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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Abandonment, and Other Issues of Successful Parenting

Yesterday, we abandoned the rising 6th grader on a muddy hillside, in the rain. The hillside was part of the grounds of her summer camp, but nevertheless, we left her there, shivering.

True, she was wearing a bathing suit and waiting to take a swimming test, but it was raining, and she was shivering, and she wanted us to stay for the test, but the counselors did not, and it did feel like abandonment to me.

Just the weekend before, we dropped off the rising 10th grader at her 5-week summer dance intensive. That one felt less like abandonment, since she gave nary a backward glance as she grabbed the handles of the last haul of goods we brought her – t-shirts, Luna Bars, paper towels, Ritz Crackers – and disappeared down the hall. Besides, at that time, we still had the other one with us for a few more days.

So, as I was saying, we abandoned her to her composting toilets and her bunk, and I was forced to ask myself, Self, why do I insist on encouraging independence in my offspring, when what I most want is for us to live within spitting distance of one another?  If this is my definition of successful parenting, then I have to wonder if I’m going about it the wrong way. So then I ask myself, Self, why are other mothers able to find activities for their offspring that take them out of the house for several hours of a summer’s day, but bring them home again of an evening to fill the Sonos system with their strange blend of music and my schedule with their need for rides, while I seem to find places for my children that are miles and hours away from me? 

All of this encouraging independence ends up, you know, doing just that. After all, my parents sent me away to camp – and thank God for that. That, along with therapy, and of course an excellent education (which I am not at all sure I’m providing for my children, though I’m sure I’m providing much fodder for therapy), was the equivalent of a brief handshake, a quick smack on the bottom, and a point in the direction of “outtahere.” I haven’t lived near them since I left for college. 

Readers, this is most definitely not what I hope for my children; yet I seem unable to provide them anything other than what seemed perfect for me: a place to go where I could be something other than what my parents saw in me, if that was who I was. So they go away places, and I hold my breath and hope they’ll come back. Meanwhile, I envy the people who seem able to keep their offspring close. I want mine to be both independent and near, and that seems paradoxical. Why this focus on independence, anyway? I mean, aren't Europeans doing that family bed thing well into three generations? And they are totally well-adjusted, and don't even have trouble with alcohol. Why am I always saying goodbye to my children? More distressing to me is why are they always saying goodbye to me, and then going? Why aren't they clinging to me and making it impossible for me to remove my ankle from their clutches? 

After the camp deposit, we continued north for a “just us” getaway. By “just us” I mean, the husband, me, and my melancholy. We arrived at our inn quite late, and despite having arranged with the innkeepers about getting in, had to ring the bell and wake them. After that, it was just a quick flight up in our charming olde inne, to our bedroom, which has a comfortable bed that is definitely on a slope. But nevermind, because sleep is for the foolish – like the husband, apparently. The wise lie awake at an angle – is it a 4% or a 5% incline? I'm attuned to the degrees, thanks to my StarTrac treadmill at the Y– and replay montages of mud, rain, bedraggled children, sawdust, and composting toilets.

After sunrise, the wise arose, grumpy, and bathed, and ate a continental breakfast of a dubious croissant and cup of tea, while listening to the hacking and sighing of an emphysemic gentleman at the table nearby. He did not expire, which was lucky, because the husband, who is an halibut* – I mean, a doctor – would then be forced to do something. I, personally, entertained a brief vision of myself standing over the stricken fellow, whose physique is right out of an A. A. Milne poem illustration, and exclaiming in a bad Quebecois accent, “Monsieur, you are unwell!” 

Then we went out into the city, where my mood threatened to improve so much I was afraid I would forget to mention the tiny bathroom that makes our former NYC bathrooms seem spacious, and I wouldn’t want to seem to appreciate what I’ve got, now would I?

*I know that I really ought to eliminate that silly reference to Monty Python, yet I can’t do it, I just can’t, E. B. White and William Zinsser notwithstanding. My children are away, so let me have my silly reference, okay?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Featuring My Voice on The Huffington Post

Last Friday night, The Huffington Post informed me that they’d published a blog entry – mine. This is so cool, so exciting, such a breakthrough, you say! Wow! You say. Unless you’re a journalist, perhaps. (See below.)

Okay, it felt great. For a while. From the time the blog editor accepted my post and told me they’d edit it and let me know when it would be published, until the time I clicked on the link the editor’s assistant sent me, it felt great. Then I noticed that the post had actually already been up on the site for two days, which I hadn’t known. Since it was what I’d sent them, word for word, I assume they decided it didn’t need editing, and just posted it. It was a blip. An instant. Over before they remembered to inform me.

