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Monday, August 26, 2013

Successfully Tackling Fear. And Teeth. Oy.

Hello. Hell. Oh.
Yes, Readers, it has been that kind of week. In fact, it’s been a difficult several weeks, but for now, let me just fill you in on where I have been since my last post. To hell.

Just kidding. “JK” as the 14-year-old likes to say in a smarmy voice. But I did go visit my family last week. This trip involved me driving solo from our leafy suburb outside Albany to Washington, DC, with the two children. Driving solo is something I used to do without a second thought. I used to LOVE driving solo, rolling along the highway, singing aloud to whatever was playing on the car stereo. That was in my twenties, when I was single, definitely not a mother, and definitely before my frontal lobe had fully developed an awareness of death. Nowadays, driving gets me nervous.

Okay, I thought, as we set out down Interstate 87, so driving gets me nervous. It didn’t used to. So I made a decision. I turned my thoughts to those previous solo trips, back in the long ago, such as the time I drove down the California coast on 101, along all those winding, cliffside roads - there was even a perfect moment when I was driving along Ventura Highway and "Ventura Highway" by America came on the radio - and then up Highway 5 to Berkeley in time for Souxsie and the Banshees at the Greek Theater. These memories helped. I found myself enjoying the drive, listening to whatever the children picked on Spotify, and almost relaxing. What also helped, and I pass this on to anyone who might also have a fully developed frontal lobe, was the thought that popped into my head: Just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

This struck me as a thought so perfectly formed, so evident a product of successful cognitive behavioral therapy, that I made it a mantra: “Just because you’re afraid of it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”  Say it with me, you of the fully developed frontal lobes!

Now this thought has corollaries such as, “Being afraid of something doesn’t prevent it from happening,” which advanced worriers will recognize as a delightful form of magical thinking. You have to be really experienced at worrying to imagine that by worrying you will think of every possible thing that could go wrong and thereby prevent it. 

Then there’s this: You can’t control a lot of what happens or doesn’t happen. Which is the kind of thought that triggers the old fear reaction, righty-o, Readers? But then you just repeat the first one. "Just because you’re afraid…." Ventura Highway....

Also try a little mindfulness practice of noticing that fear is just an emotion – it’s not the sum total of who you are, it’s just a feeling you have and like all feelings, it comes and it goes and you are still driving down I95 in heavy traffic but you are not dead.

I also like to visualize fear as a small object, kind of a mushy blob, if truth be told. I picture this blob as if it's in an animated short film in which an invisible source wraps it up in some kind of packaging - plastic wrap, or cloth or some other magic wrap that encapsulates it neatly - and pulls in the blobulous edges, and reveals that underneath the fear packet there is other stuff – life, other emotions, the world. The fear is just a little packet and it can be tossed away.

So that was how I got all the way to Washington on very little sleep without any incidents just in time for the 11-year-old to knock out her front teeth on the sink in the bathroom at the pool and for us to take an emergency trip to the dentist in our bathing suits.

The lessons here are two: one, for those with undeveloped frontal lobes, is not to flick wet towels at anyone or do anything to another person that might cause that person to jerk sideways or duck down or move in any way towards hard or sharp objects; and two, for those whose frontal lobes are fully functioning, is that whatever the heck it is that you fear, fearing it makes no difference. The problems, the disasters, the incidents come from unexpected places.

But I don’t want to end on a sour note. While my stomach still turns over those teeth, the outcome could have been much worse. She didn’t knock them out entirely. They broke. The dentist glued them. He and I are hopeful that will be all that’s necessary. Time will tell. Meanwhile, she is fully functional and as far as looks go, she is unmarred, so all is well. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Grit: True Marker of Success

I’m thinking about perseverance. Grit. Stamina. Why? Well, the husband showed me this article about Carol Dweck’s research on mindset, motivation, and success, which talks about how to praise children. The wrong kind of praise extinguishes their will to try harder. The basic idea is that praise should be specific and focused on effort, not on labeling a quality of mind. Say, “I love how hard you worked and how much you improved since last time,” not, “You’re so smart - you’re my little genius.” Now, actually, as my mother-in-law noted, psychologist and parenting expert Haim Ginott and his proteges Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish said this very thing in the 1970s and 1980s; now research has proved them right. Luckily I read Haim Ginott when my kids were little (props to the MIL), and Faber and Mazlish, so I have done everything perfectly through much perseverance and grit regarding them and they have turned into persevering little cusses, if I do say so. Not a wrong word uttered ever. Parenting 101? I wrote that curriculum.

I am not serious, Readers. Please. You know me. I’m nothing if not questioning of every single, eensie, tiny decision I make, as well as practically undone by every single large decision I’m forced to make. But not totally undone, because I may lack physical grit, but I have psychological grit.

