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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. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

News and Notes

There is an article in The Economist* about how women may be Trump’s undoing. That would be good. I have to admit I haven’t finished it--nor have we finished him, yet. I got caught up in a train of thought about one of the candidates running for office because of Rump. A woman named Houlahan. Can’t even remember where she’s from. She had never considered running for office, being a private person, and a deliberative one, until the last presidential election. She is one of many thousands of women now running for office, which is good news. But what caught my attention was this.
While struggling to reassure her gay daughter and Holocaust-survivor father, both of whom questioned whether America was still safe for them, Mrs Houlahan sent her CV to Emily’s List, an organization that tries to get pro-choice women elected. It seemed like the best way to honour her family motto, “Highest, best use”—meaning, she explains, “Do the hardest thing you can to make best use of your abilities.

What now? As in what now? Come again? Her family motto? Her family has a motto? What is she, British aristocracy? Nope, pure-dee American. From Pennsylvania, it transpires. 

Not only is it cool that she has a motto, but what a motto she has! Do the hardest thing you can to make best use of your abilities. Talk about grit. 

Maybe this gal could be President. 

I’m thinking about everything I’ve read about expectations and success. As in, you have to have them, and they should be high. High, but not too high. Challenging, but not so challenging you get frustrated and give up. How often do I fulfill that for myself? I’m always ready to stop. Oh, I use the excuse of stopping before things get too hard so that I won’t be discouraged to try again. And I suppose there’s merit to that approach. It has kept me exercising every since high school. But, this little paragraph in the magazine was like an elbow jab to the ribs: try harder, Hope. This week, I am! Lots of writing.

Her family motto. I asked around on Facebook and only got one person whose family has a motto. It is also a terrific one. "Seek truth. Do good. Have fun." 

What would my family’s motto be? 

What springs to mind is Paul Rudnick’s phrase, Shop Till You Drop. Admittedly, this doesn’t apply. We're not actually big shoppers. But it does bring up a bunch of Yiddishisms, such as Schmie and Drey, Schlep and Step, and Plotz and oh, who knows? 

This is complicated. By family, do I mean the family in which I am a parent? Or the family in which I was a child? Makes a difference. 

The unspoken motto of one classmate's family is, "Don't be an asshole." That's a good place to start. She didn't mention if this was her family of origin, or her current family's motto. 

Family mottoes in my family of origin might have been

  • Children should be seen and not heard.
  • Life is not fair.
  • Stop reading and use this toothpick to get out the gunk from the rim around the kitchen counter. 
  • or, perhaps, Murphy’s Law is real. 

Other news.  We had a birthday party for the 10th grader, who is now 16.  (That’s right, you are getting old). By the by, as these things go, in the planning of the party, an escape room was settled on as one activity. We escaped one at the mall for Father’s Day, but it had was pretty boring and only took fifteen minutes. The husband knew one of his residents (that’s doctor-speak for young doctor training in a specialty) is an aficionado of these rooms, so on his recommendation, we reserved the room at Enigmatic Escapes in Troy. 

It was only after we had made the reservation and sent out the invitations that the husband learned from his resident that the room was quite challenging. Upshot: the girls did not escape. Despite that outcome, they emerged buoyant. They had almost done it, they said, which seemed admirable to me. And indeed, according to the shop owners, they were only one puzzle away when their time ran out. 

More admirable was the chatter I overheard while chauffeuring. These girls all have Resistbot on their phones, and they’re spending time writing their elected officials about the issues. And in fact, in the morning after the slumber party, I learned that three of them spent the wee hours drafting emails to their high school principal about joining one of the planned walk-outs to protest inaction on gun safety measures by Congress. 

I have to say, I did not learn until the morning after the sleepover exactly how hard the escape room was. Let’s just mention that the husband didn’t download the full info to me, by way of verbalization. All I knew, as I drove half the group in my car, was that this (nerdy) doctor had said it was challenging.  

In fact, the husband told me in the morning, as we tiptoed around the kitchen, the resident told him that when he went to the room the first time--

First time? It was worth going back again?

Yes, the first time, he and his companions made it out just under the sixty minute deadline. When he went back with a different group, they didn’t make it out at all. 

So I made the husband tell the assembled at breakfast, which he did. 

The escape room was designed by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) graduates—women, by the way—and involves some really intricate puzzles. 

I don’t know if all my reading in etiquette is paying off, but I do know it’s been fun. A friend gave me a book about manners by Quentin Crisp, who in the 1980s was an entity about town. “Manners are a way of getting what you want with out appearing to be an absolute swine.” He’s British. Thus the use of “swine.’ I’m probably going to crack Amy Vanderbilt after dinner. 

And today, I did get what I wanted without appearing to be an absolute swine. I was walking my dog along a wooded path. Coming towards me I saw a person with two dogs that were not on leash. Needless to say, this was not an off-leash area. Coming across off-leash dogs when I'm with my dog is always stressful for me, because my dog has many times been rushed by off-leash dogs, and much ugly lunging and barking and growling on all sides ensues. Sometimes it even involves purported grownups. 

Like the time at a different place, about twenty feet away from the sign that said, “Dogs must be leashed at all times.” Dude and dudess rolled up in a car, dog violently barking with excitement and lunging at the window as we passed into the park. Half a minute later, their dog is rushing mine, who is on leash. I yell at them to get their dog under control, because I can’t get him away from Milo. And the guy yells at me that his dog IS under control. Then I say, “There’s a sign that says dogs should be on leashes.” And HE says, and I quote, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.” And he sticks his fingers in his ears. 

I kid you not.

Anyway, today. Two dogs off leash. I call out, “Can you please put your dogs on leash?” And I make Milo sit. The owner puts the dogs on leash. The dogs pass one another without incident. The humans smile and exchange pleasantries.