Now Readers, I am grateful – don’t get me wrong. The Huffington Post has a lot of readers. However, since I didn’t realize my post was up, I didn’t advertise it until it was no longer front of the queue. If that’s even how The Huff Post operates. Nor did they tweet it, as far as I can tell. So it was a blip on the front page of HuffPostWomen, and now it’s searchable. Which means it’s there but I never saw it there There. Still, it’s there There, and you can click on my name and see my bio and my headshot, which the husband took on his iPhone outside the piano store where the kids were having their recital. We were going to use the real camera, but someone forgot to put the battery in it. (Me.)

Don’t worry, fame hasn’t changed me a bit. Maybe that’s because I didn’t exactly achieve fame. Or maybe it’s because the group of writers I see for the occasional lunch consists mostly of journalists. I am not a journalist. If you ever need a head resizing for swelled head syndrome – you know, when you start to think you’re really hot and you’re going somewhere and your capella starts to swella – I have the cure. Just tell a group of journalists you’re publishing a blog post on The Huffington Post. Their reaction will return your head to its usual size - pinhead.

See, journalists are professionals who expect this thing called “payment” for their writing when it appears on a large media outlet. That bozos like me are willing to slave for hours crafting work as fine as they are able for free is pretty much journalists’ idea of one of the major things wrong with the field today. And I agree. So, yeah, I told a group of journalists, who were just not that impressed. And I don’t blame them a bit. On the other hand, I am a fiction writer who has turned to non-fiction and blogging. I’ve come to expect near zero monetary payment for my efforts; but recognition is payment, too. It doesn’t put money in the college savings account, but it feeds the soul.  Dale Carnegie said so.

And it sounds good to you, right, Readers?  On the continuum of total failure to hugest imaginable success, publication on the Huff Post falls  - where? I am not sure. I mean, it’s a media machine. They publish lots of blog posts. On the other hand, it’s a huge site with tons of readers. It’s just kind of hard to gage. It is definitely on the continuum. Of that I am sure.

So how did this happen? Well, as I mention in the actual post, a high school classmate (thank you, Amy!) sent me the video of Arianna Huffington giving the commencement address at Smith on Redefining Success. So I watched it and found it very moving and exciting. Afterwards, I sent her an email thanking her for her speech, and for bringing this conversation about success and women and making a new women’s movement into the mainstream. I didn’t labor over the email, or send a big request – or any request, actually. I just wrote a thank you. Of course I mentioned my blog. There’s a link to it in my email signature, so that was available to her. And then a couple of days later, a response from Arianna H arrived in my inbox, with an invitation to “feature my voice” on the HP.

To sum up: I took a chance and I wrote. She replied. I took another chance and wrote a post. My post went up. I can send in others. That is cool, I have to say.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Arianna Huffington Read My Mind

I’m pretty sure Arianna Huffington read my mind. That’s right. She is that powerful. You see, Arianna Huffington gave the commencement speech at Smith College this year - I owe a big thank you to a high school friend who sent me the YouTube video - and guess what her topic was, Readers? That’s right, redefining success. She said to the graduating class, “I want to ask you, instead [of climbing the ladder of success], to redefine success.”

Now, naturally, my immediate reaction was a small freak out. That’s MY topic, and now SHE’S stealing it. But I am a mature person with a growth mindset, not a fixed one, and a positive attitude, not a zero sum one, so I quickly realized that actually it was great news. Arianna Huffington is talking about redefining success and SO AM I. My blog is part of the gestalt. Or maybe I helped create the gestalt and SHE picked up on it. Whatever. There’s room for both of us. But most of all, REDEFINING SUCCESS IS IMPORTANT.

Her introduction is a call for change. “But what I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but to change the world.” She continues,  “What I urge you to do is to lead the third women’s revolution.”  (She says “movement” in her actual speech, but “revolution” in the transcript.) Why? “Basically, success as we’ve defined it is no longer sustainable. It’s not sustainable for human beings; it’s not sustainable for the planet.”

Readers, I plotzed.  In Yiddish that means, literally, exploded, but I think you know what I mean. I was excited. Thrilled. I peed in my pants with thrillment, and not just because my bladder is less dependable than it once was.

