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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's a Wonderful Failure!

“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

This is a final piece of advice from Clarence the bubble-nosed aspiring angel to George Bailey in that old classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is like a Rorschach Test for your psychological state. The first time I considered this was when my stepmother saw what I was watching on TV, rolled her eyes, and totally harshed on my happy with a bitter, “I can’t stand that saccharine creation.” 

Thanks, mom (step). 

Since then, I’ve watched the movie many times - “Mr. Martini, How about some wine!?!” Sometimes I think it’s, well, wonderful; sometimes, it makes me want to kill myself. 

Poor George. He’s gone deaf in one ear from an infection, and has been left behind in Bedford Falls, when all he ever wanted to do was go out and explore the world. He has plans. He’s going to college, then he's going to build things. He doesn’t want to be “cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office.” He wants to do something “big and important.” He’s going to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off of my wings.” Alas, his father wants him to come back and work in the family business, the Bailey Savings and Loan. It's possible he knows he's about to keel over from a stroke.  Instead, George's younger brother Harry gets to college and beyond, while George gets stuck with a drunk, incompetent uncle, a failing bank, and a shambles of a house, along with a passel of kids and a wife (who is undoubtedly pretty, but looks aren’t everything. Lucky she’s got the good stiff upper lip thing, too.) He feels like a colossal failure. And then when Clarence (Angel, Second Class, lacking wings) comes along to help him see how good his life is, well, sometimes, Readers, I can’t buy it. Because the only way George can come to see his life is wonderful is by giving up on his dreams and accepting his reality. This sounds like a meme: The secret to success is wanting what you have. 

Sometimes, Readers, I don’t want to hear that message. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I most certainly do not. 

But, I am happy to report, this is one of the years that I find this movie sweet and inspiring. 
And I love the final lesson:

It is certainly true. I'd be nuthin' and no one without my friends, and I feel that you, Readers, are among them. 

I hope you have a happy new year, surrounded by friends.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reach, Target, and Safety Goals

Hello, Readers, I am just writing a quick post this week, as this evening marks the start of the Season’s Festivities around here and I have a frittata and a soup to cook. 

It’s been a blergh week. That means no news on the book front, and lots of work on the parenting front: the Senior danced her final Nutcrackers. Much emotion involved in that. Following that came assessment of the school work she needed to complete, as well as the college applications. She’s working up to the deadline on those things. It’s not how I wanted it, but that’s how it is. Since before Thanksgiving, she’s been dancing all weekend, every weekend, in different cities around Massachusetts and Vermont, on top of her regular classes - oh, and school, too! So there wasn’t any time for essays. Or sleep, actually. (I can practically see Frank Bruni flexing his writing hand for another Op Ed piece on over-achieving children and their terrible parents.) What can I say? Some kids want to overachieve. You really can’t stop ‘em. 

On the plus side, I got some good advice during my monthly conference call with E and C. I told them I’m in a waiting mode, and it’s frustrating. Waiting and rejection are also wearing at my noives. (Say that with a New Jersey - Joizy - accent.) I’m starting to say self-deprecating things in front of my children, which they hear with dismay. Not healthy. E told me to try to find some activities that boost my self esteem that aren’t related to publishing. Good advice. My old NYC therapist gave me that advice, too.

C told me to take Seth Godin’s advice and “pick yourself.” Stop waiting for permission. That resonated, since giving yourself permission is definitely one of the keys to success I identified. Once again, therefore, I must remind myself I do have permission to undertake this goal - or whatever goal is important to me. So while in this waiting period, waiting to hear from publishers, I should choose myself, which means write the dang book, get immersed. Get excited. Do it for me. Keep moving and going. 

Maybe I should look at my situation in college parlance. After all, around this house, we’ve been thinking in those terms for months. Okay, sure. My Reach goal is publication by a traditional imprint, with an editor and all that. My Target goal is self publication. And my Safety goal is getting that book written, which will achieve a few things: get it done; provide me with new material to blog on and for articles; allow me to see the next project. As in the college search, it is wise to find your safety options appealing. You want to be happy with yourself and where you are, even if you fall short of your reach. 

Happy Seasons Greetings Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Revisiting Values and the Scaffolding of Success

Values. One of the supports of the scaffolding of success is knowing your values and living in accord with them. I could take you through the reasons why, but just trust me. Whenever you talk to or read experts about success, happiness, and the meaning of life, they always bring the subject around to knowing your values. After all, everyone wants to live a meaningful life. Doing work that has meaning, feeling like you have a purpose, being able to get into flow depends on zeroing in on what is important to you.

At the end of October, we went to visit our friends in Boston. You know the weekend, the one when we left the Senior home alone with strict instructions not to let anyone drunk in our house. (Except us, of course.) But no drunk teens, due to liability issues. I was feeling okay about leaving her alone, if okay means heart palpitations and inability to sleep coupled with the constant feeling of needing to pee. In my secret heart, I felt we owed it to her to leave her alone at least once before she goes to college.

