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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Manners

Last week, the members of my dance group filmed a video we will be submitting to the Pina Bausch Foundation (http://www.pinabausch.org/en/projects/the-nelken-line). I hope to share it with you soon, but right now, we are working out final permissions. But anyway, after filming, we went out to lunch, where I mentioned that lately I have been reading etiquette books. It’s true, Readers, I have been swept up in an urge to read them, and I checked out a few from the library. I told the lunch ladies that I wasn’t really exactly sure why I felt the need to read this material. It has to do with the general timbre of the times, for sure. But also because lately, I’ve been wondering if I need to bone up. This is not based on any one thing, but on many small things. For one, considering the timbre of the times, I have to ask, am I contributing to the betterment or the worsening of it? Perhaps it’s important to refresh my understanding of etiquette these days, so that I can definitely say I’m trying to contribute to their betterment. It’s a bit futile, perhaps. A bit like a one woman attempt to turn the Titanic away from that iceberg. A bit like teaching the powers that be by example when you’re a mime and the power is out, so you’re in the dark. But, otherwise, it makes perfect sense. 

For another, my kids think I have Resting Bitch Face. Well, not that they say that, exactly. In fact, Resting Bitch Face (RBF) is a term I learned from another mom. Neither daughter has used it. RBF a troublesome thought, I’ll admit, because I’d much rather settle into a pleasant expression when I’m drooling into a paper bib at the nursing home, than into a mean one. It might make the health aides more well-disposed towards me. 

But, really, am I mean? The 10th grader thinks so. She thinks I come across as mean to strangers. She’s referring to several incidents at the cash register at a particular clothing store that caters to teenagers. They involved the so-called rewards card. Something I find particularly unrewarding. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because they can never find my account. I know these stores get more use out of the information they get from me via these rewards accounts than I ever get out of my so-called rewards points. Yet they can never find my account. Apparently, my last name is very challenging. P-e-r-l-m-a-n. Exotic, right? I’ve tried spelling my name correctly and incorrectly. I’ve tried my phone number and email address. No account. I’ve spoken to customer service. Managers have (supposedly) corrected whatever error they have in their system. No dice. So after the third or fourth time, I may have sighed aloud, looked askance, possibly even muttered under my breath, and/or furrowed my maternal brow. And that, to the 10th grader, makes me look mean.

But I have to ask, if I’m not super nice, am I necessarily impolite? There is a difference between being nice and being polite. I read a good blog post on this very thing just the other day, serendipitously. I agree with the writer when she says, “I was raised to mind my manners and be polite to everyone, especially my elders and my betters, but no one ever said I had to be nice to everyone.”* While this sounds harsh, I agree. Even if it does put me on the side of the crotchety. Politeness is what is required in a business transaction. I don’t have to be friendly and kind. I just have to be polite, and you just have to be polite to me.  

So what exactly is etiquette? According to my recent reading, etiquette is ethics and protocol. It’s principles, and it’s rules of behavior. These rules, the things about forks and spoons and who sits where, this is the stuff that gives etiquette a bad name. It seems arbitrary and exclusionary, and much of it is. 


However, the essence of etiquette is different. It was Miss Manners who clued me into that, eons ago. Miss Manners helped me through some tough stuff on the romance front. A bad breakup, A heartbreak. A period of humiliation. At some point, in desperation, I took her book to bed with me. It helped, first, because she was funny. It also helped in a deeper way, because as I read on, I began to understand her message. It was dignity.  

But seriously. Dignity. Her message was to act in a way that preserved your dignity and the dignity of others. That is the role of etiquette, at bottom. Miss Manners penetrated my humiliation by showing me that while I couldn’t control what happened to me or how others treated me, I could control how I treated myself and others. And developing a nice polite shell was a terrific way to begin to move forward.


For Miss Manners, it’s about dignity. For Henry Alford, who wrote the amusing, Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That?, etiquette is about respect. He says, “Contrary to popular opinion, manners are not a luxury good….The essence of good manners is not exclusivity, nor exclusion of any kind, but sensitivity. To practice good manners is to confer upon others not just consideration but esteem; it’s to bathe others in a commodity best described by noted speller Aretha Franklin.” Respecting others. Respecting yourself. 

