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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mastery and Success

Seems that I have some readers who want to keep me on task. I’m basing this conclusion on the suggestions of books and Ted talks that come through my inbox. I appreciate them all! Diverting! And I get to watch things on a screen and consider it “work.”

One thing I watched was this Ted talk by someone called Sarah Lewis on the benefits of the “near win,” a.k.a. failure. Inevitably, the topic sailed right out at me, it being so salient to my situation. I am so very, very familiar with failure. My entire career has been a “near win.” That’s okay, according to Sarah Lewis, because failure is what we experience on the way to mastery. And mastery is ultimately more important than success.

Easy for Sarah Lewis to say. She’s the one giving the TED talk. She is an art historian and critic, and apparently has a book about failure and creativity. This isn’t about sour grapes, though. It’s about learning to cope with who I am.

Sarah Lewis defines success as a “moment.” That is a way of looking at it. I agree, I think. Success is a byproduct of effort. However, what she calls “mastery” I might call mastering; that is, engaging in working towards something. Or having a system for continuing to set and reach for goals. As I’ve mentioned before being engaged in that system, or in mastering a new goal, makes me feel successful. Purposeful effort makes life juicy and interesting.

This TED talk reminded me of something I read in Matthew Seyd’s Bounce, which focused on techniques for improving athletic performance. Most of practice is failing. For example, an ice skater spends every practice trying to refine upon and improve technique to accomplish the next challenge, the next turn, inevitably more complicated than the previous one. She spends most of that time trying and falling, trying and falling, until she manages her triple lutz. Then it’s on to the quadruple. When you think about it, most of the time, she’s experiencing the near win. But in context, it doesn’t feel like failure.

This also reminds me of certain teenaged ballet dancers I know. To hear them talk about their efforts after class, you'd think they would have quit years ago. They're almost never satisfied. They are always mastering, and so very rarely feeling successful. Yet they go on. And on. And on. The effort keeps them engaged, and they learn from their mistakes. They are always refining.

Well, I also feel that I have been more involved in the near win than I’d like to remain; yet I see the value of near-wins. Also, I feel that although success may be just a moment, it’s a moment I’d like to experience, and to memorialize, if possible with an attractive photo. Or an award. An award would be nice. But an attractive photo of myself would also be good. Or money. Yes, some money would also suffice.

Anyway, the point is that one has to be involved in mastering or mastery. One must be striving, according to Sarah Lewis, for more than one can possibly achieve. To do this, to keep reaching for the out of reach goal, one must have a functioning system of effort. One must have those habits, that routine, those goals, and that willpower. Otherwise, there will be no moments of success as byproduct. And Readers, I want a couple of those byproducts before I die.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lena Dunham and Me

I read Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl and I liked it. I’ve gotta say it. She’s been getting a  lot of press, some of it accusing her of being weirdly interconnected with, and possibly abusive of, her younger sister. I gotta say I enjoyed the book. She’s funny. She’s young, sure.Painfully so, when I consider that she could be my child. Or rather, that I could have a child her age. Ouch. But she has some self-awareness, thanks to mucho therapy. You know how I feel about therapy. NO? Well, nevermind. I might turn you off by saying more.
How I feel about keeping Lena's book out so long.  

Anyway, my point. Despite all the negative press she has received, mostly from conservatives, I don’t think she wrote anything particularly disturbing about her relationship with her sister. Yes, she did look in her sister’s vagina, when her sister was a toddler and she was six years older than that. But it was because her sister had inserted marbles in there. I would have looked, too. And then she told their mother, and then her mother got to remove them. Ah, the joys of parenthood. Just the other day I was wondering WHEN my children might learn to throw up in the toilet. TMI? Sorry.

Anyway, yes, she shared a bed with her sister, and seems to have tried to lavish her with love as if her sister were her baby. This behavior is so classic I don’t even need a psych degree to analyze it. Let’s just say I was more direct in expressing my jealousy. I simply tried to kill my sister (six and a half years younger, like Lena’s younger sister) by holding her nose. When I let go, her nostrils stuck together briefly, and I panicked.

