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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Is Success A Jalopy?

Hello, Readers.
You may have noticed that I refer to success as a jalopy and wondered why. Well, please check out my explanation over here at the Huffington Post. I'll have a new post up here very soon.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Success and Jalopies

Now seems like a good time to check in with those New Year resolutions. It’s the end of February, and my email inbox and Twitter feed are full of strategies for implementing habits, keeping resolutions, and bits about why We Are Failing To Do So.

When I say “we” I mean me. I was struggling to get my routine back on track. I mentioned in my New Year’s post that I have enough resolutions to keep me busy. Except what happened was that the wheels fell off the jalopy. The system broke. As it is wont to do, from time to time. In my healthy, long-view of life, I realize that it’s all about breaking down and revving up again. System breakdown is part of the system

But, now, Readers, I’m improving. See, when I realized that my jalopy needed an overhaul, I began reading those things about success and habits that, handily, poured into my email inbox. Apparently, I’m not the only one with a broken down jalopy.

This tidbit came to me, via Brain Pickings, which is a really great blog, by the way. This is an excerpt from a Vanity Fair profile of President Obama:

“You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. ‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,’ he said. ’I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. ‘You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’”

To be frank, wavering over what to wear is one of the things I enjoy, at least sometimes, so I don’t want a uniform. However, I do make too many decisions. I can’t settle on a routine. There’s dithering and deciding many mornings. Should I do sun salutations or physical therapy stretches or deep breathing or meditation? Should I go to the gym right after the kids are out of the house, or should I sit down at the computer and write? All these decisions lead to fatigue and naps. And putzing around on Facebook and email. Or, in scientific terms, willpower depletion

This quotation from President Obama reminded me of something Matthew Seyd wrote about chess players in the book Bounce; namely, that what makes chess masters so great is not superior intelligence, but that they have practiced so many chess moves so often that they’ve memorized sequences. They have routinized (thanks, President Obama – my Word dictionary doesn’t recognize this neologism, but if Jimmy Joyce could invent words, you can, too) and automated hundreds and hundreds of moves. Consequently, they have brain energy to spare to figure out what to do in a challenging game.

Around this time, whilst putzing around on FB and email I came across inspiration via an email from an online Pilates teacher. She was writing about developing consistency in exercise, but I think we can extrapolate to other areas of life. According to Robyn Long, the secret to building and maintaining fitness is to set one goal at a time. A person can get overwhelmed with goals and give up, whereas if you pick one and stick to it, you develop the habit.

So, I decided I needed to be more like President Obama (who doesn’t, really?), more like a chess master, more like a Pilates instructor. I needed to routinize more of my system. If I did more things automatically, out of habit, then I would have fewer decisions to make about how to use my time. Fewer decisions would mean more energy. Then I would have more willpower left to take on the more challenging parts of my routine.

Key to success here seemed to be choosing an easy thing to automate. Something non-threatening (not writing, obviously), something to just get out of the way first thing. Like teeth brushing, or putting on deoderant. I chose sun salutations. They’re yoga, and they’re meditative, and they’re brainless.

That was over two weeks ago, Readers. I’ve kept up my streak. Even when I threw my back out last week, I managed to creak through a few sad ones. They were less sun salutations than sun grovels, but I counted them.

I don’t feel more like President Obama, and certainly not like a chess master. Pilates instructor?  A little. But I do feel more like Jerry Seinfeld, who has a famous work ethic – he X’s every day on the calendar that he works on jokes, and never gives up on his streak.

The best thing, really, is that once I’ve got that first wheel back on the jalopy, the others are easier. Soon, I’ll be rolling on to new things.

Speaking of jalopies rolling - the 16-year-old drove home from the library yesterday. I thought it went very well, and I only stepped on the imaginary brake for half the ride. However, to the husband she reported that the whole thing was “stressful” and that there was “too much to think about.”

