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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Light in Darkness, Motes and Planks, Specks and Beams

It’s holiday time, as in American Christmas holiday time, not as in American Jewish holiday time, which is High Holiday time. It’s holiday time, and all the lights are up and I love it. I love it because I can find my street now. I mean, it’s dark in our suburb. Not for nothing did the children dub it The Dark Divisions of Delmar when we moved here. No streetlights. Dark, dark, dark. So I'm always happy this time of year, especially for our neighbors the Bs, who light up a whole forest of pines, right on the corner of our street. I am serious when I say I love it because I can find the street.

I also love it this year because it means I made it through a semester teaching college first years how to write. I turned in my last grade yesterday. What a relief, at least for a moment. Now I have to write the syllabus for next semester. Oy veh. I nervously await their course evaluations.

In other news, my email newsletter distribution list keeps growing. I find this odd, because I’ve been posting less often than I used to. Fewer posts—more people sign up. What does it mean? They like what I’m not saying. Will they like it when I do say something?

Probably not. Who wants advice?

I follow lots of advice. So much it gets confusing. Eat no carbs. Eat no meat. Eat no fat. Eat only fat. Eat only carbs. Exercise before you eat. Eat before you exercise. Don’t do a shoulder stand if you have your period. Go ahead, stand on your head. Drink coffee. Coffee is the devil. Coffee protects against Alzheimer’s. Put butter in your coffee. You know the drill.

I would never—never—put butter in my coffee. But people do recommend it. Some people. They are currently hospitalized with clogged arteries and can no longer speak of this obscenity, but I promise you, they did.

But one topic of advice is pretty consistent: sleep hygiene. Sleep advice is never changing. Speaking of sleep hygiene. I just have to say that almost every woman I know over a certain age has gone for a sleep study. I have not gone for a sleep study, nor do I intend to; however, sleep is sometimes a challenge. I do all the things you’re supposed to do. I like advice.

Correction: I KNOW all the things I’m supposed to do—use the bedroom for sleeping and nookie only. Don’t read in bed or lounge in bed or watch TV or eat in bed. Keep to regular hours. Stay up until you’re ready to go to sleep, get in your pajamas or your altogether, whichever you prefer, perform your ablutions; then get in bed, turn out the light. Make your room really dark. Put an Auntie Mame sleep mask on if you want to—and I want to. And then you sleep.

Theoretically. This is what my father does, and he is 93. As far back as I can remember, he has sat up reading and listening to music until about 11 pm, then gone to bed and slept like a stone until 7 a.m. He seems to have got that right, and he’s doing just fine.

Anyway, I have my procedures.They involve my Auntie Mame sleep mask, and not drinking any liquids after 8 pm, except for the tiny sips of water to swallow my tinctures of motherwort and chickweed, and room darkening shades and all that jazz. Yet the best sleep I’ve had recently? Was after a huge dinner, late, a glass of wine, a large glass of water, in a hotel bed after watching late night TV in said hotel bed. Then I did it again, only at home. Up late after a large meal and wine. Slept like a baby.

So, screw advice.

But I am going to tell you something. A little story. A little story about how the husband, I noticed, had a thing about closing cabinet doors. I’d be in the kitchen with him and he’s be walking past a cabinet and he’d, you know, close the door. And, Readers, this irked me. I extrapolated all kinds of psychological metaphors from this behavior. He is uptight. He is closing doors around me. He is closing doors for me.

Get it? He is closing doors for me. Closing doors. On me.

Very dark interpretation. I was feeling hemmed in. Hard to breathe. Walls closing in. The star of my very own 1970s feminist awakening film.

Also, it was irksome behavior. And I was about to call him out on it. I was about to talk about the metaphoric implications, not to mention the more literal ones, such as the husband is type A, a control freak, whatever.

Then I noticed that he wasn’t just pressing on closed doors. That would be—what’s that word?—cuckoo. He was actually closing cabinet doors that were open. And when he wasn’t around, I noticed that I was —are you ready?—leaving cabinet doors open.

Not exactly gaping wide open. Ajar. I was leaving them ajar. Like all the time.

Now, I have a perfectly good reason for leaving doors ajar. Really I do. The reason is that usually both my hands are full—and sometimes my armpits are, too—so I can only get so much leverage to fling the door closed. My hands are usually full because I’m doing more than one thing at a time, such as carrying too many things so I only have to walk around the kitchen once, or trying not to trip because one foot is caught in the other pant leg because I am doing too many things at once because I am in a rush, frantic, a woman.

So, you know that old adage, that proverb? The mote and plank one?* Because there I was, about to unload my irritation on the husband, when he was probably irritated by me. And was shutting the doors on it, figuratively. I say probably irritated, because he didn’t show it. He just shut the door.

Just think about that one during this holiday season. I wouldn’t call that advice, because nobody listens to advice, and nobody really wants advice. But a story. That’s a different thing.

Happy Holidays.

*Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? —Matthew 7:3, Bible, New International Version


And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? — King James Version

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Benjamin Franklin, Kelly Ripa, and Me

So, I’m not going to pussyfoot: Since the election, one of my sphincters has relaxed. I'm not going to say which one. There are several, and none of them bears too much scrutiny. And anyway, I am still vigilant. Uptight, even. But, a smidge less than I was. Of course, life has brought other challenges, as it is wont to do, and they are not helpful in the relaxation arena. Things are precarious, as they always are, but a little less discouraging than they were.

When there’s so much news, personal and political, to occupy my brain, and when this news seems to require constant vigilance, it’s hard to get anything done but worry, perseverate, and mull. Usually at three a.m.

It’s important, this mulling, perseverating, and worrying. It’s apparently essential, according to my psyche, to aid in holding up the world and the people in it whom I love. If I were to relax, the whole thing might implode.

This is called magical thinking. FYI.

In times like these, thinking about Benjamin Franklin may be instructive. I recently spent a whole day on Benj F with my college students. An entire eighty minutes to cover his career.

Ample time, don’t you think?

