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Monday, March 24, 2014

Target Size, Progress, and Jeggings

Readers, I think I may have bought jeggings.

Before you condemn me for trying to dress like my daughters, let me assure you that I bought them from a store the fifteen year old would never shop in.  In fact, I’m pretty sure her gag reflex would trigger just looking at the window display. So even though they are denim, and have some stretch, and skinny legs, and a wide waistband – read “girdle” waist - I think maybe they wouldn’t actually qualify as jeggings, more as skinny jeans for the, uh, mature woman.

But I’m not entirely sure. I was trying to be a little French, and I may have gone astray. You see, I just read French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, which dispenses many hints on how to be stylish, and I’m in the middle of French Women Don’t Get Fat. In attempting to implement the secrets of those French women I may have been very hungry when I entered the store. Luckily, I have such body dysmorphia I’ll simply pull on this item of sartorial distinction and have no real idea whether I look good or bad. Those who love me will support me. As, indeed, will my jeggings.

Two steps forward, one step back. Still, that’s progress. And in comfortable shoes. That’s right. Since last I wrote, I have managed to focus on my upcoming Italian “vacation” and buy shoes. The shoes are definitely comfortable. And age appropriate. I know this because the fifteen year old wouldn’t even look at, much less try on anything in the shoe store.

Here is more progress. Despite being down in the dumps, I managed to revise my proposal. Hurrah. I’ve sent it off to a couple of trusted readers, and now I await comments.

I happened to pick up a new book on success and happiness at the library called Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor. He is, according to the book jacket, an expert on happiness, a TED talker, and world famous, though I’d never heard of him. He also has a connection to Harvard, which he mentions on almost every page of his book. He went there, he advised students there, something or other. Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. I get it.

I offer that tidbit as proof of his expertise – since so does Shawn Achor, apparently.

Anyhoo. There was an element of serendipity to the timing of my discovery of this book. In it I did come across a section that seems applicable to my current state of feeling failed. To wit, amidst the exhortations to be positive and to combat anxiety with counter-waves of positive statements and so forth, Achor talks about increasing your likelihood of success at something by increasing the size of the target at which you are aiming. The bigger the target, the easier it is to reach it.

However, if you can’t actually make your target bigger, what can you do to make it seem bigger? Achor refers to a famous experiment with golf holes that proved that golfers performed better when the hole they were putting for was surrounded by several holes smaller than it. The smaller holes made the real one seem bigger. I’ve written about this before.

I really started paying attention when Achor started talking about a related study involving the SATs. This study has shown that the fewer people in the room, the higher their SAT scores were. My first thought on reading this was, Oh, great. My child goes to an industrial strength public high school. Just the other week she took a national French exam and she said the room was so crowed her desk was jammed up against the wall. How’m I going to find her a small room to take that SAT next year?

Bridges to cross, bridges to cross.

The idea behind this SAT phenomenon, according to Shawn Achor, is that when students take the exam surrounded by billions of their competitors, they feel discouraged by the number of them, and their scores reflect that. If they have fewer obvious competitors, they are fooled into feeling less outnumbered, and that confidence helps them perform better. It's like smaller versus bigger golf holes.

How does this apply to my life, and not just to the life I’m living through my children? Thankfully, I do not have to take the SAT myself. Perish the thought.

Well, it does relate. It relates to my down-in-the-dumps-ness. I am feeling like the target for my proposal is very small. There are so many writers out there, so many proposals, that mine seems like a minnow in the ocean. A minnow looking for an agent. This sort of thinking is discouraging. It’s almost enough to make one give up and look for a real job where one could accrue a paycheck and thereby some self-respect.

But I didn’t give up, did I, Readers? No. I revised my proposal. So what I need to do is find a way to make that target look bigger. I’m not really sure what that way is. If you have any ideas, let me know.
Or if you have a good idea for a job, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Fifty. Readers, this number has rung up on the cash register of my life. In ten days I’ll be 50. In celebration of this event, our family is planning a vacation to Italy. It’s our first vacation, just the four of us, ever. It’s the first time I’ve been to Europe since 1988. I am scared. Yes, I am scared. In fact, the trip, while being a great idea, in theory, has totally stressed me out. I can barely bring myself to read the guide books. I can’t bring myself to shop for things I need like comfortable shoes.

Is it the trip? Or turning 50? Or both?