I was fine, even after, while walking Milo, encountering my neighbor, who recounted the times her children attended parties that destroyed homes while unsuspecting parents were out of town. Even after she told me that one night she actually got “that call you never want to get, the police calling to say your child is en route to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.” 

Yeah, anyway, blithely off to Boston we went, to visit our Yankee friends. These guys are Yankees through and through. Meaning that they keep the thermostat at 56 F and return well-worn items to L.L. Bean for replacement because of their lifetime guarantee. In honor of our visit, they said they were willing to break their rule of never bumping up the heat voluntarily until after Nov. 1 and they would do so for us, if it got really cold. I felt like a wuss knowing they looked upon us that way, as needing more heat. Which I do. It is true. I keep the heat at 66 during the day and bump it up to 68 regularly. 

So anyway, off we went. I tucked the book I had to read for an assignment into my bag, even though the husband mocked me for thinking we would have time to read. It was an interesting book, up my bowling alley as they say, a self-help book. I can’t say the title, since I reviewed it, for actual money, and it has not yet come out. It was all about how tapping into your true values makes you happier and more successful and helps improve the world. Just the kind of self-help stuff my Yankee friends would never read, let alone think. 

I tried out this idea as we huddled around their kitchen table, cupping our hands over our glasses of whiskey for warmth. I told them I was reading a pre-publication copy of a book about figuring out your values and learning to live in accord with them. This book talked about how it can be difficult to determine what you actually value, as opposed to what you feel you should value. Check. I have had that problem. 

My Yankee friend looked at me like I’d, I don’t know, turned the heat up to 70. Wouldn’t you just automatically do the stuff that was important to you? She wanted to know. 

Nothing like a Yankee to reduce a self-help book to cinders. It was as if, when I began to describe this book to them, immediately the idea in it seemed to disintegrate.

Basically, my Yankee friends couldn’t conceive how anyone would need to discover his or her values. They would just know them. Furthermore, they would just live in accord with them. Or, if they weren’t totally in accord with them, due to the need to pay bills - a common situation among most people - then they would accept that and move on. What’s the namby-pamby big deal about finding your values? That was the gist of the conversation.

Readers, I felt about the size of a lemon seed after this. I symbolically had to semi-raise my hand sheepishly and say that I, personally, had found it very hard to settle on my actual true values. Which is probably because I’m not a gritty, hardy Yankee. 

And yet, they are right, to a degree. We all make our choices and spend our time, and therefore we must value what we do. Indeed,I have come to see that despite my internal conflicts over should and should not, I have managed to live, after all, doing the things I want to do. At least as far as they are in my control. 

But for example, say you have a kid who is into soccer and you are not into soccer. Well, then you have to go to all these soccer games and stand around and try to keep your eye on the ball and recognize one ponytailed preteen from another - can you tell I speak here from experience? - well, then in that situation, you are doing something you don’t value. You might even consider it a waste of time. However, if I brought my Yankee friend’s clarity of thought to the situation, perhaps I could look at it a different way. Maybe I am doing exactly what I value, because what I value most is supporting my child. Therefore, wasting my time and being bored out of my mind and utterly unable to tell one ponytail from another across the field is actually living in accord with my values. So I need to get over myself. 

Now, say you have two children, or three, or more. For each child, presumably, you find yourself weaving various strands of obligation into a nice potholder of life. You’re going to games, performances, and meetings relating to your children, but you feel you have forgotten what you value, or you’re not sure anymore. Because what you value gets buried under the day-to-day stuff you do. 
potholders of life
c/o Creative Commons Google Images

So, with a tip of the hat to my Yankee friend, I have to say that in this situation, you can actually get confused about what you value. Do you value supporting your child in her endeavors? Or was it rooting for the team to win that game and engaging in fisticuffs with other over-invested parents? 

I guess a lot of my life is like that. What I want or prioritize day-to-day and hour-to-hour can be in conflict; but what I do incrementally, over time, speaks to my underlying priorities - and those are my true values. 

Or do I have it backwards? Do I do exactly what I value every day, being a SAHM and a writer (which means at times a procrastinator, a do-nothinger, a daydreamer, and a slob) but still feel like I should (SHOULD) be doing something else: having a more well-defined profession with a salary and benefits and hours and special work clothes. 

So I guess what I’m saying is that I admire my Yankee friend’s certainty; but I am equally certain that it’s all too easy to lose track of what you value and wonder what it is. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Success and Reverting to the Mean

The husband alerted me to an article in the sports section of the NY Times about how the in the NFL this year, "never have so many been so-so." As near as I can reckon, the article about how mediocrity is a negative name for average, and average is normal, and most teams are average, and that’s okay. By extension, therefore, I assume the idea is that most people perform at average level and therefore that’s okay. Indeed, I’m fairly sure I’m intelligent enough to understand that Daniel Kahneman talked about how the idea of reverting to the norm applies to most activities, be they financial or sporting. That’s because there is a norm. Norm is just the root of normal. 