I like to think this is one of the reasons my sister grew up to be the excellent psychotherapist and psychoanalyst she is.

People’s reactions to Lena Dunham and her book reminded me of an incident regarding Harriet the Spy. The younger daughter and I read it for our mother-daughter book club. Thing is, as a kid, I loved Harriet the Spy. I related to Harriet. I was a writer. We had a housekeeper (a series of them, actually) with whom I had relationships. I even made a spy route around my neighborhood and wrote about it in a notebook. I knew what a dumbwaiter was because my nursery school was in an old mansion that had one. But when the younger generation read the book they couldn’t relate to Harriet. They thought she was spoiled and super rich. Yet I and my schoolmates and neighborhood friends all lived the same way. Many or most of us had housekeepers and working parents and went to private schools. It wasn’t so hard to achieve that standard of living back then.

Which is, I guess, why so many people feel that Lena Dunham is hopelessly privileged. By the standards of these times, she is. Most of the children I know do not have regular housekeepers or nannies. That style of living is out of reach for most people now. This seems like a tangible expression of those stagnant wages and real earnings I’ve heard so much about on the news. You know the stuff about how since the 1970s, people’s incomes haven’t actually kept pace with price increases and other economic stuff I know nothing about. But I do know about therapy and private schools and how my kids don’t get those things – but I did.

So I liked her honesty and her tone and her self-deprecating humor. And I guess I just don’t find her upbringing threatening.

In short, I related to Lena. How could I not, when she writes things like, “The germophobia morphs into hypochondria morphs into sexual anxiety morphs into the pain and angst…?” Sure, she was talking about middle school. I have never been that extreme. Although, come to think of it, in 7th grade I fell under the spell of that saying, “See a pin, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck. See a pin, let it lay, [something one syllable I can’t remember or never knew] bad luck is here to stay.” This meant that I had to pick up every safety pin I saw. Readers, there were so many of them. I hung each new find on a big pin I’d come across, sort of like safety-pin art, and I’d have to carry this set of pins with me. Eventually, I was pinning that bunch of safety pins to my underwear for protection every day. I think this stopped only when my stepmother asked with irritation why all my underpants had holes at the waistband and fear knocked some sense into me. I realized I couldn’t indulge this kind of obsessive behavior. I moved on to something more normal, picking my split ends.

Confession time.* I had this post about Lena Dunham almost ready a while ago. Back in ’14, I believe. But I didn’t get a chance to finish it. I think I had too much procrastinating to do. Then the book was due at the library. I love the library. And I couldn’t renew it because there is a waiting list for it. But I couldn’t return it because I had to look up a couple things to quote for you, Readers. Then it was Christmas and everything got “tidied up” around the house. This is shorthand for saying I lost it. But then I found it again, after New Year’s, and I returned the book. I promise I did.

How do you feel about overdue library books? I used to worry about them. I tried never to have overdue books. However, unlike my MIL, who has never returned a book late to the library, I have become a compulsive late returner. Worse, instead of feeling bad about this, I feel okay, because I know I’m performing a service to the library. They count on those overdue fees to contribute to their budget items. So, it’s actually a good deed, a veritable mitzvah, to return them late. As long as you pay those fines.

So what did I want to quote? Well, I intended to illustrate my statement that the book is funny and well–written. That Dunham, while young, is reasonably self-aware, thanks to a lot of therapy, about which she writes at length. She’s aware of how people view her – as a privileged, white, New Yorker. At the same time, she’s only in her late twenties, so she’s still got limited awareness of herself and a limited scope of interest. But she puts it out on the page well. For example, on page 46, she recounts a moment at college (Oberlin), where someone points out her sheltered upbringing by calling her “Little Lena from Soho.”
            “What a snarky jerk,” she writes. “(Obviously I later slept with him.)”
            Come on, that’s funny.
            If I could put myself out there on the page and be honest and raw and funny and insightful and get PUBLISHED and PAID to do so, I’d feel successful. Oh, yeah.

