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Friday, December 13, 2013

Success and the Inner Rabbit

November is over. NaNoWriMo is over. And apparently, so is my writing habit. I know, say it isn’t so. Well, look, I accomplished the goal of writing 50K words of a first draft in November. Fifty thousand words - and some. I wrote at least 1,667 words every day but one. (1,667 X 30=50,000). It felt great. And then December hit. 

What happened? I thought I’d developed my habit. A habit takes about twenty-one days to establish. The daily words didn’t even take all that long, since what I was writing mostly was drivel. I say that without having looked back over my work, yet; but I am sure most of it is drivel. And I haven’t finished my draft. Therefore, I need to produce more drivel. I can work with drivel. Drivel I can revise. But now that the companionship of the other 300,000 people who signed up for NaNoWriMo has dwindled, my writing habit has gone pffffft. Part of it has to do with the busy season. The children have started all their end of semester performances. There are all kinds of things that end up sliding into the work week hours, therefore, because the weekends are taken up with rehearsals and performances. Also, the husband is on call right now, which means interrupted sleep on top of perimenopausal interrupted sleep.

But these are excuses. The real reason is that fear has slowed me down. Once the artificial deadline and word count goal of November 30th passed, my structure disappeared. November was squeezing through a narrow passageway that took all my focus to inch through, doubts and fears about my eventual accomplishment notwithstanding; and then December was
One of many distractions....
coming out the other side of the passage into a vast open space. I’m like a little rabbit, paralyzed by the shadow of a predator overhead.

I’m not sure, in this analogy, what the overhead predator stands for in my life; but you get the idea, Readers, don’t you? My point is the wide open spaces and the blinding light are too much for my Inner Rabbit. The answer seems to be to dart hither and yon until I can create another tunnel-like situation for myself, a place to burrow and write that squeezes the self doubt and fears, if not out entirely, because frankly that seems impossible, to the side.

The question becomes, then, how to do that? Recently, I read a book called Saved, by Ben Hewitt, a journalist who spent a year hanging out with a friend of his who lives off the grid. The financial crisis of 2008 awakened in him the realization that he didn’t know anything about money. So he wanted to follow around this happy go lucky dude who had almost zero of the filthy stuff. Anyway, my takeaway from Ben’s experience was a new understanding of the phrase, “Time is money.” When he looked closely at his friend Eric, bartering for whatever he couldn’t do or get for himself, he saw a free person. Free because he chose what was important enough for him to spend his time - his days, his hours, his minutes doing. Most of those things had nothing to do with earning money. There were many, many ways he could spend his hours and end up earning money; but they weren’t worth the trade off to Eric. Hanging out with Eric, Ben began to think about how many hours it would take of money-earning work to afford, for example, a new car, and began to consider whether that trade was worth making. Because, how you spend your time is how you live. It’s how you pass your life. Maybe a used car would be better. Or a bike.

Whatever we need to do to get that sense of urgency, maybe we should do it. Maybe it’s procrastination. I know, that sounds just plain contrary. But maybe scrunching up against a deadline is the best way to produce a result. I don’t really think so, actually, and I just read somebody’s article about realizing how procrastination was damaging her career because she never produced her best work, just work that met the deadline.

So what would be best would be to have that understanding of life being finite all the time, so you can make sure you focus. That sounds awful, just like those lifeline timers you can download to your desktop that tell you how much longer you have to live. Yikes.

I’m conflating two needs here. (I’m allowed to do that. It’s my blog.) There’s the need to accomplish stuff. Stuff seems to get done best with a sense of urgency, a looming deadline breathing down the neck. I can just hear my former housemate from East Germany ridiculing my very American emphasis on progress and producing. Is it possible not to have a need to accomplish at least something?

The other need is to appreciate the value of life. This could actually lead to ignoring deadlines altogether and channeling one’s inner Ferdinand. Smelling the flowers, being in the moment, or – of this my former housemate from East Germany would approve – drinking beer and having involved conversations with friends about appreciating the value of life. Appreciating the value of life, unfortunately, often requires a shock involving realization of mortality. The beautiful mundane never seems so beautiful as when you wake up after surgery, for example, and discover you are still here.

Good thing I don’t like beer. Because if there’s one thing that sidelines my drive to accomplish stuff, it’s fear. Which brings me back where I started. I do want to finish my sh**ty first draft. So I will simply have to find another tunnel.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Am I a Millenial?

Too much luggage under the eyes to show my face...

A couple months ago, I decided I needed to read actual news articles, not just opinion pieces about news. I thought, since I’m a big girl now, that it might behoove me to read facts presented to me and draw my own conclusions about them, rather than let other people tell me what to think about selected facts. That meant that I resisted what had been my favorite section of The New York Times – the Sunday Review – in favor of that thing in which they wrap the Sunday Review. I think it’s called the front page?  

And it was good. Indeed, just two weeks ago I read an incredible story about a death that appeared to be suicide, but may have been murder from domestic violence. This story, which I saved, would make a fantastic novel. And just before I saw that article I was thinking about how I’d love to write another novel, only I don’t have a plot. I am not good with plot. Well, this front page article contained a plot, let me tell you. I wish Elmore Leonard were still around. He would write a doozy of a novel about that.

Does that sound callous? It does, doesn’t it, Readers? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be callous.

My point is that last weekend I caved and read the Sunday Review. There were two pieces that resonated with me. One was about the Real Humanities Crisis. Here is it is, if you want to read it. The other one was about the Millenials, who are, FYI, defined as people born between 1980 and 2000, which also means they are Generation Y, which means there are two names for them, which seems unfair. Although come to think of it, there are two names for my generation, Generation X. Namely, Gen X and Slackers. And before you whip out your calculators, classmates, I know that technically I am a Baby Boomer, but there is just nothing about baby boomers that relates to me, and everything about Generation X that does. Here is that article for your edification.