Speaking of me brings up another point about perseverance and grit; namely, that teaching people is about more than just choice words, it's about modeling behavior. So how gritty am I?

A friend came to visit for a couple days, and I used her visit as an excuse to skip my morning mini-routine of yoga, and came downstairs to my comfy tea and reading chair to wait for her. While sitting there, I heard thumps coming from upstairs. At first I thought maybe my friend's son was up early and dropping books on the floor, but then I thought maybe she was doing yoga. I wondered how on earth, since the room is tiny, and when the rollaway bed is open, there is not enough room to stretch out on the floor. When my friend came downstairs, I discovered she had been the one thumping upstairs. She was indeed doing yoga in that tiny room. How? By folding up that rollaway bed. 

Would I have done that? Probably not. Possibly, she has a lot more grit than I do. Or, you know, a couple extra inches in height can make a big difference. I find folding that thing nearly impossible. Not impossible, but nearly so. Enough so that it’s a deterrent to me doing it myself. I can’t really reach across it well because my arms are too short. Because I don’t have those extra couple inches. Or maybe because my boobs are too big, adding a couple extra inches in width that render reaching across to close that thing and hook it next to impossible. Painful, even. But my friend has those extra couple inches in height, minus those extra in boobage, and therefore, I guess, was undaunted.  

I am not that gritty. At least not physically. I lack physical grit. This was brought home to me in numerous ways over the years I lived in New England and hung around with a lot of native Yanks. I’m thinking in particular of a humbling bike trip from Somerville to the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, about eleven miles, undertaken with our group of friends, subscribers to the Penny Pincher Gazette. I was going to say “subscribers all” to the Penny Pincher, but I know that’s untrue. They are thriftier than that and pass it around among them. That is how thrifty and gritty they are. Anyway, my point is, this bike trip involved hills like you’d not believe, and even though there were others as unused to arduous bike trips as I on our expedition, I was the only one whose 21 speeds proved insufficient and who had to walk her bike up one – or two, or several but who’s counting? – of those hills. 

But psychologically, I have grit and stamina. Today, I awoke to a loud boom – I offer this as an example of my psychological grit – which I attributed to a bomb for only a second, just one split second. I only wasted a split, split second of this morning on the idea of terrorism in my leafy suburb in upstate New York that is on absolutely nobody’s list of ideal places to make a violent political statement. Directly I had that thought, I knew that noise had to be related to the demolition of the burned house that has finally begun, around the u-bend of our street, five houses away. See? That’s how blasé and, well, gritty, I am. Yes, my first thought was: Bomb. Perhaps that's not the first thought my Yankee bicycling friends would have, but I had no control over it. The point is that it was only for an instant, and then I mastered the fear. Then I rationalized. That's grit. How else have I made it all these years without totally cracking? Considering my tendency to, um, panic. Sheer psychological grit. Grit that somehow links to my lack of physical grit in some kind of inverse relationship. It’s all of a piece. And by it I mean me. The ebb and flow of grit and no-grit that makes a person who she is. 

What I’m saying here, with these examples of my lack of physical grit and my questionable psychological stability, is that despite my weaknesses, my questioning, my struggles at times with motivation, I persevere. We each have our challenges - our issues, our childhoods, our illnesses, our phobias - that require grit. Sometimes the effort required might look to an outsider like just getting by. Sometimes that perseverance manifests in small wins. Sometimes perseverance manifests as big, public wins. Overall, do you keep going? Do you keep trying? I do. According to Carol Dweck, that is key to success. So – yay.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Arugula, Stoves, Sedaris, Success

FYI: One burner doesn't work....

Hello. Have we all been enjoying our arugula? C’mon, you know what I’m talking about. Up and down the East Coast, which is where I've been, we've all taken a new interest in that particular leafy green, because we’ve all read that article in the paper about nutrient levels in leafy greens, and the most nutrient-filled is, yep, you know it, arugula. So don’t even pretend to have always loved it, just tuck into your arugula salads. I recommend a citrus twist. Yum. Just don’t think about that other news item  about how that final spritz of water that perks up our arugula before it arrives on the grocery store shelf contains, more often than it should, E. Coli and Campylobacter bacteria.

Anyhoo. I’ve been away, enjoying my arugula salad and otherwise vacationing. Since we last communicated, Readers, the husband, the 11-year-old, and I journeyed to pick up the 14-year-old from her ballet intensive. At least I think we picked up the 14 year old, although she appears to be a clone of the 14-year-old, a little taller, and a little tweaked, attitude-wise. But we persevered to the beach, and managed to close our garage door when we left the neighborhood. We're all getting used to one another again. Family dynamics have changed. 