50 is of course a highly symbolic birthday. On the other hand, as others remind me, it’s just a day. It’s not as if I’m going to change radically on that day. In fact, in anticipation of it, I’m having my breakdown ahead of time. I already feel fifty, if fifty has a feeling, in that I think of myself as fifty already. Then I realize I’m cheating myself out of the last dregs of forty-nine. My forties. As if they were so great. They started out well, but oy, the muffin top. Among other problems. 

On the plus side, in my overeagerness I got that right-of-passage colonoscopy out of the way. As many told me, the worst part was the anticipation and the prep for the procedure. That didn't stop me from practically hyperventilating until they put the nice medicine in my arm and I went into zombieland. Afterwards, I felt great, and I left with photos of my healthy colon and proceeded to tell several people that all was well and then to tell them again the next day, not remembering that I'd already told them. This had nothing to do with age, and everything to do with that nice medicine.

So what about fifty is so scary? Well, it reeks of mortality. It seems like a big doorway to another phase of life – real, incontrovertible adulthood. Fifty is the place where things can start to go wrong physically and be terminal. At least that’s how my brain is playing it. I realize that’s kind of silly. Things can go wrong at any time. Indeed, in my own life, things went wrong once at 29. I survived. But I have the sense that things don’t usually really go terribly wrong, physically, until the fifties. It’s no longer easy for me to magically think, Oh, that won’t happen to me, when I hear of some illness or tragedy befalling someone else. I personally have always managed to have a sense that I’m going to be fine until I grow very, very old; at which time I will drop off peacefully in my sleep one night. This may surprise some of you who know what a hypochondriac I am; but these two strains, the hypochondria and the inner conviction of being protected from early death, have kept me in balance for quite a while.

The balance is skewed right now. Fifty is pushing the fact in my face that there is a lot of randomness to life and that is frankly scaring me. I suppose that’s just me having the typical midlife crisis. Indeed, as I think about it, I see it. Fifty arrives, and fear of death comes to the fore. Along with that, comes the reappraisal of one’s life. Inevitable regrets.

I feel kinda bad writing glumly about reappraising my life. After all, for quite a long time now, I’ve been all about success, success, success. I have to admit that at this moment, the success feels buried by these other worries. Also, I have been struggling with a book proposal, and as the husband astutely pointed out, the struggle has undermined my sense of achievement over the last umpteen months. It's hard to write about overcoming a sense of failure when once again I'm feeling like one. So the cycle continues. I’ve mentioned it before. System breakdown being part of the system. There are periods of frustration and fallowness even for the most productive, positive, go-getting types – so I’ve heard.

I’m continuing to write the proposal, albeit at a painfully slow pace, and I’m trusting the cycle will turn again, from frustration, from winter, to new creativity, to spring.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Am I Not Danish?

It’s not that I long to talk about TV shows, but this one has been so interesting that I can’t resist. I’m
Maybe on a good day.....
speaking of a Danish drama called “Borgen,” which is about the Prime Minister (PM) of Denmark, who happens to be a woman. We watched the last episode of the second season of Borgen yesterday and I dreamed about the PM, Birgitte Nyborg, off and on all night.

Spoiler alert! But, as my Shakespeare professor once said, if you’re upset to discover that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, you’ve lost the point of literature. Okay, maybe I’ve lost the point of it, by now, eons later, Professor Finkelpearl long retired; but his message was that knowing the ending of the story doesn’t lessen its impact, it makes the story richer. So, I am performing due diligence in warning you of spoilers; but I’m telling you, Readers, a spoiler doesn’t matter in this case.

This season found Birgitte pinioned by the demands of her job and her desire to be available to her children. One of her children had an acute mental health crisis, and following the shrink’s injunction that her recovery would require big changes in the family, the PM decided she had to take a leave from work. Naturally, this made big news. Other (male) politicians, of course, took advantage of her absence to build themselves up while running her down. Predictably, they turned her gender into an issue. Questions about her mothering, and whether a mother could handle the job of PM dominated the press. She was a bad mother, because her daughter was struggling; and she was a bad politician, because she was distracted by her child. Eventually, even though she wasn’t quite ready to return to work, she did return, because her advisors suggested the situation was getting out of hand, and policy implementation was foundering in a perceived power vacuum.

