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Friday, December 29, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting: Amtrak and Ben Franklin

Hello, Readers. As we limp into the home stretch of this difficult year, I am inspired to think about goals and resolutions for the next year, which may be just as difficult, if not moreso. Sorry to be a downer. All this drivel is to get to something. Last week The New York Times published a quick and easy read on New Year’s resolutions that I thought was helpful for those who want to make some. I am not sure I do. I have done so in the past, and some of them are still with me. The kind of resolution that works for me is a a low-threshold resolution. That’s a resolution that has a low threshold for fulfillment. 

For example, several years ago, I resolved to do a little yoga every morning. We’re talking a little, tiny bit. We’re talking five sun salutations. Five sun salutations take less than five minutes. I figured if I gave myself something very easy to accomplish, I would be less likely to avoid it. I also told myself to do these five sun salutations first thing, before putting on my glasses. And I have. Sometimes I do more than five. Sometimes I do a lot - but not often. But I almost always do those five. I never wake up dreading an involved routine that causes me to go right back to sleep. I can always say to myself, “It’s just five. It won’t take but a few minutes.”That’s what I’m talking about when I say a low threshold for fulfillment. 

It’s been several years now, and the number of days I’ve missed my morning yoga is very few. (Usually when I’m traveling and the carpet in the hotel room is very groady.) 

Anyway, if you’re into setting goals, this little article has good advice. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/18/smarter-living/how-to-stick-with-new-years-resolutions.html?smid=tw-share

But are you into setting goals? 

Or are you into evaluation and reflection and thinking more about how to be than what to do?

In that case, I have just the thing. Advice from the founding father of self-improvement, Benjamin Franklin. While on a voyage from London to Philadelphia, where he eventually became the famous Franklin we see on the one hundred dollar bill, young Ben devised a Plan for Future Conduct, which consisted of four elements. He was wordy, but I’ll be brief:
  1. Be frugal and pay all debts.
  2. Speak the truth and aim at sincerity in word and deed.
  3. Work hard and don’t be distracted by “any foolish project of suddenly growing rich.” 
  4. Speak ill of no one.

Rather puts my five sun salutations to shame, doesn’t it?

These four rules are appealing; yet I break them regularly. Then there are times when I don’t break them, but apparently, I should. For example, just the other week, the 10th grader and her friend had plans to travel by Amtrak to NYC to visit some other friends. Unbeknownst to me, although it should have been knownst, because I had once before looked into Amtrak’s rules for unaccompanied minors, there were Rules About Travel for Unaccompanied Minors. In this instance, however, the friend had purchased the tickets, so there was no fine print. 

So, I walked with the girls up to the gate and immediately, an Amtrak employee smelled an under 16 year old. Or something. I don't know exactly how, but we attracted attention. An Amtrak agent asked them how old they were. The 10th grader’s friend said she was sixteen, which she was. And suddenly, yep, I snapped to and recalled that small print about sixteen being minimum age for unaccompanied travel on Amtrak. So anyway, the Amtrak agent had apparently been around the block or spent some time with a fake ID, or had been trained, and she says to the friend, “When’s your birthday?” The friend produces this date via smooth mental recall.

Then the agent turns to the 10th grader and me and asks, “How old are you?” The 10th grader looks at me, hesitating, and I look at her, and the agent looks at me, and I say the fateful words, the words that lead to burocratic nightmare, the words that lead to Christmas razzing by family and friends and family. “She’s fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in February.”

Which meant paperwork. Paperwork naming an individual eighteen years old or older to meet her at the train, and to put her on the return train. This worked out okay on the journey there, because an eighteen year old happened to be meeting them at Penn Station. The requirement proved problematic for the return trip, and I’ll just say it involved my sister-in-law (SIL)and a lot of texting and the husband having to call an Amtrak 800 number because my SIL was not on the form, and Amtrak wouldn’t take the husband’s word for it over the phone, and fifteen minutes on hold and my SIL having to spend an hour plus of a busy Sunday waiting around for an Amtrak agent to personally transmit the 10th grader and her sixteen year old companion to the train. 


