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Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Successful Doyenne?

My newfound interest in manners both amuses and perplexes me. It’s not as if I’m turning into some grand doyenne of society. I’m just wending croneward. But must be the times, Readers. Not the failing NY Times, but our times. My meanderings in etiquette led me to the unfamiliar terrain of the White House, via the new book Treating People Well: the Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and In Life. It’s by two former White House Social Secretaries, Lea Berman, who worked for the Dubya Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for the Obama administration. 
Considering how long books take, I suppose the authors started their book well before the election of Donald, er, Dennison, to the presidency. Nevertheless, it comes at the perfect time. Their reason for writing elucidates my exact feelings better than I have been able to do.

Acting with civility helps each of us take back a little of the ground that’s been lost in today’s public discourse. Tiny steps—daily activities like saying hello to the bus driver or holding a door for someone—add up to a healthier daily life and a better perspective. These moments make us feel decent. In the same way that each unpleasant exchange we have in the course of a day dampens our mood, every affirming interaction builds up and reinforces a positive sense of self.

Exactly. I’m taking back a little ground. I’m trying to maintain a healthy daily life and perspective amid the deluge of soul-destroying news. I’m reinforcing a positive sense of self. I’m remembering that most people, as the husband says, try to be decent to one another. I’ve always believed the personal is political. Trying to be an example of decency is now political.

The social secretaries recommend twelve progressive steps to treating people well. That is, each next step depends on mastering the step before. If mastering seems too much to hope, as I would have to say some of them seem to me, then try at least putting the step into play. Not that these steps seem that hard, really. It’s just that when you add a lowered threshold for stress, or a tendency to anger, or perhaps a highly tuned sense of self-defense, well, that’s where the conflicts erupt. Am I right? 

Yes, I am right. Not that I am copping to any of the above mentioned personality flaws—er, traits. I’m just saying, in a perfect world, these steps are not insurmountable. But when we’re talking about toddler temperaments, as we are sometimes, even in adults, we are not talking about a perfect world. 
Doyenne? Crone? 

Of course, we’re never going to achieve a conflict-free world. The goal is to help us all “respect and honor another’s perspective without subscribing to it.” 

Alright already, you’re thinking. What are the dang steps? Do I have to buy the book to learn them? 

No, you do not. I have checked the book out of my library. I love my library. I love libraries. They are wonderful places. 

But I digress.

The book is in twelve chapters, one for each of the 12 Steps to Etiquette. The authors claim they’re writing about character traits, as if character has anything to do with manners.  

I’ll just let that hang there for a few minutes while you think about it.

“The character traits we write about have been venerated for thousands of years in many cultures.” They are “universal values,” B & B believe. I can’t speak for all cultures, but I’ll buy it. 

  1. Begin with Confidence
  2. Humor and Charm, the Great Equalizers
  3. The Quiet Strength of Consistency
  4. Listen First, Talk Later
  5. Radiate Calm
  6. Handle Conflict Diplomatically
  7. Honesty is the Best Policy (Except When It Isn’t)
  8. The Gift of Loyalty
  9. Own Your Mistakes
  10. Keep Smiling, and Other Ways to Deal with Difficult People
  11. Virtual Manners
  12. Details Matter

Reading their thoughts on each step was entertaining, although since one of their rules for getting along with others is to refrain from gossip, that means there are anecdotes galore within the book, but very few names named—unless an anecdote illuminates a positive quality in its subject. For a curious gal like me, that was disappointing, even as the realization that this disappointed me served to point out to me my lack of character. Because, yes, of course, character and manners are related.

Other steps in which I became uncomfortably aware of my lack of character are number 6 (Handle Conflict Diplomatically) and number 3 (The Quiet Strength of Consistency). I’m not going to spend a lot of time rationalizing my failings in these areas—because I have a reasonable grip on step number 9 (Own Your Mistakes), but I will say that sometimes even Buddha, Jesus, Yahweh, or even a heavily sedated psychotic must lose it. 