The downside is encapsulated by the immortal words of Emilio Estevez’s character - whose name I cannot remember and am too lazy to look up - Otto, it was Otto — in the film “Repo Man.”  Otto says, “Ordinary f*****g people - I hate ‘em!” 

Otto didn’t eliminate the five middle letters in that expletive, I assure you, Readers. I myself often do not, either; but now that the Twelfth Grader has gone through her swearing phase, the one that really made me feel like a shitty mom for sharing my ashtray mouth, she tells me what I always said to her, “Don’t curse. That’s crass.” Crass is worse than average. Crass is like definitely one standard deviation below acceptable average. So I’m returning to the mean, which is, apparently, inevitable. And by mean, I mean cruel. No - I do not. I mean average. 
How happy the husband would be if I liked football. No can do.

According to a guy named Stone in this NY Times article, normal is underrated. He even wrote a mock self-help book to make people appreciate mediocrity, Embrace Your Inner Mediocrity. The author of this article points out that this season has been full of interesting, competitive games, even if most of the teams are not performing spectacularly.

Here, he loses me, in that I don’t watch football. But I get the idea. If teams are mostly average, then they can play more interesting games because one isn’t handing the other the equivalent of a game of unstoppable serves (to use a tennis analogy, tennis being a sport I enjoy watching, even though I usually don’t anymore). Watching a game of aces - that’s boring. No one wants to watch one competitor slam the other into the ground, figuratively, not literally. You can’t root for a team that’s just so much better than the others, and you have to pity the lame-ass teams that get pummeled. So I see the point. Better matched teams make better entertainment, and better matched teams are closer to mediocre average and or normal. They have to be, statistically.

But really, who wants to be average? Do you? I do not. I am like Otto in that way. I have the deep conviction and fear that I am completely unspecial. Most of us are, apparently. This leads to a lot of unmet ambition. Fruitless ambition. Pointless ambition. Followed by despair, disillusionment, and self-medication - or actual medication. 

But if we delve into this article, we - and I mean, I - find that this sports article is about how the NFL is returning to the norm after having had more spectacular teams in previous seasons. This change is in response to some new regulations about how to practice more safely to prevent concussions. This has meant that some new players don’t learn how to play full-out in practice the way they used to, so it takes them longer into the season to ramp up. 

Another factor is that some major quarterbacks, ones so major that even I, who don’t give a f**k about football, have heard of them, are reaching the ends of their careers. Thus, the level of excellence has gone down a notch.

Okay, maybe things are reverting to the norm, but, and this is important, Readers - this means that they once were playing well above average. They had their season of specialness. They got to be spectacular. Which is what so many of us, like Otto, want the chance to do. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Annals of Successful Parenting: Modeling

Oh, hello, Readers. It's kind of grim out there, don't you think? Shootings and bombings and bombast and rain. Well, I don't want to be grim. Or deep. One commenter on the blog said my blog was the deepest she'd seen in a long time. I suspect it wasn't actually a compliment - although I took it as such for an hour or so. It might actually have been code for, "Wow, this blog is a slog."

So let's talk about this photograph of the big glass and the little glass. Also, yes, of the speck of something on my counter, and the slats of my appliance garage. I have an appliance garage. Isn't that funny? Just forget the slats and the speck. Look at the big and little glasses. Mamma and baby. This is a snapshot of something that cut the grimness for me. It's cute. Not because it's objectively cute, but because it reminds me of something cute.

See the big glass? It's mine. I keep a big glass, usually with water, good old H20, next to the fridge every day. Lately, little glasses have started to appear next to my big glass. Someone in the family, one of the offspring, has picked up my habit. That's cute, don't you think?

Or maybe it's not so cute. It's certainly illustrative of the corollary to the maxim, "Do what I say, not what I do." The corollary is something like, "Kids learn from what you do, not from what you say."
In this case, no harm done. I'm demonstrating that you don't need to take a clean glass from the cupboard every time you need a drink of water, as well as the importance of regular hydration.

Now if you're peering closely at my glass, you are correct, that is not water in there. It's kombucha. This weekend I had coffee with someone who didn't know what kombucha is. My explanation wasn't very enticing: fermented tea and something about The Mother, which is the starter for the kombucha. Just as sourdough bread has a starter, kombucha has one, too. The bread starter is fermented yeast. The kombucha starter is fermented tea that turns into really a very disgusting, mushroomy-looking thing. You can make kombucha. After every batch, just like sourdough bread, you have to save a little bit of starter - The Mother - to make your next batch. I know this because once we had a hipster twenty-something stay with us. She was perambulating around the country with a jar of kombucha and a camera. When she left, she left me the recipe for kombucha, as well as a jar of starter in the fridge. It was not pretty. It looked like a giant fungus, which I believe it indeed was.

The husband took one look at it and said, "What is THAT?"
"It's The Mother," I said. "I don't know what to do with it."
"Throw it out," he said.

If that wasn't a deeply symbolic conversation, I don't know what would be.

