Remember those? The dermatologist said I had itchy feet because of dry skin - and offered a solution. The solution involves a solution, a solution of baking powder and water. I’m to soak my feet in this solution, then dry them, then apply a heavy moisturizing cream. I’m to do so for several days in a row, and then, voilĂ . This will make me feel better than getting a cheap pedicure at the local nail salon where the workers might be abused and poisoned, according to my favorite paper. 

In other news, in case you haven't noticed, both my children are teens now. This means that when I make myself available to them after school by lingering around the kitchen and doing dishes, there is no converstaion. Both are bowed over their electronic devices and simultaneously inhaling snacks. Silence is broken only by requests for money or signatures on school forms. 

At this point, I’m the chauffeur. They’ve figured out my old scam that allowed me to eavesdrop on their conversations. All I had to do back then, once upon a time, when they shushed one another in front of me, was say, “Oh, don’t worry. I can hear you, but I don’t know what you’re saying. I don’t speak kid.” Then they’d resume talking in front of me. "Don't worry, she doesn't speak kid," I heard one of them say to another friend once and I did a (internal) victory dance.

Those days are gone. Now I’m password-excluded from their Instagram and Tumblr accounts and text messages. Never mind that the experts insist parents should have those passwords and be checking those accounts regularly. Not happening in my house. I can’t remember my own passwords. What am I going to do about theirs? And they keep changing them anyway. And making other accounts that I don’t know about. Except that I know about their existence. 

At this point, as Madeleine Levine unreassuringly pointed out in her book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, my influence is basically nil. It’s all peers all the time now. So if I haven’t imprinted upon my offspring to this point, tough luck. "Tough titties" as we used to say with a giggle back in fourth grade. Childhood is really not a time of innocence, Readers.

On top of that, I read in the Sunday NYTimes that daughters of working mothers earn 23% more than daughters of stay-at-home-mothers (SAHM’s). This led to a (totally not at ALL defensive) conversation last night after our family meeting about how I am not “just” a SAHM. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Ahem, ahem. But that I do work professionally - I’m a writer. I just don’t earn any money to speak of. But I work. Do they think of me as working, I inquired? They, being somewhat clever children, quickly responded that of course they think of me as working. 

Then I said, "Well, my feeling is this. If it turns out that it is better for you that I am a working mother, then I am a working mother. If it is better for you that I am a SAHM, then that is what I am. Because that is what I’m about. What is best for you."


And I have to say, that gave at least one of them pause. I saw it. The pause it gave her. So there was a moment when one of them was listening. I’ll take it. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

#TBT A Parenting Fail

Ok, this is the husband's suggestion, so blame him if you don't like it. What is "this"? Why it's a Throwback Thursday (#TBT) blog post. I wrote this when the 7th grader was in 3rd grade, right at this time of year. I thought it was a fun look back.

Why am I doing this? Aside from being a way to post more frequently, it's a fun way to see where I've been, and how I've looked at success and failure and (of course) myself over the last few years. As my book proposal sits on the desks of editors - please send positive vibes, as many as possible as frequently as possible - I have to admit that things have changed. For the better. Except for my body. But I'm supposed to look at that in a new way: being grateful for my body for being here for me, for being healthy and strong. And so I do. And so I do.

*     *     *
A Parenting Fail

While it's stimulating to discuss theories of success and failure, most of my time is wrapped up in the ongoing venture called motherhood, an endeavor whose ultimate success or failure is my biggest concern, and whose outcome depends on myriad small choices.  Like the following one.

So the 3rd grader is in a school play. Something about fish and finding your unique self.  There has been lots of drama about this play around our house, with involved daily updates about rehearsing for various parts and about when parts would be finally assigned. Each child would rank their first four choices and hand them in to the teacher. Then, one day, accompanied by lots of pouting and complaining, the update was that the 3rd grader's class had agreed to perform the play with another class, which meant each part would be doubled up.

"It's supposed to be a play about finding our own unique selves," she pointed out. "It doesn't work if there are two of everything." Well, she had a point, but two children reciting in unison would be cute, from a parent's point of view. I told my child it would be fine, meanwhile marveling at how much she seemed to care. She's not the most obviously dramatic of my two children, but she was actually in tears.

