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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Energy, the X-Factor

Hi Readers, I’m low on energy this week. Fortunately, I picked up this book, 50 Success Classics, which I do every so often;  When I’m not sure what to blog about, I open it at random and dip in. This week I opened at random to the chapter on Loehr & Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement. It turns out I have the whole book on my shelf, too; I haven’t read it yet. But this piques my interest. It’s about energy. Energy being the “x-factor” in success. Focus, purpose, and resilience. The key to success is managing your energy.  Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. More is better, energy-wise, but self-control is essential. 

I don’t have the energy to read their whole book right now. Possibly because I’ve allowed the presidential campaign to drain my emotional energy. 

The good news is that, “It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation…”  This, by the way, is apparently a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci in A Treatise on Painting, another item I lack energy to read this week. Leonardo, I think no one will argue, was attuned to the creative cycle. He was savvy to it way before these guys, way before Julia Cameron told us to “fill our wells” and Stephen Covey to “sharpen our saws.” Even before I promulgated the 20-minute-snoozle as a major energy restoration technique. As well as a procrastination device….

Not that my book, 50 Success Classics, is the iChing or anything, but it does seem serendipitous and illuminating that I opened to this idea of energy in relation to success in the aftermath of the presidential debate. In case you couldn’t bring yourselves to watch, let me fill you in. The question of stamina arose - the question of which candidate has the stamina to be president. The answer was self-evident, although the questioner, it will be no surprise to anyone, disagreed with the evidence. 

In short, this is to say that, this week, Readers, I’m sharpening my well of energy. To mix a few metaphors. In short, here’s the update: 

  • The college student seems to be adjusting to college. This involves participating in an array of activities. This also involves tantalizing but insufficiently informative texts.

  • The 9th grader is well on her way to being overbooked. Tennis, music, acting, art, schoolwork, and keeping up her feminist Instagram account are cutting into her free time. Because she plays French Horn, and French Horns are apparently in short supply, she’s been recruited for an area orchestra, on top of the school band. Busy, busy. 

  • The husband continues his grueling work schedule, which he supplements with talking me down from hypochondria after I read books for the trade instrument for which I review them, such as the soon-to-be-released new book by a famous diet doctor about the evils of sugar. 
Me, after finishing the review: I’m thirsty. So thirsty. Do I have diabetes? Husband: No.Me: But why am I so thirsty? Maybe it’s metabolic syndrome? Husband. No. You're thirsty.

Then we watch Veep. That Julia Louis-Dreyfus is incredible as the reprehensible Selina Meyer. 

  • Read an article by Deborah Spar, President of Barnard, about the conflicting pressures of feminism and workplace success*. Specifically, the pressure on women of a certain age who are in leadership positions to have cosmetic interventions on their faces to keep them looking young. This article reminded me of the piece I published in the Motherlode about make-up and feminist guilt. It also reminded me of the episode of Veep in which Selina Meyer gets her eyes done, and as a result, can’t make a key speech during her campaign. 

  • Spoke to an editor at a publishing house about my book and now I have more work to do. Thus the pull back and the well sharpening and the energy replenishing. 

Maybe once my book is published, I’ll need to get a little work done. We all want to look somewhere between 40 and 60. As women we have authority at that point. 

And last, I read in The Washington Post that Hillary Clinton meditates - and has had contemplative thought leaders to the White House, so it’s not a new thing. A Google search revealed that this knowledge about her meditation and doing yoga has been out there for awhile. Well, it’s new to me. Probably contributes to her ability to withstand the bullying from T. It’s also a great way to enhance the x-factor in success - energy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hamburgers and Stephen Covey's Habit #3

Now that I’ve wasted about 45 minutes on activities neither urgent nor important, to wit on fashion blogs and looking once again at Marie Hell dresses and wondering if I dare to spend $275 on a jersey dress and whether I need to always showcase my curves or if I can wear something without a waist and not look like a tent and thinking about belts and cysts and bloating and being short and other body stuff, maybe I can figure out what I want to blog about. 