So I buy my kombucha bottled. It's kind of fizzy. I like it mixed with seltzer. I drink it and I feel like I'm being productive. It has lots of probiotics, which are very in, hip, and now - and also very 1970.

This weekend I also had coffee with someone who didn't know what absinthe was. Okay, it was the same person who hadn't heard of kombucha. I was like, you know absinthe: the green poison - wormwood? Toulouse-Lautrec? French Impressionists? Paris, 1880s? Oscar Wilde?

This was during a conversation in which my companion told me she was pretty naive and always had been. By the time we got to the question of absinthe, I believed her. But then I thought about why I know what absinthe is, and I thought about how, in high school, I used to say - rather, I used to pronounce - "I may be innocent, but I am NOT naive."

I'm sure I was extremely irritating when I said that. I know I was not entirely correct in that self-assessment.

Pondering what I've modeled for the offspring besides saving glassware and remembering to hydrate. Scary.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Failure Equals Success

The other night, the husband and I watched an episode of “Silicon Valley,” which I highly recommend. It’s hilarious. Which is not my point, although it is A point. In this episode, the very weird genius chief executive of a hugely successful Google/Apple type company launches a product that just totally fails. It’s a bomb. Nothing works. So this genius chief exec has to appease his board of directors. He does so by claiming that because most successful inventions start out as unsuccessful failed prototypes, this spectacular failure is not really a bad thing. It’s actually a jumping off point for a future success. In fact, he says, it’s not even a failure at all. And if it’s not a failure, and if it is the precursor to success, well then, it is as good as success. Ergo FAILURE = SUCCESS. 

The husband turned to me and said, "You really have to blog about this." 

To myself I thought, But this is just a big blowhard twisting things around to try to wriggle out of a bad situation by creating some clumsy double-speak. On the other hand, is there some truth to what he says? 

The truth is that that there is more than one truth. 

First of all, how you look at a fact and how you interpret it is indeed colored by your attitude. You can get discouraged if something doesn’t work the first time, and make a little hatch mark on your scoreboard under “I Told You So - Things Never Turn Out for Me.” Or you can say to yourself, I expected things would take time. If at first you don’t succeed, etc, etc. This works if you feel that eventually, you will accomplish your goal. And you will have that confidence if by some miracle you survived your childhood and grew up feeling valued and supported, encouraged and not condemned for mistakes. 

I don’t know that many people like that. But there is always therapy. And affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, friends who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself - and medication. 

Point: that this attitude can be difficult to develop, but not impossible. But I digress, Readers. 

Second of all, it is true that there are always missteps en route to a goal. Once again, how you react to these missteps determines so much. This reminds me of a recent email from the principal of our middle school about a book he’s reading called The Talent Code. This book talks about “deep practice”. Deep practice means learning from your mistakes and practicing to overcome them. Rather than practice something in a half-assed manner over and over, ignoring your mistakes, and thereby thoroughly ingraining those mistakes in your brain, you do it full-assed, stopping and taking those mistakes apart. That way you never learn it wrong.

I read about something related to deep practice in Bounce, by Daniel Seyd, which debunked the idea that talent is everything. Smart coaching and smart learning are key, according to Seyd. He points out that top athletes are exceptional because they have great coaches who help them break down every aspect of their game to tweak it; then, they practice these tweaks until they become automatic. The more parts of your game you make habitual or automatic, the more brain you have left to adjust to the unexpected - and win.  Smart studying, smart coaching, smart analysis: you look at what isn’t working and you figure out how to fix it, rather than practicing the same mistakes over and over again. 

Third of all, think about professional musicians, writers, athletes. They constantly practice their crafts. Every time a musician tackles a new piece, she has to learn it. She will stumble and make mistakes. Eventually she will prevail. Same with a writer. Crapola first draft, second draft, twelfth draft. Eventually, he creates a final draft. Viewed one way, these people are failing over and over again, right up until they succeed. But we don’t look at it like that. We call it practice or revision. Again, from Bounce: consider the figure skater. If you watch a figure skater practice, you will see a person literally falling on her ass over and over and over. That is because once she masters one move, she’s on to the next, harder one. So her success is truly built on multiple failures. 

I recently listened to a talk by Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal entitled, “Benefits of Failure.” Viewed in one way, meditation is practicing failure over and over. That is, the instructions to meditate are very simple: sit still, and notice your breath. Well, if you’ve ever tried to do that, you discover how very easily your mind wanders off and forgets to notice your breath. Failure. So you simply learn to notice when your mind wanders, and return your attention to your breath. When your mind again wanders off, you refocus it on your breath. Failure after failure. 

But, says Gil Fronsdal, maybe we should not look at this as failure. Maybe we should just look at it as practice. Meditation is less about the breath than about practicing paying attention to the breath. The benefit of failure in this case is that we learn that meditation is always about this same effort of returning attention to the breath and failing to maintain it. Failing to maintain that attention is inevitable, so we might as well relax and accept that we will be at this for a long time. 

As Churchill said, “Success always demands a greater effort.”