The PM’s instinct was to ignore the press. She refused to respond to the insinuations that her gender affected her ability to lead. She told her aides that responding was beneath her. She was happy to talk politics, she said, not gender. It would have been easy to get on the TV and angrily ask if journalists would be asking these questions of a man. And of course it would have been easy to say that a man would probably not take a leave to be there for a child - because men assume the women will do it. Women have to shoulder more roles. That doesn’t mean they do inferior work, by any means. But Birgitte didn’t go that route.

The PM had been struggling all season as a single mom, by the way. After her first year in office, her husband Philip left, feeling frustrated, neglected, and probably emasculated when she took on the demanding job of PM.


Finally, in the last episode, she told him off – thank goodness – and said he’d given up too fast and hadn’t been understanding enough of the demands of her new job and how long it would take to adjust to them. When a former male PM got on the news and talked about how hard it had been on his wife, how neglected she had felt, and how inevitable that neglect had been when he was PM, it seemed to strike a new chord with Philip. While he didn’t say so, one can hope the realization had begun to penetrate that he’d been an ass. I believe that’s the technical term. He’d applied a double standard to Birgitte. I thought it was a nice touch to show Philip getting driven around by his new girlfriend, a busy pediatrician, another strong woman; the suggestion being that he was entirely too passive about his life choices and didn’t know how to fight. Also, that he both enjoyed and was immobilized by the powerful women in his life.

When the PM returned, she gave a short speech to the legislature. It was marvelous. She pointed out that the first four women in Danish politics were elected in 1918, therefore, the debate about gender was about a hundred years too late. That ship has sailed, she said, in different words. Danish words. Her point was, here I am, I am PM, and I am doing what I have to do, so shut up about my gender and get back to work. It was great.

This was all entirely diverting and engrossing, and there was added pleasure, too, that the husband said the actress who plays the PM looks like me. But it was an uncomfortable feeling, too, when I consider how mired and stuck I sometimes feel in my own life, and how unfledged I am professionally, and when I see how much she does in her life. In fact all the women in the show are professionals, and it makes me feel like I haven’t done enough.

There’s been a whispered, provocative question circulating among feminists and sociologists that it’s awfully interesting that our society discovered, just at the time when women were getting into the professions seriously and moving out of the home, that mothering is a fulltime job requiring 100% attendance at home to provide a solid base for the children. Mom can go back to work, the suggestion is, but her kids may turn out sociopaths. So go ahead and take away some deserving man’s job, but watch what you reap.

The implication, I suppose, is that my generation grew up to be a bunch of miserable degenerates (slackers, anyone?), because a lot of us had parents who worked - and who, by the way, practiced a more hands-off style of parenting. Therefore, we try to give our children what we think we missed.

Yet now there’s a move away from “helicopter parenting” and a yearning for the freedom kids experienced in the latchkey kid days. Or was it the fifties and sixties when kids were outside all day long, roaming freely, while their moms were home suffering from the problem with no name? It’s all so confusing. What’s a feminist mother to do?

I can’t help wondering if I’ve been hooked by some line cast by the feminist backlash. Because I surely felt my attendance at home was preferred. I felt that my kids needed me home, at least when they were little. However, now that they are older, and feminism has moved back into the mainstream, I want to earn money and show them a “productive” role model. Unfortunately, now it’s much harder to build a meaningful career because I’m, well, older. So I flop around on the deck, regretting my choice.

After all, I am not a degenerate, even though my parents worked. My stepmother stayed home with my sister for a while, but the honest truth is that I was happier when she wasn’t there. We had a housekeeper, so I was not a latchkey kid, though several of my friends were – and it was fun to go to their houses after school. But I did manage to grow up and attend college and graduate school and get married, have children, and become the neurotic, anxiety-riven overthinker that I am today, without winning a lot of ribbons for participation in soccer, without Mom being There for me. On the other hand, the minute my first child was born, I was all in. I wanted to be there for all of it. I don’t regret that.