Let’s see. Well, my friend, let’s call her A, as in alpha, as in the source of all things, asked me yesterday if I’d read Rivka Galchen’s latest short story in the New Yorker. She said, “You have to read it. When I read it, I thought of you.”

Well, I hadn’t, so I did. Just like that. I located the magazine in my house, I sat down, and I read it through. I know. I’m impressed with myself, too. No procrastination. Just reading. Reading instead of doing other things I ought to be doing, if you must know. So procrastination after all. But I digress. I read the story. And it was funny. It’s called “How Can I Help?” and it’s told in the first person by someone who works at a call center and who thinks of herself as a big success, and who slowly reveals herself to be, well, nuts. Screwed up. F**d up. In a funny way. 

And I thought, is this why my dear friend A thought of me when she read the story? Do I remind her of this character who decompensates entirely by the end? 

But it is a really funny story. In one part of the story the narrator refers to a book she read called Happiness, which teaches her the theory of the four hamburgers of life - “there’s the hamburger that tastes good now but makes you feel bad later, the one that tastes bad now but makes you feel good later, the one that is good both now and later, and the one that is bad both now and later.” Farther down in the same paragraph, the narrator mentions, “Another book I read says there are only the drowned and the saved. That also sounds true.”  Indeed it is true, but it is also ridiculous. 

And I thought, is this penchant for reading stupid self-help books the reason my dear friend A thought of me when she read the story? Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s the sheer hilarity of the hamburger of life metaphor for success. I think it’s workable, this metaphor. I could probably map it onto Stephen Covey’s Habit #3: Put First Things First, his habit about personal management. It does bear a passing similarity to Galchen’s hamburger theory. Covey, however, calls his theory the Time Management Matrix, and it’s about how to prioritize your time and your tasks. His matrix also has four quadrants. There’s what’s important and urgent, what’s important but not urgent, what’s urgent but not important, and what’s not important and not urgent. See, it’s kind of like the hamburger metaphor. Because there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes, I believe, said this, a couple thousand years ago, so by now it’s been millenia since there was anything truly new under the sun). Also because I’m creative. 

To summarize, you should locate for yourself those activities that put you in the quadrant of important but not urgent and eat your hamburger there. You should avoid activities that are neither urgent nor important. Perhaps like reading this blog, although I hope not. 

Anyway, as I've said, the story is quite funny, and the narrator unreliable, and the world view bleak, and all of it well written with clever links back to the hamburgers and the drowned/saved thing, but still I asked myself why exactly did A think I should read this? Does she think I’m deluded, too? Does she think it’s funny how stupid advice books are? Does she think I’m like the narrator who says she tries not to be judgy but is?  Is it to warn me of the dangers of those who might actually seek advice from my writings on success? No one would be that silly, now would you, Readers?

In other news: Next week, I will be speaking to an actual editor at an actual publishing house about my book proposal. Send good vibes, Readers! 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Joys of the Small Life

Cups of tea symbolize the joys of the small life
Is it enough to live a small life? That is the question, Readers. After all, small lives are often the subjects of books. Of big books, even. Shouldn’t that answer the question in the affirmative? After all, if you’ve made it into a book, well, that is something. 

And yet, some of us (remaining nameless) pine for something more. Something More. Achievement. Recognition. Dare I say it - success? 

Perhaps my question is silly. Of course it's okay to live a small life. After all, most people do. And they don't feel small. Perhaps the question I'm more interested in is why are some people happy with lower-case-a-achievement while others jones for upper-case-A-Achievement? 

Look, here I am undermining my whole blog. Haven’t I been trying to find a way to merge success with regular life? Why, yes, I have. That has been my mind experiment. And I have done pretty well. I have figured out my system, my method, my scaffolding on which to build a feeling of success. But sometimes some of us (remaining nameless) want more than a feeling of success. We want actual goals met. You know - achievements.

Well, in fact, I think I’ve shown that we all want to achieve goals. That is the essence of living a life of meaning and purpose. But I struggle with the goals. I question why some people are fine with small goals, while others want BIG goals. 