Oh, you don’t? Well, neither do I. But that was all the time I had to point out some of the ways and reasons Benjamin Franklin’s legacy lives two hundred twenty-eight years after his death.
To that end, my students watched an hour biography of BF and read selections from his writings and we talked about how many different things he did and accomplished. The lesson being that  I am truly inadequate. That is my takeaway. IF Ben Franklin was successful because of his rigorous discipline, habits of mind, and efficient use of every fruggin moment of his day, then, then.

Well, I don’t exactly know what my point is, except that then I ought to understand exactly why it is that Benj F is known over centuries and across borders and I


Oh, sure, it’s too soon to tell. Kind of you to say, Readers, but based on output alone, I am well behind on benchmarks for sustainable, world-wide, century-spanning success. I don’t think I even want that. The good news is that I, secular Jewish denizen of New York State, a woman with Buddhist tendencies and low-self-esteem, along with millions of others, am happy to look to his life for tips on achieving success.

So, once again, life lessons from Ben Franklin. He exemplifies using the scaffolding of success very nicely.

One, permission—Ben Franklin permitted himself to try new things. From the get-go, he gave himself permission. He permitted himself to pull out of his apprenticeship with his brother the printer, to move to a different city (Philadelphia from Boston), to impregnate a woman and then to take on his child born out of wedlock; to experiment with oil and water, with electricity, with stoves, with ocean currents; to take on various posts, found a university, a library, a fire department, to write anonymous letters and publish an almanack— the list goes on. The man did so much. From inventing a flexible urinary catheter to editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the declaration of independence (and making it more pithy). Permission.

Two, goals. The guy was goal-oriented. And his goals were always growing and changing, challenging and yet not impossible, ranging from personal development, such as his plan to achieve moral perfection, to trying to convince the British parliament to allow the Colonies to have a voting representative, he set goals.

Three, help from others. From inspiration for his project for self-improvement, which he took from Cotton Mather, who apparently was all for that sort of self-work, to sharing ideas with the gentlemen in his regular mastermind group he called the Junto, to serendipitous connections with government officials who wrote letters for him, BF relied on help from others to accomplish his goals and succeed. He helped others, too. Indeed, he wrote that asking others for favors endears you to them, probably because it allows them to feel that they are beneficent and also powerful, at least powerful enough to help you.

Four, centering activity. He spent time in contemplation, sometimes at religious services, focusing his attention on what he intended to do.

Five, managing the mind by various strategies. First of all, he was an auto-didact. Second of all, he believed in continual self-improvement by developing the virtues he thought most essential to being a good person in the world. He set intentions to focus his mind and work —every morning he asked himself, “What good shall I do today?” and every evening he asked, “What good did I do today?” which speaks to the final, and also perhaps the fundamental plank in the scaffolding of success

Six, basing his work on deep values and purpose. BF believed his role in society was to be of service. Public service was a deep value he held, and that value fueled his sense of purpose and buoyed his energy when he might have retired, but instead worked on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Lasting success depends on knowing your deep values and purpose and aligning your life with them. They may change over time, but keying action to purpose and values keeps motivation strong.

Here’s a phrase I hate: At the end of the day. Everyone says it. At the end of the day. At the end of the day, I am not Ben Franklin. My motivation is shot. I’m not using every moment to express my intellectual curiosity. I’m eating almonds and watching TV, scrolling Twitter and Facebook and sometimes Instagram. Correcting essays and fielding emails from students who didn’t plan far enough ahead to get the reading material due for the next class and who think they have reasonable excuses.

I don’t even have gout.
Off to teach, gout-free. For now.

Here’s more good news, though. My guilty pleasure, watching “Live with Kelly and Ryan” came through. Just this morning, I leaped up from reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (any students who may read this, yes, you will be assigned chapter one very, very soon), when I realized Kelly and Ryan were on. Kelly was wearing a lovely dress, a print—prints are in, people. I turned it on a little late, thanks to Annie Dillard, but just in time to hear Kelly offer some wisdom, which I now offer to you. If you’re feeling bad about not being Benjamin Franklin level great—and I do get down on myself about that, from time to time—remember that, as Kelly put it, “Greatness at any level isn’t probable, which is why we should be fine, just fine, with the way we are.”

Perhaps the most I can get done during sphincter-tightening times is the minimum requirements: the teaching, which is engrossing and demanding; the perseverating, which comes unbidden; and the relaxing and thinking about print dresses, which comes naturally.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Nuanced Tips for Success

My hairstylist, let’s call her Donna because that’s what I called her last time*, just yesterday said, “Age gracefully.”
“Ok”, I said. “And how do you do that?”
And she said, “Don’t look in the mirror.”
And I said, “Man, just when I can finally afford some decent clothes you tell me I’m not allowed to look in the mirror?”

So we can see where things are headed with me: graceless aging.

On the way back from Donna’s, I stopped to pick up a couple of things I had altered. Since I’m not exactly standard size—and really, who is?—I often need legs and arms shortened. On clothes, I hasten to clarify. I’m not a criminal. In this case, I needed the torso shortened on a sleeveless blouse. This was a wrap blouse, which was finally ready, after a couple of weeks and one vain effort to pick it up the other day. N, the alterationist, is kind of busy these days. She has to hack her way to the front of her shop through a stand of wedding and bridesmaid dresses like she’s hacking her way through Spanish moss and vines in the Dismal Swamp.

Anyway, I took home my altered items only to discover that N had not only made the correct alteration on the armholes of the blouse, but had also made an additional alteration. She had sewed shut the slit in the side that allows the sash to wrap around the waist. Well, early blog readers might recall an altercation I had with a different tailor over a pair of improperly hemmed pants.

But I have since learned a few things, Readers. Namely, to inspect my altered items soon after picking them up, rather than after throwing away the receipt. Also, that life is really so much more than an accidentally sewed-up seam slit. Really, how big a deal is it? I mean, considering everything else that I’m not writing about on my blog.

Nary a seam slit.

So, I gave N a call. N of course said the slit was right there, in the seam. And I, holding the receiver to my ear, took another look at the garment. I ran my hands over every inch of it. I pushed my glasses up my nose to double-check. No seam slit. So I said, and I am giving myself credit where due, “N, I see where there was a slit, and I see that it has been sewn up by mistake, so I will have to bring it back to you so you can fix it.” And she said she would be there Saturday, and so did I.

