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Thursday, August 25, 2016

#TBT Annals of Successful Parenting: Socks

Readers, as I prepare to pack up the car and the 17-year-old and unpack her into her first college dorm room, this post feels appropriate. It's about how much parenting changed me, and how little prepared I was for the ways it would change me. I feel the same way about this milestone. I know it will change me, but I am fairly sure I'm not actually in command of exactly how.

I have published this before, but you'll excuse me this week for retreading this beginning.

Finding the Sock

I was in labor with my first child. Contractions, fear, anxiety, and excitement rippled through me. The husband had my suitcase. The bed was made. Our one-bedroom-with-a-den apartment was tidied. I was all ready to go.

Then I saw a sock on the floor. It seemed, in my contracting and anxiety-ridden state, too hard to bend over and pick it up--and I am proud to say it also seemed too niggling a detail about which to bother the husband.

I'll get that when we get home, I thought.

And I went and had the baby. Which, as you can imagine, based what you know of me, was a totally trauma-free experience from which I got out of bed and danced a tarantella within twenty-four hours.

Not so much. But I digress. This is about a sock, not a baby.

Six months later, when I could finally bend again, I picked up a pile of dirty towels and soggy breast pads and discovered, pushed into a corner of the bedroom, that dust-bunny covered sock.


I used to tell that sock story as an analogy for the chaos that having a baby creates in a life. You know, so that something as easy as picking up a sock and putting it in the laundry hamper just gets swept away in those early months. I had the naive idea that I'd actually notice that sock once I had a bobble-headed barracuda gnawing on my boobs day and night, a c-section to heal, and amazing and engulfing surges of thirst and hunger.

Now that I'm older, and I've used up that story--all my friends that are going to have babies have had them-- I've discovered another use for the sock. Another analogy.

Because the thing about having babies is that nothing is quite as overwhelming as that first one. You can learn from the first one, and apply what you've learned to the second one.

Life, though, you can't learn from in the same way. Sure, you can learn from it; but usually it's a matter of realizing stuff and then not really having any way to apply it to yourself. So you want to tell other people about it--so they can apply it to their lives, and thank you for your wisdom.

My point, my dozens of readers, is that it's not just babies that cause you to lose the sock. It's parenthood. Parenthood does it to a lot of people. To women, especially. It's a long-term radical change that sweeps you away from who you were before babies.

I'm thinking of Eric Fromm and his theory of love. That when you fall in love, you cathect with the person you love. It's an all-engrossing feeling of being totally bound up with this other person. And really, it can't be a permanent condition, because the sense of self dissolves. Which isn't that healthy for a prolonged period.  Although it's gratifying for awhile.

Parenthood creates a cathexis of sorts between the mother and her offspring. Eventually, once they can wipe their tushies and brush their hair, the boundaries start to resolidify. At least for the children. That's what growing up is about, after all. Becoming yourself.

Which leaves a lot of moms like me feeling undefined and confused. Women tell me they're not sure who they are, that they're not sure what they've accomplished. These are educated women. Women with advanced degrees and theories of child-rearing. Women devote prime years to motherhood, forgo capital-P professions, and then find (for too many reasons to enumerate here) that they don't feel on firm footing with themselves without a professional frame on which to hang their identities. They don't feel successful, because how does success apply to raising 'tweens? How can they feel successful when we measure success by end-product and parenting is a process?

And we start cleaning up a bit, taking inventory, considering values, writing blogs.

And we find, pushed back in a corner somewhere, maybe caught in the rungs of the old Dutalier glider, covered in dust bunnies, a sock.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Being Okay In the Moment

I have Olympics fatigue. If I see one more car commercial, I’m going to scream. And where is the footage of the Decathlon and Heptathlon? And why do women get “hept” and men get “dec” athlons? And why do beach volleyball playing women wear wedgie-bikinis?

I’m also thinking ‘bout Aly Raisman. Gymnast extraordinaire. The one right up there with Simone Biles, just under her on the podium, usually sporting silver to Simone Biles’s gold medal. Thinking about her parents. Have you all seen the footage of them watching her compete? It’s hilarious. It’s also so painfully relatable. Sports being a metaphor for life and all, that is parenting in the proverbial nutshell: You want to be there for every moment with your child, to support her, to root for her, to encourage her to go out there and take risks, but you suffer. Her parents looked like they were ill from strain. They were twisting around on their seats, especially Mama Raisman (actually Faber), who was weaving and wringing herself like a white flag of surrender hung out in a storm, battered by the wind, pelted by the rain, shredded and weathered by the seasons, but hanging. I totally related.