One article is about how the Millenials are searchers, looking for a new definition of success and for lives full of meaning. Which means that perhaps I am actually a Millenial, because – hello - I am a searcher and I’ve been reframing success. This article, by the way, starts out by characterizing the millenials as the”most self-absorbed generation, ever.” But I distinctly recall the Me Generation being called that. And come to think of it, just who are the Me Generation? I have a sinking feeling that is also my generation.

The conclusion to draw here is that every older generation looks at the twenty somethings coming up behind it and thinks these twenty-somethings are the most selfish ever. That's simple envy: underemployed twenty-somethings have a lot more time to dawdle in cafés and grow beards than fully grown up folk.

But the article goes on to say that in fact these Millenials have been “forced to rethink success so that it’s less about material prosperity and more about something else.” And that something else is, apparently, meaning. They want to make a difference. They want to do good. Indeed, more than happiness, they want meaning in their lives.

And my researches on success lead me to conclude that, therefore, they will succeed.

Then there’s the other article, called, “The Real Humanities Crisis.” This is about the plight of most creative people, as well as about jobs in K-12 education, which should fall under the rubric Ways for Creatives to Earn a Decent Living Doing Something Meaningful.  Sad to say, now those jobs are being strangled by standardized testing, and any parent of a public school student knows how beleaguered The Arts are, since there’s not a direct link between arts education and friggin’ test scores. There is a link, though – don’t get me started. I don’t have room here for that discussion.

“Most creative artists, even successful ones, are not able to earn a living.” That’s what the article says. You know, it’s good to see that in print. And bad. Most of all, it’s a relief. Of course it’s the final dousing of any idea I had of, um, making a living from my writing. From my creative writing, that is. But it lifts one burden of failure from me. If most creative artists can’t make a living from their creations, then failure to make a living is not a sign of failure as a creative artist. It’s just failure to make a living.

I am sure I’ve mentioned this before, but when the financial crisis happened in 2008, New York Times columnist Judith Warner wrote about commuting into NYC on the train surrounded by Wall Streeters and lawyers and how she had come to feel diminished or unappreciated for being a journalist. She saw herself as surrounded by people who felt that choosing to do a job that didn’t maximize one’s income potential was morally suspect. Or at least idiotic. Now that these people, some of them, were out of jobs, she thought maybe people like her, or people who had chosen helping professions that didn’t have super high incomes, might come to be respected again. At least that’s what I think she wrote. Memory does strange things, though. Perhaps she said nothing of the sort. Perhaps I’m putting my own words into her pen.

I certainly relate to that sentiment. I’ve both imbibed that message and struggle against it. It’s one of my biggest conflicts: choosing to do what I love and think is important (writing and being a full time mom) makes me feel that I’ve done something misguided and foolish. Sometimes. The opportunity costs seem too high. Sometimes.

Maybe the Millenials won’t struggle with the same conflict. As the article says, they have been forced to look beyond making money to find satisfaction. According to the article, studies show that when economic times are pinched, young people turn to helping others. When economic times are expansive, I guess, they tend to fill their pots with money - screw meaning.  But times are not so expansive. Thus, people are reconsidering how they spend their days. “The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive,” says philosopher Gary Cutting. “Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives your life meaning.”

Hooray for the searchers, I say! I also say thank you in advance, since they – those Millenials – are the largest generation since the Baby Boomers and they’re going to have to help support me when I’m old.  I’m pretty sure the government isn’t about to start handing out pensions to mothers and writers. But I could be wrong. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Why I'm Thankful for Envy and Jealousy

The blogosphere and the sphere in general – the American part of it, anyway – are awash in proofs of thankfulness. This is all to the good, and very mind improving. Many of us are seriously cultivating gratitude in order to shape our brains to be more positive, and not just on Thanksgiving. As I said, this is all to the good. Every little degree positive anyone turns has got to be good for all of us. As long as there’s no deviation into smarminess. Smarminess is just aggressive do-gooding, and as Ma Burnside, Auntie Mame’s reluctant future mother-in-law might say, “That’s mighty bad form.”

Well, Readers, today, instead of the standard litany of gratitude I’m going to go where I more naturally tend. Towards the perverse and contrary. I was thinking of what I’m grateful for yesterday, as we made our rounds of thanks at the table. Here are a couple samples, by the way. From nephew: I am thankful I was reincarnated as a human. From niece: My teacher said we need to go around the table and say what we’re thankful for. Oh, we already did.

So, for what am I thankful? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m thankful for jealousy and envy. That’s right. Those annoying, petty emotions. I’ve decided that rather than fight them, I’m going to listen to what they tell me. I think they’re useful, although I sure wish I’d evolved out of them. Or just aged out of them. That would be fine, too. But they’re unflagging companions, turning up at the most annoying times.

Take envy. I know I’m not the only one who feels it, but I’ve got my particular items to envy. They are all about writers. I don’t, for instance, envy Wall Street financiers or Acadamy Award winners. But writers who win awards or hit the bestseller list? Check. That’s professional envy and it’s instructive. I need to pay attention to my writing and treat it seriously.

Now jealousy is a much worse feeling. But I’ll admit to feeling it at times. Usually these times occur when I hear about some accomplished person’s accomplished child getting into an Ivy League. In this case, the emotion is useful in showing me that I’ve drifted too close to becoming a parent whose self-esteem depends on the accomplishments of her child and am definitely in the red zone for depending on arbitrary elitist markers of success. Step away.

So that’s why I’m thankful for them emotions, envy and jealousy. Now, please step away, E & J. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Tinged Blue Day

I am tinged blue today. Of course it’s the weather. The whole neighborhood is tinged blue-grey. The
asphalt road’s dampness reflected steely grey and I needed nothing to shield my eyes when I walked the dog. It’s dim in a way that seems as if I’ll never see fully again.