Then the phone call ended. No gaskets blown. This is the thing for which I give myself credit: no blown gaskets. I mean, really, is it necessary? And would it be helpful in getting the proper seam slit in my blouse?

So, I don’t know, maybe some of my aging might be graceful, after all.

This reminds me of when I was bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding. Her life was all wedding plans and roses, and I was in therapy, loveless, and dissatisfied with my life. After every time I went with my friend to do something wedding-related, I bought myself a present. I was going broke, which I complained about to my therapist, since my job situation was part of my problem. To my great surprise, she did not make me feel like a spendthrift fool drowning my sorrows in retail therapy; she simply suggested that I buy myself less expensive presents. Instead of a new Benetton sweater—this wedding was a looooonnnnnng time ago—maybe a book or a lipstick.

I am not getting political here, but I am suggesting that my therapist once suggested to me that a little self-care in times of stress is not a bad thing. I say she suggested it, since she did not outright state this maxim. The psychotherapeutic relationship is not built on offering specific advice. You don’t pay for advice. You pay for nuance. Just remember that. Nuance is much more expensive than advice, by the way. However, studies show that we can tolerate and even incorporate nuance more easily than advice.

So, what have I suggested to you in this silly post? At least two, if not three pieces of advice. All free, let me add. What do you think they are?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Annals of Libtard Life

It’s a confusing time for your white American woman of a certain age and class (somewhere in the upper middle, anxiously hanging on.) Here are some things running through my mind in this particular time. 

My next door neighbor is weed-wacking my across-the-street neighbor’s yard, as I walk towards home with the labradoodle Milo. It’s a bazillion degrees out and two bazillion percent humidity, and honey, I moved north to escape this kind of semi-tropical shit I grew up with in Washington, DC. And here it is. 

Will my next-door neighbor weed-wack my yard next? I almost hope so, because I sure as hell won’t, but also I fear it; even as I know that if he doesn’t, it will only be because he has forebearance, and not because our yard is weed free. In particular, the patch that runs between my house and his is a riot, and I feel terribly guilty not weeding it. I fully intend to weed it. I could do it, a few minutes a day, but we’re in the middle of a heat spell. I realize this hasn’t stopped my neighbor from putting on his straw fedora and sweating through his t-shirt, but it has stopped me.

There are some recent asylum-seeking immigrants detained at the Albany County Jail, and some may be children and all should not be in a prison or jail and I’m beside myself. 

Also, I looked at my knees today. That was a mistake. I wore a skort to work out at the gym and there they were, my knees, looking exactly their age. 

We are supposed to wear white to protest the detainees and #familyseparationpolicy. My white jeans are shot, and also too heavy to wear in the heat. So, am I supposed to go shopping before I protest? Or can I wear another color? 

Trump may be re-elected and this is so upsetting that I want to leave the country. This gives me a deeper insight into the bravery of all those who do leave their known environments and I wonder if I have what it takes. I think working out is probably a good idea, in case we need to walk to Canada and leave our things behind. In Canada, temperatures will be favorable for pants most of the year, which will be a plus. (Knees.)

The highlights in my hair are a little too streaky and stripey and I worry that it looks awful and fake. You don’t really want people commenting, Oh, I like your hair color. You just want them to say, You look great. Did you do something? So then you can say, Oh, no, it’s just a good night’s sleep is all. 

I bought a book called How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks For Big Success in Relationships. I immediately flipped to number 92, of course, and now I’m encouraging people to gravitate towards me by showing them my wrists, the soft undersides of them, and palms, never my knuckles. Wrists and palms. I don’t really get it, but I suppose showing wrists and palms denotes openness, a subliminal message of willingness to embrace. Perhaps not literally, but perhaps literally. 

We have a RESIST HOPE LOVE CHANGE yard sign in our yard. Our neighbors down the block, a widower with twin daughters and his new wife just put in a really serious sign: Martin Niemöller 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Interesting tidbit about this quotation, which has been modified over the years to start with Muslims and Communists and other groups. Niemöller was calling out those Germans complicit through inaction in the mistreatment of others, but he was an anti-semite until the war.

So the good news is that people can change their attitudes, or at least counter them with appropriate behavior. The bad news is it took ovens and six million deaths of mostly Jews, with a bunch of Catholics and homosexuals and others thrown in, to change his mind. 

The college student is in Rome for the weekend and I want to be in Europe. She’ll be returning to her internship at CERN via overnight bus, which sounds like hell. I really want to be in Europe but we bought a bed instead. I guess that was optimistic: sleep might actually be a possibility, and it will be hard to carry across the border. (More pushups?)

Another neighbor slash friend told me that the family on the main road by us who has a sign saying in English, Spanish, Arabic, and something else I don’t recognize that all are welcome had their mailbox demolished twice. This is scary. 

Someone has chomped off the tops of all my turtlehead and now the back garden is destroyed. I know it’s not the bunnies, who have nibbled everything at ankle-level. I know who it is. The deer. Very annoying. On the plus side, I saw an opossum in the yard, which means fewer ticks. 

Someone spray-painted anti-semitic graffiti on a building near the rail trail in town. The town supervisor went out and painted over it himself. That was, you know, very nice of him, but really brought the tenor of the times into my bones with a chill. 

There is a lot of upset and confusion around, but my daily concerns continue unabated. Why do I have ridges on my nails? I forgot to ask my docter at my annual physical, so I asked Mo, who was giving me my summer pedicure. Is it some sort of vitamin deficiency? I hate to say it, said Mo, But it’s just, you know, getting older. Oh, I said. Just part of the whole drying up and turning into a dessicated locust shell called aging? Yeah, she said. 

So that’s great. Another thing to work on accepting. Some things you just have to accept, otherwise you make yourself miserable. 

