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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!