*Rereading this, to implement the fixes the husband pointed out were needed, this strikes me as hilarious, following as it does the paragraph about my 7th grade OCD. Not to mention the attempted suffocation of my sister. Like that wasn't a confession??

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy New Year Goals

With my new device, which will not take over my life
Welcome to 2015. Happy New Year. My rhinovirus and I wish you the healthiest, happiest of years. May you flourish. (Not you, Rhinovirus. May you wither and die.)

I realize I've been AWOL, and perhaps more about that later. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there's nothing more to say than, I've been busy. It's been winter break. We've celebrated Christmas here like good, secular Jews with WASP ancestry. (Bagels and lox for breakfast, Stilton cheese and leftover Chinese food for snack, and roast beast for dinner.) We've had a small New Year's Eve party. What's left to say?

Rhinovirus. Yeah, shut up.

Anyway, now's that time of year when everyone sets goals. So I thought, since success and goal setting are indubitably linked, that I could offer perhaps a word or two regarding goals.

  • Don't go crazy with the goal-setting. 

  • Remember to set appropriate goals. An appropriate goal is challenging but not frustratingly out of reach. I will master Ashtanga Series Four by March, for example, is doomed. 

  • An appropriate goal is specific. I will eat less chocolate is vague. What is "less," really? Anything you say it is, really.  I will only eat six squares of chocolate per sitting – er, day. Er, week. That's specific. But remember to be realistic. (Er, sitting.) 

  • To achieve your specific, realistic but challenging goal, use mental contrasting – visualize achieving your goal, by all means, but also be sure to think about the challenges you will encounter along the way and how you will overcome them. Each journey begins with a single step and all that jazz.

Such is my wisdom for you, Readers. A couple days late, but it’s really never too late to set a goal. 

As for myself, this year I am not making any particular resolutions, except to continue to work on my systems that I already have more or less in place. Morning stretches to stop from freezing into immobility; regular exercise of various kinds, such as walking, NIA, Pilate's, Zumba, the occasional sprint, the NY Times 7 Minute Workout. Writing. Centering myself sporadically. 

It occurs to me that these are actually habits. I wish to maintain and strengthen them. A habit is something done pretty much automatically. As a result, performing it doesn't use up a lot of willpower. Willpower is then available for achieving other actual goals. So what does it mean that my goal is to continue strengthening my habits? 

Admittedly, the meaning seems to be that perhaps my "system" isn't quite as habitual as I'd like it to be. Therefore, I don't have a lot of willpower left over for new goals. I'm still working on habit formation of these old ones. 

(Deflates a little.)

Bottom line: I already have enough goals. It would be crayzee to add many more. 

I'm a firm believer in that old adage, "Moderation in all things." This came up just the other day. January 1st, to be precise. Our friends, the husband, and I were walking the dog and racking up steps on our fitness monitors. For some reason, and I'm not sure why, right after we had to pause to pick up the dog's poop and our friends walked in circles rather than forgo a few seconds of step-acquisition on their fitness monitors, a spirited discussion ensued on the second part of this old saying. Is it Moderation in all things, EXCEPT moderation? Or is it Moderation in all things INCLUDING moderation? 

I know I could just look it up, but the thing is, I don't really want to know. 

Oh, okay. I looked it up. Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson was the one who said, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation."

But Horace said it earlier. 

Est Modus in Rebus

According to my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, there's nothing further than that. "There is moderation in everything." Sans part B.

So, I guess we can't really know. We must decide for ourselves. 

Judging by the amount of baked brie consumed over New Year's at my house, the answer is clear. 