For Irish hotelier and British TV personality Francis Brennan, who has a whole chapter on men’s suits, which I found enlightening, “Manners aren’t a rigid set of rules.” Manners, he says, are “a set of principles to live by: caring, consideration, community.” For Boston Globe Miss Conduct columnist and author Robin Abrahams, underlying etiquette is the importance of thoughtfulness. 

The South is touted as a place of great hospitality. I mean, except the KKK and all it stands for, but let’s not quibble. We can all agree we’ve heard about Southern charm, Southern etiquette, and best of all, Southern aristocracy. Well, according to Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, a lot of ‘so-called Southern aristocracy’ came from ‘humble origins.’ Once they “turned land into money” they “began to fancy that they were English country gentlemen and ladies.” Guess who taught manners to their children? Their slaves. “The household slaves tended to be from the upper class of their tribes, and they had a high sense of hospitality and deference.” 

Well, now. Ain’t that a fact to ponder. 

Reading Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, I was struck by her optimism. “The trend of modern society, albeit with fits and starts, is toward universal courtesy.” What she means is that over that last four or five decades, “the West has signed onto the idea that courtesy should be extended to everybody.” “When you think of it, the notion that everyone—regardless of nationality, religion, gender, occupation, race, age, or health status—should be treated with respect as an individual is extraordinary. I don’t think we’ve ever tried that before, as a species. There were always classes of people—slaves and servants, women, children, the disabled, people of other nations, the poor—it it was considered perfectly acceptable, even moral, to treat as less than human. We don’t believe that anymore.” Yes, I know, consider the times. Consider our horrid, impolite, awful president. But she makes a good point when she says, “ Yes, there is still prejudice..misogyny..racism….but we acknowledge, at least with our conscious minds and in public, that these things are wrong. And people who engage in these behaviors have to entertain elaborate excuses for why what they are doing isn’t really misogyny, racism, or the host of other prejudices. Even this represents progress.” 

So was I rude or polite to the cashier? The 10th grader and I will have to agree to differ in our interpretation. However, I now stand better girded for the onslaught. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Annals of Failure: Bystander Alert

I’m feeling bad, Readers. Just the other day, I had so much wisdom to dispense to you, but then something happened and I realized - I got nothing.

What happened was this. I was at the gym on a recent Saturday. The Y gym. On a Saturday. A January Saturday. New Year’s resolutions. People with regrets and resolutions. Crowded. You get the picture. I was on the weight machines, maintaining muscle mass, so I can, I hope, live well and independently into my 90s, like my dad, and also, maybe, look hot for a nonagenarian. Looking hot being a gender nonspecific aesthetic goal and therefore not a reflection of being crushed by the patriarchy….. 

I was minding my own business when a large, muscular, young man strode past the chest press machine. He was muscular muscular. Like the kind of gym-made muscular that prevents any of his limbs from touching one another. He was wearing a loose muscle shirt and one of those weight lifting belts made of leather so thick it could be a saddle, and long, droopy shorts. He had dark hair hanging out of a red knit cap. He was noticeable. I noticed him. 

He strode by me and over to the triceps machine and spoke to the person on that machine. I couldn’t hear what he said, since it was several machines away from me, but I thought it started out as, “I was on that” or something. My ears prickled. That was bullshit. I had been in the area for twenty minutes and I hadn’t seen him on any machines, although I had noticed him dead lifting huge barbells, or whatever you call those things, in the free weight area. But that person on the machine was a little, skinny, blonde, teenaged girl, and she hopped up like a jack-in-box, and walked away, an expression of embarrassment on her face. 

An older man on a different machine a few away from mine said something to her. I figured it was her father, or maybe her grandfather. I figured he would say something to the guy. But, no, the red hat guy did his reps, then strode back out of the machine area. Like he had to do some other weight thing in another area of the gym, probably with free weights. I shot him an evil look, but he didn’t notice. The guy never came back. He had only needed that one machine, apparently, and he needed it that very second. He couldn’t wait for her to finish. In fact, he didn’t think he had to wait for her to finish. He felt he could just tell her to let him use the machine. He felt he had more right to it than she did. 

