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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Habit #1 in Action: Read My Lips

Last Year's Song: Walking On Sunshine Glee Mash-Up
The 4th grader's school has a lip sync concert every year.

Yes, I agree, it's like some weird caricature of suburbia: a lip sync concert; but it happens. 

This is our third year here, and our third concert. I wasn't going to let the 4th grader be in it this year because the last two, the concert happened on the same night (of course) as her older sister's Science and Learning Fair at her totally different school, and which was a much more worthwhile endeavor (shhh, don't tell the 4th grader.) Plus also, as Junie B. Jones might say, there were like three months of rehearsing the lip sync routines, which was a nightmare of coordination. 

But this year, they've moved the concert up to the end of January, making rehearsal time much shorter, and eliminating the conflict with the 8th grader's  Learning Fair. 

So I let her do it. 

Which means the wrangling over song choice began for her. Oh, and the ducking of responsibility/refusing to be the parent rep for me. 

I think I mentioned that the 4th grader has this friend, a sort-of minx-in-training, a queen bee wanna be? Anyway, the kid is pushy, not just with her friends, but with adults, too. This gets on my nerves. She was in a different class than my child last year, and we didn't see her much, but they ended up together this year, and the merriment began again. I've decided that the best way to cement this friendship would be to admit to any negative feelings about the kid, so I suck it up and wait for time to take its course. 

Anyhoo, the wrangling over song choice involved my 4th grader and Pushy Girl canvassing others in the group about their choices. Everyone agreed on something called "Bang, Bang, Bang," except one girl. I was already up to the neck hearing about the ins and outs of the songs by then, but they agreed that since one girl didn't like the song, they'd pick another one. I was pretty sure "Bang, Bang, Bang," was going to turn out to be inappropriate (just a hunch, based on, gee, I'm not sure what?--the title?) anyway, but I would let the parent rep, whoever she might be (I heard rumors it was my neighbor) put the kibosh on it. 

I said, Why don't make up a ballot with your top few choices, have everyone get together at recess, and vote?

I then had to explain what a ballot is--even though she'd come with me to vote in our recent town elections-- but hey, teachable moment. I didn't mention chads. 

The 4th grader thought this was a good idea, and told Pushy Girl. This was on a Friday. 

On Monday or Tuesday evening, Pushy Girl called. I hear the 4th grader saying, "Oh, okay. Uh-huh," etc. Not sounding happy. She hangs up and reports, "I guess the song is Price Tag."

Well, I rather like "Price Tag," but clearly the developing red eye rims and puckering chin on the 4th grader indicated she was not so happy with that choice. She said that, according to Pushy Girl, all the other girls had decided on that song, so that was the song. 

Have I mentioned I'm an Aries? 

Have I mentioned that I find Pushy Girl annoying?

The husband and I looked at each other. 

I said something along the lines of, Well, if you don't like the song, why don't you speak up? After all, when that other girl didn't like the song, you all chose another one? 

Shrugs. Fatalistic commentary like, They all chose this one and so that's the one they want to do. Tears. The 4th grader is not one to express her emotions unless under duress; she's a swallower, not a blurter, so the tears were particularly heart-wringing. 

Me: You have a couple choices here. You can go along with the song. You can quit Lip Sync. Or you can speak up for yourself and say you don't like the song, that you thought you were going to vote on the song, and that it hurt your feelings that they made this decision without you.

Lots of talk ensued, with the husband and I convincing her it was right to speak up.  Most important, I felt, was that she tell Pushy Girl that she didn't like being treated this way--going behind her back, not listening to her suggestion about the ballot, etc. So this took a fair amount of time. Several minutes. Several looonnnngggg minutes. 

Finally the 4th grader, definitely nervous, got a piece of paper and wrote down what she wanted to say. Then she called up Pushy Girl and said her piece. 

I'd like to say that everything went swimmingly. At first, the 4th grader sounded a little wobbly; but when she met some resistance, she restated herself loudly and clearly. Not fair to decide without her. Wanted to do a ballot vote on Monday after Thanksgiving. If "Price Tag" won by ballot vote, she would go along with it.

Of course, Pushy Girl doesn't like to be talked back to. In truth, neither does the 4th Grader. The conversation settled into a rut: vote by ballot vs. "Price Tag" by fiat. 

After about ten minutes, maybe fifteen, I decided enough was enough. Trench warfare wasn't required. Parental intervention was. I asked to speak to Pushy Girl's mother. I said that the girls were having a tough time deciding on the song, that my child was suggesting they vote with a ballot on Monday, etc, etc. Pushy Girl's mom agreed readily. End of conversation. 