And now, I'm off to find a tissue. After that I plan to walk in circles around my kitchen island to rack up steps on my fitness monitor. So, what do you think of that? 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Grumpy in "Post-Racial" America

I’ve been grumpy this week. The husband is working too much. The weather has been meh. The 16-year-old complained that our town is too white – and I don’t disagree. She worries that perfectly nice people grow up to be racists simply because they aren’t familiar with people of other colors, especially black people. Including herself. She’s worried about herself. Made me really miss NYC.  Even if you live in a bubble in NYC, you encounter people of other colors and classes as you move around the city.

A couple months ago, on the WTF Podcast, Marc Maron interviewed a comedian called Ms Pat (Episode 540). This interview was really great.  Really great. Ms Pat comes from inner city Atlanta. She's black, and grew up poor, and she was pregnant at 13. And she has gotten out and moved to a northern city and to a mostly white suburb. She explains her upbringing and the attitudes of the disenfranchised poor in the ghetto. She makes it funny, and therefore palatable. There’s intentional wall-building on the part of the inner city folk. A sense of f-you if you won’t help me out and make room and recognize my humanity, then I don’t want any part of yours. Thus the intentional crude and unschooled attitude, the anti-"bougie" stance. It’s self-defeating by being so repellent. On the other hand, it’s understandable.

Anyway, Ms.Pat. If you're not likely to visit the WTF Podcast, or you find Marc Maron crass and tiresome, which he can be, here’s a sample on YouTube of Ms Pat. 

So in my handy dandy New York Times, I read that popping some magic mushrooms could help me feel less anxious and happier. One Eugenia Bone, the author of this opinion piece, wrote that on a psychotropic mushroom trip, "I envisioned my body as a ship that was taking me through life, and that made it beautiful. I stopped feeling guilty about growing older and regretful about losing my looks. Instead, I felt overwhelming gratitude. It was a tremendous relief that I still feel.”

I want some of that mushroom juice. Because this phrase in particular, “guilty about growing older,” struck me. Guilt. Or shame. About a less than perfect, youthful body. I relate. As if it’s somehow shameful to grow older. As if it reflects badly on one to show signs of age. I relate to that, and I reject it. I must, right? I mean. 

Okay, am I rejecting it? Because, Readers, I did highlight my hair. And I use face cream. And other cosmetics. And, ironically, just at the point in my life when I’m losing it, I feel very appreciative of my waist and want to highlight it in my fashion ensembles. In fact, just at this point in my life I’ve suddenly started paying close attention to what I wear. That’s not exactly rejecting the shame of decaying in public. Which is why I'm considering trying some psychotropic mushrooms. Never tried 'em. 

Decaying in public.

Like our society. The good news is I’m in sync with the times. I have company. Along with our commitment to human welfare, civil rights, and the “Pursuit of happiness,” I’m decaying in public.

As Auntie Mame might say, “That’s enough of that.”

I told you I'm grumpy. 

Okay, here’s a cute thing. This boot. 

This arrived in the mail the other day with a note saying, “No we haven’t got the wrong size; we’re just letting you know we have your order and we’re working hard on getting it to you.” This because I ordered a pair of LL Bean boots, you know those basic duck boots, those boots I hated when I first became aware of them back in 1978. Anyway, I ordered a pair of the old standby (with Gortex and Thinsulate), and they were backordered. Backordered until the end of February.

Hello? End of February my, uh, foot. That will be practically spring. Oh, sure, up here in the Northeast, we might be a few blizzards shy of actual spring, but we will definitely be at least 4/5 of the way through winter.

This isn’t a problem for me, actually. I still have my L.L.Bean boots. They are about 25 years old and going strong. No, these are for the 16 year-old. Said I, when I discovered this backorder business, “Hmmm. If my 16-year-old wants L.L.Bean boots, then they must be having a popularity surge.” And sure enough, I learned, when I went for lunch with a well-informed friend (a librarian, of course), that L.L.Bean has experienced such a run on their boots that they are making more machines to make more boots to meet demand. Apparently this is because of the Normcore trend among college students and young adults. Normcoreis all about “intentional blandness." Once again, I guess, it's hip to be square. 