The girl went on hopping nimbly from machine to machine, but she never went back to the one she'd been booted off. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say something to her like, "You had every right to be on that machine, and I’ve been bullied by these weight lifters before," which is true. They like to drop their giant weights with a lot of fuss and then pace around and so forth, so everybody knows how muscular they are. If you’re not aware of their habits, you might think a machine is empty, because in fact, the guy has crossed the room to parade his gigantic muscles around, and it is empty, but he thinks he owns the machine and is just resting between sets. That happened to me, once, and let me just say, the episode did not end prettily, nor did the guy think he had done anything wrong. 

I am filled with rage as I write this. I'm mad because I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I’m mad at myself. I’m mad at the older guy who spoke to the girl, her father or not her father, who didn’t say anything to red hat guy, either. And of course, I am mad at that guy with the red hat. Why would he wear a red wool hat in the gym? His head muscle was the only one he didn't want us to see, apparently. 

Basically, it’s about guys—men—who just don’t see young girls. Or older women. Or women at all. Who just look past them, or think they can intimidate them to get them out of the way. And it works. They take what they want. They believe what they want is more important that what some young girl wants. Goddammit. That’s the worst thing about it. That dude scared that girl, and no one stepped in. I’m assuming the older guy who spoke to her said something somewhat reassuring to her, but he didn’t confront the bully. I didn’t confront the bully. Oh, I had fantasies about confronting the bully. They started with me saying, ‘You know, that girl was in the middle of her reps. Couldn’t you have waited a minute or two, instead of kicking her off the machine?” And they ended with me punched in the head by Mr. Beefy. 

But I was going to say something until that other man spoke to her. Then I felt it wasn’t my place. If he was her father, then I would be stepping on his role, and it would embarrass her. I would be implicitly criticizing her father for not stepping in, and that would not be good. She already looked humiliated. She wouldn’t want extra attention at that time. 

Or maybe that was just an excuse. 

So we were both bystanders. It feels terrible. And Mr. Beefy went on with his day, and he’ll go on with his bullying. Maybe he’ll be President of the United States one day. That girl will probably vote for him. 


********

Hoo, boy, was that negative. Well, it’s hard to get around it. I don’t want to leave you thinking I’m defeated. I am not. I didn’t step up at that moment, but I have defended myself in the past, and I will again. There were mitigating features in this situation. Meaning, my respect for the putative father mitigated my impulse to say something to the bully. I’m not sure he deserved my respect, but that’s another issue. 


It seems like a good time to pivot to a very empowered woman, Caroline Adams Miller. My interview with her continues with a discussion about feminism and how women’s backs are to the wall, but we are fighters. Click here to read Part 2 of my Q & A with her on Psychology Today. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Problem of Advice

Ahhhh, it’s good to settle down after the holiday season. My computer and notebook are back on my desk. My study has returned to its former condition (study and meditation room), after being a guest room. The dog has returned to the floor at my feet—thanks to bribery with a delicious looking cheddar flavor treat. 

Oops, the dog is off, now. More enticing things elsewhere than stale cheddar flavored treats, I guess. The college student has gone away, too. More enticements in Cambridge, where she is working in a lab at MIT — and living off of ramen. Add some peas, I suggested. And an egg. (Thanks for that one, old friend Leif). To the ramen, not to the lab, of course. I don’t really need to say that. Then again, you can’t be too thorough with instructions and advice, can you? I’m thinking of the instructions my mother would leave for us to cook something or other. She always started with, TURN ON THE OVEN. 

Which, if you think about it, is insulting, but all too often, also embarrassing because necessary. 

So, no peas or egg in the lab. Unless instructed by the professor. 

The college student is right now not appreciating me at all, if she is reading my blog. But she was much more tolerant the other night when I experienced an uncontrollable need to text her about washing sweaters. This must be a phase of parenthood. I don’t know what to call this phase, but its characteristic is an unnerved sense that one’s child has escaped one’s clutches without all the proper instructions one thought one would be able to give her, in time. Instructions about washing sweaters, for example. 

Do you want to know what I told her? No, you don’t, do you? You already know it. My advice is useless. 

Meanwhile, the 10th grader cut her hair. I've done that. I stopped when, after one cut, my hair was distinctly lopsided and to even it out had to be made much shorter than I wanted. After that, it was special treatment for Hope’s hair all the way.

I figured the 10th grader deserved her own natural consequences. She invited over a friend who had cut her own hair a little shorter than she intended, and asked her to help. The result, after a part adjustment I suggested, is actually quite good. Advice: center parts are not for most people a flattering look. 