Ah, the pendulum. Back and forth, back and forth. We are all getting sleepy. I relate to Birgitte Nyborg in this: the push-pull conflict over women’s roles needs to end. Cease the discussion about qualifications. We need to move to a new understanding of women’s needs, of children’s needs, and of men’s needs, too. The line between working at paid work and caring for family needs porosity. It’s still too rigid. A mom who needs or wants paying work, needs places to go. Let’s talk about that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Calvin and Tiger Mom and Me

8:45 a.m. I’ve had my last meal for the next 30 hours. From here on out, it’s a liquid diet. I’m going for my first colonoscopy, Readers. I’d like to tell you that I am approaching this milestone with sang-froid, with insouciance, or even with stoicism; but alas, I am approaching it with my usual mix of abject anxiety and fear. It’s at these times – these times of abject anxiety and fear, which are really the same thing, aren’t they?- that I confront the chasm between the real me and the me I’d like to be. The me I’d like to be is a Katie Couric let’s-watch-my-first-colonoscopy-together-on-TV type. Instead I’m the type who dreads, fears, has insomnia, and wishes to be knocked out today and woken up when it’s over. 

I’ve heard that courage is perseverance in the midst of fear, so I guess I can pat myself on the back and call myself brave, even if I’m not going to watch the proceedings, let alone have millions of TV viewers watch along with me.

How did it all come to this? Age, of course. I’m approaching a certain age. Gracelessly, I might add. Although I suppose I don’t really need to say it. It’s obvious.

However, the other reason it has come to this is that in trying to be Big about Stuff, I have implemented two strategies I’ve learned in my success inquiry. The first is being proactive, as Stephen Covey stipulates. I figured it would take weeks and weeks to schedule this procedure, so I called ahead. I was being mature. I was also, it appears, using another technique: harnessing procrastination. The idea to be proactive about this procedure came to me while I was NOT working on my writing. So, delaying writing, I took care of other business, like calling to schedule my colonoscopy, thus harnessing procrastination in service of other goals.

And it turned out that the wait was not very long at all. In fact, it was really rather short. And so. Tomorrow I go. Full of awareness that I am somewhere inbetween the person I’d like to be and the worst version of myself.

The joke’s on me.

Speaking of being caught in between - I’ve been mulling the cognitive dissonance created in me by the serendipitious conjunction of two articles that came to my attention about the same time, a few weeks ago. One was an opinion piece by Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and her husband Jed shilling their new book about what makes cultural groups successful in the United States. I’m not going to go into detail, nor am I going to link to the article, because I object to Chua’s approach to publicity for her books. Namely, she writes something incendiary, sure to cause controversy and create sales, and then on interviews complains that she is being misconstrued. So the latest controversy is that the title of this book of hers is The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. The subtitle is the source of the controversy. She and Jed are getting accused of racism and stereotyping. Meanwhile, in interviews, she claims that these traits are not inherent to these successful groups – they are traits that can be taught to children, so they can grow up to be successful. Yet they titled their book, “rise and fall of cultural groups.”

Anyway, Tigermom and her hubby claim the three characteristics that all these groups share that drive their success are, 1) impulse control, 2) a sense of (group) superiority, and 3) deep insecurity. 

Well, there's oodles to say about this, but I really want to point out that the implicit definition of success from which Amy Chua and her hubby Jed are working is that traditional idea of rising up a ladder, achieving elite status and money, and competing for scarce resources “at the top.”

In short, it’s a familiar definition for a lot of people, including me. It’s also the definition of success that has made me feel most like a failure. I resist it, even as I am entangled in it.

The other article came to me via social media, just after reading the Chua op ed. A beautiful comic by Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, the best comic ever, that came to my attention. This comic. Well, I’m just going to copy out the text for you, because it is so great. Here it is:

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life…A person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to purse other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential. As if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out…and I guarantee you’ll hear about them. To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy….But it’s still allowed….And I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. – Bill Watterson.

That, upon the tail of the Chua article, summed up my whole success/failure dilemma. I mean, the definition of success Chua and her husband work from is pretty much the opposite of what Bill Watterson is talking about. Unless, of course, you’re Bill Watterson and write a fantastic comic strip that takes off and runs for years and you earn big bucks from it and then can afford to turn down licensing deals for your characters and so on. But, seriously, Amy Chua and her husband are describing how certain traits can make one prominent in a traditional profession or field - and rich.

Is that the best definition of success? It’s a definition of success, for sure. It’s the definition that many of us most understand. But it’s the definition that continues that “culture that promotes avarice and excess as the good life.”

My dilemma has been, I see now, that I’m caught between Amy Chua’s implicit definition of success and Bill Watterson’s.  I want to be the artist/writer/mom, but I feel I ought to have been the other kind of success, and I want the trappings of it.