As Churchill did NOT say, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Happy Thanksgiving! May your oven work and your guests be hungry. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Family Meeting Check-In

Remember that book I read, The Secrets of Happy Families? By Bruce Feiler, who writes a column for the NYTimes on family life and gives TED talks on successful families? I really liked that book, and I really like his ideas. Which I mentioned in this post. 

And since that post, we have stuck with family meetings. We have them every Sunday – almost every Sunday - either before or after dinner.  With an agenda and everything. I have this notebook from Staples (from the Martha Stewart Collection, in case you want to run out and get one), and in it I write the agenda, with occasional input from the husband. Here’s a typical agenda:

So we go over the week’s calendar and come up with tasks we have to do. The 13- year-old records everything because she is that way, and I record everything in my master planner, because I am the mom and thus in charge of remembering it all. I usually try to add something deeper to the agenda, maybe we talk about something we are grateful for that week, or an accomplishment, or set goals for the week, or play a round of Bananagrams or read a poem out loud. Then we adjourn. 

Now, I’d really like to tell you that our family meetings are going well. So I will. They are going well. Really, really well. We all love them and look forward to them. 

This might be a teensy exaggeration. 

Now, a big part of the idea behind the family meeting is that everyone participates. That means everyone can add to the agenda. That means that the children have a big role in the meeting itself. 

The other underlying idea is that the family is an agile system. This term originated in the software industry and has spread to other businesses. It refers to self-correcting project management. In other words, instead of working on a project from beginning to end, then handing it off for review, regular meetings ensure that there are no bad bugs in the system, and allow for fixes before the product is complete, when it would be much harder to change. Meetings are for self-correcting. You look at problems that crop up and tweak them immediately, rather than run farther and farther off course with no correction until your project is completed (or your children grow up and run as far away from you as they can as fast as they can and start intensive therapy.)

Well, this participation and self-correcting aspect (remember, these are fundamental to the idea) have been kind of hard to implement. I’m just not sure I have total buy-in from the key players, possibly including myself. 

Just recently, I heard a snippet Brucie’s TED talk on the family meeting, and he said that you ask at each meeting, What has been working well this week in our family, and what hasn’t been working well? So, I have been a little FRUStrated lately by the laundry situation. The children are supposed to do their own laundry on Sundays. We tried other days, but Sundays was decided to be the best day. 

Yeah. Well, guess what? Laundry isn’t getting done. Maybe it’s getting started on Sunday, but it’s not getting done. And Someone is beginning to suspect there is a strategy behind this – if the laundry molders in the machine long enough, and school starts, then Someone Else will take over and do it. 
Do I need to explain this photo? I think not. 

So. The husband and I were walking the dog, and I mentioned this laundry situation and the idea that the kids were supposed to contribute to the meeting and everyone is supposed to draw up a list of his or her responsibilities at family meeting so there is something to check in about. So I say to the husband, "Maybe we should talk about the laundry, which is definitely not working." And I also want to draw up the lists of responsibilities. So we decide that since the 17 yo is in the middle of applications and school, we will forego doing both at the next meeting and just lay the ground work for the laundry situation by having everyone draw up that list of responsibilities. 

So here is how it went. 

Ding, ding, ding, everyone to family meeting. 12th grader stands by table, looking at her phone. 8th grader grabs the Martha Stewart Collection notebook and a sharpened pencil and is ready. We go over old business. We go over the calendar. I fail to note that I’ve written down that the husband has ballet pick-up duties on Monday night, which is not the usual schedule.

We move on the agenda item – activity: list responsibilities. I pass out paper and pencils. We begin to write our lists. Except the 17 yo. Who refuses. 

Why won’t she do this, we ask?
"I just think there is a hidden agenda," she says. 
"What do you mean?" We say.
"Well, obviously, you want me to write ‘laundry,’ and I’m not getting the laundry done." 

So we had to admit that, yes, the laundry situation is part of it. But also, the point is to write down our responsibilities to ourselves as well as basic chores. (of which there are way too few, probably, for us to create contributing members of society, but I feel helpless to change that.) 
More balking. 
Eventually, she wrote this: 

Then we adjourned the meeting. 

The next night, Monday, we forgot to pick up her from ballet.

So you can see it is all going very smoothly.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#TBT When I Have Fears

Well, I missed my Wednesday deadline this week, Readers. I apologize. So much busyness abounding in life that I just didn't get to everything. Nothing new here. More frustration on the writing front. And we’re mired in performance rehearsals for both children, in ballet and musical theater.  

Of course there is drama related to these performances. You know - who got what role and the appearance of favoritism - not in favor of my children, otherwise I would likely be unconcerned - let’s be honest. Many tears and self-recriminations from one child. Much stiff upper-lipping and monotoning from the other child. And I am rocketing between if and how or if at all to respond. 

This drama actually followed me to the doctor a couple weeks ago. There I had the  the strange and humorous experience of being at my annual gynecological (cover your eyes if you’re squeamish here) exam, literally with my feet in the stirrups and hearing my writing complimented. (For a response I did make to one situation.) 