Well, what did you expect, Readers? I’m at a moment - that’s Moment with a capital-M. My elder will be leaving for college in nine days. It feels like the end of something. Even though I know we will see her again, it feels like a change. I remember when I left for college. I didn’t think it was really going to change things, but after the first summer, I never went home permanently. So I am having this Moment. 

Another thing Aly Raisman has me thinking about is mudita, a Buddhist term interpreted as wishing well for others. Rejoicing in others’ good fortune. I think Aly Raisman has exhibited mudita towards Simone Biles, who is the only one on the US gymnastics team who performed better than her. Sure, maybe it’s easy for Aly Raisman to feel - or, let me be clear, appear to feel - happy about the little Tide Pod’s extraordinary accomplishments because her own have been quite amazing, too. 

But I could see things turning dark for Aly Raisman. After all, this is her second or third Olympics, and she is in her prime, and here comes this first time Olympian with her unbeatable degrees of difficulty in her routines and her plethora of lucrative product endorsements (Tide, for example). Aly could go dark. She could go all, “Why me?” She could get all in her own face for not being just that tenth or two of a point better. She could wallow and wail about all her effort and being thwarted in her “quest for gold,” as I can just hear that suit-wearing Bob Costas saying. 

But she does not appear to be at all frustrated. She appears supportive and encouraging and - dare I say it - proud of her teammate. She seems not to take losing personally, as indicative of something she lacks, but rather to see Simone Biles’s success as reflecting on Simone and not on her. She doesn’t seem to be zero-sum about things, even though there is a zero-sum quality to a competition. The gymnast seems to feel comfortable with herself. 

Earlier today I was talking to a friend who said, “I’m thinking about being okay in the moment and okay with what I’ve done.”  Good idea. 

When you can do that, you can have mudita for your teammates. When you can do that, you can say you have done the best you could for your soon-to-be 18-year-old-college-first-year child. When you are happy with who you are and what you’ve done in the moment, you have succeeded. 

So my Moment requires preparing for change. Change is constant, as they say, and yet I've always approached change like a maniac holding onto a slender tree trunk caught in a flash flood. That is, I try to avoid it. Well, that's where I am. I'm experiencing that and trying to be okay with it. Being present is one of the elements of my scaffolding of success, and right now, that's my focus. I'm feeling a bit like Mama Raisman (actually Faber) looks while her daughter performs. So be it. I'm hanging in there. It's what's required of me right now. I'm kind of okay in a difficult moment, and when I look at my daughter, of whom I'm so very proud, I'm okay with what I've done.  

And yes, I would like a gold medal. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Hi Readers, 

In my quest to bring you the latest on success, I have discovered one of the older writers on the topic. Such is life. Everything old is new again, or something. Anyway, allow me to introduce you to Baltasar Gracián, a Spanish Jesuit who lived from 1601-1658. He wrote a book called, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Well, it was called Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia in Spanish, and was written in 1647, and when it was first translated into English it was called The Courtier’s Manual: Oracle and the Art of Prudence

I agree, that latter title doesn’t exactly call out, “Hey, I’m a book about success!” Good thing somebody re-translated the book and renamed it something pithier. Because it is pithy. It’s full of aphorisms. Over three hundred of them. I have yet to read the actual book (full admission of lameness), but now that I’ve heard of it, I’m going to. After all, a book that influenced Nietzsche and La Rochefoucauld is just the thing in these crazy times. 

So, no, I haven’t read the actual book, but I have read a précis of it, and I’ve looked up a bunch of the maxims. I’m taken by these two bits of advice today. Maybe the attraction stems from how they do not pertain to certain yellow haired politicians. Who can say? All I know is, these appeal to me. 

Maxim No.7 - “Become a person of substance” because “Only the truth can give you a true reputation, and only substance is profitable.”  

Substance consists of prudence, wisdom, goodness, self-control, and self-knowledge. Do you know anyone with these qualities? Certainly not the yellow-haired politician.

Maxim No. 34 - Know your strongest Point — your pre-eminent gift; cultivate that and you will assist the rest. Every one would have excelled in something if he had known his strong point. Notice in what quality you surpass, and take charge of that. In some judgment excels, in others valour. Most do violence to their natural aptitude, and thus attain superiority in nothing. Time disillusions us too late of what first flattered the passions.

In other words, know your strength and run with it. This is easier said than done, it seems to me. And, apparently, Padre Gracián thought it was tough, too, judging from this sentence, “Most do violence to their natural aptitude, and thus attain superiority in nothing.” Ouch! But if you are lucky enough to know it, then - yay for you! You are on your way to success. 

