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Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Regret Nothing - With Name-Dropping

Product of Good Parenting
I recently passed a diverting lunchtime with a writer friend revisiting some of the opportunities we failed to grab, back in our twenties. Turns out we have a couple of doozies. For example, I offer my tour of the The New Yorker, about 20 years ago. Through a connection I can no longer recall - something to do with his mother - Louis Menand gave me a tour of The New Yorker. Yes, that Louis Menand, who writes regularly for the magazine. He gave me a tour. Through the offices. Of The New Yorker

What was it like, The New Yorker? What was Louis Menand like? I hardly know. I doubt I had a better notion then. It’s as if I were led, blindfolded, on that tour. I have one memory, a glimpse into a small office space. It was empty, but showed signs of occupancy. Which famous writer worker there? I don’t have the faintest idea. Maybe it was a plebe’s office. Who the heck knows? As for Louis Menand – I have only the recollection of the sensation of being with a person. I wouldn’t recognize him now, and frankly, I wouldn’t have recognized him a week after that tour. I don’t know that I ever looked him in the face. He was with me – beside, ahead, behind? – the way any authority figure was throughout my childhood, a shape or a bulk of anonymous but indisputable existence with which I could expect no real interaction. Like a coat rack draped in an overcoat. Certainly not like person with whom I could (ought to) communicate as an equal.

Looking back, I see the whole thing as a failure of imagination, not of courage. I wasn’t nervous. I was simply unable to consider my proximity to Louis Menand and that tour as opportunities for career advancement.  It’s possible I stood on a point of honor: I didn’t want to be like everyone else he toured around The New Yorker on his mother’s request and then ASK something of him, career-related. It’s possible. And stupid. More likely, though, my muteness sprang from seeing him as an authority figure, and seeing myself – or not seeing myself at all.

So why was he an authority figure? And why was I – a child?

This where I indulge in a little parent bashing. I don’t really like to do it, because, now that I am one, I understand that parents are mere humans, full of insecurities and fatal flaws that can obscure our good intentions. Nevertheless, I have to say that some responsibility for the stupid lack of imagination I showed then lay with my parents. For who else but they were supposed to teach me how to see my possibilities? I came across this bit by none other than Martha Stewart, in which she says the best thing anyone ever taught her was that she could do anything she put her mind to – and the person who taught her that? Her dad. She says, “I think it really often is up to the parents to help build confidence in their children. It is a very necessary part of growing up.”* (Then she applies another layer of decoupage to the birdcage she's making out of strips of six thousand thread count Egyptian cotton sheets for her gazebo.)  

Now, Martha's run the gamut from model to mogul to jailbird and back. Whatever you may fault her for, you can't fault her for lack of imagination for where she could be and what she could do.

It never even occurred to me that my tour with Louis Menand could be anything other than that, a tour. I never for an instant considered myself equal to anyone working there. Even though there were people my age, people from my high school class, working there around that time, I just felt different from Those People. They were on some other existential plane. So that’s the bottom line.

I left Louis Menand and The New Yorker, and I returned to my stultifying data entry job and my novel in progress, and never followed up. If Louis Menand noticed I didn’t write him a thank-you note, I hope he didn’t tell his mother. It never occurred to me, not because I was rude. I wasn’t. I was raised to write thank-yous. I had a supply of cards with my name printed on them for this purpose. No, I didn’t think of writing him because I didn’t imagine I had registered on his brain. He was one of Those People. 

So, my point, Readers, is that it’s necessary to imagine yourself using your talents and skills for work you want to do, and it’s important to help others imagine these things for themselves. Not unrealistic things. Realistic things. Who’s to say what’s unrealistic? That’s where imagination kicks in – imagining seemingly out-of-reach places reachable. Like taking advantage of an in at The New Yorker to explore how you might fit there. If it’s too late for you, then do it for your kids, or for your niece. Do it for your mentees. You might help shape the next Martha Stewart – or, if that gives you the heebie-jeebies, the next Louis Menand. You want people to believe you could be a contendah, and you gotta do that for them, too.

My friend has a doozie of a regret story. It also involves The New Yorker. I won’t tell it here, because it’s her doozie. I’ll just say it might beat mine.

*Martha on the best advice she ever received (in LinkedIn)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Honor of Kindness: Primum non Nocere
Primum non Nocere – first, do no harm – is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism. (Ahimsa, FYI.) It’s also the underpinning of medical ethics, handed down from the Ancient Greeks (Hippocrates, anyone?) in slightly different words. Oh, and it's also basic to the Judeo-Christian religions, among others.