But you already knew that, too. 

I feel superfluous. Fortunately, I have banded together with a bunch of women from my high school class to form an accountability/support/what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life group. We started this month via video conference. We’re reading and doing the exercises in Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The book is based on a very popular course at Stanford, taught by these guys. The most popular course, apparently. It applies principles of design to the subject of living well. It was designed for undergraduates, but we're hoping it works well for those of us at midlife who are feeling a little, well, superfluous. 

The basic premise is that life can be considered a design problem. A design problem is solvable, but it  can have multiple solutions. "A well-designed life is a life that is generative -- it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise." (Burnett & Evans)

To look at life as a design problem means adopting the designer's mindset. This is characterized by five elements: 
  1. curiosity
  2. bias to action-willingness to try stuff without attachment to a particular outcome
  3. reframing problems - to get unstuck
  4. awareness - of the process
  5. radical collaboration - connecting with others from various disciplines


I’m going to be honest. I’m reading this book for me, but also because I hope the daughters (and the husband) will read it, too. However, I know how advice from mom (and spouse) goes over. Lead balloon, anyone? So, if I’m the only one in the family who manages to design a joyful life and live it well, so be it. Readers, I invite you to read it, too. I’m sure to be writing about it in the coming months, and would love to hear your thoughts. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting: Amtrak and Ben Franklin

Hello, Readers. As we limp into the home stretch of this difficult year, I am inspired to think about goals and resolutions for the next year, which may be just as difficult, if not moreso. Sorry to be a downer. All this drivel is to get to something. Last week The New York Times published a quick and easy read on New Year’s resolutions that I thought was helpful for those who want to make some. I am not sure I do. I have done so in the past, and some of them are still with me. The kind of resolution that works for me is a a low-threshold resolution. That’s a resolution that has a low threshold for fulfillment. 

For example, several years ago, I resolved to do a little yoga every morning. We’re talking a little, tiny bit. We’re talking five sun salutations. Five sun salutations take less than five minutes. I figured if I gave myself something very easy to accomplish, I would be less likely to avoid it. I also told myself to do these five sun salutations first thing, before putting on my glasses. And I have. Sometimes I do more than five. Sometimes I do a lot - but not often. But I almost always do those five. I never wake up dreading an involved routine that causes me to go right back to sleep. I can always say to myself, “It’s just five. It won’t take but a few minutes.”That’s what I’m talking about when I say a low threshold for fulfillment. 

It’s been several years now, and the number of days I’ve missed my morning yoga is very few. (Usually when I’m traveling and the carpet in the hotel room is very groady.) 

Anyway, if you’re into setting goals, this little article has good advice. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/18/smarter-living/how-to-stick-with-new-years-resolutions.html?smid=tw-share

But are you into setting goals? 

Or are you into evaluation and reflection and thinking more about how to be than what to do?

In that case, I have just the thing. Advice from the founding father of self-improvement, Benjamin Franklin. While on a voyage from London to Philadelphia, where he eventually became the famous Franklin we see on the one hundred dollar bill, young Ben devised a Plan for Future Conduct, which consisted of four elements. He was wordy, but I’ll be brief:
  1. Be frugal and pay all debts.
  2. Speak the truth and aim at sincerity in word and deed.
  3. Work hard and don’t be distracted by “any foolish project of suddenly growing rich.” 
  4. Speak ill of no one.

Rather puts my five sun salutations to shame, doesn’t it?

These four rules are appealing; yet I break them regularly. Then there are times when I don’t break them, but apparently, I should. For example, just the other week, the 10th grader and her friend had plans to travel by Amtrak to NYC to visit some other friends. Unbeknownst to me, although it should have been knownst, because I had once before looked into Amtrak’s rules for unaccompanied minors, there were Rules About Travel for Unaccompanied Minors. In this instance, however, the friend had purchased the tickets, so there was no fine print. 

So, I walked with the girls up to the gate and immediately, an Amtrak employee smelled an under 16 year old. Or something. I don't know exactly how, but we attracted attention. An Amtrak agent asked them how old they were. The 10th grader’s friend said she was sixteen, which she was. And suddenly, yep, I snapped to and recalled that small print about sixteen being minimum age for unaccompanied travel on Amtrak. So anyway, the Amtrak agent had apparently been around the block or spent some time with a fake ID, or had been trained, and she says to the friend, “When’s your birthday?” The friend produces this date via smooth mental recall.

