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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Annal of a Pandemic: Success is about What We Can Control

The other day, I saw an article by memoirist and writing teacher Marion Roach Smith about writing list memoirs, if writing a full one seems overwhelming. And times, they do seem a bit overwhelming, so I am taking MRS’s advice, which is to lower the bar and offer a few snippets of things happening in my life.

1/ In attempting to teach online, I have learned to lower the bar. Lower the bar, by the way, is a good catchphrase for the era of the virus. Especially if you’re a teacher, as I am, thrust into online teaching, as I have been. There’s much talk of trying to manage to connect with students as best we all can. Scaling back. Simplifying. As my mentor teacher says, take it a week at a time. Also my friend Diane offered that suggestion. And really, readers, I don’t need to be told twice. Lowering the bar is a specialty. So, my goal for my first online class is to take attendance and see if everyone makes it online, if they can hear me and we can hear each other, and ask them how things are going. That’s about it for today.

2/ I made the decision to skip most of the news and it’s going well. So here’s another tip, Readers: ignore things you don’t want to read. There is a lot out there that’s not strictly necessary, especially on social media, and guess what? I don’t have to read it. Neither do you. What a relief! When I ignore the scary graphs and the misinformation and the contradictory advice about masks, I am left with being at home, with a blank page, with my daughters, with a house full of books and old movies, and the ability to breathe, move my body through space, and eat baked goods. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, if you're breathing, more is right with you than wrong.

3/The college senior found an unopened box of matzoh in the cupboard. Just in time for this year’s Passover, she is finishing last Passover’s matzoh by turning it into chocolate caramel matzoh.

4/The other day, in the spirit of lowering the bar, I skipped my morning workout and spent a lot of time in my bathrobe. Then I decided this won’t do, as I feel that lowering the bar below getting dressed is too low. One must keep up appearances.

5/Reading a five volume family saga set in Great Britain before, during, and right after World War Two turns out to be just the thing for enduring privation. I mean, they didn’t have things like gourmet cheese, or disinfecting wipes. They had those dreadful rations for years after the war, and everyone went about in old suits and darned socks. They barely had heat, for heaven’s sake. Coal rations. So, they practiced ingenuity in confronting scarcity. Also, just reading about learning to eat tinned beans on toast and saving clothing coupons to be able to buy a new outfit, makes me feel plucky. We’ll get through, as the Brits did. And maybe we’ll end up with a better, more equitable healthcare and social safety net, too. What’s the book? The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

6/ In re: number 4/ above—I don’t know about your house, but mine is full of bakers. They’re baking desserts at a terrific pace. It’s nice and all, but I have a terrible sweet tooth, so I’m lobbing suggestions for minty desserts, because I don’t like minty desserts. As I write this, I am trying to help bring butter quickly from freezer temperature to room temperature by holding it in my armpits.

Too much information?

Desperate times and all that jazz…

7/I in no way intend to  make light of the current pandemic, by the way. It’s just that it feels important right now to focus on what I can control. This is Stephen Covey’s first habit of highly effective people. Remember that old chestnut? Seems like the perfect time to revisit the concept of the circle of influence versus the circle of concern.

To refresh your memory, here’s what the diagram represents. The yellow circle is your Circle of Influence. This is the stuff over which you have some control. The blue outer circle is your Circle of Concern. This is the stuff that you’re thinking about, worrying about, fretting over, perseverating about, but really can’t control. So, to bring it down to the current situation, I can control whether I eat one of the Rosie’s Bakery Noah Bedoahs currently getting whipped up in the kitchen, but I cannot control whether they get baked. Apparently. I mean, sure, theoretically, I am the parent, and I could put my foot down. However, both bakers are of age, 18 and 21, and the broader question of how much control I can exert over them comes down on the side of having to hide the flour if I really don’t want them to bake. If you see what I mean. 

So, what can I do? I can eat or not eat a cookie. I can wash my hands before I do that. I can limit my trips to the grocery store. I can stay home. I can enjoy my children being with me. There is so much out of my control, all I can do is try to accept my limits and work within them.

