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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Random Ideas - Kindness and Vulnerability

Readers, these are the times that try men's souls. Soul-trying times. And while I'm not a man, my soul feels tried. Of late, I've thought how much I would love to be a Jewish Anne Lamott.  But I lack her faith, seeing as how I'm pretty much an atheist with some yearnings for agnosticism. Furthermore, I lack her dexterity in the whole "radical self-care" thing. I'm more of a moderate in that department. And really, have I any wisdom to impart? Hers is the wisdom of giving in to self-acceptance. That one is a tough lesson to grok.

Have I learned anything? Have I changed at all? Am I any wiser?

For example, just the other day I was remarking to myself that I seem to have become kinder. I’m less prone to road rage - now it’s just road irkedness seasoned with a soupçon of crudity. I’m more patient. I look upon my fella humans with more compassion than I once did. I cry about elephants and gorillas and feel they probably, along with other animals, are much more intelligent than we have thought them to be. 

I ponder this softening. I welcome this late arrival of tact and nuance. I thought perhaps it was an effect of meditating, something I have done, off and on, for almost two decades. 

Then I got into the car, because I live in the suburbs so I am repeatedly getting into my car, and tuned into the TED Radio Hour in progress on my local public radio station to hear some TED speaker talk about how humans grow kinder as we grow older. 

Hunh, I thought. And blammo, all credit for my self-improvement disappeared with the click of a slide. There went any pretense to wisdom or enlightenment. If I’m kinder, it’s just because I’m older. That’s no accomplishment. That’s just time and luck. Furthermore, when I think about others in my life who are kinder than me - and there are many - and that they will continue to grow kinder than they currently are, and that I’m already at a deficit for kindness….

Well, these are thoughts that drive others to drink. 

But not me, they just drive me to despair. I’m not much for drinking. Alas, I am still the person I am. Needy, often blind to nuance, desperate for validation from others. And right now, I really don’t like that person. I never particularly liked that person. And this is a pity, isn’t it? To grow old without accepting yourself. 

Thus, the quest for success.

Recently, I read a profile of an astounding personality, philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
A sort of android of productivity and intellect, a person of incredible career success, of apparently unbounded confidence, of intense personal power, of many ex-lovers. According to The New Yorker, she has “published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees.” She has won so many awards that she apparently compares them to potato chips - something to enjoy, but "warily". 

I have never read anything Martha Nussbaum has written. I feel as if I’ve heard of her, but then again, her name is not uncommon. I’m fairly certain she has no stake in the Nussbaum & Wu eatery on Broadway and 114th Street in Manhattan. I suppose I ought to check out her works, but I was more taken with her relentless schedule and her incredible self-discipline. We’re talking ninety-minute workouts, followed by an hour of singing, daily. Did I mention she is sixty-nine years old?  Her work calls for, she says, “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.” 

Here I am! But, oops, where is she? She comes across as anything but needy and vulnerable.Talk about radical self-care. Did I mention the "Lamaze is for wimps" comment re: her daughter's birth? The colonoscopy sans sedation? Strength run amok has its allure, as anyone knows who is a fan of Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story.” Isn’t it much more enticing to watch for slivers of vulnerability in the strong than to wade through the marshes of vulnerability with the, well, vulnerable? The possibility that the strong and invulnerable outside will turn out to be on the inside a litter of warm puppies who escape and rollick and frolic in public adorability - isn’t that one of those seven universal plots we love so much? 


Happy week. 

Vive la République! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Small Successes

This week, Readers, is all about a shirt. My shirt, to be precise. My Hillary 2016 shirt, to be more
Stain barely visible halfway between my toes and the graphic
precise. Exact, even. It's also about sometimes needing to narrow the parameters of your success to something very specific. In this case, success is about a t-shirt.

Yes, I’m for Hillary Clinton. #I’mWithHer c’est moi! But that’s not my point. I’m not going to wax political. At least not more political than that. I’m talking about a t-shirt. So. Yes. A t-shirt. I bought this t-shirt practically a year ago. I bought it online, I waited many weeks for it to arrive, and when it finally arrived, I put it somewhere safe until I felt safe enough among the Bernie supporters in my community and in my own home to wear it. 

Well, you guessed it, didn’t you? When that moment arrived, I could not find the shirt. I looked everywhere. Everywhere I did look. I looked in the back of the closet with the beach towels and assorted outdoor games - balls, chalk, rackets, and so on. I looked in all the closets. I looked in the cabinet at the bottom of the laundry chute where I’ve found lost items before. I wondered if my kids, feeling the Bern, had destroyed it. Or if I had developed some memory problem that was going to become monstrous. (This remains a question, actually.) I also wondered if perhaps the disappearance of the shirt might be prophetic, or symbolic, or in some way emblematic of the fate of Hillary Clinton, whose supporters had all gone to ground while the Bernie supporters tried to make us feel like bad liberals. 