Then the husband and I said, “That’s because it’s all new to you.” We kind of raced each other to say it first, I think, but I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself, and in this instance, I don’t want to. If you follow. 

Anyway, then he said, “Once you get more practice, a lot of it will become automatic and you won’t have to think about it.” You’ll know how far to let the steering wheel turn to straighten out, and you’ll have memorized the rules of the road. And the more stuff becomes automatic, the less energy you have to expend on it.

“Wow, I just drafted a blog post on this topic,” I said.

And that, in a nutshell, is the beauty of routine.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Keeping Promises to Myself

I have twenty minutes until the 13-year-old’s friends arrive to celebrate her birthday with pizza and cake and sleepover. An hour after they are due, one of my book clubs is meeting here at our house for dinner and intellectual conversation and cake. No sleepover.

Intellectual conversation. Oops, there’s the timer for the cake!

Intellectual conversation might be a stretch. I’m intellectually depleted. Today I gave a thirty minute talk on Shakespeare and how the Gunpowder Plot affected him, so tonight, I relax. I relax as much as is possible with several 13 year old girls in the house.

Anyway, I now have fifteen minutes to get out a blog post. I could wait and write something amazing and coherent – but why start now? I’m trying to stick to my goals this week. I promised myself I would accomplish two writing goals, and so I shall. The first was to write that paper on Shakespeare for the women's club to which I belong. The second was to get out a blog post. 

Sticking to goals is one of those things I do intermittently. It hasn’t gotten to be habitual for me, yet. But I’m working on it. 

So. Last week I mentioned I would talk about the Pomodoro Technique. I'm not sure why we don’t call it the Tomato Method. It’s based on the timer that the method’s originator used, one of those kitchen timers that looks like a tomato. Or a pomadoro. If we’re Italian, which I guess maybe we would prefer to be. Because, you know, of that European sophistication. Pomodoro sounds so much nicer than tomato, I suppose.

But I digress. The tomato method is a fancy term for what I tell my kids to do when they have a difficult challenge: work steadily for a short time, then take a short break; then return to work. Use a timer if you like. Be sure to take advantage of the short break.

Now, I can report to you, Readers, that this method worked for me this week, as I was racing to finish my reading and note-taking and then to write my paper on Shakespeare. I didn’t use a tomato, though. I used my iPhone. I set it for 20 minutes. Then took a short break. Then back for another twenty minutes.

I have to say, it worked really well. And I even found myself wanting to work through my short breaks. Interesting, I thought. I made myself take the breaks, though, and they did refresh me.

So. Pomodoro-tomato-good sense technique, thank you.

By the way, it occurs to me that I worked my way up to the PomTech, I didn't just dive right in. I started, in fact, with the Inverse Pomodoro Technique. This is a method by which you relax and delay for a longish time, then get down to work for a short, non-threatening amount of time, then repeat. 


Also in the news this week:  My $13 chocolate bar is still here. It is not totally gone. I have managed to exercise my willpower and have made it last. 

Small victory. I will bear it in mind, as I deal with the reality that now I am the mother of two teenaged girls.

Also, last week I mentioned I had some news. Well, here it is. I have a literary agent. That's all I can say for now. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

5 Tips for Success

Heh, heh. Gotcha again, didn't I? This post has nothing to do with success. I have things of import to report, but not yet. Instead, I offer highlights of my week.  Some of my readers might actually prefer this type of post to ones that purport to give information about success. 

1. I spent $13 on a chocolate bar. That's what I said. Thirteen dollars on a chocolate bar. Why did I spend so much money on a chocolate bar, you ask? Well.
  • It was French. 
  • The bar was made by a family business that specializes in small batch chocolate. 
  • I was supporting the very great cheese store in Albany run by young cheese travelers. If you recall, in a previous post I mentioned eating candy that looked like olives. Also French. Also from The Cheese Traveler. 