So let’s just get one thing straight. Apparently these boots, which I loathed as representing Preppy back in my teen years; these boots, which I caved to and bought in my twenties because they are the best boots for cold, slushy snow (I lived in Boston); these boots now appeal to my style-conscious teen. The one who wears flannel ironically, with a miniskirt. And Dr. Martens combat boots.

You know, when I was – how shall I phrase this? Young – too general? Twenty-something-overused? In extended adolescence – yes, that’s it – when I was in extended adolescence, the person who wore Dr. Martens combat boots was not the same person who wore L.L.Bean boots. Just saying.

That flannel she wears, by the way? Mine. Vintage. From L.L.Bean. Although, come to think of it, I bought it during the Grunge Phase in the late Eighties, and I wore it with Dr. Martens (shoes, not boots). So what is my point? I don't have one. 

Have a good weekend.

Friday, December 5, 2014

You know, I really wanted to write something clever and amusing about my cyclamen plant. I got it
last year at the food co-op. It had beautiful flowers that kept dying and returning for months. Then the plant turned dry and dead looking. I was really sad. I searched the interwebs and discovered that cyclamen experience dormancy during the summer, and that I should put the plant in a cool, dark place until the fall. So I did. Then, about a month ago, I remembered it was there. I brought it back upstairs and put it on the windowsill. Well, it looked dead. Dead, dead, dead.

Anyway, I wanted to write about that, maybe make an nice analogy to something in my life. But national events – grand jury decisions and protests – intervened.

You know, I like to pretend I live in a certain kind of world: liberal, reasonable, open to all kinds of religions, sexual preferences, gender designations, career choices, and so on. That liberal elite. Yes, I am very comfortable there.

Following the news of the grand jury’s decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner was news of the results of a two year study of police policy and procedures in Cleveland. Conclusion: police often act with excessive force resulting in damaged community relations, not to mention damaged lives. Was anyone surprised? Did anyone read that?

Anyone who read the Kerner Commission Report in 1967 wouldn’t have been, apparently. This commission was set up to examine the underlying causes of  the riots happening in various inner cities across the US at that time, in the olden days. I was three when the Kerner Commission Report came out, so I don’t remember this firsthand. According to my latest New Yorker, that report “is best known for its conclusion that the United States was ‘moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.’” 

I guess the Kerner Report was right.

For 5 years I lived at the intersection of those worlds, on the edge of East Harlem and the Upper East Side. My kids went to an elementary school in East Harlem where they were in the minority, color-wise. Also, and to a lesser degree, economically. East Harlem, in case you don’t know, used to be known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio, and it’s one of those pockets of Manhattan that remains mostly ungentrified. The school day my children spent in East Harlem, but all of their extra-curricular activities met below 96th Street, in the white part of town.

Those five years were an amazing education. I made some friends, first with some of the other white parents, but eventually with some of the non-white parents. That took longer. But I noticed that whatever color they were, my friends were similar to me in key ways, in education, in family’s education primarily, of life expectations for ourselves and our children. We were of the same economic class. The parents of those kids from El Barrio (East Harlem) and I – we didn’t really know each other. The elder daughter was friends with someone from the neighborhood, but her mother really seemed reluctant to let her come to our apartment  - and my daughter never entered the vestibule of her building. She was never asked.

Nevertheless, Hurricane Katrina was the first real shocker to me. Sure, in ed school I read about the underclass, and I read about de-facto segregation in public schools. Heck, I experienced that. But those images of the poor at the Superdome? My God, what country was that? That was so much more real. All those people, mostly poor, mostly poorly educated, basically abandoned. Horrible to contemplate. They were so unappealing looking, too. But I had to ask myself, what separated me from them? Luck, education, money. 

