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Monday, May 21, 2018

The Just World Hypothesis, and Annals of Successful Parenting

Hi Readers,

Chitchat about the weather, etc. So much has been going on. I’ve been turning the heat off, then on, then off, then on. Fan in the window. Fan out. Window closed. Birds too loud. Birds on the pillows. (Well, so it sounds.) Rain, then sun, then clouds, clouds, clouds. Sweaters packed away in lavender for summer. Sweaters needed. That’s spring in the Northeast. Flowers and rain. Hot at night, cold in the day.

I’ve finished my book draft and reread it all, making notes for revision. This is the good kind of writing, the making it better kind, not the figuring out what I’m trying to say kind. That part sucks.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s the Just World Hypothesis. This is a theory developed by a social psychologist Melvin Lerner that says that humans have a powerful intuition that people get what they deserve. I.e., the world is essentially just. If good things happen to you, then that proves you’re good; if bad things happen, well, you deserved them. This is where blaming the victim comes from. In a just world, and here I am extrapolating, if something awful happens to someone else, that awful thing suggests the person is sub par somehow. And if something good happens, then they are being rewarded for being good.

I was reading about this in a very interesting book about fear-based parenting. Fear-based parenting is what most of us parents are doing these days, to one degree or another, according to the book. The Just World Hypothesis is a cognitive bias that colors our perception of events. It’s part of what makes us fearful. We want to prevent bad things from happening to our children, who are, let’s be clear, offshoots of us, because a bad thing happening has an associated taint on our virtue.

I couldn’t help thinking about how this bias relates to our culture’s extolling of wealth and fame and prestige and all those trappings of success. You can draw a straight line from there to there.  And those trappings of success relate to greed and materialism. The need to prove we are successful is powered by fear that unless we amass some amount of these things, we won’t know that we’re good people. We must scramble to amass amass amass to show ourselves and others that in this Just World, we are the Good.

In recent years, I have become acquainted with some purported Christian teachings called the Prosperity Gospels and Dominionism. These teachings are the Just World Hypothesis in Sheep’s clothing. If you have wealth and so forth, it is because you are godly. This by the way, according to Stephen Cope, a writer and yogi and generally wise guy, is also an association you find in Hindu mythology. The equating of godly with goldlyness.

It’s really an endless cycle of misery we step into when we buy into this cognitive bias. And of course we would much prefer that there is a Just World than that there isn’t one.

Yet it was not always so.

Reading about this bias made me think of Boethius. I heard about Boethius during my Junior year at Oxford, where I took a tutorial on Chaucer. My teacher—don, in Oxbridge talk—was an unfriendly woman who was unimpressed by my grasp of Middle English. Her attitude was opposite to that of my main don, who offered me Earl Grey tea and told me I had a nice, intuitive approach to essay writing.

Anyway, Boethius, wrote in about the 6th Century C.E. One of his most successful tracts was a letter from jail. He went on trial for something—heresy, perhaps—because he was a Hellenist and Christian mix. He wrote this philosophical treatise in which he talks to Lady Philosophy about his misery and bad breaks and losses of fortune and material wealth and all the trappings of success. Lady Philosophy tells him that the Wheel of Fortune rules the world. We all ride on it. Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down, and it’s really nothing about us. We don’t add blame and shame to the burden we carry if things don’t go our way. Failure says nothing about our virtue. Furthermore, because we can’t count on Fortune providing all those external signs of success, we need to live in accordance with more abstract and noble values, such as virtue. That will make us happy.

This wheel of fortune idea, which predated Boethius, became known as The Boethian Wheel of History, and this book, called The Consolation of Philosophy became a best seller in late Ancient and early Middle Ages. Chaucer talks about it, which is why scary don lady had me read Boethius.

Boethius was executed, by the way, for whatever he did to piss off whomever he served in the late Roman Empire. Nevertheless, and most appropriately, his words lived on.

Somewhere along the way came this shift to the idea that dominates our culture now. That if something good happens to you, it means you deserve it. And if something bad happens to someone else, then they deserved that, too.

With an attitude like that, no wonder we’re all anxious and stressed out.

Here’s something I’ve been doing. I spent three days at training for my upcoming job teaching writing to first year students in college. That’s going to be exciting, and maybe the pay will cover the new outfit I bought to attend the training. But, hey, it’s a job, and it will count on a resumé, and at this point, with two teenagers in my house, it seems appealing to know I’ll have 18 other teenagers captive to me starting shortly after Labor Day. They’ll have to listen to me, or they’ll fail.