For those of you who like to sip a cuppa something while reading my blog - and I've heard there are at least two of you - I'm attaching this piece from November, 2012. While the participants have aged, I must say, the Keats poem seems apropos. My fears, apparently, are timeless. 

When I Have Fears
By John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, 
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

I don't know why this poem struck me so much tonight. I read it to the children at dinner. Reading entire books aloud has become too difficult with everyone's schedules, but I decided we could fit in a poem a night, at dinner. The rule is to pick a poem quickly, from the Norton Anthology, even at random, and it has to be less than a page long. The 5th grader is into it. She loves to read aloud. The 9th grader endures it, sometimes with interest, despite herself. We've been at it since school started. I agree with the 5th grader. It is more fun to read aloud than to be read to; but it's good to do both.

Okay, I do know why this poem struck me tonight. It's because Keats is laying out his ambition and his fears. He's worried about dying before he gets all the good creative stuff out. He doesn't just want to get the "grains" out of his "teeming brain," though. He wants to put them into books. Plural. A stack of them. "High-piled." He wants success, people, and he's in a hurry.

He doesn't only want writing success, however. He also wants success in love. He wants it all. Well-rounded success.

I can relate. To the wanting part. And I have the benefit of history. Keats was right to be in a hurry. He was ill, and he died at 26. He loved Fanny Brawne, but things didn't go smoothly, because he had money troubles.

How does this relate to me? I am now closer to being twice Keats' last age than his last age, and I struggle with fear and ambition, too. I am under no illusion, however, that I'll write anything that will outlast me, and that causes me melancholy. Howevs, I am grateful I am tuberculosis-free, and only have a faint rash, probably caused by the synthetic fibers in my new workout shirts (according to the dermatologist.) So life goes. A little poetry, a little steroid cream, some generalized free-floating anxiety.

I am grateful to Keats.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Annals of Successful Parenting, Volume: I Forget

I think we’ve visited our last college. Vassar. A gorgeous day, a gorgeous campus. By now, I could run an information session for any liberal arts college on the Eastern Seaboard. Not that Vassar is on the Eastern Seaboard - at least not technically. In spirit, though, it is definitely a fine little ship docked on the Eastern shores of our great nation. 
My she was yar

Vassar: My she was yar. That’s a reference to Katharine Hepburn in one of the best movies ever, The Philadelphia Story, which pretty much sums up the Eastern Seaboard experience. Or at least the WASP version. (And is there a more important version?)

Anyhoo, as I was saying, I could run an information session, but I wouldn’t trust myself to run a tour, because walking backwards is not recommended if you don’t know the campus. Although now that I think about them all, on one of our tours, the tour guide announced that at that particular institution (Small Liberal Arts College in the East - SLACE) the guides do NOT walk backwards, but walk forwards - yes, for safety reasons, but also to emphasize the forward-facing attitude of that SLACE. 

Gag me. 

No, really, do, because I’m about to spew a generic information session, from the diversity of the student body to the “holistic application process” to financial aid "meeting one hundred percent of demonstrated need" and believe me, if I hear it one more time, I may actually die of boredom. 

However, I have enjoyed hanging out in the student center of whatever SLACE we visit. It’s always fun to observe the clothing and footwear on the students. Yesterday netted some white platform sandals over black tights on one, a pair of floral combat boots on another, and a totally nondescript looking boy accessorized with black cat ears, a little black nose, and whiskers. “Possibly a furry?” the Senior suggested. Hard to say. I'm not even sure what that is. He wasn’t wearing anything furry. All he reminded me of was the phase that the 8th grader went through when she was in pre-K of wanting a little black nose and whiskers on her face every morning before school. I complied. Sometimes you need a little mask to get through the day, I guess. 

Better than a drink, right? 

Speaking of which, we dodged a bullet regarding teen drinking this past weekend. The husband and I left the Senior at home alone while we went off to visit friends in Boston. The 8th grader went to a friend’s house. So it was a ripe set-up for a "Risky Business" teen blowout party. I felt obligated to leave my child alone at least once before she goes away to some SLACE. 

Before we left, we brought the her to tears with stories about how you can die from alcohol poisoning, and Roofies (, and not letting drunken teenagers into our house because we could be held liable for anything that happened to them. When we returned, the house was in excellent order. In fact, in better order than we left it, thanks to some of the Senior’s friends, who know how to, say, fold blankets and comforters - something the Senior seems to have avoided learning. (She is so busy, after all. Not my fault at all, at all..) She told us she had nothing to drink at all, at all. And we believed her. 

As a fellow mom recently told me, she has been so overwhelmed of late that she has decided to consider everything a success. And so it is, Readers. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Success and the Ooze of Life

Time is out of joint
Scene: Kitchen. Three women, two on the passenger side of a kitchen island. One on the cockpit side, deveining shrimp. All three are mothers. One is a professor, one is a painter of the visual artist variety, not the interior/exterior house variety, and the third is a writer. The professor is cooking. The other two are her guests. What I left out of those job descriptions is that two of the three have “and stay-at-home-mom” appended to them. Can you guess which two? That’s correct, the painter and the writer. The professor, although also a mother, doesn’t have any explanatory appendage to her job description.