What both these pieces made me think about is whether, if my life ended tomorrow, I could call myself a success. Can I accept my smallness? Can I take pride in my under-the-radar accomplishments? The moments when I kept my cool when confronted with a challenge from a child and found a good enough thing to say to get us all through it? Not the greatest thing. Not an amazing or profound thing. Just a good enough thing. Can I be satisfied with a solid marriage, with well-grounded daughters, with work that’s meaningful only to me and to a small circle of friends?

If this is all I ever am, can that be enough?

Friday, February 7, 2014

On Not Sending the New Year's Card and other Failures

I missed my weekly post last week. Sorry. There was the middle school musical. It was tech week and then there were four performances. This wouldn’t have been so much to do if I weren’t on the Make-Up Committee, but I was on the Make-Up Committee. And there was a lot of make up to apply for the show, Seussical, Jr. For a 7 pm start time, we had to arrive at 4:15. With a cast of 65, there were a lot of faces. I painted giraffes, leopards, wolfish things (including the 6th grader), as well as eyeshadows on Circus McGircus players, and forehead swirls on Whos.

It was fun, Readers, okay? I got into this situation because a couple of years ago I did the make-up for the 11 year old and her friend when they went trick or treating as Goth girls, and apparently my skill in that endeavor reached certain channels leading to the middle school musical make-up committee. Okay, truth: At the informational meeting that followed auditions, all parents were instructed to volunteer for one committee or another, and as we swarmed around a table filled with clipboards, my friend, whose child was a Goth girl with mine that Halloween said, “You should do make-up, cuz you did that Goth make-up so well.”

I am sorry to say I failed to take away a single photo of my work. I was so busy. So you’ll have to take my word for it. It was spectacular.

I did take away a cold, however. When a large portion of 65 children breathe in your face, it’s the thing you do. I’m not complaining. It could’ve been a stomach bug. I gave them nothing as long-lasting. As one of the other make-up committee members and I confided to one another, we made sure to eat a mint before working, and to apply more make-up than usual (which is usually zero in my case) to ourselves, so that we would project competence to the middle schoolers who presented their faces to us.

So. That was last week. Now another week has gone by and I am sorry to say I am avoiding writing. I’m avoiding the blog. I’m avoiding the shitty first draft. I’m avoiding the labels for our New Year’s card. The card that is waiting patiently in a nice stack of identical siblings to get enveloped and stamped and sent to sixty lucky recipients. Sixty. Not even enough to cover everyone on our mailing list. How did that happen? Vague memories of having lots of extras the last time we sent out a holiday card (it’s been a few years) in tandem with no memory of how many of that year’s cards we ordered. So we estimated. Underestimated in this case. I’m actually pleased to know we had more people on our list of friends and family than we thought. Chuffed. I’m chuffed. Though not chuffed enough to go to Staples, buy the blank labels, print them at home and slap ‘em on the envelopes.

And now we have one more piece of evidence why I’m not a household name. I can’t even get myself to get my name into the households of people who actually know and care about me. Purportedly. I don’t want to assume too much. For instance, to assume that people on the list would enjoy receiving a New Year’s card from me. From us, I should say. From the family. With a line or two of personalization across the back. That would be presumptuous.

It’s a really cute card, though. The husband and I are absent from it, leaving only the younger members of the family – the girls and the dog – which ups the attractiveness of the card, although perhaps lowers the total interest receivers might take in it, as it eliminates the chance to examine how life has aged us. This wasn’t intentional, this omission. I would’ve opted for a photo of all of us; but if we’d waiting any longer to get a good one, then we wouldn’t have ordered the cards, which have been sitting on the dining room table, ready to roll, for three weeks. 

With all this baggage surrounding a holiday card, it’s not marvelous that I hesitate to impose myself on people who don’t know or care about me, an endeavor that would help make me a household name.

If I were a household name, I would have an assistant who could go to Staples and send out these cards.

Oh, look, Readers! I managed to write something! Next time I’ll write something more meaty. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hard Work and Other Things

I've been peaky this week, Readers. Caught a little bug during a three day trip to NYC and have been just the slightest bit off since. But I'm on the upswing. So. Highlights of the week since last I wrote: 

Well, last I wrote was from NYC, actually. I finished up and posted from the mother-in-law's apartment. It was a rainy snowy day. I was in the city because it's audition season for ballet summer programs, and my ballet dancer had three auditions lined up. I accompanied her and waited around. This was actually fine with me. Each was at Lincoln Center, so there was plenty of coffee to drink and shops to look in. I squeezed into a pair of jeans a size smaller than I expected to, so naturally I bought them. And I had a lovely drink and appetizer at the bar of PJ Clarke's one evening with another mom whose daughter dreams of a professional dance career. That part was nice. 