Then the agent turns to the 10th grader and me and asks, “How old are you?” The 10th grader looks at me, hesitating, and I look at her, and the agent looks at me, and I say the fateful words, the words that lead to burocratic nightmare, the words that lead to Christmas razzing by family and friends and family. “She’s fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in February.”

Which meant paperwork. Paperwork naming an individual eighteen years old or older to meet her at the train, and to put her on the return train. This worked out okay on the journey there, because an eighteen year old happened to be meeting them at Penn Station. The requirement proved problematic for the return trip, and I’ll just say it involved my sister-in-law (SIL)and a lot of texting and the husband having to call an Amtrak 800 number because my SIL was not on the form, and Amtrak wouldn’t take the husband’s word for it over the phone, and fifteen minutes on hold and my SIL having to spend an hour plus of a busy Sunday waiting around for an Amtrak agent to personally transmit the 10th grader and her sixteen year old companion to the train. 


Why didn’t we just lie? I’m sure that’s what you’re asking. Because everyone else asked it. I have been the object of ridicule by family and friends and family and family for not lying. And I ask myself the same. I had a very well-thought out defensive answer at the Christmas dinner table with my BIL and MIL, and parts of it are true. To wit, that when confronted with the question of age, I thought, “I cannot lie in front of my daughter. That teaches a bad lesson,” and then when I looked at her, I realized she could not lie in front of her mother, because that gives the wrong impression. So we were trapped. 

But also, I did not lie because I was caught off-guard and just blurted out the truth, as I tend to do. I’m a fan of honesty. 

I have something in common with Benjamin Franklin, it seems. So I can’t really have done wrong. 

Furthermore, both girls were nervous about taking the train to Penn Station. I think they were secretly relieved to have the escort to and from the train. I base this on their completely benign facial expressions throughout the whole thing. Nary an eye roll or a disaffected hip thrust. 

I know I was relieved about it. 

The real lesson of this story is that if you have to fill out a form at Amtrak, and the agent, sotto voce, tells her co-worker to stick around because she hasn’t done one of those kinds of forms before, make sure she confirms everything with her coworker before you leave, stupidly imagining that the agent has done it correctly. Because, let me assure you, she has not, and there’s nothing more unmoving than an Amtrak agent at Penn Station in New York. 

So, if you choose to adopt Benjamin Franklin’s Plan for Future Conduct, be sure to leave a little extra time when traveling. Or do what he did, and bend the rules, and intend to stick to it, but forgive yourself when you do not. 

Or, make your own plan, and set a low threshold for success. 


Meanwhile, onward to 2018. May it be a good year. May we all be involved citizens working to create the world we want. And may we be in agreement about what that world is. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

PC Various*

Hello, Readers. Here are a few things on my mind since I last wrote:


Fun stuff. 

The college student came home for Thanksgiving, then rushed back to college so she could dye her hair blue. I would provide a photo, but I don’t think she would like that. Let’s just say that she has a lot of hair, so even a swath of blue is a lotta blue. 

Recently, I was in a crowded parking lot, waiting to leave. Cars were pouring in, so I backed up to make some room. Car one passed me, and the driver blew a kiss and waved. Car two passed by without acknowledgement. Car three passed by, and the driver gave me the finger. Why? Who knows. I had the satisfaction of believing she ended up behind me in line at the café we were both heading to.  At least I like to think so. Perhaps she went elsewhere. 

Self-Acknowledgement check in.

I cleaned my closet. No, I didn’t do it the Marie Kondo way. I did it my way. Of course, even though I haven’t read The Earthshaking Magic of Tidying Up, or whatever Marie Kondo’s book is called, I have been influenced by her. More than once, actually twice, I heard myself muttering, “Does this spark joy? Not exactly, but I’m keeping it.” So, take that, Kondo. 

And despite my knee-jerk, anti-Kondo stance, based on ignorance, let me point out, as so many knee-jerk responses are, since I haven’t read her book, I do fold my shirts the Konmarie way. I once watched a short video demonstration of her method and took it as mine. Here it is, FYI:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lpc5_1896ro

I delivered multiple bags of old clothes, shoes, and a Cuisinart to my favorite charity, Grassroot Givers in Albany. I renewed a book at the library, paid my overdue fines, and picked up several books on hold. And, I even went to the post office to return several items of clothing I ordered over the last few months. 