I reluctantly revisited an unpleasant encounter with a local tailor, which I wrote about back in 2010, when I began this blog. If I had been more advanced along these twelve steps, I suspect I might have handled that encounter more skillfully, more diplomatically. When I took the badly hemmed pants in, sans receipt, because I had thrown it away before checking the work on the pants, a heinous mistake, Readers, and the tailor accused me of lying, I might, just might, have been able to de-escalate the situation. 

Things I could have done when accused of lying: 
  1. Show him the bad hem and just stand there, patient and quiet.
  2. Acknowledge that I did not have a receipt and apologize for that.
  3. Remain calm and refuse to allow my sense of dignity and honesty to be offended by his accusation.
  4. Consider how to turn the situation into a win-win. I was making a fuss in front of his other customers, after all. 
  5. Brush aside the accusation that I had hemmed the pants myself (!) and was now trying to get him to fix a bad job for free, say I was new to town and brought these pants to him based on recommendations, and that I knew his reputation for good work, and ask him if he could fix them. 
  6. When he said he would never have done work like that, say that I had heard good things about his work, and that was why I hadn’t checked it before throwing out the receipt. That perhaps something had gone wrong, but that I knew he would stand by his reputation and fix this hem. 

Would those things have worked? Who knows. He might have been just as much of a jackass and not backed down. What I do know is that I would have left there feeling justified in my outrage at his accusation and denial, rather than outraged by those things AND ashamed of losing my temper. There would have been a net diminishment in the negativity in my life, and also in the community. I would have behaved well, which is sometimes the only revenge, or consolation, in a difficult situation. This thought brings us back to the beginning, doesn’t it? As one of the women in my NIA class said, shortly after the election, as we shared our mutual shock, we have to look inside ourselves to find the answers to what is wrong in our society. She’s a psychologist, so she must be right. And they worked in the White House, so, you know, they must be reliable. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

News and Notes

There is an article in The Economist* about how women may be Trump’s undoing. That would be good. I have to admit I haven’t finished it--nor have we finished him, yet. I got caught up in a train of thought about one of the candidates running for office because of Rump. A woman named Houlahan. Can’t even remember where she’s from. She had never considered running for office, being a private person, and a deliberative one, until the last presidential election. She is one of many thousands of women now running for office, which is good news. But what caught my attention was this.
While struggling to reassure her gay daughter and Holocaust-survivor father, both of whom questioned whether America was still safe for them, Mrs Houlahan sent her CV to Emily’s List, an organization that tries to get pro-choice women elected. It seemed like the best way to honour her family motto, “Highest, best use”—meaning, she explains, “Do the hardest thing you can to make best use of your abilities.

What now? As in what now? Come again? Her family motto? Her family has a motto? What is she, British aristocracy? Nope, pure-dee American. From Pennsylvania, it transpires. 

Not only is it cool that she has a motto, but what a motto she has! Do the hardest thing you can to make best use of your abilities. Talk about grit. 

Maybe this gal could be President. 

I’m thinking about everything I’ve read about expectations and success. As in, you have to have them, and they should be high. High, but not too high. Challenging, but not so challenging you get frustrated and give up. How often do I fulfill that for myself? I’m always ready to stop. Oh, I use the excuse of stopping before things get too hard so that I won’t be discouraged to try again. And I suppose there’s merit to that approach. It has kept me exercising every since high school. But, this little paragraph in the magazine was like an elbow jab to the ribs: try harder, Hope. This week, I am! Lots of writing.

Her family motto. I asked around on Facebook and only got one person whose family has a motto. It is also a terrific one. "Seek truth. Do good. Have fun." 

What would my family’s motto be? 

What springs to mind is Paul Rudnick’s phrase, Shop Till You Drop. Admittedly, this doesn’t apply. We're not actually big shoppers. But it does bring up a bunch of Yiddishisms, such as Schmie and Drey, Schlep and Step, and Plotz and oh, who knows? 