But of course it’s not only the weather. It’s the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That happened before I was born, but not long before. I was in utero, which numbers me one in the subset of my generation that feels we just missed being part of something great. I’m of that generation that grew up feeling like the best hope for our country had been thwarted and fizzled out in a frazzle of drug addled hippies, disco, and Watergate. We just missed free love, and grew up to meet AIDS. Watergate, conspiracy theories, and cynicism shaped our worldview. We never knew a time of real optimism, just a time of grief and reaction. We grew up and were described as cynics and slackers. Now we’re coming into power, bringing cynicism about government to work with and for the government. This can’t be good. This may explain some of the gridlock in Congress. Because we turned cynical as children we turned away from the power of government to do good. So now I find myself in a world where I feel weird arguing for the natural right of a person to have health care or food. Where I’m made to feel weird for suggesting that the government should help take care of its citizens, even at the expense of businesses, like the insurance business, being able to make profits. Is that right, to make people who argue for the protection of the health and welfare of others seem like spendthrifts? As if being good with money – i.e., accumulating it – is the highest virtue.

Speaking of grief. This reminds me of something that happened the other day in my NIA class – NIA is an exercise movement class based on dance, martial arts and yoga. Our teacher starts each class with a few comments on the focus for the day (like feet, or arms or fluidity). That day, she introduced a new routine and said she had made this routine the year before, but had never taught it, because just as she prepared to teach it, her father became ill, and she had to take time off and he passed away several weeks later. So this routine, she said, was dedicated to him, and she was teaching it now, a year later. Her voice cracked and I teared up, and I would bet there was a lump in the throat of everyone in the room.

Aside from acknowledging my teacher’s loss, I was struck by one of the nice aspects of living in a small community. I know the teacher – we socialize together sometimes, and chat about our children - and most of the people in the room are at least familiar to one another. But I was moved not only by our teacher’s story, but by her sharing of it. She stood up there in the front of the room and let us all in on her grief; furthermore, she did so without intellectualizing it, but letting her emotion come through. Then she turned on the music and started the routine and returned to her more familiar, buoyant self. This reminded me, as I am often reminded, when I think of a loss I’ve experienced, how amazed I am at people. We just keep going, with our losses and traumas, big and small, lodged inside. These losses knock the wind out of us, and they retain power even years later, and yet we go on, doing our things, all of us with our losses inside. Sometimes I wonder that we’re not all just staggering around from the heaviness; but we’re not, usually. We live, and that’s a beautiful thing. Still, it was good to remember that we all have these losses inside. If we remember that, we can have compassion for one another. To see a person living and know that she is living with loss makes it hard to be cynical.

Off the soap box.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Habit Forming Can Be Habit Forming

Well, I sure hope so. That’s why I’m doing my parallel NaNoWriMo challenge: to establish a habit of writing a minimum number of words every day. Why? Because I’m so easily thrown by my self-doubts or my doctor’s appointments or the dog needing a walk or my self doubts – oops I already said that. I guess I mean it. I can get derailed so easily. I hit a tough spot in my writing. Next thing I know, I’m eating almonds and catching up on the latest Nordic Noir my MIL recommends. I’d like to establish that habit of regular words so that I keep working even when the self-doubt fairy comes to interrupt me. Like Trollope, known for his excellent, regular work ethic. Just to name one exemplary author. And he managed to write over forty books. I’m hoping that if I establish this habit then a day or two of total dreck won’t send me into a spiral of despair and turn me into a harpy harping on the husband and the children. Instead of a spiral of despair, I’ll weather it ass in chair.

That has a nice rhyme.

So now that November is almost half over, how am I doing? Thank you very much, I am doing very well. I have cranked out the requisite number of words, plus more. And I have weathered several spells, including one today, of the self doubt fairy beating me about the head with whispers about the futility of my work, of writing in general, and of my very existence. As I told my neighbor across the street via text: Ass in chair.

I enjoy being crass.

But this post is about more than establishing my word count habit. It’s about habit formation.  Over the past two years, here are some habits I’ve formed, or reinforced:
1.     Morning yoga. At least 8 minutes, currently about 15. Thank you, Dr. Oz, though it pains me to say it.
2.     Starting each day with a couple moments thinking of things for which I’m grateful and things for which I wish. Thank you every blogger, women’s mag, book, and inspirational speaker who has suggested this, though I hate to reveal myself as such a joiner.
3.     Daily exercise consisting of at least a constitutional. This has been a habit since high school.
4.     Mid-afternoon snoozle. This one is also a longstanding habit, dating back to before I napped over my keyboard at my job at Widener Library, before college, all the way back to, well, infancy. At this point, the daily snoozle is practically inadvertent. I might still be asleep, for all I know.

Then there are some other daily habits I am trying to establish, aside from the daily word count, such as:
1.     Meditation. Jerry Seinfeld does it every day, and so can I. I’m up to several days a week with this, but not every day. I haven’t found the ideal time for me to sit still yet.
2.     Greeting and saying good-bye to my loved ones such that we can see the whites of each other’s eyes, not shouting from one room to another. And not just because Gretchen Rubin wrote about it in her book.

Well, so much for habit formation. It’s useful, but only half the story. At least for some people, I imagine. Some people might need help breaking habits. Luckily for you poor souls, there is a book on this by one Charles Duhigg, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner.

I haven’t read his book. I personally, Readers – and I am being modest here – haven’t had to break too many bad habits. There was the split end picking I used to do in high school. I’ve since heard that hair picking is indicative of some kind of emotional disturbance, but in my case, I assure you I WAS FINE. TOTALLY. Just a little anorexic and depressed, but NOTHING MAJOR. Eventually, I cut my hair in the mid 80s and got happy and I have almost never picked a split end since then. Partly because I worry my eyes will get stuck.