Two days later, the 3rd grader's traverse from the school bus to the front door looked like the gallows walk. Parts had been assigned. My child had been given her fourth choice, Clownfish 1.

Oh the tears. Oh the misery. So much angst. "Clownfish 1 doesn't even get to tell Swordfish his problem. All the other fish get to tell Swordfish their problem." So there I am, staring at my usually rather stoic child, in tears again, this time over her lack of lines. At least I'm assuming it's a lack of lines that is the problem. I'm also thinking, wow, how did acting get to be so important to this child? She has recently joined an after school acting class, and I guess she really likes it. Maybe she'll become a movie star and I can finally go to the Academy Awards. I hope James Franco won't be hosting by then. Maybe Tina Fey.

Anyway, it seems the trouble is the lack of lines, and that she didn't get her first or second choice part.

So here's where the parenting needs to happen. Do I say, in effect, look, not everyone can get her first or second choice, and some people don't even have a line, so buck up? That's the "Sometimes we don't get exactly what we want but we're all part of a community" lesson.

Or do I say, well, look, if you're really upset, maybe you could talk to your teacher about adding a line to your part, so Clownfish 1 can tell his problem to Swordfish, too? Advocate for yourself. Maybe that's the parenting lesson here.

Reader, I chose the latter. Immediately my child wanted me to e-mail her teacher. No, I said, you can write her a note, or write her an e-mail from my account, and we'll make sure she knows it's from you. So during the 7th grader's piano lesson, the 3rd grader wrote a note, apologizing for being upset and making her suggestion about the line. I open up my e-mail, make the subject line state who the e-mail is from, and my child types out her message and we send it.

Cue to dinner time, when the 3rd grader is relating all the iniquity of the situation to her sister and her father. There's a certain amount of sympathy, and a certain amount of tearful eye-welling.  Before dessert, I check my e-mail. The teacher has responded that she's sorry my 3rd grader is upset; that she'd had her do Clownfish 1 because she got the beats on the humor so well in all the lines. She'll be happy to talk to her about the change tomorrow.

Do I detect a certain weariness?

Lines? Plural? I go back to the table. I confirm with my child that she does, indeed, have several lines.  How did I miss this? How did my child miss this? Now I'm annoyed. And embarrassed.  Look, I tell the child, your teacher gave you a real part with lots of lines and said you're good at it. If you want to be part of a play, you have to accept you might not get the exact part you want. That's the way acting is. At least you got a part. So buck up, quit being so negative, and do your part.

I go back to the computer and send another e-mail to the teacher, subject: Sorry. I tell her I'd encouraged my child to advocate for herself. I had also told her, I assured the teacher, that her request might be denied.

I had a parenting choice, and I made the wrong one. That's what my 7th grader calls "a fail."

Monday, May 11, 2015

5 Tibetans

By J. Lunau (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Readers, things are looking good. I’ve got my chakras spinning in the right direction. They’re
opening up. Life force is flowing through me. I’m going to live forever.

No, seriously, I do have my chakras spinning in the right direction. I didn’t know they spun, but apparently they do. Counter-clockwise. That’s right. I know this because down the Twitter feed one day came a link to a video on the 5 Tibetan Rites, and I followed that link to YouTube, where I wasted – spent – a good amount of time watching people performing these "rites", also known as exercises, and giving some countermanding advice, one to the other. Spin clockwise. Spin counter-clockwise. Palms up - no, down. Do everything quickly.  Do everything slowly. There are many opinions. Of course, Dr. Oz is in on it. But still, I gleaned that my chakras need to spin for me to be eternally youthful, at least until the moment I am no longer.

Then I went to Pilates and asked my fabulous teacher if he knew about the 5 Tibetans. I could tell he would be into it, because along with Pilates, he practices yoga and meditates. And now he has me  implementing what he learned at a class on the Alexander Method. He's the kind of person who exercises while watching TV. That would not fly in my house, let me tell you. The husband would not be happy. Anyway, Brian hadn’t heard about them, but assured me he would look it up. Maybe this week, we’ll incorporate some spinning work into our Reformer stuff.