Ten years later, ten more years of government policies meant to destroy the social fabric, to eliminate the government’s responsibility to care for people. Ten more years of policies that elevate business values and dehumanize people, and we’ve got this defacto segregation more than ever. Horrible to contemplate. I read in Backlash by Susan Faludi that the Heritage Foundation, that conservative think-tank behind the Moral Majority, had at its founding, the explict goal of turning the clock back to 1954. Well. 1954 was the year of Brown v. Board of Education, that ruled that “Separate but Equal” was not constitutional and gave a lot of momentum to the civil rights movement. Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Abortion illegal. So on. Turning back all the civil rights gains, including women’s rights. People really wanted - want to do this. I cannot understand that. 

I cannot understand why people would want to do that, but I now understand that people do. So I conclude that I live in a different world than a lot of other people. And this is not ok.

Race, class, education. Those are the boundaries of my little world. I guess I thought it was bigger. I am awakened now.  

One of my friends wrote on Facebook that she has given up hope. She wrote that she wants a reason to feel some optimism, but she worries that the future will bring more of the same.

Well, there is my cyclamen. It looked dead. People who shall remain unidentified made fun of its deadness. Someone moved it off the windowsill, closer to the trash. But I watered it anyway. I noticed that the water didn’t gush out of the bottom of the pot. There were roots holding it in there, buried. And then, just this week, I saw a couple of green shoots. I had been right. I hadn’t given up.

And we can’t do it for our country, either. I’d say the good that comes of the bad here is that more people are educated to the reality of the racial and economic divide before us. Laws shaped this situation, and they can reshape it as well. Protests shape the protesters as much as, or more than, those against whom they protest. Those people shape the laws. And the laws shape justice. So, no, I don’t give up hope entirely. I feel that we – I – have been able to ignore the problem for a long time; but now that it’s out in the open, there’s a chance to do something about it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Notes from this Week

Implementing Dr. D’s suggestion to substitute herbal tea sipping for my afternoon snack habit. Though it hurts me to write this, it is true that my waistline is less svelte than it used to be. My eating habits haven’t changed, but my metabolism -- well, you know the deal. Every decade the metabolism slows a bit. Or every seven years. Or is it that you get itchy every seven years? Or is that every decade? Anyway. If you’re me, you are both itchy and metabolically declining. And by itchy, I am referring to my hive-prone skin, not to the cheat-on-the-spouse kind of itchy.

My attitude towards the metabolic shift swings back and forth. It, uh, shifts, depending on what kind of sweets or delicious carbs are in the house and on the menu. Something over which I, apparently, have a lot of control. Sometimes I’m, like, what the heck, who cares? I’m getting older and getting fatter and why should I give up my sweets and carbs in a false attempt to stave off the Inevitable? Death, etc., let’s call it. After all, Death, etc., comes to all of us.

But sometimes I’m, like, what the heck? I still feel like I’m thirty. Why shouldn’t I look that way as long as I can? Please, Readers, if you know what I look like, don’t disabuse me of this fanciful notion by telling me that I left thirty behind long ago, looks-wise. I know I left it behind, years-wise.

So today is a sip-the-herbal-tea instead of eating-the-chocolate-covered-almonds day. Today’s a hoick-the-waistband-over-the-waist-bulge day. A Pilates mat class day, (which was rawther humbling). I know I’ve got abs of steel somewhere. If I press into my belly far enough, I feel the steel. Take that Death, etc!


The kitchen faucet is magical.

There I was, typing away in the dining room, when I became aware of an insistent shwishing sound. Like a flood or something. The sound was coming from the kitchen. I rushed in and realized that the faucet was on, full-throttle. It had turned itself on.

How is that possible, you ask? The kitchen faucet is magical, I tell you. It is a wonderful looking faucet, all modern and sleek. We picked it out of thousands, lit’rilly. And for once, I broke with my usual caution and went for the fancy, newfangled option, the touch option. You know, so when your hands are gooey, you can turn the faucet on by tapping with the back of your hand anywhere on the neck or handle.  I couldn’t resist. Even though one should always resist. The more complicated mechanical things get, the more they involve batteries and bells and whistles, the more likely they are to break down.

But it was so pretty.