Some things you should never accept, though. The other day, the Fourth of July, to be exact, the husband and I made a sign and went to stand on a street corner with about a dozen other people. Women, of course, as this political movement has fallen under the umbrella of women’s work, for the most part, the husband excepted on this day. Keep Families Together. Families Belong Together. It’s Not Illegal to Seek Asylum. And ours, Make America Humane Again. People mostly honked and waved and gave us friendly hoots as they drove by. Thumbs ups were common and heartening. There were the one or two cars full of white men in caps who yelled at us that we were losers and should go home. We kept standing. Some of the other women yelled back at the naysayers. We all waved at the supporters. In between chatting with a mom in her 60s and her two daughters, who were up from the city, I thought about who might argue with the word “again” on our sign. Idle thoughts about getting gunned down presented themselves. Happy Fourth of July in America the beautiful. 

I’ve taken out books from the library on developing charisma, conversational skills, and making people like me. I can’t help think there is some connection between the political situation and my curiousity. I’m hoping that this represents that ever-wise Stephen Covey habit of focusing on my circle of influence. It might just be an all-too-human tendency towards self-centeredness. I turn my wrists and palms upward and outward, hoping to draw something to me that will give answers. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Success Scaffolding: Goals & Wishes

Hello, Readers, here’s what’s been happening. I went to the hair salon. I love going there. I love my stylist, Donna, and the whole place.  It's her place, and it’s just nice. Everyone is close there. For example, I walked in and Donna was finishing with a client and she said hello to me and I saw that her eyebrows were covered in dark smudges. Then I saw that the other stylist had dark smudges on her eyebrows, too, and that she was touching up the roots of the manicure-pedicurist. Everyone was dying her hair and eyebrows. Rinsing and dousing in between clients. A perfect ballet of personal care. Now, I have not dyed my eyebrows nor my hair, but I do get highlights. As I said to my friend the other day, I’m just another Jewish woman slowly going blond. Donna takes good care of me.  

Anyway, I told Donna that I finished my manuscript and sent it to Agent. I told her that I hope Agent is still my agent, and that I’m not sanguine about that. Then I started twirling off into the wings about whether Agent is really going to pull through and be Agent for me, or if I will have to find a new agent. And Donna put her hands up. Whoa, whoa, she said. Let’s take a moment to celebrate. 

About completing my manuscript, she meant. Did you open the champagne? To which I said, Not yet, because I don’t know what Agent is going to say about or do with it. So Donna says, But celebrate. You wrote it!

This was true, and also true was that I had done nothing in particular to commemorate it. I finished my manuscript draft. I pushed send. I pushed send on an email with an attachment. The attachment was my manuscript, well, the rest of manuscript. Ninety thousand words. Sent. I texted the husband who was counseling the family of a stroke victim and texted back, Congratulations. I got a little electronic confetti. 

But, but, but…. I said, thinking of all the things left to do and all the possible ways I can be rejected, shot down, and made miserable about this sent manuscript.  And also about admitting to it in public, for example, here on my blog. 

And then Donna said that I need to stop with the negativity.  This is a nice thought, of course, stopping with the negativity. However, the debate is still open whether this is the dog of negativity, or negativity’s litter mate, pragmatic hedging. 

Now, pragmatic hedging is a term I have made up. Therefore, I am on that side of the debate. Pragmatic hedging descends from the superstition, common among the Jews I know, of mitigating all good fortune or even hopes and dreams of good fortune with a muttered, “God willing.” It’s like spitting over your shoulder or whatever. I don’t actually think it’s a Jewish thing. It’s a human thing-- for the neurotic human. It’s making sure that the God you don’t even believe in won’t smite you for daring to have a less than humble aspiration or a modicum of good fortune. It’s a kind of reflexive self-humbling so the Universe doesn’t decide to squish you.

But Donna had the scissors and I was in the chair. Her eyebrows, by the way, were by now rinsed. She said, because she is a big Deepak Chopra fan, Here’s what you’re going to do. You are going to manifest what you want to happen. 

Sounds great, I said, my pragmatic hedging ready to intrude immediately. I shushed it. 

Here’s how you do it, she said. You think about what you want. You imagine that publisher calling about the book. You picture it. Then, you imagine how you will feel when it happens, really feel it. Then you feel it. Give yourself over to it. 

Okay, I said. As I mentioned, she had the scissors. I had the pragmatic hedging in a down-stay. 

Now, I have written much about visualization in this blog, and some about abundance theory, also known as the Law of Attraction. This is the stuff of Deepak Chopra. He’s one of a long line of peddlers of this theory that if you want to achieve something, you think positively about it and attract it to you. That’s the theory. 

Also known as hooey, flim-flam, and bunk. Sorry, you Law of Attraction believers. BUT. Visualization can be an excellent tool. Visualizing a positive outcome can be helpful. It can prime you to work harder, because you’re primed to be a bit more optimistic than, uh, pragmatic. And there is a more complex form of visualization that is also helpful. It is called mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is visualizing one’s goal and also visualizing the obstacles one is likely to encounter when striving for said goal and how to overcome them. Mental contrasting helps in setting appropriate goals, because once you envision your ultimate goal, you then lay out a series of smaller goals you need to accomplish on the way there. 

This is a lot of work. Trust me, I have been doing it for a long time with this book. First a first draft, shitty a la Anne Lamott. Then another draft. And another. Then the proposal and the agent and the editor and publisher and the--- I have overcome multiple obstacles. The book, she is done. I mean, she needs polishing and revising, but her essential organs are intact. At this point, things are out of my hands. I have sent the book out. So manifesting—what harm can it do? 

Donna is not a nut. I would not let a nut take scissors to my head. What she also said was that I had to let go of how this wish manifests and just focus on the wish. I took that to mean I have to drop the reins of worry for awhile, while I wait to see what Agent says or—my big fear being that Agent doesn’t respond at all—doesn’t say. Then, I can act further. Find a different agent or whatever. Meanwhile, I can think happy thoughts about the day the publisher calls and says, I love this book! Let’s get it out on the shelves. 

