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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hard Work and Other Things

I've been peaky this week, Readers. Caught a little bug during a three day trip to NYC and have been just the slightest bit off since. But I'm on the upswing. So. Highlights of the week since last I wrote: 

Well, last I wrote was from NYC, actually. I finished up and posted from the mother-in-law's apartment. It was a rainy snowy day. I was in the city because it's audition season for ballet summer programs, and my ballet dancer had three auditions lined up. I accompanied her and waited around. This was actually fine with me. Each was at Lincoln Center, so there was plenty of coffee to drink and shops to look in. I squeezed into a pair of jeans a size smaller than I expected to, so naturally I bought them. And I had a lovely drink and appetizer at the bar of PJ Clarke's one evening with another mom whose daughter dreams of a professional dance career. That part was nice. 

However, to each audition I brought a nervous daughter and picked up a disappointed one. It's really hard to witness the ups and downs. These girls are so hard on themselves it's almost impossible to understand the appeal of this passion. Where is the payoff for all the hard work they do, if they are always disappointed? I shouldn't say always. Usually. Mostly. And the road to a company is so hard, too. And there are so many young ballerinas hoping to dance professionally, all working towards so few spots. They're like, they're like sperm, programmed to give their all, even though only one lucky one will make it.

As a parent, is this what I want for my child?

Don't answer that. (She says to herself.)

Let me focus for a moment on the positives. Number one, the child has a passion that gives shape to her world. People with passions are lucky. Number two, she is accustomed to disciplined, hard work, repetition, practice, and incremental progress. These habits are transferrable.

Yes, they are transferrable. (She says to herself, under her breath, not suggesting that they would ever need to transfer.)

The 15 year old's belief in the transformative power of hard work is unshakable. Hers is the epitome of the growth mindset. If youve been reading this blog, you know about Carol Dweck and the growth mindset and how its key to sustained success. This is good, right? Hard work does accomplish a lot. Unbelievable things, even, sometimes.

But this belief has a downside, because it creates an unrealistic sense of control over outcome. It means she thinks that if she finds the right teacher at the right ballet school and works as hard as she can, she will succeed; whereas, those are incomplete determinants of success. We know that success depends on factors outside our control. Genetic factors like inherent talent or flexibility or musicality or body proportions, to speak specifically of dancers, for example. It also depends on circumstances. On luck. On being the one the program is looking for.

So I can't help worrying what will happen when she realizes that hard work won't take her all the way. It'll get her close. If hard work were all it took, she'd succeed - no question. But those other factors. That random chance thing. Smack into that at the wrong time and you wind up with an existential crisis.

So there's that to worry about.

Along with her dancer's feet. Have you ever looked at a dancers feet? They are not lovely, Readers.

In addition to the audition tour with the 10th grader, here are some other things Ive been doing this week:

  • A drawing a day. Well, not exactly every day. A drawing a day was and is the goal, though. A friend suggested it. We share the pictures on Flickr. The 11 year old is drawing, too. So it's also a mom-daughter project.

  • Three book clubs. I know. Don't say it. Three is a lot. Especially since I have a knee-jerk reaction against being told what to read. In my defense, I will say that one of these book clubs is a mother-daughter book club in which we read YA books and always have homemade baked goods; another is really a monthly dinner with old friends during which we pick a book to discuss the next month because were all interested in a lot of the same books - which is one of the reasons we are friends. That leaves one more official book club where I'm getting to know the people, as opposed to already being friends with all of them, and since were not a community of leaning over the fence chatting, the book club is the official, sanctioned way for women to get together.

  • My shitty first draft.

  • Meditation. Sort of.

  • Yoga in the mornings. Sometimes just the barest of sun salutations.

  • Kegel exercises. If you don't know what those are, you can look it up. You should be doing them, too (if you are a woman).

  • Plucking chin hairs before they grow long enough to curl around themselves.

  • Therapy Dog visiting at the middle school.

  • Belonging to the Make-up Committee for the middle school musical (Seussical, Jr), which means face painting a cast of 75 students, one of whom is the 11 year old. She is a jungle animal.  

  • Wondering if the pain in my side is cancer or gas. Wondering if the intermittent pain in my eye is cancer or fatigue. Wondering if my fatigue is just fatigue, or cancer.