The husband installed it. And it works great. Usually. Except sometimes you need to pound it several times to get it to turn on, and then it won’t turn off, except when you use the handle. And sometimes when you want it to stay on it turns off abruptly; and sometimes it goes off and on like a choking chicken.

And sometimes it turns on when you are typing on your laptop in another room.

It’s great, except for that.

The husband says he’s going to fix it; but he has a full time job, so I’m thinking eventually we will have to call the plumber and take whatever mockery he dishes to us.

But it is so pretty.


It’s time for me to take a break from all the menopause memoirs I’ve been reading. Yes, sure, they’re funny. Yes, sure, they’re written by women who are about my age – or were, when they wrote these humorous books. But the thing is, I’m starting to feel old. They keep telling me that my vagina is dry, or possibly collapsing, and that my emotions are overwrought; that I want to throw plates on the ground or whole turkeys out of windows; that my nasolabial folds – those are the creases around the mouth, for your information – are deep enough to plant shrubberies in. That I’m washed up and can’t get any roles in Hollywood. Not that I’m trying too get roles in Hollywood, but I like the idea that I could. Well, apparently, not anymore. Basically, I’m getting the message that I’m over the hill, that my looks are going – or are gone.

The thing is, I feel great. Except for the need for higher waisted jeans. And a few age spots. And a few chin hairs. And stuff like that. Over all, life is good. I baked bread, Readers. I told the husband a few years ago that if I ever baked bread again, it would be a sign that I felt good. And I baked bread.

Now that I typed that positive thought, I’m looking up and over my shoulder. Where’s the big boot from the sky? The one that stomps on me if I dare to feel positive? Before the boot appears, I’m going on the record to say things are good. I know that can go ass over teakettle at any moment – and will. But right now: Good.


I can’t be arsed.

Taking a break from all those menopause memoirs to read Tana French’s newest book, The Secret Place. It’s a mystery set in a girls’ boarding school. I’m very into it. All that hard-boiled Irish copper slang has seeped into my language. I’ve been thinking in a lilt. I particularly like “I can’t be arsed,” which means, I believe, “I can’t be bothered.” I’m ashamed to admit I have had to stop myself from saying it aloud to one or another of the children. Although, why I bother to stop myself I don’t know. It’s not as if I’ve stopped myself saying other inappropriate things around them. Or to them, I confess. In fact, of late, I feel as if I’m just giving over to my baser – or perhaps more basic – tendencies. Ah, who am I kidding with this delicacy? It’s been out of the bag for eons that I enjoy a good scatological reference. I’d like to behave more better, as we say.  More parentally. I really would. But I just can’t be arsed.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fulfillment Depends on Success

Simmering Stew of Fulfillment
So a couple of weeks ago,this piece in the Sunday Review came out when we were in Boston visiting colleges with the 11th grader. It’s about fulfillment, which the author, a 66 year old woman called Emily Fox Gordon (EFG) describes as “an outlandishly oversized gift,” and I would have missed it, if not for a friend sending me the link.

The article turned out to be a fitting counterbalance to the kick-off of what people have indicated is a very anxiety-producing process. At first read, it’s a reminder to consider the scope of a whole life, to keep in perspective this college thing, rife as it is with symbolism. Or actual reality, really, of the young ‘un stepping out into her independent life. College is important, sure, but it’s not necessary to turn getting in into a completely fraught situation. This is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t want my child to drive herself into the ground in pursuit of acceptance to some top school. So remembering what life goals are worth striving for can put the process into perspective. For me, I mean. To prevent adding to the pressure she puts on herself.

Fulfillment. That’s an interesting goal for old age. I must have mentioned before that I used to wish for wisdom when I am old. Now that I know a bit more, I’m thinking, “Uh-oh, careful what you wish for, Hope.” Wisdom. Yeesh. That can be scary. Like considering the futility or absurdity of existence. Do I really want to grok life that way? Perhaps not. Fulfillment seems a better goal. Growing old and feeling fulfilled is definitely on my wish list. Even if EFG says, “it’s a dubious gift, because you receive it only when you’re nearing the end.” Well, it’s a gift I’ll take, if I can. According to EFG, fulfillment is milder than happiness, because it contains detachment and perspective, which I agree are not usually linked to moments of happiness.