This has left me with no bad habits at all. So I can't really help you with yours. Never fear - Charles Duhigg’s website provides a handy flow chart for breaking bad habits, which I will share with you.
It’s kind of complicated, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t start bad habits. Like me. Or maybe it shows that Pulitzer Prize winning Charles Duhigg is just an overthinker. He could take a lesson – we all could – from the husband. He had a nail biting habit when we met, which he revealed during the first football season we spent together. And by “together” I mean in different rooms after I saw how het up he got and that he bit his nails. Then one day, under absolutely no pressure from me, he quit. He said, “I am going to stop biting my nails.” And then he did. Without a flow chart.


But wait, I wrote that stuff yesterday before driving the ballet carpool. Since then, I realized that I do have a bad habit. It is this. Every time I get out of my car, I pull the car keys out of the ignition with my right hand, then grab my bag and haul it towards me, and every time I do that I jab my hand towards my face with my key sticking out. Then I think, If I don’t stop grabbing the key that way, I am going to stick myself in the eye one of these days.

Okay, maybe there is another habit I could work on breaking. My habit of anxiety. You didn’t realize I had anxiety, you say? Well, I know it’s not obvious; but trust me, I suffer from anxiety - just a touch.  

Just the other day, my sister the psychoanalyst mentioned attending a talk at my niece and nephew’s school by some guy who described a technique for relieving anxiety involving a tennis ball and your own two hands. It’s called Mind Juggling. I share it with you, Readers, in case any of you want to try it. If so, please let me know. As I told my sister the psychoanalyst, the idea of banishing my anxiety and resetting my brain makes me nervous. But I probably should work on that, because otherwise how will I be able to focus on the car key thing? And if I don’t, somebody’s going to get her eye poked out, and that somebody is going to be me. Then I’ll really have a problem.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's Hard to Be Me, but Easy to Influence Me

So I have my annual physical on Friday, to which I will bring my nattering nabobs of hypochondria with me via a list. My younger than me, thinner than me, doctor will respond to each item with non judgemental briskness and hand me a wad of referrals or bland reassurances. These will hold me until the next bout of “oh my God my feet itch - do I have an undiscovered autoimmune disease?”

It’s hard to be me.

Anyhoo, in preparation for the physical, I had to take care of lab work. I went to a different lab than usual, one in the same building as my doctor’s office. I was dreading the wait. I was dreading the whole thing. But I went. The waiting room was small, close, and dreary. Thank goodness it was almost empty. That meant I wouldn’t have to wait long, and more importantly, I wouldn’t have to wait long surrounded by people with indeterminate illnesses pressed cheek by jowl to one another, as my stepmother would say, watching a procession of the lame and the halt, as she would also say. In the close, dingy, small room. Germs, Readers, are what I am getting at.

It’s hard to be me.

But can I just say, the receptionist was a talkative lady. She was chatting away to a woman with messy hair right ahead of me at check in. And, truth, I was preparing to get annoyed by the unnecessary chatting. After all, I hadn’t had anything to eat except a tiny bit of peanut butter that I’d wiped off my tongue when I remembered I was supposed to fast for the blood work. Also, I’m an impatient person. Anyhoo, the messy haired woman finished up her chat with the receptionist just as I was about to sigh.

“You’re really nice,” she said, with a note of wonder, and went to a chair.

I know, I really shouldn’t talk about messy hair. I haven’t brushed mine, except right before a shower, since approximately 1986.

So then it was my turn. And the receptionist, let’s call her Lulu because she knew my name but I didn’t know hers, began to “Hope” me and complimented me on my jacket and before I knew it I was showing her the nifty titanium credit card holder with the mechanical gizmo that pushes the cards up so you can see a bit of each of them but crooks with electronic credit card readers can’t. Then it was party time at LabCorps, and I was demonstrating the gizmo for other office members and there was someone else behind me in line, but she didn’t seem on the edge of breakdown. She was interested in my gizmo, too.

Eventually, I took my seat, as far away from the messy haired lady as possible and listened to Lulu explain to the next lady in line that in addition to being the receptionist she is also a phlebotomist and soon enough I was out of the waiting room and was making a fist in the giant high chair and thanking the phlebotomist who wasn’t also a receptionist for a painless needle stick and I was on my way out when I heard, “Hope!”

A receptionist calling your name is not what you want to hear when you’re on your way out of the lab. Even a receptionist like Lulu. Were they going to need to do it over? Had they forgotten a vial’s worth of precious bodily fluid? Had they already discovered the unidentified autoimmune disease I didn’t know I had?

But, no, it was the credit card gizmo. Lulu had rallied a third person behind the desk AND another lady waiting to sign in for her lab work, and they wanted to see the gizmo. And they all wanted to know where I got it, and so another few minutes elapsed before I got out of the dingy, too small, windowless waiting room.

I was about to walk through the automatic sliding front doors to the parking lot – taking a moment to note my gratitude for the hands-free experience, considering that so many sick people would otherwise be touching the knobs and pulls I would have had to touch – when the obvious truth hit me. Lulu was practicing her Dale Carnegie skills for winning friends and influencing people. 

Readers, Dale Carnegie, while long dead, lives on through a website and courses and of course through his books. My copy of How To Win Friends & Influence people in its current edition carries the subtitle, “The Original is Still the Best! The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success.”

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, Principle Number Two, I think. Give honest and sincere appreciation. That’s what Lulu was using. This principle derives from the idea that everyone wants to be recognized for something positive, everyone wants to feel important. Waiting to check in for lab work is one of those things that drains you of any feeling of importance. You add your name to a list. You proffer some kind of plastic card to prove you are solvent. You sit in a germy chair around other line items on a list who are solvent, and you wait. Lulu the receptionist slash phlebotomist knows this, and she also knows that buttering you up by complimenting your jacket or appreciating your credit card gizmo is going to make her life a lot easier. You are going to sit and wait in your yucky chair in a much better mood than if she barely acknowledges you. And it works. She tamed my irritability by praising my titanium card gizmo and having me demonstrate it, and thereby giving me strokes for having the cleverness to purchase this item.