In spring 2012, I gave a talk at a women’s group on my personal history with feminism. In my research for that talk, I read several books, one of them Backlash by Susan Faludi. Have you read it? I recommend it. At the time it came out (1991), I recall that I ignored it, saying, I know all about the backlash against women. I live it.

But I learned from reading the book that despite being a feminist, a lot of my understanding of feminism was shaped by people who were invested in dishonoring, shortchanging, and discrediting it – like the founders of the Heritage Foundation, whose goal (or one of them) was to turn back the clock on women’s rights to 1954. Inadvertently, I allowed myself to be influenced by their disparagement and to distance myself from “those feminists” – you know, the “angry lesbians,” the “humorless wimmin,” the child haters, the motherhood haters. I, and by me I mean me and you, Readers, began to attribute a lot of negative stuff to feminism that wasn’t essential to it. Which is part of how the movement got pushed out of the mainstream, corporatized as “girl power”, and how we ended up with a lot of people who refuse to call themselves feminists, even though they believe in women’s equality. In a nutshell. Newsflash: The media is powerful. My conclusion: The push for women’s equality had stalled. The conversation needed to return to the mainstream.

So, voilá. Enter the mainstream.

What of Arianna’s theory itself? So how does she redefine success? Well, in addition to  “our society’s notion of success is … money and power,” she adds a “third metric.” This metric is made up of the following elements: well being; wisdom; wonder; and giving back. “Metric” is a funny term to apply to sometimes ineffable, always intangible qualities like those. A metric is a measurement; but it has a poetic meaning, too – poetic meter.  Well, it’s unusual, but I’ll take it. The point is balance. She describes her third metric as the third leg of a footstool. And it’s true, as she says, that a two-legged stool is unstable. A culture resting on power and money is, too. Without the balance of those other qualities, the search for stability through money and power runs unchecked. Conversely, and I know this from experience, if you have some sense of well-being, you are less likely to be in a panicky state of grasping after money or power. When you add that poetic quality to life, you can put them in proportion and use them as tools, not as ends in themselves.

What originally impelled me on my search for a meaningful definition of success was the need to find a way to “count” the other areas of my life, outside of work, in which I had been investing time, effort, and creativity, so that I could feel successful. Just a couple of days ago, in my monthly conference call with a couple of women, we talked about how important it is not to discount other areas of your life outside of work just because you don’t find success in your work. In other words, using work as the only valid yardstick to measure yourself is a bad idea. And I found that it was much easier to feel successful if I had a basic feeling of well-being, as well as a feeling of moving towards something and moving with a purpose.

As for money and power, I can attest to their importance in a general sense. So Arianna Huffington’s three metrics are money, power, and this third metric that deals with the ineffables of well-being. I wouldn’t call this a complete redefinition of success. Money and power are old standby earmarks of it. But adding that third metric is a huge step. And money and power are important, too. Now before you bite my head off for being too materialistic, let me just point out that we can talk capital-M and capital- P money and power, in which case we’re talking about bigwigs; or we can talk about lowercase m and p money and power, applicable to littlewigs like me. Take power. Everyone needs to feel like an agent in his or her own life.  Everyone needs to feel he or she has some say, some choices, some ability to effect change. That’s power. It’s not Power, but it’s power. Now take money. Everyone needs enough. What is enough? That’s a topic for another day. But I personally felt a lot better and more successful when I found a way to earn some. It gives a person independence - again, that sense of agency. And of course it’s related to power, too, to the sense of agency. Things interconnect.

Overall, if you look at the bigger picture here, you have a media mega-mogul – female – talking about balance in life; and you have a corporate superstar –female – identifying as feminist and talking about changing policy at the top; you have an intellectual with government experience – female – addressing the difficulties of “having it all”; and you have a book about family life, written by a man, and focused on developing happiness and well-being and success OUTSIDE of work. A man focusing on his family’s well being. Forget whether you totally agree with Sheryl S. Forget whether you totally agree with Arianna H. or Anne Marie Slaughter. Forget whether Marissa M. is an Aspie. Just look at the discourse. There are prominent people – women and men – talking about creating a better, more fulfilling, and more meaningful life. That is good. Period. The conversation is happening. And I am part of that conversation.

This post appears in slightly altered form on The Huffington Post.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Aerosolized Particles of Success

Why does the dog keep nudging me and pressing up against me with his wet self? Does he smell
Maybe it's 'cuz he wants that flower barrette out of his hair.
cancer on me or something? Is he sensing stress? Or does he just want affection especially now, when he’s wet and stinky?