Here are things that have been happening. The other day the 19-year-old came home for a brief visit before she heads off for a ten week summer internship in particle physics. When we arrived home we discovered the 16-year-old in a tree. With a boy. Or, to be more specific, two bikes were in the driveway, and after a brief look, we saw four legs dangling from the maple tree.

The boy soon rode off on his bicycle, which was when I realized he was biking without a helmet. This caused me to yell after him and generally embarrass the 16-year-old. Then I discovered that she had biked with him without her helmet. This occasioned further yelling. Dignified yelling, I hasten to add. Yelling that sounded jokey but wasn’t. You know, things like, “Sure, it feels good. Until your brain is smushed by a passing car.” And, “Yeah, a helmet flattens your hair, and you look dorky; an accident could flatten your head and then you’ll really look stupid.” That kind of thing.

I told her that unless she wore her helmet, I did not want her to bike with the boy again.

She says she won’t.

I choose to believe her. I have no choice.

Anyway, I suggested she invite this fellow over for dinner, along with some of her other friends. We’d have a nice, friendly dinner, lots of fun. In the background, I would have a couple screens set up, you know, just casual, playing videos, since videos catch the attention. Videos about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, alcohol, bike safety, vaping, juuling. That kind of thing. Maybe some Beyoncé or Childish Gambino thrown in to break things up.  I thought it sounded nice, welcoming, and friendly. Also laid-back.

Did I forget anything? Please alert me in the comments. Thank you.

Now the 19-year-old is gone. I am left to experience the inexorability of time. It’s a cliché, and also true. Boethius might talk about wheels of fortune that have a kind of inexorable randomness, but the wheel is a reassuring thing, promising return. Whereas time is just moving forward, moving forward.  Time moves in linearity, never mind what those physicists say. That’s why it’s inexorable. Whether I am tied to the track like a damsel in distress, with tight Kewpie doll curls and mouth moving out of alignment with the subtitles, or watching in horror from inside it, makes no difference to the inexorable train of time.

So, you know. I’m feeling as if I need to find a way to make a mark, to be of use to people. To be needed. It’s not all over, the being needed by the children. It’s just moved into a phase where they don’t know they need me. And I really, really like it when they know it. However, time and all that. Change occurs and one must adjust. I’m needed now to keep an eagle eye on bike helmets and legs in trees. I take what I can get.

I wonder if there is a way to incorporate bike safety into my first year seminar with my captive audience. Will it fit with the Franciscan themes I am required to teach: heritage; natural world; diversity; and social justice? I will find a way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Consistency: The Peaks and Valleys Challenge

Readers, I have been to the peak and to the valley this week. I much prefer the peak. 

In case you were wondering how my 66-Day Challenge chart is doing, I will show you. But first, let me tell you about my week. 

But before I tell you about my week, I have to tell you about a book I read a couple of months ago. It was a memoir by Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Or possibly A Thousand Miles in a Million Years. I can’t remember. I heard about it from someone on the Internet who posted a list of her favorite memoirs. Anyway, it was a good memoir, about Donald Miller’s life, about how a filmmaker contacted him about making a movie about one of his previous books about his life. The filmmaker and his cinematographer and Donald Miller spend a lot of time together, and they tell Donald Miller about this seminar called Story, taught by a famous teacher, Robert McKee. McKee is this guru of the film and TV writing world. Everyone famous goes to his seminars. So Donald Miller goes to it, too, and the memoir A Million Miles or Years turns into a book about writing a story, too. There’s a funny bit about how Donald Miller fills almost an entire notebook with notes during the three days of seminar, while his roommate, who also attends, leaves with this: A story is about a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. Or so. Anyway, reading about the seminar piqued my interest, because I also like to tell stories in writing, and I’m kind of bad at the plotting of stories. My novels have foundered on this.

So I looked up this seminar Story, which Miller described, and discovered that the famous guy who teaches it four or five times a year around the world would be teaching in New York City right around now. It was expensive, but not out-of-the-question expensive. So I talked about it for a while. I talked about it with the husband, who encouraged me to do it. But I didn’t sign up. I talked about it some more. I googled it. Is the guy who teaches it for real or a crook? Is the thing actually world famous, or is it just a line, like “Going out of business. Liquidation sale” on one of those stores that never closes? It just hangs the sign there permanently. I didn’t sign up. 