Apparently, although he was a priest, his strongest point was distilling the wisdom of successful people and turning it into maxims for the strivers. His focus on being a good person, a thoughtful person, and a person of principle, influenced one of my fave’s, Stephen Covey. 

Who can say if Gracián's Maxim 34 has influenced the yellow-haired politician? He seems to have pinpointed his strongest point, self-promotion, and used it pretty successfully. Scary as that is to say. He forgot about Maxim 7, though. But we must not.

So how to discover your pre-eminent gift? 
Beats me.

No - I’m not really serious. Try this. Think about who you were at age 11. Age 11 is a great age. As the 17-year-old pointed out, Age 11 is the age of most heroines in YA novels. Age 11 is a great apogee of self. I am pretty sure I didn’t think of that myself. I am pretty sure psychologists have written about this magic age. Especially for girls, age 11 represents the flowering of childhood individuality before the pressures of adolescence descend to squelch it. 

When I think of myself at 11, before the vicissitudes of puberty hit, I had a pretty good sense of myself. I was  a writer and a dancer and an artist. Writing eventually emerged dominant, but it took some time to re-emerge. So if your gift is apparent, burnish it! And if it is not, ask someone close to you what they think it is, and do everything in your power to find it. We need it! 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Gone Fishin' - Why Success Matters

Here's a brief dispatch from the beach, where I try to avoid serious thinking in favor of allowing the waves to mesmerize me.

Just to emphasize the paradox of the random symmetry of life I must mention that the garage door broke just before we left, almost exactly three years after we arrived at the beach and received an email from our neighbor asking if we meant to leave the garage door open. We had not. It was broken then, and it is broken now. This time we left it closed and un-openable.

But that's nothing to do with success. Being at the beach can make a person wonder if success even matters. Being at the beach in a beach rental property that is also for sale for just over two million dollars can make a person wonder if there's any point in defining success in any other way than as having lots of money and power.

So I'm just going to leave you with this little bit of wisdom: success matters, and success is not about the ability to buy a beach house.

Here's the thing. I think the drive for success is built into us. It's intertwined with the desire for meaning. Sure, people put a lot of emphasis on happiness, and happiness is definitely desirable. Howevs, the positive psychologists who study this stuff have figured out that happiness is a byproduct of being in the state of flow. And the state of flow, as I've discussed in other posts, is a condition of being totally absorbed in an activity. Now this activity is not just any activity. To achieve flow, you have to be involved in something that is challenging, but not so difficult that it's frustrating, and you have to actually achieve mastery of that challenge - and then go on to create another satisfying challenge. It's a process kind of like riding waves, if you will.

And this is why I conclude that success is important. In flow, you are continually striving for a goal, then resetting your goal and striving for the new one. It's made up of series of challenges and successes, and this process is essential to happiness. Therefore, ergo, success is important to happiness, and if we all agree that happiness matters, it follows that success matters, too.
Image by Phoebe Amory 2015

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Random Ideas - Kindness and Vulnerability

Readers, these are the times that try men's souls. Soul-trying times. And while I'm not a man, my soul feels tried. Of late, I've thought how much I would love to be a Jewish Anne Lamott.  But I lack her faith, seeing as how I'm pretty much an atheist with some yearnings for agnosticism. Furthermore, I lack her dexterity in the whole "radical self-care" thing. I'm more of a moderate in that department. And really, have I any wisdom to impart? Hers is the wisdom of giving in to self-acceptance. That one is a tough lesson to grok.

Have I learned anything? Have I changed at all? Am I any wiser?

For example, just the other day I was remarking to myself that I seem to have become kinder. I’m less prone to road rage - now it’s just road irkedness seasoned with a soupçon of crudity. I’m more patient. I look upon my fella humans with more compassion than I once did. I cry about elephants and gorillas and feel they probably, along with other animals, are much more intelligent than we have thought them to be. 

I ponder this softening. I welcome this late arrival of tact and nuance. I thought perhaps it was an effect of meditating, something I have done, off and on, for almost two decades. 

Then I got into the car, because I live in the suburbs so I am repeatedly getting into my car, and tuned into the TED Radio Hour in progress on my local public radio station to hear some TED speaker talk about how humans grow kinder as we grow older. 