When I was a young mother, one of my uncles told me the most important thing to do as a parent was to be kind. I was (am) the sort of person who looks to others for advice. Growing up without a mother, I looked for mothers everywhere. Books have often been pretty good substitutes, and I can recommend a few essential ones on parenting. My uncle’s advice, however, has always stayed with me because it was surprising. Not that my uncle is unkind. Far from it. But something about kindness as a principle struck me as foreign. It was certainly different from much of the advice I’d read in my book-mothers. Not that they advocated unkindness - not at all - but their focus was on handling specific problems or certain phases of childhood, on theories of discipline, or on modes of communicating. “Be kind” was something else, an underlying principle, a rudder to steer by, if you will. A secret to parenting success.

Anyway, the point is that after all that theory, “be kind” struck home. It spoke to my role as the attitude shaper for my offspring, to my role as Person Responsible for How She Acts and reacts in any situation. This agglomeration of actions and reactions being, well, life.

“Be kind” also, now that I think about it more, gives a nod to the little tykes’ individuality, to their little autonomous selves, and gives me space to recognize that whatever it is they might be doing, they are doing it to create their own individual selves, and those selves must not be crushed. So, be kind. And recognize how hard that is. Developing the self, that is, and being kind. They are both hard.

Be kind functions as a mindfulness tool. If I can take a tiny step away from the emotion of the moment and see my child as a separate critter, then I have a chance of acting in her best interest, not just reacting.
I was reminded of my uncle’s advice a few weeks ago, while reading the New York Times Magazine’s Dec. 30, 2012 issue, “The Lives They Lived.” Basically it’s a giant obituary section. Nothing wrong with obituaries. As my friend Reyna points out in her blog post, they can be instructive. In it was a tribute to David Rakoff, a writer and contributor to “This American Life” and a general wit. The tribute was this lovely letter to David Rakoff written by one of his friends, and my point, because I know I have one, Readers, my point is that this letter mentions that he once wrote an essay in which he said that “as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind.”

To be kind. To forgo the thrill of the harsh joke and the ensuing laugh in favor of kindness. Well, Readers, this struck me, in light of my previous blog post about my friend Let’s Call Him Mark. Because I agree with Rakoff. And my uncle. And the Dalai Lama. Let’s not forget him. Overall, I do, although occasionally, what I hope a 19th Century British novelist would have described as my “charming high-spiritedness,” overcomes my better judgment, and I give in to the urge to be, uh, mean. I’m in good company, after all. Doesn’t Emma Woodhouse do just that? And of course she is terribly wrong to make her joke at Miss Bates’ expense, as Knightly so rightly points out. (Internal rhyme unintentional, yet pleasing nonetheless.)

Readers, I have perseverated on this blog post for weeks. I have umpteen drafts of it. I can’t figure out why it’s been so hard to write. It’s really a simple post: I value kindness. Brené Brown talks about the importance of vulnerability. She talks about how we are afraid to be vulnerable, but that from vulnerability comes true experience. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, which she considers an act of bravery, we allow ourselves to fully be in the world with what matters most to us. From that place of essential meaning flow goals, acts, and endeavors that impact the world. Maybe stating something essential in which I believe relates to her message about the challenge of being vulnerable.

Or maybe it’s because any of you who follow my blog or know me in real life, know how far short of kindness I repeatedly fall. Kindness is subtle, so easily underrated. And I lack subtlety. After I read that appreciation of David Rakoff, I felt kind of intimidated, or inferior – unevolved – by comparison. I checked out three collections of essays by Rakoff from the library and began reading them, looking for the source of that quotation.

I could not find it. I did, however, come across an essay he wrote about Fashion Week in Paris. Apparently Karl Lagerfeld made a rather unkind comment to him about how on earth he’d find anything to say about fashion week that hadn’t already been said. Rakoff, despite his credo, responded in print describing Lagerfeld thus: “with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L?” 

Frankly, his outburst was a relief. And, while much lengthier and more literary than anything I may have said recently - or ever - was also much meaner. So there’s the aspiration and there’s the reality.  Be kind.

However, I still wanted to find the essay in which David Rakoff wrote that sentence about kindness, so I emailed Ariel Kaminer at The New York Times, who wrote the piece. She soon responded, sending me the link, which was very kind of her, along with the comment that she’d simply googled the sentence in question and found it easily - which, perhaps, was not.

But at least her tone was ambiguous. And she did send me the essay. Rakoff wrote it in 2010. His florid and biting description of Karl Lagerfeld was part of a collection of essays published in 2005. So, he mellowed over time. According to the Dalai Lama, that’s a gesture in the right direction. As he said the other day on Facebook, “If you can, help and serve others, but if you can’t at least don’t harm them; then in the end you will feel no regret.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Am I Allowed to be Petty?

I just read on somebody’s blog that next week is Random Acts of Kindness Week. This turns out to be true. ( I don’t know this week’s theme – suggestions welcome – but I’m pretty sure last week’s was Random Acts of UNkindness. Because, well, let’s just say there was a little exchange between me and a stranger that was unpleasant. A pricking kind of exchange.