I won’t go into the whole 5 Tibetans, I’ll let you look them up, just like Brian. Suffice it to say that they come to us via some American who encountered an Englishman who traveled to Tibet in the early 1900s and met a lama (not a llama, a lama), so you can see that this information comes directly from The Source. Anyway, apparently this lama offered to show the English gent a yoga routine that only takes a few minutes but will allow you to live forever. Or at least very healthily until you are dead. The lama was unmentionably old, apparently, possibly Abrahamic in his age. But very youthful.

I have incorporated the 5 Tibetans into my morning routine. An abundance of caution, or superstition, or that awful feeling you get when you get a chain letter or email has led me to it. Don't pass up this chance for eternal youthfulness until you are dead or you'll be sorry. And dead.

So, now, after my sun salutations and my physical therapy stretches - because I don’t want to break the chain, the Seinfeld chain, of successive days I’ve done sun salutations - I spin counterclockwise and so on.  And I feel great (except for the few recent days when I felt sick and had a fever, but never mind). And my hair isn't grey.

The 5 Tibetans remind me of a move from Masunaga's Zen Imagery Exercises. What are those, you say? Well, back in the 1990s, one of my roommates dated a modern dancer and this dancer had a teacher who introduced her to these exercises that were supposed to get the chi flowing through all your meridians and guarantee eternal life and so on. Or at least get your chi flowing. I did those for awhile, and then life went on. The chi flowed. However, my back gave out, due to my repetitive stress injury from my boring data entry job, my roommate broke up with the dancer, and the dancer moved on. Where are you, Joy? 


What is the point here, you wonder? Well, I torment my family with these words of wisdom, "It is almost always better to exercise." Regular exercise has been part of my life forever. And that is my point, Readers. Exercise is elemental to success. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Prom and Incompetence

Last weekend was the Junior Prom and I almost forgot about the flowers. In fact, I did forget until two days before the prom. Fortunately, I have friends who are together, and I had lunch with one of them. She mentioned boutonnieres and then I was off and running. It all came back to me.

“How do you know all this stuff?” the 11th grader asked, actually expressing admiration and awe. I wanted to bask in her appreciation, but I had to admit I almost forgot.

I wonder why I had to admit it. Did I really? Well, I did.

Then we were back to the usual dynamic – she, muttering under her breath about my technological uncoolness. For example, I might say, “Did you send that text to so-and-so?” And this will generate a response along the lines of, “(Snort) Did I text TO so-and-so? Text TO so-and-so?” At which point I tune out. I decide I don’t give a damn if she got through to so-and-so. I am not actually technologically uncool. I was an early adopter of computer technology. I know people who invented computer technology. I was just making conversation anyway. The image of my father’s face as he sucked in his own annoyance at my teenaged attitude comes to mind, and I submit. I have earned this. I will bear it.

Anyway, I did procure a hair appointment for the requested semi-updo, and the wrist corsage and the boutonniere, not to mention the dress, shoes, and earrings.


And I managed to remember in time to charge the camera (more eye-rolling involved, as apparently I am incompetent about USB cables.) And then I participated in the ritual of trampling over someone’s backyard with other parents to take group shots of all the girls, then all the girls with their dates, then the dates, then the friends in silly poses. I extracted a promise of hearing unfolding evening plans by text, and then she was off. 

I believe she had a good time. When I texted to ask her if it was so, she replied, “Ye.”


I may be old-fashioned, and only barely competent, and almost certainly practically out of it, but I think that was positive.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Self-Control Strategies: Distraction


Well, I am very proud of myself. I have made my first video blog post. Vlog, for those in the know - now including you, Readers. It contains some actual information, based on my previous post about The Marshmallow Test. 

It also contains some silliness, since we're talking about me. The husband says I make some weird faces that I don't make in everyday conversation. For that, I am grateful. I mean, that I don't look like this usually. 

I have to confess that if I were better at this video-making, I would cut a few seconds here and there. However, I'm working on the saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." I figured I might as well get it out there and move forward. Act confident, become confident. Plus, a lot of us need to develop self-control, and I have info on how to do that. 