I ordered another shirt, which, when it arrived, turned out to be teddy-bear sized, not middle-aged woman-sized. 

Then came the time to switch the winter clothes into the basement and bring the summer clothes up from the basement. In our family, we call this “the big switcheroo.” 

And, you guessed it, somewhere sandwiched in with my summer clothes in a big plastic storage bin was my Hillary t-shirt. I’ve now worn it three times, mostly indoors or underneath a sweatshirt. Because I do feel a little vulnerable with it on, I admit. Today, I decided to wear it loud, proud, and public. By which I mean I would wear it, get into my car, drive to Pilates - which I take with a friend from a gay man who is definitely not crazy and is therefore not for Trump, although we don’t talk politics - get back into my car, and drive home. So I put it on, and it has a stain right on the front. A stain. Right on the front. 

Symbolic? Of Hillary Clinton’s reputation? Perhaps. Of the state of her presidential bid, in which she will ultimately prevail, despite being tarnished? 

Of my life?

Yes, indeed. The stain on my life right now is the tick I removed from my head the other night. Well, I discovered it, and the husband removed it with tweezers. I’ve poured over images to identify this beast: male American dog tick, I’m 99% certain. Phew, right? Well, no. American dog ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. The doctor was not overly concerned. She simply told me to call back if I have any symptoms. Well, as I told my sister the psychoanalyst, “Call back if you have any symptoms” is the exact wrong thing to say to a hypochondriac. Although, come to think of it, I’m not sure there is a right thing, except for, “It’s no big deal.” Even that can be problematic; what if the doctor missed something?

So here I am, trying to avoid thinking about symptoms. That is my goal. To escape worrying too much about symptoms - and ultimately, to escape symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tularemia. That is my narrowed definition of success.  That, and Hillary Clinton defeating that Trump guy. 

I am not faring that well.

Just before I hung up with my sister, she said, “Let me know if you have any symptoms, such as, say, wetness in the mouth.”

Good one, sis. Yeah. I’m wondering about that right now. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

#BlackLivesMatter is Us

Oh, what a week. Readers, life has been very hard of late. For me, I’m talking about me. First, I have to rewrite my sample chapter AGAIN. It wasn’t perfect the third time. And the brownies we ordered for the husband’s office party were stale and unsatisfactory. Then I had to look at the tuition bill for the 17 yo’s private college and take my fancy dog to the vet for shots. Then, I downloaded Pokemon Go, but I forgot my password and couldn't register the app. 

Life just gets you down, you know? 

Okay, perhaps sarcasm is not the way to go right now. Let me be frank, Readers. Here’s what I feel after the last week, after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, after the shooting of the police in Dallas. I feel frustrated. 

I belong to a generation that felt like we just missed out on the great, inspiring social movements of the 50s and 60s. I was too little to be a hippie and to march for civil rights. I am also of the the generation that thought these questions of equality were pretty much taken care of by those heroic Baby Boomers. I am the generation that got distracted and forgot to pay attention as all those gains were slowly and systematically almost destroyed while I experimented with Girl Power and other fake social justice stuff fed to me by that vast right-wing conspiracy that turned out to actually exist. While schools were resegregated, while voting rights were limited, while prison populations grew, while access to abortion dwindled; while education was eviscerated, the social safety net tore, job security vanished, and income disparity grew. While the NRA bought the Republican party and a couple of Democrats, just enough people to block meaningful gun restrictions. Well, guess what? I am paying attention now. 

What’s a liberal white woman like me to do about all this crap happening? The kind of stuff that makes you despair? We’ve got weapons. We’ve got racism. We’ve got violence. The husband and I had a long talk about racism and what we can do to make things better. But we don’t really know. Our particular government representatives, both state and national, vote the way we like, mostly. Should we move to a different state, where we would be in the minority politically, and get active? I’m ready to march. I’m ready to protest. I believe in democracy, just not in unregulated free-market capitalism. Clearly that is only for the wealthiest. 

I say first, listen. Bear witness. Pay attention to these racially motivated incidents. Be aware. It’s the very least we can do. 

I listened to an interview of Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, half black, half white, author of an important book called, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, about how systematic incarceration of black people has created a caste system in our country. 

And second, talk. The husband and I were talking about what it would be like to be black parents of black children, to live constantly in fear, constantly under a sort of siege mentality and to wonder if calling the police in a dangerous situation could backfire on us. 