However, to each audition I brought a nervous daughter and picked up a disappointed one. It's really hard to witness the ups and downs. These girls are so hard on themselves it's almost impossible to understand the appeal of this passion. Where is the payoff for all the hard work they do, if they are always disappointed? I shouldn't say always. Usually. Mostly. And the road to a company is so hard, too. And there are so many young ballerinas hoping to dance professionally, all working towards so few spots. They're like, they're like sperm, programmed to give their all, even though only one lucky one will make it.

As a parent, is this what I want for my child?

Don't answer that. (She says to herself.)

Let me focus for a moment on the positives. Number one, the child has a passion that gives shape to her world. People with passions are lucky. Number two, she is accustomed to disciplined, hard work, repetition, practice, and incremental progress. These habits are transferrable.

Yes, they are transferrable. (She says to herself, under her breath, not suggesting that they would ever need to transfer.)

The 15 year old's belief in the transformative power of hard work is unshakable. Hers is the epitome of the growth mindset. If youve been reading this blog, you know about Carol Dweck and the growth mindset and how its key to sustained success. This is good, right? Hard work does accomplish a lot. Unbelievable things, even, sometimes.

But this belief has a downside, because it creates an unrealistic sense of control over outcome. It means she thinks that if she finds the right teacher at the right ballet school and works as hard as she can, she will succeed; whereas, those are incomplete determinants of success. We know that success depends on factors outside our control. Genetic factors like inherent talent or flexibility or musicality or body proportions, to speak specifically of dancers, for example. It also depends on circumstances. On luck. On being the one the program is looking for.

So I can't help worrying what will happen when she realizes that hard work won't take her all the way. It'll get her close. If hard work were all it took, she'd succeed - no question. But those other factors. That random chance thing. Smack into that at the wrong time and you wind up with an existential crisis.

So there's that to worry about.

Along with her dancer's feet. Have you ever looked at a dancers feet? They are not lovely, Readers.

In addition to the audition tour with the 10th grader, here are some other things Ive been doing this week:

  • A drawing a day. Well, not exactly every day. A drawing a day was and is the goal, though. A friend suggested it. We share the pictures on Flickr. The 11 year old is drawing, too. So it's also a mom-daughter project.

  • Three book clubs. I know. Don't say it. Three is a lot. Especially since I have a knee-jerk reaction against being told what to read. In my defense, I will say that one of these book clubs is a mother-daughter book club in which we read YA books and always have homemade baked goods; another is really a monthly dinner with old friends during which we pick a book to discuss the next month because were all interested in a lot of the same books - which is one of the reasons we are friends. That leaves one more official book club where I'm getting to know the people, as opposed to already being friends with all of them, and since were not a community of leaning over the fence chatting, the book club is the official, sanctioned way for women to get together.

  • My shitty first draft.

  • Meditation. Sort of.

  • Yoga in the mornings. Sometimes just the barest of sun salutations.

  • Kegel exercises. If you don't know what those are, you can look it up. You should be doing them, too (if you are a woman).

  • Plucking chin hairs before they grow long enough to curl around themselves.

  • Therapy Dog visiting at the middle school.

  • Belonging to the Make-up Committee for the middle school musical (Seussical, Jr), which means face painting a cast of 75 students, one of whom is the 11 year old. She is a jungle animal.  

  • Wondering if the pain in my side is cancer or gas. Wondering if the intermittent pain in my eye is cancer or fatigue. Wondering if my fatigue is just fatigue, or cancer.

So thats an update on whats been occupying my time and my mind - a lot of different stuff, which always feels like too much and not enough simultaneously. Periods like these feel like muddle, and muddle seems like inefficiency, although sometimes it's fertilizer for creative growth. One can always hope.