Which seems like a good segueway to David Sedaris. Now, I’ve read a lot of definitions of success over the past two years, and I was not expecting anything about that topic from David Sedaris, but there I was, reading his latest book, when I came across something new. David and his boyfriend are driving around Australia with a friend, Pat, who invites them to picture a four burner stove on which one burner represents family, one friends, one health, and one work. To be successful, she says, you have to “cut off one of your burners. And to be really successful, you have to cut off two.”

So they each name the burner they've cut. David says it was friends, though he wasn’t proud of it, and also health, and his partner Hugh says it was work, which makes sense since he must travel around with David to David’s speaking engagements and therefore not have time for his own work; and their friend, a businesswoman with several homes and cars and what to David looks like success says family and health.

What do we think of this? This is so old school. This stove is a pot-bellied one and the analogy is, too. I mean, c’mon. What a narrow definition of success that is. One that excludes maintaining health and human connections. What would Arianna Huffington say about it? Where’s that Third Metric? Although, honestly, we all fear that David’s friend Pat is right – and by we I mean I – that to manifest material success requires singlemindedness, and that singlemindedness requires cutting out those pesky distractions like taking care of your body and meaningful connections to other people, related to you by blood, affection, or both. And vice-versa. Pat’s definition is what landed me in trouble, so feh – I reject it! Maybe we need to let a few things simmer on low while we bring others to the boil; but cutting off a whole burner? Bad idea.

When I started this success blog, I’d done that. I’d cut out work. Yes, yes, I was working – I was being a full time mom – but I wasn’t developing my professional self. I don’t want to wade into the quagmire of seeming to suggest motherhood isn’t work, which necessitates high boots and a tromp though the grasslands of apologia. Motherhood certainly is work, and it certainly should be compensated somehow, by respect, by social security benefits, by family leave policies, etc. That’s a whole different story. My point - and I think I do have one - is that, like many stay at home moms (SAHMs), I identifed myself as something else, too. Something related to a profession. While I was being a SAHM, I was also supposedly a writer, but I wasn’t really, because being a mother of young children is a full time job. So, for large swathes of time, I turned off that work burner.

Did it make me a better, more successful person in those other areas (burners?) No, I don’t think so. In fact, ironically, while that burner was off, it was the only thing that seemed to matter to me. Work. Profession. Earning money. I couldn’t stop thinking how I wasn’t doing any of it, and how much of a failure this made me. It wasn’t as if I focused better on those other burners. No, I focused on that one, and felt that lack of success there meant I was a failure everywhere.

This was a rawther counterproductive and downright miserable cycle of despair in which to find myself, and so I began to look for a better definition. I also began to look for some paying work. But the instant I turned on that work burner, I felt better. No, that’s wrong. First I felt really shitty, and I floundered around looking for jobs and so on, so really, the first time I obtained some paying work related to my profession, I felt better. A lot better. A billion percent better. It didn’t take much. It didn’t take the career coming to a boil. It just took a little bit, a simmer, if you will, and everything started to improve.

So my new view of success is much more holistic than Pat’s. Carrying on with the stove analogy, you want to be an Aga, or a Viking, or whatever. The idea is to get all the burners working. 

Frankly, I don’t think David subscribes to Pat's theory, either. For one, he points out that his friend Pat “seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.” For another, while he says that he cut off the friends burner, there he is, riding around the Australian bush with his friend. But I’m not going to speak for him. I don’t know what he’s like, really. Antisocial, reclusive, peevish? His sandbox is the nexis of humor and pain, his medium is memoir: We know he’s got problems. Which brings us to the next burner, family. He ends his essay with a painful memory of a senseless power play between his 11 year old self and his father, which ended with him turning off the family burner. But then over time he realized that “without them, I was nothing.” It’s not a heartwarming realization, though. It's more a recognition of how connected we remain to family, even when we’re grown and evolved and fully therapized and can move thousands of miles away. There’s a note of resignation, or perhaps defiance, when he says, “Cut off your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured? What would it possibly mean?” With a suggestion or implication or another tendril-like tenuous gesture that you need family, if only to measure how far you’ve come, how different you are from them.

Anyway, somehow, that family burner has to stay on, too.  I write this after returning from a week’s vacation with my sister the psychoanalyst and her family, for a couple days of which our father joined us.

But back to the burners. Yeah, I think the goal is really to keep them all going. As I mentioned, some may need to be turned to simmer for awhile while others come to the boil, but you need them all. As someone’s granny said, “If you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”

You can eat your arugula and have success, too! In fact, you must.