Really, there are no words for how terrible I feel about this situation. But we have to find some. Children want answers. I said to the 17 year old, the world may look like it’s going to shit, but that’s just because of video technology on phones. This racial profiling, harrassment, and murder of black people has been going on since black people were kidnapped and brought to this country in 1619. It’s not worse, really. It’s just really visible now. And visible has to be better than invisible. Right? Shit is still shit. But at least if you can see it, you can start to clean it. 

It’s easy to extrapolate from police shooting innocent black people (and latinos) and people shooting back at police in retaliation to the world coming apart and crumbling into pieces. But Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” And so I remember there are people working to change what’s bad, and they are using our system, which I honestly believe is fundamentally good, to do so. 

A friend's daughter works in prisoner education. Another friend is a lawyer who helps people know their rights and convicts navigate re-entry into societyAnd what about that amazing photo of the demonstrator in Baton Rouge, standing like a queen in her dress, calm, noble, and firm? That was inspiring.

That is why in my better moments, I think that this racial mess and all the attention brought upon it and the demonstrations are actually signs of change and hope. 

As I said to the 17 year old, it’s like the pimple bursting. It’s yucky, it’s awful, it’s hard to see beyond; but it’s really a sign that (perhaps) things are clearing up. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Imposter Syndrome
I was recently infected with Imposter Syndrome. You’ve heard of it. It infects many women. You know you have it if you feel like a fraud in your own life. If you’ve got a PhD. in Physics, for example, which I’m not saying I do - indeed, I’m saying I don’t - but if I did, and I felt like I didn’t really know what I was talking about when I was talking about physics - which I don’t, because I don’t have a PhD. in physics - but if I did, and I felt unqualified to weigh in on some topic in physics, then that would be imposter syndrome in action. 

Come to think of it, I’ve been infected with Imposter Syndrome for a long time. For example, with my book and my blog. As I thought about taking a leadership role in my own life by redefining success and sharing that with others who might be struggling with the term, I found myself wondering some of the same types of things as real, live successes wonder: Did I have anything to contribute? Was I qualified? Shouldn’t I go back to school for a PhD in Positive Psychology before continuing?

It’s very common for women, especially, to feel as if they aren’t ready to take on a challenge unless they are super-prepared. Studies show that men will apply for a job if they meet sixty percent of the listed qualifications; women, however, don’t apply unless they meet all or almost all. Women often fail to put themselves up for promotion because they feel like they need to get really, really prepared for the next step; meanwhile, many men just raise their hands and figure they will work out problems when they get there.  Recent research suggests that our culture encourages males to be brave and take risks, but encourages females to be perfect. Really, who is perfect? No wonder so many women feel like imposters.  

For example, consider this. Recently, the husband took up triathlon training with a trainer, let’s call him Roberto. This training involved open water swimming as well as stroke improvement; weight training; cycling indoors and out; yoga; and running. After several months, a bunch of Roberto’s trainees, including the husband, ranging in age from twenty to sixty-five, ran their first race, a mini-triathlon. Everyone completed it, even an obese woman and a woman with a neurological problem with her extremities. The husband has a bad knee. In other words, there were many challenges for Roberto as a teacher.

At the celebratory meal afterward, I asked Roberto if he had been triathlon coaching for a long time and if he had a lot of experience with personal training.

“No,” he said. “This was my first time. I don’t really have any experience. I work out, mostly I cycle – I work in a bike shop - but I figured, what the heck. I’m learning as I go.”

I gave the husband a look. He had trusted this guy’s advice for handling his bad knee. (It was fine.) He had trusted this guy on the open water of a lake in fifty degree weather. They all had. (No one drowned.) Roberto had succeeded. He didn’t seem to feel like an imposter. He hadn’t let doubt stop him.

Meanwhile, Readers, consider this. I recently did exactly what studies say women tend to do. There were two openings on our town’s school board. I decided I might like to run. So I started talking to people, to other board members, to board members in other districts, asking about their experience, their backgrounds, and their campaigns. I felt like before I ran, I had better attend several BOE meetings so I would know what was going on and be able to answer questions. I would have to run a whole campaign. Maybe even debate another candidate or two. Eventually, I decided I wasn’t qualified to run, so I didn’t. What do I know about education in our town, after all? I only have two children in the system. Oh, and a Master’s in Education. But I wasn’t prepared. I let the deadline to sign up pass. I then discovered that for the two openings on the Board, only two people had signed up. They had been both been selected. No campaigns necessary. No proving themselves. Just diving in. Both were men. 

I’m not saying we should take huge risks, like Roberto. But I am saying, take action. Take a power pose a la Amy Cuddy, then step forward. Hold a pencil between your teeth, which mimics the action of smiling and triggers positivity in the brain, and - much as I hate to say this now overused phrase, but it is perfect for this situation - lean in. I decided that next time there’s an opening on the board, I’m going to sign up. Imposter or no.