Why didn’t we just lie? I’m sure that’s what you’re asking. Because everyone else asked it. I have been the object of ridicule by family and friends and family and family for not lying. And I ask myself the same. I had a very well-thought out defensive answer at the Christmas dinner table with my BIL and MIL, and parts of it are true. To wit, that when confronted with the question of age, I thought, “I cannot lie in front of my daughter. That teaches a bad lesson,” and then when I looked at her, I realized she could not lie in front of her mother, because that gives the wrong impression. So we were trapped. 

But also, I did not lie because I was caught off-guard and just blurted out the truth, as I tend to do. I’m a fan of honesty. 

I have something in common with Benjamin Franklin, it seems. So I can’t really have done wrong. 

Furthermore, both girls were nervous about taking the train to Penn Station. I think they were secretly relieved to have the escort to and from the train. I base this on their completely benign facial expressions throughout the whole thing. Nary an eye roll or a disaffected hip thrust. 

I know I was relieved about it. 

The real lesson of this story is that if you have to fill out a form at Amtrak, and the agent, sotto voce, tells her co-worker to stick around because she hasn’t done one of those kinds of forms before, make sure she confirms everything with her coworker before you leave, stupidly imagining that the agent has done it correctly. Because, let me assure you, she has not, and there’s nothing more unmoving than an Amtrak agent at Penn Station in New York. 

So, if you choose to adopt Benjamin Franklin’s Plan for Future Conduct, be sure to leave a little extra time when traveling. Or do what he did, and bend the rules, and intend to stick to it, but forgive yourself when you do not. 

Or, make your own plan, and set a low threshold for success. 


Meanwhile, onward to 2018. May it be a good year. May we all be involved citizens working to create the world we want. And may we be in agreement about what that world is. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

PC Various*

Hello, Readers. Here are a few things on my mind since I last wrote:


Fun stuff. 

The college student came home for Thanksgiving, then rushed back to college so she could dye her hair blue. I would provide a photo, but I don’t think she would like that. Let’s just say that she has a lot of hair, so even a swath of blue is a lotta blue. 

Recently, I was in a crowded parking lot, waiting to leave. Cars were pouring in, so I backed up to make some room. Car one passed me, and the driver blew a kiss and waved. Car two passed by without acknowledgement. Car three passed by, and the driver gave me the finger. Why? Who knows. I had the satisfaction of believing she ended up behind me in line at the café we were both heading to.  At least I like to think so. Perhaps she went elsewhere. 

Self-Acknowledgement check in.

I cleaned my closet. No, I didn’t do it the Marie Kondo way. I did it my way. Of course, even though I haven’t read The Earthshaking Magic of Tidying Up, or whatever Marie Kondo’s book is called, I have been influenced by her. More than once, actually twice, I heard myself muttering, “Does this spark joy? Not exactly, but I’m keeping it.” So, take that, Kondo. 

And despite my knee-jerk, anti-Kondo stance, based on ignorance, let me point out, as so many knee-jerk responses are, since I haven’t read her book, I do fold my shirts the Konmarie way. I once watched a short video demonstration of her method and took it as mine. Here it is, FYI:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lpc5_1896ro

I delivered multiple bags of old clothes, shoes, and a Cuisinart to my favorite charity, Grassroot Givers in Albany. I renewed a book at the library, paid my overdue fines, and picked up several books on hold. And, I even went to the post office to return several items of clothing I ordered over the last few months. 

I'm telling you these things to remind you about self-acknowledgement. It's okay to acknowledge the little things you did even though they were boring or hard or a nuisance. In fact, it builds self-esteem. I am feeling so much better about myself now that I've written these things. That woman giving me the finger has all but vanished from my memory. 

Well. 

Along the lines of answering the question, Is this worth doing when our country is in crisis? 

I listened to an interview with the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC), Varun Soni. He just happens to be the first Hindu head of religious life at an American university. During the conversation, he talked about college students over the last few years seeming to be in a state of emotional crisis. He finds that he has to talk to them a lot about the roots of their crises, and after the crisis passes, the idea he has to get them to examine is how to define success for themselves. 

That’s right. These kids get to school, and they have a particular idea of success as power, money, and prestige (PMP), or at least one of those things. Then they find out that perhaps they’re not the best in their class anymore. Or perhaps they don’t really want to do the thing they’ve been groomed to do. They have to redefine success. 