Then I contacted the mom I thought had agreed to be the parent in charge of the lip sync group. She confirmed, and said she'd already nixed all the girls' song choices because of bad language or raunchy content, that she was going through Disney songs on YouTube, and the girls could listen to a couple of them, and vote by ballot on Monday after Thanksgiving. 

On Monday morning, the 4th grader wrote up her ballot, including the songs suggested by the parent rep. 

Monday afternoon, she came home, delighted to note that they'd voted, and that NO ONE had voted for "Price Tag." (If the significance of this escapes you, my tens of readers,  don't worry; it took me a minute to note she thought this meant a score for her against Pushy Girl.) I said nothing. I think that was wise. I thought it might be a score for Disney. 

So they'll be performing to "Dancing Crazy" by Miranda Cosgrove on Jan. 27th at the town middle school. 

I don't feel so bad about the concert now, since the 4th Grader has had a Learning Experience. That's as worthwhile as the 8th Grader's Learning Fair. I'm just going to buy whatever costume I'm told to buy for her, insert ear plugs, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Highly Effective Habit # 1: Be Proactive

After my last post, I was all set to make fun of my next book's title, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey, because, who is he kidding? He's saying "effective," but meaning "Successful," and success means.....etc., etc., etc. Please see my previous post, etc, etc, and we are simply talking in euphemisms.

That was going to be the gist of my argument. Except a couple of my tens of readers, the husband and my faithful reader Scrollwork,* commented that I seemed to have overlooked a wee part of the dictionary's definition of success. The part of the definition that says that success, n., is the achievement of intention; the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted.

Hmm. Well, yes, now that I look a little more closely, I have to admit they are right. And that this definition does not actually have anything to do with wealth, status, or money per se. That I overlooked this aspect of the definition says a lot more about my mindset than anything else, I suppose. Or about my reading comprehension skills.

So I am forced to face up to Stephen R. Covey and his 7 Habits  and not make fun of his so-called euphemism. I am forced to admit that Effective can actually be a synonym for Successful. And I am forced to examine more than the title of this book, which several reputable people who aren't at all pretentious have recommended to me.

Why make fun of it in the first place, you might ask? It is an international bestsellar, after all. 

Why? Because I'm intimidated, of course. 

This is one of those daunting books that say, Look, here are 7 simple rules for being successful, and all you have to do is all this scary stuff about evaluating yourself and your behavior and your values and your principles, your goals, your motivations, your psychological hangups, and pretty much everything else that your life has been carefully constructed to obscure -- and you have no chance of really understanding without therapy.

But it costs about $16 plus tax, and one session with a paid professional is at least 10 times that, so--might as well give it a shot.

Habit #1: Be Proactive

Be pro-active, as opposed to re-active. Take charge of your behavior. Don't let things happen to you because you are passive.

This habit is about concentric circles...

Your circle of concern is all the stuff that is on your mind, and the smaller circle is the stuff over which you  have some control. So you worry about global warming, but you can't control that. What you can do is drive less and walk more. Or you worry that you're going to get all flabby and old and wrinkly and then die; but what you can do is starve yourself, get Botox, and exercise like hell. And eventually die.

So focus on today (Geesh, this sounds familiar), and what you can do today to further your goals. Like make that appointment for that Botox.

Some things within your Circle of Influence: yourself; being happy; being a good listener; admitting mistakes; setting goals and following through.

Some things within your Circle of Concern: the weather; mistakes; other people's flaws and annoying habits.

Covey has a nice coda to his chapter, a little lesson about a stick. On p.21 he says, "'When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.'"  He means that you can choose your response to a situation, but you can't choose the consequence. The consequence is outside our Circle of Influence. There's no way around this, he says. If you cut off the end of the stick, you've still got two ends, the one you're holding, and the other one, the consequence, that you can't control.

So this is a nice way to try to deal with control: that which you can control, that which you can't. The truth is that there's not too much you can actually control, beyond your own responses. (And some of those are involuntary.) Which realization is quite anxiety-provoking, don't you think? 

And anxiety is at the root of it all, whether you're a nail-biter or a control freak. Anxiety is just another way of trying to control the uncontrollable, through such magical thinking as, If I worry obsessively about every single thing that could go wrong, then nothing will go wrong. But if I forget just one little thing, all bets are off. 

So I'm afraid to say it, but the best thing to do here is to take deep breath and try to relax, then make a choice, and then another breath and another choice. That is within your Circle of Influence.