What does this mean? Does it mean that being a mother isn’t part of her job? Her only job is the academic post? 

Does it mean that the painting and the writing don’t equal “real” jobs? Or that they are part-time? Maybe that, huh? 

The painter says, “I still hold myself to that Nineteen-fifties ideal.” 
I think about this. Donna Reed’s famous New Look dress and coiffed hair comes up in the brain register automatically. But is that what the painter means? She’s younger than I, and I am too young, actually, to have watched Donna Reed. Yet I know her as shorthand for 1950s housewife, cook, ever-pleasant, perfect-house, homemade-everything Mom.

The point here is that after a second, I thought maybe I needed to clarify that we were all talking about the perfect housewife, cook, cleaner, child-minder. Because this painter doesn’t look at all like Donna Reed. I'm pretty sure she's not secretly longing to change her jeans for a pouffy circle skirt and set hair, but I want to make sure she’s talking Ideal Mother. The mother who is put together herself, and keeps the whole house together and never raises her voice. Now, in the 21st Century.

Yes, the painter says, that is what she meant. And by holding herself up to that standard, she is failing: because she likes to be with her children, to take them to the park and the playground. That means she gets tired with them, and when she gets home, there is all the rest of that Ideal Mother crap to deal with. With which to deal. However, she doesn’t “really” do it. The house is messy and the meals are thrown together. So the housework is not a priority; and cooking square meals isn’t either. But still the idea that it should be hovers. She feels guilty that she’s not doing more. As if minding the children isn’t enough - well, to be exact, as if minding the children and painting isn’t enough. 

And like the writer, the painter finds it really hard to make time for painting, since the nature of childcare is that it oozes to fill all spaces. Like spray insulation. Or Silly Foam. So there is guilt about not painting enough, and guilt about not houseworking and cooking enough. And general frustration, too. Very familiar to me. 

Meanwhile, the professor. When we turn to her I say, Well at least you know if everything goes south - if your husband dies  or loses his job - you can provide for your family. I am totally dependent on mine, financially. 

Yes, says the painter. That’s another way we feel like 1950s housewives. There is tremendous guilt and inadequacy around not earning money. As good feminists, we object to this dependent status. As artists we need it, especially since were we to take on jobs, most likely teaching or something else not particularly lucrative, we would spend our non-kid hours doing work that was secondary to what we wanted to do, spend our tired hours with our kids, and turn over most of our paychecks to childcare. 

The professor says she does feel that her work is very creative and fulfilling; but it is overwhelming and nonstop, even when she comes home. So she feels stretched thin as a parent and as if she is barely getting that done. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt.

Seems to me that because her job is paid and she is accountable to others, her students and her department, that work starts to ooze around the family life that she also wants to have. So she feels overwhelmed by the demands of her work. Whereas the painter and I feel overwhelmed by the demands of the parenting work and our desire to do our personal, creative work. Because we are accountable to ourselves to do that personal work, it’s very hard to enforce the boundaries; therefore, that creative work often gets short changed. There are questions of legitimacy relating to money and to self-confidence in valuing what we do when we do it for nothing and no one for a lot of the time. That applies to the creative “work” we do as well as to the other creative stuff we do called raising children. We can’t call it work, except amongst ourselves, because it’s not considered legitimate “work” unless we earn something tangible from it like money. Or prestige. Prestige counts sometimes, too, intangible though it is. As Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her new book, (haven’t read) and in this interview (have read), one of the major issues we face societally is that we devalue childcare, or care of any kind. So those of us who spend much of our days doing that kind of work feel crappy about ourselves. Therefore, we insist we have to also fit in a full-throttle creative kind of work, like writing or painting. Then we feel crappy about ourselves because really, caring for young children is full time work and there is just not a lot left over to do the so-called “work.” 

Bottom line: We are all stretched thin, “working” and “not-working.”  We each need to be able to institute boundaries around our time, so we can do that thing we’re supposed to do - have it all. We all need it, but life as currently structured makes it too hard to do that satisfactorily. It’s not sufficient to say we can have it all, just not at the same time; because the teeter-totter nature of balance is, well, kind of stressful.

The state of women. Is this how we want life to be? 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

5 Pieces of Advice on Success, Among Other Stuff.

Hi Readers, 

A few things on my mind this week.

1.  Take a look at my study. It’s a disaster area. Waiting for missing parts to arrive before the husband gets my new shelves up and I can finally organize my stuff. Not that I’m going to be a neatnik. It’s not in my genetics. I like some mess. But I like it organized. Organized mess.  
It's disaster, not organized mess, just mess. Dislike. 

2. I listened to a podcast called "Becoming Your Best” about success, by a father-son team of business consultants on leadership excellence or something. I think they’re Mormon, as are so many famous business coaches. I’m thinking of Stephen Covey and Clayton Christiansen in particular.  