Hunh, I thought. And blammo, all credit for my self-improvement disappeared with the click of a slide. There went any pretense to wisdom or enlightenment. If I’m kinder, it’s just because I’m older. That’s no accomplishment. That’s just time and luck. Furthermore, when I think about others in my life who are kinder than me - and there are many - and that they will continue to grow kinder than they currently are, and that I’m already at a deficit for kindness….

Well, these are thoughts that drive others to drink. 

But not me, they just drive me to despair. I’m not much for drinking. Alas, I am still the person I am. Needy, often blind to nuance, desperate for validation from others. And right now, I really don’t like that person. I never particularly liked that person. And this is a pity, isn’t it? To grow old without accepting yourself. 

Thus, the quest for success.

Recently, I read a profile of an astounding personality, philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
A sort of android of productivity and intellect, a person of incredible career success, of apparently unbounded confidence, of intense personal power, of many ex-lovers. According to The New Yorker, she has “published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees.” She has won so many awards that she apparently compares them to potato chips - something to enjoy, but "warily". 

I have never read anything Martha Nussbaum has written. I feel as if I’ve heard of her, but then again, her name is not uncommon. I’m fairly certain she has no stake in the Nussbaum & Wu eatery on Broadway and 114th Street in Manhattan. I suppose I ought to check out her works, but I was more taken with her relentless schedule and her incredible self-discipline. We’re talking ninety-minute workouts, followed by an hour of singing, daily. Did I mention she is sixty-nine years old?  Her work calls for, she says, “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.” 

Here I am! But, oops, where is she? She comes across as anything but needy and vulnerable.Talk about radical self-care. Did I mention the "Lamaze is for wimps" comment re: her daughter's birth? The colonoscopy sans sedation? Strength run amok has its allure, as anyone knows who is a fan of Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story.” Isn’t it much more enticing to watch for slivers of vulnerability in the strong than to wade through the marshes of vulnerability with the, well, vulnerable? The possibility that the strong and invulnerable outside will turn out to be on the inside a litter of warm puppies who escape and rollick and frolic in public adorability - isn’t that one of those seven universal plots we love so much? 


Happy week. 

Vive la République! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Small Successes

This week, Readers, is all about a shirt. My shirt, to be precise. My Hillary 2016 shirt, to be more
Stain barely visible halfway between my toes and the graphic
precise. Exact, even. It's also about sometimes needing to narrow the parameters of your success to something very specific. In this case, success is about a t-shirt.

Yes, I’m for Hillary Clinton. #I’mWithHer c’est moi! But that’s not my point. I’m not going to wax political. At least not more political than that. I’m talking about a t-shirt. So. Yes. A t-shirt. I bought this t-shirt practically a year ago. I bought it online, I waited many weeks for it to arrive, and when it finally arrived, I put it somewhere safe until I felt safe enough among the Bernie supporters in my community and in my own home to wear it. 

Well, you guessed it, didn’t you? When that moment arrived, I could not find the shirt. I looked everywhere. Everywhere I did look. I looked in the back of the closet with the beach towels and assorted outdoor games - balls, chalk, rackets, and so on. I looked in all the closets. I looked in the cabinet at the bottom of the laundry chute where I’ve found lost items before. I wondered if my kids, feeling the Bern, had destroyed it. Or if I had developed some memory problem that was going to become monstrous. (This remains a question, actually.) I also wondered if perhaps the disappearance of the shirt might be prophetic, or symbolic, or in some way emblematic of the fate of Hillary Clinton, whose supporters had all gone to ground while the Bernie supporters tried to make us feel like bad liberals. 

I ordered another shirt, which, when it arrived, turned out to be teddy-bear sized, not middle-aged woman-sized. 

Then came the time to switch the winter clothes into the basement and bring the summer clothes up from the basement. In our family, we call this “the big switcheroo.” 

And, you guessed it, somewhere sandwiched in with my summer clothes in a big plastic storage bin was my Hillary t-shirt. I’ve now worn it three times, mostly indoors or underneath a sweatshirt. Because I do feel a little vulnerable with it on, I admit. Today, I decided to wear it loud, proud, and public. By which I mean I would wear it, get into my car, drive to Pilates - which I take with a friend from a gay man who is definitely not crazy and is therefore not for Trump, although we don’t talk politics - get back into my car, and drive home. So I put it on, and it has a stain right on the front. A stain. Right on the front. 

Symbolic? Of Hillary Clinton’s reputation? Perhaps. Of the state of her presidential bid, in which she will ultimately prevail, despite being tarnished? 

Of my life?