Pragmatic hedging, by the way, is a relative of mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is all about being pessimistic—or realistic—in goal-setting. It’s about figuring out the contingencies that might make reaching a goal difficult and then getting around those. This is turning a goal into a series of small goals or steps. All in the head, mind you. It’s a form of proactive positive thinking. It’s positive, because you visualize your goal. And it’s negative because you visualize obstacles; that turns out to be positive, though, because you visualize obliterating those obstacles. Fortunately, Unfortunately. Anyone remember that children’s book? Fortunately, I got the last seat on the airplane. Unfortunately, the plane exploded. Fortunately, I did not die. Unfortunately, I was thrown from the plane. Fortunately, the plane had parachutes. Unfortunately, the parachute did not open. Fortunately, there was a haystack. Unfortunately, the haystack had a pitchfork in it. Fortunately, I missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, I missed the haystack. 

And so on. Here is someone reading it aloud, in case you missed it in your elementary school education: 

Tangential to this hair styling situation, was the dharma talk I listened to while walking the dog the other day. The actual dog, on a teaching about putting the burden down. Buddha said to put down all the things we carry with us, including—according to Gil Fronsdal, the teacher—the search for Nirvana. The spiritual search can be a burden, too. Anything we struggle with represents an attachment. The idea is to somehow exist with those things WITHOUT struggle. 

Putting down the burden. That is the appeal of manifesting. That was the appeal the other day. To just let go of all the pragmatic hedging. To let go of all the caveats to the wishes and to just imagine having a simple form of wish granted, to imagine how that would feel. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Just World Hypothesis, and Annals of Successful Parenting

Hi Readers,

Chitchat about the weather, etc. So much has been going on. I’ve been turning the heat off, then on, then off, then on. Fan in the window. Fan out. Window closed. Birds too loud. Birds on the pillows. (Well, so it sounds.) Rain, then sun, then clouds, clouds, clouds. Sweaters packed away in lavender for summer. Sweaters needed. That’s spring in the Northeast. Flowers and rain. Hot at night, cold in the day.

I’ve finished my book draft and reread it all, making notes for revision. This is the good kind of writing, the making it better kind, not the figuring out what I’m trying to say kind. That part sucks.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s the Just World Hypothesis. This is a theory developed by a social psychologist Melvin Lerner that says that humans have a powerful intuition that people get what they deserve. I.e., the world is essentially just. If good things happen to you, then that proves you’re good; if bad things happen, well, you deserved them. This is where blaming the victim comes from. In a just world, and here I am extrapolating, if something awful happens to someone else, that awful thing suggests the person is sub par somehow. And if something good happens, then they are being rewarded for being good.

I was reading about this in a very interesting book about fear-based parenting. Fear-based parenting is what most of us parents are doing these days, to one degree or another, according to the book. The Just World Hypothesis is a cognitive bias that colors our perception of events. It’s part of what makes us fearful. We want to prevent bad things from happening to our children, who are, let’s be clear, offshoots of us, because a bad thing happening has an associated taint on our virtue.

I couldn’t help thinking about how this bias relates to our culture’s extolling of wealth and fame and prestige and all those trappings of success. You can draw a straight line from there to there.  And those trappings of success relate to greed and materialism. The need to prove we are successful is powered by fear that unless we amass some amount of these things, we won’t know that we’re good people. We must scramble to amass amass amass to show ourselves and others that in this Just World, we are the Good.

In recent years, I have become acquainted with some purported Christian teachings called the Prosperity Gospels and Dominionism. These teachings are the Just World Hypothesis in Sheep’s clothing. If you have wealth and so forth, it is because you are godly. This by the way, according to Stephen Cope, a writer and yogi and generally wise guy, is also an association you find in Hindu mythology. The equating of godly with goldlyness.

It’s really an endless cycle of misery we step into when we buy into this cognitive bias. And of course we would much prefer that there is a Just World than that there isn’t one.

Yet it was not always so.

Reading about this bias made me think of Boethius. I heard about Boethius during my Junior year at Oxford, where I took a tutorial on Chaucer. My teacher—don, in Oxbridge talk—was an unfriendly woman who was unimpressed by my grasp of Middle English. Her attitude was opposite to that of my main don, who offered me Earl Grey tea and told me I had a nice, intuitive approach to essay writing.

Anyway, Boethius, wrote in about the 6th Century C.E. One of his most successful tracts was a letter from jail. He went on trial for something—heresy, perhaps—because he was a Hellenist and Christian mix. He wrote this philosophical treatise in which he talks to Lady Philosophy about his misery and bad breaks and losses of fortune and material wealth and all the trappings of success. Lady Philosophy tells him that the Wheel of Fortune rules the world. We all ride on it. Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down, and it’s really nothing about us. We don’t add blame and shame to the burden we carry if things don’t go our way. Failure says nothing about our virtue. Furthermore, because we can’t count on Fortune providing all those external signs of success, we need to live in accordance with more abstract and noble values, such as virtue. That will make us happy.

This wheel of fortune idea, which predated Boethius, became known as The Boethian Wheel of History, and this book, called The Consolation of Philosophy became a best seller in late Ancient and early Middle Ages. Chaucer talks about it, which is why scary don lady had me read Boethius.

Boethius was executed, by the way, for whatever he did to piss off whomever he served in the late Roman Empire. Nevertheless, and most appropriately, his words lived on.

Somewhere along the way came this shift to the idea that dominates our culture now. That if something good happens to you, it means you deserve it. And if something bad happens to someone else, then they deserved that, too.

With an attitude like that, no wonder we’re all anxious and stressed out.

Here’s something I’ve been doing. I spent three days at training for my upcoming job teaching writing to first year students in college. That’s going to be exciting, and maybe the pay will cover the new outfit I bought to attend the training. But, hey, it’s a job, and it will count on a resumé, and at this point, with two teenagers in my house, it seems appealing to know I’ll have 18 other teenagers captive to me starting shortly after Labor Day. They’ll have to listen to me, or they’ll fail.

Here are things that have been happening. The other day the 19-year-old came home for a brief visit before she heads off for a ten week summer internship in particle physics. When we arrived home we discovered the 16-year-old in a tree. With a boy. Or, to be more specific, two bikes were in the driveway, and after a brief look, we saw four legs dangling from the maple tree.