The cost did give me pause. Thirteen dollars for a chocolate bar. I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve hidden it from my family. It’s meant to prove my worth. What I mean is that it’s my test of myself. My willpower. Can I eat it slowly and s-a-v-o-u-r it? Can I get really mindful about that chocolate and make a little go a long way? In other words: Am I a worthy human? That’s what this $13 chocolate bar is going to tell me.

Yes, I know the label reads backwards. I used PhotoBooth and that's what I got. 

Or maybe it’s telling me I’m an idiot for spending so much on one edible chocolate item.

2. I bought jeans. Yes, I know, this may not seem momentous to you, Readers. Unless you are female. If you are male, you likely stride into the jeans store, pick jeans with your measurements, pay for them, and leave. When you get home, and put them on, they fit. No big deal. But if you’re a woman, well, I think I can assume you know how momentous this is. Jeans. Jeans that fit. Jeans that look okay. Jeans from, of all places, The Gap. Never have I been so happy to learn that midrise and high rise jeans are back in style. And I didn’t have to pay $200 for them, either.

Not that I’m a style-obsessed person. Not at all. (It’s chocolate that obsesses me.)  It’s just that I happen to have a 16 year old, as I may have mentioned, and it hasn’t escaped me that while once she wore jeans that came up to just above her hip bone, now she is wearing jeans that end at her lower ribs.

Okay, I lied. I'm not really obsessed with chocolate. And I am interested in style. Perhaps more than I should be. But that's another story. 

This look, by the way, is one that only a 16 year old should try. For moi, it was midrise all the way. Locking in that muffin top, instead of watching it drip over the top of the jeans like a cake batter en route from mixing bowl to pan.

“How vivid,” as Auntie Mame might say.

Another reason to pass the $13 chocolate bar test. Square by square.

3. I bought a desk. Yes, I did. Me very own desk. In me very own study. No longer shall I take over the dining room table, because I have a nice, wide surface in me own study. This may not seem impressive to many of you, but I assure you, it’s a big step. Admitting I need a desk. You see, the desk and the need versus want thing is very complex in me. I mean, when it comes to having the basics covered, I do. I had a desk. It was just a very small desk. It was so small that I had to work on the dining room table if I wanted to have any reference materials or paper beside me in addition to my computer. And I have a dining room table. Well, technically, it’s an IKEA table with a plank of plywood on top, covered with a tablecloth. But it’s a table. So I had a desk AND a table. What possible reason could I have to justify a different desk?

See what I did there, Readers? I can bring myself down, way, way, down, by allowing that Superego voice in my head to say, “A desk. You think you need a desk. Somewhere in Africa (or India) someone is writing a masterpiece on a plank of petrified elephant hide. You don’t need a desk. You want a desk. And wanting is wrong.”

Shut up, Superego.

4. The husband went away to a conference, as is his wont every February. This is the signal to the universe to snow, to wreak some kind of havoc on the house, or to cause everyone left behind to come down with an intestinal illness. This time, it was snow, again. But I was ready. Or my plan was to be ready. Before he left, the husband gave me instructions on using the snowblower. 

Let me pause here to beg you, please, to refrain from telling me what wonderful exercise shoveling snow is, or how bad snowblowers are for the environment. I know. I know. But I have a bad back and a bad arm and, and, and. Lord, I sound defensive.

Reroute. Anyway, I was able to do everything necessary with the snowblower, except turn it on. There is a ripcord or something that you have to pull up and out really fast to get the engine to turn over. Well, I was too short to pull it out. Just a slight problem. Luckily, there is Facebook. I took my problem to FB. I believe this is called “crowdsourcing.” One of my Facebook friends suggested I stand on something. Genius! So, in the morning, which was a snowday, while the husband was tucked into his hotel in Nashville (This is a lot better than previous locations, such as Honolulu and San Diego. Talk about grounds for grudge-holding), I stood on a stepstool and got that machine going.