A quick review of the book suggests she also used four of Mr. Dale Carnegie’s “Six Ways to Make People Like You.” These are: be interested in others; smile; use the person’s name (frankly, this can go too far and feel overfamiliar); and – this is similar to Principle 2 of handling people – make the other person feel important.  The other two, Be a Good Listener, and Talk in Terms of the Other Person's Interests didn't really apply. 

The guy was a genius, I tell you. Lulu learned her lessons well. She seemed sincere, and I was handled with deftness. Maybe I was used, just a little bit, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t notice it until I’d left the premises.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid.

I will add that to my list for the doctor.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fall Back, then Leap In

Thought for November: I’m challenging myself. That’s my new plan. Not that I don’t challenge myself. I mean, writing a book is a challenge. Only I haven’t been writing that book consistently enough to feel like I’m really in it, really doing it. 

This comes on the heels of last week’s post about realizing that when I feel stuck – waiting to be pronounced upon was my exact description of the situation – the system collapses, partly because I don’t challenge myself as much as I could. I’ve been thinking about The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. I’ve written about it here. I’ve been thinking that my system breakdowns are possibly due to resistance. Resistance being the enemy of art, according to Pressfield. To break down resistance, therefore, I am challenging myself.

Challenge the First: Running. Since the weather’s turning yucky, I’m taking my exercise back to the Y and I’m working out harder. Choosing a tougher workout with Kimmy. Why? Because I’m capable of running faster and I want to challenge myself to actually do it. Also - and this may be a slightly stronger motivator – a lot of research shows that intense, shorter workouts may be more effective at staving off middle age spread than longer, more leisurely ones. So I’m mixing it up. Adding a couple shorter, faster runs to my routine. I know I’m supposed to accept my body changing as I grow older. I know I’m supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to grow older. It’s just that vanity and my secret vision of myself as a 5’6” leggy ectomorph won’t let go of me. In short, I’m just not ready for my Spanx to roll down my belly when I tuck into dinner. On those rare occasions when I might want to struggle into them because I’m going “out.”  So there.

Challenge the Second: NaNoWriMo. It’s November, which means another National Novel Writing Month has come around, and I’ve decided to make use of it. No, I’m not going to write a novel. In fact, the very idea of writing a novel in a month is laughable. My novels have taken 9, 4, and 5 (that last unfinished) YEARS to write. However, since I underestimate my abilities regularly, I decided to try to crank out the verbiage this year in November, while the 260, 000 plus souls who have registered for NaNoWriMo crank out theirs. I’m going to go for 50, 000 words, too, but unofficially. I’m going to write a draft of my nonfiction book. In November. The Anne Lamott (also the Hope Perlman) way: by writing a shitty first draft, no looking back until it’s over. The month and the draft. 

I'm trying to change this:

 into one of these:

What will these challenges do for me? Well, the exercise challenge has obvious benefits. All those health benefits. I’ve always been sold on those. Indeed, I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel right if I pass a day with no exercise at all.

A hidden benefit of upping the challenge here is that I will be exercising my willpower, too. I’ll be challenging myself to run faster for longer. This will take extra willpower beyond the willpower to get out and get moving. And exercising willpower strengthens it, and strengthened willpower in one area frees up willpower in other areas, too.

Another benefit of my challenges will be (let’s hope) that I establish a new habit. Since well-known research has proved that establishing a new habit takes about twenty-one days, if I increase my word output to approximately 1600 words a day for thirty days, I may well have a great routine in place to carry me through those system breakdowns when they threaten in future. Momentum. So that the next time the system breaks down, it's less of a total collapse than a slowdown.

A final benefit of challenging myself may be that I get into the habit of doing just that. I break myself of whatever fear of failure or of success, of whatever remnant of shame or who-knows-what (maybe my sister the psychoanalyst knows what) keeps me keeping my expectations low. I know, I know, if your expectations are low, you won't be disappointed. But, frankly, that's actually just a load of hooey. You can live in a state of continual semi-disappointment that way, which may be worse than living with the aftereffects of full on disappointments. 

Now I’ve told you about my challenges, Readers, so I will have to abandon my blog and crawl into a hidey-hole if I fail to stick to them. C'mon, somebody else join the challenge, too!

Friday, October 25, 2013

System Breakdown is Part of the System

The other day I went on the treadmill with my old friend Kimberly the StarTrac coach, and even
Milo with part of my Container Store score
though I’ve been jogging outside, the treadmill whipped me. That is pretty pitiful, since people say the treadmill is easier than running outside.

Since everyone including me knows sports function allegorically, I left the gym feeling not only exhausted, but depressed. I had a realization on the treadmill - a realization being de rigeur if sport is to function allegorically. (Did you note my use of the Britishism “sport” rather than the American “sports”? It’s because I’ve been reading the marvelous Old Filth by Jane Gardam and I have the voice of an 80-ish English gentleman judge in my head.)

Anyway, my realization was that I don’t push myself enough. I need a coach. I need hand-holding. I need a team. Something to make me work harder, because left on my own, my default is to work under my capacity. If I had that drive to overachieve, then my runs outside with music would definitely have gotten me into better shape and the StarTrac treadmill lady whatsername wouldn’tve whipped my double melons.

The above isn’t really allegorical yet, since I’m only talking about my approach to sports up there; but the approach seems to apply to other parts of my life as well. Take my book. Because I’m waiting to be pronounced upon, I have pages and pages of drafts, but no final draft. Sidling, Readers. I’m sidling towards my goal instead of running full on towards it. The obvious downside to this approach is that if I don’t have pages to send, I am not going to get this book out there, so I need to make those pages.

Maybe I’m being too self-critical. That would be a first, huh?