Yes, indeed. The stain on my life right now is the tick I removed from my head the other night. Well, I discovered it, and the husband removed it with tweezers. I’ve poured over images to identify this beast: male American dog tick, I’m 99% certain. Phew, right? Well, no. American dog ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. The doctor was not overly concerned. She simply told me to call back if I have any symptoms. Well, as I told my sister the psychoanalyst, “Call back if you have any symptoms” is the exact wrong thing to say to a hypochondriac. Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure there is a right thing, except for, “It’s no big deal.” Even that can be problematic; what if the doctor missed something?

So here I am, trying to avoid thinking about symptoms. That is my goal. To escape worrying too much about symptoms - and ultimately, to escape symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tularemia. That is my narrowed definition of success.  That, and Hillary Clinton defeating that Trump guy. 

I am not faring that well.

Just before I hung up with my sister, she said, “Let me know if you have any symptoms, such as, say, wetness in the mouth.”

Good one, sis. Yeah. I’m wondering about that right now. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

#BlackLivesMatter is Us

Oh, what a week. Readers, life has been very hard of late. For me, I’m talking about me. First, I have to rewrite my sample chapter AGAIN. It wasn’t perfect the third time. And the brownies we ordered for the husband’s office party were stale and unsatisfactory. Then I had to look at the tuition bill for the 17 yo’s private college and take my fancy dog to the vet for shots. Then, I downloaded Pokemon Go, but I forgot my password and couldn't register the app. 

Life just gets you down, you know? 

Okay, perhaps sarcasm is not the way to go right now. Let me be frank, Readers. Here’s what I feel after the last week, after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, after the shooting of the police in Dallas. I feel frustrated. 

I belong to a generation that felt like we just missed out on the great, inspiring social movements of the 50s and 60s. I was too little to be a hippie and to march for civil rights. I am also of the the generation that thought these questions of equality were pretty much taken care of by those heroic Baby Boomers. I am the generation that got distracted and forgot to pay attention as all those gains were slowly and systematically almost destroyed while I experimented with Girl Power and other fake social justice stuff fed to me by that vast right-wing conspiracy that turned out to actually exist. While schools were resegregated, while voting rights were limited, while prison populations grew, while access to abortion dwindled; while education was eviscerated, the social safety net tore, job security vanished, and income disparity grew. While the NRA bought the Republican party and a couple of Democrats, just enough people to block meaningful gun restrictions. Well, guess what? I am paying attention now. 

What’s a liberal white woman like me to do about all this crap happening? The kind of stuff that makes you despair? We’ve got weapons. We’ve got racism. We’ve got violence. The husband and I had a long talk about racism and what we can do to make things better. But we don’t really know. Our particular government representatives, both state and national, vote the way we like, mostly. Should we move to a different state, where we would be in the minority politically, and get active? I’m ready to march. I’m ready to protest. I believe in democracy, just not in unregulated free-market capitalism. Clearly that is only for the wealthiest. 

I say first, listen. Bear witness. Pay attention to these racially motivated incidents. Be aware. It’s the very least we can do. 

I listened to an interview of Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, half black, half white, author of an important book called, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, about how systematic incarceration of black people has created a caste system in our country. 

And second, talk. The husband and I were talking about what it would be like to be black parents of black children, to live constantly in fear, constantly under a sort of siege mentality and to wonder if calling the police in a dangerous situation could backfire on us. 

Really, there are no words for how terrible I feel about this situation. But we have to find some. Children want answers. I said to the 17 year old, the world may look like it’s going to shit, but that’s just because of video technology on phones. This racial profiling, harrassment, and murder of black people has been going on since black people were kidnapped and brought to this country in 1619. It’s not worse, really. It’s just really visible now. And visible has to be better than invisible. Right? Shit is still shit. But at least if you can see it, you can start to clean it. 

It’s easy to extrapolate from police shooting innocent black people (and latinos) and people shooting back at police in retaliation to the world coming apart and crumbling into pieces. But Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” And so I remember there are people working to change what’s bad, and they are using our system, which I honestly believe is fundamentally good, to do so. 

A friend's daughter works in prisoner education. Another friend is a lawyer who helps people know their rights and convicts navigate re-entry into societyAnd what about that amazing photo of the demonstrator in Baton Rouge, standing like a queen in her dress, calm, noble, and firm? That was inspiring.

That is why in my better moments, I think that this racial mess and all the attention brought upon it and the demonstrations are actually signs of change and hope. 

As I said to the 17 year old, it’s like the pimple bursting. It’s yucky, it’s awful, it’s hard to see beyond; but it’s really a sign that (perhaps) things are clearing up.