I asked the MIL if I could stay with her while I took this seminar, and she said yes. I still didn’t sign up, though. What about the 10th grader’s eye appointment on Friday? What about my hair appointment on Thursday?

What if attending this seminar poisons whatever intuitive sense of narrative I have and I feel oppressed and start writing by the numbers? 

Maybe that would help me sell my writing.

I told myself it’s good to learn theory. It doesn’t mean I will be a slave to it. More likely, I will assimilate this knowledge the way I assimilate all knowledge. I will suck it in and it will turn into a sludge pile somewhere in my unconscious, or my subconscious, and will become part of the intuitive process.

I texted my cousin’s son who works in LA in the business, but he didn’t text back. I thought he might have insider information, and he might, but I haven’t heard yet. Still I didn’t sign up. But finally, on a Thursday, after walking the dog and listening to a podcast on which Dan Pink mentioned the importance of telling a story in all kinds of work, I hit the tipping point that sent me home and got me to register for the seminar. I even bought the train tickets.

So I went to the seminar, and it was sublime. Fascinating. Exhausting. Three days of lectures, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m., with three twenty minute breaks and one hour for lunch. I learned a lot about structural analysis of story, and it made me think about my current and past books in a new way. I also met some fascinating people, from all around the world. A TV producer from Finland, a marketing executive with a desk drawer screenplay from Toronto, a textbook writer and YA novelist from England, a TV writer who does something I’d never heard of called Second Screen writing for TV shows who wants to write her memoir about transitioning to female, and a prolific and famous writer of nineteen novels. We all felt the seminar was transformative. 

I also delighted in the lattes with oat milk I’d read about months ago and was finally able to try at the cafe on the corner. 

I arrived home at midnight on Saturday, and by 1 am, was trapped in the valley. The 16 year old became terribly ill, all night, and ended up in the ER the next day. The husband spent the afternoon and evening in the ER with her, and when they admitted her, I spent the night in the hospital. By the time we got home Monday, all memory of the seminar was as remote as if it had happened ten years ago, or possibly to someone else, on a TV show. 

But the 16 year old is fine. As I write, she’s playing tennis. And after a few days away, for the seminar, which I counted as writing days, and for her illness, I am back to my 66-Day Accountability worksheet. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Jerry's Chain--Don't Break It

When we left off, I was reading a book about 12 steps to becoming a person of impeccable character and manners. Here's that post, in case you missed it. 

Well, that failed.

Not that I have been particularly rude. But I did experience some road rage the other day. I ended up flipping the bird to some twenty-five-year-old dude. 

Maybe I shouldn't have returned the book to the library quite so soon. It was due, though, and it would have been bad manners to return it late. Especially since it's a new book, and it had a hold on it. I didn't spend enough days with it to establish all the good habits it recommends. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, reading that book made me aware of my shortcomings around consistency. I am not consistent. I’m not consistently inconsistent, either, I hasten to add. But over my life, I see, much as I wish I didn’t, my tendency towards failures of consistency. These failures affect myself, particularly. I’m the one I usually let down. If someone else is depending on me, I'm there, on time, or perhaps even early. If it's for me, though, the winds of willpower drop away and leave me in the doldrums.

Just the other night I had plans to go to an event, a political gathering. I was tired, though. The meeting was scheduled for late afternoon, and that's when my biorhythms are low. (Anyone remember biorhythm theory?)  My point is, I was going to poot out. I was going to stay home, eat almonds, and snoozle on the couch. The husband nudged me to the door, though, and I went. And, yes, the moral, Readers, is that I was very glad I had gone. I needed that nudge, though, to get over my inertia. I did not have a habit of consistency towards myself. 

And so, I had to face my lack of consistency. I fessed up to it on my monthly phone call with my college friend C, and E. 

Now, it’s easier to fess up to a bad habit if you’re not currently engaged in it. So when I told them I realized I had a problem with consistency, particularly around my writing and things that were mostly for me, I spoke from the middle of a pretty decent streak of daily work on the book. But I knew that if I hit a bad patch with book, my consistency would suffer. 