I am sorry to say this happened in the auditorium of our middle school, during the musical. (“Annie,” Readers, if you care.) The 5th grader and I got tickets at the last minute, so we were in the nosebleed section, right in front of the 8th grader manning the spotlight. And making extraneous comments not related to the show into her headphones. But whatever. We were at the end of a row, next to the wall, and the 5th grader couldn’t see too well, even when we traded seats. Neither could I, for that matter. Next to her was me, then an empty seat, then a party of four people, a grandma, a mother, a young child, and a child with an electronic device, in that order. 

Right before the show began, when the empty seat next to me was still empty, I leaned over and asked the grandmother if anyone was going to be in that empty seat, because if not, maybe my daughter could sit there and see a little better? She shrugged and said they were expecting someone (which I am just naïve enough to have believed) and I said, Oh, sure, well maybe if they don’t show up? Dot dot dot. The grandmother said she wanted to use it for her stuff. That was slightly annoying, but that’s life, as they say. Just then, the mother, catching wind of some discussion happening between us, leaned over. The grandmother filled her in on my request, and the mother said, to me, “We PAID for that seat.”

Readers, that was bitchy. It was also unnecessary. I wasn’t going to argue with Grandma. Even if I thought she was being a little selfish, I knew she was within her rights. But because I am an Aries, I couldn’t just let Mom’s comment roll off my back. The unnecessary aspect of it was as nasty as her nasty attitude. I flapped my hand at the mother and said, “WhateEVER. JEEZis.” Then I spent part of the first act regretting that I had said anything. (Responding to nastiness with anything less than witheringly perfect politeness always demeans the responder. )The second act I divided among enjoying, listening to the random comments of the 8th grader manning the spotlight behind me, and saying to myself, “Hey, Miss Hannigan is my gynecologist’s daughter.”

It’s a small town.

My point, Readers, is not to get back at Bitchy Mom and Unkind Grandma by blogging about them, at least not entirely. My point is how unnecessary that unkindness was. I’m not talking about the empty seat, although I suppose I could. If it had been me asked about the empty seat, I would have surrendered it so a child to see better. That’s why I asked. I asked, she declined, it wasn’t a big deal. It was the way Bitchy Mom jumped at the issue, and the implication that I was some kind of sneaky person trying to weasel her out of something she paid for that made it a big deal. No one ever showed up for that seat, so maybe they didn’t actually pay for it. Grandma made full use of it, filling it with water bottle, coats, and snacks. I leaned on the armrest. Way in. Because I am many things, but one thing I am not is petty. Anyway, it was Bitchy Mom’s comment that really prickled me. In the scheme of distressing things I have encountered and will encounter in my life, that prickle is just a tiny pain; but it is a pain nonetheless, and an entirely unnecessary one. In its small way, it has a disproportionately long lifespan. It’s so much better to not let those prickles penetrate; and better still to forbear from causing them. So let that be my first act of kindness: remembering to forbear causing unnecessary pricks - or being near them.

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Brief Post on Challenge

The other day I read an article about combat training for women in the military. I didn't read it carefully, and I didn't think about it much at all. Nevertheless, I woke up this morning thinking, By gum, a 62-year-old woman in the Army is required to run two miles in 25 minutes, so I've got myself a goal.

Seriously. I may have mentioned that I started running this summer. Well, I haven't stopped, but I am slow. Really slow. I'd been thinking about how to get myself to speed up. My blond, ponytailed, Star Trac treadmill, personal coach avatar - starting now, I call her Tina* - has been very encouraging; but I am still slow.

According to the article, there will be some changes to requirements for combat, such as how many chin ups women will have to do now (three) versus how many they used to have to do (none. They did the flexed arm hang, which I recall from taking the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in P.E.). These requirements vary by division - Army, Marines, etc. However, it was the 25 minutes for two miles thing that really bought my eye (Python speak, FYI.).

(Oh my God, I have suddenly become so confused about punctuation of parenthetical phrases at the ends of sentences, thanks to David Rakoff, whose usage completely upends what little I thought I knew. Now I will have to find my Strunk & White and check it out.)

So this morning, I determined I would start on my journey towards the 12.5 minute mile.

Readers, I did it. Today. I met my goal immediately.

This would be cause for congratulation, but for two things:

  1. I am multiple years south of 62, though I am a woman. I've been told. Which means that unless I pick things up, speedwise, by 62 I probably won't be able to run at all. 
  2. My self-image is so lame I thought that it might take me months longer to reach this goal. 
I think that sometimes I under-challenge myself. I did in this case. My starting speed turned out to be what I'd intended as a goal. And because we live in a culture rife with sports-life metaphors, this under-challenging thing must be applicable to other areas of my life.

Hmmmm. To ponder.

Do you do this? Or do you expect too much from yourselves?

In the meantime, take a quick look at the video.

*A moment's research on YouTube has brought this: Kimberly, not Tina, the Star Trac Coach. Not that I'm trying to advertise for Star Trac. You can watch just a few seconds to see her.