I'm telling you these things to remind you about self-acknowledgement. It's okay to acknowledge the little things you did even though they were boring or hard or a nuisance. In fact, it builds self-esteem. I am feeling so much better about myself now that I've written these things. That woman giving me the finger has all but vanished from my memory. 

Well. 

Along the lines of answering the question, Is this worth doing when our country is in crisis? 

I listened to an interview with the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC), Varun Soni. He just happens to be the first Hindu head of religious life at an American university. During the conversation, he talked about college students over the last few years seeming to be in a state of emotional crisis. He finds that he has to talk to them a lot about the roots of their crises, and after the crisis passes, the idea he has to get them to examine is how to define success for themselves. 

That’s right. These kids get to school, and they have a particular idea of success as power, money, and prestige (PMP), or at least one of those things. Then they find out that perhaps they’re not the best in their class anymore. Or perhaps they don’t really want to do the thing they’ve been groomed to do. They have to redefine success. 

How do they do this? Well, according to Soni, they need to “ask the right questions.” These are questions such as, What is my purpose in life? What makes me happy? How can I be of service to others? 

The thing that resonated with me was that Soni skirted around a specific definition of success. He was not to be pinned down. Instead, for him, the redefinition was the asking of the questions. The asking and the answering of them. 

This seems like a good thing overall. Because part of the impetus of my quest to redefine success was the terrible sinking suspicion I had that asking those big questions, the meaning of life questions, was for weaklings. I felt cowed by the dominant culture and the prevailing notion of success as PMP. Those who believe in PMP tend to belittle those who look for more, for meaning, for flourishing, for purpose. And those who do look for those things tend to question their own sanity in a world dominated by PMP. 

Maybe I’m naive to look to the younger generation for salvation. So be it. They came of age under a different political administration. They are not going to unsee the first Black president. They are not going to unsee the LGBTQ movement. The 45,000 USC students are not going to unsee their Hindu chaplain. Some of them will be driven a little bonkers by these things, because that’s their family’s milieu. But some of them will be encouraged and inspired. Some of them will just move forward with a higher threshold of acceptance of differences among people. 

Maybe I am naive. I’ll take it. Hope is important.  

In a conversation with comedian Marc Maron on Maron’s WTF Podcast, comedian Judd Apatow impressed me. He’s famous for helping to create the TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” which was canceled after one season, but was seriously good, and whose stars have gone on to fame—James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogan, and Jason Segal among them. Aside from “Freaks,” I’m not a huge Apatow fan, since his movies are puerile; they’re full of “boner jokes” (his description) and boy-men, yet I don’t hate them. He manages to ground them in truth. Furthermore, he employs Paul Rudd frequently. 


Apatow and Maron discussed the difficulty of writing jokes in the current political climate. The difficulty and the necessity of it, and the struggle that causes. But what I especially liked was a little monologue Apatow gave about the psychological underpinning of a comic. It is the attempt to be sane and find happiness and peace. 

All comedians, he said, share the same journey: “We’re young. We have some difficult childhood situation. Comedy becomes a way to escape and be seen. Then we want to be successful to feel good about ourselves. Then we realize, oh, that doesn’t work. What does work, ultimately is love and connection and some higher purpose. Then we go for that, which is still difficult to attain.”  

He was talking about comedy, but he’s describing the evolving stages of self-actualization, or of maturity. My own search for success originated in that desire to be seen and to feel successful, and my definition has flexed and grown to incorporate the process of finding purpose, connection, and peace. I was in a group video conference call with several of my high school classmates yesterday, and I had this vision of a book my parents used to have called Passages, by Gail Sheehy. It was very Seventies book, and I never read it, but I was aware of it. It is about “predictable crises of adult life.” As I listened to my classmates, I thought about the passage we are making, all of us searching for what to do in the next phase of our lives. I guess what I’m saying is that I related to the drive for success being rooted in a desire to be seen and to feel good about ourselves. In other words, this is a journey from childhood to maturity, maturity being marked by the search for purpose. If you think you’ve heard this before, it’s true. This is Maslow in action, the drive towards self-actualization and self-transcendence. I think it’s natural to question whether one’s pursuits are sufficient to the needs of the time and adjusting them accordingly. Apatow is doing stand-up for which he mines his own life and psyche, and has been working on a documentary about Gary Shandling, and raising money for the ACLU to be participating in the world of politics. He continues to create. He goes on. Maron goes on. I go on. We continue because we can, and because we must, and because even the more frivolous-seeming creative pursuits have important underpinnings. And because, of course, without art, without frivolity, what is life? 