Afterwards, my college friend C sent me a chart called the 66-Day Challenge* and I’ve been using it to keep going. Here's a photo of it: 

This 66 Day Challenge apparently was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld. He gave an interview, which I, too, read. I, too, was struck by the comment he made about his work habits.** That is, he writes every day. No matter what, he writes. The husband pointed out that Jerry Seinfeld doesn't have to write very much. He writes jokes, not novels. One-liners. Not essays. But to the husband, I say, "Pish! Humor writing is hard. Being concise is hard. Concise humor writing? Well, how many Jerry Seinfelds are there?"  Anyway, the husband was joking. This may underscore my point about the paucity of Jerry Seinfelds.  

To help himself stay motivated, Jerry hangs up a giant wall calendar in his office. He puts an X over every day that he writes. He started doing this long ago, and the desire not to break the chain is sometimes what he needs to get to work. “Don’t break the chain,” he says. That's the secret to his consistency. That’s all. 

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher. 

What about a non-foolish consistency? That’s what I’m after. 

I have to clarify my terms here. Consistency as I am using it means reliable, regular, dependable. R.W. Emerson seems to be using it to mean irrational rigidity. 

“I’ve been exercising my whole life—and I hate it,” my father said, not long ago. He is 92. Is that a foolish consistency? No way, José. That’s a rational consistency. I also thought it was probably untrue. Would he really do something he hated voluntarily his whole life long? I doubt it. Perhaps because it’s untrue for me. I like to exercise--usually. My dad is the person I credit with demonstrating this habit. Is that ironic? I think it is. “It’s almost always better to exercise” is one of my slogans, and I enjoy it. Exercise, I mean. Well, and my slogan. I enjoy that, too. 

But I digress. When you combine this X strategy with the theory of habit formation, which says it takes a few weeks to establish a habit, you get a handy PDF that you can send around to your friends who lack consistency, to light a figurative fire under their figurative butts. That is what C did for me. Fair enough. 

Hey, whatever it takes, right? I’m trying it now. You can see I’m not that far along. I am optimistic, however. I am optimistic because along with the X strategy, I am also employing the strategy of setting the bar low for this daily goal. I do not have to write for a certain amount of time. I do not have to write on a particular thing, like my book. I just have to write. Every single day. I find I like to get it out of the way in the morning. Put down some words. Put down an X. I can then put down plenty more words, but I’ve met my goal. 

By the way, experts disagree about how long it takes to establish a habit. Some say it takes about 21 days to form a habit. The guy who created the 66-Day Challenge says the magic number is 66. Habit formation is complicated. So is the term "expert." I don't even know if this 66-Day Challenge guy is an expert on habits. I do know he's written a book and he has a website. Hey, kid, want a piece of candy? Yeah, he could be anyone. But his chart is a-okay.

Anyway, it’s one thing to want to get rid of a bad habit. Extinguish is the behavioral psych term for that. Extinguishing a bad habit takes one kind of strategy. Ingraining a positive habit takes other strategies. One of them is this habit of maintaining the change. In other words, don't break the chain. 

We’re all just little kids inside. We like our charts and stickers. In fact, maybe I will use stickers instead of Xs. Not too long ago, I found an old folder full of stickers I used when I taught elementary school. Behavior modification comes down to reward and punishment. The reward for my habit of consistency is my chain of Xs—and my ballooning files of writing. The punishment for failing to write? I don’t think I could face my broken chain. 

Let us pause and remember that a goal is different from a habit. A habit is something you do automatically. Whether good or bad, it’s programmed into you and you need to deprogram yourself, or program yourself to ingrain a habit. A goal is something you actively pursue. It’s not automatic. But of course habits can help or hinder us in pursuit of our goals. Thus, consistency in writing is a habit I want to develop. You could say it’s a goal to develop this habit. In fact, I am saying that. I have a goal to develop a consistency habit. This is a good goal to have. It’s an achievable goal. It’s even a SMART goal—Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related. 

I'm pleased with my X strategy so far. I don't know that it's a habit, yet. As a strategy for continuing to write, it seems promising. I'm hopeful it will eliminate some of the resistance I feel when I've been away from writing and have to bring myself back to it. We all need strategies for continuing. Life is continuing. Things I am in the middle of I am still in the middle of. The book. The quest for success. The drive to be kind, or at least polite. Systems are going, which, to be honest, is something I appreciate more and more. Every day I wake up, I’m grateful for that consistency. Trite but true, as someone wrote on someone’s yearbook page decades ago. 

* You can download your own 66-Day Challenge chart to light that figurative fire under your friend's figurative butt at


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.