The good news, according to Covey, is that the more proactive you are in your life, the larger your Circle of Influence becomes.

And also, if you have a dog, you can toss the stick to him, and he'll chew it to bits.

*Scrollwork, by the way, has an Etsy shop where she sells fantastical, "upcycled" clothes that, if I were 25 years younger and lived farther east, or south, or definitely west, I'd be happy to pair with some Dr. Martens and wear dancing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Success, n.

Let’s be honest, I’ve gone over to the namby-pamby side of things, where success is called abundance and is defined in much the same way we talk about happiness or contentment. You know, success is whatever makes you feel good. Wealth is friends, family, feeling a little buzz about your place in the world. It’s been a little New-Age-y around here. A little sticky. 

What is it with all this garbage about happiness and contentment? These are consolation prizes, people, for if you happen to notice that while you’re meditating and chanting “ommmm” and smiling at people and giving them candy (did I say that? Is THAT what I want? Candy?) and everything, you haven’t actually gotten rich or famous or become highly prestigious.

These are the kinds of helpful thoughts that buzz around my head when I try to meditate. Or to work.

For some clarity, I  headed to the dictionary. Did I mention I used to work in a library? That’s right. Even considered library school, which has become way cooler over the last 20 years than it was when I took one course and decided no, thanks. Still, I’m all about the reference books.

Besides, as any writer knows, when defining terms, you might as well start at the dictionary.

So I started with my actual dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969) that I seem to have lifted from the cooperative house I lived in for five-and-a-half years in my 20s. No, that wasn’t the 1920s, that was MY 20s.

Success, n. 1. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted. 2.a. The gaining of fame or prosperity. b. The extent of such gain. 3. One that is successful. 4. Obsolete. Any result or outcome.

I ended up online, of course, where I looked up "success" in 30 dictionaries.  Thirty dictionaries, which all said pretty much the same thing, so I’ll quote you the Mirriam-Webster online definition, since we know and trust the Mirriam-Webster name (although maybe not so much if you’ve taken Reference Librarianship and know things like the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was an extraordinary achievement, whereas the 15th was not.)
            Success, n. 1. (obsolete) Outcome, result.
            2.a. a degree or measure of succeeding. b. favorable or desired outcome; also the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.
3. One that succeeds.

 For thoroughness, I looked up succeed: 
Succeed, intransitive verb.
1.a. to come next after another in office or position or in possession of an estate. b. to follow after another in order.
2.a. to turn out well. b. to attain a desired object or end.
Transitive verb.
1. To follow in sequence and especially immediately.
 2. Come after as heir of successor.

Guess what? Not a single mention of abundance. All this talk about “wealth” and “abundance” meaning something other than having money and achieving concrete stuff notwithstanding, the dictionary offers a pretty darn depressing reality check. Success means having money and achieving things that other people have noticed you have achieved. I could have started and ended this post with the Word tools dictionary:
1. Achievement of intention. 
2. Attainment of fame, wealth, or power. 
3. Something that turns out well. 
4. Somebody successful.

Bummer for me.  

Can thirty dictionaries be wrong? I mean, is there a way around those key words like fame, wealth, power, achievement?
Well, my tens of readers, of course there is. There has to be. And I think--yes, I think I'm pulling out of my slough of despond--and I can see it. 

The dictionary is concerned with the standard definition of success, but most of the successful people I've talked to don't concern themselves with that one. They are, all of them, much more concerned with the day-to-day pursuit of their goals than with the glorious proofs of their attainment. They're more about quality of life, and about purpose than about the fruits of their labors. And if that's how the obviously successful people define success, why should poor slobs like me be any different?

And that brings me back to where I began, really: finding out what makes people feel successful.  After all, as my sister the psychoanalyst told me, you can be one of those people who achieves a great deal, but who, because of your psychology, is incapable of feeling good about any of it. 

Who wants to live like that

Phew, that was a close call. I almost had to shut down this whole operation. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Navel Gazing to Find Success

Immersing myself in all these books about Success has actually been helpful in some ways. All their talk about wishes and desires and intentions has freed me from a certain amount of guilt.  They’ve allowed me to pursue some things I was already sort-of pursuing in a guilt-ridden because-they’re-not –leading-to-employment-and-money-earning-half-assed-way. 

Like napping.  Just 20 minute catnaps. I’ve always taken those, since college. Even at my library job. My colleagues more than once caught me with keyboard impressions on my cheeks some time in the early afternoon.

Or like meditating, which I’ve mentioned before.