5. Got my 10,000 steps on Mrs. Withingston every day. 

Thank you for reading, readers. I have news for you soon. Also tips on success. Upcoming: Pomodoro Method. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

How to Succeed as a Friendly, Suburban Mom

Readers, living with the 7th grader is like living with a human microscope – and I’m the slide under examination. Not long ago, the 7th grader and I were at a counter paying for some goods. Well, we’d only moved feet from the counter when she said that I “always” sound “angry” and “unfriendly” to cashiers. I was flabbergasted. And defensive. I thought the transaction had proceeded well. There had been a mutual greeting between the cashier and me, I handed over my credit card, signed, and we were on our way. It wasn’t even fraught, the way these exchanges sometimes are, particularly when I’m at a store with one of those cards that give you points for your purchases and then send coupons you forget to bring with you before they expire. At those stores, it is true, sometimes I get tetchy. Because I don’t carry the cards, you see, and the stores ALWAYS misspell my name so we have to try to find the account three or four or two different ways and I’m perimenopausal and I get a little HOT and wonder why I bother with the damn points anyway.

But this situation had been pleasant, I thought. Neutral to pleasant.

“I say hello,” I said. “What am I supposed to do, give them a hug? And a big fake smile?”

“Just have a different tone,” said the 7th grader. It’s my tone, apparently. And my expression, too, by the way.

Well. This undid me for a while. Am I one of those women with a moue? Once, a friend told me that when she’d first met me, she thought I was either shy or aloof. This was a long time ago, and it was probably the first time I’d considered how I appeared to others, as opposed to what my head was saying on the inside. It had been kind of a shock. But I am still friends with this person, prickly first impressions notwithstanding.

Anyway, the past couple of weeks have been full of work on the middle school musical. My duties as co-chair of the Hair and Makeup Committee involved shopping for supplies. Readers, I had to go to Walmart. How I loathe Walmart. I absolutely loathe it. I loathe it on principle, and also because it is huge, yet never has everything I need, no matter how many miles of aisles I traipse. Not that I mind the traipsing. Now that I have Mrs. Withingston to count my steps, traipsing is high on my list of to-dos. Still, I hate Walmart. As per usual, I found almost everything I needed. Silver temporary hair dye eluded me. 

Anyway, finally I was in line to pay. Along with the musical’s supplies, I had picked up a few things for myself in the grocery department. I put those on the conveyor first, to pay for them separate from everything I was buying for the Hair and Makeup Committee. Ahead of me was a woman gabbing on her cell phone as she loaded stuff onto the counter. I made one of those involuntary, flash assumptions about her – blonde, young middle age, taking no notice of the cashier, sort of rude or entitled, because of the phone talking. Then she hung up, and stepped up to the cashier with a very perky (and loud) greeting. You know - fakey, sing-song.

And I thought, “So that’s how you do it, huh? That’s how you come across as friendly? A big, perky hello? Is that what the 7th grader wants?” I have to sing-song and perk falsely to seem normal and polite? That’s just icky. Why do I have to be “friendly” if I’m courteous and business-like? These are questions for philosophers or sociologists focusing on American culture. I just don’t know. But apparently, I am not clued in to the approach around here. I’m not a native.

In any case, the point is, Readers, I was pondering these questions and unloading makeup sponges, paper towels, and assorted blushes, bronzers, and makeup applicators from the cart, while my few personal groceries meandered their way to the end of the conveyor belt. There was no bar to divide my groceries from the items belonging to the putative friendly woman. My head was turned away from the cashier, when I heard the woman say, presumably answering the cashier whether the groceries were hers “No. I buy NORMAL food.”

Now, I had selected some organic produce. Apparently, this is abnormal in Walmart. Even if I question how organic Walmart’s organic stuff is. I am that person. The organic salad buying type. And apparently that is somewhat insulting to this other lady, enough so that she had to make a bitchy comment about it.  A comment that was really kind of bitchy and unnecessary. And loud.

So I ask you, readers, because I can’t ask the 7th grader, who is the bitch?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mastery and Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lena Dunham and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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