This brings us to the fish-pond question. You know the one. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond? That's pretty clear. It's about how ambitious you are. What no one asks is do you want to be a small fish in a small pond? Because not everyone can be a big fish. Not that being a big fish is a zero-sum proposition. There can be more than one big fish. But not everyone can be a big fish, since big fishness is a matter of proportion, and proportion is relative. What happens to all the small fish? Are they all okay being small fish? 

Am I content being a small fish?

What if you're a small fish who wants to be big? It's taking every ounce of my self-control not to go for the obvious pun here. Aw, heck, I have insufficient self-control. What if you're a small fish who wants to be big? Well, then you're scrod. 

Get it? Scrod - screwed? 

Thank you. I'll be here all week. 

Anyway. I've talked to many people about success, and one thing I've noticed is that people feel successful because they have fulfilled their ambitions. And their ambitions are entirely reasonable. For example, being nominated for teacher of the year in their state - but not winning. Or filling the slots in their therapy practice.

Then there are other people. The people who want More. I was walking with a friend - let's call her Julia - the other day, and she was telling me about her friend who feels dissatisfied with her life. This friend of Julia's says she feels like she is meant to do More, to Achieve something. And she asked Julia, "Don't you feel like that?" And Julia said, "No. I feel pretty good with where I am."

Although of course on this walk, Julia then wondered to me if she ought to be feeling like she wanted More. And I thought, Goodness, no! If you are happy with where you are in life, you are good. 

I suppose this question of satisfaction with fish size and pond size boils down to my mathematical definition of success. That's right, there’s a formula for it.  The formula is X=Y, when X=achievement and Y=ambition. Or vice-versa. Here is a graph that shows what happens when success equals achievement. 
Ridiculously hard to make this graph online, so....

This is ideal. This is the perfect balance, right? No matter your level of ambition, your achievement equals it. Yup. Simple. 

Of course, life is not actually simple. All kinds of things can cause the graph to fluctuate. Well, actually, not all kinds of things. On an x/y graph, only the x & y data can fluctuate. But they do. Oh, they do. So what if the level of ambition is much higher than the level of achievement?

Well, then you have people like me, I suppose. We aim high, but might achieve little. So is that okay? What if we turn into bitter old ladies? Biddies, one might say, if biddie=bitter plus lady.  Does it? Let's say it does. Is that where bitter old ladies come from? Disappointed ambition? This is when Pema Chodron comes in handy

This brings me to another point, a much less tragic one. In one way, ambition must constantly recalibrate itself, because once you achieve a goal, it's human nature to formulate a new one. Furthermore, creativity in all areas of life requires this readjustment. Once a goal is conceived, strived for, and reached, creativity demands a new one. This idea is fundamental to the ideas of mastery and flow, which I’ve mentioned before, flow being fundamental to happiness and success; mastery being fundamental to flow; the dynamic relationship between the challenging but not too challenging mini-goal and the drive to meet it being fundamental to mastery. And all of it essential to living a life of meaning and purpose. So, in short, achievement and ambition are necessary, although levels must vary.

Which brings me to Barbara Pym. I suppose it’s no coincidence that while I await the publishing verdict on my book proposal, a verdict which could potentially mark a large achievement with a capital-A, I have returned to Pym’s books. Pym takes the reader into the smallest of small worlds, the small parish near or in Oxford, England in the 1950s-1970s, the world of spinsters, of cups of tea, of crushes on curates and gentlewomen’s companions. It’s a keenly observed world where very little happens, and things that do are pretty darn small and centered in the parish. And yet, everything is there that makes life meaningful: goals, ideas, purpose, some religion, community (too much), independence of thought, depth of feeling, and human connection. In short, these small subjects, as I mentioned above, make worthy subjects for books. So I will extrapolate that, yes, small lives are inherently worthy. And I will try to make peace with mine. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Annals of Successful Parenting - Hazards of Success