Don’t answer.

I’m operating on too little sleep, and what little I had was interrupted by the husband’s pager. I swear I got dizzy backing the car out of a parking spot today. I looked behind me to make sure there were no children or dogs in my path, and when I turned to face forward, the world went upsie daisie like it does when you’re on a loop de loop rollercoaster. It was time for a nap.

In other news, I thought that in lieu of a coherent blog post I’d offer a brief collection of stuff, possibly factual, possibly misstated, that could be construed as relating to success.

For example, did you know that when you flush the toilet aerosolized particles of fecal matter can fling themselves out of it and land up to six feet away? On your toothbrush? So close the lid.

How about this: multitasking is a myth. You probably already know that, right? Unless you’re me, you haven’t been beating yourself about the ears over your incredible inability to do two things at once the way Jamie Lee Curtis does* as the mom in the remake of Freaky Friday with Lindsay Lohan - a movie I thoroughly enjoyed. Because if common sense hasn’t proven to you that you can’t do two complex things at once, research now has. What we think is multitasking is actually just switching back and forth between activities fast. Each time it takes a little extra energy to re-establish where you left off before. That’s inefficient, and tiring.

And finally, on failure, this: A producer friend of Nora Ephron talked about how she and Nora dealt with setbacks and movies that bombed. They reminded each other that they were lucky to have had a chance at bat, and that it was a privilege to have another. They recognized that, although they were disappointed, they were lucky to be able to pursue their goals, while so many others struggle to fulfill much more basic needs. Always look for ways to be grateful; gratitude puts life into perspective.

And now, as Samuel Pepys so often said, “And so to bed.” Although, to be completely honest with you, Readers, I have to admit that it's, "And so to HBO Go for an episode of 'Spiral'."

*That’s ironic, by the way; Jamie Lee Curtis as the mom is a total fail at multitasking.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Secret of Successful Families: The Family Meeting

Bruce Feiler sums up his research on happy families by offering a “nonlist list of things that happy families do.” This list consists of the following three nonrule rules:
  1. Adapt all the time. 
  2. Talk. A lot. 
  3. Go Out and Play.

Feiler offers multitudes of ways to follow each of these nonrules. One of them is the family meeting. The family meeting appeals to me for several reasons.

  • First of all, there is so much in a minute. You don’t even have to have relatives who are psychoanalysts to know this. Nor do you have to be a mindfulness meditation expert. Just think about how (surprisingly) much it hurts if a driver passes you and gives you the finger, for example. And that’s someone you don’t even know, and a situation that’s not even personal. Now think about all the casual remarks that pass among family members rushing around to ballet and soccer and work that affect you. A stray snap on a day when you have a short fuse can have its own sort of a butterfly effect on your mood and life. Yes, it’s true, I do have relatives who are psychoanalysts, AND I practice mindfulness meditation, so I may be a bit more invested in what’s going on under the surface in a moment than most. In fact, this may be the secret to my failure more than anything else – all that time parsing and analyzing can get you into a thoroughly tangled state of conflict and make it hard to move forward with your goals. But since that last sentence completely undermines what I’m getting at, let’s pretend that I’m 100% in favor of trying to understand your emotions in a situation, so that you can make an informed decision, or can react intentionally instead of instinctively. This takes time, and conversation. A meeting provides a forum to catch some of those moments that could use a little dissecting: To address some of those moments that result in decisions on the fly – decisions and their effects that never get fully explained.

  • Second of all, a family meeting sounds like a reasonable idea when it’s hard to find regular nights to eat together because this one’s got an extra rehearsal and that one’s soccer game time changed and that one forgot he had to teach his medical students and the other one has a book club, because all of those ones have book clubs; you’re not actually a suburban mommy if you don’t - but that’s another story. These meetings don’t have to be long. They shouldn’t be long. Sunday night, which Bruce uses, seems like a good time to me. Usually everyone is home then, and there’s an opportunity to look at the calendar. This doesn’t guarantee that we won’t be scrambling for forgotten appointments, but it does help us become aware of our commitments, at least for a moment, together. This group moment might well improve the chances that we’ll get where we need to be on time. I make no promises, nor do I have any proof, since as of this writing, our family has had only one family meeting.

  • Third of all, the family meeting, as Bruce describes it, is child-centered. Or to be more precise, while parents may set the agenda, the children should be vocal participants. This gives them practice explaining themselves, exploring and expressing their opinions, and listening to others’, which I defy anyone to deny is good life training. Since the message in my family of origin was “Children should be seen and not heard,” this idea appeals to my rebellious inner child. Let the children be heard and seen. Then let the parents make final decisions.