How do they do this? Well, according to Soni, they need to “ask the right questions.” These are questions such as, What is my purpose in life? What makes me happy? How can I be of service to others? 

The thing that resonated with me was that Soni skirted around a specific definition of success. He was not to be pinned down. Instead, for him, the redefinition was the asking of the questions. The asking and the answering of them. 

This seems like a good thing overall. Because part of the impetus of my quest to redefine success was the terrible sinking suspicion I had that asking those big questions, the meaning of life questions, was for weaklings. I felt cowed by the dominant culture and the prevailing notion of success as PMP. Those who believe in PMP tend to belittle those who look for more, for meaning, for flourishing, for purpose. And those who do look for those things tend to question their own sanity in a world dominated by PMP. 

Maybe I’m naive to look to the younger generation for salvation. So be it. They came of age under a different political administration. They are not going to unsee the first Black president. They are not going to unsee the LGBTQ movement. The 45,000 USC students are not going to unsee their Hindu chaplain. Some of them will be driven a little bonkers by these things, because that’s their family’s milieu. But some of them will be encouraged and inspired. Some of them will just move forward with a higher threshold of acceptance of differences among people. 

Maybe I am naive. I’ll take it. Hope is important.  

In a conversation with comedian Marc Maron on Maron’s WTF Podcast, comedian Judd Apatow impressed me. He’s famous for helping to create the TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” which was canceled after one season, but was seriously good, and whose stars have gone on to fame—James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogan, and Jason Segal among them. Aside from “Freaks,” I’m not a huge Apatow fan, since his movies are puerile; they’re full of “boner jokes” (his description) and boy-men, yet I don’t hate them. He manages to ground them in truth. Furthermore, he employs Paul Rudd frequently. 


Apatow and Maron discussed the difficulty of writing jokes in the current political climate. The difficulty and the necessity of it, and the struggle that causes. But what I especially liked was a little monologue Apatow gave about the psychological underpinning of a comic. It is the attempt to be sane and find happiness and peace. 

All comedians, he said, share the same journey: “We’re young. We have some difficult childhood situation. Comedy becomes a way to escape and be seen. Then we want to be successful to feel good about ourselves. Then we realize, oh, that doesn’t work. What does work, ultimately is love and connection and some higher purpose. Then we go for that, which is still difficult to attain.”  

He was talking about comedy, but he’s describing the evolving stages of self-actualization, or of maturity. My own search for success originated in that desire to be seen and to feel successful, and my definition has flexed and grown to incorporate the process of finding purpose, connection, and peace. I was in a group video conference call with several of my high school classmates yesterday, and I had this vision of a book my parents used to have called Passages, by Gail Sheehy. It was very Seventies book, and I never read it, but I was aware of it. It is about “predictable crises of adult life.” As I listened to my classmates, I thought about the passage we are making, all of us searching for what to do in the next phase of our lives. I guess what I’m saying is that I related to the drive for success being rooted in a desire to be seen and to feel good about ourselves. In other words, this is a journey from childhood to maturity, maturity being marked by the search for purpose. If you think you’ve heard this before, it’s true. This is Maslow in action, the drive towards self-actualization and self-transcendence. I think it’s natural to question whether one’s pursuits are sufficient to the needs of the time and adjusting them accordingly. Apatow is doing stand-up for which he mines his own life and psyche, and has been working on a documentary about Gary Shandling, and raising money for the ACLU to be participating in the world of politics. He continues to create. He goes on. Maron goes on. I go on. We continue because we can, and because we must, and because even the more frivolous-seeming creative pursuits have important underpinnings. And because, of course, without art, without frivolity, what is life? 

A point of business. More and more, Facebook has become a siloed experience. That means that my posts disappear into the stream. Facebook doesn’t deem me of high importance, about which fact I try to remain above being insulted. So, I encourage you—nay, implore you— to sign up on my blog to receive these posts via email. You can do it one of two ways. The first option is to sign up to receive posts every time I write them. 

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*PC Various, for those who like to know what titles mean, was an old Harvard College Library call number category. I used to work for the Harvard College Library. It was during the transition from card catalogs to automated circulation systems. It was during the dawn of bar codes on books. It was during the waning of the HCL cataloging system, when the HCL decided to join most every other library and embrace the Library of Congress system. (LC).