Let’s pull back and get a little persective, shall we? In fact, with the help of a friend, I pulled together my proposal, and now a couple agents have it. A couple have passed on it. But a couple still have it. And I know that if they’re interested in the proposal, the next thing that they’ll want to see is the actual book, or at least a chapter or two of it.

This is the glitch. People can and do help with many aspects of my work, but one I have to manage alone is waiting. That is what I’m doing poorly. Waiting to hear from agents. Waiting to be pronounced upon. I am a terrible waiter. When I’m waiting to be pronounced upon, everything else breaks down, too.

While I’m waiting to hear from agents, my brain is skewing negative, not positive. My brain is saying, Hope, you haven’t heard from these agents, which is probably a bad sign. This makes me feel like writing the book is futile. Therefore, I avoid it.

However, I could skew towards optimism. I mean, people do. I love those people. I wish optimism came more naturally to me, but I’m a Jew whose mother died, so I expect abandonment and rejection. I could say, Hope, no news is good news, and you might as well get your first chapter ready, so that when an agent wants to see it, you can send it right off to her. I could say, Hope, maybe this batch of agents will say no, but if so, you’ll fix your proposal and sent it out to another batch, and then you’ll need to have that chapter ready to go, so get to work.

Apparently I have that voice inside me, too, only she goes dormant when I’m waiting to be pronounced upon from on high. That voice waits, and then the writing waits, and then because the writing is dormant, I’m not doing what I want to be doing. This makes me cranky, and is the time I start thinking that the husband should get a different job, or a raise, or we should move, or I can’t stand to see one more hair elastic used as a bookmark. Pretty soon everyone but the dog is avoiding me.

Recently a writer friend sent me an article by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics, titled “Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure.” Scott Adams has a brand spanking new book out called “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” In my broken down state, I remembered I’d tucked the article away a couple of weeks ago when I had to clear off the dining room table for a dinner party. The secret to success, according to Scott, has two elements: One, know that you will encounter a long string of failures; and two, “one should have a system instead of a goal.” That means that if your current goal or project fails, you have a larger view. You learn from your mistake, and take another longshot. That way, success depends not on attaining a particular goal, but on continuing to take risks and set new goals; meanwhile you’re getting “smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier, and more energized.”

Interesting, don’t you think? A system. Well, I do have a system of sorts. It involves writing, blogging, attending monthly writers’ lunches, a monthly goal checking conference call, exercise, meditation, reading, refueling. It also includes temporary breakdowns. Those are hard to see for what they are: part of the system, not total collapse. So if I’ve contradicted myself here, it’s all part of the system. When things get cludgy, I get down on myself. Optimism idles. Optimism idles, but it’s there. In fact, part of what I get down on myself about in these periods of idleness is that I won’t give up and pick something more practical and lucrative to do with my time.

So how to get restarted? Well, there’s usually a brief wallow in misery, followed by a cry for help, and a little shopping. I finally ordered the things from the Container Store that have been on my list for three years. Then there’s Kimberly the StarTrac coach. Once I get moving again, it’s not too long before the whole jalopy’s rumbling down the road.

Friday, October 18, 2013

To-Do Lists and Stairway to Paradise

I feel mired this week. I just can’t seem to get anything done. The to-do list keeps splintering into ever more branches.  Our drying rack broke, necessitating a boring, stupid errand to replace it, but a simple one. You would think. But there doesn’t seem to exist a replacement for it. I went to Lowe’s, but the racks there were too small. So I went to Walmart, and I found one, except all the boxes were open or dented; plus, it needed assembly. Nevertheless, I selected the least-dented box and I traipsed the miles of registers to find one open and discovered the only open ones were at the farthest point from the door near which I’d parked and they all had several people in line. For some reason, I hadn’t taken a cart when I entered the emporium, so I was carrying this box. All that traveling and carrying gave me time to think, and what I thought was that I had no interest in buying a box of aluminum rods that would have to be assembled. The result would undoubtedly be a rickety, poor replacement for the fantastic, most perfectest laundry drying rack ever created. Except that it broke, so it wasn’t perfect. But it was closer to perfect than the dented box of aluminum rods in my arms, and also, come to think of it, less broken than that, too. After all, last I saw it, my broken drying rack was mostly assembled. So I left the box and marathoned my way back across the store and went home. Energy and time expended, job still undone.

The week has been like that.

Add to that my new normal sleep pattern, which seems to be a decent night’s sleep on alternate nights, interwoven with total wide awake insomnia on the other nights. Thank you, perimenopause.

Then there was the realization that I’ve been operating as chauffeur without the full schedule of events for the 10th grader’s ballet because we were out of town for a particular meeting at which a particular list of events was distributed; and because the parent who is in charge of distributing updates and information via email is a little bit distracted this year because her child is applying to college. So I had to scramble for information and rides and then ask for the missing list. Which I have yet to input into my electronic calendar or my marvelous new planner made out of paper. Then there was an email listing exactly sixty three trillion and seven soccer practices, which I have yet to input. That’s for the 6th grader. Who also just auditioned for the school musical and now will have to check the website every day for those practices. Do I need to reschedule French horn lessons?

There was more. So much more. Yet nothing accomplished. Kind of like the government, if you think about it. And kind of like a government employee, I was working without pay.

But you don’t come here to read my complaints, Readers. I’m aware that my life is good. Despite these periods of churning and frustration, things are okay. Sure, I’d like a little more consistent sleep. Sure, I’d like never to step foot in Walmart again.  Sure, I’d like to publish a book and earn some money. Sure, I understand the latter is not contingent upon the former. I do have a spiffy new planner that has lots of list-making space. I'll start by updating my to-do list. And if I’ve learned anything about life on this journey to perimenopause, it’s that when I feel mired and unproductive, making a list is a first step towards feeling better. A list is like a ladder, if you think about it. So before you can put foot to rung, you’ve got to have a ladder. After that, it’s just one foot in front of the other.