A point of business. More and more, Facebook has become a siloed experience. That means that my posts disappear into the stream. Facebook doesn’t deem me of high importance, about which fact I try to remain above being insulted. So, I encourage you—nay, implore you— to sign up on my blog to receive these posts via email. You can do it one of two ways. The first option is to sign up to receive posts every time I write them. 

The second option is to sign up for my newsletter. That means you will receive my blog every, well, whenever I get around to sending out a newsletter. I definitely do not get around to sending out a newsletter every week. My newsletter is usually several days behind my actual new postings on my blog, and I don’t send every blog post I write. The plus side to signing up for my newsletter is that you won’t get an email every week. You’ll get it every couple of weeks. Also, should I have a fabulous announcement that doesn’t have anything to do with a blog post, I would put that in the newsletter. The downside of the newsletter is that it goes out much less frequently than I intend, and therefore, you will not be up-to-date on my current posts. 

Too much? If you would like to sign up, you can click here to go to my blog and do so. Remember: 
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*PC Various, for those who like to know what titles mean, was an old Harvard College Library call number category. I used to work for the Harvard College Library. It was during the transition from card catalogs to automated circulation systems. It was during the dawn of bar codes on books. It was during the waning of the HCL cataloging system, when the HCL decided to join most every other library and embrace the Library of Congress system. (LC). 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Thing With Feathers at Thanksgiving 2017

The other evening, the 10th grader announced she had an English assignment on the symbolism in an Emily Dickinson poem. Which one, the husband and I asked. 

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” she said. This is the first line of the poem, since Emily Dickinson’s poems are numbered, not titled. And what a first line. 

As we were in high spirits and on our way out to dinner, I felt it incumbent on me to reply that at this moment, a moment in which I was driving because the husband was on call, a moment of darkness and chill, a November moment, “Hope” was the thing in faux shearling. 

I am allowed to make fun of my own name. 

Others, famous others, have done so. Alexander Pope, author of "The Rape of the Lock", an 18th Century English satire of courting and romance, if memory serves, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” This sounds promising and optimistic; unfortunately, as an English major I know the second line of this couplet: “Man never is, but always to be blest.” That is, blessed. That is, hope is a state of frustration. 

I feel sure I’ve written about this before. The Latin root of hope means to expect or wait. To expect is to anticipate. Perhaps anticipation is a pleasant state, but it is a state of unfulfillment, and the sense of Pope’s lines, and the etymology of the word, back that up. Is there anything sadder than unfulfilled optimism? Is there anything sadder than always expecting a good result but never achieving it?

Of course there is. Crushed optimism. Crushed optimism and never even anticipating good is worse. 

So this is why, perhaps, Mrs. Bombadoodle chose this Emily Dickinson poem, poem number 314, according to the American Poetry Foundation, but also called poem number 254 by the Poetry Foundation. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I do not know it. I have two volumes of ED’s poems in the basement that I can search out. My point lies elsewhere. 

My point is that we need the unironic view of hope that Dickinson offers in her poem. Right now we need it. It’s the dark time of the year. It’s a dark time for our country. We are heading into Thanksgiving, though, a generally excellent holiday (setting aside the whole Pilgrim and Native American genocide thing and thinking about the inclusive and grateful iteration of the meaning of the holiday). We need to let our feathered things sing. If Emily Dickinson is to be trusted, our feathered things are singing, even in the storm, regardless of our intent. The undaunted “little Bird” will weather the storm. All it asks is nothing. It just keeps singing. We are wired to hope, and it must be for a reason. I trust it will carry us through, proving just enough fuel to keep us working towards a better, more equitable country. In fact, according to the dictionary, an archaic meaning of the word is trustShe’s singing now. I hear her. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting: Writing

The 10th grader is annoyed with her English teacher, Mrs. Bombadoodle. Annoyed is perhaps too mild a descriptor. She’s been fulminating against Mrs. Bombadoodle. Mrs. B is requiring from her a five paragraph essay of 800 words, comparing and contrasting The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz (the movie). She’s been complaining about how she can never write only eight hundred words and how unreasonable that is. And she can’t get started. She had to write one paragraph for homework the other night. Then she has the weekend to finish the draft of the essay. Then she will have to rewrite it and hand it in. This job feels impossible to her. 