But one thing keeps coming up in these books that  I’ve really had a hard time wrapping my mind around. It's this whole asking God or the universe or your subconscious for what you want phenomenon. Whether it’s affirmations or afformations or writing a list of your intentions and desires, I just can’t quite get my mind around it.

First, how specific should this list be? Is this list meant to include new headphones for my iPod? Because I do need those. I can only hear Pink from one speaker, and that’s not cutting it at the gym.

Second, is the list meant to be abstract, in which case it ought to be wholly altruistic? Peaceloveandunderstanding and all that. 

Third, there are complexities to the whole wishing/desiring/intention thing. 

For example, is there a zero-sum calculation at work here where if I wish to publish an article in a major magazine, then one of my children will be hit by a car. Because I DIDN’T wish for my family’s health and happiness? 

What about wishing for something that has ramifications you don’t understand at the time? Think Sibyl of Cumae: she wished for immortality, but forgot to wish to stay young forever; so she shriveled up into an ever more wrinkly and elderly old woman; furthermore, she was doomed to constantly lose her loved ones because she forgot to wish for their immortality, too.

I used to wish for wisdom. Yep. That was me, the practical-minded teenager. I wanted wisdom. I wanted to be one of those old people at whose knee young people sit and ask for advice. Later, I thought, why did I waste time wishing for that? I ought to simply have wished for health and happiness. Those make for a more comfortable life.

So the wishing/desiring/intention-planting becomes this thing. Like a birthday wish.  You know, make a wish and blow out the candles. It seems simple.

But what if you don’t blow out all the candles and you wished for something specific and particular that you really, really want, like David Bowie to kiss you, and then you have to face your disappointment? (Okay, that was a loo—oo-nng time ago.) You don't want to risk that. 

So then you wish anodyne wishes: you wish for world peace, say. Something faultless but also impossible. If your wish comes true, then great, you helped; but if it doesn't, no one will blame you.  Meanwhile, you get brownie points (with whom, you might ask, since I’m pretty much an atheist—but I never claim to be rational) for your benevolence towards humanity. 

Fourth, what do all these lists have to do with success? By now I've forgotten, caught up in this rather self-serving exploration. Luckily, one of my successful old friends hasn't, and he contacted me, and suggested that perhaps my entire line of reasoning here has been misguided.

Okay, he didn't actually say that. What he did suggest is that success is about setting an impossible goal, a goal that has nothing to do with personal enrichment but with doing something or making something that improves the world a little bit. 

Damn idealists. They always make you look up from your navel.  

His is an interesting suggestion, though. To make sure you always have something to strive for, to inspire you, to occupy your time (and to prevent excessive navel-gazing), choose a goal you can never fully achieve. Even though you'll know you’re never going to succeed, you’ll always be able to place stumbles and achievements in perspective. Best of all, you'll always have something to occupy you.

Besides your navel, my tens of reader, as fascinating as it is. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Don't F**k With a Bus and Other Rules for Successful Living

In high school one of my best friends, Maude, taught me two rules for driving that I've never forgotten. The first is self-explanatory, or it should be. It's the second that interests me today.

1. Don't f**k with a bus.
2. Look where you want to go, and you will automatically steer the car there.

Maude, as a few of my tens of readers know, was (is) delicate, small-boned, had the neatest cursive for a lefty and possibly ever, and a mouth like a sailor.

Maude's father taught her to drive, and she passed this one on to me. (#1 was entirely her own, I hasten to add.) Which was good, because my father taught me to drive, too. This meant we went over to the Walt Whitman High School parking lot and I drove around in circles while my dad white-knuckled both the door armrest and the back of the seat. After completing a few circuits, he congratulated me, and I, who was unused to praise of any kind, forthwith drove into the chainlink fence.

After that, I went to driving school. 

Look where you want to go, and you will automatically steer the car there.

Miraculously, this works. 

If you concentrate on the nose of your car, you can't see anything else. If you focus on the road right in front of the nose of your car, you become over-aware of the micro-adjustments you need to make to steer, which can scare you with the unpleasant realization that you're operating a potential weapon of destruction and you can't possibly imagine you can make it do what you want. You might freeze. Or drive into a fence.

However, if you look ahead, towards the curve you're approaching, not too far, but not too close, your hands know how to get the wheel in the right position. Your brain takes over and your hands respond. All those things you need kick in, like depth perception, and the sense of the road, and the instinct for when to apply the brake and when to let up, and you just flow. 

Hey, this is the United States of America, where car and road metaphors have a long and prominent precedent.  

And this is my homily for today.