So thats an update on whats been occupying my time and my mind - a lot of different stuff, which always feels like too much and not enough simultaneously. Periods like these feel like muddle, and muddle seems like inefficiency, although sometimes it's fertilizer for creative growth. One can always hope.

Update: This just in. One of the NYC auditions panned out and the dancer has been accepted for the summer. The dream continues uncrushed for now.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Priorities, Mortality, and Success

There I was in NIA class standing directly behind the instructor. I could just see my hands behind hers in the mirror and I had couple thoughts. One was that one reason I like to stand front and center is that I can see the teacher well; but another reason is that when I stand behind her, I can’t see myself in the mirror. This is a plus. It helps to keep the fantasy of youth and flexibility flowing. But anyway. The other thought I had, with our hands up in the air, was, We’re going to die. I wasn’t talking about the strenuousness of the workout. I was talking about us humans, kicking our feet in time to the music, here now, eventually to vanish, uh, die. This obtrusive thought reminded me of John Hodgeman’s Shouts and Murmurs column in the New Yorker last week. It was about watching “Downton Abbey” with his children and remembering being a child and watching “Upstairs Downstairs” with his parents. This parallel causes him to be overcome by recognition of his own mortality. It’s hilarious and pitiful in a way that I relate to. Indeed, I wished I were John Hodgeman and had written that piece and published it in the New Yorker. 

Anyway, yes, I did think, We’re dying. Right before that I’d been remembering a recent conversation I had with the instructor about whether our kids were in the right schools for them. Then I got thinking about all that motherly concern going out into the world. The NIA class was full of women, many, if not all of them mothers, all of us with our jazz hands raised and all that concern going out for the children and for what? We’re going to die. We’re raising them, and they’re going to die. And at some point we need to admit to them that we’re going to die, and dot dot dot.

Which was maybe heavy for 8:30 in the morning during a dance movement class, but that’s who I am.

Later on, eating my second breakfast, my seven ingredient mix of cereals and nuts and cinnamon and whatnot, I thought about a mom who told me a few years ago that she found it refreshing to talk to me about parenting because I wasn’t afraid to talk about how annoying my kids could be. This may have been after I admitted to fantasizing about flicking one of them in the back of the head after she’d said something particularly egregious to me. Flick, flick. And I remember thinking, Really? Is it odd for women to admit to negative or ambivalent feelings about their children or about being mothers? Really? Because I am awash in ambivalence about everyone I love. Love is a vast emotion. Sometimes it works at the macro and micro levels, and sometimes it works at the macro level, so universal you don’t know you feel it, while other temporarily more salient emotions work at the micro level, in Technicolor. Flick, flick.

Speaking of emotions – all these thoughts about difficult emotions reminded me of an interesting moment in a conversation I had during the monthly conference call I have with two women, one of whom I know well, one of whom I’ve never met in person – yet. Two of the three of us – I’ll let you guess whether I was one of them, Readers – said that work allowed them relief from difficult emotions.

This led to a discussion of life priorities. I realized that for me, work has always been something I arranged around my relationships. In truth, in recent years, there have been times when the idea of a regular office job appealed as a possible haven. However, for the vast swath of my life, my intention was always to manage my work life so that I was available to everyone. My goal was to pay my bills and have my health benefits, but to be available to whoever was important in my life. Friends. Boyfriends. Children. I admit this reflected a lot of insecurity: I was afraid that people wouldn’t wait around for me, so I made myself available to them. I had spent much of my life trying to cobble together from friends a family for myself. Naturally this has led me to take on part time work, as well as work that is not as challenging as it could be. All I wanted was to build that support network and those close connections to people that I had lacked as a child.

During our call, I also told them about the bus ride to sleepaway camp. When I was a kid, that ride was practically the best thing about camp.  The drive took six hours. There I’d be, on the bus with my best camp friends. We were all together. No one was going anywhere. No one had to do anything else but simply be together. It was bliss.

You know how you think that whatever you think about something other people probably think about the same as you? Well my two conference callmates were astonished by my statement. Their reactions made me feel a little weird. But it also explained a lot. For example, why they are the figureheads of two long and successful careers, while I have hunkered down with my family and friends. Come to think of it, I also hunker down with all those scary thoughts and emotions. (We are dying. John Hodgeman is dying.) Indeed, I work with them. I make them into writing, fiction, blogs, incredibly boring and histrionic journal entries meant for no one but me.

Anyway, that conversation illuminated one of the reasons I may have struggled professionally, why I may feel like a professional failure. It also put my situation – my path – in a different perspective. From the outside, perhaps it looks as if I piddled away my twenties and meandered through my thirties. I have no major career accomplishments to brandish at you in refutation, should you challenge me on that. I have, however, managed to create that supportive family, finally.

And all us are one day going to die. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Connecting to Success

Empty Kong

Hi, Readers. I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but up here we’ve come to the end of the first full week back in school after winter vacation. After lapsing into my preferred sleep schedule of approximately 11:30 pm to 7:30 am for two weeks, shoehorning myself back into the necessity of rising at 6 am has produced predictable results. I’m tired. I have insomnia. And because I’m tired and have insomnia, I’m also worrying about whether I have, say, a small arterial dissection that will cause me to collapse while driving children to or from an event from a bleed into my brain. You know, that kind of thing. Perks of being married to a neurologist…. I know just enough – and not enough at all.

I just returned home from purchasing tickets to the middle school musical. Advance ticket sales, don’t you know. The 6th grader is in the chorus as a jungle animal. I’m supposed to do make-up for the show, but naturlich we have schedule conflicts. The 10th grader has to go to NYC for several auditions for summer ballet programs and of course they conflict with the middle school musical and its dress rehearsal. But not to worry. Perhaps that arterial dissection will take care of everything.

Anyhoo, as I was saying, I just returned home. There I discovered the dog licking peanut butter off of the side of a cabinet and from a wide swath of kitchen floor. The 10th grader was supposed to give him his Kong with said peanut butter before she left for dance. The question is, how did it get from the Kong onto the cabinet? Did she hurl it? The Kong I mean? These are mysteries awaiting clarification.

Otherwise, all my news comes from the media, and only a little bit of it relates to success. Today is the 10th anniversary of Spalding Gray’s disappearance that turned out to be his death by suicide. I used to love Spalding Gray. He was so funny and original. I saw him in San Francisco. I had a fever, but I went anyway. Sorry audience members on whom I breathed. He was an inspiration to me. I thought perhaps I had a way to tell something autobiographical, too. Perhaps on stage. I took some improv classes. Then I decided it wasn’t such a good idea to become too worshipful of or fascinated by people who are depressive and neurotic. On edge. Obsessive. Narcissistic, perhaps. People who are involved in their own problems. Who are open about them. Who turn pain into humor.

On a totally different subject, did anyone else read that piece in the Style section of the New York Times on Martha Stewart’s beauty regimen? That lady has been to jail and back. She’s got some stunning self -confidence. Or something. Not sure what. Maybe it’s another c-word. Shut up, I mean cahones, Readers! No, I guess she doesn’t have those. But I think my sister-in-law may be right, I ought to start getting facials. Martha’s been doing it for forty-five years. I just use my tube of prescription retin-A cream. And sunscreen. I don’t have to worry about putting a sunhat over my riding helmet, as Martha does, since I don’t ride. Not since old Taffy, at sleepover camp. There’s a terrific picture of me with a glorious Morgan. I’m in my glory, too: gold granny glasses, braids, braces, and a t-shirt with bottle caps on it. The horse was a marvel. I never rode her. She was too lively. I preferred Taffy. Aptly named. Or she grew to embody her name, as some people do. She was twenty-eight and so slow she wouldn’t even take a step unless you showed her the switch.

No, I’m no equestrian.

Are you still reading? Well here’s a little bit on success. Yesterday I went to NIA class at the Y. After class I fell into conversation with the instructor, who’s a friend. We were standing outside the locker room when another friend came out of the locker room. So the three of us stood around for a good while chatting. I felt happy and knitted in to a community when I left the building and headed into the cold for my car. 

On the radio someone was talking about research on nostalgia. Apparently, research shows that nostalgia creates feelings of connection to others and that connection to others promotes self- esteem.  How serendipitous. I was a living example. Yes, I thought, connection to others does promote self-esteem. And self-esteem is key to feeling successful. I'm distinguishing between feeling successful and appearing successful, which can be two different things. I’m not saying you’ll never achieve anything, self-esteem or no. Plenty of people who are empty inside try to make themselves feel better by becoming public achievers. However, if you don’t feel you have value as a being, then no amount of achievement is going to penetrate and make you feel good.

There are a couple of distressing implications of this new report. For one - apparently - it suggests that if you have a sense of connection to others, and therefore healthy self-esteem, then who needs achievements? You can revise your novel for twenty years, or keep writing those stories that you file away in a drawer and it doesn’t matter. ‘Cuz you have fwends. Furthermore, if all you need to feel you have connection to others is to delve into nostalgia, then who needs actual friends? You can just pull out those old yearbooks and remember the people you used to know.

Dear me. I seem to have unraveled something positive.


But let me not shy away from Spalding Gray and my fascination with miserable wretches. My love affair with the messed up and depressed. Eventually I realized that hooking myself to these folks in pursuit of a creative identity was a dead end. I grew wary. Much as I admire his honest and humorous self expression, I don’t want to be like Spalding. A person who couldn’t take comfort in his connections. He made me feel connected to him; but he had trouble connecting to others. He was successful in art, but not in life. That’s not a trade off I want to make.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Winter Follies

Readers, it’s January, a new year, and I feel a metaphor coming on. God help me, I do. A clichéd metaphor about cars and drivers. I apologize. I am helpless before it. All I can do is put it out there for us all.

So this is it. It’s snowy out. It’s lovely and sunny and crisp and a bright day as I write; but I am thinking about our last snow, all the way back in last year. That snow happened to start late on a Saturday afternoon, just before a performance the 11 year old was in. That day even The Egg, our UFO shaped performance venue in Albany, cancelled its evening programs; but not the RPI Young Actors Guild. The Winter Follies were to go on, and since the 11 year old was in several sketches, she needed to be there. That venue is twenty minutes north on the highway. The roads were getting bad when we left, and they would be really awful on the return trip. The husband was on call, and when he’s on call, I drive. Otherwise, usually I do take the passenger seat, because he prefers to drive and I don’t care.

That day I was nervous about the weather. For a moment, I thought I would just let the husband drive. Probably he wouldn’t get paged, and it seemed easier if he drove. I wouldn’t have to worry about slipping and skidding on the road. I almost suggested it. Then it struck me that turning over that responsibility wasn’t going to help me, really, because I would be sitting in the car either way. And I thought, Now why do I assume I’ll be or feel safer with him at the wheel? I’ve driven in all kinds of conditions. I’ve had no accident since I was a teenager. I am perfectly competent to drive. Furthermore, because I am competent to drive, I might as well take on the responsibility in a situation that could be bad or dangerous. I will handle it as well as he will, and I will actually be more in control if I drive than if I don’t.

Look, it may not seem like much; but it was a Moment for me. Why not take charge? Why assume I’ll be better off if someone else does? No more waiting for someone else to tell me how to do it; no more thinking someone else knows how to do it better. I am in charge.

I suppose I ought to be ashamed to admit this. I suppose I ought to ashamed for coming to this realization so late. In my 50th year. But I saw all those times I’ve wanted someone else to be in charge, and all the times I’ve allowed someone else to take responsibility. It was a Bingo! Ding! Ding! Ding! moment of seeing that I’m the one in charge of my own life. As much as that is possible.

As we’d feared, the roads were awful by the time we left the theater, which is on top of a big hill. The trip down from the hilltop in Troy was white-knuckle. There was skidding and fishtailing. When we got down, the plows hadn’t gotten to the highway yet.  There were no lane markings visible. There were no lanes. It was dark and snow blew at the windshield unrelentingly. I wished heartily that we could just pull over until morning, but I drove on, slowly, carefully, thinking that I knew in my heart this was not my time to die, and therefore that we would make it home.  In this manner, I proceeded, pretending to believe in fate, pretending to be in control, managing as best I could, knowing that while driving was hard, it had to happen.