Friday, May 1, 2015

Cool the Hot, Heat the Cool: Successful Self-Control

So, with thoughts of riots in Baltimore and conflicting reports of how they started and who was doing what violent and out of control thing, let me return to good old white guy Walter Mischel and his book The Marshmallow Test.

The test, as I have mentioned before, became misconstrued in the popular news as a definitive test. That is, people assumed that if a four-year-old could delay gratification long enough to win two marshmallows instead of one, that determined something fundamental about their self-control. The assumption was that self-control was of a fixed nature, probably genetically determined. Reams of anxiety built up around this question of delaying long enough to get into Harvard versus turning out to be a total wastrel – or perhaps, “thug,” a word that is getting much attention these days.

But it was not so. Mischel devoted his life to studying this marshmallow effect in various permutations, and he realized early on that self-control is something that can develop. It is not fixed. (Shades of good old Carol Dweck, one of his colleagues) And therefore, it can be taught. Self-control depends on executive function, and executive function can be developed. In short, Mischel learned that it is never too late to build up self-control.

So. While some four year olds might have an advantage with a marshmallow, that advantage might be more about being raised in an environment that is safe, consistent, and leads the child to trust the adult who says, this thing looks pretty good, but if you wait a while, you can have something even better. Children raised in middle class or higher homes, for the most part. Children raised in much more stressful and unsteady environments have a much harder time, not because there is something intrinsically less developed about their brains, but because their brains are overtrained to react quickly. Why is this?  

Psychologists talk about the brain having two systems. System 1 is impulsive (hot) and System 2 is more rational (cool). System 1 is related to that good old lizard brain, the part of the brain keyed to survival. The fight or flight system of arousal is part of System 1. System 1 is very attuned to stress, and stress, what Mischel calls “toxic stress”, is rampant amongst, for example, poor black children from violent neighborhoods….Remind you of anything in the news lately? These kids might just have a bit more trouble understanding that the adult who promises two marshmallows later is actually going to deliver. For these kids, it makes much more sense to just go for that one marshmallow that exists right now.

The fundamental principal of self-control is “cool the now, heat the later.” So cool the now, heat the later means to cool down System 1 long enough that System 2 can activate. This is difficult, because the hot system is all about now. Gimme now. Me want cookie. We tend to discount rewards that are delayed, even if we know, rationally, that they are good for us. Like going to the gym. We know without doubt that the future rewards of going to the gym are great – better health. But overcoming the immediate reward of relaxing, or not putting all the sweat and effort into your day, make the future reward seem much smaller than it actually is. Self-control is about reversing our natural tendency to make the later reward seem more appealing. It’s about using our Executive Function to help us make choices, rather than acting on impulse.

So how do you cool the now and heat the later? You have to exercise that Prefrontal Cortex and develop Executive Function. In general, relieving stress helps. So, you know, providing for the basic needs of every human would go a long way toward setting up people for success. For those already provided basic needs, reducing stress through exercise, solid supportive relationships, and – wait for it, even 84-year-old white guy Walter Mischel advocates this – meditation and mindfulness. Also therapy helps.

There are also specific strategies that build self-control.

  • Distraction. (If I don’t look at the cookies, they won’t tempt me.)

  • If-Then Implementation Plans. (If I am polite to others, then they will be polite to me.) (Usually.)

  • Precommitment strategy. This is related to If-Then plans. (To help you quit smoking, you promise someone that if you smoke a cigarette, they will automatically send a check to a cause you despise – say, the NRA).

  • Cognitive Reappraisal (That drink may seem like a treat, but imagine what it’s doing to your liver – picture yourself with end-stage cirrhosis, and it won’t seem like such good idea.)


If all these strategies seem draconian, and you’d just like to eat a damn marshmallow, I leave you with this:
 …. A life lived with too much delay of gratification can be as sad as one without enough of it. The biggest challenge for all of us – not just for the child – may be to figure out when to wait for more marshmallows and when to ring the bell and enjoy them. But unless we learn to develop the ability to wait, we don’t have that choice.
                                                - Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test.