The good news, according to Stephen Covey, is that as you focus on your Circle of Influence, it actually begins to expand towards the edges of the Circle of Concern. In short, if you focus on what you can control, the area that you can affect expands.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Not Every Post is Pithy: Part Two

I am taking a break from washing my hands to update you on my life. Isn’t that what you all want to know about? There’s nothing else going on to think about, is there? Did I miss something? Are not we all focused on my big decision: which graduate school should I choose?

Since you asked, Readers, I chose the more convenient, less expensive, less prestigious, more flexible one. And I feel good about it. Many of you chimed in to offer opinions, as I requested, and the preponderance of opinion was that choice. If I were aiming for an academic post, or if I were twenty years younger, I would choose the more prestigious program. But, as many of you said, people understand that when you’re older, you choose what works best for your whole family.

I attended a Q & A event for the program last Thursday evening—online, I hasten to add. I didn’t get to meet and greet the entering members of my class, but I saw some of their names on the chat sidebar and I am sure they’re a wonderful cohort.

I hope I get to meet them eventually.

As it slowly dawns on all of us that we need to practice social distancing, the memories of chance interactions with strangers become sweet.

Recently, I had the mixed pleasure of traveling via aeroplane to visit my father. My aged p (pronounce “age-ed pee” please). Flying during a pandemic had a throwback feel. Half empty planes. Two seats to myself. Extra snacks. I used some of my precious hand sanitzer and hunkered by the window.

While in Washington, I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my aged p. This was a surreal experience, in the age of pandemic. The place was empty. There was another woman waiting for her medicine and she got to chatting with me. Chatting at me would be a more accurate description, but I responded, as a fellow venturer into the weirdly quiet streets. She told me she had flown over from the UK a couple weeks earlier on a jumbo jet with forty people on it. This reminded me of the olden days when a person might buy a coach ticket and get a center row of four or five seats to herself to stretch out upon.

When the medicine was ready, the cashier said she needed to update the profile for this prescription. “Date of birth?” She asked. I told her, “May Eleventh, Nineteen Twenty-Five.”

Readers, the look she gave me, head half-cocked and twisted towards me to take a closer look, crease between her eyebrows making her look quizzical and dubious, was priceless.  It took me half a second. Then I said, “I know. It’s amazing. My secret is Botox, Fraxel Laser, and Pilates.”

We all had a laugh. Tonic for the times, for sure. By the way, of the three things mentioned above, the only one I have used is Pilates.

Yesterday, en route to pick up the college senior from her shut down college, I stopped at an almost deserted rest area on the Mass Pike. I opened the door with my hand in my coat pocket, using the edge of my coat like a potholder. A man walking at least six feet behind me said, “Yup, that’s how I was going to do it.” I felt compelled to say, and did, that I have been opening doors that way for years.  “Me, too,” he said. Solidarity among the germaphobes. It reminded me of a dinner out with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Cambridge years ago. Ethiopian food, you may know, is eaten with the hands, off of a communal platter. Before we ate, we each went off to the bathroom to wash hands. The restroom was in a hallway separated from the restaurant by a closed door. This meant there was an extra door to open between the bathroom and the restaurant. This was a door with a regular knob, which meant that on the way back, you had to find a way to twist the knob without getting your clean hands dirty. Knowing my friends as I did—each was decidedly on the “phobe” side of germ—just for fun, I asked the table, “So what did you use to get through the door?” I don’t remember what I used, probably the bottom of my shirt, but I do remember my rock climbing, dear departed friend Steve, said he used his foot. He lifted his leg to demonstrate how he could maneuver a doorknob with a sneaker-clad foot. Impressive.

Also proves the point that one should always open a door with hand protection. You never know whose dirty foot has been on the knob.

Now it is time to figure out how to teach online, and to do laundry.

Before I go, however, here is a picture of a panda:
By Tamarocochinop* - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Because not all words that begin with "PAND" are bad. (Credit to Frances for her joke about hating all words that begin with "PAND" these days.)

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Not Every Post is Pithy: Professional Success Decision

Hello, Readers. I have to make a decision. I dislike decision-making. Deciding means giving up something while embracing something else. Deciding means change. Change means scary.