Did I manage something profound? No? Well, I tried. Listen to Rufus. He's more entertaining than I.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fear and 3 Ways to Handle It

I have been thinking about risk-taking and fear, of late. With the latter, I am all too familiar. Fear can impede risk-taking, which, biologically speaking, is the point of it. However, some of us, those of us who are, ahem, prone to anxiety (fear) have an overdeveloped capacity for it. Mine has been on overdrive lately. There are all kinds of fear, but I’m talking about fear of putting myself Out There, which is intertwined in a codependent way with fear of a negative outcome, a.k.a. failure. Failure.

So the question is why. I read about a book called The Trauma of Everyday Life, by psychologist Mark Epstein. I feel I can speak freely about Mark Epstein’s book because I’ve read one article about it and listened to one interview with Mark Epstein on public radio. I haven’t so much as laid eyes on the actual book, let alone cracked its binding. With that disclaimer out in front, I shall extemporize. With authority.

The book’s thesis, according to The New York Times, is that seemingly small events can traumatize people. While your basic cataclysmic events – death, divorce, bankruptcy – are definite triggers for trauma, an accumulation of small events can have as deleterious an effect on the psyche as an obvious major trauma. We are all, possibly, walking traumatized souls. 

So that’s depressing. Forget I mentioned it.

Okay, it seems depressing, but then again, despite the provocative title of the book the author does talk about a side benefit: Understanding that little things can create a ripple of suffering leads to compassion. Because we feel, we understand what others feel, too. Or at least we can. The guy’s Buddhist AND a psychologist, so you know he’s dripping with compassion.

Perhaps my takeaway should be that if Mark Epstein (and Buddha) is right, I’m normal. Fear and anxiety may be integral to our lives. How we handle them is what matters. Because lists are perennial blog favorites, here’s a list of three possible techniques.

1. Troubleshoot in advance. One way people try to overcome their fear is by listing all the things that could go wrong, then considering how they will react if those things happen and what they can do to counteract them. This sounds pessimistic, but is actually proactive. As I wrote in a previous post, Billy Jean King used this tactic to sharpen her tennis game. She would think about all the things that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle them. This, by the way, is one of the techniques Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D, describes in her book Succeed: How to Reach Your Goals.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Hasn’t your mother or father or (in my case) your shrink asked you that? By visualizing it, you do two things. One, you defang the fear by making it concrete; and two, by making it concrete, you open it up to analysis. How can I handle this if it happens? Just like Billy Jean King. 

This kind of visualization is a great way to conquer fear. Fear and anxiety are usually focused on things we can’t control. So imagining what we will do if we encounter those situations reminds us that while we can’t control what happens, we can control how we react to it. Which is exactly what therapists tell their patients and parents tell their children. As ever, the world remains much more out of our control than we would like it to be, but we have the capability to exercise ever more control over our responses to it. So – onward, risk-takers! This puts me in mind of Stephen Covey’s circles of influence and concern. Remember that diagram? There’s the large circle that encloses everything that matters to us – our circle of concern – and there’s the smaller concentric circle inside the larger one that represents our circle of influence – the area over which we have control. That starts with our response in any situation. As we practice working within our circle of influence, and try not to worry about anything outside of it, that circle of influence grows, so eventually we do gain some control over more of what matters.

2. Fake it. Once, one of my housemates was applying to graduate school in journalism. This was eons ago, back when I lived in a cooperative house started by some idealistic MIT grads. Anyway, this housemate impressed me by the juggernaut approach she took to those applications. More of an assault than an approach, to be accurate. When I asked, in awe, how she was accomplishing these things with such ease, while I was doing stuff like missing the deadline for the Ph.D. program at Berkeley and then calling the admissions office and asking if, even though it was too late to apply this year, I was the kind of applicant who had a good chance of getting in next year. My housemate said she just told herself it didn’t matter. Whichever essay she was working on at the moment just didn’t matter, it was no big deal. By faking herself out that way, she got into her first choice school. Into all of them, if I recall correctly. Which it’s likely I do not. Have you noticed how memory skews?

So those are a couple of approaches to dealing with fear and anxiety. If those fail, you can use my approach.

3. My approach. This comprises frantic work, delay, and hypochondria. I get everything ready, so I’m not exactly procrastinating. Then I stop. Run errands. Walk around in circles. Develop imaginary diseases. Eventually, something triggers me to take that final action, to risk.

So, to summarize: 1. face your fear. 2. ignore your fear. 3. project your fear onto something else. 

Then, after you act, you'll feel better. 

Except that I don't. Right now I am awaiting the return of the husband with his neurologist tools, because I think I’ve developed a peripheral neuropathy. Either that or Lyme disease. Or diabetes. Or cancer of the soles of my feet, which are itchy. Possibly I am on the verge of incontinence, and I am certainly raising my blood pressure just by thinking about it. And this reaction is after I acted.

On the plus side, after polishing my book proposal and pacing around the house for a week eating almonds, I queried my list of best hoped for agents and three have nibbled. This brings up a different brace of fears, not of failure, but of its opposite. 

One possible reason for my continued state of being, well, me, is that my anxiety/fear trigger has been switched on so long it doesn't know how to switch off. Possibly I have so much accumulated trauma from everyday life that I can't come down. Perhaps I'm traumatized from constantly experiencing minor trauma. Possibly the possibility of achieving a goal makes me more anxious than the possibility of failing to do it. Maybe Mark Epstein the psychologist would know. Maybe if I read his book, instead of just reading about his book, I would know. Probably I should exercise. Or meditate. I'll get to that later. I think I hear the garage door opening, the husband bringing his doctor's kit.  It's the perfect time to worry about my feet.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Look, It's Me, With Wrinkles (But Who's Vain?) in the Huffington Post!