Update: This just in. One of the NYC auditions panned out and the dancer has been accepted for the summer. The dream continues uncrushed for now.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Priorities, Mortality, and Success

There I was in NIA class standing directly behind the instructor. I could just see my hands behind hers in the mirror and I had couple thoughts. One was that one reason I like to stand front and center is that I can see the teacher well; but another reason is that when I stand behind her, I can’t see myself in the mirror. This is a plus. It helps to keep the fantasy of youth and flexibility flowing. But anyway. The other thought I had, with our hands up in the air, was, We’re going to die. I wasn’t talking about the strenuousness of the workout. I was talking about us humans, kicking our feet in time to the music, here now, eventually to vanish, uh, die. This obtrusive thought reminded me of John Hodgeman’s Shouts and Murmurs column in the New Yorker last week. It was about watching “Downton Abbey” with his children and remembering being a child and watching “Upstairs Downstairs” with his parents. This parallel causes him to be overcome by recognition of his own mortality. It’s hilarious and pitiful in a way that I relate to. Indeed, I wished I were John Hodgeman and had written that piece and published it in the New Yorker. 

Anyway, yes, I did think, We’re dying. Right before that I’d been remembering a recent conversation I had with the instructor about whether our kids were in the right schools for them. Then I got thinking about all that motherly concern going out into the world. The NIA class was full of women, many, if not all of them mothers, all of us with our jazz hands raised and all that concern going out for the children and for what? We’re going to die. We’re raising them, and they’re going to die. And at some point we need to admit to them that we’re going to die, and dot dot dot.

Which was maybe heavy for 8:30 in the morning during a dance movement class, but that’s who I am.

Later on, eating my second breakfast, my seven ingredient mix of cereals and nuts and cinnamon and whatnot, I thought about a mom who told me a few years ago that she found it refreshing to talk to me about parenting because I wasn’t afraid to talk about how annoying my kids could be. This may have been after I admitted to fantasizing about flicking one of them in the back of the head after she’d said something particularly egregious to me. Flick, flick. And I remember thinking, Really? Is it odd for women to admit to negative or ambivalent feelings about their children or about being mothers? Really? Because I am awash in ambivalence about everyone I love. Love is a vast emotion. Sometimes it works at the macro and micro levels, and sometimes it works at the macro level, so universal you don’t know you feel it, while other temporarily more salient emotions work at the micro level, in Technicolor. Flick, flick.

Speaking of emotions – all these thoughts about difficult emotions reminded me of an interesting moment in a conversation I had during the monthly conference call I have with two women, one of whom I know well, one of whom I’ve never met in person – yet. Two of the three of us – I’ll let you guess whether I was one of them, Readers – said that work allowed them relief from difficult emotions.

This led to a discussion of life priorities. I realized that for me, work has always been something I arranged around my relationships. In truth, in recent years, there have been times when the idea of a regular office job appealed as a possible haven. However, for the vast swath of my life, my intention was always to manage my work life so that I was available to everyone. My goal was to pay my bills and have my health benefits, but to be available to whoever was important in my life. Friends. Boyfriends. Children. I admit this reflected a lot of insecurity: I was afraid that people wouldn’t wait around for me, so I made myself available to them. I had spent much of my life trying to cobble together from friends a family for myself. Naturally this has led me to take on part time work, as well as work that is not as challenging as it could be. All I wanted was to build that support network and those close connections to people that I had lacked as a child.

During our call, I also told them about the bus ride to sleepaway camp. When I was a kid, that ride was practically the best thing about camp.  The drive took six hours. There I’d be, on the bus with my best camp friends. We were all together. No one was going anywhere. No one had to do anything else but simply be together. It was bliss.

You know how you think that whatever you think about something other people probably think about the same as you? Well my two conference callmates were astonished by my statement. Their reactions made me feel a little weird. But it also explained a lot. For example, why they are the figureheads of two long and successful careers, while I have hunkered down with my family and friends. Come to think of it, I also hunker down with all those scary thoughts and emotions. (We are dying. John Hodgeman is dying.) Indeed, I work with them. I make them into writing, fiction, blogs, incredibly boring and histrionic journal entries meant for no one but me.

Anyway, that conversation illuminated one of the reasons I may have struggled professionally, why I may feel like a professional failure. It also put my situation – my path – in a different perspective. From the outside, perhaps it looks as if I piddled away my twenties and meandered through my thirties. I have no major career accomplishments to brandish at you in refutation, should you challenge me on that. I have, however, managed to create that supportive family, finally.

And all us are one day going to die.