The boy soon rode off on his bicycle, which was when I realized he was biking without a helmet. This caused me to yell after him and generally embarrass the 16-year-old. Then I discovered that she had biked with him without her helmet. This occasioned further yelling. Dignified yelling, I hasten to add. Yelling that sounded jokey but wasn’t. You know, things like, “Sure, it feels good. Until your brain is smushed by a passing car.” And, “Yeah, a helmet flattens your hair, and you look dorky; an accident could flatten your head and then you’ll really look stupid.” That kind of thing.

I told her that unless she wore her helmet, I did not want her to bike with the boy again.

She says she won’t.

I choose to believe her. I have no choice.

Anyway, I suggested she invite this fellow over for dinner, along with some of her other friends. We’d have a nice, friendly dinner, lots of fun. In the background, I would have a couple screens set up, you know, just casual, playing videos, since videos catch the attention. Videos about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, alcohol, bike safety, vaping, juuling. That kind of thing. Maybe some Beyoncé or Childish Gambino thrown in to break things up.  I thought it sounded nice, welcoming, and friendly. Also laid-back.

Did I forget anything? Please alert me in the comments. Thank you.

Now the 19-year-old is gone. I am left to experience the inexorability of time. It’s a cliché, and also true. Boethius might talk about wheels of fortune that have a kind of inexorable randomness, but the wheel is a reassuring thing, promising return. Whereas time is just moving forward, moving forward.  Time moves in linearity, never mind what those physicists say. That’s why it’s inexorable. Whether I am tied to the track like a damsel in distress, with tight Kewpie doll curls and mouth moving out of alignment with the subtitles, or watching in horror from inside it, makes no difference to the inexorable train of time.

So, you know. I’m feeling as if I need to find a way to make a mark, to be of use to people. To be needed. It’s not all over, the being needed by the children. It’s just moved into a phase where they don’t know they need me. And I really, really like it when they know it. However, time and all that. Change occurs and one must adjust. I’m needed now to keep an eagle eye on bike helmets and legs in trees. I take what I can get.

I wonder if there is a way to incorporate bike safety into my first year seminar with my captive audience. Will it fit with the Franciscan themes I am required to teach: heritage; natural world; diversity; and social justice? I will find a way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Consistency: The Peaks and Valleys Challenge

Readers, I have been to the peak and to the valley this week. I much prefer the peak. 

In case you were wondering how my 66-Day Challenge chart is doing, I will show you. But first, let me tell you about my week. 

But before I tell you about my week, I have to tell you about a book I read a couple of months ago. It was a memoir by Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Or possibly A Thousand Miles in a Million Years. I can’t remember. I heard about it from someone on the Internet who posted a list of her favorite memoirs. Anyway, it was a good memoir, about Donald Miller’s life, about how a filmmaker contacted him about making a movie about one of his previous books about his life. The filmmaker and his cinematographer and Donald Miller spend a lot of time together, and they tell Donald Miller about this seminar called Story, taught by a famous teacher, Robert McKee. McKee is this guru of the film and TV writing world. Everyone famous goes to his seminars. So Donald Miller goes to it, too, and the memoir A Million Miles or Years turns into a book about writing a story, too. There’s a funny bit about how Donald Miller fills almost an entire notebook with notes during the three days of seminar, while his roommate, who also attends, leaves with this: A story is about a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. Or so. Anyway, reading about the seminar piqued my interest, because I also like to tell stories in writing, and I’m kind of bad at the plotting of stories. My novels have foundered on this.

So I looked up this seminar Story, which Miller described, and discovered that the famous guy who teaches it four or five times a year around the world would be teaching in New York City right around now. It was expensive, but not out-of-the-question expensive. So I talked about it for a while. I talked about it with the husband, who encouraged me to do it. But I didn’t sign up. I talked about it some more. I googled it. Is the guy who teaches it for real or a crook? Is the thing actually world famous, or is it just a line, like “Going out of business. Liquidation sale” on one of those stores that never closes? It just hangs the sign there permanently. I didn’t sign up. 

I asked the MIL if I could stay with her while I took this seminar, and she said yes. I still didn’t sign up, though. What about the 10th grader’s eye appointment on Friday? What about my hair appointment on Thursday?

What if attending this seminar poisons whatever intuitive sense of narrative I have and I feel oppressed and start writing by the numbers? 

Maybe that would help me sell my writing.

I told myself it’s good to learn theory. It doesn’t mean I will be a slave to it. More likely, I will assimilate this knowledge the way I assimilate all knowledge. I will suck it in and it will turn into a sludge pile somewhere in my unconscious, or my subconscious, and will become part of the intuitive process.

I texted my cousin’s son who works in LA in the business, but he didn’t text back. I thought he might have insider information, and he might, but I haven’t heard yet. Still I didn’t sign up. But finally, on a Thursday, after walking the dog and listening to a podcast on which Dan Pink mentioned the importance of telling a story in all kinds of work, I hit the tipping point that sent me home and got me to register for the seminar. I even bought the train tickets.

So I went to the seminar, and it was sublime. Fascinating. Exhausting. Three days of lectures, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m., with three twenty minute breaks and one hour for lunch. I learned a lot about structural analysis of story, and it made me think about my current and past books in a new way. I also met some fascinating people, from all around the world. A TV producer from Finland, a marketing executive with a desk drawer screenplay from Toronto, a textbook writer and YA novelist from England, a TV writer who does something I’d never heard of called Second Screen writing for TV shows who wants to write her memoir about transitioning to female, and a prolific and famous writer of nineteen novels. We all felt the seminar was transformative. 

I also delighted in the lattes with oat milk I’d read about months ago and was finally able to try at the cafe on the corner. 

I arrived home at midnight on Saturday, and by 1 am, was trapped in the valley. The 16 year old became terribly ill, all night, and ended up in the ER the next day. The husband spent the afternoon and evening in the ER with her, and when they admitted her, I spent the night in the hospital. By the time we got home Monday, all memory of the seminar was as remote as if it had happened ten years ago, or possibly to someone else, on a TV show. 