This is complicated. By family, do I mean the family in which I am a parent? Or the family in which I was a child? Makes a difference. 

The unspoken motto of one classmate's family is, "Don't be an asshole." That's a good place to start. She didn't mention if this was her family of origin, or her current family's motto. 

Family mottoes in my family of origin might have been

  • Children should be seen and not heard.
  • Life is not fair.
  • Stop reading and use this toothpick to get out the gunk from the rim around the kitchen counter. 
  • or, perhaps, Murphy’s Law is real. 

Other news.  We had a birthday party for the 10th grader, who is now 16.  (That’s right, you are getting old). By the by, as these things go, in the planning of the party, an escape room was settled on as one activity. We escaped one at the mall for Father’s Day, but it had was pretty boring and only took fifteen minutes. The husband knew one of his residents (that’s doctor-speak for young doctor training in a specialty) is an aficionado of these rooms, so on his recommendation, we reserved the room at Enigmatic Escapes in Troy. 

It was only after we had made the reservation and sent out the invitations that the husband learned from his resident that the room was quite challenging. Upshot: the girls did not escape. Despite that outcome, they emerged buoyant. They had almost done it, they said, which seemed admirable to me. And indeed, according to the shop owners, they were only one puzzle away when their time ran out. 

More admirable was the chatter I overheard while chauffeuring. These girls all have Resistbot on their phones, and they’re spending time writing their elected officials about the issues. And in fact, in the morning after the slumber party, I learned that three of them spent the wee hours drafting emails to their high school principal about joining one of the planned walk-outs to protest inaction on gun safety measures by Congress. 

I have to say, I did not learn until the morning after the sleepover exactly how hard the escape room was. Let’s just mention that the husband didn’t download the full info to me, by way of verbalization. All I knew, as I drove half the group in my car, was that this (nerdy) doctor had said it was challenging.  

In fact, the husband told me in the morning, as we tiptoed around the kitchen, the resident told him that when he went to the room the first time--

First time? It was worth going back again?

Yes, the first time, he and his companions made it out just under the sixty minute deadline. When he went back with a different group, they didn’t make it out at all. 

So I made the husband tell the assembled at breakfast, which he did. 

The escape room was designed by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) graduates—women, by the way—and involves some really intricate puzzles. 

I don’t know if all my reading in etiquette is paying off, but I do know it’s been fun. A friend gave me a book about manners by Quentin Crisp, who in the 1980s was an entity about town. “Manners are a way of getting what you want with out appearing to be an absolute swine.” He’s British. Thus the use of “swine.’ I’m probably going to crack Amy Vanderbilt after dinner. 

And today, I did get what I wanted without appearing to be an absolute swine. I was walking my dog along a wooded path. Coming towards me I saw a person with two dogs that were not on leash. Needless to say, this was not an off-leash area. Coming across off-leash dogs when I'm with my dog is always stressful for me, because my dog has many times been rushed by off-leash dogs, and much ugly lunging and barking and growling on all sides ensues. Sometimes it even involves purported grownups. 

Like the time at a different place, about twenty feet away from the sign that said, “Dogs must be leashed at all times.” Dude and dudess rolled up in a car, dog violently barking with excitement and lunging at the window as we passed into the park. Half a minute later, their dog is rushing mine, who is on leash. I yell at them to get their dog under control, because I can’t get him away from Milo. And the guy yells at me that his dog IS under control. Then I say, “There’s a sign that says dogs should be on leashes.” And HE says, and I quote, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.” And he sticks his fingers in his ears. 

I kid you not.

Anyway, today. Two dogs off leash. I call out, “Can you please put your dogs on leash?” And I make Milo sit. The owner puts the dogs on leash. The dogs pass one another without incident. The humans smile and exchange pleasantries. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Last week, the members of my dance group filmed a video we will be submitting to the Pina Bausch Foundation ( 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.

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.