Since last I wrote, we have successfully deposited the college student in her dorm. We have successfully provided the bed with the following supporting materials: a mattress topper, a mattress and mattress-topper allergy-barrier cover, a mattress pad; and sheets, a duvet, and a fuzzy blanket. We have met the roommate and found her nice. We have met the college president, who walked through the halls as we were unloading, all of us sweaty in the very humid, hot, unair-conditioned dorm. Within moments of arrival, the college student soon had her wall decorated with strings of lights and a collage of photos. Not a one of her family, I will mention. That’s okay. I’ll sit in the dark. (You’re supposed to say that with a Yiddish accent. “That’s uhkay, I’ll sit in the dahk.”)

As we were leaving campus, we passed a trio of mother, father, and new college student laden with bags and bins from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The mother snapped a photo of her daughter and said aloud, sort of to us and sort of to the trees, “I’m leaving my firstborn at college. How is it possible?”  Her plaintive, confused voice could have been mine. “I just said ‘goodbye’ to mine,” I said. Then my voice cracked and I pushed my sunglasses up my nose. What else was there to say? There were many of us bewildered moms and dads and sad siblings orbiting the campus that day. 

This is the fruit of success, Readers. I say this with bitterness. Bitterness - because “they” all say that success can be empty. There are several reasons for success to be empty. There’s aiming for the wrong things, things that won’t actually bring fulfillment, things like money or fame or, you know, objects. We’ve had that drilled into us, after all. Rich men and camels and eyes of needles and heaven and such. Success can bring money, but money doesn’t buy happiness. Although, up to a certain point, in fact, money does buy happiness, it’s just that excess money doesn’t. But I digress. 

Other ways success can bring emptiness include an all-too-human tendency called hedonic adaptation, a tendency for people get used to their circumstances, good or bad.  I suppose it’s a type of regression to the mean, returning to a base level of happiness, which is a tendency of organisms, which we humans are. We seek homeostasis, right? This adaptation is good when you’re in a concentration camp, for example, because it allows you to endure and ultimately survive - unless you get killed, I mean. But in regular life, it can mean that once you attain a longed-for, worked-for goal, the happiness it brings you pales. For example, for years I wanted an agent. Now, I have an agent. This was super exciting for me for awhile. Now, however, I’m anxiously awaiting the next step: the publisher. (Please send good vibes, even if you don’t believe in sending good vibes) 

And then there’s the dubious success of raising children who leave. Literal emptiness. Which brings me back to my favorite subject, myself. How am I feeling? Last week, a friend invited me and another friend out for a “sad moms coffee.” We met when our children were toddlers in preschool. One sad mom summed up my feelings about the college student’s departure perfectly. “I know my child is where he is supposed to be, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I am mourning the end of his childhood.” 

Naturally, this coffee event ended in tears. No, it didn’t end in tears, because we are not total idiots. It contained tears, though. 

And yesterday, the first day of school in our town, a friend texted me after her two kids got to their first days of middle and high school, that she understood how I must be feeling about the college student being at college and the 9th grader starting high school, because she was so sad and crying. I texted back with attempts at sympathy, saying something about how every life landmark our children reach creates mixed emotions of pride and nostalgia, but really, I couldn’t help adding, “Yeah, we’re gonna get old, mama.” Which is what this is all about, isn’t it? I mean, not about the getting old, which we will be lucky to do, but about the end result of all this life: death. 

This may have something to do with the well of hypochondria I’ve fallen into this week. There was a tooth scare (it’s fine), and a pulled muscle in my torso somewhere that I know is from the insane amount of weed-pulling I did this weekend but that I fear is something ruptured or malignant.  Even a mosquito bite on my neck that flares up when I watch TV has me twitchy. I kid not. Zika? Malaria? 

Man, success sucks. 

Now, perhaps this post is not as uplifting as I might like it. So, I offer this tidbit of wisdom from the definitely wise Pema Chodron. It's something I'm working on right now. Perhaps you should, too. 

SEEING CLEARLY"Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness."Pema Chodron.