But the 16 year old is fine. As I write, she’s playing tennis. And after a few days away, for the seminar, which I counted as writing days, and for her illness, I am back to my 66-Day Accountability worksheet. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Jerry's Chain--Don't Break It

When we left off, I was reading a book about 12 steps to becoming a person of impeccable character and manners. Here's that post, in case you missed it. 

Well, that failed.

Not that I have been particularly rude. But I did experience some road rage the other day. I ended up flipping the bird to some twenty-five-year-old dude. 

Maybe I shouldn't have returned the book to the library quite so soon. It was due, though, and it would have been bad manners to return it late. Especially since it's a new book, and it had a hold on it. I didn't spend enough days with it to establish all the good habits it recommends. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, reading that book made me aware of my shortcomings around consistency. I am not consistent. I’m not consistently inconsistent, either, I hasten to add. But over my life, I see, much as I wish I didn’t, my tendency towards failures of consistency. These failures affect myself, particularly. I’m the one I usually let down. If someone else is depending on me, I'm there, on time, or perhaps even early. If it's for me, though, the winds of willpower drop away and leave me in the doldrums.

Just the other night I had plans to go to an event, a political gathering. I was tired, though. The meeting was scheduled for late afternoon, and that's when my biorhythms are low. (Anyone remember biorhythm theory?)  My point is, I was going to poot out. I was going to stay home, eat almonds, and snoozle on the couch. The husband nudged me to the door, though, and I went. And, yes, the moral, Readers, is that I was very glad I had gone. I needed that nudge, though, to get over my inertia. I did not have a habit of consistency towards myself. 

And so, I had to face my lack of consistency. I fessed up to it on my monthly phone call with my college friend C, and E. 

Now, it’s easier to fess up to a bad habit if you’re not currently engaged in it. So when I told them I realized I had a problem with consistency, particularly around my writing and things that were mostly for me, I spoke from the middle of a pretty decent streak of daily work on the book. But I knew that if I hit a bad patch with book, my consistency would suffer. 

Afterwards, my college friend C sent me a chart called the 66-Day Challenge* and I’ve been using it to keep going. Here's a photo of it: 

This 66 Day Challenge apparently was inspired by Jerry Seinfeld. He gave an interview, which I, too, read. I, too, was struck by the comment he made about his work habits.** That is, he writes every day. No matter what, he writes. The husband pointed out that Jerry Seinfeld doesn't have to write very much. He writes jokes, not novels. One-liners. Not essays. But to the husband, I say, "Pish! Humor writing is hard. Being concise is hard. Concise humor writing? Well, how many Jerry Seinfelds are there?"  Anyway, the husband was joking. This may underscore my point about the paucity of Jerry Seinfelds.  

To help himself stay motivated, Jerry hangs up a giant wall calendar in his office. He puts an X over every day that he writes. He started doing this long ago, and the desire not to break the chain is sometimes what he needs to get to work. “Don’t break the chain,” he says. That's the secret to his consistency. That’s all. 

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher. 

What about a non-foolish consistency? That’s what I’m after. 

I have to clarify my terms here. Consistency as I am using it means reliable, regular, dependable. R.W. Emerson seems to be using it to mean irrational rigidity. 

“I’ve been exercising my whole life—and I hate it,” my father said, not long ago. He is 92. Is that a foolish consistency? No way, José. That’s a rational consistency. I also thought it was probably untrue. Would he really do something he hated voluntarily his whole life long? I doubt it. Perhaps because it’s untrue for me. I like to exercise--usually. My dad is the person I credit with demonstrating this habit. Is that ironic? I think it is. “It’s almost always better to exercise” is one of my slogans, and I enjoy it. Exercise, I mean. Well, and my slogan. I enjoy that, too. 

But I digress. When you combine this X strategy with the theory of habit formation, which says it takes a few weeks to establish a habit, you get a handy PDF that you can send around to your friends who lack consistency, to light a figurative fire under their figurative butts. That is what C did for me. Fair enough. 

Hey, whatever it takes, right? I’m trying it now. You can see I’m not that far along. I am optimistic, however. I am optimistic because along with the X strategy, I am also employing the strategy of setting the bar low for this daily goal. I do not have to write for a certain amount of time. I do not have to write on a particular thing, like my book. I just have to write. Every single day. I find I like to get it out of the way in the morning. Put down some words. Put down an X. I can then put down plenty more words, but I’ve met my goal. 

By the way, experts disagree about how long it takes to establish a habit. Some say it takes about 21 days to form a habit. The guy who created the 66-Day Challenge says the magic number is 66. Habit formation is complicated. So is the term "expert." I don't even know if this 66-Day Challenge guy is an expert on habits. I do know he's written a book and he has a website. Hey, kid, want a piece of candy? Yeah, he could be anyone. But his chart is a-okay.

Anyway, it’s one thing to want to get rid of a bad habit. Extinguish is the behavioral psych term for that. Extinguishing a bad habit takes one kind of strategy. Ingraining a positive habit takes other strategies. One of them is this habit of maintaining the change. In other words, don't break the chain. 

We’re all just little kids inside. We like our charts and stickers. In fact, maybe I will use stickers instead of Xs. Not too long ago, I found an old folder full of stickers I used when I taught elementary school. Behavior modification comes down to reward and punishment. The reward for my habit of consistency is my chain of Xs—and my ballooning files of writing. The punishment for failing to write? I don’t think I could face my broken chain. 

Let us pause and remember that a goal is different from a habit. A habit is something you do automatically. Whether good or bad, it’s programmed into you and you need to deprogram yourself, or program yourself to ingrain a habit. A goal is something you actively pursue. It’s not automatic. But of course habits can help or hinder us in pursuit of our goals. Thus, consistency in writing is a habit I want to develop. You could say it’s a goal to develop this habit. In fact, I am saying that. I have a goal to develop a consistency habit. This is a good goal to have. It’s an achievable goal. It’s even a SMART goal—Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related. 

I'm pleased with my X strategy so far. I don't know that it's a habit, yet. As a strategy for continuing to write, it seems promising. I'm hopeful it will eliminate some of the resistance I feel when I've been away from writing and have to bring myself back to it. We all need strategies for continuing. Life is continuing. Things I am in the middle of I am still in the middle of. The book. The quest for success. The drive to be kind, or at least polite. Systems are going, which, to be honest, is something I appreciate more and more. Every day I wake up, I’m grateful for that consistency. Trite but true, as someone wrote on someone’s yearbook page decades ago. 