Change is also inevitable and good. Repeat twenty times a day until believed.

I have been accepted to both graduate MSW programs. Now I am deciding between them. What’s an MSW, you may ask. It’s a Masters of Social Work. A do-gooding, pay-nothing professional degree. I want to become a psychotherapist. The goal is to help traumatized children and the worried well. Maybe a sub-speciality of bereaved children. Why? Because I was one. I relate to them. My little neighbors down the street are bereaved twins. Their mother died when they were just two. Now they have a step-mom and they seem to be thriving. I hope they do. It’s a permanent loss, death. Therapy is most likely a must to cope, at least at some point.

Anyway, the decision to go to graduate school in middle age is not one I take lightly. But my definition of success contains the professional element. As in, I don’t feel successful without having a profession. Writing has not worked out as well as I would have liked. Meaning that I haven’t attained enough professional success with it to be able to call that my profession. To have that be my professional leg of the success chair. Other legs being health, family, friends. And, Readers, something in me is pushing me outward. My children are leaving home. I am confident the high school senior will get in to one of the nine colleges to which she has applied and she will leave, just as the college senior has left. We have entered a new phase, one of continual leaving and visiting and leaving and it’s never living together again.

This is sad. So very sad. It’s also what parenting success is. The fledglings fledge. They flit, they float, they fleetly, fleetly fly, leaving the momma bird to her middle age spread, hypochondria, and a big choice: how to deal with the next portion of life. The answer for me is to become something else, now that being mom is not a 24/7 physical, mental, and emotional full time job.

I have a friend around my age who keeps saying she is dying. She's actually very fit and healthy, and when she says it, she's not being a hypochondriac, she's being pragmatic. I think she’s preparing herself for the eventuality. I admire her willingness to stare at that old Death right in the punim and prepare herself by saying, yeah, I’m coming, eventually. But the other day, when she said it, I said, You’re no more dying today than you were ten years ago. After all, we’re always dying, if you want to look at it that way; but if you look at it that way, then just because you’re a particular age, say fifty-five, doesn’t mean you’re dying more than you were.

Is that crazy of me to say? I know that the longer I’ve lived, the more years I have eluded death, the more inevitable death becomes. But the whole idea of coasting downhill I reject. We are alive until we are not, and that has been true since the moment I was born, yanked out of my mother’s body by forceps, I believe. This is why my head is so misshapen. I hope I never lose my hair.

The point is, I know myself too well to think I can spend the next quarter of my life at home, being introspective, without developing some serious hypochondria worthy of a Jane Austen character. (The husband and I just reread Persuasion for our book group.) I need to get out in the world, and out of myself. I need to do something that helps others. Something that is definitely a profession, so when people ask me what I do, do being italicized, I can answer with something that makes me proud.

I guess it came down to how much I want to work on myself. I could continue to try to accept myself just as I am and to work at feeling I have done enough. I could continue to meditate on and rationalize that success does not have to mean success as a professional woman, and that the problem and solution lie within my attitude towards myself. If I can just accept myself as being enough, then all will be well.

Or I could say, well, a professional identity is important to me. I’m a Gen X woman, bred to be a multi-tasking superwoman, and I don’t have to struggle to let go of that aspect anymore. I can embrace the desire for a professional identity now. I can accept myself AND I can move into something else for this stage of life.

There's another facet to this gem. The whole hierarchy of needs developed by Maslow*. He theorized that we are all born with a motivation to self-actualization, meaning to develop our full potentials.
Image result for maslow's hierarchy of needs images creative commons
Later, he updated his theory to say that we're motivated to a step beyond self-actualization, to self-transcendence.
Image result for maslow's expanded hierarchy of needs images creative commons

This stage is characterized by a desire to take one's accumulated knowledge and share it with others for their benefit. Perhaps Maslow had it right. Maybe I am at that stage.

So now I choose: the more prestigious, more expensive, much more inconvenient program with a more ideal curriculum, or the close to home, less expensive program with the adequate curriculum.


* Here is a good summary, with visual aids, of Maslow's theories: