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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Revisiting Old Haunts and Themes

Here’s what’s happening right now. The husband is scraping pumpkins with his fingernails. Why? Why, because we were so lame and laggard about buying pumpkins that the only ones he could find were painted. Consequently, he is scraping off the paint, in preparation for carving them. And I am watching. I mean, after handing him a scrubby and a steel wool pad to try. I’m not completely unhelpful, just ultimately so.

Last weekend was a long weekend for us. It kicked off Thursday morning, when one of us, I’m not saying which one, because it would be cruel, microwaved the butter. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that this was special, European (French) butter, imported in an aluminum foil wrapper. As A. A. Milne might have written, this person “did like a little bit of butter for [his or her] bread.” And wanted it softened. Didn’t remember, at the unseemly hour of before school began, that metal and microwaves don’t mix. The result was a noticeable pop, and a ball of flames inside the thousand-year-old microwave we’ve moved six times.

As is so often the case, especially with people, nothing seemed wrong with the microwave when you looked at it. However, mid-morning, when I wanted to reheat my coffee – I know, yuck, reheated coffee; what kind of connoisseur am I? Answer – no kind – the defects became apparent.

I’m liking this damaged people, damaged microwave analogy. I could really run with it. But is it what I want to get into? The point is, if there is a point, that once you get to know even those microwaves that look fully functional, those microwaves with deluxe features, even those combination convection oven-microwave ovens, their defects become apparent. So while you’re busy crossing the street to avoid those microwaves that are shouting obscenities and weaving in your path, the ones that usually cause the most trouble are those ones that short circuit from the inside. If you don’t unplug them, they’ll burn down your house.


Anyhoo. Off we went to Boston, to visit colleges and friends. The trip to Boston was a success on several levels. One important one was that we all survived the weekend at our friends’ house without having any horrible intestinal illnesses.  I was kinda anxious about descending upon our friends A & T for the weekend, since we are four, and they are two. And the bathroom is one. But the real anxiety was the traumatic stress I suffered the last time we four stayed with A & T. To wit, the current 11th grader was then in preschool and her sister was still sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play; some time in the late evening, the preschooler commenced vomiting, which she continued doing every forty-five minutes or less until we managed to load ourselves into our car and head back out the Mass Turnpike at 7:30 in the morning.

I have never recovered from this terrible experience. The guilt of inflicting ourselves on our friends. The whole thing was just, you know, yucky.

So I had residual apprehension about the four of us going there again, even though, mirabile dictu, this didn’t cause our friendship to end, even though A & T remained undeterred in their decision not to have children. Perhaps this episode underscored for them the rightness of this choice. I can’t say. What I can say is that, while since then, I have slept under their roof and they under ours, this particular sleeping arrangement had not occurred in the intervening twelve or thirteen years. 

Now, we have cancelled out the past, with a successful visit, during which nothing untoward happened, unless you consider the children observing the adults acting like, uh, children, children who drink lots of beer, untoward. 

All of this dwelling on the dark and negative, Readers, has a point. The point is that sometimes negative thinking can lead to success. I was reminded of this by a recent piece in the NYTimes, “The Problem With Positive Thinking.” This piece reminded me of two things I’ve learned. One, that an idea worth writing about once is worth writing about repeatedly. It’s worth revisiting, like Boston.  Or your fears. This is good news, don’t you think? I do. Two, this idea that “the key to success is to cultivate and doggedly maintain an optimistic outlook,” has often prevented me from feeling like I can succeed. You see, I have a bit of a problem with the cultivation and doggedness of optimism. For a long time, I tried to convince myself that I am, at heart, an optimist. And I may, indeed be. However, I am learning that this buried nugget of optimism is not what my closest and dearest friends associate with me. It may be too well-buried.

For example, just this weekend, gathered ‘round the dining room table with our friends, spurred by a glass or two of Italian wine, I remarked that I think I’m fairly optimistic.

“You are?” One of my so-called friends said, in an insulting tone of incredulity.

I said, “Well, it’s true that the husband and I often have different reactions to the same stimulus.” Well, those weren’t my exact words. Who can recall exactly what one says when one is drinking Italian wine? More or less, I said that for example, when I see our dog lying with his head on his paws, I’m filled with a terrible feeling that he’s bored and unstimulated. “Look at that poor, miserable doggie,” I’ll say, and feel that I have to do something to make him feel better. The husband, on the other hand, comes into the room, looks at the dog in the same pose and says, “Look at how happy he looks.” Then he goes off to play the piano, or do a crossword puzzle, without a nagging feeling of guilt and failure.

I have felt much shame about that negative tendency in myself, thinking it has doomed me to failure. However, the beauty of this article was that it revisited this idea and declared it untrue. It turns out that positive thinking can cause a person to relax , to lose energy, and therefore to lose motivation.

Now, this idea isn’t actually new. Two of my favorite psychologists, Carol Dweck and Heidi Grant Halvorsen, PhD, her onetime protégé, are big into how your mindset affects your ability to achieve success. HGH, PhD, in particular, has examined the ways that accepting your tendency towards pessimism can help you attain success. In other words, if you’re going to be a negative thinker, use that to your advantage, by figuring out what obstacles may interfere with you reaching your goal, and how to overcome them.

According to this new article in the NYTimes, the best approach to a goal is twofold, a technique called “mental contrasting.” In mental contrasting, you balance positive and negative thinking. You envision a positive outcome; but you also consider the potential obstacles. You are, in short, hopeful, but also realistic. I think I’m that. Maybe. After my morning affirmations.

One key to the success of mental contrasting as a tool, however, is that you must be going for “reasonable, potentially attainable wishes.”

Hmmmm. How the heck are we to know what’s reasonable and potentially attainable for us? Beats me. I guess that’s another article. C’mon, NYTimes, help me out!

By the way, I lasted five days without a microwave. Three of those days we were out of town.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Newsy Post With Hidden Tips for Success

The 15-year-old turned 16 this week. I didn’t have my usual birthday breakdown, probably because my last birthday caused such an extended breakdown that I didn’t have anything left to break down. It’s life. We’re lucky if it goes on and we turn another year - heck, another day - older.

But to back up. Last weekend involved yard work. Readers, you know how I feel about yard work. Yish. But this was official yard work, or perhaps better to describe it as planned, special yardwork, not maintenance. The husband and I put in full morning with a landscape designer, providing free labor. See, we’re implementing a plan for the yard. Plans for yards are very expensive, especially if you want to do them all at once. The neighbors next door did that last year. And just a couple of weeks ago, neighbors down the street did it. Bulldozers and a crew and about three days and the dog and I saw the whole yard redone: new shrubs, a weird retaining wall, and a carpet of sod.

Fortunately for the budget, that is not my style. So, I got a consultation on the yard from a really nice landscaper, Sandy Z, who suggested ways to do the work in stages. We spent the morning moving things from the front yard to the backyard and vice-versa. So, goodbye to the last of the rose bushes – too much work for too little reward. It took us 5 years, but we killed them all but two. Hello, coreopsis.

And hello, back spasm. Yep. Sandy Z brought one helper with her, and I offered up the husband and myself. The husband proved a good worker. I proved, if there was any doubt, that I’m a better conceptual gardener than an actual one. As I patted down some lovely earth around a coreopsis, a spasm that was embarrassing in its severity practically rendered me incontinent. I managed to shuffle inside, where I lay on the floor for a while, and then popped a few Ibuprofens.

After throwing out my back, taking the 16-year-old to the DMV for her learner’s permit was a pain. But let’s be honest about this pain. It wasn’t the hard pew-like benches upon which we sat that caused the pain; it was my back, which reacted as grouchily to getting up from the couch as from the bench. I just noticed it more in the bureaucratic space. To alleviate the pain I read my book, Americanah, standing up while the teen took the written test. When she came out to get me – to pay, bien sur – she was indignant that the clerk at the window had been – imagine this, at the DMV – rude and humorless. So, a rite of passage in more than one way.

Americanah, by Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie, by the way, is excellent. Well-written, a good story, and educational about race in America.

This weekend involved an archeological dig, as well as the 16-year-old’s birthday sleepover. Here in the suburbs, all you do is open the front door and show the guests the way to the finished basement. Use those brief seconds to memorize these faces, since you've barely seen them before and you won't seem much of them again. At some point, provide pizza and some kind of dessert with candles, which let’s be honest, the teens would prefer you send down the basement stairs to them on a tray-sled. In fact, the only evil look I garnered came when I descended the stairs to say the pizza had arrived and they should come up to eat. The husband had already informed them of this, so my presence was clearly unnecessary and therefore against the (unspoken, we figure them out as they come, rules). After dinner, they disappeared downstairs again, and entertained themselves until late morning. Easy peasy.

An archeological dig, did I say? Yes, that is correct. During the summer, the 12-year-old took a weeklong archeology course, and signed on to do this dig in October. This weekend was the time, and there was no chance of forgetting about the dig. The 12-year-old saw to that. She’s nothing if not dogged.

Since the MIL was visiting, to see the 16-year-old for her birthday, and the MIL has some experience with digs, we three took a lovely drive out into the countryside to the farm where the ruins of a presumed 18th Century tannery have been found. Turns out that we missed the memo about the rain date and arrived to discover the dig had been rescheduled for the next day. But the farm’s owner, who also happens to be the town historian, took us out to the site, a fair hike into the wet woods. He and his wife were lovely, despite their yard sign urging a repeal of the SAFE act. Friendly conservatives! Imagine! They even insisted we use their bug spray to ward off ticks. If they’d known we’d voted for Obama twice, do you think they’d have done that? Coming down with Lyme disease might keep us from the polls this November and Astorino would have a better chance.

Anyhoo, the MIL left this morning, so was unable to return to the dig, but the 12-year-old and I drove out again, and spent some hours with a troop of boy scouts and the two archeologists stumbling about the woods, placing red flags on rock piles, and then using a giant sieve and spades to sift through a lot of dirt. One of us was very concerned about tweaking her back again, and poison ivy. The back is fine, and since every garment that came in contact with foliage and shrubberies has been loaded into the washing machine, and the hands have been scrubbed vigorously, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ve avoided that latter pitfall. Time will tell.

What else? Probably in relation to my child getting older and closer to high school graduation, I’ve started thinking about what I need to teach my offspring when they are on their own. In that vein, I decided to be all French mom-ish and introduce them to the joys of weekly facial exfoliation techniques. Guess which of the children was interested, the 12-y-o or the 16-y-o? So the 12-y-o – yes, patpat, Readers, you are right – enjoyed her first mom-sanctioned exfoliating scrub, followed by a spritz of mineral water. 

The 16-y-o said, “Yo, what’s the big deal? I scrub my face with the stuff and rinse, right?” And I said, “Yo, don’t you want the experience of a spritz of mineral water?” And she said, “Yo, you wasted your money on a can of water?”

And I didn’t say, “Yo, it’s imported.”

So, I guess I’ll call it success all around. The young ‘un washed her face, always a plus. And the old ‘un has appropriate skepticism towards marketing. Yay? Yay!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nap Your Way to Success. Or Death.

First off, I would like to thank my Aunt and Uncle Wisdom for urging me to take Prednisone. My poison ivy is waning. My cold and sore throat are now gone. And despite my father’s suggestion that I share a photograph of the disgusting skin on my arm where the rash used to be, I’m going to pass. Once again, I’m proving there are limits to my exhibitionism.

Second off, I’ve been binging on the - what shall I call it? - the Self-Care, the Maintenance, and it’s got to stop. Physical therapy, regular therapy, facials, waxing, hair cuts, Pilates. A massage. I’m living like a millionaire, which I’m not. I have so many appointments I hardly have a free day anymore. Mix in the repairs for the screen door that the dog barreled through last week, the sprinkler system, the need to locate an orange-and-black bandanna for the 11th grader’s school spirit day and so on, and there’s no time. So I’m dialing it back. Especially since I have to take a nap almost every morning. I think that’s due to the Prednisone, which keeps me awake at night. By the morning, it has worn off, so once I take care of the morning duties – lunches, breakfasts, carpools, dog feeding, and so one, I have to snooze.
So let’s talk about naps, Readers. Do you nap? I am a long time napper. I have never felt any guilt about napping. Okay, why do I even bother to write that? For heaven’s sake, I feel guilt about everything I do that seems unproductive, and napping tops the list. Let’s be real.

What I should have said was I never felt anything else besides guilt about napping, at least not until recently. I read an article in the NYTimes about nappers being more likely to die in the next bunch of years than non-nappers. After that, I saw a couple more mentions of the negative correlations between napping and mortality. I tried to ignore them, because what good does it do me to wish all my naps unnapped? However, ignoring links to mortality doesn't come easily to me. Therefore, now I have guilt and FEAR about napping. Why else would I need so much Self Care?

The good news is that there have been at least as many recent articles about the benefits of napping. Napping, staring-off-into-space, and vacationing (if you can afford that) improve creativity, stimulate creativity. In fact, apparently if we all "set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems.” (NYTimes 8/10/14 SR5)

So this created a quandary. Nap and die or repair the world? Is it really one or the other? I did a search on “napping and early death,” and discovered this: study. ( The article's upshot is that people who nap for more than one hour a day seem to have a higher chance of mortality in a certain number of years, for various possible reasons. HOWEVER, those who nap for less than an hour show no increase. Well, Thanks God, as my sister the psychoanalyst has begun to say. You see, I’m a power napper. Twenty minutes on the couch leave me better than new.  

And this whole nap equals death thing is, empirically speaking, a crock. I mean, my father is a napper. He’s the king of the power nap. I have a strong memory, dating back at least four decades, of him napping on the couch with one foot on the floor. He’s 89 now, and still snoozling.

In defense of my nap habit, I offer that information. I also offer the rationale that sitting down to write something creative when you’re really tired is mighty hard. It's almost as hard as sitting down to do deadly boring work like data entry; which, I know from experience, is a strong soporific. I believe if I look closely I can still see indentations in my cheeks from many power naps I took during my days as a library assistant at the Mothership* Library.

Finally, I also recently read a tidbit about the so-called caffeine nap. I thought I was the only one who experienced this phenomenon; namely, falling into a nice snooze directly upon finishing a cup of coffee. It seems I am not the only one. The caffeine nap seems to be a thing. The article offered a neurobiochemical explanation for why, which I will paraphrase, probably incorrectly - but who's to know? Apparently, a short nap clears some kind of gunk from the synapses and makes room for something else to glom onto them, something that makes you more alert. And for some miraculous reason, caffeine helps the brain clear the gunk from the synapses along with the napping. So sip and nap, my friends. 

The key to a power nap is that foot on the floor, or an equivalent - a keyboard, or a semi-full bladder - something that doesn't let you get too comfortable. That is some self care I can afford - and you can, too. 

*That's Widener Library, Harvard University.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Poor Me

My poison ivy is weeping. Readers, did I mention that I have poison ivy? I mentioned the sore throat, right? No? Nor the poison ivy? How unlike me to suffer alone. Of course I’m not suffering alone. The husband is suffering with me. In fact, he may have decent grounds for divorce, based on the disgustingness of this patch of poison ivy – weeping poison ivy – that I keep showing him. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned about beauty from the French, it’s to keep some things a mystery. I’m wondering if poison ivy might be one of those things? 

And itchy. News flash: Readers, poison ivy is itchy. It can weep all it wants. I’m not feeling an ounce of compassion for it. It’s just one of several things (children) that have been weeping lately. I’ve used up all my compassion on them. Birds, boys, 11th grade blues. I’m pretty sapped. So this poison ivy, and the endless sore throat have filled up my mind and lowered my ability to cope with anything else.

I'm thinking of Iyanla Vanzant's talk at the Oprah event last week, about how she said life teaches you  lessons you may not want to know, just like a real friend will tell you the truth, even if you don't want to know it. Is there a lesson here for me? Let's see.

Well, I'm pretty sure I got this poison ivy from the dog. Thanks, Milo. And I'm pretty sure he got the urushiol (that's the poison in poison ivy) from going beyond the bounds of his electric fence, following a trail scent from a bunny. (Tularemia.) And he went beyond the bounds of his electric fence because the battery in his electric collar died months ago....

No, there's no lesson here. Uh-uh. Nope.

I’m resisting an urge. I’m resisting two urges, actually. One is to scratch my poison ivy. The other is to put a photograph of my poison ivy right here, on my blog. Instead, I will show you a picture of the henna tattoo I got at the beach this summer.

Isn’t that nice? I felt all summertime free and easy with that lil’ elephant on my ankle. Of course there were moments when I felt otherwise, such as when I saw my henna tat as proof that I have no gainful employment, since a gainful employer would probably discourage a tattoo on an employee. Most of the time, however, I felt too free and easy to care.

I have a prescription for Prednisone to stop the itch from my poison ivy. However, I’m not into taking pills. They are scary. And this poison ivy isn’t exactly widespread all over my body. Nobody could call it an emergency. It’s just, you know, uncomfortable. I’ve been living in the Northeast for a looooonnnnggg time. Isn’t being uncomfortable part of the deal? Builds character and all that? It’s a freakin’ badge of honor for some folks. Am I one of them? No. 

No, I’m just a chicken. This may seem funny to some of my readers who recall my college days of “experimentation.” Unlike then, now the possibility of strange dreams and the munchies does not appeal.

Poor me, poor, poor me.