I'd be falling short in the department of self-promotion if I failed to mention that I have a new post in the Huffington Post. It's in their new Third Metric Section, which is devoted to redefining success to include more than just money and power. Not to worry, success does still include those two things; but it's the sustainable feeling of success we're after, and as all too many a morality tale has shown, you can have money and power and still not feel successful.

So here's the link:
Sustainable Success Lessons From Billy Jean King

If the post seems familiar, then good - that must mean you follow my blog, and I thank you! Because it's my last post, which I submitted to the Huff Post for approval last week. Sometimes, they don't approve my posts. For instance, my post on Borgen was a no go. Maybe it was too political? I don't know.

In any case, I'm thrilled to be published in the Huffington Post again!

Friday, October 4, 2013

5 Secrets of Success Illustrated by Billy Jean King

In 1973, when Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, I was an overexcited nine year old, more thrilled by the phrases “male chauvinist pig” and “battle of the sexes” than by the symbolism of the match. Nevertheless, the match imprinted on my brain as part of the general consciousness-raising that was going on in 1970s U.S. culture. Billy Jean King and Free To Be You and Me represented Women’s Lib to me. Forty years later, it turns out Billy Jean King (BJK) is an excellent example for me – for us – once again, this time of success redefined as extending beyond money and power.

She’s been in the news again lately, because it’s the fortieth anniversary of that famous tennis match, as well as of the founding of what became the Women’s Tennis Association, and of equal prize money awards for men and women at the U.S. Open, all things in which BJK was instrumental. She’s been interviewed in print, on radio, and on film, and her life story reads like a primer on success. So let’s look at what she can teach us.

First, there’s BJK the player of tennis. For starters, she won twenty Wimbledon trophies in singles and doubles, so that’s pretty great. In talking about how she prepared for a match, she said she used a lot of visualization. She would visualize all the things that could go wrong, and then she would visualize how she would handle them. She would think about all the elements that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle those.

During play, she would set practical, specific goals like returning a serve into a specific part of the court. She would picture where she wanted the ball to go as she hit it. Aside from her visualization, she focused on her side of the net, not on her opponent, on standing up tall, and on letting go of mistakes. She focused on the present. Key, she said, was to forget about the past and the future, and to focus only on what was happening in that moment. Voilá, much money and power eventually arrived.

Then there’s BJK off the court. This is where the story gets interesting. While she loved the game, and was a fierce competitor, she saw tennis as a platform. It was not the only thing that mattered to her. In fact, part of why tennis success mattered to her was that it provided her a way to promote the cause she most believed in: equality. She said, “I knew as a youngster I wanted to be No. 1 in tennis. I knew by 12 my platform would be tennis, but my real life was going to be wrapped around equality and social justice. I felt like I had a tremendous sense of destiny.” (

Towards those ideals, BJK organized the first women’s tennis league, lobbied for sponsors, and worked hard to establish equal prize money for men and women and equal treatment on tennis tours.

Regarding that infamous match with Bobby Riggs, BJK says she never intended to play him, but then he played another top female player, Margaret Cort, and beat her. After that, BJK felt that she had to play him and she had to win. Why? Because she was working so hard to bring respect to the Women’s Tennis Association, which she helped found, and because Title IX had just passed, and she thought the cause of women’s lib and equality would be hurt if she didn’t. So this is significant because it shows her life’s work was in alignment with deep personal values linked to improving the world.

How did she accomplish so much? Did she arrive fully formed on a clam shell? Was she just a fluke, a tennis genius, a born leader? Certainly genetics came into play. But also, she had help. First, from parents who encouraged her athleticism. Later, when she became a leader among tennis players, her husband encouraged her to set up the women’s league. The common trope of success is “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but this trope is a myth. Look behind – or beside – anyone with sustained, meaningful success and you will find that champions have champions urging them on.

Billy Jean King is a great role model for a sustainable, holistic definition of success that includes more than money and power. She pursued greatness on the court in service of her ideals, not just to win. Once she retired from professional play, she channeled her passion into a new, but related path, behind the scenes. She started co-ed World Team Tennis “the day she retired.” Professional team members include Venus Williams and Andy Roddick. It’s a place for amateurs and professionals to train, and BJK believes that having participants and spectators – families – children – experience men and women playing together teaches a broader lesson about equality.

Does she have power and money? Yes, you bet. But if power and money were the only important metrics to her, she could have quit long ago. Instead, she risked it all when she was outed as a lesbian in the early 1980s, and decided to open up about it. The result was that she lost all of her sponsorships. However, she continued to work towards her goals, recouped her money, and created a legacy as a fighter for social justice.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

12 Things I Did Instead of Write a Blog Post

I’m in one of those phases when I feel like a chicken trying to fly.  I can do it, but my flight is ungainly, bottom heavy, and awful low to the ground. I’m not a 5’8” leggy ectomorphic, um, eagle – I am a chicken. A chicken that doesn’t seem to get very far.  When I feel like a chicken, I have learned to take stock of what I’ve been doing. Take stock, I said, Readers, not make stock.

So. Here’s a baker's dozen things I did instead of writing a blog post this week.
  1. Read a lot of essays by E. B. White.
  2. Decided my blog needs video.
  3. Went out to lunch with two great friends and discussed my worries about my children.
  4. Noticed how weird and fake I sound on video, and that I purse my lips most schoolmarmlike.
  5. Deleted many, many videos of myself talking about success.
  6. Decided I need collagen in my schoolmarmlike lips.
  7. Bought a crazy wrap that can be a dress, a skirt, a vest, a cape – but will not make me a 5’8” leggy ectomorph.
  8. Obsessed over my vast expanse of forehead.
  9. Had a complementary consultation with a decorator from Calico Corners.
  10. Had delicious corn chowder with a friend and discussed our worries about our children.
  11. Listened to a terrific interview with Billy Jean King and drafted a post about it.
  12. Queried an agent with a book proposal.
  13. Attempted to pick a fight with the husband, who would have none of it.