  • And last of all, the family meeting is a way to solidify or otherwise emphasize the idea of the family unit as a unit. I like this idea of emphasizing the family as a unit. It’s one of Bruce’s ideas that’s so fundamental you don’t even see it: To be a successful family involves focusing on the family itself, and seeing it as a working group, not just as a staging ground for “real life.”

The Meeting

Now, I’d been mulling this idea for a while. I was intrigued and wanted to do it, despite the hoke factor. So when the 5th grader came home, I think it was the very day I behaved so admirably at the DARE assembly, with a letter announcing that she’d won a leadership award, and that there would be a ceremony at an arena at a community college to recognize her and the other recipients, I had my entrée.

Readers, if you would kindly lower your bayonets, I will continue. After feeling my moment of pride in my offspring – a moment immediately followed by one of complete amazement: I have never won thing one for leadership – I realized that this ceremony would conflict with the 9th grader’s ballet schedule. Frankly, that went without saying, since the 9th grader spends less time not dancing than she does dancing. So the question was, should she miss the classes, which were in rehearsals for her end of the year performance, to attend her sister’s ceremony? Perfect for a family meeting.

I’d like to tell you that each participant met the announcement with equal enthusiasm; but that would be a lie. The husband was on board – surprising to me, considering the aforementioned hoke factor.  He was even willing to commit to weekly meetings. However, when we told the children we were having a meeting,  the 9th grader’s reaction was, “Oh no,” and the 5th grader’s was, “Are we in trouble?”

But it went well. Or at least, it didn’t go badly. When I brought up the awards ceremony - ballet schedule conflict, I tried to remember Bruce’s advice to let the children do a lot of the talking. The 5th grader immediately announced that she wanted her sister to attend her award ceremony. The 9th grader countered immediately with acquiescence. Conflict resolved? More like conflict swept underground. I suddenly saw how good an idea a family meeting was. I think it’s the kind of thing that might just help keep people close. If you’re the kind of person who acquiesces because your sister states a strong preference, despite your own mixed feelings, then eventually, you may avoid your sister, to avoid hearing her state her preferences. But if your sister can start to understand that her preference acts like a command, then she may begin to be a little more careful and less categorical – more empathetic – in stating it.

Since their conversation had apparently ended, it was up to me and the husband to stir the pot. How did the 9th grader feel about missing the ballet class to go to the ceremony? For that matter, how would the 9th grader feel about having her sister at her upcoming recital? And how would the 5th grader feel about the looming conflict over missing a soccer tournament to go to (another) dance recital? I wanted the conversation to be both concrete (about this particular conflict) and hypothetical (attending each others’ awards and recitals, etc.) Okay, I know, this may be slightly nauseating, as if I envision a golden-paved road of award upon award for my children, stretching into the future. However, even the most curmudgenly reader must admit there are many milestones ahead (God willing), with attendant ceremonies. It seems worthwhile to figure out who needs to go to what when.  But mostly, I wanted the big sister to express her preferences and feelings about attending her sister’s award ceremony, and to see how important her presence was to her younger sister. Also, I wanted the little sister to realize that her big sister would be sacrificing something very important to her (dance class) at a difficult time (rehearsing for upcoming recital).

The upshot was that we, the parental units, listened to the children, and then we told them we would make a decision. Meeting adjourned. Not exactly an unqualified success, but not terrible, either. Later, the 9th grader came to us privately and said she didn’t want to miss her class. We told her we had wanted her to say that at the meeting so that the 5th grader would know, but of course she hadn’t wanted to hurt her sister’s feelings. I suppose immediate openness was too much to expect from one meeting.

In the end, we decided the 9th grader should go to the ceremony. In private, I told the 5th grader that her sister was making a sacrifice by missing her rehearsal. The 5th grader said, “Now you are making me feel guilty.” I told her I wasn’t trying to make her feel guilty as much as I was trying to make her appreciate that her sister was doing something nice for her – and that she ought to thank her.

So the 9th grader came to the ceremony. On the way, the 5th grader thanked her for missing rehearsal. Afterwards, the 9th grader hugged the 5th grader.

Overall, I thought it was good for the 9th grader to hear her sister characterized as a leader, and good for the 5th grader to know her sister heard that characterization.

We haven’t had a family meeting since; but I stand by the process.