This is one of those parenting moments when my desire to be Supportive Parent runs alongside my Beleagured Writer. Supportive Parent would listen and say, “Oh my. My, my. You can do it.” Beleagured Writer would say, “Uh, yeah. That’s called drafting, revising, and editing. That’s called writing.” Educators call this “the writing process.” They would, wouldn't they? 

It just so happens I am reading Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, which is about writing. Honestly, I have been mostly a fiction writer, and John McPhee is a famous nonfiction essayist whose work has been often in the New Yorker. By which I mean, in a roundabout, indirect, and therefore perhaps poorly executed way, to say that I haven't read all of his work. However, he is a professor of writing, and he's written a book about his writing process. I have been struggling with my writing, and when I struggle, I dip into inspiration via other writers’ books on writing. The eponymous essay has a great section on writer’s block and self-doubt. In short, the message is that he suffers from it, mostly during the time when he’s trying to write the first draft. Best of all, for this Beleagured Writer, he says that anyone who doesn’t is not to be trusted. I would insert a quotation here, but I’m writing from an undisclosed location apart from my book. Namely, from my father’s apartment. Furthermore, I smell like rancid body lotion, which is not pleasant. While packing, I tossed into my suitcase a hotel bottle from my stash. Apparently, it turned. 

McPhee also says that writing is all about revising. This is my truth, too. Once something is on the page, it is much less frightening and daunting to work with. But getting started. Oh my word. 

And then he has a great passage about trying to write and not being able to, and so writing Dear Mom, and then complaining all about what you’re trying to write but can’t. And then cutting out the “Dear Mom”.

That made me laugh, because he wrote it funny, and it is funny and well-written. Also, it reminded me of probably the best writing advice I got in college. Perhaps ironically, this advice came not from a professor, but from a classmate in my dorm, Darlene. One day, I was whinging about having trouble starting a paper, and Darlene, who was from some place in South America, and had creamy skin and soft brown eyes and hair with bangs that fell over her eybrows, and long limbs and delicate fingers, but whom I had never thought of as any kind of writer, said to me that she just wrote her papers in the first person. “What?” I gasped. I had never considered anything so informal, schooled as I had been in the thesis, supporting statements, conclusion five paragraph essay format. The ten commandments of school essays. First person and flow and informality in an academic paper? What about topic sentence, quotations, and references? 

“There aren’t as many “I’s” as you think,” she told me. “You can just take them out afterwards.” 

Darlene wore pleated jeans. They were fashionable back then. We agreed that our desert island makeup would be mascara, definitely. Darlene had a handsome boyfriend named Peter, who also had dark hair and eyes. I believe they got married. 

When a professor later told me I wrote well and my essays had a nice intuitive flow, it was because of Darlene. 

As for which part of me wins the race with the 10th Grader, Supportive Parent or Beleagured Writer, let’s just say I offered the comment that being forced to write with limits can be helpful.

I added, “It’s all about revision,” which was not what she wanted to hear. So it made me feel better to learn from John McPhee that he told his daughters the same thing. It is all about revision.

And where I am I with my book’s revision? I’m at the stage of avoidance. John McPhee also cops to it in his book, thanks God (as my sister the psychoanalyst says). And he told his daughter to put her draft away for a little while and then go back to it. That is what I told the 10th Grader. She listened, although I must admit that she had already decided to take a break. “These things need to sit for a while,” I said. She was halfway up the stairs by then. 

They need to marinate. I believe in steeping, the subconscious, the unconscious. I believe, as John McPhee says in his book, that while I’m not writing, the work is still percolating in the background, maybe even working itself out. 

And I said it first. 

At least in my life. 


The tenth grader turned in 900 words. We shall see how strict Mrs. Bombadoodle is. Writing is about rules, as so much of life is, and also about knowing when and how to break them.