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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.