So. Fulfillment. I could go for that. Who couldn’t?  Well, I’ll tell you who couldn’t: a failure. That’s right, EFG says so right in her essay. 

“A failed life can’t be a fulfilled one.”


“It has to have been a success.”


“It has to have been a success, though not necessarily the documentable kind. It can be a parental or marital or civic success, or an entirely private one….”

Ok. That’s better. Because, so far, mine has been mostly undocumented.

“But success is only a necessary condition.”

Oh. Go on.

“A life of brilliant accomplishment that ends at 40 can’t have been fulfilled.”

I suppose not. Though we could argue about that, at least when thinking about war heroes or something. People devoted to a cause, or thrust into situations requiring heroism, who die in pursuit of their ideals. 

“Years are a requirement. One must have lived most of a standard lifetime, and be inclined to assess it.”

Sounds plausible. I fully intend to. Since I’ve been assessing my life all along, why would I stop?

Upon closer examination, apparently, fulfillment turns out to be a complicated, slow-cooked stew. Success simmered with ambition and one’s relationship to ambition figures as well. Time passing and perspective are necessary ingredients, as is a smidge of detachment. This recipe involves care and attention, Readers. It’s not crockpot pulled pork, which just requires a little Coke, a lot of onions, a hunk of meat and you’re done.

This reminds me that in all my discussions about success, the people who have felt most successful are those who feel that their ambition and their accomplishments are in balance with one another. Those who feel unsuccessful may have unrealized ambitions gnawing at them; or they may not even realize what their ambitions are. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle them from all the knots of obligation and everyday goings-on.

Although, not to be a fly in the ointment, isn’t fulfillment just another emotion and therefore as fleeting and intermittent as all emotions? If all emotions are insubstantial, why is any one emotional state better than another to aim for?

Hmmm. So maybe fulfillment isn’t something to aim for; maybe, like happiness, it’s a byproduct of a well-lived life. Which brings me back to the basic question of how to determine what a well-lived life is. Which brings me back to accomplishments. Outcomes. Successes.

At least with accomplishments, you can remind yourself of them by pulling out those report cards or awards or whatever. They are tangible. I can see I’m getting into trouble here. My anxiety level is ramping up. Must have accomplishments and successes to feel intermittent fulfillment later on in life.

Accomplishments. Oy. What if you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for racking up accomplishments of your own?

Oh, that’s what your children are for. Right? So maybe that whole detachment-fulfillment-step back-and-review-life thing is a total crock of baloney. Maybe after all the best approach to life, especially if you have unrealized ambitions and dreams, is to foist them on those children who have sucked up so much of your time and energy that you have failed to achieve your own. 

So get that kid into the most prestigious college possible. Make sure she has high expectations and do what you can to help her claw her way towards them. Lean in, lean over, lean on. Otherwise, what will you buoy your faltering self-esteem with in your declining years?

Phew. I feel better now. I was lost in a wilderness of contentment for a few moments. Now I'm back. I’m hoping for a Nobel Prize or an Oscar out of them. Or both. Yeah, both. Why not dream big for those kids? They’re just starting out.


On a much lower note, I am overcome by a need for new jeans. Now that higher rise jeans are back in favor, I cannot bear my jeans. Things are welling over there. I need a higher rise to lock and load – a term I learned from "What Not To Wear." Stacey and Clinton used it to refer to proper fitting bras, but  I’m talking about my hips. It’s my prerogative. Just as it’s my prerogative to totally understand the whole free range kid movement, and be unable to join it, fully.

Maybe if I rack up a few accomplishments of my own, I can relax about where my kids go to college. So, I guess fulfillment will have to wait, because I’m firing up my ambition. I will start with new jeans. Believe me, that's a challenge.