* You can download your own 66-Day Challenge chart to light that figurative fire under your friend's figurative butt at


Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Successful Doyenne?

My newfound interest in manners both amuses and perplexes me. It’s not as if I’m turning into some grand doyenne of society. I’m just wending croneward. But must be the times, Readers. Not the failing NY Times, but our times. My meanderings in etiquette led me to the unfamiliar terrain of the White House, via the new book Treating People Well: the Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and In Life. It’s by two former White House Social Secretaries, Lea Berman, who worked for the Dubya Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for the Obama administration. 
Considering how long books take, I suppose the authors started their book well before the election of Donald, er, Dennison, to the presidency. Nevertheless, it comes at the perfect time. Their reason for writing elucidates my exact feelings better than I have been able to do.

Acting with civility helps each of us take back a little of the ground that’s been lost in today’s public discourse. Tiny steps—daily activities like saying hello to the bus driver or holding a door for someone—add up to a healthier daily life and a better perspective. These moments make us feel decent. In the same way that each unpleasant exchange we have in the course of a day dampens our mood, every affirming interaction builds up and reinforces a positive sense of self.

Exactly. I’m taking back a little ground. I’m trying to maintain a healthy daily life and perspective amid the deluge of soul-destroying news. I’m reinforcing a positive sense of self. I’m remembering that most people, as the husband says, try to be decent to one another. I’ve always believed the personal is political. Trying to be an example of decency is now political.

The social secretaries recommend twelve progressive steps to treating people well. That is, each next step depends on mastering the step before. If mastering seems too much to hope, as I would have to say some of them seem to me, then try at least putting the step into play. Not that these steps seem that hard, really. It’s just that when you add a lowered threshold for stress, or a tendency to anger, or perhaps a highly tuned sense of self-defense, well, that’s where the conflicts erupt. Am I right? 

Yes, I am right. Not that I am copping to any of the above mentioned personality flaws—er, traits. I’m just saying, in a perfect world, these steps are not insurmountable. But when we’re talking about toddler temperaments, as we are sometimes, even in adults, we are not talking about a perfect world. 
Doyenne? Crone? 

Of course, we’re never going to achieve a conflict-free world. The goal is to help us all “respect and honor another’s perspective without subscribing to it.” 

Alright already, you’re thinking. What are the dang steps? Do I have to buy the book to learn them? 

No, you do not. I have checked the book out of my library. I love my library. I love libraries. They are wonderful places. 

But I digress.

The book is in twelve chapters, one for each of the 12 Steps to Etiquette. The authors claim they’re writing about character traits, as if character has anything to do with manners.  

I’ll just let that hang there for a few minutes while you think about it.

“The character traits we write about have been venerated for thousands of years in many cultures.” They are “universal values,” B & B believe. I can’t speak for all cultures, but I’ll buy it. 

  1. Begin with Confidence
  2. Humor and Charm, the Great Equalizers
  3. The Quiet Strength of Consistency
  4. Listen First, Talk Later
  5. Radiate Calm
  6. Handle Conflict Diplomatically
  7. Honesty is the Best Policy (Except When It Isn’t)
  8. The Gift of Loyalty
  9. Own Your Mistakes
  10. Keep Smiling, and Other Ways to Deal with Difficult People
  11. Virtual Manners
  12. Details Matter

Reading their thoughts on each step was entertaining, although since one of their rules for getting along with others is to refrain from gossip, that means there are anecdotes galore within the book, but very few names named—unless an anecdote illuminates a positive quality in its subject. For a curious gal like me, that was disappointing, even as the realization that this disappointed me served to point out to me my lack of character. Because, yes, of course, character and manners are related.

Other steps in which I became uncomfortably aware of my lack of character are number 6 (Handle Conflict Diplomatically) and number 3 (The Quiet Strength of Consistency). I’m not going to spend a lot of time rationalizing my failings in these areas—because I have a reasonable grip on step number 9 (Own Your Mistakes), but I will say that sometimes even Buddha, Jesus, Yahweh, or even a heavily sedated psychotic must lose it. 

I reluctantly revisited an unpleasant encounter with a local tailor, which I wrote about back in 2010, when I began this blog. If I had been more advanced along these twelve steps, I suspect I might have handled that encounter more skillfully, more diplomatically. When I took the badly hemmed pants in, sans receipt, because I had thrown it away before checking the work on the pants, a heinous mistake, Readers, and the tailor accused me of lying, I might, just might, have been able to de-escalate the situation. 

Things I could have done when accused of lying: 
  1. Show him the bad hem and just stand there, patient and quiet.
  2. Acknowledge that I did not have a receipt and apologize for that.
  3. Remain calm and refuse to allow my sense of dignity and honesty to be offended by his accusation.
  4. Consider how to turn the situation into a win-win. I was making a fuss in front of his other customers, after all. 
  5. Brush aside the accusation that I had hemmed the pants myself (!) and was now trying to get him to fix a bad job for free, say I was new to town and brought these pants to him based on recommendations, and that I knew his reputation for good work, and ask him if he could fix them. 
  6. When he said he would never have done work like that, say that I had heard good things about his work, and that was why I hadn’t checked it before throwing out the receipt. That perhaps something had gone wrong, but that I knew he would stand by his reputation and fix this hem. 

Would those things have worked? Who knows. He might have been just as much of a jackass and not backed down. What I do know is that I would have left there feeling justified in my outrage at his accusation and denial, rather than outraged by those things AND ashamed of losing my temper. There would have been a net diminishment in the negativity in my life, and also in the community. I would have behaved well, which is sometimes the only revenge, or consolation, in a difficult situation. This thought brings us back to the beginning, doesn’t it? As one of the women in my NIA class said, shortly after the election, as we shared our mutual shock, we have to look inside ourselves to find the answers to what is wrong in our society. She’s a psychologist, so she must be right. And they worked in the White House, so, you know, they must be reliable.