Anyway, “Success is a mindset,” they said. And I agree. Then they trotted out 5 ways of creating a good mindset for success. I shall summarize as follows:

  1. What a blessing!  Even if you step in dog poop and track it all over your floor, say to yourself, “What a blessing.” And figure out how to make something good out of it. For example, “Now I get to practice my cleaning skills AND my patience AND my kindness towards my little beastie kick-dog.”
  2. Smile and be nice. This is simple and simpleminded. And hard to do. Be pleasant and kind, even when you want to kick someone, or your little beastie kick-dog. Because you never know where help might come from in return.
  3. Affirmations. “I’m smart, I’m healthy, and I feel terrific.” Or similar.
  4. Positive self-talk. Related to affirmations, but more in depth, talking yourself out of negativity and giving encouragement. Duh. 
  5. Delete critical or negative thoughts. Gee, thanks, I never thought of that. Poof! They are gone.

So nothing new here. In fact, most of it you’ll find in Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People,. This, I may have mentioned (I have) is one of the original success books, from the 1920s. If you add in Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, you’ll definitely get all that advice, and that was written before 1960. 

Is this repetitive advice-giving a problem? Well, the lack of attribution bothers the hell - bothers the heck out of - bothers me. On the other hand, maybe this advice counts as general knowledge by now and so attribution is unnecessary. After all, I do agree that success is a mindset and therefore, the next step is to achieve that mindset. And I agree because I have read it about a bazillion times as well as have experienced it myself. And these five things do help create a positive mindset, and a positive mindset helps to create positive results. Furthermore, if you’re in a snit or stressed out, and you have to perform, i.e. interact with people, either on stage, at work, at home, out in public, then you do sometimes need to have a few tricks ready to psych yourself up and put that snit aside. 

However, these five pieces of advice don’t work all the time. And they smack of feelings-stuffing. Feelings-stuffing leads to internal emotional bleeding, depression, divorce, and internal ticking time-bombs. I do not advocate feelings-stuffing as a lifestyle choice. How could I, product of as much psychotherapy as I am? Feelings-stuffing is not the healthy, long-term way of working with your mindset. However, if you’re frustrated because you’re running late for a speaking engagement, get pulled over for speeding, and get stuck with a big fat ticket and you get grumpy, feelings-stuffing is just fine, to get you ready to march out there and give your speech. 

Then you need to go home and no, you may not pop a Valium or drink a tumbler of scotch. You need to debrief and get acquainted with your stuffed feelings. Deal with them more thoroughly. Acknowledge them and scratch them behind their little ears. Then they will sleep peacefully at your feet and you will have cleared some space for your mindset to improve. And you won’t want to kick them.

By the way, I described this podcast to the 12th Grader, and she said, “They sound like the kind of people you would avoid at a party.” Which I thought was accurate. And I hadn’t even mentioned how they both punctuated everything they said with fake laughter. 

3. The husband wants us to get rid of our land line phone. I am attached to the land line phone. Something about having a single number to reach the family. Something about remembering being on Martha’s Vineyard when Agnew resigned and the house where we stayed had a party line. A party line. Readers, do you remember party lines? Where you might pick up your handset and discover that someone else was on the phone, someone in another house, someone you didn’t know? And you could listen in on both sides of the conversation? Rock Hudson and Doris Day fell in love because of one, in “Pillow Talk”. It’s a cute film, and not entirely sexist because Doris Day is a successful business woman who is more than equal to flibbertigibbet Rock. Nevertheless, I don’t miss party lines. But I do miss my copper wire land line. I could always depend on it to work, even during a power outage. Like most everyone now, we get almost no calls except sales calls on our land line, and we pay a fortune for it, along with Internet and TV. In fact, it’s not actually a land line anymore, since its a fiber optic cable line and therefore subject to the same interruptions in service as our Internet. This means that my old feeling of security that we can always count on our land line to work is a false feeling of security. 

In short, I have few if any rational reasons to hang onto the land line. And then yesterday, I left my cellphone somewhere, and I used my house phone to call my cell phone and located it between the seats of my car, thereby providing me with one last reasonable excuse for having the house line. The other excuse, which I’m not sure is reasonable, is that the idea that each person gets his or her separate calls on his or her cell phone makes me feel all sad and splintery. Further disintegration of the nuclear family and so forth. Plus, how can a mom maintain effective nosiness if all phone calls go to personal cell phones? Not that kids actually speak on the phone much. Most of their conversations already go to their individual devices via texts. So this is just another way of holding on to something outmoded. And paying dearly for it. 

4. Finally, I bought a selfie-stick for the iPhone. This has been the cause of much put-upon sighing by my teens, and I don’t really know why. What is so wrong with a selfie-stick, I ask you? After all, I’m of a certain age, the Blanche Dubois age, when I look better in soft light - and at a longer distance than my own arm’s length. This is something about which they know naught. Poor things. 
Another view of my chaotic, transitional office. And hair.